Archive for the ‘Entertainment’ Category

‘Malcolm & Marie’ Holds Up A Mirror

February 10, 2021

When a relationship becomes a Hall of Mirrors, your true self becomes nearly impossible to identify. Surrounded by projections, reflections go from affirming to haunting. It’s often easier to lash out, creating fresh wounds—or reopening existing ones—than to heal.

The brutal examination that is Malcolm & Marie is a thing of jagged beauty.

The chatter about the film says so much about us, though:

“Zendaya doesn’t even look like she’s of age next to John David Washington.”

“All they do is argue the whollle tiiiime.”

“Did she really think she was cooking?”

“It’s 40 minutes too long.”

I get the superficial quips and dismissive hot takes. This film is confronting AF. Written and directed by Sam Levinson, it is achingly beautiful to watch; easy on the eyes, but attempted murder on the spirit. Who wants to unpack a movie about two people carrying SO. Much. Baggage?

These two are in a tango, and they’re out for blood. Malcolm & Marie is lithe, fluid and dagger sharp…this was a dance I had to see all the way through to the finish.


If you haven’t seen the film, stop here, go watch if you’ve been on the fence (I vote YES, especially if you enjoy drama at the theater) and then come back. It’s on Netflix.

This film was made during the pandemic, but its story folds in neatly to the constraints of Covid-19 protocol compliant filmmaking. One minimalist location, Zendaya’s home. Two characters, with one wardrobe change each. It’s a study in sheltering in place…in a minefield resembling a home. But this is a pre-Covid world. We know because the inciting incident happens at a packed, Before Times film premiere, complete with after party. It’s Malcolm’s debut as writer-director. Malcolm is all bravado as he glides to The Godfather of Soul at the bar. By contrast, Marie is a vision of stunning beauty and utter depletion from their night out.

Barely off the red carpet, she hits the door, relieves herself and goes from the bathroom right to the kitchen to take care of her Man of the Hour by whipping up a box of mac & cheese at 1:00 am. Malcolm goes right into celebrating himself, high on all the applause and genuflection of critics during the premiere. But not before telling Marie how beautiful his baby looked. Only Marie is still in the bathroom, on the other side of the house. At first, she cannot hear his compliment.

It’s a foreshadowing. Because any compliment Malcolm has for Marie comes at a price: wrapped in a torrent of abusive weapons, from blistering insults and gaslighting to stockpiling past transgressions for deployment during deeply hurtful tirades. Sure, they’re peppered with an “I love you, Marie” here, and promises not to take her for granted there. But this promise is impossible for him to keep. Marie’s literal peace is of no consequence to him. She tries to bathe away the grime of being forgotten and he is unrelenting in his cruelty. For Malcolm, getting the girl isn’t enough. He has to win the battle and the war. He casts Marie’s recovery from drug addiction into the same category as “working harder” like he did as a production grunt. He calls her “unstable”, “intolerable”, and “exhausting”. But Marie isn’t the one fighting the air in the back yard or cursing a positive Los Angeles Times review and its writer a thousand ways. Malcolm is all of the above, but he’s in the Hall of Mirrors and can’t even see himself.

Malcolm has an all too willing sparring partner in Marie. She is raw and chaffed from all his grating and berating, but she is a fighter. She kicked her habit, but her need for external validation still gnaws at her. In the Hall of Mirrors, Marie doubts her first mind and dishonors her feelings. She needed the reactions of others at the after party to realize that she was in fact highly pissed and straight up gutted by Malcolm at the premiere. (And she ain’t wrong. How do you make a whole movie about your girl’s life, and shout out everybody, then fail to mention your muse as she looks at you from the audience?) She demands Malcolm tell her why she wasn’t cast as his lead, but she also allowed self-sabotage to keep her from auditioning. And just when the tide of ire between them ebbs…she pulls him back into the water for the next round of arguing, killing all hope for a future with Malcolm as anyone more than “mediocre”: “you’re set, and this is a good as you’re gonna get”. Undertow in an ocean of tears is certain.

Malcolm and Marie are two grown, deeply needy, wounded people who need therapy as much as they profess to love each other. Their fleeting moments of joy onscreen when they threaten to make up are like oases in a desert. They are also mirages: we never get to the make-up sex, so we have to sit in the tension of these triggers that we all remember from past or current intimate partners. The joy never lasts because Malcolm and Marie don’t know when to stop fighting. Their cups are empty. Neither has anything truly loving to pour into the other. Even their silence is a chasm too uncomfortable for them; that’s how cozy they are lobbing grenades from opposing trenches. When it gets quiet, one of them takes their leave…until the last frame.

Caustic bickering cannot survive as a love language, even when both are fluent.

What are they gonna do? How will they get through? Who do they need to be to escape the Hall of Mirrors?

Malcolm & Marie is a tour de force. Making the insistent demand that we swap ‘they’ for ‘you’ as we watch is its superpower.

Janelle James Puts Her White Fans To Work. Justice Work.

September 24, 2020

Today is Janelle James’s birthday. I’m sure it already sucked to bring it in during Covid-19, but today has further been marred by the charges (or lack thereof) brought to the officers who killed Louisville Kentucky EMT and essential worker Breonna Taylor. Though there were three officers who fired shots that injured and ultimate killed Taylor, only one officer, Brett Hankison, has been indicted–and not for her murder, but for three counts of “wanton endangerment” for firing so many shots, they could have hurt her neighbors in the next unit. So basically, the possibility of hurting people got one ex-cop charged, for essentially shooting through walls. Ballistic evidence confirmed Officer Cosgrove fired the fatal shot. Cosgrove was still cleared by the grand jury’s investigation, as was Officer Mattingly.

Today, the walls of Breonna Taylor’s apartment got more justice than her own human flesh.

That’s why Black people still have to make a point to remind the world that Black Lives Matter.

While known for being a razor sharp humorist with her own Netflix special and more recently, a writer for Showtime’s Black Monday (she also acts on the series), Janelle James is equally serious about her family, her money and Black lives. In June of 2020, when America was on fire from an explosion of unrest, peaceful protests and violent counter protests in the aftermath of the killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd among others, James found herself surrounded by white people on social media. Fortunately, they were not an angry mob of mad MAGA hatters. They were her fans, who expressed rage, confusion and a desire to make a difference in whatever way they could. So she put them to work. She offered to match any funds she received from her fans to support protestors.

Considering the relative silence of the celebrity community while Black people were literally being hunted, Janelle kept speaking out on her social pages and put her money where her mouth is. I got some time with her ahead of the launch of her new podcast, You In Danger Gurl to talk allyship when ain’t a damn thing funny.

TM: Explain what the opportunity was for your Facebook friends. You offered to match funds to support protesters, correct?

JJ: Yep. I offered to match funds for any donation made to a protestor support organization up to $5000.  

TM: How did you determine which organizations to support? 

JJ: NY is my heart, so I originally was all in to support the Brooklyn Bailout Fund. However, by the time I went to donate, they were stating that they were flush (hurray) and pointing donations in the direction of other organizations. After some reading up, I decided to split the money between We The Protestors, Inc. and both the Philly and Chicago bail out funds.  

TM: How did people donate?

JJ: I didn’t want to handle or be responsible for anyone’s money, so I asked that people donate [to organizations directly], then send me the receipts.  

TM: It seemed to happen fast. How long did it take to raise the $10K?

JJ: It took about an hour.  

TM: Were you surprised at the response? 

JJ: Nope. A lot of my followers are white and I know that they were looking to be pointed in a direction to help. I know this because they were asking me which can quickly get annoying when there are hundreds of people asking the same questions.  It seemed to help white people work through how to be an ally with their resources.

TM: You joke about all the white fans you have. Were you trying to guide or mobilize them? Or did it just work our that way?

JJ: I was. I also wanted them white dollars. It’s the LEAST they can do. 

TM: On a personal note, I know I am tired of this fight falling on deaf ears of leaders and white people who seem to love Black culture, but not Black people. What should white people tell other white people about this moment?

JJ: Listen to Black people. Don’t immediately start defending yourself from perceived attack. These are hard conversations to be had. But in the end, you can come out of it as a good person who doesn’t contribute to the pain of a whole race of people. Is that not worth it?  

TM: In addition to the podcast and the Janelle James Comedy Festival, what’s coming up next for you work-wise?

JJ: Maaaaan, look. The ‘Rona got everything up in the air but I’m still currently employed on Central Park, an animated show on Apple tv.

You can follow Janelle Jameson Facebook and on IG @janellejamescomedy. Everyone, please join me in wishing her a happy birthday–now and for the rest of the week. And if you’re white, say less, listen more, and donate to worthy causes that center and improve Black lives. Periodt.

‘On The Record’ is The ‘Bombshell’ Black Woman Survivors Deserve

February 7, 2020

By Thembisa S. Mshaka

Patriarchy is an attention whore. When men raping and sexually assaulting women is the topic, the survivors are routinely relegated to the shadows, and the men wind up in the spotlight. Whether we see the actual perpetrators, or the men (and the women who love them) rush to defend them, the conversation is diverted to the perp’s well-being. The impact of being accused on them. Their careers. Their families’ rights to privacy and respect. And once the coddling of the offender has been taken care of, the patriarchal gaze turns with condescension to the women who survived. The respectability inquisition begins.

“Why say something now?”

“She wants his money.”

“Why didn’t she report it?”

“What was she doing there in the first place?”

“Everyone knows he’s a creep. That’s on her.”

Add being a Black woman survivor to this cauldron, and the questions become caustic. Why? Because at the intersection of money, power, race and rape, the bodies of Black women are sacrificed. The souls of Black women are forsaken.

“Well, look at her. She should have expected it.”

“I know [insert perp’s name here]. He was never like that with me.”

“She’s trying to destroy Black men.”

“These gold diggers cry rape all the time.”

“She’s not credible.”

I saw On The Record at Sundance last month. Like every audience at all of its screenings in Park City, I was riveted and horrified, then moved out of my seat to a standing ovation. It’s explosive, but not like C-4; it steals breath and overpowers, consuming like ether. And this is the film’s superpower: its approach mirrors the experience of sexual assault itself, and then, brings you face to face with nine women who recount being raped or sexually assaulted by music mogul Russell Simmons. The film also includes a formidable selection of hip-hop artists and hip-hop culture experts, including Dr. Joan Morgan and veteran writer/EIC Kierna Mayo, who join scholars Dr. Shanita Hubbard and Professor Kimberle Crenshaw, specialists at examining Black women across history and in the present moment for much needed context as the stories of the survivors unfold. Me Too Movement founder Tarana Burke also lends her insight on the importance of centering survivors and holding institutions accountable to the film.

The relative absence of Black men speaking on the pervasiveness of rape culture in the music industry is disappointing, but not surprising. From caping for serial rapists and blaming the victim, to bullying the allies of survivors, rape apologist Bingo is a popular game among the boys club, and this is true of the Black boyz club, too. This is why the presence of music producers Miguel Mojica and Daddy-O (pictured below) are so vital—they do what we need more men of all stripes to do—defy “money over bitches” misogyny while openly rejecting predatory behavior.


Once I returned from the festival, I made it my business to see Bombshell. Thankfully, the film’s Oscar nods for acting (nominees Margot Robbie and Charlize Theron are outstanding, as is Nicole Kidman) and makeup (Vivian Baker is masterful) gave it an extended run in theaters. I was looking for parallels and of course, intersections. I found plenty of both.

As a caveat, format is an important distinction. On The Record is a documentary, vetted and fact checked vigorously by its directors, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. They stood up to the Pentagon by making The Invisible War, so they don’t play around with legalities. While based on real people and true events, Bombshell is a dramatic feature that owns up to adding elements and situations to its story. The commonalities, however, are stunning.

The indifference and silence of men is deafening in both films. With the exception of Mojica and Daddy-O in On The Record, keeping a job or being loyal to a perpetrator is preferable to defending women. In Bombshell, men and women alike rally to support Roger Ailes, who, despite cases being brought against Fox News, sexually assaulted women for a generation with impunity, until former anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes personally. Megyn Kelly’s male producer is more concerned with his job than her allegation or her experience of being violated.

Both films compel the viewer to take the journey women take all too often: that of being in the crosshairs of a hostile work environment, where one’s choices are to suffer by giving in to their assailant’s advances and demands, or suffer the consequences of a demotion, a firing, public humiliation, the poisoning of one’s name in her field, or some cruel combination of the above.

In excruciating detail, former major label A&R executive Drew Dixon outlines the mental and physical contortion required to do her job at Def Jam Recordings in the 1990’s. She recounts Simmons hemming her up at a bar, attempting to kiss her and exposing himself to her in her office, and when none of this yielded conquest…luring her into his bedroom under the guise of hearing a demo CD, then forcibly penetrating her. Dixon was 24, in the prime of her career, after a string of hits, including the GRAMMY® winning song “You’re All I Need” by Mary J. Blige and Method Man. Over the course of the film, she reflects on the shattering of every area of her life, noting that “her life is the crime scene” as the survivor of rape.

Kayla, Robbie’s character in Bombshell, echoes this assertion as she takes inventory of the aftermath of the Ailes takedown. “Here’s the thing about sexual harassment. You’re ruled by the questions. What did I do? What did I wear? What did I miss? Will this define me?” Kelly had swallowed the violation she experienced by Ailes for a decade, holding it in to advance her career and feed her family. Carlson paid the cost of being fired and then dragged in the media, forced to relive yet again that which she had survived. Being blonde and conservative wasn’t enough to save them. Every survivor in each film grapples with the paralyzing fear of going public, and the fallout they face once they do. It is agonizing to watch.


And here’s where the paths diverge along race and class. The Black women survivors who came forward against Simmons are beyond the statute of limitations, placing Simmons out of reach for legal action. Carlson won her lawsuit against Ailes, netting $20 million (with a gag order) and toppling Ailes from his post (Ailes won a hefty severance package). Several women employees who were harassed at Fox News were compensated from a $50 million dollar settlement.

Black women survivors get the package nobody wants: the labels of race traitor and slanderer. They get to pack up and go home, with their reputations destroyed, careers derailed, and the crushing baggage of scars, trauma and possibly, healing to unpack. It is a years-long picking of unrelenting, ravaging shrapnel.  The devastation to the survivors and their families is incalculable.

So while there are no reparations, there is freedom in the testimony, and there is a reckoning. Ugly truths come to light. Names are put on the record. Perpetrators meet consequences that for too long, society has enabled them to avoid. And yet. None of that compares to what survivors endure. On The Record reminds us of this with the words of Anita Hill and Desiree Washington, whose assailants Clarence Thomas and Mike Tyson enjoy a lifetime Supreme Court appointment and go on to stints on Broadway, respectively. And while Simmons continues to deny any wrongdoing on social media, he is also living in Bali, a nation that has no extradition treaty with the United States. It stands to reason that an innocent man need not to go to this extreme to stay out of court and/or prison…unless there are survivors with allegations for whom the statute of limitations have yet to run out. The film makes no comment on this inconsistency of proclamations and actions on the part of Simmons.

On The Record is so powerful and so well crafted, it emerged from Sundance with distribution on HBO Max, after Oprah Winfrey declined to stay aboard as its executive producer.

Impervious to silence, On The Record is the Bombshell Black women have been waiting on for centuries, and it is the megaphone they deserve.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business and an award-winning media and advertising creative. Her latest work can be read in the anthology Uncommon Bonds: Women Reflect on Race and Friendship, Edited by Kersha Smith and Marcella Runell Hall.


15 Reasons To Be Down With HRC

July 26, 2016

There will never be a flawless politician. Politicians gonna politic, pander and polarize. It’s what they do. I’m not here to tell you how to vote, so save that for another comment thread. Disclosure: I am a Democrat, but I have supported independent candidates before. I even voted for Sanders in the NY primary. I understand the sting of having your candidate lose. But I also understand what’s at stake as we stare directly at the *very* real prospect of a Trump presidency.


So I am laying out my 15 point case for the Democratic nominee. Yes. Benghazi. I know. All the Clinton policies that were enacted while she was FLOTUS, that she couldn’t vote on–but watched happen at close range. I know. The emails. Careless and horribly managed. I know that too. The Iraq War vote. I knowwww. But remember: 9/11 happened in *her* state, and Bush-Cheney snow-jobbed damn near errybody in its aftermath. People with sense acknowledge this now. And she paid for it dearly when she lost the nomination to then Sen. Obama in 2008. Not excusing any of it. Just letting you know I know before all the “but, what about this-” “and what about that?” starts.

I posted this on journalist Bene’ Viera’s Facebook page when she called for comments on who her friends are voting for and why. It inspired me to make it a blog post, so I can stop repeating myself, and so those who find it useful can share it.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) is

1. Smarter

2. Better educated than her opponent

3. Highly and uniquely experienced as a former Secy. of State, US Senator, and FLOTUS

4. Endorsed by President Obama (and Bernie Sanders)

5. Hailed by GOP leaders with sense–meaning non partisan goals have a shot at not being obstructed

6. She is pro reproductive choice/rights

7. Values inclusion

8. No KKK surrogates (Google Trump’s)

9. Values DIPLOMACY (Trump cannot even spell the word, much less enact it)

10. Has the respect of world leaders

11. The independent candidates in this cycle have NO shot at being nominated or winning against Trump (I’ve voted independent before, so no, it’s not about that)

12. She will likely nominate an even handed SCOTUS replacement for Scalia’s seat

13. She understands the power of the non-white electorate, and engages with them. Trump does neither.

14. Her cabinet will most likely be the most gender balanced one in US History

15. She understands how government works, from the lessons learned on Obamacare and NAFTA–and can use this learning in the role of POTUS.

And as far as bullying goes with respect to voting from your friends and family, it’s nothing compared to the sustained, unrelenting institutional bullying of a womanizing, unscrupulous neo-fascist running the free world as he bleeds the economy and adds back the trillion Obama erased with interest…to line his own pockets.

The Combover is the closest thing to Sarah Palin we’ve seen since…Sarah Palin. And even *she* was a governor. Meanwhile, Trump hasn’t so much as held a City Council seat. But his peen, and the perception of him having money (because we are still waiting to see his tax returns) are the reasons he hasn’t been laughed off the dais. Let that marinate.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is an International Relations major turned entertainment industry veteran. An award-winning creative writer/producer and festival selected filmmaker, she is the author on the definitive business title for and about women in entertainment, Put Your Dreams First, Handle Your [entertainment] Business.

That Time I Wrote Prince’s Bio

April 22, 2016

In 2010, I was tasked with writing a salutatory biography on Prince for the program book that was distributed only to attendees of the 2010 BET Awards in Los Angeles. There was only one problem: no current bio on Prince existed. Because the world knew who Prince was. He had long surpassed the point of needing one. But the award show booklet did. So I opened my journalistic toolbox, and researched 40 years of Prince in all his permutations.

Fortunately, I was a rabid Prince fan. This was borne out of being strictly forbidden to adore him as a young girl because he was usually naked and fiercely provocative. My mother banned him from my poster wall, leaving it to the Jacksons. So by the time I got to college at 16, I was focused on seeing and hearing and studying the artistry of Prince at every opportunity. I summoned all of this fandom and poured it into the mission, which was to wrangle four decades of achievement onto *one* page of a spread, that included a flawless photo of him, resplendent in a white bejeweled pantsuit.


For weeks, I toiled on this bio. I was unable to interview him. The conferring of his award was a secret–even within BET, so the bio assignment was called “Project Lester” by the booklet’s art director, Kundia Wood. I finished the draft and sat on every pin and needle praying he would not rip my attempt at encapsulating his career to shreds. He alone would be the approver. I was freaking. Out. The word came back, with one note to delete a sentence that I cannot discuss. To have this genius approve my writing will be a career milestone for me forever. I can only imagine that Anna Wintour would be more formidable editor than Prince.

Yesterday, Prince Rogers Nelson left the planet; strutting into a spin of purple stardust to assume his ancestral throne. I haven’t fully processed this, and surely won’t for quite some time; he informed so much of my understanding of the power of one’s own ideas. He confirmed that it was natural to embrace the sacred and the profane, and to own one’s personhood on one’s own terms without apology. As a young Black girl growing up in Inglewood, getting these messages from a petite yet larger than life, Black but otherworldly human with glittering eyes and a soul-piercing voice was truly a godsend. Like no other public figure, Prince told me it was okay to be me. To make up words, to conjure new language, to write for hours in journals. So having this same person tell me my writing–about him–had his blessing? Psssh.

I am still in a bit of denial at his passing. I woke up today feeling like the world was off its tilt. As the mourning and the remembering unfurled over the last 24 hours, it occurred to me that only the 1500 or so people who took the booklet home from the 2010 BET Awards had read this bio. Until now. Maybe someone will update Wikipedia.


2010 Lifetime Achievement Award


Few artists have created a body of work as dynamic or as diverse as Prince. No other recording artist has accomplished what he has in music, film, or new media; he is a one man juggernaut, uniting the genres of funk, rock, soul, jazz, R&B, pop, rap and new wave under one sound: his.

In the 1970s, Prince Rogers Nelson became a central figure of ‘Uptown,’ an underground funk scene in his native Minneapolis. In 1976, the demo he cut with the help of producer Chris Moon and Owen Husney caused a bidding war eventually won by Warner Bros.

The now classic For You, his first recording for Warner Bros., was recorded in 1978 with him listed as sole writer, performer, arranger and producer. His debut was a foreshadowing of the potent sexuality tempered by emotional vulnerability and love for the sacred that would become his hallmark. With a catalog too extensive to list, Prince proved himself to be prolific, consistent and ultimately prophetic on albums like Dirty Mind (1980), Controversy, and 1999 (1983), which garnered global multi-platinum sales. Provocative and political, the album’s title track managed to protest nuclear proliferation and pack dance floors, earning Prince his first global Top 10 hit and Grammy® nod. In 1984, leading his band, The Revolution, Prince took the entertainment world by storm with Purple Rain, the 13-times platinum Oscar®-winning soundtrack to the cult classic film of the same name. $80 million at the box office was unheard of for a film with a Black male artist in the lead. Purple Rain immortalized Prince as one of the most influential artists of the 80s. He closed the decade out with the chart-topping Batman Soundtrack (1989).

The next decade, however, would test both his dominance in the marketplace and his indomitable spirit. His relationship with the label became acrimonious, and the fight went public: he emblazoned the word ‘slave’ on his cheek, changed his name to the unpronounceable love symbol, and became known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Prince’s independence was far ahead of the wave of marquee artists to enjoy success without a major label. He also took to the Internet, wielding it as a means of distribution for NPG Records via the NPG Music Club website and membership driven social network, the first of its kind for an iconic recording star. Prince also challenged companies such as YouTube, eBay, and The Pirate Bay for allegedly encouraging copyright violations, which highlighted the need for protocols to help rights holders protect their property.

The new millennium ushered in the re-emergence of Prince in name and creative output. He was inducted into Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He sought out label partnerships for all his subsequent releases: Musicology (Columbia records, 2004); 3121 (Universal Records, 2006); and Planet Earth (Columbia Records, 2007). In 2007, the stars (and clouds) aligned to literally shower him with purple rain the night of his Super Bowl XLI halftime performance before 140 million viewers, followed by a record-breaking run at London’s O2 Arena for the Earth Tour. In 2009, Prince released the triple album set featuring LOtUSFLOW3R, MPLSoUND and Elixer by Bria Valente.

After 100 million albums sold, seven Grammy® awards, a Golden Globe, an Oscar®, and a Webby Award for visionary use of the Internet, the influence of Prince is endless. His chameleon-like image, signature style and constantly evolving sound all echo in the work of two generations of artists across multiple genres. As a songwriter and producer, he has collaborated with legendary artists including Mavis Staples, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, Madonna, and Sinead O’Connor. Over the course of his career, Prince helped to launch, propel or extend the careers of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Sheila E., Morris Day & The Time, Wendy & Lisa, Madhouse, Brown Mark, Jesse Johnson, Vanity 6, Appollonia 6, Rosie Gaines, and others. For five decades, Prince has given the world countless musical, entrepreneurial, and spiritual gifts. Love is at the foundation of all he gives: love of God, humanity, and the world. For this and more, BET is proud to confer upon him the 2010 BET Award for Lifetime Achievement.


They say two thousand zero zero/party over/oops/out of time -Prince, “1999”

Thank you, Prince Rogers Nelson, for every single moment.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is a journalist, author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business, filmmaker, and award-winning creative campaign writer. During her tenure at Sony Music, she served as the senior copywriter for Prince’s Musicology album. Her first Prince concert was the Lovesexy Tour.

Beyoncé #Formation: A Don’t Overthink Piece

February 9, 2016

Maaan, listen.

Madonna had a Black Jesus cry blood in “Like A Prayer” as Klan crosses burned on a lawn.

Animated Illustration: Veronica Marché Illustration by Veronica Marché .

Let Beyoncé comment on half a century of police brutality that still goes woefully, criminally unchecked and completely unjustified.

Let Beyoncé pay tribute to her very mixed but clearly Black heritage, one wrought with struggle spun into lace and gold, woven into tracks and braids and thread wraps and crowns, some natural, some that come with receipts.

Let her video be narrated by, punctuated by, and elevated by the voices, gyrations, and signifying of queer Black at its unapologetic flyest.

Let Beyoncé summon her sistren to be themselves, be Black, be beautiful, be critically thinking, be sexual, be gracious, be wealthy. Be regal with fans and parasols in hand. Or be street, careening in low-lows and strutting in combat boots, synchronized swimming through air in a dry pool to preserve their glorious afros…all while being unified in all their gorgeous complexity.

And when the NFL recognizes that she is a ringer for ratings (119M viewers last Sunday, making #SB50 the third most viewed program ever) and invites her to return to the Super Bowl for the second time in under 5 years (who’s ever done that? Oh—Bruno. Anyway.) Let Beyoncé acknowledge the 50th anniversary of the Black Panthers via her dancers’ costume choices. It is after all, a show. I for one am not looking to her as my barometer for the relevance and power of the Black Panther Party. You know who really disrespected the Black Panthers? J. Edgar Hoover, that’s who.

So let Beyoncé live, make her art, and prosper. Or not. Because even if you refuse to “let” her, and try lame “boycotts” on a halftime show that’s been bought and paid for…The King does as she pleases. Y’all should know that by now. And when she does, no one dies, like when the cops shoot unarmed people for any, every, and no reason. And no one gets their ass beat, like the thousands of victims of domestic violence who meet said violence because of the Super Bowl’s outcome for the fiftieth time this year.


Photo: Matt Cowan/Getty Images North America

#KingBey is not igniting a liberation movement. She is inspired by it. She was raised by it. She is a product of it. How she walks the path blazed by her heroes and sheroes is her choice.

That’s how freedom works.

In other words, you’re free to get in #Formation. Or not.

Thembisa S. Mshaka is the author of Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your [entertainment] Business, and can be followed on Twitter @putyrdreams1st or IG @officiallipgame.




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.