December 5th, 2013, by

When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw.
– Nelson Mandela

The world mourns the loss of a man who dedicated his life to fighting for equality, a man who helped transform the future of a nation. Nelson Mandela was a defiance symbol of how one man can make a difference. He moved the world when he became the first Black president in a part of the world engulfed by apartheid. He knew when to be unyielding and when to be compromising.

Nelson Mandela was born on July 18, 1918, in Transkei, South Africa. He was actively involved in the anti-apartheid movement in his 20s and joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1942. He was a peacemaker and, for nearly two decades, directed a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government and its racist policies, including the 1952 Defiance Campaign and the 1955 Congress of the People. He once declared: If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island, on the coast of Cape Town, for 18 of his 27 years in prison. While incarcerated, he earned a Bachelor of Law degree through a correspondence program with the University of London.

President Frederik Willem de Klerk announced Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990 and also unbanned the ANC, removed restrictions that were imposed on political groups and suspended executions. Nelson Mandela persisted in urging foreign powers to continue their pressure on the South African apartheid government for constitutional reform. Despite being committed to working toward peace, he declared that the ANC’s armed struggle would continue until the Black majority received the right to vote for their own people.

He continued to negotiate with President de Klerk toward the country’s first multiracial elections. The negotiations were sometimes strained, and news of violent eruptions, including the assassination of ANC leaders, continued throughout the country. Mandela had to maintain a delicate balance of political pressure and intense negotiations amid the political chaos. In 1993, he and President de Klerk were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work toward dismantling the South African apartheid regime. Negotiations between Black and white South Africans prevailed and, on April 27, 1994, South Africa held its first fully democratic elections.

Nelson Mandela became the first Black president of the Republic of South Africa on May 10, 1994. For five years, he worked to bring about the transition from minority rule and apartheid to Black majority rule and, using the nation’s enthusiasm for sports as a medium to promote white and Black reconciliation, encouraged Black South Africans to support the once-hated national rugby team. In 1995, South Africa returned to the world stage by hosting the Rugby World Cup, which brought further recognition and prestige to the Republic.

Mandela worked to protect South Africa’s economy from collapse, and, through his Reconstruction and Development Plan, the South African government funded the creation of jobs, housing and basic healthcare. In 1996, he signed into law a new constitution for the nation that promoted a strong central government based on majority rule and guaranteed the rights of minorities and the freedom of expression.

He retired from active politics before the 1999 general elections and spent his retirement years raising money to build schools and clinics in South Africa’s rural areas through his Mandela Foundation. He also served as a mediator in Burundi’s civil war and wrote several books on his life and struggles, among them, No Easy Walk to Freedom; Nelson Mandela: The Struggle Is My Life; and Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales.

On July 18, 2007, he convened a group of world leaders, which he called “The Elders,” a group committed to promoting peace and women’s equality, demanding an end to atrocities and supporting initiatives to address humanitarian crises and promote democracy. Thus far, the group has made an impact in the world, including in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Nelson Mandela spent his life fighting for the rights of humanity.


[With the exception of the top photo, all other images are from then-ANC Deputy President Mandela’s visit to Los Angeles in June, 1990.]

September 15th, 2013, by


Kudos to all of those who took home 2013 statuettes, especially to our past guests Jeff Daniels and James Cromwell.

Over the past 10 seasons of our show, we’ve been honored to have a variety of talented actors, actresses and writer-creators share our stage as guests. Several of them are nominees for the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards, including Don Cheadle, Matt Damon, Julian Fellowes, Elisabeth Moss and others.

But, before taking their turn on the red carpet, they sat with us and took us into their lives both creatively and personally. Some of them took us into conversations not covering their bodies of nominated work (as their appearances pre-dated their nomination announcement), but nonetheless, gave us rich discussions.

And now the envelope please…for a rundown of some of our 2013 Emmy-nominated guests.

[Click on the name or image to watch the conversation.]

Elisabeth Moss – Lead Actress, Drama (Peggy Olson in Mad Men) & Lead Actress, Miniseries/Movie (Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake)

When we sat down with the actress most notable for playing Peggy Olson, we had a lot to talk about. After all, actress Elisabeth Moss is nominated for not just one, but two Emmys this year! When she wasn’t filming AMC’s award-winning drama Mad Men, she told us she’d been working with the BBC and the Sundance Channel on a miniseries titled Top of the Lake.

In the many years she’s been on the screen, she’s captivated audiences with her versatility and with the way she makes characters impressionable, as she’s brilliantly done with Mad Men‘s Peggy. Her versatility as an actress has moved her to different films and TV shows (one show in particular being The West Wing, which she did early in her career and earned a Young Artist Award nomination). It’s also taken her to places like New Zealand, with directors Jane Campion and Gerard Lee. In the miniseries, she plays Detective Robin Griffin who works in social services with children and rape cases—very different from secretary and, later, copywriter, but equally as entertaining.

It’s a great conversation about her roles and what she would be doing if she wasn’t acting. Hmm…

Jeff Daniels – Lead Actor, Drama (Will McAvoy in The Newsroom)

Many people remember the 1983 film Terms of Endearment as a moving ensemble dramedy about family and life. And many people remember actor Jeff Daniels in it because of his well-played performance as Debra Winger’s husband.

Thirty years later, Daniels is still going strong in another great ensemble drama, HBO’s The Newsroom, which focuses on the ideals of journalism and the “fight every day.” In 30 years’ time, Daniels has become stronger as an actor, entertaining audiences in such comedies as Dumb and Dumber and The Squid and the Whale (which earned him a Golden Globe nod). He also received a Tony nod (God of Carnage) and now earns his first Emmy nom.

This is his first regular TV series role, and he explains why the show matters and what drove him to wanting to work on television. Clearly, by being in the Emmy race, that drive has paid off.

Jane Fonda – Guest Actress, Drama (Leona Lansing in The Newsroom)

Sometimes, when an actress really makes an impression, she doesn’t necessarily need to be the star of the work she’s in to be noticed. This surely was the case for nominee Jane Fonda, who earned an Emmy nod for playing Leona Lansing, the owner of the network on which main character/news anchor Will McAvoy works in HBO’s The Newsroom. It only took five episodes of her great acting to stand out as a guest actress, and it’s a well-deserved nomination.

When she came to our set though, the conversation wasn’t about her role on the HBO show; it was about her adopted daughter Mary Williams and the book, The Lost Daughter. In our discussion, Fonda continues to show us she’s not just the actress that we know, but a woman with many layers, who helped take in a young girl to give her a life of opportunities.

She’s won two Oscars, six Golden Globes and an Emmy and may have more hardware coming. Though our conversation doesn’t go into her acting accomplishments, it does spotlight how she won over the heart of a young girl and, at the end of the day, how that matters just as much as a gold statuette.

Julian Fellowes – Writing, Drama (Downton Abbey)

In Hollywood, it’s not essential, but it’s a step up when one is able to put on many different hats. If an actor can write, or a writer can direct, and so on, it makes for interesting results. This is the case with Julian Fellowes, most known for being the creator-writer-producer of PBS’ Downton Abbey. But, before the success of this timeless show, he’d been acting since the 1970s.

With this experience, he knew how to get into the minds of characters; he learned how to understand script format and just all around knew the business. So it was no surprise that his ability to write scripts for TV miniseries, films and series was a natural gift. Before his nomination for Downton Abbey, he had years of experience and even won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Gosford Park.

In our conversation with Fellowes, we also spoke with one of the show’s cast members, Elizabeth McGovern (who plays Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham). Together, they discuss the characters and how the show is a standout period drama on television. Fellowes shares how the audience can step out from their seats and examine their own values and look at their situations, every age group included. TV is a writer’s medium, and whether it’s public television or cable, viewers need to be drawn in to the characters, the situations and the places. But, if you’re Julian Fellowes, you’re able to do all that with flying colors both in Britain and the United States.

Laura Dern – Lead Actress, Comedy (Amy Jellicoe in Enlightened)

Every child takes a piece of their parents with them as they get older. For actress-producer-writer Laura Dern, that’s certainly the case. She grew up seeing cameras and sets, as the child of actor parents Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, with whom she later shared the screen. Since childhood, she’s gone on to make more than 40 movies and appear (both as a guest and a regular) in seven TV series, with the latter being a role that’s earned her an Emmy nomination: the HBO series, Enlightened.

She’s also earned an Oscar nomination and three Golden Globe wins. Many recognize her from her roles in the Jurassic Park franchise, Little Fockers, I Am Sam and Rambling Rose (for which she received an Oscar nomination with her mother).

Though she has famous parents, she’s earned her own stripes in Hollywood by challenging herself in a diversity of roles and genres. In Enlightened (she’s also a producer-writer), she plays a woman who is spiritually enlightened. In the process, she learns new things (such as Twitter) and, in a satirical way, becomes a whistleblower. Though the show is only 30 minutes, it’s filled with enough quantity and quality to invite audiences back every week.

Dern may have acting genes, but it’s the work she’s done with them that’s brought her this far.

Don Cheadle – Lead Actor, Comedy (Marty Kaan in House of Lies)

Being an actor means that one has to go outside his comfort zone, into scripts with words he might not normally use or playing characters he’s not like in real life. That has certainly been the case over the years with actor-producer Don Cheadle, who’s enjoyed playing different people. He’s played Sammy Davis Jr., as well as a hotel manager in Rwanda, and has fought alongside Iron Man, played criminals, DAs, detectives, lieutenants, doctors and colonels. And now, he plays a brash management consultant, which he executes quite well.

In his Emmy-nominated lead performance in Showtime’s House of Lies, Cheadle is cast in a part that wasn’t exactly written for a Black man. He plays an offensive character, but underneath that, a father with good intentions for his son.

In our conversation, he discussed how he entertains audiences every week by turning a role that wasn’t for him into a part that is now both Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated. Perhaps having a background on the stage and having played strong characters in film and on TV has helped him prepare for such a role.

It’s no lie that, in any case, in any medium, when one gives the best of themselves to the work, the work will give the best of itself back. With this nomination and recognition, it’s safe to say that’s true.

Matt Damon – Lead Actor, Miniseries/Movie (Scott Thorson in Behind the Candelabra)

During the 2012 holidays, we had the honor of sitting with a notable actor-writer who’s made his way in Hollywood and goes by the name of Matt Damon (short for Matthew). Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He began his career as a steamer in Mystic Pizza in 1988 and has since been the lead character in many blockbusters. He’s definitely grown since his small roles and been down the red carpet numerous times; he’s won an Oscar and a Golden Globe and has more than 10 nominations under his belt. He’s added one more nod to the list for his performance in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, in which he plays Scott Thorson, Liberace’s young lover.

During our conversation, we recapped his then-new feature, Promised Land, which he co-wrote and starred in before this nomination (sharing the screenplay credit with John Krasinski). He discusses the film as a backdrop to the issues of natural gas drilling in America, as well as his humanitarian work.

Equally talented as a writer and an actor, he also recounts how writing a script with his friend Ben Affleck at a young age helped them (and it sure did, look at their Best Screenplay Oscar and Golden Globe wins for Good Will Hunting). Damon says being a screenwriter is about control and being an actor is about generating one’s content, but film is a director’s medium and working with certain directors can bring out even better performances.

He doesn’t need nominations or awards to prove his skill in writing, acting or producing, but it’s always the cherry on top of another great cinematic year.

James Cromwell – Supporting Actor, Miniseries/Movie (Dr. Arthur Arden in American Horror Story: Asylum)

For many years, James Cromwell has been in the business of playing different characters. But, he’s well known for playing Farmer Arthur Hoggett in 1995’s Babe. In the film, he was a “supporting actor,” if you will, to a pig named Babe. This performance blew audiences out of the water and earned him an Oscar nomination. After that, he continued his success with such films as L.A. Confidential, The Green Mile, The Longest Yard and The Artist, to name a few.

When he came to our set, it was for a conversation about his then-new film, Still Mine, in which he earns attention for the lead role. It’s a drama piece about an aging couple fighting to build a home for each other and also a husband dealing with a wife who has dementia. It’s yet another body of work that brings out emotion in its audience, reminding them that people who are aging still have their own lives.

This year, Cromwell earned an Emmy nom for his turn in American Horror Story: Asylum and rightfully so. In the series, he plays Dr. Arthur Arden, who conducts experiments in a lab, mysteriously and with a very dark mind. The show has an array of cast members, but Cromwell’s acting ability in playing a “bad guy” is what made him so good that he’s in the running for a statuette.

For audiences who see Cromwell on screen or on the theater stage, it’s not who he’s supporting that draws attention, but how he’s standing out among the pack.

Congrats to all of this year’s nominees.


August 25th, 2013, by

During most of the 1960s, Dorothy Cotton was the highest ranking female in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), founded by Dr. King. She was SCLC’s educational director and directed the Citizenship Education Program (CEP), an adult grassroots training program that prepared disenfranchised people across the South to work with existing systems of local government to gain access to services and resources they were entitled to as citizens and taught them how to demonstrate peacefully against injustice, even when they were met with violence and hatred.

She was part of the group that accompanied King to Oslo, where he received the Nobel Peace Prize and, on April 4, 1968, was checked into the Lorraine Motel, but left to do CEP work before the assassin’s bullet was fired.

Cotton later served as field ops VP for the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, directed the federal agency for volunteer programs during the Carter administration and served as Cornell University’s student activities director.

Included in the transcript below (from our April 2008 discussion at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis) is Cotton’s explanation of the role sexism played in the organizations of the civil rights movement.

Since our conversation with the lifelong activist and visionary, Cornell University launched the Dorothy Cotton Institute as a tribute to her legacy. She’s also written the book, If Your Back’s Not Bent.



Ms. Cotton’s official site

About If Your Back’s Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement

Dorothy Cotton Institute of Cornell University


Tavis: I’m honored to welcome Dorothy Cotton back to this program. For eight years during the height of the civil rights movement, she served as the education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the only woman on Dr. King’s executive staff. Dorothy Cotton, as always, nice to see you, and especially in this space.

Dorothy Cotton: Well, thank you. Well, thank you so much. I see you many nights.

Tavis: Well, I thank you, thank you, thank you. Let me ask you the same question I asked Mr. Belafonte on this program last night. Take me back to when you met Martin and how you got recruited.

Cotton: We met – my then-husband and I – in Petersburg, Virginia, where Black folk couldn’t use the public library. There was a little cubbyhole kind of place in the basement, like a place where they brought in the boxes of books and whatever. That’s where Black folk could go. So the minister at my church, Reverend Wyatt T. Walker, was also the regional director of the NAACP, and he said, “We’re going to take this on – ” the fact that Black folk couldn’t use the public library.

And I was very active in the church at Gillfield Baptist Church at the time, and so I started working with Wyatt and teaching the youngsters in the church – and it was mostly youngsters. The older folk weren’t quite ready to get on board. They were saying things like they wished those nappy-headed little kids would get out of the street with those picket signs. (Laughter)

But we were walking with picket signs in front of the library and ultimately the Woolworth stores, and of course we had mass meetings every night. Reverend Walker, having met Martin Luther King at a conference at a college up in Richmond, Virginia, invited this preacher from Montgomery to come to Petersburg because he heard – he wanted to show him what we were doing with our little movement there to break down the barriers around the library and other public places.

So he came to Petersburg and he gave – as usual, already a great orator. And I said a poem on the program that night. We don’t just have a speaker. We’ve got some music and some dance shows –

Tavis: A full program, yeah.

Cotton: A full program. And then we served a dinner at the parsonage afterwards, and Dr. King said, “Who is that woman who said the poem?” And he ended up sort of chatting with me around the dinner table as I was helping serve the meal – the young women’s parish club. And so I met him when he came to Virginia.

He invited Reverend Walker to move to Atlanta to work with him to build the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Wyatt T. Walker said, “I will do that if the people who help me most here will come with me.” So I said to my then-husband, George Cotton, “I think I’ll go down to Atlanta to help them out for about six months,” and I stayed 23 years.

Tavis: Twenty-three years.

Cotton: Because the civil rights movement just became my life.

Tavis: You left your husband?

Cotton: Well, he drove me down to Atlanta (laughter) and he deposited me down there. He never said, “You come home.”

Tavis: I’m going to leave that alone, Ms. Cotton. I’m going to leave that alone. I want to thank you on behalf of the movement. I don’t know what your husband’s got to say about that, but anyway.

Cotton: No, he’s gone unto the great beyond. No, he was saddened, but it became my life.

Tavis: It became your life.

Cotton: It became my life, yeah.

Tavis: On a serious note, though, that – as much as I know about you, I never knew that. That was a serious sacrifice. The movement meant that much to you that it became your life and you left your –

Cotton: Well, my goodness, one couldn’t help it. Like, if we had the kind of time, we could tell stories of how many, many folk who got involved where this movement became the full expression of their existence, many people in every city. Once we were on a roll doing that work, we were so motivated and energized. And I feel really upset when people talk about the civil rights movement and Dr. King with I don’t know, such long, sad faces.

We also had a great time together because we were building all this camaraderie. And I want to say something about the citizenship education program.

Tavis: Absolutely, please.

Cotton: Because people think we had just a bunch of marches, but people were really energized and feeling that you’re doing something really worthwhile is what everybody was going through, because we’d been sort of stewing in this place of – I call it American-style apartheid, and not knowing where to go and what to do with it and how to really make a difference.

Oh, gosh, there’s so many things I could attach to that, one being Dr. King didn’t make the movement by himself, and I think that is one of the distortions that I think is getting written too concretely in the history books.

Tavis: I hear your point that Dr. King did not make the movement by himself, but –

Cotton: He’s the first one to say that; he wrote that he didn’t.

Tavis: But he founded only one organization in his lifetime. It was the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. How would you describe the work of that organization and the role you played in it?

Cotton: The work of the organization was actually – and this also was an evolving kind of thing, because we looked around and it just became clear to us that we needed to work with certain segments of the population. For example, we had someone in charge of working with ministers, for example. I used to go and talk to ministerial alliances; I don’t know if they do that anymore.

The Baptist ministers would get together one day and the Methodist ministers. I don’t know why they didn’t get together, but I would go and talk to them and other people would go and talk to them as well about a voter education drive, for example, because, well, look at the multiplier effect. If the preachers are talking about the fact that we’re going to fight for the right to vote, how many people then would catch the spark and would begin to work on that?

Fast forward, we inherited that program, the citizenship training program, and Dr. King was talking to me, I’m clear now, because he was looking for somebody – if we’re going to inherit this program, we need to somebody to really focus on it. That’s how Andrew Young came as the administrator of the program, and I became director of education. And we had fantastic workshops. I hope I’m not jumping around here too much.

Tavis: No, please, go ahead, yeah.

Cotton: Andrew Young and I and Septima Clarke, because we hired her, she worked with it when it was at Highlander, but we would travel the south and go into places where things were stirring. For example, in Ruleville, Mississippi where Fanny Lou Hamer lived, I stayed in Fanny Lou Hamer’s house telling her about this program.

“We have this training program, and we have a budget, we were funded by a couple of foundations, and we want you to come to our training center about 30 miles south of Savannah, a little place called Macintosh, Georgia.” It doesn’t even exist anymore; it’s been kind of subsumed into Midway, Georgia. But we had this training site, a building owned by the Congregational Church at the time.

And Andy Young, being a Congregational preacher, I think that’s why we got that building. But we would bring 40, 50 people to this building every single month, and they would stay with us for five days.

Tavis: And learn about what (unintelligible)?

Cotton: And why was it called citizenship education?

Tavis: Right.

Cotton: No, these were grassroots people – I wish there was a better term than grassroots – but ordinary people right off the farms and the plantations and in a way, I guess we were all ordinary because even though I already had a master’s degree from Boston University, I learned much more about civics and civic education helping these people who went to fourth and fifth but they were leaders in their community.

These people in the citizens – this is the best program SCLC had. SCLC, the organization founded by Dr. King, the best program that we had because these were the people that spread out across the land, went back to their hometowns, and those hometowns were never the same again. First Amendment, people have a right peaceably to assemble, to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Translated, that means I jolly well can march from Selma to Montgomery (laughter) and say to the governor, “I ain’t going to take it no more.” And that’s what happened.

Tavis: And I thank you for all of that. Let me ask you one quick question. I got to make room for your other colleague, Clarence Jones.

Cotton: Right, right, yeah, I know.

Tavis: Who’s standing by to talk to us in just a second – Dr. King’s attorney. Before I let you go, I have to ask you how you navigated – and I want to ask you this honestly – how you navigated the sexism of the movement.

Cotton: It was hard. Well, I say that kind of tongue-in-cheek. But the women’s movement hadn’t happened then, so I’m the director of education for the organization, and here all these men are sitting around the conference table, the executive staff, and when they wanted coffee, they said, “Dorothy, would you get us some coffee, and would you take the minutes?”

And it was a man on our staff who was more enlightened than I was at the time, Jack O’Dell said, “Dr. King, Dorothy needs to stay in here because we’re discussing – ” whatever it was at the time, and I think this sort of really answers your question very specifically.

And what I know I would do now, because my consciousness – I have evolved, obviously, years ago – I would say, “Now Martin, let me show you how to make coffee. You put water here and coffee here.” (Laughter) “Let me show you.” And these men can also write, you know. I don’t have to take the minutes, so we can talk, call somebody in who – Dora McDonald took great shorthand. We need to call somebody in to take the minutes.

But we were programmed to serve men. I don’t know if the women who will be watching this program will remember a period when we were honored – I was not mad about it. It took me a while to get to that place where I knew that even my work was not – they didn’t even realize that this is how we were making the folk working with the citizenship education program, creating the troops – I wish I could use some nonmilitary language there – but creating the people who were now going back to their hometowns and fight against this American-style apartheid, they were created in the citizenship education training.

I’m tired of people saying, “And now we present Dorothy Cotton, who marched with Martin Luther King.” Well, a lot of folk flew down there one weekend and marched, but I worked –

Tavis: You did a lot more than that.

Cotton: Well, I worked with him every single day. But people have this image of only marches, and at this stage of my life I really want to counter that, because it was so much more than marches. They don’t even know we had a training program, but it was not something that would be publicized.

Tavis: Guess what?

Cotton: Yeah, I’ve got to go.

Tavis: No, they do now.

Cotton: Oh. (Laughter)

Tavis: They know now. You see her energy is as off the charts now as it was – I see why Dr. King had her around. If she had more energy then, than she has now, Dr. King was all right. Dorothy Cotton, I love you and I thank you for all that you’ve done.

Cotton: I love you too.

Tavis: And thanks for coming to see me.


April 4th, 2013, by

With his passion for the movies and his thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluations, Roger Ebert became a household name. He penned thousands of film reviews—his Chicago Sun-Times pieces were syndicated in more than 200 papers around the world—and his show was for a time the top-rated weekly syndicated half-hour on TV. The first film critic to receive a Pulitzer, he quit an English doctoral program to pursue a career as a reviewer. He wrote several screenplays and more than 20 books, including his memoir, Life Itself. In 1999, Ebert launched the annual Overlooked Film Festival showcasing forgotten/ignored movies and genres.

In June 2005, Ebert received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, during his trip, paid us a visit. In the transcript below of our chat, we recall his reflections on the influence and success of his work.

Mr. Ebert’s official site

‘Roger Ebert career highlights, on page and screen’

I am pleased to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert to this program. The popular and influential movie reviewer has been co-hosting his own popular TV series since the mid-seventies, first with the late Gene Siskel, and now with Richard Roeper. He’s here in L.A. this week to receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His most recent book is called ‘The Great Movies, Volume II,’ which is in stores everywhere. First of all, Mr. Ebert, an honor to meet you. Secondly, glad to have you on the program. And thirdly, congratulations on the star.

Roger Ebert: Thank you. Thank you. I enjoy your program. I enjoy your program. There needs to be more programs like yours on the air.

Tavis: That’s awfully kind. I’m not gonna say there should be more film critics because then you’d have more competition.

Ebert: The more the merrier. ‘Cause actually, a lot of the entertainment news is not film criticism. It’s just publicity and, you know, who got divorced, who’s in rehab.

Tavis: Which raises the fascinating question–I’ve got a lot more competition than you have. There are talk shows everywhere.

Ebert: Yeah, I know.

Tavis: But what is, in fact, the enduring something that’s allowed you to stay around all this time?

Ebert: You know, I think the thing that works on our show is that we review movies, and that’s what we do. We don’t interview stars. We don’t have gossip. We don’t show the new trailer of the movie that’s opening next week. We just say here’s a new movie, and we review it, and we get off the beaten path–not just the big movies, like ‘Batman Begins,’ but also little movies like ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know.’ Smaller films that people might not hear about. ‘The March of the Penguins,’ ‘The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.’ And people, now that they’re using their DVD machines, are more curious about reaching out to some of these other films. They’re hungry for new ideas for what to rent and what to look at.

Tavis: I want to talk about the impact of the DVD in just a second. Before I do that, though, I don’t want to move so fast past this star. That’s such a huge honor to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Ebert: I’m amazed.

Tavis: What did you make of this when you heard that you’re gonna get a star?

Ebert: I was astonished. And people think I got it for being a film critic. Actually, I got it for being on television for 30 years. And not very many people have been in the same format for that long. And certainly I hope that Gene Siskel gets a posthumous star one of these years because we had a great run together, and now Richard Roeper is a great partner. But I’ve been on TV for 30 years, so that’s why they gave me the star.

Tavis: How was that–so if I last 30 years, does that mean I automatically get a star?

Ebert: I should think so. You probably deserve one right now.

Tavis: Yeah, I doubt that. I doubt that very seriously. How did you navigate that–what I assume, at least, was a difficult transition?

Ebert: It was. We did the show twice with me by myself, and that did not work. Did not work because the whole thing about the show is give and take. It would be like you doing an interview with an empty chair. Can’t be done.

Tavis: Well, I talk to myself all the time, but that’s not at issue.

Ebert: On the other hand, how good are your answers?

Tavis: Exactly. And the ratings aren’t so good, but that’s another issue.

Ebert: So what we did, we had about 35 guest hosts–some of them more than once–would come in and do the show. Some great people. And eventually the one that we settled on was Richard Roeper, who worked for my paper, for the Chicago Sun-Times. So my wife said, ‘You ought to have Roeper on.’ I said, ‘I can’t have him. He works for the Sun-Times.’ and she said, ‘What difference does that make?’ And she was right because Roeper has turned out to be a terrific co-host, and we get along well, and we talk well, and he knows a lot about movies.

Tavis: Two questions relative to that specifically. How did you become such–I mean, we all love good movies, but how did you become such a lover of film, number one? And how did you– I know a lot of kids watching want to know this–somebody asked me this question the other day. I get asked it all the time. I got asked the other day. How did you, Tavis–how did you end up with a talk show? How did you end up being such a lover of movies, and how did you end up becoming the quintessential movie critic?

Ebert: Well, lover of movies… My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, they had a big fight over who was gonna get the TV license. And so even though I’m not that old, I grew up in a childhood that did not have television. And we went downtown to the Princess Theater and the other theaters in town; saw the double features. I grew up on movies. I love them. Had an aunt who took me to all the movies, too. And so I grew up loving movies, and at the University of Illinois, I went to the film society. I went to the local art theater. It just became part of my life. And as to how I became a film critic, people ask you a career question expecting to find out how they’re going to get to do it…

Tavis: Exactly.

Ebert: And what they find out is how you did it.

Tavis: Exactly.

Ebert: And that doesn’t help them. How did I get to be a film critic? I was a feature writer at the Chicago Sun-Times while I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. The film critic retired, and they gave me the job. So I really don’t have any idea how, you know. And it was good luck.

Tavis: Yeah. I was ready for a great story, and it’s just ‘The guy retired. They gave me the job.’

Ebert: I had written about movies before for the Sun-Times and elsewhere, but I was not aiming at that job, and it just fell out of the sky, into my hands.

Tavis: Is it fair that you get a chance to do this? In other words, is it fair that a movie comes out, and because Roger Ebert says it stinks, thumbs down, people who respect your opinion either don’t give the movie a chance–they don’t go check–is that fair? Is that right?

Ebert: Actually, I wish that film critics in general had more influence, because if you really look at what drives the box office, it’s advertising more than anything else. Trailers, ads on TV. And when my thumb is up or down, that means very little as opposed to a $30 million advertising campaign. And what I’m trying to do, basically, is not tell people what they should do. The good critic never says what you would like or wouldn’t like because I don’t know what you would like. I just say what I like and why. I try to say why in such a way that you can make up your own mind.

There was an executive once who I said, ‘How come you give us these ‘Friday the 13th’ clips to review on the show when you know we’re gonna hate all of those movies?’ He says, ‘You show a clip from ‘Friday the 13th’ on your show, and you two guys say it stinks, and a lot of people at home will see the clip and say, oh, great, another ‘Friday the 13th’ movie.’ Of course, they expect us to say it stinks, but it still sells tickets.

Tavis: Yeah.

Ebert: So in a way it’s news. It’s just news.

Tavis: That’s a fascinating anecdote ’cause I was just about to ask you how you interpret–and you don’t do it for this particular reason, but when Roger Ebert does give the thumbs up, everybody takes that and runs it in their ads in the newspaper. So when I’m going through the newspaper looking for what I want to see, I always look to see what Ebert and Roeper gave it, or Ebert and Siskel, back in the day. Because you guys are the two big willies, I always look, just out of curiosity, to see what they said.

Ebert: The two big…

Tavis: Two big willies. That’s Ebonics. Don’t worry about it.

Ebert: I think I…

Tavis: South side of Chicago, they’ll clue you in.

Ebert: I think it translates pretty well. I like it a lot.

Tavis: You guys are the two big willies, so I’m, like, ‘What did they say about this?’ but it occurred to me one day, when you guys do give thumbs up, they jump on that, and they use that as a part of their sales pitch.

Ebert: The advantage to that is–’cause I was a film critic long before I was on television.

Tavis: Right.

Ebert: You know, they have a way of selecting words–lifting words out of a review.

Tavis: I’ve noticed that. Is that what that dot-dot-dot is?

Ebert: You could say ‘It’s astonishingly bad,’ and it comes out ‘Astonishing.’

Tavis: Yeah.

Ebert: At least if we give it 2 thumbs up, or one of us gives it thumbs up, it can’t be misquoted.

Tavis: Right.

Ebert: So at least you know, yes, Ebert liked it, or Ebert and Roeper liked it. So at least it’s not going to be misinterpreted.

Tavis: All right. DVD, you mentioned earlier. The box office for Hollywood is in a slump.

Ebert: It is.

Tavis: Some would attribute that to the advent of the DVD. Not just the advent. These things come out like 2 days after the movie hit.

Ebert: Well, DVDs are popular. Video games are kind of off the radar. Now, television, mass media hasn’t really covered video games because it’s too complicated. A really good video game can go down 20, 30, 40 layers. There’s no way to really review it except to just show one sample scene or something. Video games are big, and DVDs are big, but actually the box office slumped this year–if you look year to year, from last year to this year, you’ll find the movies aren’t the same.

I mean, the weekend that ‘Spiderman II’ opened last year, this year we got…I think it was ‘Monster-In-Law.’ You know, so it’s not gonna do ‘Spiderman II’ business. And so it’s not that the box office slumped, it’s that they didn’t have a blockbuster for that weekend. Some of the movies, like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Batman Begins,’ it’s not going through the roof, but it’s certainly up in the attic somewhere. And Hollywood, I know, is concerned. And my advice is people like to go to the movies, they like to go to theaters. They want to go to something that excites them, and this has not been a real exciting summer.

Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I wonder, just beyond this summer–I’ve gone on your web site, which I want to reference in just a second on my little handy blue card here. But I wonder whether or not–well, you can feel this, obviously: Is your thumb staying up more these days, or staying down more? Is stuff getting worse or better?

Ebert: It’s interesting because on the web site I review most of everything. All kinds of movies. On TV we review movies that are basically in national release, and there are more movies than we can review. We tend to want to review movies that we tend to want to recommend. If it’s a big movie and we don’t like it, we’ll review it. If it’s a little movie and we don’t like it, we won’t bother with it. So that there’s a little statistical thing going on that aims toward more thumbs up, even though there may be thumbs-down movies out there that we’re not getting to. On the web site, I think it stays about the same.

Tavis: Jonathan. Right here, Jonathan. Has your thumb ever done this?

Ebert: I wish it would. You see, in the newspaper I give 1 to 4 stars. 3 stars means yes, 2 1/2 stars means no. And if I had a 5-star system, I would have a middle position.

And sometimes, you know, there’s that kind of movie. Well, it’s not that good, it’s not that bad. You know, I wish I had a middle position, but I don’t.

So we have the concept on TV where you’re talking about the affectionate thumbs down…or the marginal thumbs down, whatever that means. I mean, the thumbs are so gradated that they should have a dial for them.

Tavis: For those who’ve missed, or might have missed in this summer travel season some of your reviews of late, let me throw some names at you right quick, and top-line ’em for me. You gave this to ‘Batman Begins.’

Ebert: Yes, I did. It’s the first Batman movie I liked, except for one of the animated films, actually. Animated Batman. This was the first of the 5 big Batman films that I’ve liked, and I thought it was terrific. It’s right up there with ‘Spiderman II’ from last year as being a superhero movie that really does deliver in terms of what we feel about that superhero.

Tavis: You gave this to ‘Cinderella Man.’

Ebert: Yes, I did. I was surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. Maybe the title was wrong. Maybe the fact that he threw that telephone wasn’t a good idea. That movie is such a good performance by Russell Crowe, and such a nice man.

Tavis: I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard about that. But I’ve also been in conversation with folk about the fact that they were surprised it didn’t do better, either, because boxing–Hollywood seems to love boxing movies.

Ebert: Well, yeah. And look at ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ how well that did. I’m surprised. I think it’ll probably find an audience on DVD. It’s a very good movie.

Tavis: I love Cedric the Entertainer. He’s a personal friend of mine.

Ebert: OK, now, I liked that movie.

Tavis: Hold the phone. I’m going there. I love him. He’s a personal friend of mine. He was on this show to promote his movie. But some more Ebonics for you, that movie didn’t bust a grape.

Ebert: Was it peeled, the grape?

Tavis: You gave it a thumbs up.

Ebert: I did.

Tavis: ‘The Honeymooners,’ we’re talking about.

Ebert: I’m gonna tell you I’m surprised at the negative opinions about that film. You’ve heard about that web site The Tomato Meter, where they evaluate it? It got, like, a 15 on the tomato meter. 85% of the critics hated it. I liked it. I thought that Mike Epps and Cedric the Entertainer were not trying to do Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, that they had their own angle. It was sweet, it was int–I loved the whole business of racing the greyhound. That was funny.

Tavis: Yeah, that was funny. I liked it.

Ebert: And Leguizamo was very funny as the so-called dog trainer, or dog whisperer. Come on, I’ll bet if people were to go to see that movie…

Tavis: They’d laugh.

Ebert: You hated it, though, right?

Tavis: No. I loved it.

Ebert: Oh, you did love it. Oh, I didn’t get that.

Tavis: I ain’t got a problem with it. I’m just saying it didn’t bust a grape. That’s all I’m saying.

Ebert: Oh, OK, OK. Well, I’m glad that we agree because it was a nice movie, wasn’t it?

Tavis: It was a very nice movie.

Ebert: What was bad about it?

Tavis: Nothing. It was a great movie.

Ebert: OK. Thank you.

Tavis: You give it thumbs up; I go see it, that’s how it works.

Ebert: OK.

Tavis: Roger Ebert, we congratulate on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nice to meet you.

Ebert: You bet.

March 31st, 2013, by

Phil Ramone was one of the most prolific music producers in the industry, as evidenced by his 33 Grammy nominations, 14 Grammy Awards and an Emmy. He was a pioneer in the use of technology, producing the first-ever CD and the first pop DVD, and worked with a diverse group of artists, including Sheryl Crow, Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, John Legend, Billy Joel and Tony Bennett. A child prodigy, Ramone played violin at age 3 and began his producing career after spending years working as an engineer. His work also spanned the mediums of film, television and theater.

Learn more about Mr. Ramone at his official website.

In February 2007, we talked with Ramone about his Grammy-winning project with Tony Bennett. Check out the following transcript of our engaging conversation.

Tavis: Phil Ramone is one of the most successful and innovative producers in the history of music. During his brilliant career, he’s helped craft the sounds of artists like Frank Sinatra, Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, and Ray Charles, just to name a few. On Sunday night, he added another award to his already-overflowing trophy case, with a Grammy for his most recent project, Tony Bennett’s duets. Phil Ramone, congratulations, and nice to have you on the program.

Phil Ramone: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: This is the first time we’ve actually met in person. We’ve talked on radio before, when you were in a New York studio. I don’t know if you recall or not, but the last time we talked, you were on my radio program, talking about the Ray Charles project with a guy who’s no longer with us named Billy Preston.

Ramone: Oh. Billy was so good. Such an – well, incredible musician. And I saw some old footage of him the other day.

Tavis: The Fifth Beatle.

Ramone: Yeah. And he was like James Brown when he was a kid, dancing on stage. Amazing guy. A wonderful guy.

Tavis: Let me take you back, before we go forward. Let me take you back. What was it like working on that Ray project? We’ll get to Tony Bennett in just a second. But that Ray project was spectacular.

Ramone: There was no health problem that I could see in the beginning, and that started off in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. I called Ray because Van Morrison wanted to do a duet with his dream. He’d never met Ray, wanted to work with him. So, (laugh) we got that together, and that seemed to be the beginning of it. Concord Records was just in the talking stages, and Ray’s life, for him, was, like, why would I do these songs?

It’s sort of similar to what Sinatra said. They’ve heard all these tunes. And I said, “No, no, no, no, this is about you and guests.” And nothing was better than Ray doing a duet in the first place. And the conditions were at his studio, in a certain way where artists came in, they were so anxious and the honor of working with him is, well, probably everything you’d ever wanna have in your life.

When he’d sit at the keyboard and start getting a groove. I said to him after a couple of songs, “I don’t know how and where that comes from.” He said, “It comes from Basie.” Count Basie. That’s who started that all. Used to pull the tempo down. And I think it’s probably one of the great accomplishments in your life, is to be around him.

Tavis: How do you talk these guys into doing this? When you sit with Sinatra and say, “You ought to do these duets with these people, and here’s why you ought to do it.” Ray Charles, you ought to do these duets with these people, here’s why. Tony Bennett. These are legends you’re working with. How do you get them to buy into the vision, the dream, that you’re laying out for them, which in every case has turned out to be, has led to major success in each of their careers?

Ramone: Well, I guess it started in the Sinatra thing. I grew up watching TV and stuff like every other kid, and duets seemed to be a nice way to get two artists to do something. There was something warm about it. Ella and Frank Sinatra, I never forgot those dates. Then when we talked about it, I sat down and begged that we’d have a meeting.

And the usual replies, and I don’t wanna be the guy that does all the duets in the world. I certainly, it fell into place, because I said “It’s about children.” His grandchildren, my children, other peoples’ children, to hear an artist at his best. And reassess the songs. Don’t try to do the same arrangements or new arrangements.

In the Sinatra case, and in Tony, they were different attitudes. One, Frank had not been in a studio for 10 years, and he felt, well, “I’m not ready for a duet.” And he kept stretching it and saying, “Maybe, maybe not.” But after six months, he agreed to it. Whereas Tony said, and he had been a guest on the Sinatra album, “I’d like to make one rule. I want everybody there, live.” And so the whole plan becomes an adventure in what used to be entertainment. Singing a live duet was kind of the way of life.

Tavis: So first of all, congrats on this fourteenth Grammy. I was just laughing – not to make you feel old – but you do realize that you won your first Grammy in the same year that I was born.

Ramone: That’s possible. Because my mom took me to the Grammys (laugh).

Tavis: (Laugh) Nineteen sixty-four, the year I’m born, you win your first Grammy, and I’m gonna put you on the spot. You do recall what it was for, correct?

Ramone: Yeah.

Tavis: All right.

Ramone: Yeah, you don’t forget that.

Tavis: All right, the first one was?

Ramone: “Girl From Ipanema.”

Tavis: The “Girl From Ipanema.” Yeah.

Ramone: No, you don’t ever. I said it last night, “There’s God driving,” and everybody saying to me, “Well, how does it feel?” I said, “As good as any kind of winning of a baseball game.” Any time you’re in this business that something is so recognizable. Tony’s the most incredible guy in the world.

Tavis: That voice. He has sat in this same chair, one of the great honors of my career is having Tony Bennett come to this studio, sit in this same chair, and spend a half an hour talking to me. What is it about that voice that at 80, he still belts those notes?

Ramone: You have to have the right genes for this thing to last. As Sinatra used to call it, the reed. It’s like something that’s a gift. Some people beat it up. He doesn’t. He’s an athlete. Plays tennis. He walks. His attitude about so much time for painting. And he plays, he works. He keeps the muscle going, as he says. And I don’t know anybody who has an attitude like that.

Tavis: My dear friend, Professor Cornel West and I, last summer, after Mr. Bennett being on this program, went to see him at a couple of dates. And I had never, in all these years, I had never seen him live. So last summer was my first time going to see Tony Bennett live. And aside from his voice, which you can see that on TV and know the guy still has it. But seeing him live, there’s one thing that just moved me that I still remember to this day.

I’ve never seen anybody more gracious and more appreciative of the audience. After every – and I mean every one, you know this – after every song, he tucks that mic under his arm, and does this applause for the audience. I’ve never seen that in my life.

Ramone: I think he brings – sometimes I asked him about where the entertainer thing comes from. ‘Cause that’s a fascinating thing. Some people, like Michael Bublé and some of the guests that are on that record, have a way of doing something in the studio first. James Taylor. Everybody. Sting. Everybody that showed up had something.

John Legend, I think no one knew what John – I knew what John was gonna do, but not from a character point of view. And you hear it, because they watched him. They have watched him in performance, and he genuinely loves what he’s doing. And he embraces his quartet. So this is something he acquired, but it’s his.

Tavis: Yeah, there’s a humanity about that guy the likes of which I’ve never seen. It’s amazing. How do you know when a duet is going – what makes you know a duet’s going to work? And I say that because I’ve heard a number of duets in my life. Many have worked, others have not. There’s a trick to doing this, to make the two – I’m talking about even folk who are both good at what they do. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna work together.

Ramone: That’s kind of what an all-star game can be or not be.

Tavis: Precisely.

Ramone: You step to the plate.

Tavis: A lot of these baseball references, you must be a baseball fan.

Ramone: Oh, I’m a nut. I’m a total nut.

Tavis: Okay. (Laugh) I like the metaphor.

Ramone: I just can’t help it. I think that what we do is create these three to five minute pieces, and before they don’t have to be cohesive, there’s no book. The book is the song first. That, for me, is probably the most primary source of what excites you. And then you have a repertoire. If you’re gonna work with Tony or any of the greats, you have to have a good choice.

So maybe 25 choices, and I say to you, “Okay, Tavis, here’s a song I think you could do with him.” And something about it, you say “Well, I’m not comfortable with that.” “Well, if you were to pick the best?” “Well, I love this song.” Then I start the construction. And it becomes very tricky at times, because who should start the song off? Who should switch?

Like Barbra Streisand had a real problem with how she would enter into the song, right? So she said, “Maybe I should start. Maybe I do this kind of thing, and this magical voice comes from here.” So you – it’s architecture in its best form. It’s the best music, the best lyric. So I kind of feel much more confident. I think a good director has that when he has a script.

Tavis: I wanna close talking about this new CD you have in just a second. First, though, I’ve been dying to ask you this question more than any other. I’m always fascinated and hungry to learn from iconic figures. Those who have set themselves far and above the rest of us, where their God-given gift is concerned.

If you could give me one enduring lesson that you have learned, one good piece of advice that you’ve learned from working with iconic figures like Sinatra and Charles and Streisand and Bennett, etcetera, what would that be? What have you learned from working with these – one thing you know for sure that you’ve learned from working with these greats?

Ramone: I gotta think that one that becomes a philosophy of work, which is “no excuses.”

Tavis: No excuses.

Ramone: None.

Tavis: Yeah.

Ramone: And don’t speak if you don’t have to about trivia. The time for joking comes because of the trust, and you have to earn the trust. So, I don’t alibi for anything, and I’ll take the heat. That’s the other thing. Don’t let them take the heat. We take the heat.

Tavis: I like that. No excuses. No alibis for anything. This new project, “New Music from an Old Friend.” I love the concept. Tell me about the concept of the project, first of all.

Ramone: Well, they brought it to me and said, just the title fascinated me. And some of the artists who are composers, really. It’s kind of a songwriter’s dream, is to have the original song, Carole King, let’s say, or Burt Bacharach, and you’re doing “Alfie” with Peabo Bryson. We cast it, like, ’cause it’s not really a duet. But when it is, it’s an interesting place.

And then you hear a brand new song by the same composer. So I don’t know, except for what I feel instinctively, that I think it could be a home run, or it’ll certainly be, for itself, a good piece of music, and a good piece of art. And I think that’s the mantra for all of us, is like why not try to make the best thing possible? And “New Music from an Old Friend” sounds – I even asked Paul Williams to write the title as if it was the name of a show.

Tavis: I love the concept, and I love the project. And speaking of baseball metaphors, I’m sure it’s gonna be a hit. Not just a hit, a home run. No, not even that. A grand slam. ‘Cause Phil Ramone never strikes out. How’s that?

Ramone: I love that.

Tavis: I can go on this for a while, if you want to (laugh).

Ramone: No, no, no, it’s okay.

Tavis: I got a few of these.

Ramone: No (laugh).

Tavis: Okay (laugh). Phil Ramone, nice to meet you.

Ramone: Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: Glad to have you on the program.

March 9th, 2013, by


Both personally and professionally, my life journey has been blessed by its racial diversity. I grew up in a working class Jewish family in New York City and got involved in the civil rights movement while in college in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s, I worked in the anti-poverty program in West Virginia. Then, in 1970, just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, ruled that laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage were unconstitutional, I married an African American woman from rural, segregated North Carolina. Although we divorced 11 years later and I am now married to a white woman, we remain a close family with three children, four grandchildren and a great grandson.

Professionally, I had the privilege of serving as Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race in 1997 and 1998. Since then, I have worked at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused exclusively on issues of particular concern to the African American community and other communities of color.

Through my experiences I have had the opportunity to peer into a world far beyond the comprehension of most white people in our society. I have become aware of the pain that well-meaning white Americans inflict on people of color, often without knowing it, and I have come to recognize the richness that awaits those with the courage to embrace our nation’s growing diversity. Yet, I also have come to understand how much I still have to learn about race in this country and how much I will never be able learn. The following excerpt from the book’s first chapter illustrates what I mean.

In 1999, at a reception in Washington, DC, for members of the Joint Center Board of Governors, a rather portly and well-dressed African American gentleman approached me.

“Hello.” He smiled as he stuck out his hand. “My name is Hector Hyacinthe.” I had never met him, but I recognized his name from the list of board members and knew he was a prominent businessman from Westchester County, New York. “Mike Wenger,” I replied as we shook hands.

“Good to meet you, Mike. Are you from D.C.?”

“Nope, originally from Brooklyn,” I replied.

“Really? What part?”

“East New York.”

“Really? What street?”

“Bradford Street.”

“What number?”

“Three hundred.”

“Three eighty!” he proclaimed triumphantly.

“That’s right across the street from my grandparents’ house. They lived at three-eighty-one.”

Hector nodded. “Yep, lived there until I finished high school.”

We spent the next several minutes comparing notes on the old neighborhood. Then I spent the remainder of the evening trying to reconcile my surprise at what I’d just learned about Hector with what I’d suddenly realized was the subconscious mixed message of my childhood. Simply stated: “Blacks deserve equal rights but they are not really our equals.” More importantly, I was left to ponder how this mixed message conspired to make us liberal white people complicit in the pervasive racial discrimination that we so glibly condemn…

All the neighbors on my grandparents’ side of the street had similar backgrounds. They were primarily older Russian and Polish immigrant families who had bought their homes many years earlier and raised their children on that block. Now, they yearned for nothing more than to finish their lives in these familiar surroundings, the men playing checkers in the park, the women preparing for daily or weekly visits from children and grandchildren, most of whom had not strayed far from the old neighborhood. They feared, however, that their modest dream was being challenged by an influx of black families with young children. Many were from the South, and they now occupied every house on the other side of the street, two or three families to an apartment, in some cases. Although they were separated only by the width of a tree-lined city street, these two groups had virtually no contact with each other. Not even the Berlin Wall that divided colorful and lively West Berlin from gray and dreary East Berlin when I was there in 1983 could have made the divide any more explicit.

The houses on my grandparents’ side of the street were all owner-occupied and had the look of being lovingly cared for as the prized possessions they were. Their red brick exteriors were clean and bright and screens hung in every window frame. Meticulously trimmed hedges defined each owner’s postage stamp front yard. Across the street, nearly all the families were renters, the prevailing ambiance was drab, window screens were the exception, and little healthy shrubbery was visible in the front yards, many of which were paved over. There was no obvious hostility between the two sides of the street, but there was no communication, either. Rarely did anybody on my grandparents’ side of the street even park their car on the other side of the street. As children, we understood that we were not to walk on the other side of the street. I spent a major portion of my childhood at my grandparents’ house, but until I met Hector when I was fifty-seven years old, I’d never actually met anyone who lived across the street…

The unspoken message of my childhood, conveyed by my grandparents’ attitude toward the people across the street and by my parents’ acceptance of Woodmere’s norms, was that black people were different. Those who lived across the street from my grandparents didn’t take pride in their homes, or work hard, or place much emphasis on doing well in school. As a child I did not comprehend the fact that they were renting from landlords who had fled the neighborhood and who refused to maintain their properties. Nor was I cognizant of the fact that while my grandfather could get a union job as a skilled laborer in a shoe factory, the best work that the men across the street could hope for were nonunion jobs as janitors in the factory. Nor did I perceive anything wrong with the fact that all of the teachers at the local elementary school had my skin color, as did all of the store owners and other financially successful adults I encountered in the neighborhood.

I doubt that any of the adults in our family were conscious of these factors. Certainly, no adult ever tried to discuss any of these issues with me. Of course, I would have been too young to understand such matters, anyway. But these negative racial stereotypes ingrained at an early age took hold, and I was unsettled, nearly fifty years later, by my surprise at finding someone from the even-numbered side of my grandparents’ block who had achieved Hector’s level of success. It seemed that I had learned the unspoken message quite well. In my head, I knew better, but I was incapable of turning off the default setting in my brain, even if the setting lasted for just a split second.


Michael R. Wenger is a Senior Fellow and Acting Vice President for Civic Engagement and Governance at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC. He also teaches classes on race and minority relations and on Institutional Racism: Policies and Prescriptions as an adjunct faculty member in the sociology department at The George Washington University. This passage is excerpted from his memoir, My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man’s Journey Through the Nation’s Racial Minefield. He can be contacted at wengerjm@verizon.net.

March 5th, 2013, by


In September 2006, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chàvez sat down with us just days after his controversial speech to the United Nations. Among the topics discussed during our conversation: his comment during that speech calling then-President George W. Bush “the devil,” his overall feelings about the United States, how the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. impacted his life and his thoughts on how to end poverty.

Although the outspoken soldier-turned-politician was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, he won re-election to a new term in 2012.

Chàvez recently passed away at age 58, after more than 14 years as leader of the oil-rich Latin American country.

On our March 11, 2013 show, we reflected on his complex legacy.

February 21st, 2013, by

Update: Kudos to Malik Bendjelloul, director, editor and animator of Searching for Sugar Man, for his win in the best documentary feature category. It was the first music-oriented film to win the documentary award since 1986.


From the “2013 class” of Academy Award nominees, there were several who joined us for enlightening conversations about their films. Take a look below at the rewind of our  exchanges with these talented actors/filmmakers.

Congratulations to all of this year’s nominees.

As Oscar night nears, the frontrunner for best documentary feature seems to be Searching for Sugar Man, which has won numerous festival awards, as well as the BAFTA and the Producer’s Guild Award. Filmmaker—and first-time nominee—Malik Bendjelloul explained how he came upon the remarkable story of singer-songwriter Rodriguez and his unlikely resurrection in South Africa following a forgettable career in the U.S.


With 12 nominations, Lincoln topped all the films this year. For her feisty portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln, Sally Field earned her third Oscar nod—this time for a supporting role—and, in her two nights with us, she not only reflected on her two previous wins (for leading roles in Norma Rae and Places in the Heart), but also on her nearly 50 years in the business.

Part 1

Part 2


Screenwriter David Magee earned his second adapted screenplay nomination for Life of Pi (his first was for Finding Neverland). His nom is one of 11 for the story of a young man who survives a disaster at sea and hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery.


Among the 8 nominations racked up by Silver Linings Playbook are two nods for writer-director David O. Russell. He was a nominee for 2010’s The Fighter and has already won several awards this season for this romantic comedy. He explained his personal connection to the subject matter when he sat down with us just a few weeks ago.


February 7th, 2013, by

“I am Essie Mae Washington-Williams, and at last I am completely free.” Those were the words used at the 2003 news conference at which Washington-Williams revealed her secret of being the mixed-race daughter of onetime segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.

Born in 1925 after Thurmond, then 22, had an affair with a 16-year-old Black maid who worked in his family’s Edgefield, SC, home, she kept in touch with her famous father, even though he never publicly acknowledged her.

Washington-Williams passed away February 4, 2013 in Columbia, SC at age 87.

She sat down with us twice: In our inaugural 2004 season, shortly after her riveting press conference, and again in 2005, to talk about her then-new autobiography, Dear Senator: A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond. Read the transcripts of our engaging conversations here.

January 14th, 2013, by

Kudos to our 2012 guests who took home 2013 Golden Globes: Don Cheadle; Kevin Costner; Damian Lewis; and Jay Roach. And, check out our roundup of their visits with us, which includes conversations about their award-winning projects.

Don Cheadle – February 21, 2012

The co-exec producer of and actor in Showtime’s House of Lies shares what it’s like to play a character that was not written explicitly for a Black man.


Kevin Costner – May 24-25, 2012
In a two-night conversation, the two-time Oscar winner reflects on his body of work and the moment he fully committed to becoming a thespian and discloses the one thing he feels people would envy of him.

In part two, Costner discusses his role in the History channel’s first scripted miniseries, Hatfields & McCoys, and his band’s companion CD.


Damian Lewis – May 4, 2012
The British actor reflects on portraying American history in Band of Brothers and weighs in on President Obama’s comment on his latest star vehicle, Showtime’s Peabody Award-winning drama series, Homeland.


Jay Roach – March 2, 2012

The director and producer of Game Change, the HBO dramatization of the 2008 presidential campaign, talks about VP candidate Sarah Palin and whether the filmmakers “went soft” on Sen. John McCain.

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