Janet Jackson surprises ‘Essence’ award winner Missy Elliott
The 9th Annual Black Women in Music event sets off a week of Grammy festivities
10:09 AMThe vibe was old-school glamorous New York last night for the Essence 9th Annual Black Women in Music event. Missy Elliott was honored at the jam-packed Highline Ballroom, and phones were in the air as none other than Janet Jackson surprised Elliott with a truly emotional speech, and presentation of the award.
“Some rhyme, some rap, some act, some choreograph, some write hit songs, some create whole new sounds,” said Jackson. “Some women are able to make [their] mark in some of these fields. But there’s only one woman who has made her mark in all of these fields…Not only have you made your mark, but she’s done so with boldness and courage.” Love & Hip Hop empresario Mona Scott-Young also spoke on behalf of her client and friend Elliott.
The drinks were flowing as luminaries such as Grammy-nominee Rapsody, as well as the Grammy-nominated Janelle Monae, Remy Ma and T.I. toasted Elliott’s creativity and 1990s dominance. Also enjoying the evening: Epic Records president Sylvia Rhone, Atlantic Records Chairman/COO Julie Greenwald, and BET Chairman/CEO Debra Lee. “I wouldn’t wanna be any other color but black,” Missy Elliott said, award in hand. “There’s something about our DNA that can’t be taught, it comes from a different place.”
The Plug, ‘Awards Season: Jemele Hill’ (Episode 7): Who’s the Best of the Best?
The co-host of ‘SC6’ talks about meeting Issa Rae — and Hill also talks about Tom Brady’s dominance
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It was only a matter of time before this happened: Chiney, Kayla, Tes, Terrika and I nabbed none other than friend-of-the-family, SC6‘s Jemele Hill. We wasted no time getting Jemele to spill the beans about she and Michael Smith’s time at the recent NAACP Awards. While there, Hill met Issa Rae as well as Congresswoman Maxine Waters. On The Plug, we also got Jemele to weigh-in on the NFL’s run-up to Super Bowl, and our NBA mid-season awards…with a twist. Also on deck? The Houston Rockets’ dominance, Kawhi Leonard’s supposed San Antonio angst, and this weekend’s Grammys. As always, the support is absolutely appreciated, my people. Continue to tell your circle to to subscribe to The Plug on the ESPN app! Until next week…
LeBron James joins the NBA’s exclusive 30,000-point club amid Cavaliers drama
The Cleveland superstar is the youngest in history to earn the honor
9:24 PMFor a guy who hasn’t been viewed as a “scorer,” LeBron James sure has done a lot of it over the course of his 15 seasons. James, who sports the fifth highest scoring average in basketball history, entered into rarified air Tuesday night vs. the San Antonio Spurs by becoming just the seventh player to score 30,000 points in his career. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NBA Draft needed just 25 points entering the weekend to hit the mark. At 33 years old, he is also the youngest to achieve the milestone, surpassing Kobe Bryant by a year. The 30K honor comes days after breaking a tie with Celtics legend Bob Cousy after being named a starter in his 14th consecutive All Star Game—the most all time.
Over 2,300 miles separate Quicken Loans Arena (where the Cavaliers play) and the Hollywood sign. The drama surrounding the team, though, is a script that has Tinseltown’s fingerprints all over it. And with the 2018 Oscar nominations announcements, you’re left to wonder how this Cavs squad wasn’t at least considered for “Best Original Screenplay.” There are the incessant reports of impending in-season roster moves that are, at this point, routine for the “win-now” mentality James injects into the franchises he carries. It remains to be seen how, if at all, the Cavs could drastically improve with a trade deadline move. A reported team meeting where Kevin Love was apparently once labeled the scapegoat is now the flavored Cleveland drama of the moment. And, of course, there’s basketball’s ultimate quagmire aka James’ “Decision 3.0” looming this summer.
Blame it on the post-Christmas, post-birthday and/or post-New Year’s hangovers. Whatever the case, as its felt like in recent years, LeBron and the month of January haven’t seen eye-to-eye. Cleveland is 3-9 since Christmas, including the most embarrassing defeat of the season—a 148-124 dump-trucking against the Oklahoma City Thunder on national television. It’s the dog days of the NBA season for James and the Cavs. But ahead of tonight’s game against the Spurs, James took a momentary exit from the drama that has made his career a real life example of The Truman Show. Taking to Instagram, the four-time MVP took time to realize his impending accomplishment by writing himself a congratulations letter.
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Wanna be one of the first to Congratulate you on this accomplishment/achievement tonight that you’ll reach! Only a handful has reach/seen it too and while I know it’s never been a goal of yours from the beginning try(please try) to take a moment for yourself on how you’ve done it! The House you’re about to be apart of has only 6 seats in it(as of now) but 1 more will be added and you should be very proud and honored to be invited inside. There’s so many people to thank who has help this even become possible(so thank them all) and when u finally get your moment(alone) to yourself smile, look up to the higher skies and say THANK YOU! So with that said, Congrats again Young King 🤴🏾! 1 Love! #striveforgreatness🚀 #thekidfromakron👑
Only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, the aforementioned Bryant, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain and Dirk Nowitzki stand in front of James in his ascent on the NBA’s most hallowed individual ladder (rings are a team honor). Per ESPN Stats and Info, with a career average of 27.1, James would need to play another 314 games at the same pace to surpass Jabbar. Yet, even for James—a pillar of consistency, durability and dominance—expecting that output late into his 30s seems unreasonable. His best friend, Dwyane Wade (who is preparing to pass Larry Bird for 32nd all time in scoring), believe James isn’t anywhere climbing the record books.
“I think he can. I think he can,” Wade said. “I’ve always said I think he will end (No.) 1 or 2.
How many points James ends up with is a question best left for time to answer. Passing Kareem is a possibility, though still faint given the unknown of how long ‘Bron actually wants to play and health. What isn’t, though, is James ending his career as likely the only man in history to finish top 10 in points, assists and steals—and top three in points is a very real and expected threshold. With Nowitzki hinting he’ll return for his 20th season in 2018-19, and despite him not being the scoring machine he once was, it’s difficult to predict when (not if) James will pass him. But at his current pace, ‘Bron will knock not only Wilt Chamberlain down one notch on the all-time list next season, but his childhood idol and the man he openly chases for the “GOAT” title in the original No. 23, too. If you think this moment received a lot of media hoopla, just wait until LeBron inevitably passes Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. That should be fun.
Condola Rashad at Sundance 2018: ‘They allowed me to find my way’
The daughter of Phylicia Rashad and Ahmad Rashad steps out in Netflix’s ‘Come Sunday’
10:06 AMPARK CITY, UTAH — Sitting in a Park City condo overlooking the Main Street of the snow-covered city, Condola Rashad throws her head back and laughs — heartily. The stage and film actor is used to people asking her what her real-life mother, famed Cosby Show matriarch Phylicia Rashad, told her about navigating her own career in show business.
But as for her dad? Nah, people don’t really ask what her dad, Ahmad Rashad, says. Rashad was of course a wide receiver for the Seattle Seahawks, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings. “It’s funny because my dad — both my parents, really — gave me room and space to explore. My mother was talking about this the other day. She said, ‘You’ve always been very vocal. We always know where you’re at.’ They allowed me to find my way.” Rashad co-stars in Netflix’s excellent forthcoming Come Sunday, which also stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Glover and Lakeith Stanfield. An adaptation of a 2005 episode of NPR’s This American Life, the film is about a bishop who experiences trauma. It ends up changing his ministry. “And then when I need help,” said Rashad of her parents, “they allow me to come to them.”
But it was her dad, who’s also had a successful broadcasting career for ABC and NBC, who gave her something else. “The hardest part of my career … is the politics,” Rashad said. “I’m not a politician. I’m not … I don’t know how to operate in that space. I’m not good at that. If I don’t feel genuine, I’m not going to do it. … My dad has been really good with reminding me that I have all the tools I need: ‘What are you feeling? What are you thinking? What are you going through?’ He always encouraged me and reminded me that I … should just trust myself.”
2018 Oscar nominations: ‘Get Out,’ Mary J. Blige and Octavia Spencer get nods
We’re rooting for everybody black, of course
9:43 AMGet Out really does appear to be the movie of the year for 2017. It was nominated for best picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which announced the nominees Tuesday morning. Its director, Jordan Peele, was also nominated for best director and for best original screenplay. It’s the first horror film to be nominated in nearly 30 years, since Silence of the Lambs in 1992. That seems appropriate, no? The first thing I thought about after seeing Get Out was that George Washington’s dentures were made from the teeth of enslaved people. Body snatcher, indeed.
Daniel Kaluuya, the star of Get Out, also received a nomination for best actor. Denzel Washington was also nominated for best actor for Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Rachel Morrison, the cinematographer of Mudbound, made history as the first woman nominated for an Oscar in the category (she’s also the cinematographer for the upcoming Black Panther). Dee Rees and Virgil Williams were nominated for best adapted screenplay. Both Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) and Mary J. Blige (Mudbound) were nominated for best supporting actress.
Kobe Bryant was also nominated for best animated short film for Dear Basketball.
Overall, the academy veered toward the traditional, with multiple nominations for Dunkirk, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, as was expected. Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill film starring Gary Oldman, also got multiple nominations. Blade Runner 2049 also racked up a number of nominations in the technical categories.
I would have liked to see Mudbound’s Jason Mitchell nominated for his role as Ronsel Jackson. But Mitchell, who was also luminous as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton, brings a depth and naturalism to all his roles — you can currently see it in The Chi, where he plays an aspiring chef named Brandon. It’s impossible to overlook his talent, and I suspect we’ll see recognition for it soon enough.
I do wonder whether Rees and the film itself would have cracked the directing and best picture categories had Mudbound been distributed by a traditional outlet like Fox Searchlight instead of Netflix, perhaps providing a head-to-head fight with Three Billboards. Mudbound was produced by Charles D. King, the former WME agent who left to found the production company Macro in 2015. Last year, King and Macro were in the running for Fences. (Keep his name in mind — you’re going to be hearing it again soon. King’s at Sundance supporting his newest film, Sorry to Bother You, which stars LaKeith Stanfield, who elevates everything he’s in, and Tessa Thompson.)
Jimmy Kimmel hosts the 90th Academy Awards ceremony live on March 4 on ABC.
Here’s the full list of nominees:
Performance by an actor in a leading role
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Performance by an actor in a supporting role
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Performance by an actress in a leading role
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post
Performance by an actress in a supporting role
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water
Best animated feature film of the year
The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath and Ramsey Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey and Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich and Darla K. Anderson
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Ivan Mactaggart
Achievement in cinematography
Blade Runner 2049, Roger A. Deakins
Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen
Achievement in costume design
Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira
Victoria & Abdul, Consolata Boyle
Achievement in directing
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro
Best documentary feature
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten and Julie Goldman
Faces Places, Agnès Varda, JR and Rosalie Varda
Icarus, Bryan Fogel and Dan Cogan
Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed and Søren Steen Jespersen
Strong Island, Yance Ford and Joslyn Barnes
Best documentary short subject
Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway and Thomas Lee Wright
Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel
Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon
Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon
Traffic Stop, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner
Achievement in film editing
Baby Driver, Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory
Best foreign language film of the year
A Fantastic Woman, Chile
The Insult, Lebanon
On Body and Soul, Hungary
The Square, Sweden
Achievement in makeup and hairstyling
Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick
Victoria & Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
Wonder, Arjen Tuiten
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell
Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
“Mighty River,” Mudbound
Music and Lyric by Mary J. Blige, Raphael Saadiq and Taura Stinson
“Mystery Of Love,” Call Me by Your Name
Music and Lyric by Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me,” Coco
Music and Lyric by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez
“Stand Up For Something,” Marshall
Music by Diane Warren; Lyric by Lonnie R. Lynn and Diane Warren
“This Is Me,” The Greatest Showman
Music and Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
Best motion picture of the year
Call Me by Your Name, Peter Spears, Luca Guadagnino, Emilie Georges and Marco Morabito, Producers
Darkest Hour, Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce, Anthony McCarten and Douglas Urbanski, Producers
Dunkirk, Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Producers
Get Out, Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Edward H. Hamm Jr. and Jordan Peele, Producers
Lady Bird, Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Evelyn O’Neill, Producers
Phantom Thread, JoAnne Sellar, Paul Thomas Anderson, Megan Ellison and Daniel Lupi, Producers
The Post, Amy Pascal, Steven Spielberg and Kristie Macosko Krieger, Producers
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro and J. Miles Dale, Producers
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Graham Broadbent, Pete Czernin and Martin McDonagh, Producers
Achievement in production design
Beauty and the Beast, Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049, Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour, Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer
Dunkirk, Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water, Production Design: Paul Denham Austerberry; Set Decoration: Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin
Best animated short film
Dear Basketball, Glen Keane and Kobe Bryant
Garden Party, Victor Caire and Gabriel Grapperon
Lou, Dave Mullins and Dana Murray
Negative Space, Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata
Revolting Rhymes, Jakob Schuh and Jan Lachauer
Best live action short film
DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk
The Eleven O’Clock, Derin Seale and Josh Lawson
My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson, Jr.
The Silent Child, Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton
Watu Wote/All of Us, Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen
Achievement in sound editing
Baby Driver, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini and Theo Green
Dunkirk, Richard King and Alex Gibson
The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Matthew Wood and Ren Klyce
Achievement in sound mixing
Baby Driver, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin and Mary H. Ellis
Blade Runner 2049, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill and Mac Ruth
Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker and Gary A. Rizzo
The Shape of Water, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern and Glen Gauthier
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce and Stuart Wilson
Achievement in visual effects
Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert and Richard R. Hoover
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner and Dan Sudick
Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza and Mike Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Neal Scanlan and Chris Corbould
War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon and Joel Whist
Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory
The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Logan, Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green; Story by James Mangold
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees
The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro & Vanessa Taylor; Story by Guillermo del Toro
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh
With Steve Wilks hire, the top three football teams in Arizona are headed by black men, and more to know
The former Panthers defensive coordinator got his coaching start at HBCUs
10:17 PMSteve Wilks has not been a head coach in almost 20 years since he took the helm at Savannah State in 1999. But early Monday afternoon, ESPN’s Josina Anderson broke the news that Wilks is getting a second chance to lead a football team.
With Bruce Arians’ retirement, the Arizona Cardinals concluded their coaching search by naming Wilks as his successor. The former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator agreed to a four-year contract with the Cardinals, which includes a fifth-year option, bringing the number of black coaches in the NFL back to seven and coaches of color to eight, which ties the largest number the league has had (2017).
Wilks will be formally introduced as the team’s head coach during a news conference on Tuesday. Here’s a quick introduction of Arizona’s new lead man.
1. Wilks completes the black head coaches trifecta in Arizona
It’s been a good year for black coaches landing head coaching gigs in the Grand Canyon State. First, former ESPN analyst Herm Edwards secured the Arizona State job. Then former Texas A&M head honcho Kevin Sumlin took over at Arizona.
Bingo if you had Wilks winning the Cardinals job for Arizona’s three largest football teams going three-for-three with black coaching hires. Wilks also interviewed for the Tennessee Titans’ and New York Giants’ head coaching vacancies.
The Cardinals’ three-week coaching search took the longest of any team this offseason. This is the first minority hire, as the four other new coaches have been white. The Fritz Pollard Alliance recommended Wilks, 48, as one of the minority coaches whom NFL teams should consider.
2. He is a member of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.
On the eve of Super Bowl 50, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc.’s international headquarters released a statement congratulating seven of its members for reaching the marquee game. Wilks (a 1994 initiate) was one of five on the Carolina Panthers team. At the time, he was Ron Rivera’s assistant head coach and secondary coach.
3. HBCUs provided Wilks his first opportunities
After playing a year with the Arena Football League’s Charlotte Rage as a defensive back/wide receiver (1993), Wilks’ first job in coaching was as defensive coordinator for Johnson C. Smith in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1995. Two years later, he took over as Savannah State’s defensive coordinator for two seasons before becoming the program’s head coach in 1999. As a coach with the Tigers, his 1998 defense led the nation in total defense (166.3 yards per game) in Division II. American Football Quarterly named him the Division II defensive coordinator of the year. Four players earned All-Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference honors, including linebacker Reginald Jackson, who was named Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
4. Of the seven black head coaches in the NFL, Wilks is the fifth with a defensive background
When black coaches become head coaches, they overwhelmingly come from a defensive background. There have been 18 black head coaches in the NFL’s modern era, and only four of those — Art Shell, Dennis Green, Hue Jackson and Anthony Lynn — have been promoted after coaching the offensive side of the ball. Wilks continues the trend of defensive coaches moving up at a much higher rate than their offensive counterparts.
Live from Sundance: Spike Lee says he’ll celebrate iconic Air Jordan ads at NBA All-Star Weekend
The legendary director is on top of the world with his Netflix version of ‘She’s Gotta Have It’
1:49 PMSpike Lee was center stage at a brunch Monday morning to celebrate his successful Netflix series, She’s Gotta Have It.
The series, he says, was the brainchild of his wife Tonya Lewis Lee. The idea for doing the series on the digital streaming service was born two years ago, at Sundance, which is the largest independent film festival in the country. “From day one I told people we’re not making television — we’re making cinema. I directed all 10 episodes. We’re making a long a– movie. I was never making this for TV,” Lee said. “When the original film came out in 1986 it was only 86 minutes, so it was a joy to come back and revisit this.”
It was another packed house for a Blackhouse Foundation event — standing room only as people juggled plates of sausage, eggs, fruits, mini pastries and cups of juice. Lee also said this is the 30th anniversary of the commercials he made with Michael Jordan, something he’ll celebrate at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles.
“We’re going to go in the writers room in February for the second season,” he said of the Netflix series. Lee joked to much crowd laughter that if Malcolm X had been four hours, Denzel Washington might have won the Oscar for best actor instead of Al Pacino.
Up next for Lee is a new movie, Black Klansman, which he said will soon go into production and will star John David Washington.
Sundance 2018: Forest Whitaker, Jada Pinkett Smith, Idris Elba brave the snow, push passion projects
‘Sorry To Bother You’ and ‘Yardie’ are ready for the world
10:48 AMPARK CITY, UTAH — Walking the streets of the Sundance Film Festival, you run into some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Oscar winner Forest Whitaker is one of the many in town pitching a film he helped to produce, Sorry To Bother You, which premiered Saturday night in Park City, and stars Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson, Steven Yeun, Jermaine Fowler, Armie Hammer, Omari Hardwick, Terry Crews and Danny Glover. The film takes place in Oakland, California: A telemarketer has discovered a magical key to success. Whitaker was seen popping out of an SUV on Main Street, waving at fans as they snapped shots of him.
Navigating the crowds on Park City’s Main Street was the brave Hollywood heartthrob Idris Elba, who premiered his directorial debut with Yardie. The film starts in Kingston, Jamaica, in the ’70s and goes to the Hackney area of London in the ’80s, all the while following a man who is out for retribution after his brother’s murder.
At the DirecTV Lodge, folks were watching the NFL playoff games while staying far away from the cold. The cast members of the social media-themed Assassination Nation, which includes Colman Domingo, Anika Noni Rose and Kelvin Harrison Jr., were there and, as they left, they were greeted by fans holding placards, asking for autographs. A line was wrapped around Sundance’s Blackhouse — people were hoping to get into a panel on which Jada Pinkett Smith was speaking and into the subsequent reception hosted by the Will & Jada Smith Family Foundation.
Live from Sundance: Tonya Lewis Lee on why she created a ‘Monster’
The producer — and wife of the iconic Spike Lee — has the hottest film at the nation’s largest film festival
6:34 PMPARK CITY, UTAH — Tomorrow is a big day for Tonya Lewis Lee and her team: The Jan. 22 premiere of Monster happens at the Sundance Film Festival, and it’s one of the most anticipated films in Park City. That makes her nervous — “It’s like [people] haven’t seen the movie yet! How do [they] know?!” — but it most certainly also makes her feel good.
Monster is a film that she’s been hoping to get made for a dozen years. There have been a bunch of starts and stops, and finally, here we are. The cast is stellar: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, A$AP Rocky, Nas and Kelvin Harrison Jr. are all part of the film, and it’s helmed by Anthony Mandler in his directorial debut. Mandler is best known for his frequent video collaborations with Rihanna, and he has also collaborated on video projects with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Usher and Lana Del Rey, among many others. The script is based on the novel of the same name by Walter Dean Myers and was written for the screen by Hampton University’s own Colen C. Wiley and award-winning playwright Janece Shaffer.
And the film’s concept feels very ripped from today’s headlines.
“It’s about a 17-year-old black boy who makes one bad decision and is looking at, potentially, his life being thrown away forever,” Lewis Lee says while sitting in a Park City gallery, one of the many spaces that brands have taken over for the duration of the festival. “For me, I have children and I have a boy, and when I read the book I was so moved. It’s so creatively written … I fell in love with it. This was a chance to tell a story that we don’t often see on film.
“Monster is an opportunity to contribute a dramatic story about a brown boy coming of age that could impact not only the way people look at brown boys but potentially our criminal justice system,” says Lee. “Maybe we can change the way kids are locked up. Maybe we can change the over-sentencing of juveniles. We had to stay with it and make it happen.”
This project — her Tonik Productions teamed with John Legend’s Get Lifted Film Co. and Bron Studios to produce this drama — is in line with the mission-driven work she adores. “And I’m unapologetic about that,” Lewis Lee says. “I am blessed to be in a position to create content and media. I feel a real responsibility to create something that moves the human condition forward in a positive way. I hope in the work that I do it’s entertaining, but that we’re getting messages out there to impact our world and make it better.”
Toward the back of the gallery space is a makeshift photo studio, and people like director Anthony Hemingway are coming in for portraits. This year, the festival has a record 39 projects that either feature black people as the first, second or third lead, or has a black director, black producers or black writers. This is a moment, and everyone here is buzzing about it.
Lewis Lee, who is married to iconic director Spike Lee, is happy that there’s much to celebrate in Black Hollywood these days. But, she cautions, there’s still so much more work to do. “When Spike started making movies, there weren’t that many people out there doing it. To his credit, he was like if I’m getting through the door, I’m bringing a whole lot of people with me,” she says. “And he’s done that. And those people have brought people. So here we are now in a moment where young people can look to my husband and his colleagues and say, Oh My God! If they can do that, I can do that.” She says that people are seeing now that there is a path.
“I look at people like Issa Rae. … Going back to Spike, Issa will tell you the ’90s formed who she is … to how she can be here. I look at Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People) — that’s a direct line. In terms of women and black people, we have come a long way. We have a long way to go, but it’s exciting to get our voices out there and tell our stories.”
And the stories are robust. Many of the black projects being shown at Sundance this season tap into racism, however nuanced or overt, and the current political climate. “I think we’re trying to grapple with the issues of our time,” says Lewis Lee, who next is working on a film about the Fisk Jubilee Singers. “John Legend said, ‘Preparation meets opportunity.’ And we are prepared. And we’re getting a chance to talk about the issues of our time in a really wonderful way.”
Live from Sundance: From ‘Compton’ to ‘Mudbound’ and ‘The Chi’ — actor Jason Mitchell is the next superstar
Next up? A ‘Get Out’-like film called ‘Tyrel,’ and he’s in the remake of ‘Super Fly’
6:33 PMPARK CITY, UTAH — Come Tuesday morning, Jason Mitchell is hoping that he hears at least two familiar names called when the Academy Award nominations are announced. The Academy Awards, aka the Oscars, are the biggest honor in Hollywood, and Mitchell, who starred in both Detroit and Mudbound, is hopeful that the two women who directed him in those films get their due.
You likely know Mitchell’s work from his excellent turn as rap icon Eazy-E in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton. Since then, he’s upped the ante by turning in impressive work in 2017’s Mudbound, 2017’s Detroit and most recently in Showtime’s The Chi. It also was announced last week that he’ll be in the Super Fly remake as Eddie; the film will be directed by Director X and also will star Grown-ish actor Trevor Jackson as Youngblood Priest.
“I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of really dope women,” Mitchell said at the Sundance Film Festival. “And Dee Rees and Kathryn Bigelow are two of those people who are being talked about. It would be good … to see them do their thing [at the Oscars]. It’s not my vision. I just came and did my job — they just told me exactly what to do, and I went over the top. [But] I think it would be nice to see women defy something.”
Mitchell is at the festival promoting his latest, Tyrel, a dramatic film about being the only black guy on a dude’s trip the weekend of President Donald Trump’s inauguration that is being called “2018’s answer to Get Out.” It premiered Saturday night to a crowd that included Emmy winner/The Chi creator Lena Waithe. Mitchell said he’s inspired by the #TimesUp movement and is ready to see the progression for women in the industry take place.
“Women know how to … fight for it,” he said, sitting on a couch in the Grey Goose Door Lounge off the city’s Main Street, where actors such as Jeffrey Wright, Debra Messing and John Cho are milling about. “I would just like for female directors to get what they deserve. Not just directors, females in the business in general. It’d be nice to see them on those stages.”