Thursday, January 4, 2018

After the '90 Day Fiancé' Tell All, Host Shaun Robinson Tells...a Lot

'90 Day Fiancé' host Shaun Robinson
Imagine watching the season-ending, all-secrets-revealed episode of your favorite guilty pleasure reality series, then having the host of the wrap-up show call you personally to talk about it.
How freakin' cool would that be?

Well, it happened to me. Sort of.

My wife Karen has indoctrinated me into the pure voyeuristic joy that is reality TV on TLC. And next to My 600-lb. Life (don't judge), which returns for its sixth season at 8/7c on Wednesday, Jan. 10, the one series we happily rearrange our schedules to watch together is 90 Day Fiancé.

You must have heard of it. The show follows a group of American singles looking for love – and, some might say, hopelessly foolish and naive – who use a unique 90-day visa called a K-1 to bring their foreign fiancés here from homelands around the globe. Once they arrive in the States, the spouses-to-be have three months to get married or they must leave the country. 

Emotional stress, culture shock and suspicious friends and families result, while cynical viewers question the couples' every move from their living rooms and on social media. Every week, the glaring question persists: are the foreigners really in it for love and marriage, or are they merely faking it to gain U.S. citizenship?

The series is wildly successful, drawing at least 2 million viewers a week and spawning multiple spinoff shows like Before the 90 Days. At the end of each season, all the principals gather on a New York soundstage for a concluding interview session and status report on their relationships. (You can watch the most recent "tell all" episode by clicking here.

For the past four seasons, that two-hour wrap-up blockbuster has been hosted by the veteran entertainment journalist and beauteous TV personality, Shaun Robinson.

Who, in the spirit of full disclosure, is my first cousin.

So when Shaun called recently to offer holiday wishes and talk about her impending trip home to Detroit, Karen and I couldn't help ourselves.

"Yeah, Yeah, Shaun, great to hear from you," we said over the speakerphone. "Now, tell us about Elizabeth and Andrei! Did Azan ever show up? What is Nicole really like?"

Shaun had to laugh, because she's become used to that reaction. In her 16 years as a fixture on the nationally syndicated daily entertainment series Access Hollywood, she says she never received the public attention she now gets routinely from her once-a-season appearance on 90 Day Fiancé.

"It's like Access Hollywood didn't exist, like I was never there," she marvels. "I was at a bat mitzvah recently and a couple came up to me like, 'Oh, my God, is that you? Is that you? We thought it was, but we weren't sure. Oooh, we've got to ask you about Danielle and Mohamed.'"

Shaun says she typically doesn't have an opportunity to spend much time with the couples prior to the Saturday tapings, which typically last 11 hours, from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., and from which only the juiciest portions are broadcast. So her goal is to be deferential to all the couples, giving them the opportunity to share the spotlight and answer the questions millions of Americans are dying to know.

"At the end of the day, they're just average, everyday people looking for love, so you try to be real respectful," she says. "At least one of them is in love and wants to get married, so sometimes there's just an innocence about them.

"Now, you don't always know the motivation of the foreigner, or even the American for that matter, but that's not for me to determine. There are times when I push and push and still don't get anything useable at the end.”

It’s knowing when and how hard to push that makes her role as moderator a challenge, she says. While her job often appears the equivalent of herding cats — sometimes angry, emotional, or love-blind cats –– Shaun likens it more to being a tightrope artist.

"You have to walk a very fine line," she says. "Some viewers may think we go too hard on some of the couples. Others might believe we don't push hard enough. Whichever way you go, somebody's going to be upset.

"I'm not going to change who I am. My goal is not to make anyone on the soft angry or storm off the set, although they may do that anyway. But I've got to stay true to who I am." 

One of the most memorable participants from the show's Season Four would have been delighted never to see or hear Shaun Robinson question him again.

"One day at JFK, I'm walking to baggage claim and I see a guy walking in front of me with a GoPro," Shaun recalls. "I look and I do a double take – it's Mohamed! He was coming back to do the show the second time, he  had just landed and he was documenting everything.

"So I walk over and say, 'Hi, Mohamed! Shaun Robinson.' He looks at me and goes, 'You? Are you doing the show? They told me there was going to be a different host.'
Couples like Nicole and Azan Keep Viewers Talking Nationwide. (TLC)

"'Nope. It's me.'

"He goes, 'Well, OK. But you better go easy on me this time.'

"See, here's the thing: they're on the show, but when it's over they realize that it's all real, because they have got to deal with the public and social media when the cameras go off. And social media can be brutal on these people." 

Here are a few realities viewers may be surprised to learn about Shaun's role on this reality-TV special:

• While the couples tell all, Shaun doesn't ask much: virtually none of the questions she poses during the special are her own. Producers script the questions in advance on cue cards, and a director is giving Shaun followup suggestions through her IFB earpiece. "They're in my ear the whole time, like, 'ask this, ask that,'" she says.

• Due to scheduling, when the "tell all" show is taped, the last three regular seson episodes have yet to air. Thus no one involved with the finale can react to viewer queries, from social media or any other means, regarding the couples' final romantic twists and turns.

• Even with its extended, two-hour-plus running time, with 11 hours of raw footage to choose from, editors inevitably have to leave some choice scenes on the cutting-room floor. For example, some viewers wondered on social media why Shaun failed to follow the lead of Nicole's mother and make Nicole reveal how much money she regularly sends to her intended, Azan.

Shaun says she did.

"I kept asking, 'Nicole, how much have you sent him?' and Nicole kept begging her mother, 'don't tell, don't tell...,'" she says. "Finally it became apparent that she wasn't going to say, so we just went on. A lot of the stuff is edited out."

Shaun says she binge-watches the season just before hosting the finale so everything is fresh in her mind. Her mother, Joanne, is a devoted fan and keeps her abreast of the goings-on from week to week. Even Mom tries to ply her for some inside dope.

"She tries to get all the secrets out of me" she says, laughing. "I posted a picture of everybody on the sofa, and she called me and said, 'Oh, it looks like Luis didn't show up.' I told her, 'Let's let that be a surprise.'"

Shaun has been a little busy lately for regular TV viewing. She recently completed an in-depth hourlong interview with former teen idol Corey Feldman to accompany the new Lifetime movie A Tale of Two Coreys, about Feldman's relationship with the late Corey Haim, set to debut at 9 p.m. EST Saturday, Jan. 6. TLC values her work so highly that they also tabbed her to host the "tell all" finale of My Big Fat Fabulous Life later this season, And she is moving into the next phase of her career, behind the camera, as executive producer or producer on a number of projects.

But while she's sitting in the best seat at the 90 Day Fiancé house – in the center of the sofa surrounded by the show's capricious couples – she does form some firsthand impressions. "You get a better sense of them in person, when you're sitting right next to them," she says.
Shaun Robinson: "Ive got to stay true to who I am."

– "Andrei actually was very levelheaded. Elizabeth seems like she definitely does love him. She said she would move to wherever he moves. She seemed like she had her head on straight."

– "Nicole just seems very young and immature."

– "When Luis came out he sat on the other side of the sofa. 'Why don't you want to sit next to Molly?'  I asked. All of a sudden, he can't understand English! I literally asked him four times."

– "The one that just tripped me out — well, a number of tripped me out in one way or another — but David was something else.”

And as to Azan? "OK, first of all, Azan doesn't even want to come to the United States, OK? He's happy over there in Morocco. He could stay in Morocco and not have a job. But when he didn't show up and he didn't call in, she [Nicole] just started boo-hooing."

Saturday, December 16, 2017

You Want My Attention? Call Me 'Jim,' 'Sir' – ANYTHING But 'Boss'

A few Saturdays ago, in one of the most idyllic and unexpected settings you can imagine, it happened again.

And my blood boiled. Again.

I officiate weddings as a hobby and a passion, and I had just completed a ceremony uniting a delightful young couple in a ballroom resplendent in gold and black. The newly-minted Mr. and Mrs. departed the room to the rousing applause of friends and family. Romance and euphoria filled the air.

I delivered my final instructions to the guests, advising them where and when the reception would commence, and stepped off the podium. As I did, out of the corner of my left eye, I detected a man gesturing to me.

"Hey – hey, Boss," he shouted.

Really? Really? Did he have to go there?

Sidney Poitier knew what he wanted to be called: "MISTER Tibbs!" (MGM Studios)
No matter that I had introduced myself by name to the crowd not once, but twice during the proceedings. Despite the fact I had identified myself as an ordained officiant, not a pastor or minister of a church, he could have been forgiven for calling me "Reverend." "Sir," "Mister," even "Hey, you" would have been quite acceptable.

But why do white men – even young white men, particularly when working as servers in restaurants – persist in calling black men "Boss" or "Chief?"

Is it somehow ingrained in their ancestral DNA?

I started to unleash a stream of outrage and indignation in his face, then immediately thought better of it. After all, I was a hired pro in this setting. It's likely I would never see this man again. Wrong time, wrong location for a history lesson. And a wise display of restraint on my part, as it turned out, since the man happened to be the father of the groom, who had a relatively simple question. That could have turned a bit dicey. But still....

After returning home and sharing the cause of my seething, my wife said I may be making too much of such a brief encounter. She had a point. However, as far as I know, she has never been an African-American male before.

As a professional writer more than half my life, I know all too well that words have power. They often carry meanings far deeper, and sometimes more insidious, than your online dictionary might reveal. Every time I get "Boss" or "Chief" – and it happens far more often than you can imagine – I immediately flash back to one of the most memorable scenes from one of the seminal films of my teens, and the quote ranked as No. 16 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movie quotes of all time.

Early in the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night (which, if you haven't seen in 50 years, I don't know what to say about you), Sidney Poitier, playing top Philadelphia Police investigator Virgil Tibbs, is arrested on suspicion of murder while visiting his mother in the small Southern town of Sparta, Miss. He is hauled before the local sheriff, portrayed by Oscar winner Rod Steiger, who eventually ridicules his calm self-confidence.

"Virgil," the sheriff snarls. "That's a funny name for a n----r boy that comes from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?"

"They call me MISTER Tibbs!" he responds, without hesitation. Blacks, who not that long before would have been forced to watch the scene from theater balconies, erupted in cheers.

That movie came out at the height of the civil rights movement in America, but in many ways great and subtle, the battle for respect rages on.

I was brought up to address every man, whether my age or (especially) older, as "Sir." If such deferential etiquette was still being taught in homes and schools today, I wouldn't be writing this.

When a white stranger takes the uninvited liberty of addressing me as "Boss" or "Chief," it jerks my thoughts to a gone-but-not-forgotten era in our nation when slaveowners, or "planters," and their hired plantation operators would designate overseers, usually black males, to keep the other darkies in line.

The white men would call these overseers "Boss" or "Chief," too, but it was the cruelest of inside jokes: while they may have had a measure of control over their own kind, they held no actual authority beyond that, real or imagined. They were powerless, and they knew it. The real bosses may have known the overseer's name, but why bother remembering it? It was totally unimportant to them.
This is an actual chief. I have no tribe, nor headdress.

And now, more than 150 years later, some white men still believe these are titles black men somehow will find complimentary. We don't. They are oh-so-subtly demeaning and insulting. Perhaps these men are ignorant to the origin of these greetings, unaware of the emotions they arouse.

Perhaps not.

And I am not alone in this feeling. While searching to find the exact Poitier quote from In the Heat of the Night, I came across this opinion piece from Bill Maxwell in the Tampa Bay Times several years ago:

With all the societal turmoil sweeping our country at the moment, the #MeToo movement and its fallout, a complaint like this may seem trivial, almost silly. At the end of the day, though, isn't all of it simply a question of mutual respect?

While writing this I recalled an incident this summer as I was walking into a neighborhood grocery store to do my morning marketing. A slender Caucasian man in a large straw hat, possibly my age or older, approached me at the door.

"Excuse me, Boss," he began. "I'm a little short of change for the bus, and I was wondering –"

It was early, so my synapses were firing on all cylinders. I stopped him in mid-sentence.

"I'm not your boss, sir," I replied. "I've never even met you before."

He looked at me and blinked, obviously trying to process my words.

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said. "So anyway, Chief, could I possibly – "

My Lord.

"I'm not your chief, either," I interrupted. "I've never led a tribe, and I don't own a headdress. Now, I'm going in the store."

I left him standing there, with his mouth open. I didn't give him a dime. This man wanted me to give him money, and he still couldn't find it in his heart or vocabulary to call me "Sir." Or nothing at all!

I've had Caucasian friends tell me that I'm hypersensitive on this issue, that white people call each other "Boss" and "Chief" all the time.

Well, that may be. But I've never been present to witness it. (Maybe because they don't want to confuse the situation.) The first time I hear a white man address another white male stranger as "Boss," my outrage may lessen considerably.

I'm waiting.

Friday, September 22, 2017

These Are the Top 10 New Fall Series I Cannot WAIT to Watch

Young Sheldon, Starring Iain Armitage, Has More Pressure to Succeed Than Any Other New Series 

Well, now it gets serious. After all the reruns, the limited-run summer series (what did you think of Salvation? The Sinner? Were you shocked that Jessica Biel could act?) and surviving Stephen Colbert hijacking the Emmys into a political rally, the still-traditional fall TV season now truly swings into full gear.

Back in the Dark Ages – the 1980s and '90s, when I was working as a full-time television critic in Detroit – I could give you detailed descriptions of virtually every new series preparing to say hello in the next three weeks or so. To be a member of the Television Critics Association back then was to master the art of binge watching long before anybody gave it a cool name.

Because it's considered only polite (and mandatory) to see an artist's work before you interrogate them about it, I remember watching pilots of new series running on continuous closed-circuit loops in my Los Angeles hotel room during TV critic conventions, allowing me to background myself before attending the show's press conference the next day. Try being objective about the quality of a new family sitcom at 3:30 in the morning.

With virtually every cable service producing original series these days and the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, I really don't see how television critics do their jobs today without constantly feeling inadequate. And given the fact that, on average, nearly 70 percent of all first-year series get the axe before Season Two – many don't even make it to Thanksgiving – the whole process can feel like a futile exercise at times.

Still, we love TV. And because I'm now basically an average viewer without the advantage of sneak peeks, I have to say there are a number of freshman series I'm quite interested to see. Here, in reverse order based on level of curiosity, are my most Tempting Ten (all times EST):

10. LIAR, Sundance TV (premieres 10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27): Sundance TV is like PBS with commercials. Though it has been home to some outstanding original series the past few years (Rectify, Hap and Leonard and Cleverman leap to mind), I still get the sense most people tune to it for the Hollywood Reporter talk show roundtable and end-of-the-week Law & Order reruns. They might want to hang around for this six-episode mini-thriller starring Ioan Gruffudd (Fantastic Four) and Joanne Froggatt (Downton Abbey) in the all-time ultimate bad first date.

Michele Balances Hall's Sass With Sweetness in ABC's'The Mayor.'
9. The MayorABC (premieres 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 3): In what's increasingly becoming an urban sitcom lineup to rival CBS's "black block" of the '70s, ABC is twinning Black-ish with this comedy hopeful starring newcomer Brandon Micheal Hall as a hapless rapper who, while trying to generate pub for his next self-made CD, inadvertently becomes mayor of his small Northern California hometown. Creators have surrounded Hall with a wealth of recognizable talents, including the wonderful Yvette Nicole Brown (Community) as his mother, the angelic Lea Michele (Glee) as his former high school lab partner and chief of staff, and Birmingham, Michigan's own David Spade as his political rival. Black-ish will lead it in, but will ratings voters keep The Mayor in office? (The pilot is airing now, in advance of its October debut, on the ABC website.)

8. Wisdom of the Crowd, CBS (premieres 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1): Ari Gold is back! Only this time, Entourage's Jeremy Piven is brainier, brooding and immersed in grief. He plays a visionary tech genius who creates an ultra-intense crowdsourcing platform to help solve his daughter's murder – and possibly revolutionize law enforcement in the process. I'm fascinated to know how future episodes of this procedural drama will play out, how the series responds to the inevitable accusations that it encourages vigilantism, and how it avoids comparisons to CBS's previous high-tech crimebusting hit, Person of Interest. Whatever befalls, this show gets big ups from me because it returns the immensely likable Richard T. Jones (Judging Amy) to primetime. Loves me some Richard T.

7. Star Trek: Discovery, CBS All Access (premieres Sept. 24): Do I really need to explain this?

6. Me, Myself and I, CBS (premieres 9:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25): The promise of this sitcom makes me happy for at least three reasons: (1) it's a unique, high-concept comedy – simultaneously watching a man in three distinct stages of his life, as child, adult and retiree – a rarity for the big networks; (2) it's a marvelous SNL graduation gift for Bobby Moynihan, a stalwart and standout performer on the latenight launching pad for nearly a decade, and (3) it marks the primetime return of two of the most legendary sitcom stars in TV history, John Larroquette (Night Court) and Jaleel White (Family Matters). Sure hope it's funny.

5. Law & Order True Crime – The Menendez Murders, NBC (premieres 10 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26): I would pay money to watch the fabulous Edie Falco read a menu. So you can imagine how giddy I am over the prospect of her playing flamboyant, tough-tuches defense attorney Leslie Abramson, as Dick Wolf – who, can we all agree, is the preeminent procedural storyteller of our generation? – sets his Law & Order formula on a case not just "ripped from the headlines," but a true-life, eight-episode dramatization of one of the most spectacular murder cases in modern U.S. history.

Can SEAL TEAM Put a New Image on Boreanaz' Old Bones?
4. SEAL TEAM, CBS (premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 27): This is a perfect transition vehicle for David Boreanaz, ratcheting up the macho mystique he established over 12 seasons (and syndication) as Seeley Booth on Bones. Now he's Jason Hayes, flawed, intense leader of the Tier One team of our nation's most celebrated elite fighting force. Boreanaz is surrounded by a cast of relative unknowns (including Grand Rapids native Toni Trucks), and while the co-stars' celebrity will rise if the show takes off, for now its Seeley's – I mean, David's – drama to win or lose. TV audiences tend to have elephantine memories: how long will it take for Boreanaz's fans to accept him as this new character? And can SEAL TEAM come close to matching the riveting intensity and realistic feel of SIX on the History Channel, far and away the best military-inspired action series I've seen in ages?

3. Will & Grace, NBC (premieres 9 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 28): Somebody try to tell me there is no God! What are the odds of getting all four original cast members from one of the funniest, most groundbreaking comedies of the last decade to reunite 11 years later for a W&G 2.0 edition that's as fast-paced and hilarious as the original, if not more so? It's a miracle! For TV's Fab Four –Debra Messing, Eric McCormack, Megan Mullally and Sean Hayes – it's as if time stood still. Yet two things have changed: America's acceptance of characters representing the full LBGTQ rainbow on television has increased significantly; and from the White House to pop culture, the show has a delicious range of new targets to skewer. (Every episode of the original series is streaming on the NBC app and on Hulu, which will air every new show the day after its network premiere.)

2. Dynasty, The CW (premieres 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11): Devotees of primetime soaps as long in the tooth as I surely remember dashing, silver-maned John Forsythe as Blake Carrington, breathtakingly beautiful Linda Evans as Krystle – and who could ever forget the villainous machinations of Joan Collins as Alexis? Well, the character names are the same, but the faces have been changed and sure look innocent in this contemporary, multiethnic re-do of the most memorable and lavish '80s weekly melodrama next to Dallas. This nobody-you've-heard-of version promises to be younger, hotter, sexier, less homophobic – my word, to hear the producers talk, it might even cure baldness! When TNT attempted to reboot Dallas a few seasons ago they bought back many of the show's original characters; the braintrust for the new Dynasty says Collins will appear in upcoming episodes. (Does anybody really want to see that?) I think everybody in America seen that face slap in the promos by now. I'm fascinated to see how this all plays out, and if it can come anywhere close to capturing the magic of the original.

1. Young SheldonCBS (premieres 8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 25): This is genius. (No pun intended.) The Big Bang Theory, while still undeniably America's No. 1 sitcom, is moving down the backstretch as it enters its 11th season Monday night. Why not groom its heir apparent while the show still has some legs? "Old Sheldon," Jim Parsons, is an executive producer, narrator, and helped cast the spinoff's star, baby-faced, 9-year-old Iain Armitage. By all indications, he's phenomenal in the role. Big Bang will be the lead-in for its premiere, but its second episode won't air until November 2! Hey, no pressure, right? Anything less than spectacular ratings for Young will make CBS restless. What I want to know is, will viewers find the same lines they howl over when deadpanned by Parsons as funny coming from an imperious, snot-nosed kid? (Amaze your friends with this factoid: Zoe Perry, who plays young Sheldon's mom, is the real-life daughter of Laurie Metcalf, who appears in a recurring role as adult Sheldon's Bible-thumping mother on Big Bang.)

Those are my really-wanna-sees for fall. What are some of yours?

*         *         *

While I was writing this, my wife Karen, who commits to new TV series with the same enthusiasm some people use in selecting a new dentist, presented me with her printed list of series she would "consider" watching this fall.

This is a huge deal. Her stock response this time of year is, "I'm not taking on any new shows at this time."

No, seriously.

Mercifully, some of her selections are the same as mine.

In no particular order:

White Famous, 10 p.m. Sundays, premiering Oct. 15 (Showtime);

Ten Days in the Valley, 10 p.m. Sundays, Oct. 1 (ABC);

Young Sheldon (CBS);

9JKL, 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Oct. 2 (CBS);

Me, Myself and I, (CBS);

Law & Order True Crime – The Menendez Murders (NBC);


Will & Grace (NBC);

S.W.A.T., 10 p.m. Thursdays, Nov. 2 (CBS).

The last choice, I have no doubt, may have something to do with Shemar Moore.

(Photos Courtesy CBS, ABC.)

Friday, August 4, 2017

'DETROIT:' A Compelling, Appalling, Terrifying Movie Masterpiece

As I drove across the state of Michigan I kept saying to myself, "Maybe if I keep believing the name of the movie is really CLEVELAND, I'll be less defensive. At least I want to keep an open mind."

The object of my magical thinking was DETROIT, director Kathryn Bigelow's dramatic and dramatized take on one of the lesser-known incidents (unless you're from the Motor City) that emerged from the Detroit riot of 1967, the violent uprising that today competes with Los Angeles '92 as the deadliest and most destructive civil disturbance in American history.

The film had its world premiere not in Hollywood, but at a jam-packed Fox Theatre July 2017 in downtown Detroit. The premiere was a first for the city, and I essentially made a one-day, 800-mile round trip car ride just to sit in that historic audience.

I review films on The Pulse With Karen Dumas every Friday at 5 on 910am Superstation in Detroit (forgive the shameless plug), and to miss this advance screening, with this audience in this city, would have been nothing short of heresy. Even if that wasn't the case, however, I knew I just had to be there.

Now Bigelow, director of such war-torn blockbusters as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, is the first woman ever to win an Academy Award for directing (for Hurt Locker), so I was pretty sure I wasn't traveling to DETROIT to see a new rom-com. However, though I was born in West Michigan, I consider myself an adopted Detroiter in spirit. I lived more than half my life in that city. I became a man in that city. And, like most Detroit residents and expatriates, I am viciously protective of its image and reputation.

Detroit has been the punchline of way too many jokes, crapped on more frequently than a car windshield. As a writer with a Detroit history, I was asked more than once this year to research and write articles on the 50th anniversary of the riot, so details remain fresh in my brain. (Including a cover story I penned for the Wayne State University alumni magazine.)

And now some buzzy LA director – and a white director, at that – is coming to town to revise our history regarding the Algiers Motel, where three young black men were slaughtered by Caucasian cops at the height of the '67 uprising and eventually acquitted at trial? O...M...D.


Let's just say my BS detector was in the red zone. Deep breaths...deep breaths. The name of this film is CLEVELAND...CLEVELAND....

The first thing that surprised me upon arriving in downtown Detroit was that, outside of the Midwestern glitz and red carpet hubbub directly in front of the Fox, there didn't seem to be any excitement – or tension – about the film around the city. The bartender at the Hockeytown Cafe, right across the street from the theater, said she had no idea a movie named DETROIT even had been made, much less was having its debut next door. "Hey, I don't watch TV," she explained.

Well, surely that must be the reason, because rarely will you see a movie you don't know that much about receive more advance TV hype than this one. There seemed to be a DETROIT promo airing on one channel or another every half-hour leading up to its Aug. 4, 2017 national release. John Boyega, the GQ cover boy of the month and Black Male Actor of the Moment, is talking about his work on the film to anyone who'll give him a microphone.

Producers had to do this, I'm guessing, because they have a double burden to overcome: making moviegoers who have a negative image of Detroit, or no opinion at all, care about the story, while not automatically pissing off the legion of people who deeply care about the city.

Michael Eric Dyson, the Detroit-born author, academic and broadcaster who served as unofficial local concierge for the film crew, proclaimed Bigelow "a hero" for bringing the story of the Algiers Motel to the big screen during his fire-and-brimstone introduction at the Fox. "Now some people say, 'Why a white woman got to do it?'" he asked, echoing the question many have already posed. "To clean up the mess that white people made! Did she use and leverage her white privilege to identify with black and brown people who have been demonized?"

For her part, Bigelow took a turn on stage to graciously thank her hosts. "Detroit has a complex past but I think also a very bright future, and the credit for that lays nowhere else but with its people."

John Boyega, he of new Star Wars fame, stars in DETROIT.
So complex, perhaps, that the film opens with a rather simplistic, animated segment to bring the viewer up to speed with the Detroit of 1967, a city in which the African American population had swelled to at least 40 percent while nearly 90 percent of the city's police department remained white. Tension was virtually inevitiable.

When a neighborhood community center – often misidentified as a "blind pig," slang for an unlicensed after-hours bar – is raided in the middle of a welcome home celebration for two Vietnam War returnees (one portrayed by Anthony Mackie of the Captain America franchise, one of the few faces besides Boyega's you may recognize), that tension spills out of the building and into the street.

Playing real-life private security guard Melvin Dismukes, Boyega attempts to protect his employer's business from the increasingly violent throng while playing peacemaker, and being called an Uncle Tom for his troubles. During his efforts, however, he unwittingly becomes an eyewitness to events unfolding inside the Algiers Motel, where members of the fledgling R&B group the Dramatics have decamped after their concert has been evacuated.

With a sea of white Detroit Police officers, state troopers and national guardsmen swarming the streets, nerves on overdrive and reports of snipers in the air, someone inside the Algiers thinks it would be hilarious to shoot a starter pistol out of a window. (Note: this would not be a wise idea even today.) The police response is swift, brutal – and shocking.

A three-officer team led by patrolman Phillip Krauss (Will Poulter) – his real name changed to protect the guilty – demands to know where the gun is, who's got it, and who shot at the cops. And they're not taking "I don't know" for an answer.
Anthony Mackie's character goes from one war to another.

DETROIT begins with the deafening noise, scattershot violence and breakneck action of a city gone mad, then screeches almost to a halt as it introduces us to the cast of characters inside the motel. And then it does what only the best movies can do: it transports us.

In an extraordinarily long scene that feels like an excruciatingly long night, we are in the Algiers Motel, standing alongside the row of suspects lined up against a wall. It's practically Hitchcockian: I kept recalling the master's suspense classics like Rear Window and Lifeboat, in the way Bigelow is able to sustain so much riveting tension and emotion in such a small, enclosed set.

The black men are immediately presumed guilty; the two young white women who were in their company are instantly branded as prostitutes, or worse. With every unprovoked assault, as the intimidation becomes more harrowing and the actions of the police officers grow more random and barbaric, I could hear audience members of all races and ages groan, gasp and wince at every appropriate moment. And any person of color in that audience who can say they weren't thinking of Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Sylville Smith or so many others, well....

This is man's basic inhumanity to man, power unchecked and nearly limitless against the ultimately powerless. It's an American horror story from 50 years ago that could happen again tomorrow. Poulter, that skinny kid from We're the Millers, appears to grow horns as we watch, becoming the epitome of Satan himself, his arched eyebrows seemingly adding to his menace.

(And while I'm thinking about it, Poulter is British. Boyega: British. What, only British actors can play Detroiters? The closest geographic connection among the lead actors is Algee Smith, the Dramatics lead singer, who hails from Saginaw. Since this film is going to bear the name of the city and project an image to the world long after we're all gone, it would have been nice to have someone from Detroit in DETROIT.)

In an interview on CBS This Morning, and in his British accent, Boyega explained, "In any movie like this, you have to keep the level of intensity to assure that there's an emotional truth to the characters you're playing. You want to make sure that you're doing them justice, as we are playing real people. It's tiring. You get hungry real quick. But it's worth it."

DETROIT is tiring. Exhausting, in fact. You get hungry real quick: hungering to get out of that space, but eager to tell others about it and perhaps experience it again. It's a cinematic thrill ride. And it's well worth it.

It isn't the best movie I've seen this year – Get Out, the tour de force from first-time black director Jordan Peele, still wears that crown. But DETROIT managed to completely turn around one skeptical, suspicious Detroit lover and have him singing its praises. That's no small accomplishment.

On The Big Glowing Box Remote (out of 10) 8.5 clicks

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Adios, Joe Wade Formicola: The Country Will Never Be the Same

Joe Wade Formicola, 1949-2017
On June 21, the legends of country music radio and several of the artists they helped make into stars gathered at the Nashville Marriott at Vanderbilt for the 2017 Country Radio Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Among this year’s honorees was legendary air personality Joe Wade Formicola, who as far as I’m concerned made country cool in Detroit as the morning-drive host for WWWW-FM (W4 Country) and later WYCD-FM in the 1980s and ‘90s.

That era was my heyday (if I had one) as the radio beat reporter and columnist for The Detroit News, then “the largest evening circulation newspaper in America.” I wrote about Joe Wade frequently in those days and talked to him whenever I was fortunate enough to cross his path. 

I was no country music fan by any stretch, but it was almost impossible not to like Joe. He was funny, loud, outspoken, the kind of shot-and-a-beer guy you’d enjoy sitting next to in a bar. His personality meshed seamlessly with listeners in his hometown of Detroit. I always thought Formicola was an odd name for a country DJ, but Joe Wade wasn’t about to change it. That had been his name since he grew up on the East Side, and he wanted his people to know he was one of them.

Being in, on and around radio most of my life has made me something of a student of voices, and Joe had one of the greatest: resonant, mesmerizing, slightly conspiratorial. He was a round mound of sound, breaking any stereotyped image of a country music disc jockey. Joe Wade Formicola was an on-air personality, a masterful communicator, who happened to play country music. 

After years as a typical radio nomad, working at stations from Flint to Houston, in 1987 he finally landed back in the Motor City where he knew the backstory and how to pronounce the names of the streets. As he once said, “Detroit loves Detroit,”and he made the most of the relationship: by 1988 he was the CMA (Country Music Association) Personality of the Year.

Joe Wade, dashing Urban-ite (CMR Nashville)

I was able to play up his award fairly large in the paper. It wasn’t difficult: he was a native Detroiter who had captured a major national award, and I had some say over the broadcast coverage back then. So naturally, this year when Joe Wade achieved the pinnacle of his profession, the most prestigious honor in country radio, he reached out to me from Raleigh-Durham, N.C., where he was on the air at WPTF-AM and nationally syndicated on the Dial-Global network, to see if I could whip up a similar media blast for him back in the D.

This time, it wasn't so easy. Many years had passed since I held any sway in getting a news item into the News – or any other media outlet, for that matter. I don't even live in the city any longer. Joe was a legitimate Big Local Personality in Detroit for quite some time, but he wasn't on the air there anymore, fresh-faced new editors didn't know his name, radio isn't as sexy as TV or movies.... 

Even though Joe was a native son, try as I might I could not generate any interest for his HOF achievement in his hometown publications – and that's the one place he wanted the recognition most dearly, to show the high school buddies and extended family how far he had come. 

So for weeks after learning of his induction, Joe would send me a text message every few days. 

"Did you get the press releases?" he asked. "Any takers?" "Any news?"

The last message I received from Joe simply read: "No interest, I guess." 

I felt terrible. I had totally failed him. I could feel the heartbreak and disappointment between his keystrokes.

Then he died.

And I bet he still couldn't get a decent spread in the Detroit dailies.

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So this is part appreciation, part apology. Suddenly, tragically, unexpectedly, Joseph Wade Formicola passed away Tuesday night, May 30, 2017 – just three weeks before he was scheduled to walk across the stage at the Nashville Marriott and bathe in the glow of his Hall of Fame enshrinement. (A memorial service was held for him Saturday, May 8, 2017 in Raleigh.) 

At least Joe got to know about his induction before the end arrived. But, man....

Anna Formicola, Joe's youngest sister, has been extraordinarily open and gracious with this total stranger as we tempered our grief by sharing memories of Joe Wade. 

"He was the glue of our family, and he was just hilarious," recalls Anna, a veteran investment advisor in the San Francisco area. "And he was the historian of our family. He knew everything about every relative. It's such a great loss to our family...and to the radio world, too."
Joe Wade in Younger Days, and in His Element.
Anna says the last time she spoke with Joe, a week before his death, they were busily coordinating travel schedules to get their mother and three siblings to Nashville for the ceremonies. "He had all these plans, you know?" she reflects. "He just wasn't expecting this."

Do any of us? 

About a month prior, Anna says, Joe contracted a severe case of bronchitis – so much coughing and wheezing that a visit to his doctor was inescapable. After running a battery of tests, the doctor detected something he hadn't been looking for: Joe had an irregular heartbeat.

"The doctor said they could treat it with medication, but he needed to lose weight. He needed to do his part," Anna relates. Joe and his wife, Ellen, dutifully went on a diet. They even visited a sleep clinic to see if that might help. On May 30, the couple had a followup appointment with a cardiologist.

They took an EKG. "The cardiologist said, 'Your heart is extremely erratic. I am calling an ambulance. You need to get to the emergency room,'" Anna says. As they rolled his gurney onto the ambulance, Joe caught Ellen's eye, smiled and gave her a thumb's-up.

"I'll see you at the hospital," he said.

He never made it there. Joe died en route.

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I told Anna that Joe Wade frequently invited me as a call-in guest on his weekend talk show in Raleigh to answer listener questions about movies and TV. With his typical flair for hype and hyperbole, he would introduce me by declaring, "NOBODY knows more about movies, television and media than Jim McFarlin! He's the best! Ask him anything you want!"

That wasn't true when I was covering entertainment on a daily basis for more than 20 years, and it sure as heck isn't true now that I only do a half-hour weekly segment on Detroit's 910amSuperstation. So whenever I did Joe's show, I tried to sound calm over the phone but he never knew I was flailing around my office like a toddler trying to escape a bath. My computer, iPad and phone all were set on different web pages while my desk was stacked high with reference materials, trying to anticipate any question that could possibly be asked! 

But that was Joe: always building others up, never jealous of sharing the spotlight, loyal to a fault. He appreciated what few things I did to promote his on-air career in Detroit, when he and I both were in our prime, and he never forgot them.

Now we need to help ensure that he will never be forgotten. Anna is spearheading a GoFundMe campaign to establish the "Joe Wade Formicola Broadcasting Scholarship Fund" at Specs Howard School of Media Arts, the renowned trade school in Southfield, Mich., that Joe credited with launching his radio career. Anna hopes his legacy can help other aspiring radio talents launch theirs. 

You can make a contribution to fund the scholarship by clicking here. And you know I wouldn't ask you to do anything I haven't already done myself.

A memorial service for Joe is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday, July 8, at Hope Community Church, 821 Buck Jones Rd., in Raleigh. (Church phone: (919) 532-0620.) I predict there will be hundreds of attendees from the world of radio and all walks of Joe Wade Formicola's life. And they will be "attendees," not "mourners." I also predict it will be a joyful, upbeat occasion with a lot of laughs.

Joe wouldn't have it any other way.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The Trial(s) of Bill Cosby...Through the Eyes of a Saddened Fan

The event some people thought would never happen is taking place this week: the sexual assault trial of Bill Cosby is unfolding inside the Montgomery County Courthouse near Philadelphia.

If you're a child of the Cosby Era, as I am, the past three years have been like an aching pain in your heart that won't go away. From "America's Dad" to "America's Cad" in an instant, as more and more decades-old revelations spilled out in the media. 

When the scandal first erupted, I wrote the following post. Now that the trial is reality, I wanted to republish it. It originally appeared Nov. 29, 2014, during the second wave of civil disturbances in Ferguson, Mo., brought on by the acquittal of the police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

I waited a while to write this until the media feeding frenzy and "Me, too! Me, too!" piling on blew over.

Boy, did it ever.

Black Friday? Forget that. This has been Black Week in America. And if he hasn't already, Bill Cosby should hit his creaky knees and thank God for the blessings of timing and the 24-hour news cycle. "America's Dad" may be the only man in the country to benefit from the senseless destruction and idiocy of Ferguson, since it literally blasted him off the front pages.

Not for long, though, I'm guessing. When you've got women taking numbers to stand in line so they can hurl rape allegations at you, there's an excellent chance you'll regain the title of Public Celebrity Enemy No. 1 sooner than later. I walked through the grocery store the other day: Cosby is on this week's cover of People, Us...and the National Enquirer. Nobody wants to be that popular.

Suddenly, everybody has a Bill Cosby story. Here are a few of mine.

Out of respect, a photo Cosby approved.
There is absolutely no doubt in my head that my sense of humor, whatever it may be, was completely formed, shaped and polished by William Henry Cosby Jr. – or more specifically, by the string of 10 classic, tear-inducing comedy albums he recorded between 1963 and 1969, a span roughly corresponding to my junior high and high school years.

Here was a young, inventive comedian the same color as I, which, believe me, was not an everyday occurrence in the '60s. And, unlike Redd Foxx (who was the only other African American comic I knew of at the time), you didn't have to wait until your parents were gone to pull his albums out of their hiding place. Cosby always worked "clean," never stooped to vulgarity or innuendo, never took advantage of his comedic birthright to use his race for easy punchlines.

Why Is There Air? Wonderfulness. "I Started Out as a Child." It felt like they were coming out every other month. I would race to the record store in the little town next to the little town where I grew up, snatch up the latest LP on the date of its release, then dash home breathlessly to begin absorbing every groove. By the tenth hearing or so I had every routine committed to memory.

Meanwhile, in the other small town, my friend, Chris DeBlaey, was going through the exact same ritual. We were Cos-obsessed. Chris and I attended the same small (of course) Methodist church, and by Sunday our mental guns were loaded. You know how kids are in church to begin with...and we came armed with material.

We would sit next to each other in the service, alternating lines of Cosby's monologues, trying our utmost to break each other up. I vividly remember one Sunday night worship where our persistent snickers and stifled snorts escalated to such a volume that our pastor, Ron Smeenge, actually halted the service in mid-sermon.

"YOU TWO!" he bellowed, sounding like the voice of God Himself.  "Just what exactly is so funny?"

I wanted to shout out, "Noah!" or "What's a cubit?" using an example I figured he would understand. Instead, Chris and looked down at the floor, feigning remorse, then cut knowing glances at each other, our eyes dancing with mischief.

I learned comedic timing from Bill Cosby's albums. I studied the art of the pause, how to deliver the punch line, how bending a word or simply choosing one word over another could make a joke funnier. And since I ultimately spent a portion of my life working as a professional standup comic, I would say I tried to put those lessons to good use.
The Cosby image the media shows today, now that he is Satan.

But there's more. Maybe you have to be a young boy in his formative years with a media fixation and an identity crisis to understand how thrilling it was to have a black man starring in a dramatic television series. Bill Cosby broke TV's color barrier in 1968 with I Spy: before Sheldon Leonard made the daring decision to cast him as Alexander Scott, blacks were allowed to make America laugh but never permitted to make us think. And it was significant to me that Scott was the smart one, the thinking man's character, and Robert Culp was the athlete. That's a contrast that rarely happens even today.
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Fast forward to the mid-80s. I'm the entertainment writer for The Detroit News and the long-gone Premier Center in suburban Sterling Heights is booking an impressive lineup of national acts. Two legends of the industry, Bill Cosby and Sammy Davis Jr., are touring together for the first time. I am, as you might expect, giddy with anticipation. But first, some background.

Several weeks earlier, Eddie Murphy made his first standup appearance in Detroit at the Masonic Temple. I was reviewing the show, sitting in a back row, and was very familiar with Murphy's outrageously blue comedic style. I was in the minority. The audience that night was largely white, people who knew Murphy only from his small body of work on Saturday Night Live. They expected to see live versions of his Buckwheat and Mr. Robinson characters; some even brought their children! I could see disaster on the horizon, and unfortunately I was right. The first time Murphy dropped an F-bomb you literally could hear jaws dropping.

Ultimately Eddie had to cut his performance short and was booed offstage. Someone actually threw a shoe at him as he stalked to the wings. He stopped, picked up the shoe and threw it back at the crowd! Besides writing my local review, I was a stringer for People magazine and wrote a blurb that appeared nationally on the magazine's back page.

Back to the Premier Center. Davis and Cosby put on a sparkling performance, and when it was over a VIP reception was thrown for them backstage. Elizabeth Roach, the venue's publicist and a good friend, asked, "Would you like to go back and meet Mr. Cosby?" I had a deadline to meet, but – are you kidding? Heck yeah, I'll go!

We were milling around backstage, waiting for an opening, and at the appropriate moment Roach walked me up to Cosby and introduced us. He looked at me and narrowed his eyes, apparently putting two and two together. "Are you the one who wrote that piece in People magazine?" he asked.

"Y-y-yes," I stammered.

"Come here."

Cosby took me by the arm, walked me over to a small table near the back of the room and proceeded to give me a 20-minute master class on his theories of comedy and why blue humor is its own worst enemy. Was I mesmerized? What do you think? In the midst of a throng of people who merely wanted to shake his hand, I was sitting face-to-face with my comedy idol who was giving me an animated lecture on Comedy 101. He was warm and passionate, the Ph.D. side of his nature clearly gushing forth. I was euphoric, living a highlight-reel life moment, one which I shall never forget.
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As we'd prefer to remember him: Cosby Show papa Cliff Huxtable.
The last time I talked to Cosby was about three years ago, for an advance feature in HOUR Detroit magazine prior to one of his Detroit appearances. Again, he gave more than expected: a scheduled 15-minute interview turned into a 45-minute conversation, and this time he was dropping the F-bombs, trying to give me an object lesson about how blue humor was the lazy way to a cheap laugh. Mostly, though we talked about the African American community in general and Detroit in particular. 

For my money, most of his recurring themes about society today make complete sense. Young black men should pull up their pants and stop acting like inmates-in-waiting. Education is the key to escaping the downward spiral of poverty and drugs. All politicians, white and especially black, need to do more to bolster the African American community. But because of his age (77) and occupation (funny man), Cosby has been summarily dismissed by Black America as a grouchy curmudgeon talking down at us from his mountain of money. We didn't want to hear the message, so we objected to the messenger.

Now, I've said all that to say this: these last few weeks have ripped holes in my heart. Cosby has been my hero, role model and comedy icon for decades, as he has been for millions of others. (C'mon, don't be ashamed to admit it now.) I haven't even mentioned how he almost singlehandedly saved NBC in the 1980s with his most successful Cosby Show (he had several in his career), or what Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids meant to children of my generation and beyond. 

Hearing this litany of assertions is like finding out that Captain America was a Communist spy, or Judge Judy abuses her grandkids. Did he do all these horrible things he's being accused of? I don't know for certain, and neither do you. If it was only Janice Dickinson making the charges, we might not be so quick to rush to judgment; she hasn't had a purely lucid thought since the '90s. But a steady stream of women, at 16 and counting I believe, have come forward with essentially the same story.

I think a big part of it is that deep down, we want Cosby to be Cliff Huxtable, the dad we all wished we had, which is kind of like expecting Jim Parsons to be Sheldon Cooper. (Some days, I'll bet Jim Parsons wishes he was Sheldon Cooper). This just in, people: television is not reality. The truth is, nobody is all good or all bad; the backlash is so ferocious because our naivete has been shattered.

I went back and watched the video of the Hannibal Burress standup routine that rekindled all this. It was direct. It was cutting. But what struck me was that it wasn't funny, which made me question his motives for doing the bit in the first place. Did he just want to denigrate a living legend in order to elevate himself? I think it's fair to say "black man" and "rape" in the same sentence almost never brings an audience to tears. (Of laughter, anyway.) It just seemed like an odd forum for so vicious a contention.

Let me say without hesitation that rape is a horrific, odious, unforgivable offense. If America was just, there would be no statute of limitations for the crime, as is the case with murder, especially because women sometimes require many years to gather the courage to come forward and name their attacker. But there is a statute, and for these accusers it has long since expired. Why, oh why did it take so many years for all of his victims to step out of the shadows? Was Cosby's control and intimidation over them that complete? Did he and the lords of Hollywood do that good a job of keeping his sins away from the public eye, keeping them swept under the rug?

So instead the nation has turned on him like a pack of wolves. It's too late to prosecute, so they persecute. The media is opting to use the most grizzled, stubbly, unflattering photos it can find. New projects and concerts have been abruptly cancelled, Cosby Show reruns have been yanked. Meanwhile, I still can watch Two and a Half Men in syndication every night, and Charlie Sheen's myriad transgressions are a matter of public record. Heck, he boasts about many of them. Seventh Heaven is back on the air although series star Stephen Collins has admitted to molesting children. What are we to make of that?

In Cosby's case, he has been tried, convicted and sentenced in the Court of Public Opinion even though no charges have been filed against him. Now he has resigned as a trustee from his beloved Temple University, a board position he has held more than 30 years, not wishing to be a distraction to his alma mater.

Did he do it? I don't know. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and at one point Cosby was among the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Bill Cosby has had a remarkable, multifacted career, one almost anyone would be proud to claim. Now he's a septuagenarian and rich as Midas. Does he care that his reputation and legacy have been tarnished for all time? Only he knows. I know that his only son, Ennis, was brutally murdered on an LA freeway some years ago. so it's not as though he's blithely floated through his success without having some holes ripped in his heart, too.

I just wish my hero would come forward and deny it all in the most powerful terms possible. Say something. Anything. Right now the silence hurts more than any F-bomb used for a cheap laugh. It's deafening. Nobody's laughing.