No way as a 30-something-year-old man did I think I would be fanboying over a Lin Manuel project but there I was – almost as excited as my niece, Lin Manuel’s #1 fan (in her opinion), to watch his latest film, In the Heights. Not to mention, the film was also helmed by Crazy Rich Asians award-winning director, John M. Chu, and had a cast full of colorful characters. Yes, literally the cast was full of diversity that was organic and not uncomfortable like it is in some other films. Trust me, you will become a fan if you are not already.
Plots, Subplots, and Sub-subplots
Like the play, the film has multiple subplots that tie together perfectly. Kudos is due to Miranda and screenwriter, Quiara Alegría Hudes, for In the Heights’s last act takes a surprising twist. The way the film opens, the way it is shot, the character introductions, and the plot all had me fooled!
Benny (Corey Hawkins) and Nina’s (Leslie Grace) relationship was endearing. I enjoyed how Nina focused on her being back home as Benny tries to talk about Nina’s college life. She missed home so much she changed her hair from straight to natural – code-switching on deck! The love Benny has for Nina runs so deep. You can tell he wants to spend all of his time with her and support her future goals. Nina’s subplot definitely pays off as the film progresses and, to me, was one of the most important since her character’s choices could affect the most lives.
Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) and Vanessa’s (Melissa Barrera) relationship was also interesting. Both were charismatic, admired each other, and desired a different life that would lead their lives in opposite directions. Their chemistry was strong though and their moments at the club were hilarious.
One of the stand out scenes was when the power outage occurred while the main cast was in the club. When “Powerless” was performed and transitioned to “Look at the Lights”, I really felt the emotion. This community feels powerless in their situations, mostly controlled by the government, but they all look toward a bright hope for the future. Poverty, social economics, cultural identity, and immigration were all heavily explored but not force-fed.
I loved pretty much all the performances in the film but my top three were the flash mob-style “96,000”, “No Me Diga” and “Paciencia y Fe” by Olga Merediz as “Abuela” Claudia. Olga gave one of the best performances as her character chronicles her life as a New York immigrant through song. Applause to the creative minds of Chu and Miranda for making Merediz’s solo so visually stunning. The transition of time on the subway was memorable and kind of made me feel like I was watching the play. Also, I’m proud to see Corey Hawkins perform his dance scenes well because I’ve only seen him fight zombies (Walking Dead) and shoot bad guys.
FYI: Lin-Manuel Miranda completed his first draft of the stage musical “In The Heights” during his sophomore year at Wesleyan University, where it was performed as part of the school’s Second Stage. There, the 80-minute one-act played for a mere three days, but the potential for a grander production was evident from the start. Even now, after a wildly successful Broadway run and film adaptation, Miranda is amazed that it all started when he was still that young. Having recently seen a stage production of the work, he muses, “I went to see something a child wrote—a child version of me.”
Miranda’s Music for In The Heights
If you are familiar with Miranda’s work you know his soundtrack is always on point and will most likely keep you singing in the shower for weeks. Seriously, songs like “In the Heights”, “We Gotta Go” and “Piragua” performed by Miranda himself, stayed in my head for a while… partly due to my niece singing the songs for hours. Since the movie soundtrack was not out when I screened the film I had to utilize good ole YouTube.
I’m still amazed how one man can develop an awesome combination of storytelling and music composition. Plus, his adaptability is impeccable because to go develop powerhouse soundtracks from “In the Heights” to “ Hamilton” is just uncanny. I have to be honest, the music in this film made me want to take up salsa again.
I think Lin Manuel Miranda fans will enjoy it and people new to Manuel’s work will become fans like I am. In the Heights is a movie many of you will eventually end up watching multiple times. The product of good acting, catchy songs, music that will make you dance, diversity, and cool cinematography, In the Heights, gets two thumbs up and a “ You better not watch it on bootleg!” Watch In the Heights opening June 10th in theaters and HBO Max.
“In the Heights” stars Anthony Ramos (“A Star is Born,” Broadway’s “Hamilton”), Corey Hawkins (“Straight Outta Compton,” “Kong: Skull Island”), singer/songwriter Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera (TV’s “Vida”), Olga Merediz (Broadway’s “In the Heights”), Daphne Rubin-Vega (Broadway’s “Rent”), Gregory Diaz IV (Broadway’s “Matilda the Musical”), Stephanie Beatriz (TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Dascha Polanco (TV’s “Orange Is the New Black”) and Jimmy Smits (the “Star Wars” films).
Oftentimes, viewers of shows like The Voice and American Idol wonder what happened to the contestants after the show. The Voice has a solid Country following so a few of their artists are able to chart, but what about everyone else? I had a wonderfully candid conversation with The Voice season 12 winner, Chris Blue, where we discussed what he did after the phone calls stopped and the excitement for his current projects. If you haven’t yet, check out his recent release, Moon, on all major platforms. See the full Video interview below.
Taji Mag (TM): What do you feel is the difference between this project and your previous projects? Chris Blue (CB): I think for this one, it’s something people have been asking for. People have been asking for Moon, essentially, since I finished my time with NBC. It was a journey getting them here but now they’re like ‘thank you, finally, this what we’ve been wanting and we gon blow this thing up’… and that’s what they’ve been doing! So I think that’s what’s different. Back2TheFuture was a great song because I felt like I needed to say something, I needed to have my imprint on society, but as far as my musicality and my art and my VISION… Moon, to me, is it. It’s that cross between what’s new and the respect of what I have to what’s old. It’s old school/new school. You’ll hear influences of the Weeknd, Michael Jackson, and you get to the end of it and it’s like where’d this Afrobeat vibe come from? The reason I did that was because I’m still learning about my heritage, I’m a descendant of the Jamaican-Caribbean-African heritage. I’m really digging into my ancestry now. I was like maybe THAT’S why I love curry chicken…
(TM): Did you feel like you couldn’t produce the same type of artistry during your time at NBC? (CB): Yea… I mean… Yea. I feel like I was somewhat restricted on what I could do. My first anything as a solo career happened on NBC. I wasn’t out here grinding grinding grinding before that show. So when I won and got the accolades, the money, and the deal, it was great, I get to do what I want to do. I’m telling people now, I won but at the same time I lost because for about 2 years, I think, I realized like I’m losing myself. I’m losing who I am. I’m losing Chris Blue…
(TM): Was there a lot of outside influence on who they wanted you to be as an artist. (CB): There was. There was a lot of influence on what they wanted because, again, it’s a business. A lot of people have to remember it’s the music business. So that word business sometimes outshines the music in most cases, especially when you’re dealing with other people and other people’s money and they have to figure out how am I going to make my money back? So when you start to see this is trending and this is what most people will like and this is selling, let’s reshape and redefine you and make you fit this. The issue with that with me is and was I’m not that. I’m me. I can only do me well. I can’t do that well. So I lost. I lost a lot of confidence in myself. I lost a lot of belief. Because I’m not becoming that, the telephone stopped ringing as much, my emails weren’t blowing up, I wasn’t getting as many messages on Instagram, and everything just started to collapse. I was just like well maybe I wasn’t that good… It messed me up in a lot of ways, so much that my family started to feel the effects of it. My mom just sat me down one day and was like you’re changing. I was like dang, what you mean by that mama. That was one of the defining moments for me that brought me back. If I’m gonna do music, I gotta do it my way, I gotta do what I love and I can’t do it to spare feelings or to pacify anyone else.
You can’t sustain living a certain way that’s not conducive to what you want to live like. You can’t do it. It don’t work. You’ll wake up every day hating yourself. You’ll become the perfect example of the person who wakes up to the 9-to-5 job that you hate.
(TM): Makes note of how I’ve watched contestants change from the beginning to the end of the show to fit cookie-cutter molds and that, by the end of it, I’m just skipping through each episode to see who they chose as the winner. (CB): It’s funny you say that. I had to learn this as well. The American public ain’t stupid. Y’all are not dumb. You watch artists on them shows and you be like ok dope, they this, they that, but ya’ll know, nah, this is show. Some people have to be reminded it’s a show, right, so the expectation that as soon as you come off of a show like that you’re supposed to just blow up… I didn’t realize that going in. That’s a TV show. They have to do what’s best for them. It’s on me to get out here and actually work and grind and build. I tell people, I wish… If could do it all over again, with the same result (big smile), I would. I would go in thinking like an artist. I wasn’t thinking like an artist. I was some green, wet behind the ears, new-to-this-thing singer. I wasn’t an artist. I just want to sing. Put me on the stage, give me a microphone, let me SANG, let me do what I do. If I could go back and do it again, I’d have my team in place, I’d have everything ready to go so that by the time they said and the winner is I’m ready to use that launching pad to actually launch off.
(TM): What else are you working on now? I hear you’re doing a docuseries? (CB): Yea so ya boy just got a leading role in a docuseries that we’re getting ready to shoot next month at a studio in Atlanta. So I’m excited about that. The role I’m playing is a guy who I feel like is me right now. Everything this bruh is going through, that’s ME. Everyone feels good about this docuseries, It’s real. It’s raw. It’s uncut. You’ll see a lot of truth a lot of reality. I believe highly in putting things into the atmosphere, when you put things into the atmosphere, God’s ear, he hears.
Release Jun 7 2021 | Vol27 of Taji is packed full of Black Beauty & Culture fulfilling its theme of Utopia! This volume’s cover features the #SlayBells of @UniquelyWiredM and @JaymisonBeverly by @iamNayMarie. Gracing the pages are the Editor’s Pick, #BlackLoveConvo: “Concrete Cowboy: Becoming a Man and Father” by Dapper Dr. Feel; our Community Spotlight; our highlighted Hair Feature with Tajah Olson; “Solo Travel: Building Confidence Through Travel” by dCarrie; “Just My Imagination?” by Jashua Sa’Ra; “The Childhood Challenge” by Janelle Naomi; Our Vol 27 contributed photo story, “Utopia;” Fitness Highlight; Vegan Fun with Earth’s Pot’s Spicy Sushi Rolls; “How to Fight Racism…Financially” by M’Bwebe Ishangi, Founder of Cryptowoke Financial Sustainability Movement; Featured Art Piece; Comic Appreciation; Black Business Highlights; and more!!
Taji Mag is the epitome of ‘Cultural Drip’ – elevating Black brands, narratives, and imagery to new levels of Black Excellence. We embody the traditional and modern royalty of Pan-African people via our quarterly digital and print publication and live events.
Attention all accessorizing and glamorizing sistas!! The sistas who love a beautiful statement piece. The sistas who love good, quality accessories. Adele Dejak is the brand for you. Eponymously named after its Nigerian creator Adele Dejak in 2008, the brand creates the most beautiful afro-futuristic jewelry ranging from rings to chokers and they also carry an array of rustic calfskin clutches.
Although I am not an avid accessorizer, the ÁMI I & II collections of chokers are truly a masterclass of metalwork and craftsmanship. The pendants are either hammered brass or aluminum and are paired with a smooth black leather cord or are attached to a large brass ring. I would not be a reliable fashion contributor if I did not tell you how wonderfully brass and gold hues compliment melanated skin.
Aside from being wonderfully and carefully crafted by African artisans, Adele Dejak has been endorsed by the Queen Bee herself!! Flaunting the Afrika Comb in the Black Is King film and, on another occasion, wearing the Margret Aluminum Statement Bracelet in tandem with the Dhamani Kanini bracelet in the music video for My Power from the soundtrack of the 2019 remake of the Lion King.
AD is also big on sustainability, according to their website, only using recycled and upcycled brass and aluminum for their jewelry. They also have a partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Australia to train people in the Dadaab and Kakuma camps to produce goods using upcycled materials to sell to provide for their families.
The pieces may be a little pricey for some (150$+), but the cost of supporting a black business is priceless. Besides, who doesn’t want to step into their next board meeting looking like they stepped off the first flight back from Wakanda? Go check out Adele Dejak and tell them I sent you ♥!
This is the second piece in a 5 part series about my favorite Black Luxury Brands, check out the first part here!
The 93rd Oscars was one of the most entertaining Oscars I’ve seen in a while. I kind of assumed it would be given the number of Black creatives listed in the programming and the nominees. Never mind that I had media credentials this year, even my friends were texting me saying the same thing. The night was filled with surprises and laughs… to be enjoyed in the comfort of my home and not in the hot sun trying to waive down people for interviews.
The Winners Are…
Daniel Kaluuya started the night with his win in the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category for Judas and the Black Messiah. He made sure to include his castmates and follow feature creatives in his speech stating, “I share this honor with the gift that is Lakeith Stanfield. The light that is [applause], yeah yeah, the light that is Dominique Fishback. [applause] The incredible cast, the incredible crew –you know what I mean– Lucas Brothers for starting the journey. Will Berson.”
Kaluuya thanked Chairman Fred Junior and Mama Akua. “Thank you so much for allowing us into your life and into your story. Thank you, thank you for trusting us, you know, with your truth.” He added, “He (Fred Hampton) was on this earth for 21 years, 21 years, and he found a way to feed kids breakfast, educate kids, give free medical care, against all the odds. He showed, he showed me, he taught me him. Him, Huey P. Newton, Bobby Seale, the Black Panther Party. They showed me how to love myself. And with that love, they overflowed into the black community and into other communities.”
Daniel surprised the crowd and his mother when he said “Like, it’s incredible, my mum, my dad. They had sex. It’s amazing. Like do you know what I’m saying, I’m here. You know what I mean?” I am pretty sure his mom was shocked and surely sent Daniel a text message or two about his speech.
Shortly after, in the interview room, he explained, “I’m going to wait on my phone for a bit, man. Trust me. I’m going to wait on my phone for a little bit. I think my mom is going to be very happy. But she’s going to be cool. She’s going to be cool, man. She’s going to be cool. She knows ‑‑ she’s got a sense of humor. So she’s glad ‑‑ we give it to each other. So it’s cool.”
The most hilarious part of the night for me in the press area was when a reporter asked Kaluuya “what it meant to be directed by Regina King?” My reaction was like “Huh?” and I am sure it threw off Daniel because he had to ask them to repeat the question. Judas and the Black Messiah was NOT directed by Regina King. * facepalm *
Tyler Perry was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He told a story about a homeless woman asking him for shoes. Perry explained how he took her into his studio and helped her find shoes. He said she stayed looking down after he waited for her to look up and all this time she’s looking down. She finally looks up. She’s got tears in her eyes. She says “Thank you, Jesus, my feet are off the ground.” He explains at that moment he can recall her saying to him, “I thought you would hate me for asking.” “I’m like how can I hate you when I used to be you?”
When asked what made him tell the story he said, “Where we are a country and world, where everybody is grabbing a corner and a color, and they are all ‑‑ nobody wants to come to the middle to have a conversation. Everybody is polarized, and it’s in the middle where things change. So I’m hoping that that inspires people to meet us in the middle so that we can get back to some semblance of normal. As this pandemic is over, we can get to a place where we are showing love and kindness to each other again.”
Fresh off her Grammy win for “I Can’t Breathe,” H.E.R picked up an Oscar for Original Song for “Fight for You” for the film “Judas and the Black Messiah.” She collaborated with Dernst Emille and Tiara Thomas for the uprising song. H.E.R started by saying “Thank you to the Academy. I’ve always wanted to say that. And of course, my collaborators, D’Mile and Tiara Thomas, the song wouldn’t be what it was without them.” She then continued to thank her family and musical inspirations stating, “Of course I have to thank God for giving us these gifts and my parents, my beautiful mother who’s here with me today and my father at home. All those days of listening to Sly and the Family Stone, and Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, they really paid off.”
With H.E.R winning an Oscar and a Granny, placing her at the halfway mark of receiving EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winner) status, the question is what is next? She replied “Oh, there’s absolutely going to be an EGOT in my future hopefully. But, yeah, you know, I’m also super compassionate about acting as well. So you may see me up here as an actress also. And I love musicals. Me and Brandy have been talking a lot, and she inspired me since she did a musical. But, yeah, honestly, I cannot believe that we are here. I’m so thankful to be standing next to these two. I’m still speechless. I feel like the Oscars are happening tomorrow, and I’m dreaming right now. I’m still pinching myself. So I have no words.”
What does the song “ Fight for You” mean? H.E.R describes, “We are literally saying, you know, as long as I’m standing, I’m going to fight for you. And I have been given this platform and now an Oscars stage to share a message, you know, and to really speak my own truth and to continue to spread the word of our history, what is happening today.”
Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, along with Sergio Lopez‑Rivera, become of the few Black women to win in Hair and Makeup Styling for the film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Mia Neal accepted the award with her family background. “I was raised by my grandfather, James Holland. He was an original Tuskegee Airman. He represented the U.S. in the first Pan Am Games. He went to Argentina. He met Evita. He graduated from Northwestern University at the time that they did not allow Blacks to stay on campus, so he stayed at the YMCA. And after all of his accomplishments, he went back to his hometown in hopes of becoming a teacher. But they did not hire Blacks in the school system. So I want to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, were denied but never gave up.” She then continued to praise her colleagues and stated her hopes for future winners. “I stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here and Asian sisters and our Latino sisters and indigenous women. And I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking; it will just be normal.”
Notable jazz musician Jon Baptiste was amongst the trio (with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) to win Best Original Score. After winning the award he had this to say about his work. “I think I re‑affirm the fact that your collaborators, the people around you, the people who you have the pleasure of trading information as we all accumulate information on the journey of life and music is life. So I look at them as one and the same. And just kind of seeing how that transpires in the next project you take on and transpires in the next moments in your life. And this will definitely be something that will resonate until the day I die, this collaboration.”
Travon Free won Best Live Action Short for “Two Different Strangers” with Martin Desmond Roe. Travon relayed to the audience his reasoning for making the film stating “Today the police will kill three people. And tomorrow the police will kill three people and the day after that, the police will kill three people because on average, the police in America every day kill three people. Which amounts to about 1,000 people a year. And those people happen to disproportionately be Black people. And, you know, James Baldwin once said the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people’s pain. And so I just ask that you please not be indifferent. Please, don’t be indifferent to our pain.” Earlier that day another Black life, Isaiah Brown, was taken by a police officer who gave him a ride earlier that day. Similar to the storyline of the award-winning short film.
Lil Rel is Hilarious
Lil Rel had the Oscars program feeling like a block party on Sunday. He had Daniel Kallayk talking to him like he was his spades partner and had Angela Basset grooving like her favorite jam just dropped. The most shocking and most hilarious part of the night was when Lil Rel quizzed Glenn Close on EU’s “Da Butt” song. She answered correctly and gave a little history about the Backyard Band, a popular go-go band in the ’80s, and proceeded to do ‘the butt.’ With Lil Rel engaging the crowd and Quest Love providing the evening’s tunes, the Oscars was a thing even Black people could enjoy. No matter if you only know two of the many nominees.
Black Behind the Scenes of the Oscars
Why did the Oscars have a little more flavor this year? The Academy Awards had some more Black influence behind the scenes. Starting with Dionne Harmon, she is the Executive Vice President of Content & Strategy at Jesse Collins Entertainment, where she oversees the development and production of unscripted and scripted content. She has done some work on BET’s “Bobby Brown Series” and “American Soul.”
Amberia Allen returned as a writer for the second year in a row. Her notable credits include “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” and “The Last O.G.,” and she has written for numerous live awards shows and variety specials, including the “Golden Globe Awards,” “Primetime Emmy Awards” and “The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.”
One of the writers of the Boondocks, Rodney Barnes, returned to the Oscars production team as a writer. He serves as showrunner, writer, and creator of “Things That Make White People Uncomfortable” for HBO Max. Barnes also penned Marvel Comics’ “The Falcon,” Marvel/Lucasfilm’s “Lando: Double or Nothing” and “Quincredible” for the Lion Forge imprint.
Mitchell Marchand returned to the Oscars show as a writer. His credits as a comedy writer include such awards shows as the “BET Awards,” “Hip Hop Awards,” “UNCF Evening of Stars,” MTV Video Music Awards,” “NAACP Image Awards” and “Primetime Emmy Awards.”
Although some most of us are bummed that Chadwick Boseman did not win Best Actor for his amazing performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the Academy Awards was thoroughly entertaining and worth the watch this year. With Lil’ Rel hosting the event like that funny uncle at a family gathering and the music masterfully selected by DJ Quest Love, I’m sure you will not be bored. I know I wasn’t…
“Another series requiring me to sleep with my Black Panther nightlight on.” That is all I could think to myself. I’m kidding, I don’t have a nightlight, BUT Them definitely is a series with some really scary moments and shocking – almost unbearable – scenes. I am happy to see a horror series helmed by Black creatives that is receiving a major push on Amazon Prime. Not exactly satisfied with the finished product after watching the whole season, though.
The acting in the series was great. Shahadi Wright Joseph as Ruby Emory, Deborah Ayorinde as Lucky Emory, Ashley Thomas as Henry Emory, and Melody Hurd as Gracie Henry all play their characters well as the Emory family. I just wish the series could’ve continued to be more compelling instead of shocking. Deborah and Ashley’s chemistry as the lead Black couple was substantial. I could really feel the love they had for each other throughout the series and how they were supportive of each other during each of their mental breakdowns. I’m not going to lie, whenever Lucky got pissed, slapped, or chased someone I was cheering for her because she brought that energy.
Shahadi in “Us” was scary as hell as she played the doppelganger, this time around she is a teenager haunted by a teenage white ghost and the acceptance of her skin color. I found this to be interesting and made me see her as a household name in the industry. The acting she does with her eyes is a thing of pure talent. The scene where cutting her face out of possession/self-hate had me cringing the whole time.
Melody as Gracie Emory had some of the scariest scenes. The possession scene had me saying, “Oh hell no!,” mainly because evil-possessed children in horror films are horrifying. Her acting was impressive and helped the fright continue throughout the series.
Them has great usage of music to enhance the horror. For instance, “Come on Get Happy” by Judy Garland playing as they ride into Compton California is all so peaceful until, on the other side on the loop, it starts to slow down chopped and screwed style as the white neighbors look at the Black family entering their new neighborhood. Their expressions are priceless like someone bringing potato salad with raisins in it to a Black barbeque.
There is a great scene where Betty Wendell’s character is fidgeting with a torn small piece of wallpaper of her perfectly placed and patterned wall. The camera angles were well-timed as the scene reflects Betty’s discomfort of having a Black family in her ideal, perfect, all-white neighborhood. Betty is for sure an annoying character and deserves to be called “dumb ass b*tch!” Trust me you’ll hate her too. Then the series shows her disturbing family upbringing, her jealousy of other women who can have children (because of her sterility), and reveals the truth behind her unhappy marriage.
The storyline in Them is compelling and shows promise within the first few episodes but then becomes a little more disturbing and confusing. There is the rape of the lead character and the murder of her infant son that has made its way onto Twitter but there is also the flashback origin of the man in The Man in the Black Hat that is also gruesome.
I was a bit thrown off by the milk man’s character, I understand people can have some creepy characters but I would’ve rather seen more of Wendell’s (Betty’s husband) story. I understand most of his story is implied but there could’ve been a moment where you show the reason for resistance to harm the Black neighbors was because he was also an outsider for being gay.
Da Tap Dance Man was creepy as hell and had to rub all that paint off his face. His character was a good addition and served his role in Henry Emory’s story but I think I’ve grown tired of seeing these minstrel show-style demons/ghosts in Black entertainment.
The camera work and editing for Them was also impressive. The usage of colors, cuts, and angles really helped to create the feeling for each scene. For example, Henry Emory struggles to eat pie because the sweet smell and taste remind him of the mustard gas tested on him in the military.
Them is definitely a series you should watch if you like Jordan Peele and the classic horror creatives before. You’ll definitely be reminded of the Topsy and Bopsy episode of Lovecraft Country. You may become disinterested if you like a series with a solid storyline. You can watch now Them on Amazon Prime.
Unapologetic, blunt, and intersectional are the words to describe the rising filmmaker, Kyra Jones. She has recently won multiple screenwriting competitions (Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition 2020, ScreenCraft Virtual Pitch 2020), is working on a feature (Got to the Body), writing other projects, modeling, and participating in activist work all while working a full-time job… during a pandemic. I could tell after meeting her at the 2020 DC Black Film Festival that she would be someone to keep an eye on and was I right. The day before our scheduled interview she was staffed on season two of the hit Hulu series, Woke. Luckily for me Kyra still had time to tell Taji Mag what life is like as an up-and-coming artist.
Dapper Dr Feel (DDF): When did you fall in love with filmmaking?
Kyra Jones (KJ): I always really loved film and television. I started off as an actor in high school. The only reason I got into acting was because my mom wanted me to have an extracurricular activity. My friend told me she was trying out for the school play and told me I should try out too. So she dragged me to the audition and I ended up getting the lead.
I didn’t become a screenwriter/filmmaker until I was about to graduate from college. I was studying theater at Northwestern with the intention of acting. I was one of four Black students in my class of 100 theater majors. The theater department isn’t diverse at all. Needless to say, I did not have a great time with my experience. Within the material we were reading, there were no real roles for Black women. The roles were the usual stereotypical roles like maids, nurses, etc. I was like, “ We (Black people) do more than this.”
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.” – Maya Angelou
I know I want to tell stories and I know I want to be involved in art and media. I always liked writing and I was the type of person that could type a good 8-page paper in a few hours. So I was a strong writer in that regard but I never tried to do anything like creative writing or screenwriting.
In my senior year I realized I should have been a filmmaker, it was too late at that point but I tried to take as many classes as I could. So, you can say I fell in love with screenwriting/ filmmaking my senior year in college.
*After Kyra graduated her career was sort of in limbo. Her fellow classmates were doing internships, working for production companies, and making the connections needed to succeed after college. She struggled to get an internship because she had made the decision to become a filmmaker her senior year. Since she wasn’t having much success, she went back to acting.
It wasn’t until the Right Swipe came along. My writing partner and I did not intend on writing a web series we just serendipitously came up with an idea. From there we decided you know what, this is a web-series. This would be the first time I stepped on set for something that I wrote and it was the first time I said to myself ‘this is for me.’
DDF: What do you think you bring to the writer’s room of Woke?
KJ: I was definitely not expecting to make the writers room for Woke. I was so excited but, when I officially become staffed, I had so much shit to do in order to get ready. I had a full-time job and had to take leave, I had to try and get my ducks in a row in such a short amount of time. I’m just grateful and still shocked. I may have to turn off my camera to cry once the first meeting is over.
The Woke team is really excited to have me and thinks I will be a great addition to the team. I think my social justice background will be useful, especially for a show called Woke. I think bringing a more nuanced, intersectional perspective to the show, the Woke team will be interested to see what I will bring to one of the queer characters, Ayana (Sasher Zamata). Plus I’m funny. The Woke team had to read one of my pilots before they approved me and they thought it was funny. I can throw in a few jokes here and there, I think I am funny.
“Progressive art can assist people to learn what’s at work in the society in which they live.”- Angela Davis
DDF: Issa Rae had “Awkward Black Girl” and then later had Insecure, is there a possibility we could see a version of “The Right Swipe” in the future?
KJ: There will not be another version of the Right Swipe. I do intend on having my own TV show one day. There is already interest in a pilot that I wrote and I am really excited about it. It has some similarities to the Right Swipe.
DDF: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
KJ: Barry Jenkins, Ava Duverna, Donald Glover, and Beyonce. Lemonade and Black is King are both so good. I know she had a huge team on those projects but the fact there were so many directors and they were one cohesive vision, means Beyonce had to have communicated the vision to the creatives.
Kyra stated Go to the Body is in the process of getting named talent, developing the budget, and looking to shoot next year with an expected release date to be 2023.
DDF: What women inspire you?
KJ: Inspired by my grandmother, she is not a filmmaker but she really inspired me. She is very unapologetic and unafraid. I love Issa Rae, she is pretty much inspiration to everyone. And Michaela Coel. Black women everywhere inspire me.
“The discussion of representation is one that has been repeated over and over again, and the solution has always been that it’s up to us to support, promote, and create the images that we want to see.” – Issa Rae
Make sure to check out the current work of Kyra. Also, be sure to be on the lookout for her work on season two of Woke and her feature film, Got to the Body. I look forward to seeing more Black artists like Kyra provide the perspectives and voices needed for everyone to enjoy entertainment.
One of the biggest fears I had for Coming 2 America was the plot failing as other sequels have done in the past. The first film is a 30-year-old classic which is why many, including myself, were asking why they were making another sequel period, but this film was well written from the jokes to the plot, even the cameos weren’t forced or left the audience scratching our heads.
The plot of the film revisits the moments from the first movie. The infamous club scene where Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) are looking for Akeem’s future wife brought nostalgic laughs. The events leading Akeem to have an illegitimate son by having a one-night stand with Mary (Leslie Jones) were pure comedy. Leslie Jones was in rare form. Of course, I wondered why there wasn’t a DNA test done to confirm Akeem had a son but it’s a comedy so that’s not important.
Playing on the theme of making your path was also written well in the film. This especially goes well with Lavelle doing as a young Akeem did, escaping to America with his love interest, the royal barber, to live his own life. Akeem’s transformation from happy-go-lucky and free-spirited to becoming more conservative was also done organically through each act.
Tying in Akeem’s daughter, Meeka’s (KiKi Layne) desire to become heir to Zamunda and breaking tradition was not forced into the script and paid off in the third act. You would think since there are multiple storylines in a film it would be a mess but in this case, it was just enough.
The relationship between Queen Lisa Joffer (Shari Headly) and Mary was also interesting. We saw the two who both birthed children for Akeem become friends and not have a hot-mess relationship. Mary was even able to bring the New Yorker back out of Lisa as they drunkenly sang and danced the “Humpty Dance,” a great scene and transitional moment.
The payoff for me was Akeem’s mother being the voice of reason while being absent from the whole film when Cleo (John Amos) asks Akeem what his mother would do when Akeem was in a low place. Other women were also the ones providing words of wisdom. This includes Lavelle receiving important life advice from Mirembe, Mary, and Meeka throughout the film.
Music and Entertainment
Let’s talk about the music and performances in the film because there are some memorable ones. King Jaffe’s funeral was outrageous but desirable because he was able to witness it. He had performances by En Vogue, Salt-n-Peppa performing “What a King”, Glady’s Knight did “Midnight Train to Zamunda,” dance performances by the Zamunda dancers. Who wouldn’t want to go out to this type of celebration?
Bopto’s (Teyana Taylor) entrance was also another fun musical set with a rendition of Prince’s “Get Off”. I loved this because I am a huge Prince fan. Of course, the film could not go without Oha, the royal orator that sung “She’s Your Queen to Be”, laying down some of Prince’s lyrics followed by Lavelle’s rap portion of the song.
Cameos and Movie Nods
Some of our favorite characters portrayed by both Arsenio Hall and Eddie Murphy return from the first film including the old men in the barbershop, Reverend Brown, etc. The newest addition was Baba portrayed by Arsenio Hall who had me dying every scene he was in. There’s also a surprise performance by Randy Watson, whom I waited for in anticipation with excitement at the end of the film during the wedding, I’m sure people will enjoy it.
Just like the first film, the Duke and Duke firm from Eddie Murphy’s other film Trading Places had a few scenes. If you don’t remember in Coming to America, the Duke brothers are shown homeless and broke until luck is bestowed upon them.
Coming 2 America was a surprisingly hilarious sequel that I would happily watch in theaters. Some may argue but I found it to be just as funny as the original Coming to America. The film also has a great soundtrack featuring songs by John Legend and awesome costume designs with beautiful colors by the award-winning Ruth E. Carte. If you are looking for good laughs, nostalgic musical entertainment, and a good-hearted film, then tune into Amazon Prime Friday, March 5th. Watch the credits for bloopers!
The Sundance Film Festival 2021 presented its audience with not only some great new projects but also new experiences virtually. This year’s Black creatives gave us amazing content and compelling stories. Many of the projects had me sitting in my apartment in silence and reflecting on the stories being told. Below are a list of some of my favorite short films from the Festival and my interactive WebXR experience with the project Traveling the Interstitium with Octavia Butler.
Favorite Short Black Films of the Sundance Film Festival
Synopsis: After his father gets into a fight at a bowling alley, Darious begins to investigate the limitations of his own manhood.
Artist: Miles Warren is a filmmaker born and raised in New York City. Since graduating from Wesleyan University, he has directed various short films, music videos, and commercial content.
My Thoughts: How do we define masculinity and what influences our definition of it? The answer to these questions is formulated from the time we are born until we leave this earth. Bruiser gives the perspective of a young man, attempting to define masculinity after he witnesses his father fighting. I loved how the filmmaker shows how quickly the father’s words and actions impact Darious. There are also lessons the father learns about the importance of his influences. Bruiser is a short I recommend watching.
Synopsis: A God-fearing woman in present-day South Africa finds herself in a transactional relationship as she tries to support her sick husband and daughter.
Artist: Nomawonga Khumalo is a writer/director from Johannesburg, South Africa. Five Tiger is her narrative film debut. Her feature film, The Bursary, will head into production in the second half of 2021.
My thoughts: This is another film that touches on masculinity in addition to gender roles, morality, faith, and forgiveness. So much is told in this short that I was really interested to see what happens with the lead character and what led to her husband’s sickness. The most surprising part of the film is the reveal of who is involved in the transactional relationship. I really felt for the lead character as she juggled so much and fought internally to provide for her family.
Lizard | Short Film Grand Jury Prize, Presented by Southwest
Synopsis:Juwon, an eight-year-old girl with an ability to sense danger, gets ejected from Sunday school service. She unwittingly witnesses the underbelly in and around a megachurch in Lagos.
Artist: Akinola Davies Jr.’s work is situated between West Africa and the United Kingdom, as he identifies as a member of the global diaspora, being part of both worlds. His work navigates the collision of colonial and imperial traditions, as well as a return to Indigenous narratives.
My Thoughts:This film reminded me of the childhood experiences and questions about the church. A journey with Juwon from the classroom to the church parking lot had me thinking, “ ]What is this little girl doing and why she is spending her church money on junk food?” Although she misses class exploring the church ground, she learns a lesson about cheating the church and God. This experience will for sure influence the moral compass of Juwon. What happens after the conclusion of the film? I wish the filmmaker would show us because it looked like there was going to be some real action.
Black Bodies by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall
Synopsis: SA Black man comes face-to-face with the realities of being Black in the twenty-first century.
Artist:Fyffe-Marshall is a director, screenwriter, and social activist whose work includes the award-winning short film, Haven (2018), and the two-part short film, Black Bodies and Marathon (2020).
My Thoughts: This speaks volumes about present-day racism and expresses the frustrations of the Black community. I sat in silence and could feel every bit of the powerful poems by Komi Olaf and Donisha Prendergast. A speakeasy piece, imperative art, and perspective all in one, Black Bodies ends on a note we are all too familiar with. To learn that Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s film was inspired by a viral racial incident makes her work even more compelling. The filmmaker/activist spreading the word of equality while chipping away at injustice one film and project at a time.
A Concerto is a Conversation
Synopsis: A virtuoso jazz pianist and film composer tracks his family’s lineage through his 91-year-old grandfather from Jim Crow Florida to the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Artists: Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Proudfoot, an award-winning short-documentary director and entrepreneur, is the creative force behind Breakwater Studios. Bowers is a Grammy-nominated, Emmy Award-winning, and Juilliard-educated pianist and composer who creates genre-defying music that pays homage to his jazz roots—with inflections of alternative and R&B influences.
My Thoughts: I really loved the conversation between Kris Bowers and his grandfather about their family history. Kris Bowers’s love for music and his grandfather’s love for his dry cleaning business, have similar success stories. I liked how the film displays the love and bond between the two men. It’s no surprise the short film added Ava Duvernay as executive producer and is an Oscar contender.
Want to watch this beautifully crafted short documentary click the link and watch below.
New Frontier: The Interstitium with Octavia Butler
The Sundance Film Festival, although virtual, still provided audiences with personal and interactive ways to experience the festival. COVID has prevented many from traveling to Salt Lake City but, with the virtual experience, audiences interacted with others via an avatar and watched films. I loved participating in the New Frontier world and hope it returns next year because it allows those who can’t travel to experience the Sundance film festival.
The Octavia Butler virtual experience was one of the biggest highlights of the Sundance Film Festival. I loved being able to see the project “Pluto” by one of my favorite artists, Sophia Nahli Allison. Fresh off her Netflix documentary, “A Love Song For Natasha”, the artist takes the audience on an expedition from death to birth with varying imagery and an original poem as a voice-over. The text, “it’s not dying that hurts it’s coming back to life that’s painful,” displays at the beginning of the project and is the question the woman asks, what seems to be, a higher being. I loved this work as I felt like I was hovering through time and existence trying to answer the questions of reincarnation. As always, this project is worth the experience and I look forward to Allison’s future work.
Secret Garden, by Stephanie Dinkins (not the song featuring El Debarge, Barry White, and Christopher Williams), allows the participant to walk around a garden where oral histories spanning generations of African American women live. I was intrigued by the stories and the ability to see the expression displayed by each woman. It was like going to a concert with multiple stages and listening to women tell stories ranging from surviving an enslaved boat to growing up on a farm in the 1920s.
Idris Brewster’s virtual experience had me getting GTA vibes, exploring an island first-person view. Each island had its own unique environment and soundtrack featuring Black artists. It’s a music and art lover’s playground. I visited the island three times to see if the atmosphere of the island changed, nothing changed but the time of day changed. The only thing that would’ve made the experience better is if I would have had the VR goggles to fully enjoy the experience – but that was my fault. Maybe I should use my stimulus check to get some VR equipment.
Terence Nance’s piece reminds me of the screensavers we had back in the late ’90s and early 2000s. The type of art that mold’s itself to the vibration of sound. In this case, it’s the sound of people’s voices that alter both the color and environment of the piece. To experience what I mean you can go here.
Sundance Film Festival 2021 was a great success in my opinion, not only was there a lot of Black art representation but the opportunity for many around the world to experience the festival virtual. The movie drive-ins are great to keep safe and within the experience. I really hope more people participate next year to see something more than what’s on the streaming services. Plus you can have your own snacks…legally.
Synopsis: In 1969, during the same summer as Woodstock, a different music festival took place 100 miles away. More than 300,000 people attended the summer concert series known as the Harlem Cultural Festival. It was filmed, but after that summer, the footage sat in a basement for 50 years. It has never been seen. Until now.
Artist, DJ, storyteller, and now award-winning director, Quest Love, won audiences over with his debut film, Summer of Love. The documentary features a slew of artists, attendees, historians, and celebs as they discuss the long-forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival. The Roots drummer brought together a beautiful collage of music, film, and history.
Quest Love’s film starts off with a very emotional reaction by attendee Musa Jackson and cuts for a brief moment before the film starts again. This moment resembles how we all feel when the past is revisited during a time of joy. Much like my first Bulls game when I got to see Michael Jordan.
The tone of the film mimics the musical archive of Quest. Every beat and note is well composed to fit each moment of the documentary. It’s like Quest Love is doing a DJ set and he is just feeding us the moment like he does while performing in front of a crowd. Love mentioned he approached the film as if it was a DJ set during the Q&A after the film. I really felt every single beat and not just the songs performed by each artist but by each scene. There are a few times the film touched me emotionally. Stevie Wonder’s drum solo was jaw-dropping. Nina Simone’s performance embodied Black Girl Magic. When Mahalia Jackson performed “Precious Lord” with Mavis Staples… whew. It was one of the only times the two had ever sung together on stage. I was honored to see Mavis Staple perform in 2016 at the Stephen Colbert Show, so it was cool seeing her perform in her prime in this film.
The historical ties throughout Summer of Love let the audience know how special this moment in time was, to have a Black orchestrated music festival with top chart-topping performers. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X weighed heavily on the Black community, so it was good to see people have an escape for this moment in time.
Not only did we see the producer and host Tony Lawrence put together magical series of concerts but I learned how the almost forgotten festival had so many invested. Take for instance the Black Panther party providing security for the event, it was intriguing to see how people came together to make this come together.
I found myself dancing, singing (or at least trying to), and almost crying at some moments (my eyes were sweating) because of some of the experiences Black people had back then, we are having now. The performance by Sly and the Family Stone was great and it was dope to learn that they had performed the set from Woodstock, which was happening not too far from the festival. It was funny seeing the crowd’s reaction to the group showing up. Sly and the Family Stone show up late or not at all at times for performances.
I really truly loved learning the festival included not only the stable Black artist we know of but also Hispanic artists like Ray Barretto. Seeing how the festival included other diasporic cultures that were oppressed really showed the festival’s intention – to bring people of color together for a great time and good music. This is the same reaction I have while watching the award-winning documentary Mr. Soul that Quest Love was featured in.
Quest Love did an excellent job capturing the reaction of the interviewees during Summer of Love. It really made the film tug emotionally at my heartstrings. I could see how much this festival meant to each person and how the event impacted their life. Honestly, it made me jealous because to be a part of a moment like that had to be extraordinary.
I was not surprised to see the film take home multiple awards including the Audience Award: U.S. Documentary and U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Documentary. I even made mention of its greatness on social media before I watched the other films on my list. The documentary truly shows much of Black History is still out there and how awesome our people are. So yes, the “Summer of Soul” will be televised and you need to make sure to watch it! I’ll definitely re-watch this film with my family when it is available to the public and will continue to listen to my 70’s playlist the film inspired.