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BET's 'American Soul' Is Not A Biographical Series: Premiere Recap

The new drama series is more than just a show about Soul Train.

American Soul is not a show about Soul Train. It’s a show about Don Cornelius -- and his marriage, and a group of Soul Train dancers, and their parents, and his dance coordinator, and a shady club owner. And, apparently, Gladys Knight.

The series premiere had a lot going on. At moments, it was difficult to grasp how the narratives were coming together. We showed up for the story of Cornelius’ creation and the construction of the 37-year-long Soul Train series and legacy; why were we being introduced to soldiers and toddlers and bossy big mama figures who run diners? For viewers who lived through at least some of Soul Train’s golden era and know the show’s history, it was hard to resist trying to fit the events of this episode into the bigger story as we know it.

It’s important to note the disclaimer on the opening card: that American Soul is inspired by true events; but “some characters, places, and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes”. Indeed. American Soul has to stand independently of actual events to be properly enjoyed.

The show opens on February 1, 2012; the day Don Cornelius committed suicide in his Encino, Calif. home. Cornelius (Sinqua Walls) watches a classic episode of the show featuring Gladys Knight (Kelly Rowland), a wistful smile on his face and tears streaming from one eye as he places a gun to his head. This suggests the series intends to, over time, bring us all the way up to his suicide, which is probably too ambitious to be possible. If that’s not the intention, this framing of the first episode might have been overkill (no pun intended). That was a prevailing issue: the story of Cornelius and Soul Train is great in itself, but the “dramatization” is heavy.

The premiere episode focused on Soul Train’s national launch and the tasks Cornelius must accomplish to make it happen, namely raising seed money for the show’s move to L.A. and securing a Top 10 act for the first show, a condition of his syndication deal. We’re presented with an eager, energetic and risk-taking Cornelius, a profile largely counter to the composed, controlled persona we know. Cornelius never revealed much of his personal self in his years as host of Soul Train. This is the most intriguing aspect of the series– getting to learn who he was outside of the show. But how much of that is the fictionalized part? Do we really believe Don was cracking jokes about blowing up the bathroom? (I’ve decided to not believe that, personally.)

By the end of the episode, Don has faced down racist cops (in a very Five Heartbeats-inspired scene), stood up to James Brown’s goons, dipped into his family’s hands-off savings, gone on a mild coke and alcohol binge, and been exposed as an impossible boss and a reformed cheater. But he’s also the man doggedly chasing his dream—a dream that will belong to all black people. His ability to sell that dream to others—first shady nightclub owner Gerald Aims (Greenleaf’s Jason Dirden, continuing his efforts to take Terrence Howard’s country-slickster-with-a-perm crown and claiming all the best lines in the show, including the title quote), then to Gladys, positioned in the show as a guide of sorts for Cornelius—gets him through this week’s set of obstacles.

We’re also introduced to three members of the Soul Train Gang: Kendall Clarke, younger sister Simone Clarke and JT Tucker, aspiring singers hoping Soul Train will give them the exposure and grant them their big break as a singing group. This is an area where American Soul has great potential. The Soul Train dancers were unsung stars of the series, and little was known even about the stars in the group. Giving them lives and backstory through these three is a great concept. The kids are facing their own challenges. Kendall is a young father who, unbeknownst to his family, is trying to get out of the military draft. JT is struggling to keep his family afloat despite his mother’s drug habit. Simone’s challenge is JT. Her mother (played by Kelly Price) doesn’t approve of the relationship, and she’s had to hide it from her father, who’s in Vietnam.

We follow these three from a very funky Grease audition, to a failed audition as the house band for Club 100 Proof (owned by Gerald), to Soul Train auditions, which Cornelius unceremoniously interrupts and cuts short.

Lastly, there’s Tessa Lorraine, the Soul Train dance coordinator. We first meet her when she appears to scout the teens at the Grease high school musical rehearsal. We see her again at the interrupted dancer auditions - auditions she was running. Tessa is frustrated and feels disrespected and undervalued by Cornelius. But, she has the complete support of her cutie husband (casting did a great job with all these black men, by the way. Shout out to them).

The show closes with a round of heavy foreshadowing for each character: Simone’s father calls and Brianne (Price) expresses surprise because it’s “so close to (him) coming home.” Kendall proposes to his son’s mother as a solution to avoid going into service, but she’s moved on.

JT’s mom is behind on the rent, and the landlord is fed up. Gerald isn’t just shady, but a full gangster, and locks people in trunks who don’t pay up his money. And at home for Don, his wife Delores doesn’t want to move to LA because of the kids (who we still haven’t seen, by the way). She doesn’t want him to move to LA either, but to instead come home to Chicago every weekend or “we’re not gonna make it.” Don responds that if he doesn’t do everything in his power to make (Soul Train) work, he’s the one that won’t make it. Then, we go back to Don’s living room in 2012, and he pulls the trigger.

We’re left with a picture of a man who has taken repeated gambles at the expense of his family and has this one opportunity to do something right or lose everything. That’s not the impression I had of Don Cornelius, but again, is this a matter of things not publicly known, or fictionalization for dramatic purposes? Aside from the moments of heavyhandedness (really? Don reads about Manifest Destiny and then the next day has a conversation about Manifest Destiny?), some character tropes (like the fussy big mama figure JT works for) and attempt to jam a whole lot of exposition into the first episode, American Soul is promising. It’s engaging and entertaining and the recreation of the era is fantastic.

Hopefully, it’s able to streamline the storytelling.

American Soul airs Tuesdays at 9 pm ET/PT on BET.

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Issa Rae And Kumail Nanjiani Talk Their Black And Brown Dynamic In 'The Lovebirds'

As our latest op-ed points out, black romance films are having a moment, and The Lovebirds is adding a comedic twist to the matter. Ahead of the MRC/Paramount Pictures' premiere on streaming platform Netflix, VIBE correspondent Jazzie Belle sat down with the film's lead actors Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani to discuss the refreshing black and brown dynamic between their characters.

"I think it was just more exciting to me [to take part in a different romantic dynamic]. It was just that, and I didn't realize until later," said Rae. "Obviously with working with Kumail, it just like 'Oh, I haven't seen an on-screen pairing like this' and [I] was excited to play with him cosmetically. But yes, it's exciting to see a new and fresh dynamic in movies like this."

"When you see a portrayal of Pakistanis in American pop culture, generally, you're seeing certain lanes. You don't see us being light or funny or fun that often," said Nanjiani. "My family is very, very funny. My friends are very funny, so it wasn't even an attempt to try and show that [brown characters can be portrayed differently]. I just wanted to show how the people I know are. My mom and my dad are some of the funniest people I've ever met."

Watch the full interview above. The Lovebirds is streaming on Netflix now.

Interview's music bed provided by Gus.

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Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in 'The Photograph'.
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Opinion: Black Romance Films Are Having A Moment

It began with a kiss. Just one decade after the birth of cinema, vaudeville actors and dancers Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle gleefully embraced one another on film. They held hands and locked lips, giving the world its very first image of Black romance and intimacy on-screen. 1898's Something Good-Negro Kiss proved that love and affection was at the center of Black life. More than that, intimacy has always been essential to the survival of our people. Now, some 120 plus years later— cinema has finally reached the point where it has expanded to allow complex images of Black love, across time periods, between same-sex couples, and more recently, without being bogged down in trauma and pain.

Before Good-Negro Kiss was discovered in 2018, one of the earliest versions of Black romance in cinema was 1954's Carmen Jones starring Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge. Filmed in sweeping cinemascope, Carmen Jones follows a soldier named Joe (Belafonte) who gets so enamored with Carmen (Dandridge) that he becomes obsessive, even going AWOL to be with her. Though the film is sexy, and the tension between the actors is palpable — the romance in Carmen Jones is stilted to make white audiences comfortable. Hollywood was only willing to see Black intimacy through the lens of a renowned musical, wrapped in what ultimately becomes a tragedy. By the end of the film, Joe murders Carmen out of obsession and jealousy. Despite Belafonte and Dandridge's determination to showcase their sensuality, the material only allowed them to go so far. This sort of restraint would become the blueprint for generations of Black romance films.

Considering the utter chaos of the 1960s, it's a wonder that 1964's Nothing But A Man was ever made. A decade after Carmen Jones, Hollywood felt it was time to roll the dice on something different. Starring Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln as Duff Anderson, a railroad worker, and Josie Dawson, a Birmingham school teacher, respectively, Nothing But A Man isn't packaged for white audiences like the musicals of the previous decades. However, the burdens and pains of the couple's relationship, namely Duff's flakiness about commitment and the rage he feels as a Black man living in the South, fall on Josie's shoulders. Moving into the 1970s with films like Claudine and Mahogany, and certainly, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Black romance on-screen would either be shrouded in comedic relief, or the relationships became the sole burden of the Black woman to bear. Often, both tropes were present.

Still, Black romance stories were always evolving. The 1980s sparked something new for Black sensuality in the movies. Though these were still heteronormative depictions, (aside from 1984's The Color Purple), films made significant steps forward in terms of diverse images of Black people. However, they still held on to sexist ideals. 1986's She's Gotta Have It used a Black woman's rape as a form of character development while 1988's Coming to America — billed as a comedy, rewarded its protagonist for lying to his love interest. This would become the formula for the many Black romance movies that came to fruition in the 1990s. Cheating, lies, abandonment, lack of accountability, and trauma are all very present in some of our most beloved films. Poetic Justice, Love Jones, Jason's Lyric, The Best Man, and Love & Basketball, all have some form of struggle love embedded within the narrative — typically leaving Black women wielding the shorter end of the stick.

Poetic Justice is riddled in misogyny, The Best Man has a serial cheater as a leading man, and in Love Jones, the lack of communication and accountability from both partners is dizzying. Moreover, women are often asked to overlook cheating, lying, manipulation, or being friend-zoned to present themselves as worthy of their male partner by the film's conclusion. Yet, in our quest to connect and see brown bodies sensually and romantically in cinema, we hold these films close to our hearts, overlooking many of the toxic traits of the characters.

Despite the mega success of Black films in the 1990s— following the debut of Gina Prince-Bythewood's Love & Basketball in 2000, Black stories in cinema, aside from a few here and there, were all but erased in Hollywood. Throughout this near decade-long drought, prolific director Tyler Perry was one of the only voices in the game. However, the quality of Perry's storylines, as well as the portrayal of his female characters, have proven to be problematic. These characters are often emotionally broken, angry, and at times unhinged. If and when they do find love in movies like 2005's Diary of An Angry Black Woman, 2008's The Family That Preys and 2009's I Can Do Bad All By Myself, it's after they suffer some dire consequence or horrific punishment. This was particularly jarring during a time when there were hardly any other mainstream film images of Black people on-screen.

Thankfully, as we pressed forward into the second decade of the 21st century, Black filmmakers, writers, and producers were knocking down doors in Hollywood once again. In 2012, Ava DuVernay stepped onto the scene with her stellar film, Middle of Nowhere. The film follows Ruby (Emayatzy Corinealdi) grappling with the choice to leave her incarcerated husband, Derek (Omari Hardwick), to follow her dreams and possibly find new love with a bus driver named Brian (David Oyelowo). Though this was a significant shift in the way Black intimacy, sensuality, and romance was depicted in movies, the real transformation happened in 2016, with Barry Jenkins' Academy Award-winning, Moonlight.

Loosely based on screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney's real life, Moonlight puts the Black male coming-of-age story center stage. However, instead of honing in on the violence and despair of the inner city, like the hood homeboy films of the 1990s — Moonlight focuses on Black love between Black men. First, there is the relationship protagonist Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) has with his father-figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, Chiron explores his queer identity with his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The film is a sumptuous duality of hypermasculinity against lush sensuality. With this film, Jenkins effectively shattered our expectations regarding Black intimacy on-screen, while unraveling why Black love in all of its varied prisms deserves a spotlight in cinema.

Moonlight would pave the way for 2019's Queen & Slim and 2020's The Photograph. Two vastly different films, one— a harrowing dramatic thriller, centering Queen (Joe Turner-Smith ) and Slim (Daniel Kaluuya) who are forced together by circumstance. A dull Tinder date paves the way for a standoff with a racist police officer who eventually lays dead, prompting our leads to run for their lives.

Penned by Lena Waithe and directed by Melina Matsoukas — the film is almost an antithesis of what we've seen before when it comes to Black romance in the movies. Instead of the tried and true formula of a meet-cute, conflict, and resolution, Queen & Slim unites a Black man and a Black woman through Black radicalism. They come to lean on one another, inadvertently building a foundation when there is no one else either of them can trust or turn to. The weight of their relationship rests equally on both of their shoulders, as they become each other’s ride or die.

In contrast to Queen & Slim, writer/director Stella Meghie's The Photograph, is a much-deserved presentation of soft Black romance, without the trauma or brutality. The film follows Mae (Issa Rae), an art curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) — a journalist who crosses paths with Mae's late mother's work. The film follows the typical romance formula, but the conflict and resolution aren't gut-wrenching or emotionally tumultuous. Mae and Micheal deal with real-life issues without being battered or broken. Both parties —like the lead characters in Queen & Slim, share the weight of their missteps and miscommunication. The Photograph is a recognition of straight-forward Black sensuality and love without the heaviness of Black pain. Despite all of this, the film has garnered mixed reviews. Since there isn’t any toxicity between the main characters or much comedy in The Photograph, it appears foreign to us. As a community, we’ve been conditioned to only recognize Black Love shrouded in chaos. Presently, Black women in particular, are asking Black people to look beyond archaic examples of love that are rooted in sexism, misogynoir, and rigid gender roles. Instead, Meghie presents two grown people who must hold themselves and each other accountable to have a chance at a loving and modern relationship.

Black women are also getting the opportunity to be seen as romantic leading women, in the broader scope of cinema alongside leading men from different cultures. Following the footsteps of the 2006 film Something New, where Sanaa Lathan's leading man was Australian actor Simon Baker, Issa Rae will become a leading lady once more in Netflix's The Lovebirds. The Insecure actress stars as Leilani, opposite Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani. Rae is a woman who is grappling with her strained relationship with her boyfriend, Jibran (Nanjiani). The couple's commitment to one another is hilariously put to the test when they suddenly find themselves in the middle of a chaotic murder mystery.

Black film, and undoubtedly Black romance film, has come a long way since that very first kiss was captured on-screen in 1898. With more women filmmakers at the helm, diverse projects, and the current wave of Black cinema in Hollywood, Black romance movies have the opportunity to give the next generations more nuanced depictions of connection, sensuality, sex, and intimacy. With films like Queen & Slim, Moonlight, The Photograph, and The Lovebirds — we have witnessed Black people from all walks of life and sexualities dive into romantic relationships with love, accountability, and self-awareness, which are truly the ultimate relationship goals.

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Black Thought And Questlove Secure First-Look Deal With Universal

Amir “Questlove” Thompson and Tarik “Black Thought” Trotter landed a three-year first-look deal with Universal. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the founders of the Legendary Roots Crew will create scripted and unscripted content for Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal TV under the duo's Two One Five Entertainment imprint.

“This deal is very important to us as we've been content producers and storytellers for our entire career,” Questlove said in a statement on Wednesday (May 13). “A significant investment from Universal Television Alternative Studio and Universal Television in our vision allows us to share these stories on a much larger scale. Tarik and I see this as the next chapter to our careers, and we are very involved in the entire process. I'm directing, Tarik is writing and we both are producing.”

The deal extends the Roots decade-long relationship with NBC, first on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night talk show in 2009, and serving as the house band for NBC’s Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon, which premiered in 2014. Questlove is also music director for the Tonight Show.

“Many of our initial projects have been music-centric content, and one of our goals is to become the premiere hub for music storytelling — a safe space for these stories to be shared across a variety of platforms,” added Black Thought. “Eventually we will expand outside of music with our stories. However, as we all know, every story has a rhythm and Two One Five Entertainment will harness that rhythm and create well-produced, compelling content.”

Two One Five Entertainment's roster of projects include the AMC docuseries, Hip Hop Songs that Shook America, along with Black Woodstock, chronicling the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. The company has also had a hand in the Broadway productions, Black No More and Soul Train the Musical.

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