Tuesday, November 23, 2021

No Wealth Greater Than Health: A Thanksgiving Reminder

It is without question that the COVID-19 pandemic brought an amount of loss and grief that remains incomprehensible. Thus, as we enter the eve of another Thanksgiving, it's safe to say that what many will be most grateful for--as vaccinations allow us to safely gather with family and friends this year--is the opportunity to do just that: gather. Yet for the many that will have the opportunity to embrace loved ones, there will be just as many experiencing empty spaces at dinner tables; managing the void of familiar laughter in rooms; reflecting on the absence of warm embraces at front doors. Like a callous thief, the coronavirus indeed robbed so many of us of so much and, for those of us who experienced those losses personally, it was a painful reminder that there is no greater wealth on earth than your health. 

For the many who contracted the virus, it was simply inevitable. As the virus came and grabbed hold of persons of all ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds, it showed itself as unforgiving, non-selective, and relentless. And with 5.15 million deaths worldwide (and unfortunately continuing), it remains a phenomenon unlike any we've seen in over a century, after the 1918 Spanish Flu, which claimed upward of 50 million lives. And much like the Spanish Flu, COVID-19 was a battle many just couldn't win. However, when it comes to managing health that is still within our control, the pandemic served as a wake-up call that we must be diligent in doing so not only for ourselves but for our loved ones as well. 

I was personally reminded of this recently when a close family member was left in wait about a possible diagnosis that would have most definitely put their mortality in jeopardy. What was most interesting was how their possible diagnosis had also impacted everyone around them who was quietly fearing the worst yet praying for the best. The angst and worry was palpable; the wait felt like an eternity. Yet all praise to the Most High, the results revealed my loved one was in the clear. Thanks to early screening, they were able to get ahead of a diagnosis that continues to claim the lives of so many. Much like the fear that had overwhelmed us as a family, it was soon replaced by a joy that consumed us, lending itself to a gratitude that would make this Thanksgiving more special than it has been in a long time. 

This is when I was reminded that our responsibility for managing our health is not just about us; it is about those that love us as well. For those of us blessed to have access to affordable healthcare, not taking advantage of pre-screenings, annual exams, and routine checkups is simply irresponsible--and dare I say--selfish. And for persons of color, not only should many of those screenings happen sooner than for others, but the impact of not doing so if often so much greater. For as many of us have seen, when a person's health is in jeopardy, it is often loved ones who will bare the brunt emotionally, in sacrificed time and, often, financially. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control, if everyone in the United States received recommended clinical preventive care, over 100,000 lives could be saved each year. That's 100,000 less heartbreaks, 100,000 less tears and, subsequently, 100,000 less loved ones laid to rest. 

Yes, death is inevitable but premature death often remains preventable and the power is often in our very own hands. So as we slowly begin to emerge from a most painful pandemic in which we didn't have much control, take this Thanksgiving to not only be grateful for your health and the health of loved ones who are still with us, but let us all commit to remaining diligent with our own health care not just for our sake but the sake of those who love us the most. 

 Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving!

For a complete guide to annual health screenings by gender and age, click here

Photo Credits: N/A

Monday, August 16, 2021

'Respect' for NextAct Cinema

Although a tad late, it was most likely an article I stumbled across recently that brought me to learn of NextAct Cinema--Maryland's only minority owned, independent, boutique-style movie theater. So, as this self-ordained cinephile prepared for the release of the highly-anticipated Aretha Franklin biopic, "Respect," I knew exactly where I wanted to be sitting to see it. Nestled northwest of Baltimore in the quaint suburb of Pikesville, NextAct opened its doors in March 2019 by brothers Anthony Fykes and Robert Wright, who wanted to elevate their love of cinema normally enjoyed in their at-home theatre room to a larger platform. That platform became a twin screen, 86-total-adjustable-leather-seat movie house complete with in-seat dining and an array of food menu options (in addition to the traditional movie fare of popcorn and candy) including crab cakes and personal pizzas to salads and quesadillas to soups and deli sandwiches courtesy of the adjoined Pike's Diner and Crab House. 

However, the brick and mortar that houses NextAct is not new to the cinematic landscape, as the building was once home to Pikes Theatre, which opened in 1938 and continued to show movies until closing in 1984 and transforming itself into a restaurant/catering business that also closed in 2004. Pikes reopened as a movie theater from 2013 to 2016 before closing its doors once again until Fykes and Wright brought their dream to reality and the rest, as they say, is Black history. 

Co-owners, Anthony Fykes and Robert Wright
A Huffington Post article on NextAct Cinema stated that according to the Motion Picture Association of America, "the number of frequent African-American moviegoers soared from 3.8 million in 2015 to 5.6 million in 2016. However, many black communities across the country are 'cinema deserts' and lack any movie theaters at all, much less any that are black-owned," thus making NextAct timely, relevant, and much needed. In fact, in a March 2020 Washington Post article, Fykes stated, "There are only two other black-owned theaters that we know of. One is in Richmond and one is in Las Vegas." The Huffington Post article went on to state, "even though black-owned movie theaters are rare today, there is a long history of successful theaters that were catered to African-American patrons. Those theaters not only served as places for black people to watch movies but as communal spaces when they were being excluded." Because of this, it's no surprise that Fykes and Wright have also used their theater space for live jazz, happy hours, karaoke, comedy shows, and birthday parties as an effort to extend its reach and further engage the community. 

Therefore, as I comfortably settled into my seat, awaiting my turkey club sandwich and fries to be brought to me while engaging in small banter with other patrons who'd reserved a seat for the Saturday 1 p.m. showing of "Respect," it was not lost on me that I was there to see a movie about one who broke barriers and opened doors, in a theatre operated by two black men who are committed to doing the same. Whether on the screen, behind the camera or, in this case, behind the proverbial theater curtain, supporting NextAct Cinema was a wonderful reminder that there are many parts to play in moving minority entrepreneurship as well as the culture forward. Fykes and Wright have placed their names in the history books and called "action" on their own dreams, while serving as an inspiration to everyone who enters their theater doors with a dream of their own to do the same.

NextAct Cinema
921 Reisterstown Road
Pikesville, MD 21208

Sources: Black Enterprise; The Baltimore Sun; The Huffington Post

Photo Credits: N/A

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Happy Juneteenth...Again

One of my most beloved quotes is from the great late poet Dr. Maya Angelou who stated, “…when you know better, you do better.” It’s served as one of the most profound quotes I’ve held onto that has helped me give myself grace when learning from personal mistakes or, better termed, “life lessons.” Which is why on this Fourth of July/Independence Day, the question “Independence for who?” makes it so easy for me to replace waving flags, gawking at fireworks, and singing the National Anthem with sojourning on the couch and watching Ice Cube’s “Friday” trilogy for the umpteenth time. Don’t get me wrong, I—like most Americans despite ethnicity—reveled in all the pageantry and festivities of the holiday for years, which unofficially marks the peak of summer and the beginning of “cookout season.” But if the last year has reminded me of anything, from the health disparities underscored by the COVID-19 pandemic to the growing economic divide to the continuous yet unpunishable murders of men and women of color, is that this country still has a long way to go before it can authentically celebrate its passage of 1776’s Declaration of Independence, which was to guarantee life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the promise of equality for all—although written while more than half a million black Americans were enslaved at the time of its signing. Le sigh. 

This is why Juneteenth—a day commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves on June 19, 1865 (yes, two whole years after President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1, 1863 officially outlawed slavery in Texas and in all of the other states of the original Confederacy)—is so much more meaningful for me to celebrate. And why although President Joe Biden officially signed the day into law this year to be recognized as a federal holiday, makes no difference to me, since it was an honor for me in recent years to use my personal leave time to take the day off from work in reverence to. In fact, I actually have great reservation about Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday for fear the day may become like any other holiday for most and misappropriated for mattress sales and “ladies free before 6:19 p.m.” club promotions, but I digress. 

Therefore, for that reason and before the possibility that the richness of Juneteenth is dismantled, I was ecstatic to commemorate the holiday this year with family at the historic Leimert Park with its two-day celebration of Black liberation designed to “educate, entertain and activate” through art, music, food, and performances. Spending that time intentionally with family and the extended family of “skinfolk” was the perfect reminder that regardless of our progress, we must continue to celebrate, and uphold one another and the many facets of our culture, if we are to continue to survive and thrive within a country that regularly reminds us that July 4, 1776 was and is just another day for us.
Thus, while I’d never turn down a good ol’ grilled hot dog or hamburger offered to me on this fourth day of the seventh month of the year, my inactivity is solidified with an excerpt from abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass’ famed 1852 speech to the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” in which he states, “…I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common….”

On that note, and to my African-American brothers and sisters, Happy Juneteenth…again.

Sources: Wikipedia, Britannica

Angelou and Douglass Image/Photo Credits: N/A

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Black Brilliance on the Big Screen

On a recent self-imposed sabbatical, I was able to (once fully vaccinated :-) travel and spend much-desired time with family to do a lot of the “joyful nothingness” that bonds us, from watching crime shows over a jumbo bag of potato chips to taking late night neighborhood strolls while trading “remember when…” stories. However, my family’s greatest bond is our love of cinema. So, incorporating a few trips to the movie theater into the itinerary was a must. Unfortunately, with the theater industry being one of the hardest hit during the pandemic, it was no surprise that my family and I were often the only moviegoers present, even with the world reopening and making its slow return to “normalcy.” Not surprising since the closing of movie houses helped streaming services reign supreme during a most unprecedented time in history. I personally missed the regular Friday night treks to a physical movie theater, smelling fresh popcorn wafting through the lobby, and being placed in the middle of the action courtesy of IMAX-sized screens and Dolby stereo sounds. Because of this, I am whole-heartedly committed to returning to the theaters despite the simplicity and accessibility streaming allowed us, for I’m wise enough to know joy is not always about ease, but often about a full experience. And the moviegoing experience is one I’m ready to embrace again. So, if you’re like me, enjoy this list of blockbusters coming to a big screen near you soon (even if they show up simultaneously on your streaming apps).

Zola – June 30th 

When I first read the premise for the Janicza Bravo-directed "Zola," I recall having a déjà vu moment of “Why have I heard this story before?” It’s because I and million others had, courtesy of a viral 148 tweet-thread that A'ziah "Zola" Wells King had posted in 2015, recounting her tale as a waitress who meets a sex worker and embarks on a wild cross-country adventure. Almost everyone agreed it sounded like something out of a movie; it’s no doubt Bravo felt the same, prompting her to rush to her agent and manager for advice on next steps on how to make it so. And as they say, the rest is history. Or, better yet, the rest is one of the most anticipated movie drops of the year. Starring Taylour Paige (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”) and Riley Keough (“The Lodge”), the noir dramedy follows Zola who meets sex worker Stefani at a restaurant where Zola works and where the two immediately bond, leading to an impromptu two-day cross-country road trip to Florida that finds the two of them, along with Stefani's lovesick boyfriend, caught in a tangled web of madness that involves strip clubs, seedy hotels, unwelcoming locals, and a pimp named "X."   See trailer here

Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – July 2nd 

Some movies are just too powerful to not be seen on the big screen. Although streaming on Hulu as well, you’ll want the full concert experience of The Root’s Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson’s directorial debut, “Summer of Soul (Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised”). As the 2021 Sundance Film Festival moved to a virtual platform earlier this year, I had the pleasure of seeing the release on its opening night and it did not disappoint. As Thompson recounted in a recent Essence July/August 2021 issue, when producers David Dinerstein and Robert Fyvolent told him about archival footage they’d stumbled upon of a 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival that rivaled Woodstock and, in fact, took place mere months before over a period of six weeks, Thompson called B.S., stating there was no way such greatness had occurred that there would be no record of. Oh, there was record of it; sadly, it was all sitting in the basement of late filmmaker Hal Tulchin’s home, all but forgotten after his many attempts to shop it for distribution failed due to “lack of interest.” Thompson, reluctant of being handed such a treasure, hesitated to get involved with the project. But, after seeing a snippet of footage, knew bringing it to light would be one of his greatest callings. The roster of artists who appear in 'Soul' are too long to list and their performances too astounding to be captured in words. All I’ll say is this: the 117-minute concert documentary features a young Stevie Wonder—on drums. Thank me later. See trailer here.

Respect – August 13th 

The Queen of Soul has been getting a lot of, well, respect the past year from Cynthia Erivo’s portrayal of the superstar in "Genius: Aretha" to the soon-to-be released biopic, “Respect” starring Academy and Grammy-award winner Jennifer Hudson (“Dreamgirls”) as Franklin; Academy-award winner Forest Whitaker (“Black Panther”) as Franklin’s father, C.L. and, in his first big screen dramatic role, Marlon Wayans (“White Chicks”) as Franklin’s first husband Ted White. Directed by Liesl Tommy, the movie's star power alone is guaranteed to make 'Respect' a winner, especially since the late Franklin herself endorsed Hudson to best portray her, but also because much of Franklin’s personal life remained somewhat of a mystery, leaving fans to use all the joy, hurt, and pain she delivered in her songs as the only tiny glimpse into her world. What Franklin never kept from her fans, however, was her soul. Neither does Hudson. And if Hudson’s tour de force performance in Dreamgirls is just a prequel to what we can expect her to deliver in 'Respect,' “ain’t no way” it won’t be a hit. See trailer here

Candyman – August 27th 

You already know not to say it. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it…. Let’s face it: the original 1992 Candyman (and its subsequent two follow-ups) didn’t, as the young folks would say, “give what it was supposed to have gave.” Sure, it gave us a fair share of jumpy moments but there’s a whole different fear factor level anticipated whenever Jordan Peele adds his name to a project. As the writer of this fourth installment, Peele and director Nia DaCosta's revamped version of Candyman merges morality and macabre as Chicago artist Anthony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, “Watchmen”; “Us”), now residing in the infamous, yet gentrified, Cabrini Green neighborhood, is told about the horrific history of Candyman and the Cabrini Green Towers. Looking to revitalize his flagging career, McCoy decides to incorporate the legend and images of his destruction into his artistry, unknowingly awakening Candyman and sending him on murderous new streak. We all know chanting Candyman’s name five times leads to doom. Here's hoping Peele’s offering, after several lackluster attempts, will revive the legend in a more "positive" way. Also starring Vanessa Estelle Williams (“Soul Food”) reprising her role in the original film. See trailer here

The Harder They Fall - late 2021

Not since 1993’s Mario Van Peebles-directed “Posse” has a Black western been as highly anticipated as this year’s forthcoming "The Harder They Fall" directed by Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote the screenplay with Boaz Yakin. 'Harder's" chamber is locked and loaded with the best in Black Hollywood including Jonathan Majors (“Lovecraft Country”), Idris Elba (“The Wire”; “Luther”), Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield (both of FX’s “Atlanta”), Delroy Lindo (“Da 5 Bloods”) and Regina King (“Watchmen”). Need I say more? Okay, if I must, here's a little bit of a plot drop to lasso you in: Major portrays real life African-American cowboy and former slave, Nat Love, who reassembles his former gang to seek revenge against the man who murdered his parents. Love’s real-life exploits have made him one of the most famous black heroes of the Old West. Saddle up and head to a theater near you. Note: 'Harder' is scheduled for a Fall 2021 Netflix release but may be available in theaters as well. See trailer here.

That’s it for now, my fellow cinephiles. May each of you continue to stay safe and return to indulging in those things that bring you joy! See you in the lobby after the movie….

Photo Credits: N/A

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Best in the Worst of Times

I don't believe there is a better way to sum up 2020 than with the opening of Charles Dickens' famed novel, "A Tale of Two Cities," which reads, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...." Whether that best was simply a reprieve from a daily work commute or the worst being the loss of a loved one, it's safe to assume, at this conclusion of the year, we could all perform a soliloquy built on both of Dickens' sentiments with the "worst of times" reigning supreme. Because of this, I won't add a monologue. Instead, I've decided to close out the year reflecting on and sharing a brief list of those things that brought me joy, laughter, or generated deep thought during this time of great uncertainty. Hopefully, as you await the promise a new year brings, these "best of" recommendations will help turn any of your frowns upside down. 

Best Movie 
With the amount of movies I've indulged in during quarantine, you'd think it would be difficult to identify a "best." It's isn't. But how did I make that determination? Simple: It was the first movie that would come to my mind whenever friends would ask me for a recommendation. That movie is none other than Radha Blank's "40 Year Old Version." The semi-autobiographical flick gives the nostalgic feel of Spike Lee's "She's Gotta Have It" (thanks to it being shot in black and white) and the artistry of Theodore Witcher's "Love Jones" (thanks to its writer-based premise, dope tracks, and nuanced love story). And it's hella funny too. Thanks to Blank's honest and raw portrayal of a down-on-her-luck playwright who feels the only way she can make her voice relevant again is to become a rapper at 40, "Version" made such an impact upon its release, that it took home the U.S. Dramatic Competition Directing Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival and has garnered praise from Los Angeles and New York Times' critics. Gen X'ers will enjoy this all-to-familiar fear of a pre-midlife crisis yet be inspired to blow the dust off any dreams they may have placed on their proverbial shelf. As an added bonus, be on the lookout for your fav hip hop artists who are cast as "regular folk." Available on Netflix. View trailer here

Best Documentary
There was no shortage of Netflix offerings this year and the streaming service went above and beyond in the documentary genre from its now cult classic "Tiger King" to the rebirth of the 80s hit TV series, "Unsolved Mysteries." However, none of them left the emotional stain on my soul as "Trial 4." The eight-part crime docuseries directed by Rémy Burke tells the story of Sean K. Ellis, who was unjustly convicted as a teen for the 1993 killing of a Boston police officer. While Ellis fights for his freedom thanks to a courageous defense attorney who refused to be intimidated by "the powers that be," systemic racism and corruption in Boston's justice system, political arenas, and even churches is put on full display. For persons of color, these stories are not new, but this deep-dive, investigative look at the relentless collaborate efforts across four trials to keep Ellis incarcerated despite a lack of evidence is both astounding and heartbreaking, while his ultimate redemption is empowering. Available on Netflix. View trailer here.

Best "TV" Series
It is often said you gotta laugh just to keep from crying. And when it came to the groundswell support this summer centered around justice reform due in part to protests over the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of the police, there was more than enough reason to shed tears upon tears. There was also more than enough reason for us to take a few minutes to breathe and recharge, and HuLu's "Woke" provided the perfect relief. Co-created by Keith Knight and Marshall Todd and starring Lamorne Morris, the series loosely based on Knight's own life, follows a Black cartoonist on the verge of mainstream success who prides himself on 'keeping it light' regarding topics of race until mistaken identity lands him--literally--in the hands of police and he's finally forced to confront his "blackness." Now that Knight is "awake," it's impossible for him to lookaway from the microaggressions and blatant acts of racism confronting him daily, thanks in part to the talking inanimate objects around him that he's suddenly now able to hear thanks to his "roughing up." As crazy as it may all sound, it works due in part to the diverse cast of characters including Knight's funny, polar opposite, black and white roommates; an editor friend at a Black-owned newspaper (played by SNL's Sasheer Zamata) who's been critical of Knight's past ambivalence; an unexpected love interest; and, of course, those inanimate objects--a pen, a trash can, and a 40 ounce--voiced by comedic greats such as Cedric the Entertainer and J.B. Smoove, all helping Knight navigate through his newfound "wokeness." The series' eight episodes are extremely short but nonetheless entertaining, and the series has already been renewed for a season 2. View trailer here.

Best Album 
When I was alerted that Nas' would be dropping a new album this year, I was certain this would be the "musical oasis" we needed that would give us a much needed reprieve from the chaos. While "King's Disease" wasn't horrible, it definitely wasn't "it" if you will (due to what I believe was a push for a more commercialistic approach). And just as I was prepared to return to the hip hop classics that always sustain us, boom, guess who stepped in the room: Busta Rhymes with Extinction Level Event 2: The Wrath of God. Now if there was ever a way to use the devastation of 2020 as a marketing tool for an album, this was it! Whether Busta already had this album in the works and the Universe gave him the perfect platform to perch it on or if he was inspired by the chaos that soon became our norm, I'm not sure. All I know is it was both right on time and right for these times. This sequel to 1998’s E.L.E. (Extinction Level Event): The Final World Front (which I kept on repeat back in the day) and his first studio album since 2012's Year of the Dragon, E.L.E 2 offers a variety of soon-to-be classic, base-heavy tracks and features guest appearances from a roster of musical icons including Kendrick Lamar and Mariah Carey to Q-Tip, Mary J. Blige, and Rakim with narration intervals from both Chris Rock and Minister Louis Farrakhan. We don't know how long this pandemic pandemonium is going to exist, but whether you're in these streets fighting for social justice or fighting for household supplies, be sure to rock out to Busta while you're at it. Available across all music platforms. 

Best Book
There's nothing better than the assurance you get when one of your favorite writers whole-heartedly endorses another. That's how I felt when Damon Young from Very Smart Brothers and "What Won't Kill You Makes You Blacker" fame encouraged his supporters this summer to pre-order writer Deesha Philyaw's debut novel, "The Secret Lives of Church Ladies." If the title alone doesn't grab you, its collection of nine stories that explore the intersection of sexuality and Christianity through the lens of infidelity, casual sex, and same sex relationships will. With black women as the protagonists in each story, this finalist for the 2020 National Book Award for Fiction is an unapologetic, thought-provoking collection of short stories that capture the complexity and diversity of black women struggling to live authentically despite the religious strongholds that conflict with their desires. Grab a glass of sweet tea and enjoy. Available on audiobook, Kindle, and in paperback from Amazon here. Blogger's Fun Fact: Upon receipt of the book, my plan to read one chapter before bed turned into me completing the entire novel by 3 a.m. Enjoy. 

Best New Discovery
Whether we want to admit it or not, 2020 probably found us all imbibing our favorite libations more than we normally would (or should). However, with nowhere to go and streaming offerings aplenty, we sat back and toasted to the weekends and sometimes weekdays alike. And when those moments called for a smooth red, everyone's favorite nephew Snoop Dogg delivered fo shizzle with Cali Red courtesy of his partnership with 19 Crimes wines. According to 19 Crimes, the Cali Red is considered "full and dense, with strong black & blue fruit notes from the Petite Sirah, complemented by bright red, slightly candied fruit from the Zinfandel...tied together by a darkly toasted oak." In other words, it's good. Let's face it: there's not much the D-O-double-G doesn't successfully have his hand in and this bold red is no exception. Cheers! For more information, check out 19 Crimes.

Best Virtual Experience
Apologies to all of my friends who lamented over the missed brunches, homecomings, and happy hours 2020 robbed them of. However, my greatest missed opportunity this year: live entertainment. As one of the things I love most, not being able to sit in a concert hall or jazz club and immerse myself in a live music experience was disappointing. However, thanks to the City Winery corporation's partnership with the Mandolin Concert Livestreaming Platform, music lovers were able to purchase tickets to real-time performances at a few of its seven locations. As artists ranging from Chante Moore to Keith Washington to Chrisette Michelle played to a limited in-person audience, viewers at home were able to sing--and chat--along with fellow fans for a close-to-the-real-thing experience. Of course, there's nothing like being front and center for a live performance but connect an HDMI cable to an HDTV, set the right lighting, and grab a glass of Cali Red, and you got yourself some "homemade" vibes. For more information on upcoming live and streaming shows from City Winery, click here.

Dickens would continue his famed quote by writing "...it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” And, yes, 2020 has delivered on all of those fronts. However, as we anxiously await that "spring of hope," I wish all of you the best of whatever those good things are you've discovered this past year that will continue to sustain, uplift, and invigorate you until we can all safely meet again. Be blessed, happy holidays, and happy new year!

Photo Credits: N/A