american soul bet recap episode 1 season 1
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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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Alberto E. Rodriguez

Jussie Smollett's Attorneys Deny Actor Paid $3,500 To Orchestrate Attack

Sources close to the Jussie Smollett investigation have spoken with several media outlets and allege new evidence shows the Empire actor may have orchestrated the attack, and even paid men $3,500 to go through with it.

The two men who are brothers were arrested Wednesday and released Friday (Feb. 15) without charges. Both men are cooperating fully with Chicago police, and authorities found records they purchased a rope at a local hardware store, which was used during the attack.

Smollett's attorneys, Todd S. Pugh, and Victor P. Henderson, quickly denied the claim made by authorities.

"As a victim of a hate crime who has cooperated with the police investigation, Jussie Smollett is angered and devastated by recent reports that the perpetrators are individuals he is familiar with," the statement read. "He has now been further victimized by claims attributed to these alleged perpetrators that Jussie played a role in his own attack. Nothing is further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying."

On Jan. 29, Smollett was leaving a Subway fast-food restaurant when the actor alleges to have been attacked by two men who beat him, poured bleach on him and tried to hang a rope around his neck. The 35-year-old entertainer, who identifies as gay, said one of the men shouted "This is MAGA country" as well as other racial and homophobic slurs.

Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said one of the men appeared on Empire and have past affiliation with Smollett.

During his interview with Robin Roberts on Good Morning America Thursday (Feb. 14), Smollett expressed frustration about not being believed. Sunday morning (Feb. 17) the hashtag 'JussieSmollettHoax' trended on Twitter. The Internet was split with many offering a digital "I told you so" due to the reports, while others, particularly members of the black LGBTQ community, questioning why many were quick to believe the word of law enforcement.

Us straight men waiting on the LGBT community to apologize after Jussie lied pic.twitter.com/0PDmNX4ykZ

— Flickens McCray (@Mickens__) February 17, 2019

https://twitter.com/angryblkhoemo/status/1096967004517515266

No idea what actually happened w/ Jussie Smollett. But do know that 4 years ago, Chicago PD spent 13 months justifying Laquan McDonald’s murder before releasing dashcam video showing he was walking away before being shot at 16x by an officer. Why are we just accepting their word?

— Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech) February 17, 2019

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Annette Brown/BET

American Soul Episode 3 Recap: Don the Father, Don the Son

American Soul's third episode three opens as the major characters confront various types of loss in their worlds. The Clarke family lays Joseph to rest, accompanied by Babyface’s spare, a capella rendition of “What’s Going On” (Babyface is the music supervisor for American Soul). Tessa digs under her bed to pull out an old dance photo and stare at it longingly. Don is still chasing large bookings like Marvin Gaye - and still hitting a wall - when Delores calls to tell him their oldest son is missing.

The Clarke siblings are processing their grief in different ways. Because of his father’s death, Kendall is now head of household, so his draft is waived. He’s saddled with guilt, “The only reason I’m not in Vietnam right now is because dad died. What do I do with that?” and thinks he needs to get into responsible adult mode (as though he weren’t already a father…but we digress). Simone’s wants to honor her father through her music, and while Kendall and JT want to cancel a gig the group has scheduled, she thinks Joseph would want them to move forward. She sneaks out to perform alone and almost falters during a song dedicated to her dad until JT steps in to join her and save the performance. While Kendall grapples with the idea of becoming the man of the house, Brienne (Kelly Price) actively steps into the role and handles small things that were her husband’s domain; namely, a leaky faucet announcing Joseph’s permanent absence with every drip.

JT is still facing struggles at every turn. We have yet to see this poor boy walk into his apartment without some drama in progress. His mama’s about to burn the house down by leaving a pot on the stove. The CRIPS are about to get him railroaded into an attempted murder charge - mind you, he didn’t even get his rent money out of the heist! And people keep talking to him any kind of way. Even Simone takes shots at him about his dad not being around. His own girlfriend, SMH. They make up after JT joins her to perform, and as they’re cozying up in his blue Chevy Nova to share the most romantic moment two teenagers can share in a car, the cops are issuing an all-points bulletin for that exact make and model and getting names of accomplices. Let’s keep JT lifted in prayer.

We get the first hints of Tessa’s (Iantha Richardson) backstory as she chastises the sassy and ambitious Soul Train dancer Flo for inappropriate conduct with Rufus Thomas (Bobby Brown) before and during the show's taping. “I know you’re reaching for something bigger, but it’s not guys like Rufus who pay the price when everything goes wrong.” She gives the dancer advice she perhaps wishes someone had given her, “I know you. I was you. You’re talented, but you’ve got to start making (better decisions).”  (Spoiler alert: the advice lands on deaf ears.) There’s a great scene intercut between Simone’s performance and Tessa dancing alone in the dim Soul Train studio. For the first time since we’ve met her, she’s unguarded and joyful. We anticipate a Svengali story to emerge soon, explaining her failed professional dance career.

Don’s missing son, Tony, shows up on the set of Soul Train just as Don is preparing to catch a flight back to Chicago to find him. This season's first two episodes gave insight into Don’s struggles as a husband, now we learn about his struggles as a father. Throughout the episode, flashbacks to Don’s “lessons” from his tough, abusive father are juxtaposed against his interactions with young Tony. Don struggles to balance the emotional distance and unflinching firmness he was taught – making Tony work “like a man,” when he shows up at the studio, telling him he thinks he’s grown, commanding respect through fear – with the pure love and yearning he sees in his son.

Tony just wants to be with him, whatever that takes. Don wants to break generational cycles, he wants to be a better man and father than his father was – the last flashback is of Don as a young man beating his dad in a fight and declaring his independence – but softness is a challenge for him. When Tony gets back to Chicago, he plays out a version of “Why he don’t want me, Uncle Phil?” with his mother Deloris (Perri Camper), who assures him that his Daddy loves him “so strong that it’ll break the world in two, and whatever he’s done wrong is small when you hold it against that.” (Grown Tony Cornelius, by the way, is the Executive Producer of American Soul.)

What this episode got right: Robert Barisford Brown aka Bobby Brown as Rufus Thomas just made us so incredibly happy, because Bobby was basically playing a future version of himself. Thomas pulling Flo on stage to dance – and Don being mad about it – is based on Soul Train dancer Damita Jo Freeman jumping on stage to dance with singer Joe Tex – and Don being mad about it.

What it could have done without: About three of the flashbacks to Don and his father. We got the point after the first couple of scenes.

What we absolutely don’t believe: That high-class escorts were just sauntering into the studio or Don’s office while the show was taping, with him running a tight ship. Don’s from Chicago, Chicago – you ain’t walking up on him unannounced and unexpectedly.

What we don’t understand: Why we saw a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad, kept hearing talk about ad dollars and accounts, but there’s been no mention of Afro Sheen or Ultra Sheen.

American Soul is still more heavy-handed in some places than we’d prefer; still a little too on-the-nose with dialogue in places. But it’s an acceptable price for an otherwise strong show. The live performances are great – Katlyn Nichol’s voice is amazing - and we're loving the celebrity guests. We're very curious to see Michelle Williams as Diana Ross next week. We did miss Gerald Aims and his antics in this episode, though. Hopefully, he’s back with some new one-liners in episode four.

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Santiago Felipe

Man Who Worked On 'Empire' Set Brought Into Questioning For Jussie Smollett Attack

Update: 7:30 pm ET (Feb. 14, 2019) - Chicago PD is denying reports that claim the attack against Jussie Smollett was staged due to him being written out of Empire. The police department claims those rumors have not been confirmed at this time.

20th Century Fox TV, the network that distributes Empire, also denied those reports. The network released a statement claiming that Jussie is a very important character on the TV series. "The idea that Jussie Smollett has been, or would be, written off of Empire is patently ridiculous," 20th Century Fox TV and Fox Entertainment said today (Feb. 14). "He remains a core player on this very successful series and we continue to stand behind him."

--

Original story published below...

Chicago police investigating the attack against Jussie Smollett reportedly brought him and two other people, who are reportedly African-American males, in for questioning on Thursday (Feb. 14), the Chicago Tribune reports. One of the two people interviewed included an actor who allegedly works on the set of Empire.

The Tribune claims that police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi emphasized that the two "are not considered suspects at this time." That report conflicts with TMZ's, however, which reports that both have been pegged "persons of interest." Multiple sources have also told ABC News Chicago that Smollett and the two men being questioned allegedly staged the whole attack because his character was being written out of Empire.

[email protected] has learned new details about the two men police are questioning about Jussie Smollett’s claim he was the victim of a racial & homophobic attack:

1) Both men are African-American 2) At least 1 of them is connected to the “Empire” show

Latest on @WGNNews at 4p pic.twitter.com/Xw7aBHjh5M

— Ben Bradley (@BenBradleyTV) February 14, 2019

Officials have not revealed the name of the actor who was questioned, and it's unclear if both suspects are the two people seen in the grainy video released in Jan. 2019. They do, however, believe that the two people were at the scene of the alleged attack.

Sources close to the situation stated that the suspects were picked up by Chicago Police Department on Wednesday night (Feb. 13) for further questioning after flew flew into O'Hare Airport, TMZ reports.

The latest report comes briefly after the actor appeared on his first TV interview since the incident on Good Morning America.

"I will never be the man that this did not happen to. I am forever changed,” the actor said of allegedly being attacked by MAGA supporters. "And I don’t subscribe to the idea that everything happens for a reason, but I do subscribe to the idea that we have the right and the responsibility to make something meaningful out of the things that happen to us, good and bad."

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