SNL Alum Jay Pharoah on His Showtime Show "White Famous"

Jay Pharoah with "White Famous" Executive Producer Jamie Foxx at L.A. Premere. Photo Courtesy of Showtime

Jay Pharoah with "White Famous" Executive Producer Jamie Foxx at L.A. Premere. Photo Courtesy of Showtime

Fans who’ve missed comedian Jay Pharoah since his official exit from Saturday Night Live last year after six seasons now can have him all to themselves thanks to his new Showtime series, White Famous. 

Executive-produced by Jamie Foxx and Tim Story (director of Ride Along and Think Like a Man), White Famous puts Pharoah, a native of Chesapeake, Va., in familiar territory as comedian Floyd Mooney, a black underground comedian embarking on a Hollywood career.

“I connected with this character immediately just because I know the grind of that,” says Pharoah. “I know how it is to do the chitlin circuit out here [in Los Angeles], where they pay you $25 and $15 to get onstage, or when you go to New York and you hit the circuit and you’re doing seven rooms, and they’re paying you $75 a pop or $100 a pop for that grind. I knew how that was, and the fact that’s what Floyd is, I connected with it immediately.”

For Pharoah, White Famous is slightly more than “the story of a black comedian on the underground that gets the chance to cross over to the industry.” He is just as intrigued by Floyd’s battle to “not lose himself while making himself more relevant in Hollywood.”

In the pilot, in which Jamie Foxx makes an appearance, Floyd is confronted with wearing a dress—a common Hollywood trope, especially for black men—for a lucrative career-boosting film role. Like Floyd, Pharoah also refuses to wear a dress. “Have I ever worn a dress?” he quips, shooting the question back. Then he vows, “You’re not going to see me doing that.”

Floyd’s determination to achieve fame on his own terms is one of his most appealing features, says Pharoah. “The fact that he didn’t want to give up on his moral code and standing, I thought that that was fantastic, and I feel the same way,” he says. “I don’t feel like you have to sell out to make it. I feel like talent is talent, and talent will transcend what anybody says. It will transcend politics. It breaks through. Talent always breaks through.”

Far from being alone in his journey, Floyd has a son, Trevor (Lonnie Chavis), whom he co-parents with his longtime love Sadie (Cleopatra Coleman), with whom he has a friendly, in-flux relationship. Then there’s his Indian agent, Malcolm (Utkarsh Ambudkar), who is determined to make him a star, even when Floyd doesn’t see the vision; and his friend, roommate and unofficial life and career coach Ron Balls (Jacob Ming-Trent), who filters through his projects and keeps it real with him.

The relationship Pharoah and Coleman display on-screen is one of his proudest. “You got some people who are actually working together, not fighting. [They] have a child, but they’re both putting in the hard work to do what they need to do so he is raised in a loving environment,” he explains.

“More television should be like that,” he continues. “You don’t have to perpetuate negative stereotypes. There’s no need for that when you can find a smart way to tackle a relationship. It could be good, it could be bad, but at the end of the day, when two responsible parties actually step up and they do take care and handle their business—and, by ‘business,’ I mean a child—it speaks multitudes about two people in a relationship that are constantly fighting back and forth, and the child doesn’t know where to go, feel me? I feel like the show does a real good job of showing that.”

Doing the show definitely made him appreciate his time on NBC’s iconic sketch-comedy show even more. “SNL is comedy boot camp. That place prepares you for everything,” he says. “I think that’s why I fell into my lead character so well, just because of the quickness that you have to have to adapt to certain things [on SNL]. I got that training from being over there so I’m grateful.”

Having Foxx, whom Pharoah has known since 2012, behind White Famous is very comforting, he admits. “Jamie Foxx has been nothing but a big brother to me. Honest to God,” he explains. “[To have] somebody who’s established, who is kind of on the same frequency—not saying that we’re equal, but just as far as the talents: being able to do music, being able to do comedy, being able to act—to have somebody who’s like that who’s backing you, who you kind of feel like y’all got a similar vibe, it’s really dope and it does comfort you.

“And it just lets you know,” he adds, “you’re doing exactly what you need to do, and you’re exactly where you need to be.”

White Famous airs Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern time on Showtime.

This story was originally published on The Root.

 

From The Root: Piece on "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise" Now Streaming on Netflix

Since Netflix is now showing Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise, I thought some of you might enjoy the piece I wrote on The Root after speaking to both her son, Guy Johnson, and her grandson, Colin Johnson when it aired on PBS:

Maya Angelou’s Son and Grandson Explain Why a Documentary on Such a ‘Phenomenal Woman’ Is So Necessary Now

Some people’s lives are bigger than they are; that was certainly the case with Maya Angelou. This “phenomenal woman” packed in a lot of living even for someone blessed with a relatively long journey of 86 years. That’s what’s most clear in the first-ever documentary on her life, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.

Thanks to her classic memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou’s many fans are familiar with her early childhood in Jim Crow-era Stamps, Ark., as well as her formative years spent in San Francisco. Others may have encountered her much later on The Oprah Winfrey Show. And scores more surely know her for delivering the inaugural poem “On the Pulse of Morning” when Bill Clinton became president in 1993. And in black communities across the nation, her poems “Phenomenal Woman” and “Still I Rise” have electrified church programs and neighborhood gatherings for decades.

Many, however, don’t know what happened in between. They may have heard that she knew and worked with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Or that James Baldwin was one of her dearest friends. But even these relationships and the richness they gave her life only scratch the surface. Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise digs into those crevices and delivers an overview that far exceeds one woman’s remarkable transit.

“American history can be looked at through my grandmother’s life, from the Great Migration from the South, the Jim Crow laws and other things as she developed,” her grandson Colin Johnson tells The Root. “And she’s dance history, theater, too. There’s film and TV. Literature. And so much more.”

“From the time I was a child, she knew everybody,” her son, Guy Johnson, who was born when she was just 17, shares with The Root. “I mean, Max Roach, Miles Davis, I first met them when I was 7 years old. Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, they were part of the people we knew. ... I was in Miles Davis’ basement when he was working on Sketches of Spain. When Leontyne Price used to come to town, we’d go to the opera. I never knew what it was like for her not to be the center, not to be one of the important people.”

A few of those important people check into the documentary. Cicely Tyson and Louis Gossett Jr. share their experiences starring with her in the 1961 New York production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks, where black actors played both white and black roles. Songwriter Valerie Simpson, entertainment impresario Quincy Jones, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and, of course, Oprah Winfrey, also chime in.

Angelou’s friendship with Winfrey was inspiring. Winfrey, through her legendary talk show, introduced many to Angelou’s genius, but over the years, the two women became a powerful symbol of cross-generational sisterhood and friendship.

“I think my grandmother looked at Oprah not only as a friend, really like a sister-friend and a daughter-friend,” Colin offers. “I think my grandmother would have loved to have somebody to look out for her, and to be able to give that to Oprah was a gift. Think about it: How many people can Oprah call and lean on? Not for money; I’m talking about emotionally.”

Winfrey was not the only woman who leaned on Angelou emotionally. Angelou’s work spoke to women in ways that others before her had not. When her first memoir, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, was published in 1969, few women spoke openly about being molested as children. Also, there were few positive examples of single mothers. So Angelou helped erase those stigmas while also falling in line with the times where women of all races were reaching new and incredible heights.

“One of the things about my mother’s books is that they inform people that even if bad things have happened to you,” explains Guy, “that’s not the end of your life—not if you want to live; not if you want to change what those things have done to you.”

In her advanced age, Angelou still didn’t slow down. Despite having a cushy job as the Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University since 1982, she kept up a furious pace—adding new books and new experiences like directing the 1998 film Down in the Delta, as well as maintaining a hectic appearance schedule. She was even personally involved in the filming of her documentary, which began about three years prior to her death in 2014 and was completed roughly at the end of 2015, just in time for its premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

“She was going to work until she couldn’t work no more,” explains Colin. “She felt like her job wasn’t done yet. She felt like she hadn’t finished her job. I swear my father and I had tried to get her off the road for at least the last 20-some odd years. While her schedule did change some, the reality is, she still worked something like seven, eight months a year.”

Because she never stopped, it’s hard for any one documentary to do right by her. “When a life takes a certain expanse and the person who lives that life lives it to the fullest,” says Guy, “you can’t capture that all.”

From The Root: W. Kamau Bell of CNN's United Shades of America on Chicago and More

I spoke to W. Kamau Bell, who has a CNN show, United Shades of America, for The Root and he made some good points about my city, Chicago, so I wanted to share:

W. Kamau Bell on How to Solve Chicago’s Violence and Why Black Celebrities Host Shows About Race

Comedian W. Kamau Bell gives a lot of credit to Chris Rock for taking a big chance on him in 2012 by executive-producing his first show, Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, on FX. “He basically gave me my career,” Bell said to The Root. “He might say differently: ‘You would have made it some other way.’ But, yes, he definitely put some jet fuel under me.”

Recognizing that the San Francisco Bay Area-based comedian, whose work is politically infused, needed to go out and be among the people was probably one of Rock’s greatest gifts to Bell. His CNN series, United Shades of America,now in its second season, thrives on Bell’s engagement with others on myriad topics.

Last season, the theme was largely places where a black man wouldn’t necessarily go willingly. How many black men would choose to speak to the Ku Klux Klan or voluntarily check into a prison as notorious as San Quentin? This time around, headlines rule. “Immigration and Refugees” kicked off the second season April 30; “Chicago Gangs” followed it, along with “Native Americans,” in response to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline, and “Muslims in Small Town America,” in response to the Trump administration’s much-ballyhooed Muslim ban. There are eight episodes in all.

Bell admits that President Donald Trump has had a great impact on this season. “A lot of [this season] was informed by the election,” he explained. “Who is sort of being targeted? Who is being made fun of a lot? Or who is not really having their voice heard a lot? So that meant that we had to do one on Muslims. We had to do one on immigrants and refugees. We did one on Chicago.”

Trump’s presence in the Oval Office has also affected the reaction of the people with whom Bell interacts. “In the first season, all those issues were important and people were fired up about them, but [with Obama in office], there wasn’t a sense of ‘Uh-oh, we might be in trouble,’” Bell noted.

While Bell tackles largely unfamiliar territory in this season’s episodes, Chicago is the exception. “I graduated high school in Chicago,” Bell explained. “Chicago was always in the news as being America’s most violent city or gang-ridden, and I lived in Chicago for a long time, and yes, there are areas that are like that, but that’s not true for the whole city. And even what you’re saying about those areas [that are], you’re misrepresenting. And then Donald Trump went out of his way [to target] Chicago and then even targeted Dwyane Wade’s cousin, who was killed, and I was like, ‘We have to do Chicago.’”

For Bell, who spoke with current gang members, the solution to Chicago’s violence is no secret. “They all know what the solutions are to gang violence. They all know what the solutions are to crime,” he observed. “We need jobs. We need better schools. When you look at Chicago, they closed a bunch of the public schools and the schools are underfunded.

“[When] you walk on the South and West sides of Chicago, there’s miles and miles of undeveloped land that’s just sitting there,” he continued. “There’s not many tall buildings. There’s not a lot of businesses. There’s not a lot of places for people to go. There’s not a big population density. And when that happens, there’s no jobs.

“If you’re on the North Side, clearly people are investing in the North Side of Chicago, and those buildings are constantly going up and new businesses are constantly moving in,” he added. “The city of Chicago could certainly make it friendlier on people to invest on the South and West sides. ... Cities give tax breaks all the time for these things, but they’re not doing it.”

A lack of jobs and economic development is a recurring theme, whether Bell turns his attention to Chicago, indigenous people in South Dakota or white people in Appalachia. But with Charles Barkley’s series American Race recently launched on sister station TNT, it is curious that, when it comes to black people exploring race and other tensions in this country, television bets on the celebrity of a comedian and a former NBA player.

“Why can’t journalists do these similar shows? Why isn’t this being done by people who ostensibly have more clear qualifications?” Bell pondered before answering.

“I think one reason is that a lot of journalists, rightfully so, aren’t trying to be entertainers,” he said. “So they don’t want to put an entertaining spin on what they’re doing because that’s not really what journalism is about ultimately. And, two, many journalists still heel to the whole news thing of trying not to be biased. And so, if you’re not trying to be entertaining and you’re not letting people know what your opinion is, then there’s not the potential to pull a certain number of viewers,” he suggested.

“With me and Barkley’s show, you know who Barkley is before you sit down and watch the show, probably. I can’t imagine anybody’s like, ‘I want to watch this American Race show; who is this Charles Barkley fellow?’ Several times on [my] show, I let you know who I am and what I care about. So people appreciate that. Even if they don’t agree with either one of us, they know where you’re coming from when you’re delivering information.”

Bell knows that this approach helps him engage those he interviews. “If you sit down with a news reporter,” he explained, “you’re going to give them the answers the way they want to be given them. But if you sit down with me, we’re going to have a conversation, and we might have some fun and we might laugh and we might cry. You can sort of let your guard down a little bit with me. I haven’t seen American Race, so I can’t speak to that with [Barkley], but that’s what it is for me.”

Whatever the dynamic, Bell is earnest in his desire to contribute something useful to the dialogue. Although he knows there is even more room for growth, he is pleased with the progress he’s made with the second season of United Shades of America. “The first season was like the mixtape, and this is like the album,” he says.

Editor’s note: United Shades of America airs Sunday nights on CNN at 10 p.m. ET. 

Michel'le's "Surviving Compton" on Lifetime Revisits Abusive Past with Dr. Dre

Present-day Michel'le. LIFETIME

Present-day Michel'le. LIFETIME

Social media was abuzz over the weekend about the Lifetime Michel'le film, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel'le, which premiered Saturday, October 15. Conversation generated from the film rightfully centers around issues of domestic violence in the Black community. Below is the piece I wrote for The Root prior to the film's premiere. Please read here if you missed it there:

"Everybody keeps asking me, ‘Girl, why you ain’t in they movie? You was there. You was down with Ruthless Records right along with them boys,’” Michel’le Toussaint informs us in her intro to her Lifetime biopic, Surviving Compton: Dre, Suge and Michel’le.

Straight Outta Compton is the movie to which Michel’le, as she is best known, refers. To date, that N.W.A. biopic, in which “homeboy conquering heroes,” as she calls them, O’Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson, Eric “Eazy E” Wright, Andre “Dr. Dre” Young and Marion “Suge” Knight are particularly prominent, has made over $200 million worldwide. And you better believe Michel’le was really there, professionally and personally. Not only did she sing the hook on Dr. Dre’s first notable hit as a producer and performer “Before You Turn Off the Lights” back in 1988, when he was with the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, she was his girlfriend and a musical collaborator. Eventually she would have a child with him and, later, also with his friend-turned-nemesis Suge Knight.

“That movie ain’t about me,” she continues, referring to her erasure and really the larger erasure of girls and women like her from these tales of urban strife that reach larger audiences. “That’s them telling the story they want to tell. History gets told by the winners. I got my own history, my own story about a girl from the hood. I am Michel’le,” she asserts as she properly reinserts Black girls back into those stories, giving them a proper presence and, most important, a voice.

Most noted in criticisms of Straight Outtla Compton is the absence of early allegations of Dr. Dre’s physical assaults against women, particularly his infamous beatdown of personality/rapper Dee Barnes of the popular hip-hop show, Pump It Up, at a record release party at a L.A. nightclub in 1991. As those inquiries got louder, Dr. Dre’s personal relationships came under greater scrutiny and his alleged physical assault of Michel’le got mainstream attention. So much so that Dr. Dre issued an apology, with Michel’le even being quoted, in the NY Times story covering it

‘I’ve been talking about my abuse for many, many years, but it has not gotten any ears until now,’ Michel’le told the NY Times. Well Lifetime must have been listening and turned the spotlight all the way up on her. We may all be the better for it. Surviving Compton, directed by Janice Cooke, a veteran TV director and producer whose credits date back to the 1980s, and written by Dianne Houston, a Howard alum who comes from theatre and has the distinction of being the first Black female director nominated for an Oscar, is much more entertaining and deeper than most people will expect. It has real gravitas. Michel’le narrates the film and even pops into its narrative from time to time, giving it a sense of both herstory and a cautionary tale.

Once Michel’le formally introduces the film, it gets real immediately, going all the way back to when she was a little girl growing up in a neighborhood where police brutality and the physical assault of women surrounded her. Police brutality and brutality against women are purposely linked. And by doing so, it is clear that Michel’le’s story isn’t unique but, instead, a cycle. When she, as a little girl, proclaims that no man will ever put his hands on her when she grows up, her grandmother, whom she calls Meme (played quite ably by Donna Biscoe), essentially tells her that Black men hitting Black women is just how things are. As lofty as it may seem, Surviving Compton aims to raise awareness of that cycle at the very least and help to break it at the very most without ever sacrificing the core story.  

We’re sucked into the good times rather quickly. Curtis Hamilton plays Dr. Dre as good-looking and smooth-talking so we easily understand how the squeaky-voiced Michel’le with the grown-up vocals, portrayed so innocently by Rhyon Nicole Brown, got swept away and could still be down even after learning Dre already had baby mamas and multiple kids. We are also caught as off guard as she is when, during a drunken stupor, Dre’s fists violently awaken her in their bedroom. Initially we assume Dre’s late-night arrival will result in drunken sex. Never are we prepared for Dre to beat Michel’le so brutally. It’s startling.  

“Everyone said I should have left then. Should have got out while I still had one eye working. He was crying, he was crying,” a real-life Michel’le answers teary-eyed, “but I couldn’t leave Dre then. I kept hearing Meme telling me how it was in a man’s nature to hurt the one he loved.”

Standing alongside her TV film self as she tries to use makeup to hide the ugliness, Michel’le and Surviving Compton deliver a brilliant and searing commentary on rap’s unsettling allegiance to misogyny.

“Women been singing their pain for as long as there’s been music. Women voices let the world know exactly what hurt them and why. But, in rap, the women stopped singing and, without their voices to anchor their truths, the women were just bitches to be slapped and/or hoes to be passed around. Rap was about rage, not beauty. Rap hated most women because it had to hurt somebody and it did.”

Surviving Compton is full of the tea that rising up from the streets to stardom encompasses with a cast of well-known, if often unrecognizable, players and the added complication of being a pawn caught between two well-known men’s egos and forces way beyond her control. There’s a reason why Michel’le’s hits “No More Lies” and “Something in My Heart” still resonate almost 30 years later. Urban Black girl trauma is very real and Surviving Compton is case and point. Michel’le’s harrowing tale of unlikely survival may not change the world overnight, but it thankfully steers the conversation in the right direction.

Black girls may be magic but Black boys get all the shine and far too often aren’t held accountable for the hurt they’ve caused along the way. Dr. Dre is reportedly back-pedaling, denying that he ever physically abused Michel’le, and issued a cease-and-desist order to stop the film through his legal team. Surviving Compton doesn’t take away from his notable accomplishments in music in the least. And, to be fair, it appears that he is indeed a much better man today. But, as Michel’le tells Jerry Heller in the film, “Life ain’t perfect, but all dreams cost something.” Surviving Compton shows the price not just one woman paid but far too many Black girls are still paying.

Surviving Compton is being replayed on Lifetime. An earlier version of this article originally appeared as "Michel'le's Surviving Compton Doesn't Forget About Dre" on The Root.

 

0 Likes

Share

Throwback Q&A with Emmy Winner Courtney B. Vance On Playing Legal Legend Johnnie Cochran, The Root

Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Photo Credit: FX

Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Photo Credit: FX

Original Run: February 23, 2016

For those who have been faithfully watching FX’s ratings juggernaut, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and keeping up with recaps on The Root, waiting for Johnnie Cochran has been an exercise in patience. Well, the wait is over. Courtney B. Vance took a few minutes out of his promotional schedule to chat with The Root about meeting Cochran as a young actor, representing the legal eagle on the series and why it was important for him to do the show.  

The Root: It takes a while for you to show up, but once you show up …

Courtney B. Vance: I show out.

TR: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Johnnie Cochran?

CBV: I did. I met him back in ’95, ’96, at his house at a party. A big party. I was a young actor just glad to have been invited, and just introduced myself. He was very cordial and wonderful to me, and then he went back to being the life of the party and being the host with the mostest, and I just went back to talking to my folks. I was just happy to be there.

TRHow did you prepare to become Johnnie Cochran? What was your process?

CBV: I know how touchy and difficult it is playing someone who is famously in our midst. He’s certainly not alive anymore, but, God rest his soul, he is certainly alive in our hearts, minds and spirits, and people know him and remember him, and he was larger than life. So playing someone who was larger than life is tricky, and it’s possible to be overwhelmed and overrun by the journey and not knowing where to start and what to do. And I knew, for me, for my process, I knew that was going to be enough on me.

Once we started shooting, I knew I was going to be wall-to-wall for about four or five months every day. I said I’m not going to have the pressure of the workload on me, so I said I was going to do my research on him, since I’m a history major from Harvard. I’m going to get that out of the way and then I’m going to jump in. Once we get into the meat of it, there’s not going to be time for wondering about the inflections, the intonation; it’s just going to be you with the character and let’s go. … So, for me, the process was about the research and getting myself one with Johnnie so I could just start playing with the other actors with their characters. 

TR: One interesting aspect of The People v. O.J. Simpson is how Johnnie Cochran earned his slot at the top of the defense team. Were you aware of this?

CBV: I knew nothing. I knew of him, but just like all of us, I had heard about him, knew his reputation preceded him. I knew that he was known worldwide for being a celebrity lawyer to the stars, but I didn’t know his police-brutality work. I didn’t know the everyday people that he represented. So he was a man of the people, came from the people and ascended up on high and was never afraid to go back down into the valley, and oftentimes did, and he brought that to his work on this case.

And he was, more so than anyone, he was ahead of everybody of what’s necessary to do next. He recognized that it was a marathon; it’s going to be long. As he told Chris Darden, “I’m not coming here to be friends; I’m coming here to win, and I’m doing whatever it is I need to do, and I’d advise you to do the same. If you get in my way, I’m going to step on you.”

They [the prosecution] thought, from the beginning, it was a slam-dunk, just-the-facts-ma’am case. The facts were not really what the case was about. Celebrity, fame, 24-hour news, race, class, but the facts? Oh no, no, no, no. The facts? We’re going to cloud the facts and we’re just going to make this about so much information being thrown at the jury that eventually they just go, “OK, let’s just close this thing. I don’t think he did it. They didn’t prove it. OK, let’s go. I want to go home. I want to go home.” And Marcia [Clark] didn’t recognize it.

TR: Were you at all concerned about showing Johnnie Cochran doing some things professionally that some may consider questionable? Did you think it might taint his legacy?

CBV: No. That’s just what he does. That’s just part of his job. Fortunately, he was a master of manipulation, for lack of a better word. He realized that this case was about race and that you can’t have an O.J. who says to his attorneys, “I’m not black; I’m O.J.” You can’t have a black man who didn’t understand that he was black and that this case was about black people and white people.

“And so we [slipping into Johnnie Cochran mode] had to protect him from himself. He didn’t know. He was not aware. I had to make him understand that we have an all-black jury and you can’t say you’re not black. Any sign of support you had from the jury will go poof. … And they’ll give the benefit of the doubt to Marcia, and I wanted the benefit of the doubt. I wanted O.J. to have the benefit of the doubt. As I told him, I’m not here to get respect from anybody; I got respect. I’m here to win.”

And, in the final analysis, history is told by the winners. It was about winning and losing. It wasn’t about facts and truth. It was about winners and losers.

TR: Why was doing this project important to you?

CBV: One of the [reasons doing this project] was important to me … is because of all the drama that we’ve being going through with Ferguson [Mo.] and now Chicago and other things. … We like to think of ourselves as a melting pot in the United States. Everybody comes here for their field of dreams, but we’re not melting. The Popsicles are still frozen in the pot. Nobody’s blending together. The purple and the red and the yellow and the orange should melt, and we should turn into another color. …

We have to melt. We have to sit down and talk about how black folks are raised to see police as opposed to white folks, so that the police know … they have to approach [black people] differently. … You don’t shoot anybody 16 times who is your neighbor. You shoot an animal 16 times, and African-American people are not animals. They’re people. They may be wrong in certain instances, and you got to deal with them when they’re wrong, but you can’t shoot people just because they’ve done something wrong. And sometimes you need to talk them down so they can come to justice. But to shoot first and talk later, you cannot do that. You can’t do that. 

Read the original story at The Root

Throwback Q&A with Emmy Winner Sterling K. Brown on Playing Christopher Darden, TheRoot.com

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson. Photo Credit: FX

Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson. Photo Credit: FX

Original Run: March 7, 2016

In his role as Christopher Darden, Sterling K. Brown has been one of the unexpected delights of FX’s captivating hit The People v. O.J. Simpson. Previously, the St. Louis native and Stanford alum, who shaved his head to portray Marcia Clark’s partner in prosecution, was best-known as Roland Burton on Army Wives, Det. Cal Beecher on Person of Interest and Officer Dade on Third Watch.

Brown dished to The Root about what attracted him to Darden, Darden’s “black” roots and his relationship with Johnnie Cochran.

The Root: What attracted you to the Darden role?

Sterling K. Brown: I always thought that he was such a fascinating character. I remember the grief that he received from black America at that time in terms of being called an Uncle Tom, a sellout, and the death threats that he received, and it was all because he was just trying to do his job. The evidence led him to believe that O.J. Simpson was guilty of a double homicide, and he was caught in this very strange rock and a hard place where he was a black man prosecuting another black man, and the optics were that of, you know, crabs in the barrel—why is he trying to bring this brother down?

This man, O.J. Simpson, at the time, was a representation of the American dream for black America. He had risen from San Francisco, from poverty, and become a Heisman Trophy winner, a rushing leader in the NFL, and crossed over to mainstream success, Naked Gun movies, Hertz rent-a-car advertisements, etc. And then you have Darden trying to prosecute him, trying to put him in jail; people didn’t like that. They were very displeased with the idea that a black man could do that to another black man at the highest level.

So, trying to try to bring some kind of humanity to that journey, to emphasize in this particular instance it wasn’t a Black Lives Matter; it was an All Lives Matter thing, particularly for Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson. Those people who had died didn’t have anybody to speak for them, and that’s what Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden tried to do. So to navigate him trying to do his job in the midst of how he was viewed and seen by his community was a very, very fascinating journey.

TR: Initially, you tried reaching out to Darden. Why was that important to you?

SKB: You read Jeffrey Toobin’s book [The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson] and it tells you what Toobin thought of Darden, and at the time, I didn’t have access to Darden’s book, In Contempt. So it was important to me to hear what his take was on the whole thing. What one person says about you can be completely different than what you say about yourself. So to get both of those perspectives was really, really important. I think I was able to get it, in part, from his book, In Contempt, but there is still a part of me that holds out hope that one day we will get a chance to sit down and talk about his experience in terms of my portrayal.

TR: Doesn’t Darden have Bay Area roots?

SKB: Oh yes, he’s from Richmond, Calif. [He and O.J.] are both from around the same parts. I didn’t know Darden was from Richmond … [initially]. When I found out, I was like, “Yo, he’s from, like, the blackest place in Northern California there is, right?” For people to have called him a sellout and an Uncle Tom, I’m like, “Man, they really don’t know about this dude.” So it was interesting just knowing the geography of the land, and knowing that both of those guys are from that place, and yet they wound up on opposite sides of this trial.

TR: Affirmative action is another interesting aspect here. Darden knows that he’s done the work, he’s good at his job, but he’s kind of dogged by how others perceive him.

SKB: Isn’t that always the narrative? It’s one of those things where we can know for ourselves that we’ve done the work, that we’ve put in the time, that we paid our dues, etc., etc., and even though that’s the case, you can always have people looking over your shoulder who are the other and possibly questioning, “Why is he here? Why is she here? Do they belong? Have they done what’s necessary to be here?”

I don’t address the problem anymore. I don’t address the dilemma. I just show up. Me, as an actor, I just show up, and then you can make your own sort of conclusions based upon the work I bring to the table. I can’t allow other people to do that to me.

But here is the thing about Darden: He’s a very passionate guy. He’s the kind of guy that you want to play poker with because he wears his emotions on his sleeve, and I think, if anything, the defense was able to see that and use that to their advantage. He just can’t hide it. When something upset him, he just couldn’t hide it.

TR: Talk about the relationship between Darden and Johnnie Cochran. You are never sure if Johnnie is trying to help him or if he was giving him a shovel to dig his own grave.

SKB: It was one of those things where Darden, himself, speaks on in his book, In Contempt. One of the things he regretted the most is sort of the public playing out of the antagonism between him and Cochran, and if he had a chance to do it over again, he probably would have done things differently. It was deeply upsetting to him, and they started with a relationship that was very much mentor, mentee.

Throughout the course of the trial, he is trying to determine for himself whether or not he is receiving help or he’s getting played. Sometimes it’d be a little bit of both at the same time. Johnnie Cochran was a wonderful, wonderful lawyer, and he believed in winning, and he used the things that were at his beck and call to make that win possible, and part of it was how he was able to manipulate Christopher Darden.

Read the original story at The Root.  

With Atlanta and Queen Sugar, TV Gets a Dose of Real Southern Blackness, Posted on TheRoot.com

Original Run: September 8, 2016

I’m criminally Northern,” from black Twitter stalwart and cultural critic Jamilah Lemieux about the epic Tuesday night of black Southern intensity fueled by new TV shows Atlanta and Queen Sugar. Clearly, the Chicago native, who now calls New York City home, was not alone, as similar sentiments also showed up on Twitter. Those from the South or currently living la vida Southern also chimed in, amazed to see their lives represented so vividly and so uniquely on the small screen.

In name, the black South has shown up on television quite often in recent years. NBC’s sleeper hit comedy The Carmichael Show is set in Charlotte, N.C. Tyler Perry’s numerous series mostly take place in and around Atlanta. One could even argue that Perry’s success has been a gateway for more Atlanta on the small screen. House of Payne preceded the reality shows The Real Housewives of Atlanta and Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta as well as more respectable fare like Being Mary Jane andSurvivor’s Remorse.

But none of these shows are wholly invested in black Southern identity. Atlanta and Queen Sugarare, but not in a preachy or politically advancing manner. Instead, both shows are centered in a sense of place. And that specificity helps anchor each narrative, though they differ substantially. Having location as a bonus character enables both shows to dig deep and tell authentic stories that revolve around multidimensional characters that bear no resemblance to the caricatures we are so used to seeing. Consequently, these people feel not only like real people but like people you actually know or could be.

FX’s Atlanta, created by and starring Donald Glover, whose family moved to nearby Stone Mountain, Ga., when he was a kid, is probably not what most people, even his own fans, could have imagined. Even though Glover is also a rapper known as Childish Gambino, his FX show is largely a result of his work playing community college student and onetime-hotshot high school jock Troy Barnes on the long-running, quirky series Community, which debuted on NBC back in 2009.

Earn, Glover’s character, is living way beneath his Princeton potential and has run out of options until an underground single by his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who goes by Paper Boi, offers him new hope. The journey to manage his cousin’s budding career is far from a blinged-out tale of wannabe Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta vixens, VIP sections and expensive jewelry. Instead, it gets down and dirty.

It’s distinctively black and Southern. And that comes courtesy of the all-black writers who are brand-new to television, with the reported exception of Glover. They refreshingly abandon the disposable formula that has plagued far too many black-cast TV comedies. Atlanta digs deeper, going darker than most, while maintaining the weird and quirky vibe for which Glover is known.

Almost equally important, Atlanta challenges the concept of urban being just Northeastern, as in New York or Philadelphia, or Midwestern, as in Chicago or Detroit. Even though early Southern rappers like Memphis, Tenn., icons 8Ball & MJG and, later, Atlanta’s T.I., Jeezy and, now, Future have rapped and even boasted about the South’s mean streets, the perception of the South from the outside is still more about the KKK than an AK. For many of us, the hood is still the promised-land-turned-ghettos of places like Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles. For some, Atlanta remains a haven, a way out of the grind of urban life. Maybe Atlanta is arguably a better existence for transplants than natives, but it is the hardships natives face that Atlanta addresses most.

If Atlanta reveals what a lot of us don’t think the South is, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar is far more familiar terrain. But even as sophisticated as some of us have become in other parts of the country, Queen Sugar reminds us that there is still some good, i.e., a sense of family and community, in the rural South. Current Columbia professor Farah Jasmine Griffin wrote of the “symbolic, almost mythical sense of the South as home” in her 1995 book, “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative, and that’s what Queen Sugar, whose camera languishes on the beauty of the South, seizes upon.

This is exactly what DuVernay intends, but Queen Sugar is far from naively nostalgic. Adopted from Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel, the hourlong drama, symbolically on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN, tweaks the book’s original story, swapping out a mother-daughter tale for a more epic one centered on three siblings, while keeping the 800 acres of sugarcane that need farming after their father’s death at the fore.

Charley, the prodigal daughter of the Bordelon clan, played by newcomer Dawn-Lyen Gardner, breezes in from Los Angeles, on the heels of her professional basketball husband’s sex scandal, and pulls out numerous credit cards to make everything right. Nova, played by Rutina Wesley, is a journalist, who is away from her roots and in them at the same time. And then there is Ralph Angel, played by Kofi Siriboe, who is a struggling ex-con and single father still resentfully in love with his drug-addicted ex and mother of their son.

Consequently, we see a family pulling together even as they are pulling apart. We see the secrets and the ever-present petty jealousy and resentment. There’s a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, between black culture and assimilation. Queen Sugar is rich on multiple levels—familial, racial, sexual, gender. For example, it challenges concepts of masculinity by showing Bordelon patriarch Ernest as a nurturer, clinging to his last moments of life just to hold his grandson one last time. There’s a lot more love in Queen Sugar than in its sister series Greenleaf,which is drenched in the Southern black church experience and set in Memphis. And it takes on even bigger Goliaths, like the plight of black farmers, and focuses, perhaps for the first time, on African Americans as landowners.

But none of these shows are wholly invested in black Southern identity. Atlanta and Queen Sugarare, but not in a preachy or politically advancing manner. Instead, both shows are centered in a sense of place. And that specificity helps anchor each narrative, though they differ substantially. Having location as a bonus character enables both shows to dig deep and tell authentic stories that revolve around multidimensional characters that bear no resemblance to the caricatures we are so used to seeing. Consequently, these people feel not only like real people but like people you actually know or could be.

FX’s Atlanta, created by and starring Donald Glover, whose family moved to nearby Stone Mountain, Ga., when he was a kid, is probably not what most people, even his own fans, could have imagined. Even though Glover is also a rapper known as Childish Gambino, his FX show is largely a result of his work playing community college student and onetime-hotshot high school jock Troy Barnes on the long-running, quirky series Community, which debuted on NBC back in 2009.

Earn, Glover’s character, is living way beneath his Princeton potential and has run out of options until an underground single by his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), who goes by Paper Boi, offers him new hope. The journey to manage his cousin’s budding career is far from a blinged-out tale of wannabe Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta vixens, VIP sections and expensive jewelry. Instead, it gets down and dirty.

It’s distinctively black and Southern. And that comes courtesy of the all-black writers who are brand-new to television, with the reported exception of Glover. They refreshingly abandon the disposable formula that has plagued far too many black-cast TV comedies. Atlanta digs deeper, going darker than most, while maintaining the weird and quirky vibe for which Glover is known.

Almost equally important, Atlanta challenges the concept of urban being just Northeastern, as in New York or Philadelphia, or Midwestern, as in Chicago or Detroit. Even though early Southern rappers like Memphis, Tenn., icons 8Ball & MJG and, later, Atlanta’s T.I., Jeezy and, now, Future have rapped and even boasted about the South’s mean streets, the perception of the South from the outside is still more about the KKK than an AK. For many of us, the hood is still the promised-land-turned-ghettos of places like Philadelphia, Newark, N.J., and Los Angeles. For some, Atlanta remains a haven, a way out of the grind of urban life. Maybe Atlanta is arguably a better existence for transplants than natives, but it is the hardships natives face that Atlanta addresses most.

If Atlanta reveals what a lot of us don’t think the South is, Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar is far more familiar terrain. But even as sophisticated as some of us have become in other parts of the country, Queen Sugar reminds us that there is still some good, i.e., a sense of family and community, in the rural South. Current Columbia professor Farah Jasmine Griffin wrote of the “symbolic, almost mythical sense of the South as home” in her 1995 book, “Who Set You Flowin’?”: The African-American Migration Narrative, and that’s what Queen Sugar, whose camera languishes on the beauty of the South, seizes upon.

This is exactly what DuVernay intends, but Queen Sugar is far from naively nostalgic. Adopted from Natalie Baszile’s 2014 novel, the hourlong drama, symbolically on Oprah Winfrey’s network OWN, tweaks the book’s original story, swapping out a mother-daughter tale for a more epic one centered on three siblings, while keeping the 800 acres of sugarcane that need farming after their father’s death at the fore.

Charley, the prodigal daughter of the Bordelon clan, played by newcomer Dawn-Lyen Gardner, breezes in from Los Angeles, on the heels of her professional basketball husband’s sex scandal, and pulls out numerous credit cards to make everything right. Nova, played by Rutina Wesley, is a journalist, who is away from her roots and in them at the same time. And then there is Ralph Angel, played by Kofi Siriboe, who is a struggling ex-con and single father still resentfully in love with his drug-addicted ex and mother of their son.

Consequently, we see a family pulling together even as they are pulling apart. We see the secrets and the ever-present petty jealousy and resentment. There’s a tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, between black culture and assimilation. Queen Sugar is rich on multiple levels—familial, racial, sexual, gender. For example, it challenges concepts of masculinity by showing Bordelon patriarch Ernest as a nurturer, clinging to his last moments of life just to hold his grandson one last time. There’s a lot more love in Queen Sugar than in its sister series Greenleaf,which is drenched in the Southern black church experience and set in Memphis. And it takes on even bigger Goliaths, like the plight of black farmers, and focuses, perhaps for the first time, on African Americans as landowners.

Read the original story at The Root