Review: ‘Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,’ starring Sonia Monzano, Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie, Rosie Perez, Steve Youngwood, Kay Wilson Stallings and Sherrie Westin

May 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ryan Dillon (Elmo puppeteer), Bradley Freeman Jr. (Wes Walker puppeteer) and Chris Thomas Hayes (Elijah Walker puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days”

Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz

Culture Representation: The documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, white, Latino and Asian) discussing their connection to the groundbreaking children’s TV series “Sesame Street.”

Culture Clash: “Sesame Street,” which launched in 1969 on PBS, was the first nationally televised children’s program in the U.S. to be racially integrated, and “Sesame Street” has endured controversy over racial diversity, AIDS and representation of the LGBTQ community.

Culture Audience: “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a comprehensive overview of “Sesame Street,” with an emphasis on how “Sesame Street” is responding to current global issues.

Stacey Gordon (Julia puppeteer) in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (Photo courtesy of ABC)

ABC’s documentary “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” offers some nostalgia for “Sesame Street” fans, but the movie is more concered about how this groundbreaking children’s culture has made an impact around the world and with contemporary social issues. Directed by Rebecca Gitlitz, it’s an occasionally repetitive film that admirably embraces diversity in a variety of viewpoints. The major downside to the film is that it won’t be considered a timeless “Sesame Street” documentary, because the movie very much looks like it was made in 2020/2021. Therefore, huge parts of the movie will look outdated in a few years.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” premiered on ABC just three days after director Marilyn Agrelo’s documentary “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” was released in select U.S. cinemas. “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street,” which focused mainly on “Sesame Street’s” history from 1969 to the early 1990s, interviewed people who were “Sesame Street” employees from this time period, as well as some of the family members of principal “Sesame Street” employees who are now deceased. “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” takes a broader approach and includes the perspectives of not just past and present employees of “Sesame Street” but also several “Sesame Street” fans who are famous and not famous.

In addition, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” (which was produced by Time Studios) makes a noteworthy effort to convey the global impact of “Sesame Street,” by including footage and interviews with people involved with the adapted versions of “Sesame Street” in the Middle East and in South Africa. “Sesame Street,” which is filmed in New York City, launched in 1969 on PBS. In the U.S., first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” began airing on HBO in 2016, and then on HBO Max in 2020. “Sesame Street” is now available in more than 150 countries.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” quickly breezes through how “Sesame Street” was conceived and launched. There are brief mentions of “Sesame Street” co-creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, but this documentary does not interview them. “Street Gang” has interviews with Ganz Cooney and Morrisett, who go into details about how they were inspired to create “Sesame Street” to reach pre-school kids, particularly African American children in urban cities, who had television as an electronic babysitter.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” just like “Street Gang” did, discusses that the concept behind “Sesame Street” was to have a children’s TV show with a racially integrated cast and puppets, which were called muppets. A lot of research went into creating the show before it was even launched. The intent of “Sesame Street” was for the show to be educational and entertaining.

But the creators also wanted “Sesame Street” to include real-life topics that weren’t normally discussed on children’s television at the time. For example, when actor Will Lee, who played “Sesame Street” character Mr. Hooper, died in 1982, “Sesame Street” had an episode that discussed Mr. Hooper dying. “Sesame Street” did not lie to the audience by making up a story that Mr. Hooper had moved away or was still alive somewhere.

Time For Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco says, “Many people avoid the topics that they know are going to be lightning rods. ‘Sesame Street’ goes straight for it. And they handle each and every one of them with the amount of thoughtfulness and research and care that they require.”

David Kamp, author of “Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America,” mentions that one of the reasons for the longevity of “Sesame Street” is the show’s ability to adapt to changing times: “They’ll pivot. They’ll adjust. They’ll say, ‘We got it wrong. Now, we’re going to get it right.’ That’s one of [the show’s] great virtues.”

One of the noticeable differences seen in comparing these two “Sesame Street” documentaries is how racial diversity has improved for “Sesame Street” behind the scenes. “Street Gang,” which focused on the first few decades of “Sesame Street” shows that although the on-camera cast was racially diverse, behind the scenes it was another story: Only white people were the leaders and decision makers for “Sesame Street” in the show’s early years. Several current “Sesame Street” decision makers are interviewed in “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” and it’s definitely a more racially diverse group of people, compared to who was running the show in the first two decades of “Sesame Street.”

Sonia Monzano, an original “Sesame Street” cast member (her character is Maria), says that although the show has always had a racially diverse cast, the muppets are the “Sesame Street” characters that people remember the most. “I remember my first scene with [muppet character] Grover,” Monzano comments with a chuckle. “It took me a while to be comfortable, not try to upstage them. And that’s the same with kids. You give them the platform. Get out of their way.”

As memorable as the “Sesame Street” muppets are, the human characters on the show had a particular impact on children, who saw “Sesame Street” people who reminded them of their family members or neighbors. Several celebrities who are interviewed in the documentary grew up watching “Sesame Street”—including Lucy Liu, Rosie Perez, Olivia Munn and Questlove—and they talk about the importance of seeing their lives and experiences represented on the show.

Perez comments on the show’s racial diversity: “We needed to see that, because when you’re a little girl in Brooklyn watching ‘Sesame Street,’ it’s nice to know that when you opened your door and walked down your stoop, you had the same type of people on your television.” Perez says about “Sesame Street’s” Maria character: “She was my Mary Tyler Moore,” and that until Maria came along, “Desi Arnaz Jr. was our only [Hispanic TV] role model for years.”

Racism, social justice and AIDS are some of the topics that “Sesame Street” has openly discussed over the years, sometimes to considerable controversy. But one topic was apparently too much to handle in “Sesame Street’s” first year: divorce. In “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days,” it’s mentioned that the original pilot episode of “Sesame Street” had a segment about muppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus dealing with his parents’ divorce. The “Sesame Street” executives did a test screening of this episode with children.

“The kids freaked out” because the idea of divorce was too upsetting for them, says Time staff writer Cady Lang. And the episode was “tossed out.” The documentary has some of this unaired Mr. Snuffleupagus “divorce” footage. In the documentary, Martin P. Robinson, the puppeteer and original voice for Mr. Snuffleupagus, expresses disappointment that this decision was made to eliminate talk of divorce on the first “Sesame Street” episode, because he says it was a missed opportunity for “Sesame Street” to start off with an episode that would have been very cutting-edge at the time.

However, there would be plenty of other episodes that would rile up some people. It’s not mentioned in the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, but it’s mentioned in the “Street Gang” documentary that TV stations in Mississippi briefly wouldn’t televise “Sesame Street” in 1970, because they said people in their communities thought the show’s content was inappropriate. They denied it had to do with the show having a racially integrated cast. But considering that Mississippi was one of the last U.S. states to keep laws enforcing racial segregation, it would be naïve to think that racism wasn’t behind the “Sesame Street” ban.

The topics of racism and race relations take up a lot of screen time in this “Sesame Street” documentary, but mostly as pertaining to a contemporary audience, not the “Sesame Street” audience of past decades. Black Lives Matter protests and the racist murders of George Floyd and other African Americans have been discussed on “Sesame Street.” And there has been a concerted effort to have all races represented on “Sesame Street,” for the human cast members as well as the muppets.

Roosevelt Franklin (the first African American muppet on “Sesame Street”) was on “Sesame Street” from 1970 to 1975, and was voiced and created by Matt Robinson. The “Sesame Street” documentary briefly mentions Roosevelt Franklin, but doesn’t go into the details that “Street Gang” did over why the character was removed from the show: A lot of African American parents and educators complained that Roosevelt Franklin played too much into negative “ghetto” stereotypes. In the “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” documentary, musician Questlove and TV host W. Kamau Bell mention that they have fond memories of watching Roosevelt Franklin on “Sesame Street” when they were kids.

Although most muppets aren’t really any race, some of have been created to be of a specific race or ethnicity. Some muppets look like humans, while others look like animals. For the human-looking muppets, there have been Asian, Hispanic and Native American muppets in addition to the muppets that are presented as white or black people. And the documentary also gives significant screen time to Mexican muppet Rosita, a character introduced in 1991, which is considered a role model to many, particularly to Spanish-speaking people. Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer and voice of Rosita, is interviewed in the documentary.

The documentary features a Mexican immigrant family called the Garcias, including interviews with mother Claudia and her autistic daughter Makayla, who are the only U.S. citizens of the family members who live in the United States. The Garcias say they love watching “Sesame Street” for Rosita, because she represents so many American residents who are bilingual in Spanish and English. Claudia Garcia, who moved from Mexico to the United States when she was 12, comments in the documentary: “When I was 12, it was not cool to speak Spanish. Now, it [the ability to speak Spanish] is a super-cool thing that you have.”

Four other diverse muppet characters are the Walker Family, an African American clan that is intended to be a major presence in contemporary “Sesame Street” episodes. Elijah Walker (a meteorologist) and his underage son Wesley, also known as Wes, have already been introduced. The characters of Elijah’s wife Naomi (a social worker originally from the Caribbean) and Elijah’s mother Savannah were being developed at the time this documentary was filmed. The documentary includes concept art for Naomi and Savannah.

According to Social Impact U.S. vice president Rocío García, “The Walker Family is a new family we’re creating for the racial justice initiative [Coming Together].” Wes and Elijah are characters that are supposed to contradict the media’s constant, negative narrative that black males are problematic. “Sesame Street” producer Ashmou Young describes the Wes Walker character as “a happy, energetic, innocent child who loves reading and architecture.” Elijah is a positive, intelligent role model. And no, he does not have an arrest record.

Bradley Freeman Jr., the puppeteer for Wes Walker, says in the documentary how proud he is to be part of this character, which he knows can be a role model for all children. “I was bullied at school for being black. That’s something that can hurt you, and you don’t know how to talk about it.” In “Sesame Street,” Elijah and Wes candidly discuss race issues and what it means to be an African American.

Omar Norman and Alisa Norman, an African American married couple, are in the documentary with their two daughters and discuss how the Walker Family on “Sesame Street” means a lot to them. Elder daughter Macayla says it’s impactful when Elijah talks to Wes about racism and how being a black male means being more at risk of experiencing police brutality. Omar gets emotional and tries not to cry when he thinks about how it’s sadly necessary for these topics to be discussed on a children’s show.

All the muppet characters were designed to not only teach kids (and adults) about life but also show what the world is all about and how to cope with problems in a positive way. Chris Jackson (who’s known for his role in the original Broadway production of “Hamilton”) talks about writing the song “I Love My Hair,” which debuted on “Sesame Street” in 2010. The song was written for any girl muppet to sing, but it has special significance to black girls because of how black females are judged the harshest by what their hair looks like. Jackson says that after he wrote the song, he thought, “I think I just wrote a black girl’s superhero anthem,” which he knows means a lot to his daughter.

And if some people have a problem with “Sesame Street” supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, well, no one is forcing them to watch the show. Kay Wilson Stallings, executive vice president of creative and production for Sesame Workshop, comments: “Following the murder of George Floyd, the company decided to make it a company-wide goal of addressing racial injustice [on ‘Sesame Street’].” U.S. first lady Dr. Jill Biden adds, “‘Sesame Street’ is rising up to he movement and addressing what’s going on and what kids are seeing and feeling around them.”

Wilson Stallings says, “We showed diversity, we showed inclusion, we modeled it through our characters. But you can’t just show characters of different ethnicities and races getting along. That was fine before. Now what we need to do is be bold and explicit.”

Sesame Workshop CEO Steve Youngwood comments on increasing “Sesame Street’s” socially conscious content: “We realized that nothing was hitting the moment the way it needed to be. And we pivoted to address it. The curriculum we developed is going to be groundbreaking, moving forward.”

LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street” is still a touchy subject for people who have different opinions on what’s the appropriate age for kids to have discussions about various sexual identities. In 2018, former “Sesame Street” writer Mark Saltzman, who is openly gay, gave an interview saying that he always wrote muppet characters Ernie and Bert (bickering best friends who live together) as a gay couple. The revelation got mixed reactions. Frank Oz—the creator, original voice and puppeteer for Bert—made a statement on Twitter that Ernie and Bert were never gay.

Sesame Workshop responded with a statement that read: “As we have always said, Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach pre-schoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identifiable as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most ‘Sesame Street’ muppets do), they remain puppets, and have no sexual orientation.”

In retrospect, Sesame Workshop president Sherrie Westin says: “That denial, if you will, I think was a mistake.” She also adds that people can think of Ernie and Bert having whatever sexuality (or no sexuality) that they think Ernie and Bert have. As for LGBTQ representation on “Sesame Street,” Jelani Memory (author of “A Kid’s Book About Racism”) is blunt when he says: “It’s not enough.”

And it’s not just social issues that are addressed on “Sesame Street.” The show has also discussed health issues, such as the AIDS crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. Although “Sesame Street” got pushback from some politically conservative people for talking about AIDS on the show, this criticism didn’t deter “Sesame Street,” which was supported by the majority of its audience for this decision. Dr. Anthony Fauci is in the documentary praising “Sesame Street” for helping educate people on health crises.

The documentary includes a segment on the first HIV-positive muppet Kami, a character in “Takalani Sesame,” the South African version of “Sesame Street.” Kami, who is supposed to be a 5-year-old girl, was created in 2002, in reaction to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Her positive outlook on life and how she is accepted by her peers can be viewed as having an impact on people that’s hard to measure.

Marie-Louise Samuels, former director early childhood development at South Africa’s Department of Basic Education, has this to say about Kami: “It wasn’t about her getting some sympathy. It was really about how productive she is in society with the virus.” Even though Kami was well-received in South Africa, “the U.S. was not as receptive,” says Louis Henry Mitchell, creative director of character design at Sesame Workshop.

Also included is a segment on Julia, the first autistic muppet on “Sesame Street.” It’s a character that is near and dear to the heart of Julia puppeteer Stacey Gordon, who tears up and gets emotional when she describes her own real-life experiences as the mother of an autistic child. Julia is one of several muppet characters that represent people with special needs. As an autistic child of a Mexican immigrant family, Makayla Garcia says in her interview that Rosita and Julia are her favorite muppets because they represent who she is.

The documentary shows how “Sesame Street” is in Arabic culture with the TV series “Ahlan Simsim,” which translates to “Welcome Sesame” in English. The Rajubs, a real-life Syrian refugee family of eight living in Jordan, are featured in the documentary as examples of a family who find comfort in “Ahlan Simsim” even though they’re experiencing the turmoil of being refugees. David Milliband, CEO of International Rescue Committee, talks about how “Sesame Street” being a consistent presence in children’s lives can help them through the trauma.

Other people interviewed in the documentary include Shari Rosenfeld, senior VP of international at Social Impact; Elijah Walker puppeteer Chris Thomas Hayes; Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, senior vice president of education and research at Sesame Workshop; Dr. Sanjay Gupta; Peter Linz, voice of muppet character Elmo; “Sesame Street” actor Alan Muraoka; Nyanga Tshabalala, puppeteer for the mupppet character Zikwe on “Takalani Sesame”; and former “Ahlan Simsim” head writer Zaid Baqueen. Celebrity fans of “Sesame Street” who comment in the documentary include Usher, Gloria Estefan, John Legend, Chrissy Teigen and John Oliver, who says about the show: “It was my first introduction to comedy, because it was so relentlessly funny.”

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie comments that The Count (the muppet vampire who teaches counting skills) is her favorite “Sesame Street” character: “He had a wonderfully bold personality: The friendly vampire helping you learn how to count. It worked for me.” Whoopi Goldberg adds, “All the things that ‘Twilight’ did for vampires, The Count did more. [The Count] made vampires cool because they could count.”

Jolie also comments on “Sesame Street’s” social awareness: “What they’re bringing is more relevant to today than ever.” The documentary includes 2021 footage of “Sesame Street” executives cheering when finding out that Sesame Workshop and International Rescue Committee won the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural 100 and Change Award, a grant that gives the recipients $100 million over a maximum of six years.

There’s also a notable segment on the music of “Sesame Street.” Stevie Wonder (who has performed “123 Sesame Street” and “Superstition” on “Sesame Street”) performs in the documentary with a new version of the “Sesame Street” classic theme “Sunny Days.” The documentary has the expected montage of many of the celebrity guests who’ve been on “Sesame Street” too.

“United Shades of America” host Bell says that being asked to be on “Sesame Street” is a “rite of passage” for “famous people at a certain point. Got to get that ‘Sesame Street’ gig! That’s when you know you really made it: When ‘Sesame Street’ calls you.”

Although there’s a lot of talk about certain “Sesame Street” muppets, the documentary doesn’t give enough recognition to the early “Sesame Street” muppet pioneers who created iconic characters. The documentary briefly mentions Jim Henson (the creator and original voice of Kermit the Frog and Ernie), but Frank Oz (the creator and original voice of Grover, Cookie Monster and Bert) isn’t even mentioned at all.

Big Bird is seen but not much is said about Caroll Spinney, who was the man in the Big Bird costume from 1969 to 2018, and who was the creator and original voice of the Oscar the Grouch muppet. Spinney died in 2019, at the age of 85. Henson died in 1990, at age 53. Oz did not participate in the documentary.

The movie doesn’t mention the 2012 scandal of Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash resigning from “Sesame Street” after three men accused him of sexually abusing them when the men were underage teenagers. The three lawsuits against Clash with these accusations were dismissed in 2014. Clash had been the puppeteer and voice of Elmo since 1984.

“Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to bite off a little more than it should chew when it starts veering into discussions about United Nations initiatives and how they relate to “Sesame Street.” There’s no denying the global impact of “Sesame Street,” but “Sesame Street” is a children’s show, not a political science show about international relations. And some viewers might be turned off by all the talk about social justice content on “Sesame Street.”

The documentary could have used more insight into the actual process of creating these memorable muppets. Except for some brief footage in a puppet-creating workspace, that artistic aspect of “Sesame Street” is left out of the documentary. Despite some flaws and omissions, the documentary is worth watching for people who want a snapshot of what’s important to “Sesame Street” in the early 2020s. Whereas “Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street” is very much about the show’s past, “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” tries to give viewers a glimpse into the show’s future.

ABC premiered “Sesame Street: 50 Years of Sunny Days” on April 26, 2021. Hulu premiered the documentary on April 27, 2021.

Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort to include participation from Kelly Rowland, Terrence J, Regina Hall, DJ Khaled, Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin and more

April 8, 2020

Updated April 17, 2020

The following is a press release from BET:

BET announces an array of high impact initiatives to support communities of color impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Black Americans are being disproportionately harmed by the health and financial devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. BET, in partnership with the NAACP, United Way Worldwide, leaders in the African American creative, civil rights and business communities will provide critical financial, educational and community support directly to the African Americans hardest hit by this crisis.

These initiatives include the “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” broadcast special; the creation of a relief fund in partnership with United Way Worldwide to assist people of color most impacted by this health and financial crisis, and our support of the NAACP’s Town Hall Series.

For 40 years, BET has been rooted in a legacy of helping afflicted communities of color, raising $12 million for Katrina victims and millions more for Haiti earthquake victims.  In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, BET will use their global platform to provide critical educational and financial resources directly related to the African American community.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is savagely compounding the profound health and financial vulnerabilities many Black Americans face. Every day, there are new reports of how this pandemic is killing African Americans at much higher rates than other communities.” said Scott Mills, President of BET.  “BET is using all of our resources – our capital, our media platforms, our relationships with the creative community, sponsors, businesses and charitable organizations to support our community in this time of crisis.”

The “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” broadcast special, will air on Wednesday, April 22nd at 8 pm EST. The special, co-hosted by Grammy Award-Winning singer and actress Kelly Rowland, TV personality Terrence J, and actress Regina Hall; will feature virtual appearances and musical performances from some of the biggest names in music and entertainment as they share tips on how to manage, cope and help during the COVID-19 pandemic crisis. Celebrity guest appearances and performances will include DJ Khaled, Charlie Wilson, Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, Fantasia, Melvin Crispell III, and many more. The special will give up-to-date information and drive viewers to needed resources during this unprecedented time.  In partnership with United Way, proceeds are being donated to African American communities severely impacted by COVID-19.

“Our goal for this special is to come together in a collective spirit of strength, community and hope. As we unite in harmony and compassion, through the collective healing power of music, comedy and entertainment, we can bring restoration and inspire the world that our brighter days are ahead,” said Connie Orlando, EVP Specials, Music Programming & Music Strategy at BET.

Connie Orlando, EVP Specials, Music Programming & Music Strategy at BET  will serve as Executive Producer for the “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” broadcast special along with Jesse Collins, CEO of Jesse Collins Entertainment.

To support these initiatives, BET has established a COVID-19 relief fund in partnership with United Way Worldwide to support African Americans that have been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  United Way, the largest private funder of human services in the U.S., has a presence in 95% of communities across the country, and has, for more than 130 years, mobilized the caring power of the community to advance the common good. United Way is unparalleled in its power to convene local partners, providers and resources to address the needs of vulnerable communities on the ground.

Financial donations from the joint fund will allow United Way to disburse resources to local organizations under United Ways in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Detroit and Chicago, regions that have been most impacted by this crisis.  There are long-term plans to expand these resources to other markets going forward.  In particular, United Way will be supporting families in crisis who are experiencing food insecurity and are in need of emergency assistance.

“United Way is deeply embedded in communities across our country, and our ‘local-ness’ means we know the needs on the ground and how to get the right kind of help to those who need it most,” said Stan Little, Chief Experience Officer of United Way. “We look forward to partnering with BET to bring much-needed relief and long-term recovery to already vulnerable communities that are being hit especially hard because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

BET is also providing resources and content on COVID-19 across multiple digital platforms including a four-part virtual town hall series in partnership with the NAACP.  On Wednesday, April 8, at 8 PM ET/ 5 PM PT, “Unmasked: A COVID-19 Virtual Town Hall Series Powered by NAACP & BET” will stream on NAACP.org and focus on how the pandemic is affecting African Americans and what steps the community can take to build an action plan for positive change. The first town hall will focus on the health, emotional, economic toll, congressional response and how activists can apply pressure to ensure legislation is equitable. Additionally, BET.com is reporting daily on what the African American community needs to know about COVID-19, and how it is impacting our lives.

You can donate to the fund beginning Friday, April 10th.  More information on BET’s partnership with UWW and additional extensions of our relief efforts are forthcoming. For further details, please visit BET.com.

April 17, 2020 UPDATE

Anthony Anderson (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for VH1)

Today BET announces comedian and actor Anthony Anderson as the fourth host of the upcoming “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” special.  Anderson joins stars Kelly Rowland, Terrence J, and Regina Hall as host for the two-hour special broadcast. “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort” is set to air on Wednesday, April 22, 2020 at 8 PM EST.

Performances include Alicia Keys with a special tribute to New York City, and a Gospel moment with Kirk Franklin featuring Fantasia, Jonathan McReynolds, Kelly Price, Tasha Cobbs, Le’Andria Johnson, and Melvin Crispell III.  Exclusive performances by John Legend, Usher, Jhene Aiko, Chloe X Halle, CeeLo Green, H.E.R., Ella Mai, Jermaine Dupri, Ludacris, Swae Lee, Tyrese Gibson, Buju Banton, DJ D-Nice, SiR, D Smoke, and Charlie Wilson.

Additional celebrity guest appearances will include Tiffany Haddish, Idris Elba, Ciara, Don Cheadle, Mike Epps, Deon Cole, Angela Rye, Dr. Rheeda Walker, Charlamagne Tha God, Symone D. Sanders, DJ Khaled and Chance The Rapper.

Expanding the reach of the telecast, BET will simulcast the special across BET and BET Her domestically, as well as their channels internationally bringing awareness to over 90 million homes.  Additionally, BET will join forces with Bounce to help expand the audience to include free, over-the-air broadcast viewers with Bounce simulcasting “Saving Our Selves: A BET COVID-19 Relief Effort.”

About BET

BET, a subsidiary of ViacomCBS Inc. (NASDAQ: VIACA, VIAC), is the nation’s leading provider of quality entertainment, music, news, and public affairs television programming for the African-American audience. The primary BET channel is in 90 million households and can be seen in the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, the United Kingdom, sub-Saharan Africa, and France. BET is the dominant African-American consumer brand with a diverse group of business extensions including BET.com, a leading Internet destination for Black entertainment, music, culture, and news; BET HER, a 24-hour entertainment network targeting the African-American Woman; BET Music Networks – BET Jams, BET Soul and BET Gospel; BET Home Entertainment; BET Live, BET’s growing festival business; BET Mobile, which provides ringtones, games and video content for wireless devices; and BET International, which operates BET around the globe.

About United Way

United Way fights for the health, education and financial stability of every person in every community. Supported by 2.9 million volunteers, 9.8 million donors worldwide and $4.7 billion raised every year, United Way is the world’s largest privately funded nonprofit. We’re engaged in 1,800 communities across more than 40 countries and territories worldwide to create sustainable solutions to the challenges facing our communities. United Way partners include global, national and local businesses, nonprofits, government, civic and faith-based organizations, along with educators, labor leaders, health providers, senior citizens, students and more. For more information about United Way, please visit UnitedWay.org. Follow us on Twitter: @UnitedWay and #LiveUnited.

About NAACP
Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation’s oldest and largest nonpartisan civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities. You can read more about the NAACP’s work and our six “Game Changer” issue areas at naacp.org.

Review: ‘Burden,’ starring Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Austin Hébert, Usher Raymond and Tom Wilkinson

February 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Taylor Gregory, Andrea Riseborough, Forest Whitaker, Dexter Darden, Crystal Fox and Garrett Hedlund in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

“Burden” (2020) 

Directed by Andrew Heckler

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, this dramatic film has a racially diverse cast of African American and white characters portraying the poor and working-class.

Culture Clash: The movie tells the story about racial tensions and hate crimes that get worse when local Ku Klux Klansmen open a KKK shop/museum in the town, and one of the KKK members becomes a former racist.

Culture Audience: “Burden” will appeal primarily to people who like to see dramatic retellings of stories about people involved with civil rights and fighting racism.

Garrett Hedlund and Tom Wilkinson in “Burden” (Photo courtesy of 101 Studios)

There’s been a mini-trend of “based on a true story” feature films about white racists who change their bigoted ways of thinking, by having unlikely friendships with black people. In the movie, one black person in particular makes the difference in reforming the white racist. We saw this same premise in 2018’s Oscar-winning “Green Book,” 2019’s “The Best of Enemies” and now in 2020’s “Burden.”

Written and directed by Andrew Heckler (his first feature-length film), “Burden” won’t be nominated for any Oscars, but it’s a solid film that has a top-notch cast, even though the movie can veer into well-worn clichés. The movie’s timeless message is more important than the recycled way that much of the movie was filmed.

Taking place in the small town of Laurens, South Carolina, in the mid-to-late 1990s, the story is told mainly from the perspective of the title character, Mike Burden (played by Garrett Hedlund), a self-described “redneck” troublemaker who was orphaned at an early age. The movie begins in the spring of 1996, when Mike (who’s in his 20s) is making his living at a repo company, which is not-so-subtly called Plantation Repossession. He also has a long history of being a criminal. Most of his antisocial behavior consists of violent hate crimes, because he’s a longtime member of the Ku Klux Klan and has risen to the title of Grand Dragon.

Mike has a mentor/father figure in local Klan leader Tom Griffin (played by Tom Wilkinson), who is grooming Mike to be his successor. Mike is such a part of Tom’s family that he’s become like a brother to Tom’s son Clint (played by Austin Hébert), who works with Mike at Plantation Repossession. Tom’s wife Hazel (played by Tess Harper) is also a white supremacist who’s proud to have her family in the KKK.

Tom, Mike and other local Klansman have opened up a storefront in town called the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum, despite objections from many of the citizens in Laurens and beyond. One of the most vocal protestors is Rev. David Kennedy (played by Forest Whitaker), the leader of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church. Rev. Kennedy is a devoted family man to his wife Janice (played by Crystal Fox) and teenage son Kelvin (played by Dexter Darden).

Meanwhile, the movie shows two other people who eventually play a role in Mike Burden’s transformation. One is a single mother named Judy (played by Andrea Riseborough), who first meets Mike when he and Clint come over to her house to repossess items from her live-in boyfriend, who’s an unemployed former NASCAR driver and a heavy drinker. The other person is Mike’s former schoolmate Clarence Brooks (played by Usher Raymond, also known as Grammy-winning singer Usher), who encounters Mike and Clint when they go over to Clarence’s house to repossess his television.

Even though Clarence tells them his sob story about being laid off due to company cutbacks and asks the repo men to give him a break, Mike and Clint are unmoved. Clarence tries to appeal to Mike’s memories of when they were friends as young kids, but Mike somewhat smugly tells Clarence that he can’t make an exception for him or else he and Clint will lose their jobs. While they’re far enough away so Clarence can’t hear them, Clint and Mike make a racist comment about Clarence being on welfare.

The next time Mike and Judy see each other, she’s at the racetrack with her elementary-school-aged son Franklin (played by Taylor Gregory). Mike and Judy lock eyes in the way that people do in movies when you know that they’re going to fall in love. Even though Judy has broken up with her deadbeat boyfriend, she’s somewhat reluctant to date Mike because she knows about his bad reputation. But Mike is very charming and polite to her and Franklin, so eventually she gives in, and they start dating and fall in love.

Before Mike goes though his transformation, much of the story shows the dichotomy of his personality. One the one hand, he’s a hard-working employee and a romantic boyfriend to Judy. On the other hand, he participates in vicious crimes against people who aren’t white or Christian. He and his KKK cronies regularly beat up black people. And they’re the kind of racists who, when they’re driving in a truck and see a black girl walking down a deserted road by herself, they urinate on her and laugh as they pass by.

Mike’s mentor Tom thinks so highly of him that he tells everyone at a local KKK chapter meeting that he’s signing over the store/museum deed to Mike. What Mike does with that real-estate deed after he leaves the Klan becomes the center of a lawsuit that’s depicted in the last third of the film.

But before that happens, Judy makes it clear that she despises that Mike is in the KKK, and she starts spending more time working with Rev. Kennedy and the other people in his congregation who want to shut down the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum. She eventually helps Mike see the error of his ways, and he leaves the Klan.

But there are consequences, as Mike becomes the target of his former KKK comrades’ hatred. He loses his job and eventually his home. He gets beaten up by his former Klan buddies. Mike eventually turns to Rev. Kennedy for help.

Rev. Kennedy offers Mike, Judy and Franklin a place to stay at his home, which is an offer that his wife Janice objects to at first because she doesn’t want her family to be put in danger. The reverend’s son Kelvin is also upset by letting Mike and his new family into the Kennedy home and what it could mean for the Kennedy family. The danger is very real, since Clarence gets beaten up by KKK members because of Clarence’s association with Mike.

As the story unfolds, there are scenes that predictably happen. Judy’s son Franklin and Clarence’s son Duane (played by Devin Bright) become friends in a déjà vu of Mike and Clarence’s childhood friendship. The controversy over the KKK museum gets national attention, bringing Jesse Jackson (played by an actor) to town for one of the protests. Mike’s baptism (by Rev. Kennedy, of course), which takes place at a lake, shows a reformed Mike emerging from the water in slow-motion. It’s filmed with the kind of adoration that’s usually reserved for “miracle” scenes.

“Burden” sometimes gets hokey, but the good intentions outweigh the sometimes overly sentimental direction. The movie doesn’t sugarcoat that turning around a violent bigot’s life can be complicated, messy and dangerous. But the movie shows that things can improve for people who used to be enemies of each other if they have enough compassion, knowledge and resources to help people change for the better.

The former location of the Redneck Shop and KKK Museum has now been renamed the Echo Theater. According to a press release from 101 Studios (the U.S. distributor for “Burden”), 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church “are partnering to rebuild the space so that it becomes a center of positivity for the first time in its history. National and local partners, such as Lowe’s, are working with 101 Studios and the New Baptist Missionary Church to contribute supplies and materials to the renovation efforts.”

101 Studios will release “Burden” in select U.S. cinemas on February 28, 2020. 

2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards: Usher to host and perform; Justin Bieber, Halsey, Lizzo are also performing

January 29, 2020

Usher (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall of Fame)

The following is a press release from iHeartMedia and Fox Entertainment:

iHeartMedia and FOX Entertainment announced today that eight-time Grammy award-winning artist Usher, who has sold more than 65 million albums worldwide, will host and perform during the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards. The event will also feature live performances from Halsey and Lizzo, as well as previously announced performer Justin Bieber, with more to be announced. The two-hour event will air live from the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, Sunday, March 29 (8:00-10:00 PM ET live / PT tape-delayed) on FOX. The seventh annual iHeartRadio Music Awards will also broadcast live on iHeartMedia radio stations nationwide and iHeartRadio, the all-in-one digital music, podcast, on demand and live-streaming radio service.

“I’m so excited to host the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards and help celebrate the music that I and millions of other music lovers listened to this past year,” said Usher. “It’ll be like hanging out with old friends.”

Nominees for the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards were announced on January 8. Artists receiving multiple nominations include Ariana Grande, Bad Bunny, Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, Daddy Yankee, Dan + Shay, Drake, Ed Sheeran, El Fantasma, Halsey, J Balvin, Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, Khalid, Kygo, Lil Nas X, Lizzo, Luke Combs, Maren Morris, Post Malone, Selena Gomez, SHAED, Shawn Mendes, Snow, Summer Walker and Taylor Swift. For a full list of nominees and categories, please visit iHeartRadio.com/awards.

This year’s awards will feature a broad array of categories, including Female Artist of the Year, Male Artist of the Year, Best Duo/Group of the Year and individual winners for Album of the Year in music’s biggest genres, including Pop, Country, Alternative Rock, Rock, Dance, Hip-Hop, R&B, Latin Pop/Urban and Regional Mexican formats.

In addition to paying tribute to music and artists, the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards will again celebrate the fans, giving iHeartRadio listeners the opportunity to decide winners in several new and established categories. Fan voting will determine this year’s Best Fan Army, Best Lyrics, Best Cover Song, Best Music Video, Best Remix, the Social Star Award, Favorite Tour Photographer and the first-ever Favorite Music Video Choreography Award.

Social voting began on January 8 and will close on Monday, March 23 at 8:00 PM ET / 5:00 PM PT for all categories except for Best Fan Army, which will continue through Friday, March 27 at 9:00 AM ET / 6:00 AM PT. Fans can vote on Twitter using the appropriate category and nominee hashtags or by visiting iHeartRadio.com/awards.

This year, iHeartRadio and Taco Bell’s Feed The Beat program are teaming up to reinforce a shared commitment to new artists. Leading up to and throughout the night of the awards, iHeartRadio and Taco Bell will showcase new artists across iHeartRadio platforms, so fans can see who’s next in music, alongside the biggest artists on the planet.

Tickets are currently on sale to the general public at AXS.com.

Proud partners of the 2020 iHeartRadio Music Awards include Taco Bell, with more to be announced.

Executive producers for the iHeartRadio Music Awards are Joel Gallen, for Tenth Planet, and John Sykes and Tom Poleman, for iHeartMedia.

For breaking news and exclusive iHeartRadio Music Awards content, visit iHeartRadio.com/awards or follow the social buzz on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Google+.

About iHeartMedia
iHeartMedia (NASDAQ: IHRT) is the number one audio company in the United States, reaching nine out of 10 Americans every month – and with its quarter of a billion monthly listeners, has a greater reach than any other media company in the U.S. The company’s leadership position in audio extends across multiple platforms, including more than 850 live broadcast stations in over 150 markets; digital radio via its iHeartRadio digital service available across more than 250 platforms and 2,000 devices; through its on-air influencers; social; branded iconic live music events; and podcasts as the #1 commercial podcast publisher. iHeartMedia also leads the audio industry in analytics, targeting and attribution for its marketing partners with its SmartAudio product, using data from its massive consumer base. Visit iHeartMedia.com for more company information.

About FOX Entertainment
A division of Fox Corporation, FOX Entertainment’s 30-year legacy of innovative, hit programming includes “9-1-1,” “The Masked Singer,” “Prodigal Son, “Empire,” “Last Man Standing,” “24,” “The X-Files” and “American Idol.” Delivering high-quality scripted, non-scripted and live content, FOX Entertainment’s broadcast network airs 15 hours of primetime programming a week, as well as major sports; and is the only major network to post year-over-year growth among viewers during the 2018-2019 broadcast season.

2017 Soul Beach Music Festival: Usher, Mary J. Blige, the Roots, Faith Evans, Cedric the Entertainer to perform

March 2, 2017
Soul Beach Music Festival

Usher,  Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, the Roots and Cedric the Entertainer will perform the 17th annual Soul Beach Music Festival, which will take place  in Aruba from May 24 to 29, 2017. The Roots have teamed up with Usher as his accompanying band, and performed several shows with him in 2016. Blige’s 14th studio album, “Strength of a Woman,” is due out sometime in 2017. In 2016, she co-headlined a tour with Maxwell. Evans was part of the Bad Boy Family reunion tour in 2016. The Roots also serve as the in-house band for NBC’s “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.” Usher’s eighth studio album, “Hard II Love,” was released in September 2016.