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How Saraciea Fennell Morphed Literary Passion Into Essential Bronx Book Festival

NYC native Saraciea Fennell speaks on how the festival came to be.

Saraciea Fennell's journey with literature has been an integral part of her life since she was a child. During her time in foster care, the NYC native turned to books in order to get lost in an alternate universe while the world continued to press on around her.

"I read books to basically escape real life," Fennell says. "Being in a different environment with strangers, away from family, it was a place that felt like home away from home." Roald Dahl's James And The Giant Peach, and Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret opened up Fennell's imaginative scope which later turned into her love for graphic novels and fantasy passages; Octavia Butler's sci-fi work reserves a special place on Fennell's bookshelf, and she still re-reads The Baby-Sitters Club (but the graphic novel version by Raina Telgemeier, with text adapted from the originals written by Ann M. Martin).

That literary refuge continued to grow in meaning to Fennell's journey and has turned into an event that puts literacy at the forefront for the BX's youth. After closing out a successful Kickstarter to raise funding for Saturday's Bronx Book Festival (May 19), Fennell's idea is within reach, nearly two years after the borough's only Barnes & Noble closed down in Bay Plaza.

Despite this dismal decision, Fennell saw the birth of not only the Bronx Book Festival, but the Bronx Is Reading campaign as a way to deeply engage with her community and provide a space for children and adults to explore literature by authors of color. Since 2012, Fennell, 29, envisioned an outlet that supports the statement "reading is fundamental," but the road to this moment was met with opposition.

"Even though [crowdfunding] was super fast, I really have been working on the seed since 2012, and between 2015 and 2016," she says, "after being hit by several companies and organizations saying, ‘This is a great idea, but we only give money to nonprofits,' which was discouraging, but I decided crowdfunding was the best way to do it and I’m so happy I did it because now the festival is coming."

The event will feature keynote roundtable discussions with authors Daniel Jose Older (Salsa Nocturna) and Elizabeth Acevedo (Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths), writing workshops, a spotlight on young adult writers and queer authors of color plus live readings of works by Wendy Xu (Mooncakes), Sharee Miller (Princess Hair) and others. Before Saturday arrives and Fordham Plaza fills with eager attendees, here's how the festival came to be.

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VIBE: Tell me about your path that has led to this moment of the festival?
Saraciea Fennell: I attended my first book festival as an adult in Brooklyn and I thought it was mind-blowing. I wondered why something like that couldn’t take place in the Bronx. As time went on I kept asking myself, 'Why are all of these really cool literary events happening all around New York City but nothing is really happening in the Bronx?' That was the seed of the idea for the festival and after the Barnes & Noble closed, I decided it was time to do it now. Everyone needs to have literature in their lives and it was important for people of color because the Bronx has a very large population of diverse people and immigrants. I thought it was important to invite authors and creators of color to be a part of this festival so that people who look like me that are brown, black, Latinx, that they can see that this industry exists. People of color are writing books, you can make a career out of this. I also want more people of color to work in book publishing. It’s a very white industry so it would be an excellent opportunity for people in the community to come out, learn more about book publishing and to also support authors of color. I think just to see that representation will open up so many doors for so many people.

I also came across your Bronx Is Reading initiative. How will this festival combat the notion that the borough's residents have no interest in reading given the lack of bookstores in certain communities?
With the Bronx Is Reading program, that program is only open to Title 1 schools. Through the application process, we had so many schools that applied. We had to turn them down so we’re hoping that they apply again for next year. This year we’re going to have three authors visiting three to four Title 1 schools. That’s 600 kids that are about to get books for free. I’m super pleased and so thankful to the authors for coming out. The festival purchased 200 copies of each of those authors’ books to give away to these students. It’s just a way to reimagine my past because I never had a school visit from an author or illustrator so this program is really special to me because I want children of color who come from really tough circumstances and maybe have never been in a bookstore and have only seen books in a library and can’t afford to buy books, I want them to see that this is something special for them and they don’t have to worry about the cost of it. It’s all paid for and handled through the festival and the icing on the cake is they get to also meet a real-life author.

The Barnes & Noble store in Baychester closed due to high rent and may be replaced by a Saks Off 5th. Is there a connection between literature or its lack thereof in marginalized communities and increased costs of living in NYC?
I agree 100 percent. I think that you see nothing but clothing stores and liquor stores and all of these non-educational things popping up in a lot of marginalized communities. It makes it seem like that’s all we care about, that we don’t care about reading or other cultural things that other affluent communities have and it’s just not true. You can just see from this festival, hundreds of people have been sending me messages saying thank you for doing this, this is something the borough has needed, I’m happy to have something in my backyard and not have to go into another borough to get it. I think there’s a direct correlation there. I’m sad to hear that the Barnes & Noble closed and it’s being replaced by a clothing store. It’s like do you really need another one of those?

What were your thoughts on this decision? Did you feel like you ultimately had a responsibility to stress that literacy is fundamental to the youth?
When I heard about it, there was someone who started a petition. I signed the petition and spoke about it to people in my community, like ‘We cannot let this happen.’ From my end, working in publishing as a publicist I tried to get more events confirmed in the Bronx, to get authors in there to speak to people. Unfortunately, the event person who works there was very resistant to confirming authors because they thought no one is going to show up. I’m said, ‘If you book it, maybe people will show up’ because hundreds of people signed that petition to keep the store open. I really wished that they would have upped their events after that because there was so much attention there but unfortunately I couldn’t book anything and I was really bummed by that. So having this festival really makes me excited because I’m like here is the community, these people are here for it. The festival is free but I did an Eventbrite and there are about 500 people confirmed saying that they’re coming. That’s an amazing number for a festival. I had that link up for two and a half weeks.

What’s the significance of holding the festival in Fordham Plaza?
That’s one of my favorite places in the Bronx. That’s where I bought a lot of my books because there weren’t any bookstores. I would buy them from the street vendors that were showcasing their work on the sidewalk when I would walk down the hill from school. It’s also the location of one of my favorite libraries which is the Bronx Public Library Center and then also it’s central to the Bronx. The Metro-North stops there, there’s some Westchester County buses that stop there. There’s some express buses from all over the Bronx that stop there from the North and South Bronx. That was really important to me to give access to everyone in the Bronx, not to cater just to the North or South Bronx, but the entire Bronx. It’s really accessible and easy for people to get to.

Do you think given the recent closures of Barnes & Noble stores across the country, that independent bookstores will begin to see an increase in foot traffic?
I think so. Indies already have a very strong following and it’s because they’re so engaged in the community. At this point, Barnes & Noble is sort of like an independent bookstore because they’re in jeopardy. I think they need to actually start to think like an independent bookstore and rebuild those partnerships with their community. That actually might make a change.

In 2013, the New York Post wrote an article stating 79.3 percent of NYC's high school students entering CUNY schools lacked basic reading skills. In terms of this city's education system, what do you think could've been the cause of that statistic?
Speaking in the Bronx in particular, schools not having fleshed out libraries is an issue. The Common Core thing was an issue where they were having people graduate just because they couldn’t hold them back anymore. There were just so many things that played a part in it, but as far as having access to books, in particular, I think that was probably one of the huge impacts in the Bronx. Not having a bookstore or having one, which was the Barnes & Noble all the way in the North Bronx that many people didn’t visit was a huge issue. The Bronx is made up of mostly Title 1 schools and Title 1 schools have really slim pickings in their school libraries. There are teachers that are going out to buy books for their students because there is no funding. Books and reading are really important and we need to fix this issue. The only way to do that is exposure and showing representation because there’s literally a book out there for every type of person. People who say they don’t like to read, I get it, but reading is fundamental. We need to get people out of that mindset and to get them reading.

It’s interesting that you said there’s a book out there for everyone. There's a professor who said to The Atlantic that instead of teachers assigning general reading requirements, they should assign texts or passages according to each student's reading level. What are your thoughts on that idea?
I think that’s interesting, that might work. I know that there are a lot people who feel discouraged if they can’t read at the same level as their peers. It could be heartbreaking for you to realize you’re reading on a fifth grade level if you’re in eleventh grade and the things that are being assigned to you, you can’t really read and digest them. Instead of forcing someone to read something they can’t digest, giving them something that’s more guided to their reading level is smart.

Visit The Bronx Book Festival webpage here for more information.

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Review: 'Bad Boys For Life' Proves To Be A Promising Crowd-Pleasing Throwback

“We ride together, we die together” never really made that much sense as a slogan, did it? Regardless, the line that epitomized the appeal of Bad Boys, the uber-violent action buddy cop franchise that turned Martin Lawrence and Will Smith into movie stars back in the mid-90s. Smith and Lawrence– now fiftysomethings– are back for a third go-round with surprising and enjoyable new tricks.

In 2003, the eight years between Bad Boys seemed like an eternity. But there’s been seventeen years between Bad Boys II and Bad Boys For Life—the former hit theaters before an iPhone ever existed, just as the so-called War On Terror was hitting full swing and a wide-eyed Beyonce embarked on a nascent solo career. If the buddy cop genre was on life support in the early 2000s, the formula is almost completely post-mortem in 2020; most buddy cop flicks in more recent times have been subversive spoofs (like 2010s The Other Guys) or unfunny one-offs (like the forgettable CHiPs).

This time around, Mike Lowry (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) face the realities of middle age. Burnett is happy to waltz into retirement and into “Papa” territory, exhausted from chasing kingpins. Lowry, on the other hand, is ever more of an adrenaline junkie than in the past; addicted to the thrill and holding on to a “bulletproof” playboy image that’s getting sadder and sadder—particularly when he’s forced to admit he wrecked a promising relationship with fellow officer Rita (Paola Nunez) and every time he peppers his bravado with Millennial-speak like “Turn up” and “One Hunnid.”

Lowry’s disappointment in Burnett’s desire to leave the force turns into something harsher after a shooting forces Mike to take stock and Marcus distances himself from his old partner. Of course, this is all just a set up for the duo to reconnect in the face of tragedy—along with a gaggle of new recruits led by Rita; including a computer geek who may or may not be a killing machine, a young tough guy who hates Lowry for apparently no reason, and Vanessa Hudgens.

Bad Boys For Life has more heart than the lunkheaded Bad Boys II, directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Ballah don’t forego the departed Michael Bay’s formula for punchlines and hyperkinetic violence; there’s an opening knife sequence that’s almost gratuitously graphic, and an action set-piece on a bridge that may be the most ambitious in the series. There’s only a passing mention of Burnett’s sister (played by Gabrielle Union in the previous film) and an obligatory callback to II’s funniest moment involving his daughter, but a lot of the movie’s emotional core sits with Smith’s Mike Lowry. Smith plays his first action star with an almost meta-level of intensity.

He’s the sum of all Will Smith’s Will Smithiness in one character and gets to play with the idea of Lowry’s machismo persona. Together with the recognition that Lawrence isn’t really an action star (the film smartly turns his affinity for sitting and watching as Smith jumps headfirst into heroics into a running gag), it’s a good turn for the characters and helps elevate the second half of the movie after a somewhat rote first half.

As the film’s “big bad,” Telenovela action star Kate del Castillo isn’t given a whole lot to do, nor is Jacob Scipio as Armas, as her son and steely hitman, who is on the hunt for Lowry. Reliably familiar support from Theresa Randle as Burnett’s long-suffering wife and Joe Pantoliano as the perpetually-flustered police captain Conrad Howard reminds everyone that this is a Bad Boys flick, and the actors clearly relish jumping back into their long-standing roles.

But these films always work best when Smith and Lawrence get to quip lines back-and-forth while dodging bullets, and the easy partnership between the two remains intact, even when the film lags under its own clichés or the sentiment borders on silly. There’s a twist that feels especially contrived and so many self-referential moments where Marcus and Mike seem to almost know that they’re in a movie about Marcus and Mike (who say “Bad boys for life” as a wedding toast, really?), but there’s a breeziness to the proceedings that feels more in line with the easy fun of the 1995 original—as opposed to the frenetically hyperactive feel of its sequel.

Anyone who is excited to see Bad Boys For Life wants to go into it for what these movies have always managed to give their fans; just enough comedy sprinkled with just enough to story to justify eye-popping action sequences and RoboCop-levels of bloodshed. The buddy cop genre was always predictable, but the best of it—classics like Lethal Weapon, Beverly Hills Cop and, yes, the first Bad Boys film—has always been a fun night at the movies.

In that regard, Bad Boys For Life doesn’t disappoint. It’s coasting on the easygoing partnership of Smith and Lawrence, as it always has. 25 years ago, they were two of the biggest stars on television, making a somewhat unlikely leap to action stardom in a movie initially written for then-Saturday Night Live comedians Dana Carvey and Jon Lovitz that was being directed by a guy most people had never heard of. We may be a vastly different audience today than we were in the 1990s or 2000s, but there’s some fun in watching how different Mike and Marcus are too.

Franchises like Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon seem like big blockbuster brands of yesteryear, as a whole generation of moviegoers have grown up with vast comic book spectacles or rapid-chase car flicks overpopulated with musclebound tough guys. As such, Bad Boys For Life stands as a sort of throwback in popcorn entertainment; that reliable action-comedy that coasts on the chemistry and charisma of its leads—more so than otherworldly special effects or universe-building.

The constant mentions of “One last time” statements remind the audience that this could be the final go-round for Mike and Marcus. Big box office returns can reroute retirements, but if this is indeed the grand finale for Bad Boys, there are worse ways to go out. In a world where Lethal Weapon 4 and Rush Hour 3 exist (with talk of another in the Chris Tucker/Jackie Chan series coming down the pike), Bad Boys For Life should be praised for what it does manage to do so well. It’s fun, violent escapism that doesn’t ask too much of anyone. And sometimes that’s really all we need these movies to be.

Bad Boys For Life opens in theaters Friday, January 17.

Director(s): Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Jacob Scipio, Alexander Ludwig, Kate del Castillo, Joe Pantoliano, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Nicky Jam, DJ Khaled.

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Odell Beckham Jr. #13 of the Cleveland Browns warms up prior to the game against the Baltimore Ravens at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio.
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College Football Officials Pondering Policy Changes After Incident With Odell Beckham Jr.

A domino effect might be on the horizon after Odell Beckham Jr.'s encounter with LSU players and a security officer that led to arrest warrants and debates about possible NCAA violations.

Speaking to USA Today Sports Thursday (Jan 16) executive director Bill Hancock said officials from the College Football Playoff will investigate practices that allow non-players to engage with players on the sidelines during events such as the national semifinals and championship games.

“Being on the sidelines is a privilege,” Hancock told the outlet. “Along with any privilege comes responsibility, because the focus should be on the people playing and coaching in the game, rather than on any visitors. The CFP will be reviewing its policy for allowing guests onto the sidelines and into locker rooms at future games.”

While the LSU Tigers beat Clemson Monday to secure a spot in the national championship, all eyes were on the Cleveland Browns wide receiver for handing out money to players and slapping the buttocks of a Superdome security guard. The incident took place in the LSU locker room. It was initially reported that the money was fake but it was confirmed that the money was actually real.

Video of the incident went viral and just a few days later, New Orleans Police Department public affairs officer Juan Barnes confirmed that the security guard filed the complaint. An arrest warrant for simple battery was issued against Beckham Jr. on Thursday.

The NFL star and former LSU player possibly committed an NCAA violation "if it’s determined athletes with eligibility remaining received cash," USA Today Sports mentions. OBJ and his representatives are cooperating with authorities, the Browns said in a statement.

Statement regarding Odell Beckham Jr. incident: pic.twitter.com/7cN3jOLCj6

— Cleveland Browns (@Browns) January 16, 2020

LSU will now investigate the incident to confirm if any NCAA violations were committed and if it will affect any of the players seen in the video.

Many have pointed exactly why the officer was in the locker room in the first place. As the players were celebrating their big win, the security guard allegedly threatened the players who were smoking cigars in the locker room. Stephen A. Smith reacted to the news and the NCAA possible violation as "bogus."

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Jim Jones Hints At A Dipset Movie

With recent individual projects from Cam’ron and Jim Jones gaining widespread acclaim, the latter East Coast rap veteran plans to keep that momentum going with this latest news. According to XXL Magazine, Jones hinted at a movie on their rap collective Dipset, which formed in the late 90s but rose to mainstream prominence in the 2000s.

“We started this as young teenagers. We would’ve never thought that we did what we did and ended up where we are and we’re still here today making money off this industry that we dreamed of being in," he said during an interview on Nick Cannon's Power 106 show. "People know we make music and there’s always a nostalgic value when we pop out and do music. But I do believe we got a story that needs to be seen in hip-hop like no other. I know people have a lot of their own glory story, but we really have an action flick that needs to be told.”

Dipset, which is comprised of Cam’ron, Jim Jones, Freekey Zeekey, Juelz Santana, and former members 40 Cal., Hell Rell, and J.R. Writer, churned out hit after hit like “Hey Ma (Remix),” “Real Ni**as,” "Family Ties," “Dipset Anthem,” “I’m Ready,” “Crunk Muzik,” and more.

A Dipset film will not head to production until Santana’s release from prison, Jones also noted. Santana was sentenced to two years in prison for possession of a firearm as a convicted felon. He was also found guilty of possession of a controlled substance. According to his partner Kimbella, Santana is expected to be released in summer 2020.

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