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'American Soul' And The Week That Changed Everything: Episode 9 Recap

As the show nears the season finale, American Soul adds key context to some character storylines and so many things make more sense.

Episode 9 focused primarily on Brianne, JT, Gerald and of course Don. Viewers were taken back to April 2, 1968; three years before Soul Train launched in L.A. and four years before the show’s present day. The four characters are preparing for a coming storm, not realizing how it’s going to manifest in their lives – and in the nation’s history.

Brianne Back Then…

Brianne and the Clarkes, complete with patriarch Joseph, are celebrating Simone’s birthday. We learn that both Simone’s voice and life are a gift since a respiratory illness plagued her through childhood. After Joseph gives a testimony for his baby girl’s health and strength, he and Kendall offer a birthday serenade. But the performance is interrupted when Brianne’s estranged brother, Pete (Njema Williams) barges in unexpectedly.

Pete reveals that Joseph and Brienne fled Alabama after Pete paralyzed a white man who tried to assault Brianne. When Brianne left Alabama, she left singing there as well. Pete, who we quickly learn is a gambler, is demanding $500 (a hefty amount of money in 1968) for his continued silence. It really be your own family.

When Joseph later confronts Pete with receipts that he misappropriated funds from Brianne’s mother’s estate and lost her land, Pete’s Deebo act stops quickly. He confesses the money is to invest in a jazz club in San Diego, and suggests that “Silk” (we’re guessing that’s Brianne’s stage name) could sing at the spot. Brianne ignores that, but tells Joseph to give Pete the money, with a caveat: “That’s blood money, Pete. Take it and my brother’s dead to me.” Pete shole did still take it, though.

And Now…

Brianne takes the stage for the club’s closing night, singing in front of an audience for the first time, it seems, since she and Joseph packed up and left their hometown. Feeling free and energized, Brianne finally plants a kiss on Nate once they get back to the house – but then she tells him to go. Girl, what? I mean, we get it, Kendall’s gone, Joseph’s gone, there’s an opportunity for Brianne to explore her own identity and dream for the first time in almost 20 years – but that means Nate has to leave immediately? Talk about anticlimactic.

JT Back Then…

A much brighter and happier JT than we’ve seen through this season is preparing for high school graduation and his next steps, which include plans to move to Oklahoma with his sober, coherent and nurturing mother. A fresh start with better opportunities for them both, away from whatever lifestyle was connected to his father, away from the drug habit his mother’s already beat at least once.

Even back in 1968, Reggie was getting JT into messy situations and leaving him to handle the aftermath. Reggie starts a brawl with a fellow customer at the diner. JT, in his misguided loyalty, jumps in, even though the fight has nothing to do with him. As Ma Mable busts in with her shotgun to keep them from destroying her kitchen, Reggie breaks out. Fortunately, the incident leads to JT securing a job at the diner. But it also sets the stage for his unbalanced dynamic with Reggie later.

JT is already chasing his music dreams, and as Simone is literally just finding her voice, he sells his first song. His mother is so inspired by his talent, she uses the money set aside for Oklahoma to buy JT a car, promising that she’ll stay clean and the investment will pay off.

And Now…

JT made it to the studio for Encore’s recording session after all. This episode reminds us that while Simone and Kendall are talented, JT is the songwriter, and the group records his autobiographical jam about having to grow up too fast. The kids hit the diner when they’re done, excited about an unexpected opportunity (more on that to come), and JT almost looks like the hopeful, unburdened young man from 1968 again. He tells Simone about the old Oklahoma plan and suggests they make the move together – anywhere – because he has to get out of L.A. He wants a simpler, less complicated life. But for Simone, leaving L.A. means abandoning her dream. The two table the discussion, and JT goes to take care of his sister while the Clarkes go to celebrate Encore’s big break.

Gerald Back Then…

Gerald once had a heart, apparently. Back in Memphis, he holds things down for the big boss, Hershall (Clifton Powell always plays somebody scary, don’t he?) at the original Club 100 Proof, and helps finesse the club’s liquor license. He’s also holding down the boss’ lady and club’s star talent, Pearl Madigan (Adriyan Rae) behind his back. 1968 Gerald is level-headed and even-tempered. He talks things out and negotiates! And he’s in love with Pearl, willing to leave everything behind to start a new life with her. She tells him it’s impossible, but then, in an alleged attempt to secure the cash for them to run away together, Pearl stages a robbery - a robbery Hershall initially blames Gerald for. Hershall commands that Gerald get his money back and shut the club down so they can rebuild in a new location. That’s when the ruthless Gerald we’ve come to know – and maybe even love, in a twisted way – emerges. Poor Pearl. She could sing, too.

Hershell and Gerald stand in front of the club as it becomes engulfed with flames, and just as Hershell is about to grill Gerald about Pearl (now we know why Hershell occasionally tries to have Gerald killed), they get the news that King’s been shot. If Hershell wasn’t sold on leaving Memphis before, he’s convinced now, and Gerald suggests they take their talents to L.A.

And Now…

The icebox-where-his-heart used to be Gerald saunters into Encore’s recording studio mid-session to collect a payment from the producer. He likes what he hears and interrupts taping to ask how old the members of the group are. Simone got tripped up by Gerald for admitting her age before, but this time she knows to give a non-answer. As a result, Encore’s offered an opening spot at Club 100 Proof for Ike and Tina Turner.

Don Back Then…

Don Cornelius is on the streets of Chicago protecting and serving as a member of the police department. (Also, Sinqua Walls without the fro is a “Yes.”) To our surprise, the story Don told Gladys about the stand-off with a white man and a rifle really happened! We definitely thought he made that up. Later, Don pulls over a radio producer who compliments his voice, tells him his station is looking for a newsreader and gives him a business card. At home, Don and Delores are just too cute and it makes us sad, knowing she’s somewhere in the show’s present-day feeling hurt and abandoned. Don learns his father is suffering from Old Timer’s (that’s Alzheimer’s in old black people-speak). He would just as readily leave his father’s remaining days to fate, but Delores, ever his conscience and voice of reason, suggests he step up. In addition to his beat as a cop, Don and Delores are staging little soul shows that will soon grow up and become Soul Train. When the host and emcee for their event is a no-show, Delores encourages Don to play the role himself, exclaiming, “Who knows, you may be the next black Dick Clark!” Don is, indeed, a natural on the mic. Somewhere in Don’s mind, the Soul Train seed sprouted a leaf.

Later, at Delores’ urging and with her catfish in hand, Don goes to visit his dad and give Mamie some cash – cash he potentially got from a less than scrupulous colleague on the force. While Don sits with his father, telling him that he’s thinking of going into radio, the news of King’s assassination hits the news. His dad has a fleeting moment of mental clarity and presence and sighs, “Damn. Finally took him out.”

And Now…

The doctor examining Don in Gerald’s office asks him about the headaches he’s been having. Don is worried he’s developing “Old Timer’s” like his father. The doctor tells him that he’s just overworked and dehydrated. Did MRI’s exist in 1972, or nah? ‘Cause Don Cornelius ended up needing a lot more than water. Instead of water, Don takes a hit of coke almost before the doctor’s all the way out of the door. Even Gerald thinks he’s trippin’. Don apparently does realize he needs to take better care of himself, though. He has a punching bag installed in his office and immediately starts letting out the anger and stress he’s been feeling during the fight with Dick Clark, the estrangement from his wife, getting curved by Deloris…all of it goes to the bag.

For all four characters, old vs new hung in the space of April 2 to April 4, 1968. Whether running from the past like Brianne; looking towards new fortune and opportunities like Gerald and Don; or choosing against a new direction, only to regret it later, like TJ. A storm did indeed hit the country on April 4, but not one that any meteorologist predicted.

--

What the episode got right: Don being inspired to go into radio, and by extension television, during a chance traffic stop.

What we absolutely don’t believe: Ok, we still don’t completely believe the story of Don and the abusive white man with the shotgun.

What we don’t understand: Nate Barker’s purpose. He wasn’t a necessary plot device to get Kendall out of the house or to get Brianne back on stage. He was great to look at, though.

This episode didn’t need to wait until the end of the season, it would have deepened our emotional investment had it come earlier. Still, it was a strong lead into the season finale, but we’ll probably be left with unanswered questions when the Soul Train pulls into its last stop.

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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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