Stephen A. Smith is one of the most recognizable people in Sports Media today. He is host of some of the most watched shows on ESPN, one of the most connected journalists for sports stars, and one of the hardest working people in the business. But he has overcome many obstacles and been relentless on his path to his success. His faith has been a key part of his tenacity and success not just on screen, but in life. He recently published a book about his life Straight Shooter which has become a New York Times Bestseller. UrbanFaith contributor Maina Mwaura sat down with Stephen A. to talk about his book, his journey, and his faith.
Praise This Interview
Praise This is a new movie streaming on Peacock that is a fun and inspirational musical comedy that is great for our generation. Chlöe Bailey gives an amazing performance as Sam, Anjelika Washington plays Jess who is Sam’s silly and sanctified cousin, and the musical and comedic star studded cast is rounded out with Jekalyn Carr, Koryn Hawthrone, Druski, Birgundi Baker, Quavo, and more. The music was phenomenal and it has plenty of laughs with an authentic message as the story progresses. UrbanFaith spoke with Anjelika Washington about the film which highlights how acceptance and love from believers can draw everyone to faith Christ. Excerpts from the interview edited for clarity and length are below. The full interview is above, a trailer for the movie is below.
And I’m really curious, just to get in my first question, what was your inspiration for being part of this film that can showcase so much great music and really have a fun time?
You know, I did not grow up in church. I did go often with my aunties, especially for holidays and things like that. But I grew up raised with Christian values and morals, but didn’t grow up in church. I did have my own come to Jesus moment when I was around 18. And I attended Bible college for a bit before I became a full-time actress. And while I was there, I met quite a few people who from what I learned, were called Jesus freaks. When I read this script, I was like Jess is that person, she’s the Jesus freak. She’s obsessed with God. And just is like, always continuously going after the heart of Christ. But not always for the best reasons. But what I really wanted to showcase that was to make her multidimensional and a real human, because she also was so ambitious, she has dreams, she has other things. And what I really want people to see is how open just was to receiving Sam, she never judged her, she was completely open and embraced who she was, although [they had] very different walks of life. Because she just knew in her heart; “if I love this girl, if I just love her, she’ll change.” She said it from the very beginning, “your testimony is going to be the goat.” [Jess] had this peace and ease that she was led by in the spirit that she just knew Christ would change the heart of Sam in time. She didn’t have to shove it down her throat, or like Bible thump at her. It would happen through love and through acceptance. And I think that it’s a beautiful journey.
I think that’s so amazing and is such a great point. One of the things I think this movie does so well is it starts out fun and ridiculous. But it really rings authentic as it goes along. I see that in Jess’ journey. It allows us to be able to laugh at ourselves as a church, as people who are believers, but also be able to draw that serious message. Why do you think that’s important for us to be able to have both: laugh at ourselves and to be able to still take our faith in our journey seriously?
Yeah, because I think that that’s just the balance of life. Like we can take everything seriously. And we can move through our relationships. However, your relationship is with Christ is your own relationship. So you have that. But also, life is meant to be lived. It’s supposed to be fun, or at least that’s what I believe. And so I think that we should celebrate life. And with that comes enjoying ourselves, enjoying the people that you’re with, enjoying the music, enjoying the food, enjoying your own culture, you know, things like that. And so I really hope that the celebration of culture and gospel that we blended together, does that for people outside of this film as well.
Yeah, and speaking of that, there were just so many amazing musical artists as well as actors and actresses in this movie. Can you talk about what it was like to be around so many different musical icons and folks working in different spaces?
Well, absolutely. I met Jekalyn Carr and Koryn Hawthorne on my first day of rehearsals and they are just incredible, incredible humans. And I mean that just like, behind closed doors no cameras rolling just awesome. Jekayln Carr is now one of my literal bestest friends, I talked to her every single day, we FaceTime all the time. And we both come from completely different walks of life. Like I said, I wasn’t raised in the church and Jekayln Carr was. And I mean, she’s Jekalyn Carr. She’s a star in a very different world. But I think that what brings us together is how we love and accept each other from just very different lifestyles. And it’s so beautiful that we’ve been able to make this friendship. And she’s definitely a spiritual guide and mentor in my life these days. And I’m very, very grateful to her for that. And I hope that reads on camera in the film as well, because this film, while I am a believer, this film is for believers and non-believers. I really do think that everyone can enjoy it no matter what walk of life you’re at, or you’ve been through. And so, I really hope that reads and it brings people together the way it brought us together.
I appreciate that. And so my last question, Anjelika, this story shows so many young folks like those in our audience who are grappling with how to be successful, and to be faithful and true to themselves. And can you give a nugget of advice or a lesson or takeaway that you would give to young adults who are trying to balance that success with being able to be faithful and authentic?
I would say a couple of things. The first one would be, I remember hearing Bishop TD Jakes saying once [that] interests make you interesting. So you can love Christ and do other things. Like it’s okay to like love Christ, and also love… rock climbing. I mean, I don’t know. But you can have other hobbies and do other things in that way. And still have fun and enjoy your life because you really do only live once. So make the best of your life. And I think that’s also celebrating what Christ did for us. So I think that it’s important for us to enjoy our lives as well. And number two, while all that is true, and I do think that we should enjoy our lives, there are certain things that you shouldn’t compromise on. I don’t think anyone should. So if something compromises a value or your morals… I would say stay true to yourself. It’s okay to say no. While I want everyone to stay open minded, because fun can come in all different forms and shapes. If there’s something that you know in your heart and your spirit is not for you, it’s okay to say no.
The following is an edited excerpt for clarity, the full audio interview is above.
One of the things I thought Creed III did so well was to give space and allow for complexity in emotion and aspiration for black people, but especially for black men. Why was it important for you guys to show joy, loss, sorrow, pride, and you were able to capture so much of that. Why was that important?
Michael B. Jordan
I think because the narrative has often been one note for a long time. Through cinema on a project like this that’s going to get so many eyes, so many different points of view, to show those layers and complexities that is us. That is black men, men in general, but specifically our stories. We wanted to give it the respect and the honesty because we all know a Damian, we all know an Adonis, at some point at some level. And being able to represent those stories in a truthful way was really important to see.
Another thing that stuck out to me as well was that you have all these different relationships, you have mentor mentee, friendships, black marriage, fatherhood, being a child with an aging parent, and of course rivalry, all of that is so much a part of our story. What was it like to inhabit all those different roles?
Michael B. Jordan
Felt freeing. Honestly, for me, as a filmmaker, now a real storyteller, in a real way, being able to talk about and show the things that I’ve experienced that affect me in my life. Other people [and myself] have those type of relationships. Also, I think it felt it felt great to do work, I felt completely honest, real, and grounded. We do projects, different movies for different reasons. And all of it may not feel personal, [but] you try to bring a little bit of yourself to these roles. Feels good. It felt good.
I think my mission was a lot different. It’s really a commentary on brotherhood. What [does brotherhood] look like to you? At one point, [Creed] is my best friend, my homeboy, my ally. One point he’s my nemesis. One point, he’s my motivation. The man to that one relationship. We’re gonna continue the relationship between them and beyond as the primary attachment. My mission and my objective was to show the complexity of that relationship. In this one partnership, there’s all these different facets. It’s not just best friend. Sometimes a student- teacher, sometimes it’s beggar-rich man, sometimes it’s prisoner and freemen. There is a slave [and] master within the brotherhood. [Damien] was a coyote, [Creed] was purebred puppy. We were both dogs. Both men were both gladiators were both fighters, but there are these differences. It was difficult to establish those relationships.
I think that you guys left so much room, just to see a movie like this with a majority black cast. Black director, I think you’re carrying on legacy of Oscar Micheaux, Spike Lee, of these black directors, right. And you carrying on for these black actors, the Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad was in this movie. I mean, it’s incredible. What is it like for you all to be carrying on the legacy of black art and black film from actors’ and directors’ perspective now?
Michael B. Jordan
It feels good. It feels like we’re honoring their path and the race that they’ve been running. It’s our responsibility as filmmakers in the platform that we have and opportunities that we’re given because of their hard work to continue that work, that study, those ideas. Without Sydney, Denzel, and Harry Belafonte and in all the work that they’ve been doing, and have done, we couldn’t have been given this opportunity to run the way we are. We’re just trying to get every drop of juice out of the lemon, say as much as we can, be truthful and honest. And working with Phylicia, is fantastic. Amazing. Yes, ma’am. Anything you want ma’am. (laughs) Just honoring that it’s surreal sometimes, honestly, for me, it kind of it feels larger than life. You know, I have not really been a guy to stop and like smell flowers often. I’m like, what’s next? But when I hear somebody say that and break it down that way, it just kind of hits me like, wow, okay!
What we are talking about, it means something because he is going to transcend whatever an actor is, and transcend whatever are director is, you’re a part of popular culture. And that may be a bad word, but popular culture is the culture. When you begin to move at that level, you begin to do what Mike has done and is doing, you join the pantheon of these legends. Not only do we feel motivated to continue it, but to grow it. I mean, respectfully, we know things that Denzel, Sydney, and Harry were learning, we grew up knowing those things. It is our job to push it forward. You know, I think what is happening now is there’s a clear establishment of the new Vanguard. And that’s us. Whether or not we want it, it’s us, and [we have a responsibility.] We have athletes joined us in the fray, but it’s about moving the entire culture forward. You know a huge part of pop culture is black culture. The more we mature, the more sophisticated we become, the more intelligent conversations, the more in-depth conversations become, the more complex they becomes, the more we are adding to our culture and the richness of our culture, but also moving everything forward.
Just pulling back a little bit. You all have both just succeeded so much are two of the greatest black actors in this moment, some of the greatest actors of our generation, if I may say so. And I know that a huge part of that has been growth, and my audience is interested in faith. I know that’s been huge, especially in Jonathan’s journey. Can you talk a little bit about what faith has meant to you all as artists, and even as you continue to climb these ladders and open new pathways?
Michael B. Jordan
Faith, you know, for me is strong. I think we’re in an industry where, you got to have a lot [of faith]. You’re one of many, [who will face] a lot of no’s, a lot of rejection, a lot of obstacles that are in your way, in order for you to see a vision of what success looks like to you. You got to have faith in yourself, you have faith in something bigger than you. I think meditation, spirituality, for me, silence [are impactful]. And then that brings those thoughts that are [helpful] that comes to you. I think it’s extremely important. And also faith in evolving things. I think there’s a way in this industry… a lot of roadblocks that can get in your way and that represent life. As you travel life has a lot of different roadblocks that would come in your way and being the main character of your own movie, as being the hero of your own story, got to have that faith in order to kind of achieve it, reach the mountaintop, so to speak. So that’s something that sticks with me. We have strong faith.
To me [faith] means everything. I know it’s a scary word [in some circles] but I pray all the time. You know this tiny, small little voice, that’s [what has] always guided me. And the building of faith, you know, stepping out on faith. I mean, this whole thing set me off. I hadn’t read the script. This idea of discernment. Michael, and I spoke about that [discernment], that’s what was happening in those 30 minutes [when I was offered the role of Damien]. There’s a Hollywood version where I go, “oh, nice” and I just knew. But I was told. [Or I wouldn’t have done it]. I’ve met Michael’s mother, you know. These are praying, folks. We’ve all been prayed [over] our entire lives and the building of the faith, even having this conversation with you right now. Being asked about [faith], it’s probably a good time, as we both are both tired. I’m not gonna preach. But I have no doubt where my strength comes from.
I appreciate that. Last question for you all. Our audience is young people, young adults, I work with high school actors. What advice would you give to those young folks, young artists who are trying to be successful trying to find their voice. What advice would you give to the next generation?
Michael B. Jordan
Be relentless. I always say be relentless. Find something you care about, that you obsess over, and just go for it. There’s going to be a lot of noise, a lot of resistance. But try not to be distracted by a lot of distractions. [They’re] all around you in a lot of different forms, by way of that little box right there [your phone]. We’re all guilty in a certain way, shape or form sometimes. But I think for young people who grew up with that as the norm [it’s even worse]. I grew up with dial up modems, printing out directions on mapquest lol. That’s, that’s my generation. But a lot of these kids, [smart phones] that’s their truth, that’s their norm. There’s a lot of distraction nowadays. So just being able to put that thing down for a minute and be to your own thoughts, you know what I’m saying, focus, and have the work ethic and not think everything’s so instant and immediate.
Because a lot of things they feel like, it’s right now, right now, and it’s not, you know what I’m saying? These are products of years of work, dedication and discipline. And I think, I would always preach it to the next generation, to these young kids, to just find that work ethic, because there’s something true to it. There’s something that nobody can take away from hard work. You put the time in and you can’t they can’t take that away from you. Whether that’s reading, whether it’s mastering the craft, doing your 10,000 hours. That is legit.
I’m in it now. I would pray for purpose. I would pray for anointing. And once you know what your anointing is, that’s it. A lot of times, we’re just going after the wrong thing. The work ethic, a lot of people think me and Mike just have a dog work ethic. That’s not, not true. But I think something that me and Mike also have in common is that we know what we’re supposed to be doing. We gain a great deal of pleasure from it. It’s our anointing. You hear Michael B. Jordan, it’s not just Michael B. Jordan, something was put in him. Something was put in me, so I have to be aligned with that. When we begin to walk our path, there’s still no’s, there’s still impossibilities… but there’s God. So it’s all good. It’s all good. That’s what I was saying. Then yeah, all the grit and all that…yeah, absolutely. But a lot of times you’re actually just going after the wrong thing. I will say to the young folks, you don’t need your phone yet. Grown ups need phones. We actually have businesses. I don’t use [social media and] stuff like that. But I do understand my colleagues who do. They’re like, in the game, in the matrix, there’s no getting out of it. But for young people, you can keep it so simple. And it can always be simple, unless you complicate it. Suddenly you begin to work through that thing. Then you got to work for it. If you can, if you can abstain for as long as you can. It’ll let you know when you need it. Insta-chat-facebook-tweet. Pay attention a little longer. They won’t last. [Social media we grew up on didn’t last].
View the final movie trailer below
When Marvel Studios released “Black Panther” in February 2018, it marked the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to feature a Black superhero and star a predominantly Black cast.
Its estimated production budget was US$200 million, making it the first Black film – conventionally defined as a film that is directed by a Black director, features a Black cast, and focuses on some aspect of the Black experience – ever to receive that level of financial support.
As a scholar of media and Black popular culture, I was often asked to respond to the resounding success of that first “Black Panther” film, which had shattered expectations of its box office performance.
Would it lead to more big-budget Black films? Was its popularity an indication that the global marketplace – the real source of trepidation about the film’s potential – was finally ready to embrace Black-cast films?
Yet as I review the cinematic landscape between the original and its sequel, I am inclined to restate the answer I gave back in 2018: Assumptions should not be made about the state of Black film based on the success of the “Black Panther” franchise.
Reason for optimism
Prior to its release, the producers of “Black Panther” faced questions about whether there was a market for a Black blockbuster film, even one ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After all, since the Wesley Snipes-led “Blade” trilogy, which came out in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Black superhero films had experienced diminishing returns. There was one notable exception: the commercially successful, though heavily panned “Hancock” (2008), starring Will Smith.
Furthermore, until “Black Panther,” no Black film exceeded a $100 million budget, the average benchmark for modern Hollywood blockbusters.
Nonetheless, despite these early concerns, “Black Panther” earned the highest domestic gross, $700 million, of all films released in 2018, while earning $1.3 billion in worldwide gross, second only to “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“Black Panther” emerged at the tail end of what many industry experts considered to be a surprisingly successful run of Black films, which included the biopic “Hidden Figures” (2016) and the raunchy comedy “Girls Trip” (2017). Despite their modest budgets, they earned over $100 million apiece at the box office – $235 million and $140 million, respectively.
However, both films were mostly reliant on the domestic box office, especially the R-rated “Girls Trip,” which was only released in a handful of foreign markets. Conventional wisdom has long held that Black films will fail abroad. International distributors and studios typically ignore them during the presale process or at film festivals and markets, reasoning that Black films are too culturally specific – not only in terms of their Blackness, but also their Americanness.
Films like “Black Panther” and the Oscar winning “Moonlight” (2016), which earned more on the international market than the domestic market, certainly challenged those assumptions. It has yet to upend them.
Black films after ‘Black Panther’
What do those Black films released in theaters in the nearly five years between “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” tell us about the former’s impact?
The simple answer is that the original “Black Panther” has had no discernible influence on industry practices whatsoever.
Since 2018, no other Black blockbuster has emerged, save for the sequel itself. Granted, Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s remake of “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018) reportedly cost an estimated $100 million; however, while Black actors portrayed the protagonist and a few other characters, the film features a multicultural ensemble cast – which, as scholars such as Mary Beltran have pointed out, has become the primary strategy for achieving diversity in film.
Even if one were to include “A Wrinkle in Time,” the grand total of Black films with budgets exceeding $100 million is three, with the two “Black Panther” films being the others – all during an era in which there have been hundreds of mainstream films with budgets exceeding $100 million.
Otherwise, most of the Black films released in theaters between 2018 and 2022 typically were low budget by Hollywood standards – $3 million to $20 million in most cases – with only a handful, such as the 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” costing $50 million to 60 million.
Perhaps the most notable change has been the medium. Many Black films now appear on either cable networks that cater to a Black audience – namely Black Entertainment Television and, more recently, Lifetime – or on streaming services such as Netflix. Tyler Perry, the most popular and prolific Black filmmaker of the modern era, has released his latest films – “A Jazzman’s Blues” (2022), “A Madea Homecoming” (2022) and “A Fall from Grace” (2020) – directly to Netflix.
Furthermore, no other Black film has approached the financial success of “Black Panther.” Granted, several Black films have fared well at the box office, especially relative to their production costs. Foremost among them is Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019), which cost an estimated $20 million, yet earned approximately $256 million worldwide despite its R rating and the fact that it was never released in China.
Whither Black film
Without question, large budgets and commercial success are not the only measures of a film’s value and significance.
As has historically been the case, Black film has managed to do more with less. The critical acclaim afforded to films such as “BlackKlansman” (2018), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2019) and “King Richard” (2021) reflect this fact. All reflect trends in contemporary Black filmmaking – comedies, historical dramas and biopics abound, for instance – and were made for a fraction of the cost of both “Black Panther” films.
In truth, the zeal with which some cast “Black Panther” as a bellwether for Black films is part of continued haranguing over their viability, particularly after the #OscarsSoWhite movement that drew attention to the lack of diversity at the 2016 Academy Awards.
However, its positioning as a Disney property within Marvel’s transmedia storytelling effort makes it so atypical that its success — and that of its sequel — portends little about Black film.
Angela Cannon was on the edge of the transition to streaming content as she led the efforts by the UP Entertainment to grow its streaming channel UP Faith & Family. But she has often found herself at the forefront of industry shifts. She is now taking over management of AspireTV and is SVP of Multicultural Networks and Strategy for UP Entertainment.
UrbanFaith sat down with Angela to discuss her career journey, the importance of mentoring, and how she finds herself as a trailblazer.
It is not often that I go to the movie theater and feel like a movie left my speechless but that is exactly how I felt about Devotion. It is based on a true story and has been the culmination of decades of work by the family and friends of Jesse Brown, a true American hero. There was a national conversation a few years ago about the “Hidden Figures” of American history. As African Americans unfortunately much of our history has gone untold, and some of it has been erased by racism, fear, and cultural amnesia. The story of Jesse Brown, one of the first black Naval Aviators to serve in an integrated unit, is a piece of history that must be remembered. It is an honor to Jesse’s daughter and grandchildren who are still alive that their grandfather’s story can finally be told. We are rooting for everybody black, and as we learn his story we help to remember more of our own history.
Jesse served during the Korean War, a war that is not often highlighted on the big screen. It is called America’s forgotten war because it was not the heroic story of good triumphing over evil from World War II and it is overshadowed by Vietnam during the Cold War in its tragedy and impact on American consciousness. But it was the first war where young Americans who were inspired by WWII joined the ranks of the military in order to fight for their country and were not drafted. Jesse Brown was like many African Americans in his era in that he was motivated not simply by patriotism, but an opportunity to help his family advance in a rapidly changing society. He saw himself not as an incredible black man, but as an incredible man. His wife and daughter were the center of his world and his purpose was to fly with the best pilots in the nation.
As we watch the impeccable talent of Jonathan Majors bring Jesse Brown to life we cannot help but to see his devotion. He was a man of faith, a man of family, and a man of fortitude. He demanded respect but rarely opened himself to trust people outside of his home. A lifetime of facing overt and structural racism had taught him to test before he trusted. A new and accomplished member of his unit Tom Hudner played by Glen Powell attempts to build a friendship across the cultural divide.
There is a special bond between team members that go through battles together, and it builds a devotion to one another and to the cause they fight for. This movie explores the depths of that passion in a profound way. But the reason why you should really see this movie is because the story of Jesse Brown needs to be told. We hear about how African Americans have to work twice as had to get half as far, Jesse Brown lived it in our military. We remember stories of American heroism trying to serve our country and protect their fellow soldiers. We rarely hear about black men in those positions. There have been countless successful war movies. This one is for our community with all of the nuance and authenticity that is true to our struggle to be part of the military let alone thrive in it. How can we honor the people in uniform for a country that has long neglected the rights and humanity of black people? Hundreds of our ancestors wore those uniforms and the story of the American struggle for freedom has been the story of the African American struggle for freedom since America’s first war. All Americans need to hear that story and be reminded of the struggle and the triumphs. We need to tell Jesse Brown’s story the same way we tell the stories of Pearl Harbor, Letters from Iwo Jima, Dunkirk, and all of the other films that share tragedies and triumphs of our veterans.
I left the theater in tears. I was moved. I could not believe I had never heard about Jesse Brown’s story, and had rarely heard about the Korean War in all of the history classes I had taken. I feel myself particularly acquainted with African American history having attended the illustrious Howard University and taken several African American history courses. I could not shake the sadness, frustration, and inspiration I felt because I had never heard the name Jesse Brown as one of the “First Black” in the long list of first blacks. We have to know and share our history. We have to share our devotion to our heritage. You have to see this movie, so that this piece of history, our history, is never forgotten again.