Simone Biles: Golden Determination

What does determination get you?  For Simone Biles it gets her awards and recognition for being one of the world’s  best gymnast.  It gets her Olympic medals in Rio.  But that golden glow she exudes provides the best answer.  Fierce determination gets you the personal satisfaction and championship confidence to be exactly who you want to be.  Congratulations, Simone, for a job well done by staying true to your pulse and passion.

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James Baldwin’s Voice and Views

Author and civil rights activist James Baldwin was born 92 years ago today.  His life ended, but his voice and views live on.  The 1989 Karen Thorsen documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket, offers a poignant personal portrait of the life, times and brilliant voice of Baldwin from his Harlem home to his global retreats. Intermixing archival footage, excerpts from  major Baldwin books, and commentary from the writer and other writers of his time, the film celebrates the social critic who challenged America on racial justice, sexuality and religious issues.

Almost three decades after Baldwin’s death, in an America fueled by racial and immigration tensions and raging election rhetoric, the time is right to revisit Baldwin’s legacy and his relevancy today. The Price of the Ticket is a good starting point. 

 

Say It Loud….Thoughts on “Get On Up”

“God and Nature first made us what we are, and then out of our own created genius we make ourselves what we want to be.”   Marcus Garvey

"Get On Up" with Chadwick Boseman as James Brown and Nelsan Ellis as Bobby Byrd.  Photo:  Universal Pictures

“Get On Up” with Chadwick Boseman and Nelsan Ellis.     Photo: Universal Pictures

Big hair.  Bold clothes.  Brash moves.  Loud music.  Everything about R&B legend James Brown said it loud.  His look, his music, and his moves made The Hardest Working Man in Show Business who he wanted to be—someone who controlled center stage and who commanded the center of attention.

In Get On Up, the Universal Pictures and Imagine Entertainment homage to James Brown, Chadwick Boseman commands the full screen like the legendary music-maker commanded the stage.  He has total control channeling Brown—wearing his moves like a fitted suit and mouthing his words in that raspy voice Brown owned.  It is as though the legend himself returned to relive his highs and lows from age 16 to 60 bringing all his bravado and music with him.

James Brown’s story is life as performance art.   In the early thirties, Brown lived as a motherless child in South Carolina before his father took the man-child to live with his aunt in her Georgia brothel.   His poverty and potential pushed him to flip his flaws and find a future in music.   Brown created his genius by mixing talent, hard work, hustle and the burdens of his haunting feelings.  With the insight of Bobby Byrd and the inspiration of Little Richard, Brown’s journey ignited.  His appearances flowed from church choir to chitlin circuit and concert halls to crossover pop charts and international fame.  Along the way, Brown carved fierce R&B rhythms with The Flames and JBs, and he redefined the music industry adding soul and funk to its repertoire.

Director Tate Taylor’s biopic is art imitating life.  With Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth’s screenplay, Taylor gives the audience syncopated beats and burdens of Brown’s life.   The relived life is cyclical.  Moments touch off memories. The audience scans Brown’s story through flips–back and forth–of experiences, events and emotions.  Brown was sometimes up, sometimes down, and always repetitive from his call-and-response punctuated music and magic moves to his prison to performance stage and back again life.  Ultimately, the film’s restless pacing offers those new to James Brown enough to grab and gain some insight into the complex, musical genius and for the nostalgic fans, Taylor gives us the real story we know so well.

With popular songs as the backbone, the strong cast further enhances the movie’s reality.  Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Jill Scott and Lennie James are on screen long enough to make lasting impressions.  The confrontation between Davis, as Brown’s long-gone mother, and Boseman personifies the emotional power of strong performances. True Blood’s Nelsan Ellis subtly exemplifies “star time” by owning his role as Bobby Byrd and playing in perfect harmony to Boseman’s every move. Dan Aykroyd quietly contributes as Brown’s longtime booking agent and confirms that Brown even managed his managers.

Timing is everything.  James Brown knew that.  It took about seventeen years to make this biopic.  Producer Brian Grazer had the rights.  Then times changed.  James Brown died.  Legal wrangles ensued.  Grazer waited.  Time waited, too.  Time waited for Tate Taylor to make The Help with Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer.  Time waited for Nelsan Ellis to do True Blood.  Time waited for Chadwick Boseman to star as Jackie Robinson in 42.  Then Mick Jagger came on as co-producer.  Legal wrangles ended.  The time was right.  And Get On Up got the feeling right.

Friends and Weekends

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation…There is no play in them, for this comes after work.”    –Henry David Thoreau

Executive producer Harry Lennix with producer Stephanie Frederic and talent from "The Mirror."

Executive producer Harry Lennix with producer Stephanie Frederic and talent from “The Mirror.”

There are men and women who “lead lives of quiet desperation.”  Then, there are my friends who lead loud lives of pure delight.  Their lives are filled with curiosity and adventure mingled with characteristic chaos and insanity.  They see life as never-ending play—whether it’s during work or after work.

This weekend, while some are languishing on a beach, others are consumed by breaking news, and most are on the edge beaten down by the summer’s heat, two of my friends are spending the weekend working on a creative collaboration.

Richard Gant on the set of "The Mirror."

Richard Gant on the set of “The Mirror.”

Richard Gant, part actor and full-time intrepid seeker of wisdom, and Stephanie Frederic, one of Hollywood’s most versatile producers of everything from movies to movie trailers and television shows, are shooting a movie.  In two days, the two of them along with several others will shoot a made-for-TV movie.  Stephanie is one of the producers of The Mirror, the first in a horror trilogy airing later this year on cable’s TV One.  Richard plays a character who commands attention the minute he appears on the screen.

Richard is in the movie due to friends including The Mirror‘s writer/producer Paul Skorich. In it, Richard plays best friend to Harry Lennix of The Blacklist, who also serves as executive producer. Among the other friends of friends appearing in the flick are former The Young and The Restless stars Victoria Rowell and Davetta Sherwood, Aida Rodriguez from Last Comic Standing, and television personality Karrueche Tran. Even a few of Harry’s friends not in the movie including actors George Newbern and Steve Harris dropped by the set to support a friend working on the weekend.

Moviemaking is no simple task to accomplish, especially in a weekend. But for those who choose to enjoy decidedly different lives, anything is possible except desperation. What are you and your friends doing this weekend?

Former "The Young and The Restless" stars  Victoria Rowell and Davetta Sherwood reunite on the set of horror flick "The Mirror."

Former “The Young and The Restless” stars Victoria Rowell and Davetta Sherwood reunite on the set of horror flick “The Mirror.”

On the set of TV movie, "The Mirror."

Harry Lennix with Richard Gant and others on the set of “The Mirror.”

On the set of "The Mirror" with co-stars Aida Rodriguez, Karrueche Tran, Cheryl Francis Harrington and Davetta Sherwood.

On the set of “The Mirror” with co-stars Aida Rodriguez, Karrueche Tran, Cheryl Francis Harrington and Davetta Sherwood.

 George Newborn visiting the set where friend Harry Lennix is shooting a movie.

George Newbern of “Scandal” visiting the set of friend Harry Lennix’s movie.

Friendship... is not something you learn-2

 

Forgotten Memorial Day Story

1865 Charleston Daily News

When or where the day memorializing those who served in the military began in the United States is unknown. According to many, it was initially known as Decoration Day, following the Civil War, when General John J. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic declared it as a time to remember the war dead by decorating their graves with flowers. In 1966, Congress and President Johnson claimed Waterloo, New York as the official birthplace of Memorial Day. The following year, it was made a national holiday observed on May 30 until 1971 when Congress assigned the last Monday in May as the day of observance.

We will never really know the true birthplace of Memorial Day because history is often a mix of told and untold stories. Some histories of Decoration Day are hidden or ignored by times, circumstances and denial. As change occurs and America evolves, those overlooked histories slowly emerge. Here is one reemerging history of Decoration Day.

According to newspaper articles and historian David Blight in his book, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Caroline, where the Civil War began, the first Decoration Day took place. The city was in ruin and the 21st United States Colored Infantry were among the first Union soldiers to accept the city’s official surrender. After the siege, a group of former slaves gathered at a former racetrack used by Confederates as a prison where more than 250 Union soldiers died and were buried in a mass grave. The freedmen dug up the unmarked grave, put each soldier in separate graves, cleaned the area, built a fence around it, and erected an archway over the entrance that read, “Martyrs of the Race Course.” They created a fitting gravesite. They also held a parade with 10,000 people–mostly blacks, white missionaries, teachers, 3,000 children and Union troops–marching around the Planters’ Race Course carrying flowers and singing. Gathered at the graveyard, black preachers delivered scriptures. For the former slaves, the purpose of that day in Charleston was to honor and celebrate the Union Army soldiers who died to end slavery and deliver freedom. “A procession of friends and mourners as South Carolina and the United States never saw before,” is how the event was described by a reporter from the New York Tribune who witnessed it.

Amid ruin, flowers can bloom. Today, the country is united in commemorating all soldiers equally who sacrifice and die so everyone can live free.

The Do Somethings, The Children Marched

Protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 M...

Protestors in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being hit by a high-pressure water hose being used to disperse people during a civil rights protest. See Birmingham campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fifty years ago today in America, thousands of African-American elementary and high school children left classrooms, went to 16th Street Baptist Church, gathered at Ingram Kelly Park, forgot fear, faced fire hoses, and met the dogs and demons of hatred on their fight for freedom.  Starting on May 2, 1963, the Children’s March moved civil rights from being Birmingham, Alabama’s little secret to gaining worldwide attention.

Children embraced a challenge. They went to jail for a cause. They raised the level of awareness about the awful state of trying to let freedom ring in Alabama.  They changed segregation’s course.

Children made a difference in civil rights fifty years ago.  That difference inspires today’s broader human rights movement.  Children did something.  What are you doing?

Protest observer (Walter Gadsden) in Birmingha...

Protest observer (Walter Gadsden) in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, on 3 May 1963, being attacked by police dogs during a civil rights protest. See Birmingham campaign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Learn More

There are several great resources to learn more about the Children’s March.  A good start is a tool produced by the Southern Poverty Law Center used to teach tolerance, “Mighty Times: The Children’s March.”  The 2005 Academy Award-winning film documents the story of the 1963 march.

Mad Men, 1968, and Caroline Jones

Mad Men, 1968 and Caroline R. Jones are about change during an era on edge. Each offers insightful examples of how people create change, how they maneuver it, and the consequences of it.

Caroline R. Jones

Caroline R. Jones

Mad Men, AMC’s dramatic look at the sixties advertising world, is like a good novel or play exploring the constancy of change and its personal impact. The show has complex characters, captivating drama, plot twists, subtle symbolism, appealing settings, and historical overtones. It’s about the vicissitudes of life.

Like with a good book, play or life, the unexpected suddenly happens to wipe out any boredom. “The Flood,” episode 605 of Mad Men, exemplified that notion. In one scene, everyone was sleepwalking through life—greeting, chatting, and complaining about his or her table position at a posh event with Paul Newman. In the next scene, realism returned with a jolt. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. How was change maneuvered? The men and women of Mad Men reviewed their surroundings, their relationships and themselves. In turn, creator Matthew Weiner exposed unprepared viewers to forgotten history and nudged us to look inward, too. It was 1968.

Washington, D.C. (April 1968) – The ruins of buildings following the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)

Nineteen sixty-eight was a year of challenges in America. Change arrived whether Americans were ready or not. Social consciousness heightened. Dreams exploded. Cities burned. Robert Kennedy was killed. Clenched fists lifted in rage. Civil rights demanded attention. Fears flourished. Women protested and eked out power. Shirley Chisholm became the first black woman to win a seat in Congress. And the advertising industry transformed. Ads and agencies adjusted to accommodate the temperamental times.

Caroline R. Jones changed the advertising world and pioneered multiethnic marketing. Her story was more a compilation of Don Draper’s work life on Mad Men and Peggy Olson’s personal life, and less like that of the black secretaries, Dawn and Phyllis. Caroline embodied Don’s mix of creative genius, aggressiveness, good looks, ballistic personality, charm, and urbanity while dismantling old advertising ways to co-found and build new agencies. As an African-American woman, she broke sexual and racial barriers moving from secretary to copywriter and beyond á la Peggy.

From the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in English and science, Caroline headed to New York and began her advertising career as a secretary and copywriter trainee in 1963 at the prestigious J. Walter Thompson. She couldn’t type well, flunking the typing test twice, but she could write. With an encouraging boss who gave her creative latitude, Caroline moved ahead becoming the first black senior copywriter at J. Walter Thompson. She thrived by pushing through barriers, assuming executive positions with general market agencies, and accumulating many firsts including the first African-American female vice president of a major ad agency, BBDO.

Caroline continued creating change by co-founding and launching several agencies including Zebra Associates, one of the first full-service firms with African-American principals. At Mingo-Jones, she served as creative director on the “We do chicken right” campaign. Although the campaign was originally created to reach African-American consumers, Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) made it a general market campaign — a groundbreaking move then and now. In 1986, she opened her own agency, Caroline Jones Advertising, where I worked with her for several years and set up the agency’s public relations division. Caroline was often asked what was it like at the top. She always responded, “It’s cold, but I can feel the sunshine.” At 59, she died of cancer.

Mad Men, 1968 and Caroline Jones reflect change then. But this is now. Will we resign ourselves to simply watching change? Will we learn the lessons history teaches about change? Or will we be the architects of change who ultimately feel the sunshine?

Jackie Robinson Day

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today is Jackie Robinson Day.   Since 1997, when former Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson’s number 42 was retired from Major League Baseball, players across the country wear the number on this day in honor of the man who broke baseball’s color barrier.  On April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson, age 28, played his first game at Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he became the first African-American to play with the Majors.  He integrated a sport that had been segregated for more than 50 years.  Fifty years later, his number became the first-ever retired by all teams in the league.

What did it take then for Jackie Robinson to make a difference in the world?  What did it take then for him to be a change agent?  It took the same thing then as it takes now:  courage, innovative thinking, collaboration, talent and commitment.

Robinson embraced a certain courage in the face of overwhelming racial discrimination from players and fans against a backdrop of historic Jim Crow laws.  Change happened at the time because of innovative thinking and insight from another change agent, Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers who was determined to transform baseball for business and idealistic reasons.  The collaboration between two strong-willed change agents imbued with unwavering courage and commitment, set in motion a new era of baseball.  Together, Jackie Robinson’s extraordinary talent as a person and player and Branch Rickey’s talent to see beyond color resulted in them making a difference in baseball and beyond.

With courage, talent, thinking beyond the box, commitment and collaboration, anyone can improve things for the greater good whether working in sports, in Congress, in a classroom, or for a corporation.  Think Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and countless unknown individuals who paved paths for each of us to continue pushing toward progress.

 

Deltas: Floating Beyond

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Pasadena, CA–Building the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated Tournament of Roses float.  Photo Credit:  Gail Bowens

Tournament of Roses Parade Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Float     Credit: Gail Bowens

Tournament of Roses Parade Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. Float            Photo Credit: Gail Bowens

Shrouded in secrecy since its founding in 1913, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated embraces traditions characteristic of most college-based and graduate chapter sororities throughout the United States. Delta Sigma Theta sorority is a private, nonprofit organization of college-educated women, like most sororities. They have their colors, crimson and cream, or red and white in the eyes of lay people. They perform perfunctory sorority rituals and righteous codes of sisterhood resulting in enduring connections and commitments to community service. What is lacking is the public’s full awareness of the profound role Deltas have upheld while paving pathways in America, particularly for women.

Despite its January 13, 1913, pre-civil rights and early women’s suffrage era beginnings on Howard University’s campus, the sorority’s unprecedented membership of pioneers in their professions, women rights advocates, civil rights activists and inspirational visionaries has produced today’s largest African-American women’s organization in the world. Unfortunately, heritage, hue and history have kept the Deltas’ stature and distinction as a truly unique American sorority one of the nation’s best kept secrets. But on New Year’s Day, the secret goes public when the sorority reaches its largest audience ever. On the streets of Pasadena, on televisions, on computers and on mobile screens around the world, millions of viewers will discover the Deltas when their inaugural Tournament of Roses Parade float debuts, kicking off the organization’s year-long centennial celebration.

Why now? Timing is everything when making a difference. This is a fortuitous moment for the Deltas to join history’s parade. On January 1, two parades take place distances apart linked by the common threads of progress and diversity. In Washington, D.C. at the National Archives, lines of people will parade past the original Emancipation Proclamation to view the document signed 150 years ago on January 1,1863 by President Abraham Lincoln declaring slaves “henceforth and forever free.” On the West Coast, the 124th Tournament of Roses Parade will march into history attuned to America’s changing demographics with the second woman president of the Association in its 123-year history followed by the first Asian-American taking the reins in 2014 and the first African-American set to lead in 2018.

Delta Gail Bowens poses in front of the sorority's Tournament of Roses float.

Delta Gail Bowens poses in front of the sorority’s Tournament of Roses float.

Embodying the theme “Transforming Communities Through Sisterhood and Service,” the 55-foot-long by 17-foot-high Delta float pays tribute to their heroic heritage and mission. Designed and built by Fiesta Parade Floats and decorated with the assistance of sorority volunteers, the approximately $250,000 cost was underwritten by sponsors and member donations. Four major components dominate the more than 15,000 roses—including red Black Magic and Freedom—spread throughout the float’s garden beds and flower-filled structure. A sculptured globe at the front of the float highlights the nonprofit’s worldwide humanitarian efforts. The float’s center stage is a rotating hexagon of six floral graphs with one serving as a replica of the sorority’s service medallion and the other five depicting the Deltas’ five-point programs. The rear design is a representation of Howard University’s Douglass Hall, where the sorority was founded. Twelve people will ride the float including the national president, national executive committee members and seven past Delta presidents all representing the 300,000 members from more than 900 chapters throughout the word. Walking alongside float lineup No. 46 will be 100 members—or sorors—and 22 people symbolizing the 22 founders.

Ultimately, the Delta float will exude the spirits and values of the many pioneers who led the way, changed the world and improved the plight of women, and all people, during the last 100 years. From Sadie T.M. Alexander, the sorority’s first national president, who in 1921 was the Nation’s first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D.; to Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run as a major party candidate for the presidency of the United States; to Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, the first African-American from the South to serve in the U.S. congress since reconstruction; and Dr. Dorothy I. Height, the sorority’s tenth national president, who headed the National Council of Negro Women and counseled numerous American leaders.

After the parade passes, the images may fade but the inspiration will be indelible. Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Incorporated is one women’s organization that has continually and consistently made history. They exemplify that during challenging times, new journeys still begin, new reasons for hope endure, and new opportunities to serve always exist.  They float beyond.

“Scandal” Makes History

Scandal/ABC

Television makes history this week with the premiere of the new ABC series, Scandal.   Thirty-seven years after the first primetime hour-long dramatic series with an African-American woman in the lead role aired on television, ABC does it again.  In 1974, Teresa Graves starred as policewoman Christie Love on ABC’s short-lived Get Christie Love.  Now the network is moving forward and making history with Shonda Rhimes’ latest drama starring Kerry Washington as DC fixer Olivia Pope.  It is the fourth hour-long drama with a black woman in the lead including two cable shows, TNT’s HawthoRNe produced and starring Jada Pinkett Smith and HBO’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency starring Jill Scott.

When Scandal debuts on April 5, it comes with a few firsts. It will be the first dramatic network television series written and produced by an African-American woman for an African-American woman in the lead role.  Another first is the show’s inspiration, Judy Smith, Washington, D.C. crisis communications pro, co-executive producer of the show, and a beautiful living role model.  Still, little overshadows that in 2012—62 years after Ethel Waters starred as the first African-American on network TV in the ABC sitcom Beulah—too few black women play dramatic leads on television.

TV has neither been generous nor diverse when it comes to casting African-American actresses.  In TV history, most roles for black actresses lean towards comedy and away from drama.  There seem to be more roles for black women playing the help than playing women who hire them.

Since 1944, when regular network broadcasting began on NBC, the television industry has undergone revolutionary changes.   But for African-American actresses, winning roles remains a challenge and too often revolves around the same choices.  The advent of cable outlets such as BET, TV One, VH1 and TBS, increased the number, but not necessarily the variety of available roles for black women.  Comedy slots are still popular.   Reality TV roles rule from Real Housewives of Atlanta to Basketball Wives to shows with women who sing, model, rap or love rappers.  Dramatic leads are limited even though unlimited drama defines reality TV.

There have been a few promising moments and roles for black women, mostly as supporting actors in a small number of dramas. Diahann Carroll was the first African-American woman to star in a sitcom, Julia, which debuted on NBC in 1968 and ran for three years. In 1969, two variety shows starred black women: The Leslie Uggams Show that ran less than three months, and The Barbara McNair Show, which aired for three years.  African-American women have co-starred in ensemble cast dramas such as SnoopsBrewster PlaceSoul Food, The Game, Undercovers, S. Epatha Merkerson in Law and Order, Alfre Woodard in Memphis Beat, and Taraji P. Henson in Person of Interest and more.  Some of the most talented black leading women, including Cicely Tyson, Ruby Dee, Debbi Morgan, and Nichelle Nichols, have been limited to leading supporting roles or guests spots on dramas and fantasy adventure dramas.  And, of course, there is rare groundbreaking television with Oprah Winfrey and her long-running, successful syndicated talk show as well as all the upcoming possibilities from OWN.

We all know making history does not make a hit TV show.  We watch television to be entertained, to lose ourselves in somebody else’s funny, sad or implausible story. Sometimes those stories are about people who look like us, often they are about people we aspire to be or who should be avoiding.  Television is a reflection and respite from our daily grind.

Shonda Rhimes with two long-running, successful shows, Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, has a track record for producing compelling, well-written dramas.  She knows how to capture all the many dimensions of a woman—complexities and simplicities, strengths and struggles, flaws and feistiness.  She gets it. She delivers diverse lead roles for women of all colors.

Scandal premieres with a mix of the Shonda Rhimes halo and the glow of Kerry Washington’s stellar acting skills.  Together, that combination can change television history by offering a different dimension and revealing an image of black women often visually absent on television and beyond the box.  Will viewers tune in to look beyond one-dimensional images of the help, the healers and the heathens and see what leading roles—and the women in them—should look like in the 21st century?  Will television push past crawling into making history?  Another step is in the works.  NBC is developing a drama pilot, Notorious, with Meagan Good in the lead role as a detective. Time will tell if history repeats itself only every 37 years or rapidly plays catch up.