5 Reasons @BeyondTheLights = Perfect

November 15, 2014
Go see it. This weekend. Then see it again.

Go see it. This weekend. Then see it again.

1. Woman Led Story by Woman Writer-Director

This combination does not always yield extraordinary results, but with Beyond The Lights, Noni is well served by the words and the actual lens through which these words are supported visually. Noni’s character is flawed, but in the best way possible: the complex, human way that women on film usually have to trade for needy and pathetic, because those attributes are projected onto them by male writers. Noni is suicidal, but not a victim. She is conflicted, but not vapid. She is confined by the trappings of the success she helped design, but only temporarily. And when it comes to love, she is both assertive and vulnerable, just like many successful women in the public eye. This is all deftly written by Gina Prince-Bythewood–and because of the writing, I was riveted to the screen.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, Director. She knew you'd waited 14 years since Love & Basketball--and does not disappoint.

Gina Prince-Bythewood, Director. She knew you’d waited 14 years since Love & Basketball–and does not disappoint.

Well, and also because Gugu Mbatha-Raw turns in a searing, sensual performance and looks damn amazing, be she weaved up in lavender tresses (shouts to hair stylist Kimberly Kimble @KimbleHairCare) or curled up in everyday sweats. Did I mention this film passes the Bechtel test? Watch for it. That could be Reason #6…

YASSSS, Miss Mbatha-Raw!

YASSSS, Miss Mbatha-Raw!

2. Music You Can Believe

So often films where music is integral to the story but not central to it end up with music that sounds or feels like an afterthought. You know, that movie where the musical choices were left to a music supervisor at the post production stage—or concocted to serve one label group’s roster. Beyond The Lights is a dramatic love story about a music star, but this isn’t a music film per se. Fortunately, this was not used as an excuse to infuse the film with subpar music, or the obvious chart-topping songs of the moment. The-Dream (the producer behind “Single Ladies” among other smash hits) and Taura Stinson (lyricist for Black Nativity and Rio 2) were on board for this project, and the original songs are spot on in the urban pop ear candy department. The music supervision is also fantastic. The use of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” as both foreshadowing and mirror to Noni’s personal struggle (and that of her mother, brought to life fiercely by Minnie Driver) is resonant beyond the capacity of dialogue.


Songwriter Taura Stinson lends her serious lyrical talent to Beyond The Lights.

3. Black On Black Love

American audiences rarely get to experience two gorgeous Black people flirting, courting or riding the waves of the uncertainty of a new relationship without there being some insane level of distrust, violence or dysfunction in the foreground. Thank God for Kaz and Noni, because they represent the tension and the triumph of Black love, free from stereotype and constant mortal danger. Both are gainfully employed; both have strong parental figures. Both have their own goals and dreams, and both are given the freedom to laugh and love on screen. This is rare gold in Hollywood.

Nate. Parker. 'Bout time!

Nate. Parker. ‘Bout time!

4. Nate Parker

This man has had his star turn coming for a long time. After decent sized ensemble roles in The Great Debaters and Red Tails, Beyond The Lights is the role I was waiting to see him in. Nate in a police officer’s uniform? Check. Nate’s upper torso on the beaches of Mexico? Check. Nate’s protective gaze burning into that of his love interest? Chiggy check. Look: generally speaking (and certainly speaking for myself), Black women revel in the protection, in the adoration of the Black man. This makes us no less capable or progressive, mind you. (We’re complex, remember?)To be a sista watching this unfold on screen is to be honored, to be made visible and affirmed as priceless. The man is unequivocally fine. Solid chops. Solid frame. Getchu some here because in real life, he’s married with three kids. Which brings me to…

5. Black Male Vulnerability In Rare Form

Kaz’s father is played by veteran actor Danny Glover. Theirs is a great relationship where they speak to one another openly and honestly. Sure, the elder has a desire to live out his unfulfilled dreams through his son, but the way this subplot gets resolved gives us a chance to see a father and son who respect one another, even as they disagree. No, they aren’t crying together. But that’s not the only way to allow men to be vulnerable on screen, especially with other men. Simply telling the truth without posturing? Yes. More, please!

Stephanie Allain, Producer. Stephanie Allain, Producer.

Honorable Mention

Has to go to producer Stephanie Allain (Dear White People, Hustle & Flow) editor Terilyn A. Shropshire (Prince-Bythewood’s go-to editor for Secret Life of Bees and Love & Basketball), and casting director Aisha Coley (Selma, Akeelah and The Bee)–all African American women whose work on this film bring a level of commitment to excellence, a level of unstoppable perseverance—that if you read credits, follow film, or are an indie filmmaker, you can actually feel as you watch this film. These film veterans are artists and executives who consistently deliver stellar work, despite all the barbs the studio system throws at women and people of color. Diversity in Hollywood is more than seeing diverse people in front of the camera; when you support Beyond The Lights, you support them—and support diversity behind it as well.

Have you seen it at a screening or festival? Or seen it already on its opening weekend? Without spoilers, share your thoughts in the comment section! And post your thoughts directly to me @putyrdreams1st.

Oscar History Pt. III: Margin to Center Stage

March 7, 2014

Oscar night of 2014 was among the most entertaining and well-balanced (for the Oscars, that is) in decades.

This year’s show made history for people of color on several levels:


  • With the Best Picture Academy Award going to 12 Years A Slave, for the first time ever, a film lensed by a Black director won.
  • The Best Picture win for 12 Years represents the first time a majority cast of color is the primary subject of the winning film.
  • Lupita Nyong’o wins Best Supporting Actress for her searing portrayal of Patsey, bringing the total number of Black women to win an acting Oscar to 7 (six for supporting, and one for lead, won by Halle Berry). The Kenyan actor was also was born in Mexico, and speaks Spanish along with three other languages.


  • John Ridley took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay of 12 Years A Slave. This makes him the second Black writer to win the award in Oscar history. The other is Geoffrey Fletcher, screenwriter for Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.
  • With a few exceptions, Gravity all but swept the technical and production awards, a first for Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. They took home statues for Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and the Best Cinematography Academy Awards. Which brings us to Emmanuel Lubezki.
  • Lubezki wins his first Oscar after 6 nominations, which he accepted for his visionary work in Gravity. The only Latino nominated more is 8-time Art Direction nominee Emile Kuri. His winning collaboration with director Cuarón on Gravity is also a first for Latinos.


  • Cuarón  is the first Latino director to win Best Director and Best Film Editing on the same film in the same year.
  • Cuarón  is the first Latino director to take home the Best Director Academy Award.


This is a tremendous amount of Latino history-making in one year, given that only 2% of the Academy voters identify as Latino. Mexico must be over the moon, or at least I would be if I were Mexico—or Mexican, or Mexican American. Because while I don’t see the Oscars as the confirmation of Black excellence, their recognition of it on Sunday night for 12 Years A Slave sent me over the moon. Not because I am starved for Black cinematic images; I seek them out to feed my spirit. I became a filmmaker so I could make the kind of Black images I wanted to see; to be a part of the solution. I was elated for the Best Picture win because on Sunday night, the true story of my ancestors was acknowleged on the world stage. The real, systemic, intractable, unfiltered horrors of slavery went from being on the margin to taking the stage in the pop culture conversation. On Oscar Night, our story was named the year’s best film. Our stories of thriving in the face of genocide matter.  They should be shared and retold—not to reopen the wounds of trauma—though that will happen. But shared and retold so their lessons of resilience and humanity are never forgotten. And so the healing from the trauma can begin, availing real freedom to those it affects generations later.


What the Oscar wins for 12 Years A Slave will do is get more people to read Solomon Northup’s book. It will get more people to the theater to see the film, a must-see in my view. It will also give McQueen, the actors, producers and cast the leverage they need to operate in Hollywierd on terms more amenable to them. Ideally, this means more work for Chiwe, Adepero, Lupita, Alfre, Michael K., and Quvenzhané. It also bodes very well for the next Plan B produced historical drama, Selma—and its director, Ava DuVernay. If nothing else, all eyes are on Plan B, and you’re only as good as your next project once you strike gold on the last. And Selma, by all accounts, sounds like it’s gonna be better than good.

I also took a powerful lesson from the wins of Cuarón and Lubezki: people of color can excel outside of subject matter that pertains to their backgrounds. This should be a universal truth in Hollywood, and I hope their victories get us closer to that. Mexicans should not have to solely explore Latino, Spanish-speaking, or Mexican territory to be deemed authentically worthy of Oscar attention. Same goes for women; they should be able to win for directing war movies, and Katherine Bigelow did in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. Even Cate Blanchett pulled Oscar’s coat on the earning power of woman-led films during her acceptance speech: “The world is round, people”! And she’s 100% right. 

To Cate’s point: it was also not lost on me how fully awesome it is to have a wildly popular and openly gay woman hosting the Oscars–and have that  be totally normal and utterly cool. Twitter-crashing selfies, pizza, and all in gorgeous formalwear. Kudos to Ellen. I’d like to see her keep the job for a few years!


See the full list of winners for the key awards here.

12 Years A Slave: True American Horror Story (Spoiler Alert)

November 7, 2013


My blogs about films usually come long after release because I like to talk about what happens in movies—and I want to give readers ample time to see the film before I go in. So if you have yet to see this film, bookmark this post until you see it. Because everyone should see it. I fully understand excusing oneself from this film if you are African American. Why pay to watch a piece of your people’s genocide unfold? My answer is easy: if our ancestors could live it, you can spend two hours watching it. In fact, it’s the least you can do—in addition to the added benefit of supporting two Black men in roles rarely offered for tentpole historical Hollywood biopics: director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (respectively shown below).






I cannot recall a major studio film since the new millennium that outlines in sharp, granular detail the casual, yet unrelenting brutality of American slavery. Shout out to Haile Gerima’s independent classic, Sankofa (1993). In 12 Years A Slave, it is almost as if the physical and psychological violence dance a twisted tango, denying you the opportunity to look away. Civility and cruelty are in lock-step from start to finish. Adepero Oduye’s character Eliza watches her children torn away from her in a well-appointed auction house. She is then sold and transported to the plantation where she will serve the same mistress who offers her a chance to clean up and rest herself, after which she quips, “your children will soon be forgotten.” Eliza’s incessant tears and deep depression say otherwise. Her inconsolate heartbreak and human expression of trauma are rewarded with her being sold off the plantation. She’s too much of a wet blanket for the mistress, so she’s gotta go.


Lupita Nyong’o’s character Patsy goes to great lengths to be clean despite a life where she is defiled regularly by her master, who, in a fetishist distortion of affection, defends his property’s ability to pick 500 pounds of cotton each day to his wife. His wife hates Patsy. Patsy is such an economic asset, her value as chattel eclipses the power the mistress relishes as the woman of the plantation. The mistress hates Patsy so much, she even denies her soap. After picking 500 pounds of cotton each day in blistering heat. After being raped while being asphyxiated, and being smacked awake during the assault. After all of this, all Patsy wants (aside from freedom from slavery via her own death) is to bathe and be clean.


For this, the master tears open her back with his whip—but only after ordering Platt (nee’ Solomon) to whip her for him. “I’d rather it be you, Platt” Patsy calls through tears. Now faced with punishing his only ally or facing punishment for not complying, Platt whips her as meekly as he can; the hateful mistress catches on to his strategy and goads the master to end Platt’s “pantomime”. Then, the master takes back his whip and steps in. Bloody mist flies from Patsy’s body with each lash, which go on and on and on. In this scene, all at once, we are made to bear witness to the intersections of race, gender and class dynamics that still echo in modern American society:

The (Black) woman works harder than men and is somehow not only undeserving of basic dignity, but deserving of the cruelest shaming and/or punishment imaginable (today, this goes for all American women)

The Black man is made to sacrifice protecting the Black woman for his own preservation

The white woman castrates the Black man and the white man with impunity and colludes in the destruction of another woman who is poses no direct threat to her

The white man’s conscience is overruled by his ego and insecurity, and people are made to suffer for it

The other occupants of the plantation witness this and the messages of manufactured white superiority and black inferiority are branded into their collective consciousness

And this is just what I was able to pick up on as I watched, and afterward as I processed what I had just seen after the film ended. Understand that this is all from ONE scene.




And know that EVERY scene (save the shots of nature that serve as vitally necessary palate cleansers and spaces for the audience to exhale) is loaded in searing, aching, enraging, surreal fashion.  Slaves are awakened from precious, uncomfortable sleep after toiling just to dance for their master. Platt is literally strung up for hours for speaking up for himself; for defending himself against an overseer after doing as he was instructed. He tiptoes in mud and feces to keep his airway clear until the man who has the right to actually hang and kill him comes to cut him down. (Even the overseer’s whiteness isn’t enough to interfere with the master’s profits—that’s above his pay grade). As Platt’s life hangs in the balance, no one comes to help him for fear of reprisal. Enslaved children play and laundry as laundry is also hung. Right as I wonder if anyone will so much as offer Platt a drink of water, a slave woman rushes in to do just that, quickly enough for the audience to be the only people who see her humane transgression take place. Just another day in Hell on Earth.


In the span of this film’s running time, you see its protagonist, Solomon Northup—played with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s potent mix of raw emotion and undeniable craft—lose his wife and children, his home, his name, the shirt his wife gave him (beaten off him to bloodied shreds), his integrity, as he weaves a tapestry of lies at knifepoint to survive, his creative spirit as a musician, and nearly his faith in God and his very sanity.


It is based on a true story. Very little is embellished from Northup’s own telling in his book of the same name. It is real beyond what the imagination can even conceive. How does a people collectively manage to not go crazy—or postal—during a lifetime of untenable situations? And how do their grandchildren’s children go on to achieve and thrive? This is the capacity, the triumph of the human spirit.


12 Years A Slave is a masterpiece. It is shot as if each frame were its own canvas; McQueen holds on moments of depravity and epiphany so that we do right along with his characters. The editing is generous; even as timelines are usurped, the storyline remains unbroken. The writing is rich, but it also taut: with life or death hanging on each exchange of dialogue. The acting disappears; you become part of this film—and that is to the credit of stunning work by Ejiofor, Nyong’o, Oduye, Fassbender, Benedict, Woodard and Pitt. It is unflinching in its telling of one man’s harrowing story. It is America’s true horror story, one we all keep being made to live in some way or another, because we as a nation have yet to discuss, complete, redress, or heal its universe of injustices in any meaningful way. Until that happens, there is no getting over the socioeconomic ripple effects or the psychic undertow of slavery or institutional racism. No getting over. No overcoming. For Black people or white people. White people are also damaged in the transaction that lasted 400 years, bolstering corporations and setting the stage for genocide, xenophobia and mayhem that echo clear up to today’s headlines about changing the name of the capitol’s football franchise or granting children of undocumented residents full citizenship and access to the American Dream, or seeking justice for the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a man who identifies as white despite his mixed heritage and has no authority to patrol his neighborhood with a firearm. Utter American insanity. The only way through is to look it in the face, honor its victims, hold its perpetrators to account, and give its descendants permission to atone and move forward. 12 Years A Slave is a powerful, solid step on a shaky path.


Being Mara Brock Akil

June 26, 2013
Mara talking about what it takes to be a creative warrior.

Mara talking about what it takes to be a creative warrior.

Earlier this month, I attended the New York screening of Being Mary Jane, the latest project from accomplished show creator, screenwriter and producer Mara Brock Akil. You may know her name from the credits of the shows she created: Girlfriends, now a cult classic and a history-making show that ran for 8 seasons; and The Game, another history-making series that garnered 7.7 million viewers on its premiere night when it was reborn on BET—the most viewers for a sitcom premiere in cable history. She also wrote the remake of Sparkle, where Mike Epps delivered his breakout dramatic performance, and was sadly the last film role for the late Whitney Houston.

With the woman behind the film and dramatic series.

With the woman behind the film and dramatic series.

I held on to this piece because I needed time to process everything she shared during the talkback interview she conducted with another Mara, news anchor Mara Schiavocampo. Brock Akil’s remarks were so rich and at times so raw and emotional. Totally understandable given that she has lived with the Mary Jane character since her days of executive producing Girlfriends. To finally have that vision realized and experienced by audiences is clearly moving her deeply. I also waited to pen and post because she was really adamant about leaving those in attendance with the directive to get viewers: “from a production value standpoint, this kind of creativity is expensive. If you want to see more of this [kind of work on TV], you have to show up on premiere night—and not watch on your phone later.” So mark your calendars now to VIEW LIVE—not just DVR the film when it premieres on BET on Tuesday, July 2 at 10:30pm EST, right after the return of her other series, The Game.

Yeah…let that marinate for a sec.

A Black woman show creator/writer/producer has two programs premiering back to back on July 2.

She and Shonda Rimes are the only two African American woman writer/EPs with more than one show on at a time on any network. Brock Akil credited her telecast partner and its Chairman & CEO, Debra Lee on that night. “After we got 7.7 million viewers with The Game, my phone was ringing off the hook with people asking, ‘how’d you do it?’ We did it because BET believed. It goes back to marketing dollars; after 8 years of Girlfriends and 3 years of The Game on the CW, those shows got no marketing campaigns,” she recalled. “I was offering to run off my own fliers to pass out at clubs.”

Marketing matters. And when done well, it works. BMJ goodies on display.

Marketing matters. And when done well, it works. BMJ goodies on display.

It was also at BET that she got what she calls her “dream meeting”: the meeting that she noted “all the white boys get where the executives ask you what your passion project is.”

Brock Akil took that meeting with Original Programming President Loretha Jones, and when asked, Brock Akil’s answer was Being Mary Jane. No network is perfect, but what Brock Akil revealed with this information was how important it is for networks by and about people of color to exist—and thrive. In a Hollywood where she’d had two proven sitcom hits and even sold a screenplay, it was only a network that reflected her identity and understood her vision that presented her with the opportunity routinely afforded her white male counterparts. In this meeting, there was no “Negro 101” to wade through to determine whether the concept was viable or sellable with this network. They got it. And all any creative wants is to be gotten, so the audiences they serve can be seen, heard, known in all their complexity.

Brock Akil connects with author and mental health advocate Terrie Williams at the screening.

Brock Akil connects with author and mental health advocate Terrie Williams at the screening.

“I want to say that Black women and families are HUMAN with Being Mary Jane,” Brock Akil said. “I just want someone to fight for us; to fight for Black women.” Brock Akil is fighting the good fight. With this film, she packs a mean combination. Mary Jane Paul is both hero and nemesis; at work and in love, she alternates between saving the day and getting in her own way. Mary Jane adores her family, but like all of us, can’t stand some of the choices they make or ways they behave. Dynamic roles like these rarely come to women of color, and are written by them even less often. The result is usually some fragmented hologram of a “sista” with canned, tired dialogue, or a character that we only see in one context/environment because her character is peripheral, or a completely stereotypical caricature emerges.

Thankfully, none of the aforementioned can be found in this film. Gabrielle Union is perfectly cast as the woman who has to be “on” at all times in the world, but in her private moments, nothing clicks the way she wants it to. The dialogue is strong, snarky, and decidedly grown; no over-the-top attempts at hipness here. While honest exchange and deep reflection drive this drama, it definitely has moments that are shocking and funny. Thanks to laser-like scripting and nuanced acting from Lisa Vidal, Omari Hardwick, Stephen Bishop and Robinne Lee, there are several standout scenes. Won’t spoil them here. I will say that the ending is completely unexpected and sets things up well for the 2014 premiere of its spinoff series.

Toward the end of the Q&A, Mara went beyond being personable and got intimate. I was intrigued by her answers for how she manages to having a husband, family, and birthing her creative babies. Many of my readers know that in my book I asserted that work-life balance is a myth—long before women were being asked to lean in or lean out. What we need to strive for is work-life function, so we can be fully present in all of life’s moments, without being guilt-riddled or distracted from the business at hand; without compromising on self-care. Brock Akil affirmed my assertion during her talkback session with some incredible comments. She dropped a few jaws with these gems:

Speaking about her husband, Being Mary Jane director Salim Akil:

“I am very fortunate that I get to do what I love with whom I love. It’s also how we manage to see each other (laughs).”

“I have a lot of sex. Because sometimes, you think you need a massage, when really, all you needed was some…you know.”

“Black women need and deserve to be cherished; that is the role of a man.”

On drawing the line for family time:

“On the weekends, I am a mother.”

Hold it–before you go side-eyeing about how she’s only there for her kids two days a week: I take this to mean that she is a mother all the time, but that her work cannot intrude on that role during weekends. Mara Brock Akil is not ‘bout that Always At Work life. She actually does take time off from work each week. She relayed an anecdote about concerning a neighbor as she had a prolonged business conversation from her cell in her driveway, because she literally didn’t want to bring it to the threshold of her home. These boundaries matter, and if you want to be married to something other than a career, or want to raise a human being, the boundaries must be set, even if they change as you grow.

Gabrielle is gorgeous, as usual. Watch it on premiere night...for Mara!

Gabrielle is gorgeous, as usual. Watch it on premiere night…for Mara!

Here’s the takeaway: on BET next Tuesday, July 2nd at 10:30 EST, you have the opportunity to be highly entertained while you make a dream come alive for brilliant, fabulous and hardworking woman. Her dream is actually to create for a vision of Black women who are more fully realized onscreen, without making one Black woman the model for all of us. By taking that opportunity, you make that dream real in a world that has us all pegged. While it may not be a dream you share, this is absolutely a dream worth putting first.

Your feedback is welcome in the comments below or on Twitter directly to me here. Are you a fan of Mara? Are you excited about Being Mary Jane? Talk to me.

Follow Mara Brock Akil here.

Freesworld.com & ImageNation Join Forces For The Divorce Counselor NYC Premiere

March 17, 2013

Freesworld.com & ImageNation Join Forces For The Divorce Counselor NYC Premiere

Mark your calendars and prep your outfits, Tri-State Area! This is the place to see the film on the big screen before its exclusive global premiere APril 13 on Freesworld.com. No tickets, no cost, just the perfect mix of creativity and a peek behind the scenes. Like the page at http://www.facebook.com/TheDivorceCounselor.

The Divorce Counselor Is A Pan African Film Fest World Premiere

February 7, 2013


I am humbled and extremely excited to announce the world premiere of my first film to receive festival love: The Divorce Counselor! I want to acknowledge my gifted co-writer Tmor of Comic Diversity, my amazing co-producer Jamaal C. Lewis, my crew, and the incredibly talented cast, without whom the film could not have happened. If you are in Los Angeles for the Grammys, my first screening is the night before so do consider joining me! 

From my e-blast:

Thembisa Mshaka can now add filmmaker to her impressive entertainment resume: her short film “The Divorce Counselor”, which she wrote, produced and directed will world premiere Saturday, February 9 at 10:05pm and Thursday, February 14 at 1:25pm as part of the 21st Annual Pan African Film Festival at Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza 15 in Los Angeles.

About the film: Mr. & Mrs. Jones are at odds and near the end of their marriage. Or so they think. With wit and heart, The Divorce Counselor examines the power of friendships and importance of therapy. 
This film is first in the block of selections–and only 10 minutes long, so BE EARLY–the film will not be viewable online until it premieres exclusively on Freesworld.com April 13, 2013.
Tickets may be purchased in advance and at the box office for SHORTS SERIES 3, the block of shorts in which The Divorce Counselor is featured. There will be a talkback featuring Thembisa after the screenings.
Link to the trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GRuBOAl57bk
For tickets: Click the date of your choice and select Shorts Series 3 at http://www.RaveCinemas.com.
For more on the film like the Facebook page: http://www.Facebook.com/TheDivorceCounselor

The Cold Part About Django Unchained *Spoilers*

January 1, 2013


I saw Quentin Tarantino’s new one last night. More like experienced it. I purposely blocked out any reviews so I could watch it with as little chatter in the background as possible. Tarantino makes controversial films. He draws equal praise and ire–just depends on who you ask. Hate him or love him, he’s a bold visionary. I am not one for gore or bloodbaths but when it comes to much of Tarantino’s work, I just can’t look away. See: Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, and Inglorious Basterds


So when I learned Tarantino was bringing his pen and eye to a film with a freed slave on a mission of vengeance to rescue his wife from a plantation, I was immediately checking for it. I had no idea what to expect, and was willing to put my squeamishness aside yet again. Then more details unfolded. Jamie Foxx was cast as Django. Check. Supported by Kerry Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio and Christoph Waltz. Triple check. Then I saw that “The D Is Silent” trailer using James Brown’s “The Big Payback”. Check. It wasn’t until the cast appeared on BET’s 106 & Park the week of release that I learned longtime Tarantino collaborator Samuel L. Jackson was in the film–as a villainous house slave. Check (now that I had to see). I also found out that Reginald Hudlin (The Boondocks, Black Panther) a producer whose choices and voice I deeply respect was on board. Chiggy check.  It should also be noted that two women producers, Stacey Sher and Pilar Savone join Hudlin on this epic mission. There is also one woman executive producer, Shannon McIntosh. Always a big deal for this blogger when women run the show. CHECK!

Django Unchained is a spaghetti western-inspired love story that takes place during American slavery. It is not about slavery, but slavery is depicted in all its twisted depravity, its horrifying brutality, and its utter insanity–all gnarled like the tree shaped scars on lashed backs throughout the film. Being the period piece that it is, Tarantino gets to let the n-word fly. Being the Tarantino piece that it is, so does the blood. Only this time, the slavers, overseers and profiteers all die at Django’s hand–a hand guided not by brute strength but with intelligence; driven by undying love.

But here’s the cold part about Django Unchained:

No Black director has yet to helm a major motion picture where slaves rebel–and live to tell about it with their soulmate as they ride off into the moonlight. Would this film have gotten the greenlight, the budget, or the marketing support it enjoys with a black director? Hellz no. Even with Tarantino writing and Hudlin producing, I still doubt it. Django Unchained brings into sharp relief just how unenlightened Hollywood continues to be. Now, this is neither Tarantino’s fault nor his problem. His job is to bring his vision to life, which he did to stunning effect here. I’m grateful he did. It opens a new generation of eyes to slavery in a fresh, albeit painful context. And in the absence of a national conversation about the 4-century long slave trade, the Middle Passage (what many call the African holocaust), the genocidal treatment of people of African descent under slavery for profit, and the heroic, at times equally violent efforts of those people to liberate themselves, this film is a damn good conversation piece. Had that conversation been undertaken, slavery in cinema may not be so loaded a subject that we can’t even watch a film in its totality without sweating the obvious. Yes, the n-word is splattered throughout. Yes, it’s hard to hear repeatedly from the mouths of white people. But it was typical of the period.

The flap over this being a “nigger”-filled Tarantino movie that mocks the peculiar institution is getting in the way of substantive critique and discussion. Yes, the film has comedic moments. But real talk, they are necessary–and kept me from crying as human flesh, Black flesh, was whipped, branded, hammered, hog-tied, torn apart by dogs. There is nothing funny about what the enslaved endured–but in my view, they are not the butt of a joke in Django Unchained. In fact, the lynch mob that was ostensibly the ramp-up to the Ku Klux Klan and the bumbling overseers were the ones portrayed as the ignorant criminals they truly were, despite the laws of the day being on their side. Waltz’s character Dr. King Schultz even uncovers Calvin Candie as the ultimate poser using The Three Musketeers. The punchlines aren’t there to coddle white moviegoers. Much of the laughter I heard from them was of the nervous variety. I’m sure they are used to feeling comfortable at the movies since their hero images pervade overwhelmingly. Oh well. Shoe’s on the other foot here. So go ahead, cheer along with the people of color when Django exacts his revenge.

Another cold part about this movie is The Hot Box (just wait). Tarantino literally strips Broomhilda, the character deftly played by Kerry Washington of everything but her dignity and virtue. That’s more than most of American media can say when it comes to portrayals of Black women, from directors both Black and white. She is even acknowledged for being smart because she’s bilingual, a rare quality in slaves, given their mother tongues are cut upon arrival.  I appreciated that for all the harrowing images of Broomhilda being tortured and humiliated, we also saw her radiant, in love, laughing, unspoiled–through her husband’s eyes. Schultz even has a chance to bed her, which would have been customary at this point in history–and doesn’t. Tarantino is putting many an image of Black relationships to shame with this film. The cold part about that? It takes having slavery as the context to get two award-winning, bankable Black lead actors starring as husband and wife in a big budget action film. In 2012. But I digress.

Other cold things about this film:

The complete and total bad-ass that is Jamie Foxx in this role. He lights up the screen with the keen brilliance of the trickster from start to finish. And yet, he gives us glimpses of compassion and vulnerability that are rarely available to Black male characters, who must usually be all funny, all womanizing player, all menace–or some nauseating mix of the three.

The unexpected and wondeful music choices, from the updated Django theme song to original music written by Foxx and performed by Rick Ross and an original song from John Legend. Tarantino is a music head with a great ear and this new approach of using original music along with existing material does not disappoint.

The sweeping panoramas, from the mountains of Yellowstone National Park to the arching trees on the plantation set in Mississippi but shot near New Orleans. Really great to watch Tarantino’s eye work with such scale; with the exception of Basterds and Kill Bill I & II, the film I’ve seen of his are usually focused on close, urbane quarters.

Leonard DiCaprio as Calvin Candie. It could not have been easy to drop into this character, even for one as seasoned as Leo. His big monologue (you’ll know it when you get there) is so raw, so full of molten rage, the hairs on your neck will stand up. So much for the Southern Gentleman. And that’s his own real blood on his hands from an unplanned lasceration during the take Tarantino kept in. WOW.

Thank you Mr. Tarantino for having the courage to make this film and take the heat. Thank you, Mr. Hudlin for lending your perspective and producing chops to this film. And thank you, Django–for giving the Hollywood slave his long overdue and much-needed revolutionary makeover.









Honey Jam Barbados Cyber Monday: Get You Some!

November 26, 2012


With Honey Jam Founder Ebonnie Rowe

I am on a bit of a womanist spiritual high. I just returned from the gorgeous island of Barbados as the guest of the US Embassy and Ebonnie Rowe, Founder and CEO of Honey Jam. I was honored to serve as the keynote presenter for the Honey Jam Conference and Showcase, in its second year on the island. Ebonnie has produced Honey Jam Canada for close to 20 years, discovering Nelly Furtado in the process–among many other women artists of note. Honey Jam Barbados 2012 continues in the rich, naturally sweet Honey Jam tradition of discovering fresh talent and artist empowerment.

This conference was an incredible breath of fresh air for me. Talent showcases with a critical mass of solid artistry are increasingly rare in the United States. This is so unfortunate, because the live stage is where talent sinks or soars, and where potential is revealed. Ebonnie Rowe is a self-proclaimed member of the “old school,” so she gets this. She also knows that patriarchy still limits the spaces and opportunities for women artists, and brought the safe space she created in Toronto, Canada to Barbados. The timing is perfect, actually: Rihanna’s explosion as a global megastar shines a light on her home island and puts stars in the eyes of women who aspire to success in entertainment. Ebonnie also is very specific about wanting to work against the tide of overt sexism in the Caribbean where women artists are concerned. From the lyrical content to the positions women are taking on concert flyers, women are pretty much represented as brainless sex objects. And it is amazing how widely it is accepted among the Bajan consumer audience. But then, I should not be surprised: it was in Barbados of all places, that I attempted to observe my Friday Juma’a prayer and was told “women aren’t allowed to pray here.” Shocked, I was directed to another mosque. That was a first for me, a Muslim woman who has prayed on 5 continents without incident. Sexism is real everywhere, and beautiful panoramas won’t mask its ugliness. But I digress.

Thankfully, Honey Jam Barbados raises the voices of women who refuse to be exploited–and raises their entertainment industry IQ in the process.

Check out the highlights from my keynote here:


The showcase was phenomenal. I don’t know how 19 artists take the stage and the show doesn’t feel boring or too long, but that’s a testament to Ebonnie’s skill as a producer with a real ear for talent. Girls as young as 13 to women in their 40s hit the stage; every genre of music was performed, from rock to reggae, to rap, folk, and soul. I was really blown away by the range and skill level of talent. Everyone got up there and gave their best, but for me, there were several standouts, many of whom were in attendance at my keynote, asking questions or unsure about their own paths. But when they hit the stage for a packed house at the Plantation Garden Theater, they were transformed! I am still beaming as I reflect on their courage.

So here’s my roll call, in no particular order of flyness:

Debbie Reifer.Image

She is a grown woman singer-songwriter unafraid to get to the heart of the matter where love is concerned. She looks like a breezy Black girl, but she brings it with incredible tone and phrasing. Click here for more on her.

Rhesa Garnes. ImageShe rocked “I Only Wanna Give It To You” by Elle Varner with only a beat box accompaniment and nailed it. Her effusive personality draws you in and doesn’t let go.  She even kicked a verse during the set and took the crowd completely by surprise. Get up on Rhesa here.

Melissa Bel. ImageMelissa was the winner of Honey Jam’s “Get Me To Barbados” promotion with the Barbados Tourism Authority. She was the only non Bajan on the bill and was admittedly nervous bringing her very Canadian guitarist self to a discerning Caribbean audience. Well, she didn’t have anything to be nervous about. When she hit her first note, it was clear that she is a serious soul singer. Her rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” got her a standing ovation. And the title track from her EP Distance choked me up. Click here for more on Melissa.

Mia Cumberbatch. ImageShe closed out the show because her voice is bold, clear and liberated. She’s on some shoe-kicking, roof-raising type vocal steez. Judging from the crowd response when she came onstage, her reputation precedes her on the island. Definitely looking forward to hearing more from Mia. You can follow her here on Twitter.

Tabitha Johnson. ImageShe performed a bass heavy, driving dancehall-tinged original song, “Driving Me Crazy”–about a husband who cheated on her while she was pregnant. Now, I don’t know if this was art imitating life, but she sang it like it was! She’s also quite a chatta, murdering her verse in impossible glitzy wedges with long locs a-flying. Do not let this sweet little grin on her face fool you. She’s on Twitter here.

Gigi Ma’at. ImageChanneling Grace Jones, Erykah Badu, and Dee Dee Bridgewater, this fashionista took us on a journey of soulful song, jazz scatting, and African call and response that rocked us to the core. She’s badass. Period. She could have dropped the mic to make sure it was broke, but she’s much too gracious (I met her briefly backstage). Check out her equally fierce Pinterest page here.

Paige Banfield, Frontwoman, Vacant Headspace. ImageThis girl came out with vocal guns blazing, fronting her own rock band in knee-high Chuck Taylors with neon laces. Perfect for all the jumping and wild, naturally curly-head banging she did, without missing a note. Her rhythm guitarist lost power during the set but like a true professional, she kept it moving and finished strong. For more on Paige and the band, click here.

Kyzz. ImageAmid a flurry of acts with dancers, band members and skimpy costumes, Kyzz was all killer, no filler. She played an original song acoustic and moved the crowd with her bluesy approach to soul. Tracy Chapman and MeShell NdegeOcello can rest assured that someone picked up their torches and put her own quiet fire to them. Read up on her here.

Jamantha Blue Diamond. ImageShe asked a question during my keynote about the fixation our industry has on looks. This deep chocolate chanteuse with flowing locs is stunning, but the beauty that matters most is in the raw passion of her voice and live performance. She set it off during the closing number, the Freestyle Finale. Read up on Blue Diamond here.

My honorable mentions go to:

Image 19 year-old accounting major and R&B siren Fate, stunning multi-genre performer Karma NaiImage, and 13 year-old Aleah SearlesImage, whose voice brought the crowd to its feet and brought tears to my eyes. Just click on their images at this link for more about each of these amazing young women.

If you are a woman who is serious about the entertainment field, whether you go to Canada or Barbados for it, you need to come to Honey Jam. Click here for more on the organization, events,a nd how to support them! Special thanks to SLAM 101, Admiral at Festival Stage, and Cassandra at Morning Barbados for the media opportunities they each gave me to share my story and inform the Bajan massive about Put Your Dreams First!

Guns & Movies: Double Standard Rising?

July 20, 2012


Aurora, Colorado is now known around the world after the massacre that took place at a midnight premiere screening of Dark Knight Rises this morning. James Egan Holmes, age 24, dressed in protective gear from ballistic helmet to bulletproof vest, groin and throat protectors—and armed with not one or even two but four firearms—released tear gas on a moviegoing audience and proceeded to open fire on them as the film played. Currently, 58 injuries and 12 fatalities have been reported. Among the victims are a six year-old child and a three month old infant.

I join the world in its shock, and the nation in its collective grief. My condolences go out to all affected by this horrific mass killing. As a parent and avid filmgoer myself, I cannot imagine finally getting out for an evening with my family or friends—only to lose a loved one in such a heinous, senseless manner. This is domestic terror: civilians gunned down as they take in a new movie by a maniac wielding combat artillery, forever traumatizing an American pastime.


The fallout will continue to unfold along with the investigation into Holmes and the events of this morning. A bomb squad is trying to disarm the shooter’s apartment, which he rigged with explosives. Across the ocean, Paris has canceled their premiere. Security will be heightened at New York City theaters; no word yet on whether other cities will follow suit. So far, there is no talk of pulling the film from theaters or lowering the number of screens on which it is shown, nor should there be. I’m sure the last thing Warner Bros. imagined (or wants) is this type of mayhem marring their opening weekend. While it may be good for box office, violence is always bad for real-life business.


I can’t help but think back to the premiere of Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, a gritty, semi-autobiographical film about the rapper’s own survival of multiple gunshots. When violence broke out at screenings of this “urban film”, not only were the suspects not apprehended; the film was pulled from theaters. The victims went largely unacknowledged, the prevailing thought being that it’s the order of the day for movies like his.

For example, check out what happened in Pittsburgh:


And even though it ultimately did well at the box office, Get Rich was punished for the criminal acts of audience members, and even blamed for inciting them.

As a member of the entertainment community and a filmmaker, I do not advocate placing the blame on art when tragedy strikes. Art imitates life, and illuminates truth. That said, I believe that societal bias and prejudice tilt the scales out of balance and negatively impact art that may reflect images and lives considered outside the mainstream.

Violence is as central to Dark Knight Rises as it is to Get Rich or Die Tryin’. One could even argue that Get Rich advocates getting away from violence, given Jackson’s character use of music to heal trauma and lead a better life. The Dark Knight fights violence with more violence to vanquish Gotham’s terrorist.


And while Holmes gassed his victims and wore a gas mask like Batman’s nemesis, I have yet to hear any reports linking Holmes’ method to the film. So why should films about everyday people, people on the margins of society, or people of lesser means grappling with violence have the albatross of inspiring violence hung upon them?

Violence at the movies is nothing new, but it’s growing. Three people died as a result of gang violence after The Warriors came out in 1979. In the ‘90s, Oscar®-nominated film Boyz N The Hood sparked a wave of incidents at theaters, many of which were thought to be gang related. But a gunman also executed a moviegoer at a showing of X-Men: The Last Stand in Baltimore in 2006, an incident that was not widely publicized. A drive-by tied to no particular film at an Oakland theater left five people wounded earlier this summer. And today’s massacre is the worst in American cinematic history.

As the availability of heavy artillery continues to widen, as the NRA continues to send tweets like “Good Morning Shooters, what are your plans for the weekend?” as they did before news of the Aurora tragedy broke (it has since been deleted), we as a nation should look to control the proliferation of firearms and better regulate their sale with the same rigor dedicated to selectively vilifying film content through the filters of stereotype. The safety of who’s watching is much more important than what’s showing.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is a filmmaker, award-winning promo campaign writer and producer for television. She is also the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business (Hachette).

For more on violence at the movies click:


For more on the NRA’s political influence:



Top 5 Reasons To Pay To See Think Like A Man (No Spoiler)

April 17, 2012


I attended the New York premiere of Think Like A Man (Screen Gems) earlier this month. I’ve been processing the film on many levels: as a woman in a committed relationship (I just celebrated 15 years of marriage to this comedian named Tmor on April 13); as a filmmaker and creative producer of color (yes–the ‘of color’ part matters), and as a consumer who loves a great moviegoing experience.

I’m not one to rave about films; I have my jaded insider moments just like most entertainment industry insiders. Because I know what’s possible from a creative standpoint, my expectations are high–and because I know the limitations Hollywood places on creativity, those expectations are rarely met, let alone exceeded. I’m usually left wanting more in terms of cast, script, story, or all of the above. But as a smart, sexy comedy, Think Like A Man garners a rave from me.

This film appealed to all three moviegoing sides of me. This surprised me to a degree because before I knew who was involved behind the scenes, I associated this film primarily with comedian and radio host Steve Harvey, since the film is based upon his book Act Like A Lady, Think Like A Man. And since I didn’t read the book (see note above about being married already), don’t listen to his radio show (I commute by subway to my playlists; it’s not personal) and haven’t watched anything with him in it since Kings of Comedy, I was ready to wait and see what my non-industry family members thought before I laid money down for the film.

Then, and here comes the disclosure–I found out that James Lopez, a brilliant marketer and longtime friend from my music business days, was a senior production executive on the project. And how’s this for a small world, HY[e]B connection: the very first record he promoted to me was “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” by MeShell Ndegeocello, who, years later, agreed to appear in my book. Of course I had to support James, who kept it real whether he had hits or misses on the roster. As time went on, he had more hits than misses as a marketing VP over at Atlantic Records, where he took T.I. from King of the South to King of the Rap World–no easy task with the star in and out of custody through much of his career. But this is my reason, not one of my Top 5 reasons for you. Here they are:

1. You will love this movie whether you love or hate Steve Harvey. 

I didn’t need to read the book to understand or enjoy this film. Writers Keith Merryman and David A. Newman do an incredible job of crafting completely fictional characters based on advice from the non-fiction book’s pages.


Bonus: if you’re not big on Steve, he appears once to set up how Gabrielle Union’s character learns of the book, and a couple times via confessional afterward–and then he’s gone. One character is even a Steve Harvey hater, so the elephant in the room is identified for those of you who may feel the same.

2. This is not a chick flick!

As a self-defined type A womanist, I don’t get into romantic comedies where the woman’s whole life is wrapped up in finding, keeping, or stressing over some douchebag who doesn’t know she exists, or some guy who’s already taken. Worse still are the chick flicks where said woman will do anything to quell her desperation, including cash in her self-esteem, kick family and friends to the curb, and of course–get sleazy or naked for no (or any) reason. None of the aforementioned insulting, corny circumstances are present in this film.

Image                       Image

The women of Think Like A Man have intelligent conversations with other women, respect themselves and their families, and remain clothed without losing their sex appeal, all while remaining attractive to their love interests and getting intimate on their own terms (gasp!).

3. The movie is not just funny, it’s actually fun to watch.

Kevin Hart may be the comedic genius who injects hilarity throughout, but the film is funny in general, even when Hart is off screen. There are plenty of one-liners, stingers, and zingers to go around, not to mention the scenes involving a basketball, a bathroom stall, and a folding chair.

Image                   Image

The funny isn’t dependent upon pratfalls, either. There is great, nuanced humor when these characters open up to one another, confront each other with the cold hard truth, or don’t get their way. Bonus: Comedienne on the rise and my Bay Area homegirl Luenell (Bruno) makes a cameo.

4. Finally: a cast that reflects the reality of America!

This film has a predominantly Black cast, but so? And? It’s 2012. Get over it. These characters are every adult in the pursuit of a relationship that works. There are white people in this film, but they are not tokens. Think Like A Man does not practice the tokenism with which so many Hollywood movies patronize their audiences.


In the crew of guys, there are not one but two members of the Dominant Group. Neither of them try to be Black, be ‘street’, or be ‘down’. Both of them are comfortable in their own skin, and can dish it out as well as they can take it from the rest of the guys.

This cast is pure eye candy for men and women. This is no rom-com with some dumpy funny dude or nondescript whining girl carrying the film. These people are gorgeous, sexy, charming, burning-up-the-screen hot. Romany Malco is shirtless for an extended period, thank you very much. Michael Ealy is well…Michael Ealy, all foine everything.


Meagan Good gives good shape in every scene. Regina Hall is radiant, albeit reserved as the single mom dating Terrence J’s “Mama’s boy” character. Taraji is stunning as the uptight media exec, and screen time from Kelly Rowland, Lala Anthony and Morris Chestnut only add to the fly factor.

Furthermore, there is an interracial relationship, well played by Union and Ferrara. Yes, these happen in America. And they are not always with burning crosses or police tape in the background. See: (biracial) President Barack Obama. No one cracks a joke or bats an eye at this. It is accepted, and neither character has their identity questioned or compromised because of who they love–so we can just follow their story line instead of having to unpack baggage that really deserves its own film. Awesome. Bonus: people of color are not sprinkled throughout this film as window dressing, service professionals, or quirky and exotic extras. They are multi-dimensional and front and center.

5. The Shot Callers behind the scenes: Packer, Story, and Culpepper

Think Like A Man has a two strong, sensitive (cinematically speaking) African American creatives running the show in producer Will Packer (Takers, Obsessed, Stomp The YardThis Christmas) and director Tim Story (Fantastic Four, Hurricane Season, Barbershop). Packer and Story don’t play Black women out with this film; they also don’t let Black men off the hook. Their crew delivers top-notch production value with great shots, great light (a VERY BIG deal for people of color on screen), hair, makeup and wardrobe, well placed music, and seamless production design. In Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper, the film has a studio head who gets it–and gets out of the way, trusting–and knowing based upon their track records and choices that Packer, Story, (and the aforementioned Lopez) will do their thing. The beneficiaries are the actors and the audience. You can tell the cast felt at ease and free to just perform; the chemistry between couples is undeniable. And even the premiere audience of insiders, celebrities, and their plus-ones let loose in the theater.

So fellas: you are not surrendering your Man Card by seeing this film. And ladies, you are not owning the rom-com stereotypes that have plagued you in the past by seeing this film. Do not pass go, and do not buy bootleg. During the weekend of April 20, pay to see Think Like A Man, so more films that reflect honest portrayals of relationships will get made and win at the box office.


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