Eddie Murphy, who in his prime in the 1980s was the funniest sentient being on Earth, is set to return to the world of stand-up comedy.
To put this in perspective, Murphy, 58, hasn’t set foot on a live comedy stage since 1987. That’s a ridiculously long time, even for an Oscar-nominated actor who stands as one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars with a combined $6 billion in box-office totals from movies such as 48 Hrs., Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop and Beverly Hills Cop II, Coming to America, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor and Dreamgirls.
Murphy, who recently appeared on the Jerry Seinfeld Netflix series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee, reportedly is close to signing a $70 million deal with Netflix for a series of comedy specials. For those wondering why you should be excited that the voice of Mushu the dragon (Mulan) and Donkey (Shrek, Shrek 2, Shrek the Third and Shrek Forever After) is coming back to the comedy stage, we’ve got you covered. Here are the top five greatest Eddie Murphy stand-up routines:
5. “Buckwheat” (1982)
Recorded at New York’s Comic Strip Live before his landmark and controversial 1983 HBO stand-up special Delirious, this riff on the Saturday Night Live character, who helped catapult Murphy to superstar status, is just 1 minute and 36 seconds long.
“I was standing outside getting ready to come in here, man, and this little Jewish guy walked up to me and said, ‘Buckwheat!’ ” Murphy once recounted of his surreal association with the racially stereotypical, English-mangling icon from the Little Rascals comedy shorts, which ran from 1929 to 1938. “And there was some brothers standing next to me saying, ‘What that guy call you, man?’ ”
This leads to Murphy weighing the absurdity of such a name as he imagines Buckwheat’s extended breakfast-themed family, which includes his brother Farina, little sister Shredded Wheat and twin brothers Quisp and Quake. There’s also a special needs cousin Special K, big sister Trix, who happens to be a sex worker, an older flamboyant brother Lucky Charms and … well, you get the point.
4. “James Brown” (1983)
Murphy’s aforementioned Delirious gig, filmed at Washington, D.C.’s historic DAR Constitution Hall, has its share of insensitive material. Fifteen years later, the comedian apologized to the LGBTQ community for using a homophobic slur during several bits.
But despite those cringeworthy moments, there are still copious amounts of comedic brilliance. Only Murphy could celebrate the rhythmic genius of the Godfather of Soul while lambasting his indecipherable lyrics. “You don’t even have to be able to talk to sing and get famous,” he explains. “James Brown been singing for 20 years. I don’t know what the f— James is talking about.” From there, the gifted impersonator breaks into an in-the-zone Brown, leading his confused band into a laughable call-and-response routine.
3. “The Pope and Ronald Reagan” (1982)
Jokes about assassinations can be dicey. Indeed, the same year that Murphy released his debut comedy album, America was embroiled in a serious debate over gun control. The 1980 shooting death of Beatles legend John Lennon and the assassination attempts on President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, as well as the killing of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, in 1981 cast a cloud over the nation.
But Murphy was still able to find humor in even the darkest of times. “What’s your rationale for shooting the Pope?” he ponders soberly before sticking the landing. “I guess the guy figured, ‘Look, I want to go to hell, but I don’t want to stand [in] a line with everybody else. I want the hell express.’ ” The nervous spectators erupt with laughter.
2. “Dexter St. Jock” (1987)
“Women ain’t like us,” offers a philosophical Murphy, wearing a blue and black leather suit and gloves as if he were the lead singer in a swaggering rock ’n’ roll outfit. “It’s not their nature to fool around.” Of course, he was just softening up the men in the audience who were witnessing his show at Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. This was the site of Murphy’s record-breaking 1987 concert film Raw, the highest-grossing stand-up comedy movie ($50.5 million) of all time.
The sexual politics of male/female relationships has always been a go-to topic for Murphy. But what makes Dexter St. Jock — the fictional, chiseled, well-endowed island god — is the nightmare he represents to all cheating dudes who have gotten away with their fair share of dirt in dingy hotel rooms. “Women are going to do it classy,” Murphy warns. “You keep messing her over, then eventually she says some s— like, ‘I think I’m going to go to the Bahamas by myself for the weekend.’ ” We all know what happens next. Dexter (“If you were my woman, I would make love to you CON-STANT-LY!”), mammoth joint in hand, amid the intoxicating sounds of Bob Marley, is “f—ing your woman. … Well.”
1. “Ice Cream Man” (1987)
We could have easily placed Murphy’s memorable “Half” Raw rant, in which he envisions the sheer horror of entering a marriage without a prenup, at the No. 1 spot. His boisterous retelling of a phone conversation with Bill Cosby demanding that Murphy clean up his act also deserves mention. (This was years before Cosby was found guilty of assaulting and drugging a woman in his home near Philadelphia).
But for the top spot we went with Murphy’s sublimely joyous “Ice Cream Man.” It’s the perfect Eddie Murphy joke that transcends class, race, age and sex. The Delirious standout works because we were all kids once. “Remember when the Ice Cream Man used to come to town when you was little and no matter what you was doing, you would stop and lose your f—ing mind?” Murphy asks. By the time he breaks into the ice cream dance, you are in tears.
On July 23, 2004, Catwoman, starring Halle Berry, was released on an unsuspecting public. Intended as a summer blockbuster that would cement Berry’s position as a premier talent in Hollywood, it was a disaster. Universally panned, it lost millions and delivered a body blow to a career that had reached unprecedented heights of mainstream success and critical acclaim. Fifteen years later, Berry is still recovering from it.
Looking back, it’s hard to remember how big a star Berry was up until the day Catwoman was released: From 2000 to 2003, she had major roles in four films that topped the box office: 2000’s X-Men, 2001’s Swordfish, 2002’s Bond flick Die Another Day and 2003’s X2: X-Men United. In 2000, she won an Emmy, a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe for her title role in HBO’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. Then she won the Oscar for best actress for Monster’s Ball, making her the first — and, to this day, the only — black woman to win that award. Not to mention she topped People magazine’s list of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in 2003. Berry had reached the rarefied air of box-office superstardom and critical praise. It seemed as though any role she could ever want lay in front of her.
Then it all fell apart.
Catwoman was flayed by fans and critics alike. Roger Ebert named it one of his most hated films of all time, and it earned only a fraction of its $100 million-plus budget. Berry’s career would soon turn into a series of calamities and quizzical choices. She endured the consequences of a truism that’s far too evident in America: Black women don’t get excused for their missteps, bombs or losses.
But the actress’ career may have finally course-corrected this summer. Berry co-starred with Keanu Reeves in John Wick 3, which saw her return to the action star form we thought we would be getting since she popped out of the ocean in Die Another Day. Berry whipped around electric one-liners. She was sexy as only she can be. And she kicked a bounty of butt. The movie finished No. 1 at the box office on the weekend it opened in May and has made more than $316 million worldwide so far.
She’s currently executive producing the BET series Boomerang, an update of the 1992 film in which she co-starred with Eddie Murphy and Robin Givens. Later this year she’ll make her directorial debut in the martial arts thriller Bruised alongside John Wick producer Basil Iwanyk.
These endeavors are reminders that Berry’s career is one defined by resilience and talent while being complicated by the intersection of race and extraordinary beauty. If there was any question before, there shouldn’t be now: At 52, Halle Berry has still got it.
Berry’s cinematic beginnings exemplified the tightrope act of navigating Hollywood as a gorgeous black woman. “I came from the world of beauty pageants and modeling,” she told W magazine in 2016. She was the first black woman to represent the United States in the Miss World competition in 1986. “And right away when people heard that, I got discounted as an actor.”
So when Berry was approached by upstart director Spike Lee in 1989 to read for his movie Jungle Fever, she decided to break the stereotype of a pretty face with minimal acting chops. While Lee asked Berry to audition for the role of his wife, Berry wanted to play Vivian, the crack addict.
The result was a landmark appearance that is equal parts tragic and hilarious. A strung-out Vivian debuts opposite of Samuel L. Jackson by yelling 14 derivatives of “m—–f——” in 28 seconds.
“It was an amazing way to start my career, playing a crack ho, be directed by Spike Lee. It was major for me,” she continued in 2016. “It was intentional to not play the gorgeous girl. … I took on roles early on that really didn’t rely on my physical self at all and that was a good way to sort of get some credibility within my industry.”
Berry’s next breakout performance leaned into her beauty. She played the unforgettable Angela in the black excellence extravaganza Boomerang. The movie, directed by Reginald Hudlin, was Berry’s emergence as a sex symbol. Her ability to tame Murphy’s suave playboy character and break David Alan Grier’s nerdy heart was both believable and captivating. Ebert, who gave the movie three stars, said Berry was “so warm and charming you want to cuddle her.” Variety called the movie “an ill-fitting comedy vehicle that’s desperately in need of a reality check” but said Berry was “alluring throughout.”
But Boomerang wasn’t concerned with white audiences or critics. Her character’s short haircut sent black women across America rushing to salons to request the “Halle Berry cut” and helped make her a black household name.
Her legend in black homes grew with her performance in the TV miniseries Queen, based on Alex Haley’s real-life ancestry. Berry was so moved by the story of Haley’s mixed-race heritage and its reflection of her own past — her mother is white and her father is black — she paid her way to New York to audition. “They were talking about the African-American people in Roots,” Berry said in a 1993 interview with Entertainment Weekly, “and about the white people, the plantation owners, but I remember thinking then, ‘What about the people like me who are mixed?’ Queen directly addressed this for me.”
Berry was gaining black fans, becoming recognized as one of the most gorgeous women in pop culture and married star baseball player David Justice, yet white Hollywood still had no clue what to do with her. She would spend the next five years fighting for roles that allowed her to show off her skill as an actor while still seeking roles that showed off her beauty. Often, those roles were mutually exclusive.
Yet she always had an eye toward breaking boundaries for black people in Hollywood. For instance, when she played the cartoonish, seductive secretary in 1994’s The Flintstones, she saw it as an opportunity to include black actors in American staples: “I thought it was very important that the black community be represented in such an American film,” she said in 1995. “Children need to see us in movies like that. The beauty of the role was that color wasn’t even mentioned. I played a black woman who was beautiful, an object of desire. That puts us on equal footing.”
Then when she was called on to act, she was playing a crack addict, again, in Losing Isaiah, a role she, again, had to fight for to prove she could act. “Paramount didn’t want me,” she said during a press interview for the movie. “They didn’t think I could shed the outer part of myself, or that I could go deep enough. … I just don’t want to be typecast as a crackhead or as a glamour girl. I want to do it all.”
That led to her only comedic lead, 1997’s B*A*P*S, directed by Robert Townsend. The movie was widely panned, but it proved that Berry, often in long, audacious nails and hair that stood a foot above her head, could be hilarious in a physical comedy while maintaining her drop-dead gorgeous looks. But she has never been allowed to revisit that type of movie in her career.
Which is why Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the 1999 HBO movie, was such a monumental accomplishment for Berry: It showed every facet of her talent. She was engrossing yet vulnerable, charismatic yet downtrodden. Like a star athlete finally finding the right system in which to show off his or her talents, Introducing (as well as another black cult classic, 1998’s Why Do Fools Fall In Love) seemed made for Berry to put up MVP numbers. She could show depth as an actor without having to be an addict or homeless. She could be beautiful and talented. The ultimate shame, however, is that these roles are few and far between for talented actresses like Berry.
This is the perception of how Hollywood treats its black female stars. They rarely get to be Emma Stone in La La Land, donning high fashion while dancing and singing their way to best actress awards. Jennifer Hudson’s best supporting actress win for Dreamgirls in 2006 is an outlier, because for every one of those awards, there’s Lupita Nyong’o winning best supporting actress for playing a slave or Octavia Spencer’s Oscar-winning role as a maid in The Help.
Berry is no different, and she’s even more blatant an example of this dynamic because her beauty has been so tied to any discussion about her career. Her Golden Globe, Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards for playing Dorothy Dandridge is an exception to her career when it should have always been the rule.
That star turn kicked off the blazing run from 2000 to 2003. In the X-Men movies, she played Storm, maybe the most recognized black superhero in the world at the time. The movies were seen by millions, and she was a bona fide summer blockbuster star.
Die Another Day and Swordfish (which featured a controversial topless scene) showed that she could be the femme fatale who fans would flock to see. She could finally appear on screen as the desirable figure she’d been painted as in the tabloids.
“I’ve never really explored that part of myself on screen before,” she told cinema.com in 2001. “That’s what was really exciting, and that made me get over the nudity really quickly. Because I saw this as an opportunity to take a black woman to another place where we haven’t gone before. That’s been my struggle to be just a woman in a movie and not let the fact that I’m black hinder me from getting parts that only my white counterparts are able to play.”
Still, a year later, Berry was being critically acclaimed for playing a drug addict in Monster’s Ball, this time winning the Academy Award.
“This moment is so much bigger than me,” she started in her oft-replayed acceptance speech. “This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me … and it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.”
The celebration over her win was quickly replaced with debates over what types of black roles win awards, especially as it came in tandem with Denzel Washington winning the Oscar for best actor for Training Day a decade after getting snubbed for playing Malcolm X. “Why Halle have to let a white man pop her to get a Oscar? Why Denzel have to be crooked before he took it?” Jadakiss famously rapped on his hit 2004 single “Why?”
Even Angela Bassett, whom Berry name-checked in her speech, was critical of the role in a 2002 interview with EW: “I wasn’t going to be a prostitute on film,” she said. “I couldn’t do that because it’s such a stereotype about black women and sexuality. Film is forever. It’s about putting something out there you can be proud of 10 years later. I mean, Meryl Streep won Oscars without all that.”
And in just two years, Berry’s Oscar didn’t matter. Her crossover fame didn’t matter. Her box-office numbers didn’t matter. All that mattered was Catwoman. There is no revisionist history that will save this movie. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen on film, complete with one of the worst sports scenes in cinematic history.
On Feb. 26, 2005, Berry took the stage for another awards ceremony. This time she wasn’t in awe. She was instead taking the embarrassment in stride, bringing her 2002 Oscar with her to the stage in a massive flex move. The award? The Golden Raspberry, or Razzie, for worst actress for her role in Catwoman.
“You know, it was just what my career needed, you know? I was at the top, and then Catwoman just plummeted me to the bottom. Love it. It’s hard being on top, it’s much better being on the bottom.”
But movies such as Catwoman shouldn’t be a death sentence for any actor, especially one with Berry’s resume. Name an actor and you’ll find movies comparable to the failed superhero flick on their IMDb page.
But Berry had a hard time recovering. The 15 years since Catwoman have essentially been a series of box-office disappointments (2012’s Cloud Atlas and 2013’s Movie 43), critical disasters (2007’s Perfect Stranger) and even a Steven Spielberg-produced TV series, Extant, that was swiftly canceled after two seasons of abysmal ratings. Even if Catwoman proved Berry was too toxic or inept to carry an action franchise, there’s no reason she couldn’t enjoy a second act to her career in her late 30s and 40s. Where, for instance, were her slew of rom-coms a la Jennifer Lopez? Why hasn’t she been able to crack into the same spaces as, say, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock, who continue to be leading ladies as they’ve aged? Race may be a factor:
“What’s hardest for me to swallow,” she told The New York Times in 2002, ”is when there is a love story, say, with a really high-profile male star and there’s no reason I can’t play the part. They say, ‘Oh, we love Halle, we just don’t want to go black with this part.’ What enrages me is that those are such racist statements, but the people saying them don’t think they are. I’ve had it said right to my face.”
But when one looks at her black peers, questions and answers become more complicated. What has stopped Berry from getting the roles that contemporaries such as Regina King and Viola Davis are managing to pull in theaters and Netflix? Maybe that’s not even a fair question to ask. But Hollywood superficiality, or her own career mismanagement, have derailed a career that once looked unstoppable.
Maybe, it is hoped, Berry can finally enjoy her long-awaited, overdue and more than deserved renaissance. In 2016, she joined Instagram and Twitter, posting pics that double as reminders that she’s still as fine as ever. Earlier this year, Berry went viral while on the red carpet for John Wick 3 for making sure that black reporters got time to speak with her. The moment reminded everyone that Berry has always been a black pioneer who fought to break as many boundaries as she could. Then there was her performance in the movie — she was the Halle Berry we thought we’d be able to see after Catwoman: intense, action-packed, emotive and scene-stealing. It was a reminder that Berry was once Hollywood’s most talked-about superstar and she absolutely earned it. We saw the unfulfilled promise of a woman who played an X-Woman and Dorothy Dandridge in a year’s span. The woman who yelled, “M—–f—–!” with Samuel L. Jackson and traded insults with Eddie Murphy.
We never should have gone 15 years between iconic Halle Berry Hollywood runs, but the drought needs to end. She can be the hilarious lead. She can be the romantic comedy star. She can be the gun-toting superhero. She can be the mother, the ex, the wife, the businesswoman, the cop, the CIA agent. Anything. It’s time for Berry’s return to prominence. She deserves it, and there’s a lot of lost time to make up for.
The holiday season is five months away, but Earth, Wind & Fire received an early gift Thursday. The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., announced that the group will be one of the marquee recipients at the 42nd Annual Kennedy Center Honors later this year.
Standing alongside Earth, Wind & Fire on the prestigious night in the nation’s capital will be actress Sally Field; singer Linda Ronstadt; conductor, pianist and composer Michael Tilson Thomas; and the founders of the revolutionary children’s television show Sesame Street, the first TV program to receive the award.
The Honors recognize contributions to American culture through the performing arts. A gala performance toasting this year’s winners will be held at the Kennedy Center on Dec. 8 and aired on CBS a week later.
It’s EWF, though, that will give the night an unmistakable groove. The group, formed in Chicago in 1969, spanned genres from soul and Afropop to disco. Its lead singer, driving force and all-around musical savant, Maurice White, died in 2016. Surviving members Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson will be on hand to accept the honor.
Earth, Wind & Fire’s earliest success can be traced back to the ’70s, when the group helped ignite the blaxploitation era by creating the soundtrack for Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. From there, the group, which included up to 10 different musicians during its prime and hoisted six Grammys, carved out its own musical lane and identity during a culturally rich decade that helped shape the sound of black music. Its biggest records include “Reasons,” “Sing A Song,” “Would You Mind,” “After the Love Has Gone,” “Shining Star,” “Boogie Wonderland,” their cover of the Beatles’ “Got to Get You Into My Life” and arguably its two biggest cultural touchstones in “Let’s Groove” and the 1978 dance classic “September.”
“My principle for producing,” White told Billboard in 1979 after the runaway success of “September,” “is to pay attention to the roots of America, which is doo-wop music.”
Forty years later, Earth, Wind & Fire’s music is still at the root of love, peace and the black experience in America. They’ve performed for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and inspired Prince, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder with their aesthetic execution. The band’s legacy continues to pump heartily through hip-hop, their music having been sampled by the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Timbaland & Magoo, Cam’ron, Yo-Yo and Ice Cube, Mac Miller, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z and countless others.
In his 2014 biography, Bailey reflected on the process of recording the group’s 1975 triple-platinum album That’s the Way of the World. He dubbed it “a spiritual experience” and said that “when Maurice [White] played us the finished mix … I thought we sounded like angels. … It was as if God had been guiding us.”
When the Kennedy Center commemorates the band later this year, it will be further proof that Earth, Wind & Fire’s journey isn’t done yet.
For years, one take has ruled the internet as the quintessential example of screwing up as utterly as a critic possibly can.
The headline “Beyoncé: She’s No Ashanti” graced The New York Times’ review of the singer’s debut solo album, Dangerously in Love. It persists in reminding us of the possibility of committing a boo-boo so grand it becomes synonymous with “strong and wrong.”
I was reminded of that headline after seeing the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and is now playing in theaters. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders (The Black List, The Women’s List) for the PBS series American Masters (no airdate has been announced), the film reveals how a number of cultural institutions failed to recognize the genius of Morrison, even as she created a body of work that disrupted a largely white and male literary canon.
Reviewing Sula for The New York Times in 1973, one writer chided Morrison for her continued focus on black life: “… in spite of its richness and its thorough originality, one continually feels its narrowness. … Toni Morrison is far too talented to remain only a marvelous recorder of the black side of provincial American life.”
The film shows Morrison’s response to that kind of critique through archival footage from Charlie Rose’s talk show, pre-#MeToo revelations: “The assumption is that the reader is a white person,” Morrison tells Rose. “That troubled me.”
Similar worries persisted for years. In 1988, 48 black writers published an open letter in the Times protesting the fact that Morrison had not won a National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize.
The critique of Morrison wasn’t only about race. Some African American men weren’t shy about their complaints when she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for Beloved in 1993. The novel was inspired by the real story of an enslaved Kentucky woman named Margaret Garner. Garner ran away, and when the man who owned her tracked her down, Garner killed her children, slitting one’s throat and drowning the other, offering mortal escape from lives of bondage and degradation.
“I hope this prize inspires her to write better books,” Stanley Crouch told The Washington Post. “She has a certain skill, but she has no serious artistic vision or real artistic integrity. ‘Beloved’ was a fraud. It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings. ‘The Bluest Eye’ was her best. I thought something was going to happen after that. Nothing did.”
Charles Johnson, who won the National Book Award in 1990 for Middle Passage, grumbled about Morrison’s commitment to writing through a lens of feminism and black cultural nationalism.
“When that particular brand of politics is filtered through her mytho-poetic writing, the result is often offensive, harsh,” Johnson said. “Whites are portrayed badly. Men are. Black men are.” The award, he added, “was a triumph of political correctness.”
It’s frustrating to discover that Morrison, one of the greatest writers of her generation, spent years being dismissed. For as long as I have known the name Toni Morrison, she has been synonymous with envy-inspiring genius. When I was a child, her 60 Minutes interviews were appointment television. Her books, dense with complex themes and rich with metaphor, were among those my parents would allow me to read before they were truly age-appropriate. Morrison was so exceptional that rules could bend to allow for the consumption of her words. (Meanwhile, Judy Blume and Terry McMillan had to be secreted away from the public library near our house and read under the covers.)
And yet she was subjected to the sort of doubt with which black women are all too familiar, because of her race and because of her gender. It’s the disrespect that propels so many black parents to forcefully instill in their children the directive that they must not hide their intellectual lights under bushels but instead sport them proudly. After all, the chances that someone else will care to illuminate such gifts are slim.
“I am very, very smart early in the day,” Morrison says to the camera in The Pieces I Am, purring with the swagger of a woman who knows she has the goods as she explains her writing process. She begins at 5 a.m. (a habit that began after she gave birth to two sons) and continues till noon. She doesn’t particularly care for afternoon or evening scribbling, and her preferred method of recording her thoughts is in neat cursive on yellow legal pads.
In one jaw-dropping moment, Paula Giddings, author of When and Where I Enter, a history of black women in America, shares that she worked as an assistant at Random House when Morrison was there as a full-time editor. Morrison asked Giddings to type up pages of her legal pad in exchange for a homemade carrot cake. Years later, Giddings realized that she’d been transcribing a draft of The Bluest Eye.
Visually, The Pieces I Am is largely static, relying on still photographs, scenes from the deck of Morrison’s home in Lorain, Ohio, and the art of Jacob Lawrence, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall spliced between footage of interviews with the author’s friends, colleagues and admirers, including Giddings, Sonia Sanchez, Walter Mosley, Fran Lebowitz, The New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als and Oprah Winfrey.
“She’s the architect, the midwife and the artist,” Als remarks.
Greenfield-Sanders has known Morrison since 1981, and their ease with each other is apparent in Morrison’s candor and body language. Even as she reveals that there’s a private part of herself that few will see, Morrison is witty, charming and a little mischievous. “The moment I got to Howard [University], I was loose,” she tells her interviewer, grinning. “It was lovely, I loved it … I don’t regret it.” Now 88, Morrison remains an inspiration for many reasons, but especially because she believed in her own talents long before the institutional arbiters of such things caught on to them.
“I was more interesting than they were,” Morrison says. “I knew more than they did.”
Clyde Foster came of age in Alabama in the 1950s, a place and time so oppressive for African Americans that a former Nazi rocket scientist stood out as a figure of racial moderation.
Foster’s father worked at a Birmingham iron foundry, where the dirtiest, most backbreaking jobs were reserved for African Americans. Every day he would come home dog-tired, prompting his son to vow that he would earn a living using his mind, not his back. By itself, that was an audacious plan for a black man living in Alabama.
But Foster did much more than just find himself a desk job. He became a pioneering figure in the U.S. space program. Over nearly 30 years working for NASA, beginning in the agency’s earliest days, his mathematical calculations helped propel rockets into space. His focused determination helped establish a computer science program at what is now Alabama A&M University, making the historically black institution the first public college in Alabama to offer the major. And his quiet and relentless advocacy brought hundreds of African Americans into space industry jobs in the Deep South, helping to shift perceptions of black people in ways both subtle and profound.
Beyond all that, Foster also became a small-town political leader whose influence was felt throughout Alabama. He led the effort to restore the long-forgotten charter of Triana, a once-dying black enclave of fewer than 100 families outside Huntsville. Foster served as Triana’s mayor for two decades, and his work became a model for other tiny, mostly black towns in Alabama that took control of their political lives.
“There is no other African American NASA employee who did more to get jobs for black people, to get advancement for black people and to get young people working at NASA. No one did more than Clyde Foster,” said Richard Paul, co-author of We Could Not Fail, a book about the first African Americans who worked in the space program. “On top of that, you have his entire political career, which is also groundbreaking. The man’s accomplishments are absolutely heroic.”
Foster, who was 86 when he died in 2017, was no doubt a hero, but one who most people outside Alabama had never heard of. By all accounts, he never protested, picketed or sat in. Yet he improved many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of black lives in a state where the law sanctioned blatant and often violent efforts to discount them.
“He just loved people. He wanted people to have a chance,” his widow, Dorothy Foster, 84, said in an interview. “He just wanted to help everybody. He was not the kind of activist you read about. He felt he could help blacks more by getting them employment than by getting out there and marching in the street.”
Foster was born in Birmingham in 1931, the sixth of 12 children. He went to the city’s public schools, which were segregated, as was every other public institution and accommodation in town.
“There were two sets of everything, one for the colored and one for the white,” Foster said in a 2008 interview with Paul for a radio documentary called Race and the Space Race. “Signs were posted on water fountains, restrooms.” Police harassment was a constant threat. “Whenever they would see a group of black kids assembled together, there was always some reason to go after them.”
Foster thought the best way to insulate himself from the many perils of being black in Alabama was through education. He had always been a good student, and he ended up going to Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he majored in chemistry and mathematics. At the time, he had his eye on a teaching career.
While still in college, Foster crossed paths with Wernher von Braun, the Nazi scientist behind the V-2 rocket. Built with concentration camp slave labor, the V-2 was the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile, and the Nazis used it to rain death on the Allies during World War II. Von Braun later came to the United States with a group of about 125 German scientists, engineers and technicians who had been captured by American soldiers. Rather than prosecute them, U.S. authorities enlisted the German scientists to develop missiles, and later spacecraft, for America.
Much of that work, the backbone of the nation’s space program, was located in the Deep South, and it began at a time when harsh segregation reigned. NASA rockets were developed under von Braun in northern Alabama, tested in rural Mississippi, manufactured in Louisiana, launched from Cape Canaveral in central Florida and monitored from Houston.
With this new mission, von Braun was quickly transformed from a warrior for the supposed Aryan master race into an advocate for science education so he could build a skilled workforce to support the space program. Perhaps not fully understanding racial dynamics in his new home, he came to all-black Alabama A&M early on for help. Von Braun wrote a script about his plans for the space program in Alabama, including the then-fanciful dream of flying men to the moon, and he asked Foster and several of his classmates to read it during an assembly at an all-white high school. It was never clear why von Braun chose to have black A&M students deliver his message to white students, and Foster later told interviewers the assembly was a flop. But the unusual encounter introduced Foster to a wondrous new industry that would eventually change his life.
Foster graduated from A&M in 1954 and was drafted into the Army, where he spent two years. He and Dorothy had met and married while in college, and when Foster came back to Alabama after completing his military commitment, he got a job teaching high school science near Selma in the central part of the state. Dorothy had remained in her hometown of Triana, and she wanted him to move back. After a year, he did.
“I told Clyde that I was going to call the Army Ballistic Missile Agency and set up an appointment for a job interview, and ‘You’re going,’ ” Dorothy recalled with a laugh. “And he did.”
Foster landed a job as a mathematician technician with the Army Ballistic Missile Agency in 1957. The agency, headed by von Braun, was located at the Redstone Arsenal, a military installation in Huntsville that would later house NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
Foster was hired as part of a large team of people who crunched the numbers generated by gauges inside missiles and rocket engines during test flights. Their analysis allowed engineers to calculate wind resistance, the thrust of a rocket and its proper trajectory. NASA was formed a year after Foster started, and in 1960 he went to work for the new space agency.
Foster saw a bright future for himself at NASA. Working for the federal government was about as good as it got for a black man in Alabama. The pay was decent, and racial discrimination was illegal on federal property. Also, with the Kennedy administration pressing NASA to integrate the thousands of new jobs created by the space race, von Braun emerged as an advocate for integration. The New York Times once called him “one of the most outspoken spokesmen for racial moderation in the South.” Von Braun himself said the space age would belong to “those who can shed the shackles of the past.”
Outside the gates of Marshall, however, Alabama was still Alabama.
George Wallace, who had lost the 1958 governor’s race in part because he was perceived as insufficiently harsh when it came to race, took office as governor in 1963. In his inaugural address, he famously vowed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” The next year, Wallace tried to back up his words by standing in the doorway of an auditorium at the University of Alabama in what was ultimately a vain attempt to prevent two black students from enrolling.
Foster and the handful of other African Americans among the thousands of employees at Marshall were inevitably harmed by that racism. Employees looking to move up had to take training classes, but many of those classes were off-limits to blacks because they were held off base at hotels and other segregated public facilities. Foster once took a telemetry course in Atlanta, but he had to stay at what he called a “fly-by-night” hotel miles from the training center. Still, he told interviewers, he never missed a session.
A few years after he started at NASA, Foster was angered by a supervisor’s request to train a white co-worker to be his boss. He refused the request and then complained to higher-ranking NASA officials about the situation black workers faced. He demanded training programs that black workers could readily take advantage of. Soon a deal was struck: NASA would hold separate training sessions for black workers at Alabama A&M, often importing instructors from out of town. It was an odd compromise: segregated training classes when the country was moving to root out segregation. But it was the best Foster could do. More than 100 black employees eventually took advantage of the separate-but-equal NASA training, which would prove to be the foundation of Foster’s legacy at NASA.
“I would say his most significant contribution to NASA directly would be the training program,” said Steven Moss, the other co-author of We Could Not Fail. “He made it so black workers did not have to jump through all the hoops that others before them did. Then, later, he helped so many people get jobs. As I talked to people at other NASA facilities in the Deep South, you can kind of see the family tree. They would trace who they work for, or who helped them, and it always came back to Clyde Foster.”
Even though Foster did not work in personnel, NASA would tap him to travel to colleges around the country to recruit African Americans trained in science or engineering to come work at Marshall. It was not easy for NASA to attract skilled white employees to Alabama, given the state’s horrible reputation for racial violence. It was even harder for Foster to attract black workers.
“I would tell [recruits] Huntsville was really not as bad … as the image George Wallace was given,” Foster said in a 1990 interview for a NASA oral history. “I told them, ‘Now, if you really wanted the challenge, good discipline, the space program has it for you.’ ”
The black scientists, engineers and technicians who did join NASA found Foster to be a willing mentor, no matter whether he had recruited them.
James Jennings was a math major at A&M when he met Foster, who was a regular presence at his alma mater in the mid-1960s. At the time, Jennings was about 20, and he looked up to Foster, who was in his mid-30s. Jennings took some computer classes that ignited his interest in working in the space program, which in those days represented the pinnacle of technological innovation. Jennings began as a co-op student at NASA and ended up spending almost four decades at the agency. He said Foster was a mentor nearly every step of the way.
“When I went to NASA, that was my first introduction into a predominantly white organization,” Jennings recalled in an interview. “I was kind of excited and apprehensive at the same time. I really didn’t know how our education would hold up, but it did not take me very long to understand that my education was on par or better than many of the white students who worked there.”
One thing that helped, he said, was Foster’s constant support. “He took me under his wing. He used to call everybody ‘Horse.’ He told me, ‘Horse, if you keep your nose clean and do your job, you could go far in this organization.’ ”
Jennings proved Foster correct, as he ended up working at NASA’s Washington headquarters in the government’s highest civil service rank before his retirement in 2005.
“Clyde always was encouraging and looked to give me opportunities for visibility,” Jennings said. “If your work is not visible to others, it is easy for your supervisor not to promote you. Clyde knew that, and he was always encouraging us to volunteer for committees and special projects.”
In an effort to create a pipeline of black workers into NASA, Foster persuaded von Braun to allow him to set up a computer science program at A&M. NASA provided grants to help get the program going, although at first Foster struggled to persuade A&M officials that it was worthwhile.
Founded in the wake of the Civil War, A&M had always focused on training students for jobs that black people could get in Jim Crow Alabama: teaching, nursing, farming and certain kinds of engineering. When Foster talked about building a computer science program to train students to send rockets to the moon, the skepticism was palpable.
“Black administrators were not interested, and they did not pursue this money because the program was there for them to develop other kinds of programs,” Foster said in the 2008 interview. “The most that we had was electronic, or electrical and mechanical engineering. [We had] civil engineering — we had to build some damn roads — but we [were] talking about building a pathway to space.”
Eventually, Foster won over the A&M officials. NASA paid Foster’s salary for two years while he worked to establish the program, which went online in 1969.
“Everything he did, I think he realized he was making a difference,” Jennings said of Foster. “But he was not the kind of person looking to take credit for it.”
In the late 1970s, Foster took a job in NASA’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, which got him away from the technical heart of the agency but gave him more leverage to help black people get a leg up.
“I thought I could make an even greater contribution to increase the workforce to a more integrated workforce,” Foster said in the 1990 interview. Foster was director of Marshall’s EEO office when he retired from NASA in 1987.
His advocacy did not stop at work. Foster served on Alabama’s Commission on Higher Education, to which he was first appointed by Wallace in 1974. That was besides his groundbreaking work as the mayor of Triana. His work to re-establish the town’s charter cleared the way for Triana to receive federal grants for a series of major upgrades, including building the town’s first water system, installing its first streetlights, paving its gravel streets and renovating the town hall, which previously had been a coal-heated shack.
Following Foster’s example, about a dozen African American towns were able to reincorporate and, in some cases, make similarly dramatic improvements. The new political control also allowed a generation of black mayors, police chiefs, sheriffs and other local officials to gain experience in office.
Decades later, Foster led the legal fight against a chemical company that had poisoned the town’s waterways with DDT, resulting in a $24 million settlement for Triana residents.
Foster credited his experience at NASA for giving him the confidence and know-how to conquer the many challenges he confronted.
“If I hadn’t had these experiences early in life to cross over into these areas: political, education, business,” he said. “All of that was done because of the experience I had with NASA.”
This article is being published in collaboration with American Experience/WGBH as part of its series “Chasing the Moon,” which examines the scientific, political and personal dramas behind the space race on the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. PBS will broadcast a film across three nights starting at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT on July 8. Short digital films, articles, timelines and comics, including pieces on the first African American to be trained as an astronaut, the desegregation of Huntsville, and the Poor People’s Campaign protest at the Kennedy Space Center, can be found here.
Tracy Morgan’s sharks don’t have names.
“Are you crazy?!” he asks me, jutting his head back in mock dramatic fashion at the idea of such a silly question. And then comes the isn’t-it-obvious? tone familiar to anyone who has heard Morgan’s deadpan delivery: “They’re sharks!”
Still, he’s enamored of them. Proud even. He smiles as he points out a hammerhead, a whitetip and a Japanese leopard shark. A puffer fish coexists in that same tank; he’s the first fish to greet us as Morgan uses a remote control to turn the security system off and open the doors to the pool house to reveal the shark tank in the backyard of his palatial, 31,000-square-foot estate in suburban Alpine, New Jersey.
He smiles as he looks over at me. Nearby, there’s a swingset and play area for Maven, his 6-year-old daughter, a barbecue grill area that only he can touch and a pool that would rival that of any five-star vacation compound.
“My babies swim in here,” he says of the house his fish live in, “and my family swims out here,” he says, pointing at his pool.
Morgan, who will host the 27th annual ESPYS show July 10 on ABC, smiles again.
It’s one of the last times he smiles during my time here. For much of our conversation this day, Morgan, who became famous for his ability to make people laugh, is reaching for tissues as we sit next to one another in matching leather recliners in his office, unapologetic about the tears that continually fall from his eyes.
We’re only a few weeks removed from the five-year anniversary of a crash that nearly took Morgan’s life. He had to learn how to walk again. He had to learn how to talk again.
He had to learn how to find, and be, funny again.
“My face was this big,” he says, measuring a space big enough for three Tracy Morgan-sized heads to fit inside.
The accident was horrific. But he’s been coping with trauma since he was a small child. Like many sports superstars, he understands what it takes to return from a devastating injury.
2019 has been Morgan’s comeback year.
Yes, he’s been working steadily since a triumphant return 14 months after his accident to host Saturday Night Live, the show that made him famous.
But 2019 is where the payoff begins.
His TBS series The Last O.G., which he created with Jordan Peele, is some of his best work ever. Morgan plays Tray Baker, a recently sprung ex-con who is surprised to see how much Brooklyn has changed during his 15-year stint in prison, with chain coffee shops, yoga studios and white people inhabiting the old haunts where Baker once worked as a petty drug dealer.
The series launched as the network’s biggest original TV debut last year, came back for a successful second season and was recently renewed for a third. The funny wasn’t a surprise — this is Tracy Morgan, after all — but the show’s depth was revelatory.
“A lot of times as a writer you’re scared of playing with the tone too much because people, admittedly, tune in to a show because they want to laugh or they tune in to a show because they want to see dragons. Very few of us ever think consciously, ‘Oh, I’m going to tune in to that show because I want to laugh and cry,” says comedian and actor Diallo Riddle, who wrote on season one of The Last O.G. “But I think that Tracy had such a good relationship with his audience and such a good relationship with the truth. Even old white people in rural communities can watch that show and watch black men in Brooklyn and be like, ‘I love Tracy Morgan!’ ”
The good news doesn’t stop there. Later this year — Morgan beams every time he mentions this — he’ll begin filming his yet-to-be-announced role in the highly anticipated Coming to America sequel that is set to hit theaters sometime next year. Eddie Murphy is an idol, and now he’s also a friend.
And this week, of course, the 50-year-old Morgan will host the ESPYS, perhaps his biggest audience since the Saturday Night Live gig in October 2015, 16 months after a crash that nearly took his life.
“I still remember the time I saw Tracy after the accident and you just go, ‘I’m so happy he’s alive.’ That’s all you could say,” Riddle says. “I’m so happy he’s alive because he kept grinding, and then to go into a third season of the show and to be hosting the ESPYS? … The ESPYS is a beast of an undertaking. It’s not easy physically or mentally. And the fact that he’s hosting it, given where he was, is incredible.”
Back inside his home, Morgan is wiping away a fresh set of tears.
I ask if his ability to be emotionally open is a result of his accident or if this is who he was before June 7, 2014. We don’t generally give black men license to feel like this — not without it being some sort of indictment on their masculinity.
His life has been painful, far more than one person should have to deal with, really. And Morgan allows himself to be, well, human.
“My dad survived Vietnam … he came home a junkie. He didn’t go there that way, [but he] came home that way. That was his terror, seeing babies dying in villages, and he expressed those to me,” Morgan says. “I didn’t understand it because I was a kid in [his] prime in high school, playing football, but I didn’t know what his struggles. … He had demons. You go to war, nobody wins.”
Certainly not Jimmy Morgan Sr., who died of AIDS when Tracy was 19. Morgan also talks about how much he looked up to his Uncle Alvin, the cool uncle who played college football and who died of the same syndrome.
That kind of trauma can be crippling. Somehow, Morgan discovered comedy.
“You find it in that pain,” he says softly. “Without no struggle there’s no progress. People don’t know. ‘How did he get that funny?!’ My father and my mother breaking up when I was 6. My oldest brother being born with cerebral palsy. … Him having 10 operations by the time I’m 5. My mom’s by herself, struggling to help my brother with them Forrest Gump braces on, him screaming, she trying to teach him … I seen all of that.”
“You know why I became famous?” he asks quietly. “Because the kids of the playground could be mean. When they be mean, you go get your big brother, your big brother got your back. … I couldn’t do that. I go get my brother, he come, hey, he crippled. They start laughing. So I had to learn how to be funny to keep the bullies off my a–. All of my life, turned into business.”
Then, as if tossing it over in his head for a bit, he chases all of that heft with some lightness: “And plus, I learned in high school, when you funny, you get the girls. You might not score, but they be all, ‘Where Tracy’s stupid a– at?” he recalls. “They want you around, you make them laugh! My biggest audience is female. Same motivation. I’m married now, but I still want to make the girls laugh. Y’all got the world on your shoulders. At the end of the f—ing day, if you can make her forget about all that s— for an hour, you the man.”
“Great comedians — which Tracy is one of the great comedians — their comedy comes from pain,” says director David E. Talbert. “And the great ones allow themselves to access that, and then they share that.”
Morgan’s first taste of fame came in 1993 via HBO’s Def Comedy Jam, which was hosted by Martin Lawrence. Back then, it was a must-watch series, introducing and amplifying many now-famous black comics like Chris Tucker and Bernie Mac.
His childhood best friend Alan always told him how funny he was and that he should really make a go at pursuing comedy. Morgan, who was born in the Bronx and reared largely in Brooklyn, took workshops and eventually was working the local comedy club circuit. Comedy was his love, but he still had one foot in the hustle game.
“I was selling crack [when] my friend Alan got murdered, my best friend,” Morgan shares. Losing Alan made him focus.
“I come home, my youngest son is 2 years old. … Told him, ‘I’m gonna do comedy. …’ By all means, [my first wife, Sabina] could’ve said, ‘No you ain’t m—–f—-, we got three kids. What you going to do is go get a f—ing job.’ She never did that. She said, ‘Pull the trigger, Tracy.’ ”
“Four months later, I was on Def [Comedy] Jam.”
And then, another painful memory: “She passed away three years ago. Cancer.”
Morgan was almost gone too.
On June 7, 2014, a Walmart truck driver who had been awake for more than 28 hours was going 20 mph over the 45 mph speed limit in a work zone on the New Jersey Turnpike. He crashed into a limousine bus carrying Morgan and a small group of friends and colleagues. Morgan’s friend James McNair died, and Harris Stanton and Ardie Fuqua were hospitalized. Morgan himself was listed in critical condition and was comatose for two weeks.
The driver, Kevin Roper, was indicted on charges of manslaughter, vehicular homicide and aggravated assault. He later accepted a plea deal that dismissed the charges in exchange for entering a pretrial intervention program. Walmart settled for an undisclosed amount of money.
Morgan’s life changed that day. He came out on the other side appreciative. Attentive. Spiritual, yet spirited.
“When bad things happen to you, that’s when you grow. It was painful at the time,” he said. “But now you look back on it and you go, ‘Wow.’ So this story is not just for me. It’ll be for the young people who want to achieve anything in their lives. You can’t give up. I got hit by a truck!”
But before he could do the work physically, Morgan’s road to recovery had to start with forgiveness.
“You have to learn to forgive yourself before you can forgive anybody. OK, you had a setback on the field. But a setback ain’t nothing but a setup. Because when you come back better, you going to do something that ain’t been done,” Morgan says. “Don’t you ever let no doctor, nobody, tell you you can’t. They said no, I broke every bone in my face. On this side of my skull you could see my brain. … I was scared. I didn’t know if I was ever going to walk. That’s when I had to put the work in. …”
Morgan begins to cry again.
“Ugh. Damn. Excuse me.”
I tell him to take his time. Soon, he begins to tell a story of sitting in his wheelchair and watching his infant daughter scoot around in her walker.
“I don’t want her looking at me like this; she ain’t understand what’s going on. I’m working, I’m working hard, because I want to walk again, I want to play with my daughter, I want to chase my daughter. That was my motivation. I wanted to chase my daughter. I didn’t care about show business. I wanted to chase my daughter,” he says, wiping away fresh tears. “And I worked so hard for a year just to get back on my feet. And I don’t care what athlete you are, you better pick a motivation, something near and dear to you. Something that you would give the world for. And you better go for it, don’t let it be over. I put the work in for a year, and then the triumph, like we was talking about. I saw my daughter — she was 14 months — and I seen her take her first steps. It made me get out my wheelchair.”
I ask him to clarify: seeing his daughter take her first steps motivated him to attempt to take his own first steps?
“She took her first steps and I got up, and my wife started screaming. She said I was going to hurt myself because my femur was crushed. And I was like, ‘F— that,’ and I stood up and I took a step to my daughter. I took a step with my daughter,” he says. “That was four months after I got hit. The rest of the year, I just started working. It wasn’t just physical, it was cognitive — I didn’t even know my name. I had to learn how to talk again.”
Drying up the last tears with a new piece of tissue, he says, “It was a bad accident.”
This is who Tracy Morgan has always been.
In 2008 he co-starred alongside Ice Cube in First Sunday, a comedy written and directed by Talbert, who was a top-grossing playwright before he directed Morgan in what was his directorial debut.
In that film, Morgan played LeeJohn Jackson, best friend to Cube’s Durell Washington. Together they were portraying petty thieves who concoct a rather desperate scheme to steal $17,000 from a neighborhood church in order to pay off a debt for Durell’s ex-girlfriend — to not do so would mean that she and their son would relocate to a different state.
After Morgan auditioned for the role, he and Talbert went out for lunch.
“He started telling me about his relationship with his mother, which is a complicated relationship,” Talbert recalls. “I knew that if I could access that, then he could really dig into the character.”
“And I remember when he was about to do his big scene with Loretta Devine. And he says, ‘Today I’m going to cry because real actors cry! Richard Pryor cried!’ That’s all he was screaming all day! The scene singing ‘Happy Birthday’ with Loretta Devine, he was just telling everybody, ‘I’m going to cry! Real actors cry!’ ”
Talbert gave Morgan some advice before they dug into the scene: “I said, ‘Tracy, the thing about emotion is you have to try not to cry, but it moves you so much that you can’t help but to cry.’ And I said, ‘So I want you to try as hard as you can not to cry. And as she’s singing to you, I want you to think about all those birthdays that were missed.’ ”
That scene is one of Morgan’s favorites. By the time Devine gets to the last few notes of the song, she pulls Morgan in close for an embrace. The camera zooms in on his face, a mixture of bewilderment and sadness. Tears are streaming down the sides of his nose.
It wasn’t just good acting. It was real life. When Morgan was 13, he left his mother’s home to live with his dad in the Bronx. He and his mother went years without speaking.
“Loretta Devine started singing. And Tracy, I saw him. [He] wasn’t playing the character anymore. He was the little boy thinking about his own relationship with his mother. And slowly as Loretta started to sing, he was welling up and just the most genuine, authentic tear fell. I yelled, ‘Cut!’ I only had to do one take of that scene,” Talbert says. “It was beautiful. It was perfect. I only did one take, and he said, ‘D, excuse me for a moment.’ And he went to the back, and about 15 minutes later he came out and I said, ‘You OK?’ He said, ‘I just called my mother and I told her she missed out on a real actor.’ ”
Since the accident, Morgan and his mother have reconciled.
As we’re wrapping up, I remind Morgan of a joke I once heard his friend Chris Rock tell in a stand-up routine. Rock observed that he was the only black man in his tony neighborhood and shared all he had to accomplish to afford to live on the street. One of his neighbors is a dentist, Rock said, before landing the punchline: “Know what I had to do to afford this house? Host the Oscars!”
Morgan breaks into the hardest laugh I’ve heard from him this day. He has a similar story.
“Just last week I had some rich white man jogging in front of my gate. So I’m coming out my gate, and he’s looking at my house. And he’s looking at me …”
“So what do you do?” the jogger asked him.
“And I said, ‘About what?!’ ”
Morgan and I both break out laughing.
“I had to justify why the f— I live here … but you know I start f—ing with him,” Morgan says.
“You know the McDonald’s box the french fries come in?”
“I make those. You know the straw you drink the Coke [out of]? I make those.”
Morgan laughs at his own story.
“And he started laughing. … In your mind, you got to justify why I’m here.”
Tracy Morgan is here — and hosting the ESPYS.
“That’s going to be fun. Because everybody knows that Tracy Morgan thinks outside the f—ing box. … Buckle up, kids. It’s about to get wild and woolly.”
There is no prescribed order for looking at these portraits of ESPY winners. No uniformity of theme to frame the athletes’ prodigious talents. No particular silhouette that conveys the significance of their achievements.
You might scroll through the images for long minutes before you find the entry point. It’s a truth about sports we hold to be self-evident — not all men and women are created equal.
Premier athletic accomplishment exists as a kind of off-ramp from normal human experience, and we are moved by the simple fact of it. Scrolling through this collection of photos, some from more than a decade ago, of some of the athletes honored, we try to establish a connection with people who do a thing that puts distance between themselves and the rest of the world. We are looking for something that gives us a way in.
A 2001 close-up of Shaquille O’Neal, fingers splayed, covering/not covering his face, invites us near. It plays with the idea that the Basketball Hall of Famer might have tried to hide something of himself if life had ever tempted him with the option. Instead, physiology became destiny, and one of the NBA’s most dominant players ever exercised his outsize personality, ambition and smarts to carry that 7-foot frame off the court and into the rest of his life.
Mia Hamm, of the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup team, plays soccer on a field of young girls in Washington, D.C., or turns her face to the sun, and reminds us of that singular American moment decades ago when she and her teammates nationalized young women’s athletic joy.
At times, it feels impossible to separate the athletes from the racial context in which they occur. A portrait of Venus Williams — serene, simple, lovely — feels like the best photo you’ve ever seen of her, which requires some sleight of mind because it’s not a shot of her dominating on the tennis court while helping redefine the sport. But it does show Venus Ebony Starr Williams, breaker of serves, first of her name, outside the context of what are often racist, tiresome feels about her face and body, and that alone feels beautiful.
Mostly, the images represent athletes in the existential act of asserting themselves over, but not limited to, the sports they’ve reimagined and changed. In 2006, a young LeBron James standing in a cavernous hallway with his legs hip-width apart doesn’t telegraph who he will become so much as clarify what he brought with him into the room. It’s a certainty about the space he took up in the world long before he reached beyond basketball to build schools, produce documentaries and marshal the culture.
In many of the photos, especially the older ones, we have the subjects at a disadvantage. We begin with the end in mind. We already know their stories, so now we look for the proof of their narratives.
Who else sees Shuri, “Wakanda Forever,” in a photo of a laughing Sheryl Swoopes, the first player signed by the WNBA and a three-time MVP? Swoopes, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, worked different magic in different arenas a generation before the teen tech genius in Black Panther. But she helped create and hold open the lane for black girls who wanted to be something that had never been before. These shots of Swoopes demand that you see her for who she is, even as she changed. It was all still pioneering work.
We can’t always see who they are, or were, in these photos that fix some of the world’s greatest sports figures at specific instances in time. We bring to this watch party the beliefs we already had. But we keep looking anyway, keep trying to take whatever they have to give. It is our way of trying to connect with those people fated to represent something that lies beyond the ordinary human grasp. We scour the images again and again, those of us on the outside, looking for clues.
Written by Lonnae O’Neal
At a certain point in the late 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like every suburban girl in America was interested in soccer, and that was most certainly due to the influence of Mia Hamm and her teammates on the U.S. national team.
She was called the most marketable female athlete of her generation, appearing on Wheaties boxes and in commercials opposite Michael Jordan. Even two years into retirement, as Hamm was when this photograph was taken, she remained an avatar for focused, joyful, ambitious girlhood. She wasn’t just good at one part of soccer, she was great at all of it: dribbling, striking, creating opportunities for her teammates to score and rallying them at low points. Hamm carved a path to exceptionalism in a team sport and, in doing so, was named U.S. Soccer Female Athlete of the Year for five straight seasons.
England had the Spice Girls. America had Hamm, Abby Wambach and Brandi Chastain. It must have been difficult to finally walk away from all of that at age 32, and it’s evident here. Hamm is crouched to tie her shoelace and appears, like many athletes shortly after they retire, as if she could jump back into her sport for just one more Women’s World Cup, just one more Olympic run.
It takes the viewer a minute to realize the only thing missing is shin guards. Like the All-American good girl she came to exemplify, Hamm, of course, is prepared. She’s making sure her laces don’t get caught in her cleats. A jaunty ponytail secures her hair. Perhaps this is a scrimmage or a clinic. No matter. The habits that build a champion are hard to shake.
The eyes are the table of contents to the soul’s story. For LeBron James, that story has been shaped for nearly 20 years by many voices, from fans to critics to the media and sponsors. But it’s been lived, every second of every day, by only one man.
Given the great American success story that followed, we sometimes overlook the young LeBron. But we all witnessed the debates over whether a teenage demigod dubbed “The Chosen One” a year before his senior prom was truly the heir apparent to Michael Jordan. We heard the barbershop banter about whether the Akron Hammer would dominate a league of grown men. Everyone had an opinion about King James. The last person it seemed to faze, though, was the one with the most to lose.
“Pressure been following me my whole life,” an 18-year-old James said after the 2003 NBA draft lottery, three years before this photograph was made.
Since his first professional game in Sacramento later that year, organized chaos has followed James like his own shadow. Which makes looking at this LeBron surreal. It’s a cue that youth, even for someone like James, is fleeting, even as we carry our emotional connection to it for the rest of our lives. No one knew the serious young man in this picture would evolve into the leader, activist, business tycoon and philanthropic force seen now. Some believed in the hype. Others didn’t. Even fewer believed he’d actually surpass the unrealistic expectations. Nothing about LeBron’s story has ever been normal.
Shaquille O’Neal’s hand could devour the average person’s head. He’d do it with a smile and his baritone laugh, of course. But there’s a deeper lesson in this 2001 photograph in which O’Neal obscures half of his own face. One that proves truer and truer as the years pass and his exploits in the NBA devolve into hand-me-down stories. Shaq’s still a pop culture dynamo and an MVP candidate for every room he steps into. But it’s getting harder and harder to see what once was. And to recognize that there was a time when maybe we, and even Shaq himself, treated the moment like a luxury rather than the gift it truly was.
Basketball may never see the second coming of Black Superman. He was a 7-foot tour de force who will likely remain the lone athlete to win an Olympic gold medal, MVP and NBA Finals MVP and release a platinum rap album. Good luck capturing that lightning in a bottle twice. In terms of the most dominant basketball player, Shaq is in the top two. Except he’s not No. 2. Like Shaq’s face here, we may see glimpses of his game again in others. There will be new athletes who blend Hollywood, the league and hip-hop. But never quite like The Diesel.
History may repeat itself. Halley’s Comet may come around every 75 years. But don’t expect to see anyone like Shaquille O’Neal again.
This is the body of the greatest swimmer of all time. It is not armored with muscle. It is not awesome. It looks naked, and a bit vulnerable. It looks quite human.
Michael Phelps delivered inhuman performances at four Olympics, collecting more medals than any athlete in any sport: 23 gold, three silver and two bronze. His eight golds in 2008 are the greatest haul in any single games. Three years after his retirement, he still holds three individual and three relay world records.
What’s not obvious in this photograph is the unique body construction that was the engine of Phelps’ dominance: long arms with double-jointed elbows, long torso attached to shorter legs, huge feet made flipper-like by flexible ankles. Most of that is hidden here. So we must look at Phelps, the human being.
Phelps grew up with a burning hole in his heart, left by his father after his parents’ divorce. Winning in the water filled the hole, and so did alcohol, but they always drained away to expose Phelps’ trauma. At age 19, two months after winning six gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Phelps was arrested for driving under the influence. In 2009, after his eight-gold triumph in Beijing, he was photographed smoking marijuana and suspended from competition.
A second DUI arrest in 2014 pushed Phelps into intensive therapy, where he reclaimed control of his life and rebuilt a relationship with his father. That propelled him into his final Olympics, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where he sealed his legacy with his final five gold medals.
This is the human fragility of Michael Phelps. It makes him look even more awesome.
Time is loyal only to its own clock. For Albert Pujols, now 39, his best playing days are in the rearview mirror. But in this 2006 portrait, the slugger once known as “The Machine” is eyeing the future and what it could possibly hold. Pujols would capture his first of two World Series titles with the St. Louis Cardinals that year. Even then, the Dominican superstar was fielding All Time comparisons.
Yet, then as now, the same question hangs in the air. What’s next? Before the start of the 2019 season, Pujols had said he intends to complete his contract, which ends in 2021. In this photo, Pujols bothers not with the camera but rather what the camera can’t see. The same holds true now. Cooperstown? Absolutely — he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, currently sixth all-time in career homers and fifth in RBIs. More time to focus on his diverse charitable efforts? “That’s part of the responsibility God has given me,” he said during his Anaheim Angels introduction in 2011. “Not just to perform on the field, but to give back off the field.”
Whatever’s next for Pujols is truly his pitch to make. But while he’s still manning first base for the Angels, let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. He’s one of the greatest baseball players ever. We should never take a gift like that for granted.
She knew. Sheryl Swoopes knew who she was and what she could do.
We did not. When the WNBA launched in 1997, many of us who respected and valued women’s basketball didn’t know how good these women really were. We certainly didn’t know that Sheryl Denise Swoopes, born in 1971 in the West Texas town of Brownfield, was one of the greatest basketball players to ever step on a court.
Look into Swoopes’ eyes and you can see the experience of being slighted, plus the peace of being unbothered by the injustice. There is the calmness of knowing that she may miss a shot, but her scoring ability can never be stopped. Her gnarled knuckles testify to collecting thousands of steals, deflections, loose balls and rebounds. The discoloration on her right foot speaks to the thousands of court miles needed to secure this knowledge of self.
Such confidence comes from scoring 47 points in the 1993 NCAA championship game, setting a record that still stands for most points scored by any woman or man on college basketball’s biggest stage. It comes from suiting up for the Houston Comets six weeks after giving birth, then leading the team to the first of four straight WNBA championships. From having a son with her high school sweetheart, coming out as gay, enduring a breakup with her partner, then marrying another man. From winning three Olympic gold medals. From being the first woman to have her own Nike shoe.
Sheryl Swoopes knew. Now we do too.
Seeing Mike Trout look away from the camera neatly encapsulates the conundrum surrounding the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. Is it unfair or is it a precious gift that one of the most dominant athletes on the planet, and the recipient of the richest contract in American team sports history, is also one of its most unrecognizable? How should we understand the bizarre path to immortality the game’s best player trots?
Since his first full campaign in 2012, Trout has been named Rookie of the Year, finished in the top four of MVP voting every season and won the award twice, made the All-Star team seven times and earned All-Star Game MVP honors twice. There’s talk that he’s already the best baseball player ever. But the scrunched eyebrows on Trout’s face mirror the concern of fans emotionally invested in a career that has barely registered in much of the country. Baseball’s waning status in American culture is a complicating factor, of course. But so is the fact that the Angels have had only one postseason appearance during Trout’s tenure. Will team success ever align with individual sovereignty?
Only 27, with presumably hundreds of games to play and millions of dollars to be paid before he is immortalized in Cooperstown, there is still time for Trout and the Angels to break out. In the meantime, we see this stoic expression on an all-time dominating presence who is frustratingly unknown.
There’s a line in George C. Wolfe’s 1986 play The Colored Museum that states, “God created black people and black people created style.” Serena Williams was 24 when she sat for this portrait, and still in the early stages of articulating her personal style. But harbingers of what was to come — multiple covers of glossies such as Vogue, Vanity Fair and Harper’s Bazaar — peek through.
The frame is nearly overtaken by hair and lip gloss, and Williams gazes out hopefully, as if eyeing the future. But there’s also evidence of the conflict that has remained with Williams since she and her older sister Venus grabbed the tennis world as teens and shook it. Williams has long felt pressure to assert her femininity, especially as her skill, her physique and her boiling competitiveness made her a frequent target of sexist attacks. Accused of being mannish, Williams appears here as soft, romantic and sporting the sort of hair that every black girl who’s ever made a trip to the beauty supply store recognizes as “Wet ’N’ Wavy.”
Later, the “Wet ’N’ Wavy” locks would give way to billowing natural curls and more assertive declarations about gender and race-based inequities. Still, the raw ingredients were already present. Williams appeared as herself in the Memphis Bleek music video for “Do My…” in 2000, which not only took female athletic ability seriously but also treated it as something cool and desirable. “Throw a hand in the air if it’s the year of the woman,” Bleek instructs.
In this moment six years later, there’s a quietude about Williams. Her mouth is closed. She’s not wielding a racket or dripping with sweat, or selling a watch, or shoes, or athletic wear. Instead, Williams has continued forging ahead, making every year the year of the woman rather than settling for just one.
Venus Williams has never been known as especially talkative, so it makes sense that here she appears placid, almost sphinxlike, with a calm, understated regality. Her younger sister, Serena, issues fashion declarations that make her queenliness literal, but Venus, the first Williams sister to experience worldwide fame for her racket-based talents, is more reserved.
One of the most fascinating things about Venus and Serena Williams has been how they coexist on and off the court — they once shared a Palm Beach house together, and both are fierce, focused competitors. Their matches are fraught with an uncomfortable tension, so much so that the best thing about them tends to be their conclusions. Venus appears outwardly better at coping with loss, especially when it comes at the hands of her younger sister. She has learned to exhibit the gracious nobility of an older sibling, all the while knowing who is coming behind her.
In 2006, the year this photograph was taken, Williams wrote a letter to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club lobbying for the organization to award equal prize money to male and female Wimbledon competitors. The language was firm, its message unmistakable: “I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players,” she wrote. In 2007, Wimbledon announced a policy of gender parity in its prize money. A year after that, Venus beat Serena on Centre Court to take England’s Grand Slam title.
How fitting, then, to see her seated upon a throne of damask upholstery, secure, pleased and smiling into the distance, as if she knows what is to come.