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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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Zoe Kravitz Lands Catwoman Role In 'Batman'

Zoe Kravitz is the latest bombshell to become Catwoman. The 30-year-old will play Selina Kyle a.k.a. Catwoman alongside Batman (Robert Pattinson), CNN reports.

This new role is a major milestone for Kravitz, who’s most known for her role as Bonnie Carlson on HBO’s Big Little Lies. The actress was congratulated on her new role by her step-father, Aquaman actor Jason Momoa on Instagram.

For Kravitz, it’s always been important to make her presence known in Hollywood outside her parents' influence on the business (her father is Lenny Kravitz and her mother is Lisa Bonet). To get these coveted roles, she admits to, ironically, having to work harder than her counterparts just to prove her success isn’t just a product of nepotism.

 

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I’m so proud of u zozo bear. On and off screen OHANA. DC WB ohana Lola and Wolfies big sister is CAT WOMAN😍😍😍 Unbelievable so freaking stoked. Your going to have so much fun Aloha P bear

A post shared by Jason Momoa (@prideofgypsies) on Oct 14, 2019 at 6:21pm PDT

“If I don’t have [the next] job lined up, I get nervous,” she told Elle. “It’s irrational, maybe. But also good. When I was in high school, if a girl didn’t like me, the first thing she’d say was, 'You think you’re so cool because of your parents.' That carries into later life, like, 'Oh, you just got this part because your parents are this and that.'

It’s important to acknowledge that I got in the door easier because of them. Some kids work their whole lives and they can’t even get an agent to call them back. That part was handed to me,” she continued. “People are always going to think that maybe you are who you are because of your family. So it’s my responsibility to work harder.”

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Nickelodeon

How 'My Brother And Me' Resonated With A Generation Of Young Black Men

In terms of cultural impact and influence, the '90s ranks as one of the defining decades for black entertainment of the past century. This proves particularly true in the realm of television, with a number of landmark programs debuting that reflected the life and times of blacks in the urban community and beyond. While the '80s produced groundbreaking sitcoms like The Cosby Show, A Different World, Family Matters, 227, Amen, and Frank's Place, all of which featured predominantly black casts, these shows were few and far in between.

However, the arrival of a new decade coincided with an influx of programs starring black leads, with shows like Martin, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Living Single, Hangin with Mr. Cooper, Roc, Thea and South Central all making their debut. While these shows were hits across various age groups, they all starred and revolved around actors of age, in some form or fashion. One of the first programs to divert from this formula and place the focus squarely on adolescents was My Brother and Me, a sitcom that often gets overlooked when listing the pivotal shows of its era.

Making its debut on October 15, 1994, My Brother and Me was among the first live-action series to air on Nickelodeon and the first to feature a predominantly black cast. Created by Ilunga Adell and Calvin Brown Jr., and directed by Arlando Smith and Adam Weissman, the show centers around brothers Alfred "Alfie" Parker and Derek "Dee-Dee" Parker, the two youngest children of parents Jennifer (Karen E. Fraction) and Roger Parker (Jim R. Coleman) who experience the typical growing pains of pre-pubescent young men that are coming of age.

Additional core cast members include Alfie and Dee-Dee's older sister Melanie Parker (Aisling Sistrunk),, Alfie's best friend Milton "Goo" Berry (Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr.) who has an infatuation with Melanie, Melanie's best friend and Donnell's older sister Dionne Wilburn (Amanda Seales), Dee-Dee's best friend and Dionne’s younger brother Donnell Wilburn (Stefan J. Wernli),, Dee-Dee’s other best friend Harry White (Keith "Bubba" Naylor), and local comic book store owner Mrs. Pinckney (Kym Whitley).

Set in the suburbs of the west side of Charlotte, North Carolina, My Brother and Me was the Nickelodeon's answer to Sister, Sister, a sitcom on ABC starring identical twins Tia and Tamera Mowry that had debuted earlier that year. With a beat writer for the local newspaper for a father and a school teacher for a mother, Alfie and Dee-Dee enjoyed a stable living environment in which they could thrive academically and socially while simply being kids. A middle-class family with access to all of the basic amenities, the Parkers' economic situation was in stark contrast to the usual scratching-and-surviving, rags-to-riches themes often associated with sitcoms geared towards people of color.

While removed from the harsh realities that often accompany life in the inner-city, the Parker boys were drawn in by the allure of street culture, with Alfie and Dee-Dee both being avid fans of hip hop music, fashion, and style. This love affair would be the driving force behind various episodes, most notably "Dee-Dee's Haircut," during which Dee-Dee allows Goo to butcher his hair after marveling at fellow student Kenny's "Cool Dr. Money"-inspired haircut. Going as far as handpicking designs out of a rap magazine Donell borrows from his sister Dionne, Dee-Dee goes to the extreme in an attempt to mirror Kenny and Cool Dr. Money, a testament to the influence hip hop holds over him. His affinity for the culture is also reflected in the "Donnell's Birthday Party" episode, during which the impressionable youngster mimicking dance moves from a rap video in hopes of tightening up his dance skills.

Alfie and Dee-Dee may have been the intended stars of the show, but to many viewers, the most memorable character from My Brother and Me was Goo, who stole scenes with his humorous wisecracks and mischievous hijinks, often at the expense of Dee-Dee and his friends. From showering Mrs. Parker with disarming compliments to masterminding various plots and schemes in an attempt to get himself and Alfie out of trouble, Goo proved to be the most entertaining member of the show, exuding swagger and confidence that are palpable to the viewer and as hip hop as it gets. On the other hand, Alfie, who is not as overtly demonstrative in his rap fandom as his younger brother or Goo, reps his allegiance to the culture more subtly, with his haircut, backward caps and boisterous mannerisms.

While race was never a prevalent topic on the show, if one was to look closer between the lines, My Brother and Me was unapologetically black and pridefully so. Take, for instance, the various nods to HBCU culture throughout the show, including Roger Parker's various North Carolina Central University sweatshirts and hats, Alfie's Morehouse fit, and insignias from various black fraternities. One other common thread of the show was its incorporation of sports, starting with the Parker household's fandom of Charlotte's local professional franchises on full display, as Charlotte Hornets and Carolina Panthers memorabilia are all visible throughout the household. Cameos also included appearances from NBA stars Kendall Gill and Dennis Scott, the latter of whom teaches Alfie, the superior athlete of the Parker brothers, a lesson in selflessness and teamwork by cutting him from the school basketball team in "The Basketball Tryouts" episode.

Of all of the aspects of My Brother and Me that made the show a game-changer, the fact that it was one of the first times young black males saw themselves in characters on the TV is the most enduring. While plenty of shows and networks fixated on coming-of-age storylines centered around the privileged youth of white America, My Brother and Me provided the alternative, promoting the bond of brotherhood and family values with each episode aired. Preceding shows like Kenan & Kel and Cousin Skeeter, both of which implemented overt comedic or fictional elements, My Brother and Me was a realistic glimpse at the life of the average black boy in America without the overarching narratives of impoverishment, temptation, and despair. For many young black men born in the '80s, the show left an indelible impact on them and holds a place near to their heart a quarter-century later.

In spite of its critical acclaim and popularity, My Brother and Me only aired for one season, as it was canceled after airing its final episode on January 15, 1995. The network would air reruns into the early 2000s before returning briefly during The '90s Are All That block on TeenNick in December 2013, the last time the show would appear on television. In June 2014, Nickelodeon released My Brother & Me: The Complete Series as a two-disc DVD, giving a new generation of viewers and longtime fans of the show an opportunity to relive the magic that the show captured during its short, yet unforgettable run.

In the years following My Brother and Me's cancellation, many of the actors and actresses from the show would fail to find their footing in the entertainment industry, resulting in their acting careers fading into obscurity. Arthur Reggie III scored a few additional credits, appearing in the TV shows Sliders and C-Bear and Jamal, as well as the 1998 film Bulworth, but later transitioned into a rap career, performing under the name Show Bizness. My Brother and Me would mark Ralph Woolfolk's last appearance as an actor, as he decided to leave the industry behind and focus on his education, pursuing a degree in English at Morehouse College in Atlanta, while also attending law school. He is also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and currently serves as a police officer for the city of Atlanta. Jimmy Lee Newman, Jr. scored bit roles in the TV shows Sweet Justice and Sister, Sister in the subsequent years after the show, while Aisling Sistrunk, Stefan J. Wernli and Keith "Bubba" Naylor would never act professionally again.

However, a few members of the cast were able to sustain viable acting careers well beyond My Brother and Me's cancellation, most notably Amanda Seales, Karen E. Fraction and Jim Coleman. Seales would rebrand herself as Amanda Diva and become a successful media personality before transitioning back into acting, last appearing as Tiffany DuBois on HBO's "Insecure." In 2019, Seales debuted an HBO Comedy Special I Be Knowin', and was chosen as the emcee for NBC's comedy competition, Bring the Funny. Jim Coleman has kept himself busy with various roles over the past two decades, last appearing in "The Council," and continues to receive steady work. Karen Fraction would add a few additional credits to her resume after "My Brother and Me," but passed away on October 30, 2007, after a five year battle with breast cancer. She is survived by her two children, Lauren Elizabeth Jean and Lawrence Wm. Morris, and her husband Lawrence Hamilton. And last, but not least, Kym Whitley would enjoy a fruitful career on television and on the big screen, appearing in dozens of shows and films throughout her lengthy career, with her latest role being Mrs. Malinky in the Netflix animated comedy Pinky Malinky.

In the time since the debut of My Brother and Me, a lot has changed in terms of the presence and representation of black youth on television and beyond. A number of black actors and actresses have had the opportunity to shine in a big way, including Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris) Zendaya (Shake It Up), Kyle Massey (Corey in the House), Keke Palmer (True Jackson, VP), Miles Brown (Black-Ish) and Alex R. Hibbert (The Chi) all among the more prominent child stars making major waves on TV over the past two decades. That said, 25 years later, the fact remains that My Brother and Me was ahead of the curve as one of the first instances of seeing ourselves in a positive and uplifting light on the small screen.

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Brad Barket

Ava DuVernay And 'Netflix' Sued For Portrayal Of Interrogation Technique In 'When They See Us'

Ava DuVernay and Netflix have been sued over their portrayal of the Reid interrogation technique of the Central Park Five in the Emmy-award winning series When They See Us, according to a new report by Hollywood Reporter.

According to the report, John E. Reid and Associates, a company that trains police on how to interrogate, claims that When They See Us sheds a negative light on the procedure, and implies that it involves coercion.

“Defendants intended to incite an audience reaction against Reid for what occurred in the Central Park jogger case and for the coercive interrogation tactics that continue to be used today,” the suit reads. “Defendants published the statements in 'When They See Us' in an effort to cause a condemnation of the Reid technique.”

The lawsuit also refers to a specific scene where the alleged Reid technique was badly dramatized.  In the final episode of When They See Us, a district attorney's office employee confronts a detective in the case, saying: "You squeezed statements out of them after 42 hours of questioning and coercing, without food, bathroom breaks, withholding parental supervision. The Reid Technique has been universally rejected. That's truth to you."

The detective responds:

“I don’t even know what the fucking Reid technique is, OK? I know what I was taught. I know what I was asked to do and I did it.”

Reid and Associates also claims the program has caused harm to the company's reputation, and the firm is seeking actual and punitive damages.

When They See Us, directed by DuVernay, tells the story of the Central Park Five, a group of young black men who were falsely charged with the rape and assault of a jogger in 1989.

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