AT&T recently announced it is deepening its commitment to Brotherhood Crusade in Los Angeles – a 50-year old grassroots organization with a vision of improving quality of life and meeting the unmet needs of low-income, underserved, under-represented and disenfranchised individuals in South LA – through a $150,000 contribution to the organization’s new Media Collective.
The new program, called BELIEVE Los Angeles, is a grassroots campaign committed to supporting workforce development, career readiness programs, with a special emphasis on digital media and entertainment employment opportunities for underserved students in Los Angeles, especially diverse millennials who want to be filmmakers. The initiative is an extension of AT&T Believes℠, a larger company-wide initiative designed to create positive change in local communities.
Believe Los Angeles aims to increase the number of diverse storytellers in the entertainment industry, in front of and behind the camera. The semi-annual 11-week program will provide hands-on opportunities to 15-20 students to hone skills, form creative partnerships, create short films and gain industry access needed to be successful.
“We’re honored to join with Brotherhood Crusade to help support local emerging filmmakers succeed in the entertainment industry and give back to the South LA community,” said Rhonda Johnson, President of AT&T California. “The launch of this innovative program is perfectly aligned with African American History Month and Black Future Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of the people and organizations who strengthen our African-American and other diverse communities.”
“AT&T’s support of Brotherhood Crusade’s Media Collective will help aspiring artists within the local film industry grow their skills and network, as well as make a tremendous difference in their careers,” said Charisse Bremond-Weaver, President and CEO of Brotherhood Crusade.
Before reading, please understand the deep degree to which I am an Aretha Franklin fan. I have been in rapture since I was a teen grooving to “Jump To It,” “I Knew You Were Waiting (For Me),” “Think,” and, of course, “Respect.” My devotion to her voice and musicianship only intensified when I gained full access to her catalog when I DJ’d for my college radio station. I went all the way in, past her Arista recordings, back and through her Chess, Columbia and Atlantic LPs, and never came back out.
I played her records over and over, never singing along, so as not to disrespect or sully the divinity I was taking in. Back then, during this time of discovery of the breadth of Aretha’s genius, it would have been as rude as chatting during a sermon. I could go on – there is so much more Aretha stanning in my history including the full day spent watching every hour, minute and second of her funeral – but it’s enough to get the picture.
I am in, down, and for all things Aretha.
So a few years ago when I heard about film footage existing of Aretha recording her 1972 gospel masterpiece “Amazing Grace” in Los Angeles at Reverend James Cleveland‘s New Temple Missionary Baptist Church with the Southern California Community Choir, shot over two nights by Sydney Pollack (“Tootsie,” “The Way We Were,” “The Firm”), I was ecstatic.
It didn’t get released in conjunction with the album’s 1972 release as originally planned by Warner Bros. because the film’s recording was mishandled. Pollack, who died in 2008, did not use clapper boards, a crucial tool in matching sound with filmed images in the pre-digital era. There were 20 hours of raw footage shot by five 16-millimeter cameras to sync, so the project got shelved, until the footage was re-discovered over three decades later.
The movie was then set to screen at several prominent film festivals, but Franklin herself sued to stop it from being released. So I checked my thirst out of loyalty and stood by the Queen’s side, even if it meant never seeing what I was sure would be a Technicolor feast of mind-blowing artistry.
I brightened when I heard Aretha’s beef with the project was not about its content – she reportedly loved the content – it was about the money. Okay, cool – Aretha wanted her coins as well as her respect. I hoped it would all settle quickly, because as much as a person can be in love with her recordings, watching Aretha live, doing her thing, has always been where it’s at.
Not long after her passing, producer Alan Elliott screened “Amazing Grace” for Franklin’s family and got the family’s approval for release. It was picked up by NEON Studios for North American distribution and is slated to be in theaters in the early part of this year. But when I got a chance to see the film Thursday in Los Angeles on Opening Night of the 27th Annual Pan African Film Festival (#PAFF), I jumped to it.
Even though I saw it with an audience so fully there for it, and even with my freely admitted pre-disposition towards loving it, viewing “Amazing Grace” is a sensorial experience that exceeds all expectations. This “making of” documentary is a pure, raw American musical treasure that should go down, like Aretha, as the greatest of its ilk.
In case you’ve never heard the “Amazing Grace” double album or perhaps only know Aretha from Inaugural Hat or “Great Gowns, Beautiful Gowns” Taylor Swift memes, in 1972, Aretha Franklin is 29 and at the absolute height of her recording success, fame and vocal prowess.
As Tirrell D. Whittley, another of the film’s producers, put it during the Q&A that followed its #PAFF screening, Aretha was “it” back then, the Beyoncé of her time. And while at that height, Aretha decided to honor and commune with the roots from which her unparalleled artistry grew – church music.
Listening to the “Amazing Grace” LP (still the best-selling gospel album of all time), I always imagined it was a packed Sunday morning service where Aretha was singing with a fully-robed choir joyfully bouncing in step behind her. But what the film shows you instead is nighttime, a handful of white guys with mics, wires and cameras running around, and maybe 80-90 audience members, several of them likely not even New Temple congregants (Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts from the Rolling Stones are there one night, as are gospel great Clara Ward and her mother, Mother Ward).
The backing choir, directed with great aptitude and verve by the lively Alexander Hamilton, does not wear church robes but all-black clothing underneath Vegas-style sparkly silver vests. They look more like they are at a local talent competition than a service, and they stay seated during most of the recording. Aretha alone is robed – the first night in a long, white, bejeweled caftan and the second in a beautiful chartreuse paisley one.
It is clear from her commanding sashays down the church aisle as she enters upon introduction from Rev. Cleveland, that Aretha is not only in church, but there to put in work. On the second night Aretha enters in one of her signature fur coats. Her walk, steps, bearing are those of a queen, unashamedly in charge and full of femininity. She touches outreached hands but intentionally keeps moving at her own pace.
While Cleveland plays host with avuncular affability as he encourages the crowd from the pulpit and piano, and Aretha’s father Rev. C.L. Franklin is solicited to offer remarks, Aretha herself barely talks during either session – seemingly conserving her voice between songs. When she does talk it’s brief and at whisper level.
I think it’s both the truth of what happened those nights as well as a great dramatic device – Aretha’s singing literally speaks for her. She has such sharp focus on what she is doing and trying to achieve – Aretha comes across not as a guileless prodigy, but as a hard-working, brilliant young woman who fully knows what she is capable of and what it takes to tap into and employ her superlative gift. She is also connected enough to know when to give in to it and allow a higher power work through her.
Seeing the process with your own eyes makes it all the more impactful and palpable. When Aretha sits down at the piano and starts in on “Wholy Holy,” there is nothing to do but watch in awe. And at a certain point, song after great song, it hits you – as you take in the old-school microphones, the physical dynamics of the space and people in it, that the sound is, in a word, superb. I don’t know if it’s from remastering with present-day technology or because that audio was recorded so well back in 1972, but the depth and clarity of the music and the vocal responses to it are an aural delicacy.
The prosaic nature of the church space itself sits in humble, human contrast to the sublimeness occurring inside it. The church is not so much majestic as it is makeshift – and in the best way. The mural of Jesus on the wall behind the pulpit – let’s just say it’s barely a notch above paint-by-numbers. But looking at that amateur effort behind the woman who is evocatively singing “How I Got Over” and “What A Friend We Have In Jesus” in His name – it’s almost as if Mural Jesus sags in admission that no one could have painted an image to match the artistry and meditation of Aretha.
This is most evident during Aretha’s performance of the title track “Amazing Grace” – as she reaches higher and higher, the shouting and clapping from the audience rises and rises – people literally stand, fall, cry, and scream. Rev. Cleveland himself is so overcome by the power and beauty of what Aretha is delivering that he stops playing the piano so he can collect himself.
It’s such an incredible moment to watch – even the man running the show, a seasoned church pro – is overwhelmed and touched, all his pomp crumbling down under literal amazing grace. Many of us know that moment – when you witness something so superlative and divine, you can do nothing more than be in its presence and be thankful you exist to receive it.
The other indelible highlight in the film is Aretha’s delivery/deliverance of/during “Never Grow Old.” I have watched countless clips of Aretha performing live, at all ages and stages of her career. She is always professional and on point, but when she herself catches the spirit? There! Is! Nothing! Like! It!
Aretha is at the piano during “Never Grow Old” as you see it happening. She is so channelled and so in it that the spirit takes over the tempo, the piano, the choir, and several people in the audience. There is spirit dancing – Mother Ward falls out – an actual white towel is thrown in!
And as the towel comes towards camera, the audience watching the movie burst into laughter as did I, because it is perfect punctuation to what we were all feeling at that moment. We were in thrall and surrender to the power, the genius, the spirit, the joy that is flowing through Aretha Louise Franklin.
Even as you feel the heat, the light, the literal sweat on her brow coming at you through the screen, Aretha’s voice makes you shiver down to your bones.
The only song that doesn’t come across as powerful on film as it does on the record is “Mary Don’t You Weep.” According to producer Elliott, they did not have full visual coverage of “Mary” in the church, so they could not match it to the audio from the LP. What we do hear of “Mary” is still worthy of our time, suffering mainly from comparison to the oomph and punch so many of the other visually-realized songs have, including lesser-known songs such as “Climbing Higher Mountains” and “Precious Memories.”
But all in all, after dwelling for over 45 years in obscurity, the fact that the general public will finally get to see the best singer in the world recording the best gospel album of all time while communing in the most prolific and sustaining pillar of African-American society – the church – is the real blessing that needs to be recognized.
Even if you don’t know or revere Franklin’s work like I do but love any powerhouse singer from last 50 years, or just love music, you should see this film. For it proves without a doubt that since the sixties, all roads to enthralling, singular vocal ability, agility, facility and feeling lead back to one root, one person, one singer – Aretha. And her preternatural gift is never in finer form and potency than it is in “Amazing Grace.”
Natalie Maria Cole was born on February 6, 1950, and grew up in a heavily musical atmosphere in Los Angeles’ exclusive Hancock Park area. In addition to her famous father, jazz and pop musical legend Nat King Cole, Natalie’s mother Maria had been a background vocalist with Duke Ellington.
Cole’s own breakthrough as a musical artist came via her early 1970s association with Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy, who once worked with one of Natalie’s real-life idols, Aretha Franklin. Her debut album “Inseparable” came out in 1975, which included two of her signature hits – “This Will Be” (#6 on the pop charts and the title track. Her debut also garnered her Grammy Awards for Best R&B female vocals and Best New Artist.
Cole subsequently had hits with “Sophisticated Lady,” “Mr. Melody,” “I’ve Got Love on My Mind,” “Our Love,” “Stand By,” “What You Won’t Do for Love,” “Hold On” and “Nothing But a Fool,” along with more platinum and gold albums. Acute drug problems, however, hindered her career and Cole eventually took time off time for recovery.
In 1985, Natalie released, in what was the start of a comeback, her album “Dangerous” for Modern Records. Late 1980s pop singles included “Jump Start My Heart,” “Miss You Like Crazy”, “Pink Cadillac” and “I Live for Your Love.”
In the midst of her ebb-and-flow R&B success, in 1991 Cole shifted into her familial jazz roots to record a new CD, “Unforgettable…with Love,” paying homage to her late father. With the help and encouragement of family, Cole re-arranged and re-recorded some of his greatest songs in the same studio that he recorded (Capitol Studios), used some of the same musicians and even recreated one of his signature songs, the title tune “Unforgettable,” with a technological effect that appeared as if they were dueting together.
Never before or since has this been pulled off and marketed so successfully. Not only did it sell well over 30 million copies, it would become an eight-time over platinum winner. It earned several awards on Grammy night, including “Album of the Year” and “Record of the Year,.”
Over time Natalie began covering more jazz standards. A jazz CD in 1994 also captured a Grammy. In addition, Cole branched out into occasional acting roles, including the social drama Lily in Winter (1994) and the autobiographical feature film Livin’ for Love: The Natalie Cole Story (2000) in which she played herself. She has also made infrequent acting appearances on such shows as “I’ll Fly Away,” “Law & Order,” “Touched by an Angel” and “Grey’s Anatomy.”
Cole passed away from congestive heart failure on December 31, 2015 in Los Angeles. She was 65 and is survived by one son, Robert Adam Yancy.
When the Metro’s new Crenshaw/LAX line opens in summer 2020, riders will travel through a 1.3-mile-long art project celebrating Los Angeles’ African-American achievement.
“Destination Crenshaw” is set to break ground in early 2019, and will flank the route along Crenshaw Boulevard. Renderings were released earlier this month.
“The hope,” Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson said, “is that [people] understand that L.A., among other things, is quintessentially a black city. In the same way that it’s a Latino city, in the same way it’s a Jewish city, in the same way that it’s a Japanese city. The stories of black people in this town are central to what this town is, and what it continues to develop into.”
Harris-Dawson called Destination Crenshaw an “open-air museum” that is set to feature monuments, art, park space, and other cultural experiences celebrating black Los Angeles. It’ll be one of the first stops for people taking the Metro from LAX, with clear views of the surrounding art.
The inspiration for the project was the Crenshaw Wall, Harris-Dawson said. That’s the massive graffiti project that already stands in Crenshaw, which Harris-Dawson wants to see restored and enhanced.
“But also many of our artists that are in this community have art that you have to travel outside South L.A. to see,” Harris-Dawson said. “We wanted to create a space for them to show their work in their own neighborhoods.”
An open call went out for artists earlier this year, but another is planned for 2019.
The space will have more than 125 spots for art, according to Harris-Dawson, including 3D art, street art, fine art, and more. The art will tell stories curated by the project’s historian.
Even the parks will be part of telling the story.
“There may be a [play structure] there that may spell out the words, ‘say it loud,'” Harris-Dawson said. “So that’s a way in which, as a park, it is a functional tool, but it tells a story about political protest, and community confrontation, and African-American music in a direct way.”
Harris-Dawson hopes Destination Crenshaw will help bring back creative businesses and boost the local economy. “African-American culture is consumed by the world, in every corner of the world, but African-American neighborhoods have not necessarily been able to take advantage of that,” Harris-Dawson said.
“Whether it’s streetware and street fashion that is largely generated by young people in the Crenshaw neighborhood — they make a sneaker popular, and then you have to go to Melrose to get the sneaker. And the same is true for all forms of art,” he said.
Destination Crenshaw is set to open in spring 2020. They also have a public kickoff event planned for Feb. 8, 2019, where they hope to reveal a couple of the key artists contributing to the project, according to Harris-Dawson.
Here’s a promotional video from earlier this year:
In 1972, a black cultural center in Berkeley, California, put out a call for artists to help create an exhibit themed around black heroes. One African American contemporary artist, Betye Saar, answered. She created an artwork from a “mammy” doll and armed it with a rifle.
According to Angela Davis, a Black Panther activist, the piece by Saar, titled “The Liberation of Aunt Jemima,” sparked the black women’s movement. Now, the artist’s legacy is going on view in New York with “Betye Saar: Keepin’ It Clean,” an exhibit opening on November 2nd at the New York Historical Society, featuring 24 artworks made between 1997 and 2017 from her continuing series incorporating washboards. The exhibit runs until May 27, 2019.
“Saar says that it’s about keeping everything clean, keeping politics clean, keeping your life clean, your actions clean,” said Wendy Ikemoto, the society’s associate curator of American art. “She wants America to clean up its act and a lot of her art has to do with this idea that we haven’t cleaned up our act.”
Saar, 92, was born in Los Angeles and turned to making political art after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. “After his assassination in 1968, her work became explicitly political,” said Ikemoto. “That’s when she started collecting these racist, Jim Crow figurines and incorporated them in her assemblages.”
Saar was part of the black arts movement, the cultural – often literary – arm of the black power movement of the 1960s and 1970s; she was also among so-called second wave feminists. But she still found herself at a crossroads. “The black arts movement was male-dominated and the feminist movement was white-dominated,” Ikemoto said. “Being at the intersection of both movements, she became one of the most prominent black female artists for presenting strong, recognized women who are fighting off the legacy of slavery. I think it did open doors for other artists to follow.”
This traveling exhibit, from the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, shows Saar’s consistent message through her washboard series. “Many of her works tackle the broad issue of revisioning derogatory stereotypes to agents of change, historical change and power,” said Ikemoto. “Many artworks feature descendants of Aunt Jemima and mammy figures armed to face the racist histories of our nation.”
The exhibit includes “Extreme Times Call for Extreme Heroines,” a washboard piece Saar made in 2017 that features a mammy doll holding a pair of guns. The washboards are used in lieu of canvases and are loaded with symbolism.
“The washboard becomes her frame for the art, it’s the star,” said Ikemoto. “It’s the structure of black labor and she is moving it from a space of invisibility to highlight it. She is also using this humble object of hard labor to subvert notions of fine art.”
Each washboard is like a puzzle to be decoded, filled with small details that reference American history. There are Black Panther fists, references to police brutality and phrases from the Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes.
There are also references to Memphis, the city where King was assassinated, and to the Congolese slaves who were killed under the Congo Free State. Some washboards include phrases such as “national racism”.
“It’s as if Saar is suggesting how racism is so entrenched in our nation that it has become a national brand,” said Ikemoto. “She takes something that is a sign of oppression and violence, something pejorative and derogatory, and transforms it into something revolutionary.”
Not all of the artworks are on washboards, however. One piece from 1997, “We Was Mostly ’Bout Survival,” is on an ironing board, emblazoned with an image of a British slave ship.
“I think this exhibition is essential right now,” said Ikemoto. “I hope it encourages dialogue about history and our nation today, the racial relations and problems we still need to confront in the 21st century.”
Not to be confused with the upscale Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, Rodeo Road is a 3.5-mile street that runs from near the Culver City border east to Mid-City.
In his proposal, Wesson noted that Obama held a campaign rally at Rancho Cienega Park on Rodeo Road when running for president and that the area already has streets named after presidents, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. It’s a residential strip in a predominantly African American community.
The road is also home to Dorsey High School, Baldwin Hills Elementary School and Rancho Cienega Sports Center and Park — where Obama held a campaign rally when he was running for president. East of La Brea Avenue, the new Obama Boulevard will intersect with Martin Luther King Boulevard (which was renamed from Santa Barbara Avenue in 1983).
Also #OTD in 2008, @BarackObama became the first African-American presidential nominee from a major political party. Today our council gave final approval to our motion to rename Rodeo Road to Obama Boulevard. Proud to take this next step on a day that meant so much to so many. pic.twitter.com/fpGqikmQtD
The move is not the first to honor the former president in the greater Los Angeles area. In September, a resolution by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) to rename a portion of the 134 Freeway passed. Several California schools have also been named after Obama, and in the Monterey Bay town of Seaside, city leaders designated one street Obama Way.
A new scholarship fund has been established at Vanderbilt University to honor James M. Lawson Jr., a leading figure in the civil rights movement and an associate of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The new scholarship was made possible by a gift from Doug Parker, an alumnus of the Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt, the CEO of American Airlines, and a new trustee of the university, and his wife Gwen.
The new scholarships will be given to students from underrepresented groups who have shown a commitment to civil rights and social justice.
Lawson, enrolled at the Vanderbilt Divinity School in 1958. While a student he helped organize sit-ins at lunch counters in downtown Nashville. In 1960, he was expelled from the university for his participation in civil rights protests.
Lawson completed his divinity studies at Boston University and then served as director of nonviolent education for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. From 1974 to 1999, Rev. Lawson was the pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles.
Lawson returned to Vanderbilt as a distinguished visiting professor form 2006 to 2009. An endowed chair at the Divinity School was named in his honor in 2007.
Morgan Freeman has been named the 54th recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award for career achievement and humanitarian accomplishment. Freeman will be presented the accolade at the 24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 21 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. The award is given annually to an actor who fosters the “finest ideals of the acting profession.”
Freeman has won a Screen Actors Guild Award, an Academy Award, HFPA’s Cecil B. DeMille Award, an AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, seven Image Awards, a Silver Berlin Bear and a Kennedy Center Honor. SAG-AFTRA made the announcement Tuesday. “I am thrilled to announce Morgan Freeman as this year’s recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award,” said SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris. “Some actors spend their entire careers waiting for the perfect role. Morgan showed us that true perfection is what a performer brings to the part. He is innovative, fearless and completely unbound by expectations… It has been a privilege to see his genius at work.”
Freeman won an Academy Award in 2005 for Best Supporting Actor for “Million Dollar Baby.” He was nominated for Oscars for “Street Smart” (1987), “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994) and “Invictus” (2009). He also won a SAG Award for “Million Dollar Baby.”
He has nearly 100 feature film credits including “The Dark Knight,” “The Bucket List,” “Glory,” “Lean on Me,” “Se7en,” “Amistad,” “Bruce Almighty,” and “Along Came a Spider.” Recent credits include “Going In Style,” “Ben-Hur,” “Now You See Me 2” and “London Has Fallen.” Freeman’s upcoming films include “Villa Capri” and Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.”
After Fox 2000‘s space race drama “Hidden Figures” was released last year, an unprecedented amount of United States embassies were reportedly calling the State Department requesting the film. Eventually the movie was screened to nearly 80 locations overseas and because of all those screenings, a new, publicly funded exchange program will bring women from around the world working in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to the United States.
The program, called #HiddenNoMore, will bring 50 women from 50 different countries who are working in STEM fields to the United States. The chosen participants will travel to Washington in October before traveling across the country for three weeks meeting with universities, Girl Scouts, and other organizations.
Then they’ll all come together in Los Angeles for a two-day event on the 21st Century Fox lot. Across STEM industries, women, particularly women of color, are vastly underrepresented. “Hidden Figures” already shed light on the important history of black women in mathematics, but with programs like #HiddenNoMore it’s cool that the movie can now help create its future.
Raised By Krump, a 22-minute documentary film that explores the Compton/South Central, Los Angeles-born dance movement “Krumping,” and the lives of some of the area’s most influential and prolific dancers, is making its exclusive, worldwide debut as a #staffpickpremiere on Vimeo today, May 24th.
Raised by Krump blends the art of movement, music, and personal interviews together to tell the story of finding solace within an underground movement and the community that it creates. The film, directed by award winning filmmaker Maceo Frost, focuses on how Krumping has helped young people deal with the emotional issues that come with growing up in one of L.A.’s toughest neighborhoods — a place where showing emotion is often considered a sign of weakness.
Perhaps most notably depicted in David LaChappelle’s documentary Rize, Krumping came to be via Tommy the Clown, who invented the dance movement “Clowning” in response to the happy façade he depicted when performing as a clown at childrens’ parties. Clowning, and eventually Krumping, allowed the dancers to express the everyday struggles of living in their neighborhoods.
Raised by Krump shows the next evolution after Rize. In the film, the dancers explain that they are who they are today because of the dance movement. Instead of joining a gang or turning to violence, they turned to movement, dance, and self-expression, and passed this ability on to their children and others’ children, creating a more creatively-stimulated younger generation. Krumping founders Tight-Eyez and Marquisa “Miss Prissy” Gardner – who were also featured in Rize – are in this film as well. They are older, wiser, and have experienced the full impact that Krumping has had on their lives.
As Miss Prissy says in the documentary, “I think Krump symbolizes every piece of what we went through growing up in our neighborhoods, from being chased by gangbangers to being harassed by the police for just being who we are and what we are. It was about us going through the shit that we just couldn’t control anymore, and I feel that’s what birthed Krump.”
Or as Tight Eyez plainly puts it, “We make the ugly part of our lives beautiful. We make it good.”
Frost’s film is also visually arresting, featuring a mesmerizing ebb and flow of movement, almost forming a visual poem about Krumping.