1. Beloved by Toni Morrison
My birthday falls in late September so I started high school at 13. I felt quite isolated at the start freshman year, spending lots of time in the library where I found this book. From the opening line- '124 was spiteful'- Toni had me in her clutches. I'd never read anything like it (and never would). Though socially isolated, I found a wise friend in that book. She wasn't always kind to me. The language intricate and often difficult. The violence unflinching. But also so rich and potent, I couldn't let it go. And never did. lol. I do NOT champion stealing books from the library but Toni got me through so the book became a talisman (of which I still 'own'). I've since read Beloved maybe 30 times into adulthood; as I matured, my understanding of the world Toni fed me expanded. It 'grew me up', as they say.
2. Worthnothings by Georgia Anne Muldrow
Georgia wrote, produced, performed, drum programmed and did the amazing cover art for this, her first album of sorcery, at the age 20. A funky and soul totem steeped in Hip Hop headnods. Not since Stevie Wonder's Songs In The Key of Life had I encountered such a visionary, who's songwriting was just as potent as her production. She's so present and exposed on this album which casts her as the underdog and victor in her search to understand life, death, love and her own existence. She's made amazing music since but the writing on this one blew my mind. SHE. IS. A. MARVEL.
3. Hollywood Shuffle by Robert Townsend
Gut busting comedy AND sharp, biting social commentary? With neither selling the other out for a joke or a message. Townsend, Welles, Dunye, Spike- this is where I got the nerve to direct AND be in my own shit. But even deeper, Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle speaks to the all-too-elusive artist's dream…in a great showcase of Black talent- Paul Mooney, Damon Wayans, Anna Marie Horsford, Helen Martin, cowriter Keenan Ivory Wayans. Comedy legends. And Townsend made it for like $2. A true indie filmmaker! This shit STILL cracks me the fk up.
4. "Latifah's Had It Up To Here" by Queen Latifah
This music video came out in September of 1991. By my senior year in High School, I'd broken out of social isolation, earning my spot as class clown and talent show regular. I seemed confident but had insecurities about my looks, my bigger frame. But one day my mother called me into the living room. "Radha…that's YOU!" It was Latifah spitting, "Queen L-A-T-I-F-A-H in command!" She was rhyming so hard! On fire! Being unapologetically big, bold, black and beautiful. I've struggled with weight my whole life but I don't know if I'd have the confidence to be on screen in my own movie if it weren't for moments like this. Latifah made it okay to look like me. To not compromise my appearance or turn down the volume of my voice.
5. Waiting For Guffman by Christopher Guest
Since I saw Carl Reiner's Spinal Tap, I've ALWAYS wanted to make a mockumentary. There are so few Black moc docs outside of Rusty Cundief's hilarious Fear of A Black Hat. The greek chorus from 40-Year-Old version comes out of my desire to blur the lines between fact and fiction, comedy and drama. Guffman is Guest's masterwork. Genius. The ability to create a world in which these characters aren't 'trying" to be funny- they just have these sea deep convictions. It's hilarious and at times heartbreaking.
6. Losing Ground by Kathleen Collins
This film. This woman. Though shot in 1982, I discovered this gem in 2015 when her daughter Nina unearthed a lot of her mothers more obscure works post humously and the film had been restored. There are just so few films that center a black woman character on an authentic journey of self-discovery. Here, Collins protagonist is a philosophy professor having a crisis of identity, one where she is excavating her interiors in search for deeper meaning. Black woman have often been depicted as hands-on-hips-all-knowing, sassy, funny, having our shit together or just entertaining. But Losing Ground leans into something quieter. Cheryl Dunye and Kathleen Collins made these kinds of films when no one else would. Losing Ground is also so 80's and so authentically captures a New York I cherish but have seen vanish in the wake of gentrification.
7. Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live
Gilda. I just. wow. I'd watch the Lucille Ball. Moms Mabley, The Carol Burnett show and Whoopis historic solo show as a kid…but seeing Gilda on SNL showed me what it meant to use every molecule in one's body to embody a character…to tell a story. She was hilarious but part of her charm was not that she was funny, it was that she deeply believed and didn't judge the characters she embodied. I wept so hard when she passed. I worshipped her. Also felt she gave women permission to be physical comedians.
8. Down These Mean Streets by Piri Tomas
THIS BOOK! Though first published in 1967, I read this in my adolescence. Piri was a poet. exploring the NY terrain but also gangs, racism, colorist and coming of age in the city. Until reading this I didn't know words could evoke a sense of smell. Like I could SMELL New York off the pages. Very dark and mature themes but such humanityThis was another book I read in my adolescence that depicted some very mature themes. But it is our poetry. And Mr. Tomas finds such beauty in this retelling of his coming up in Harlem and the struggle to move through the world as an Afro-Latino man.
9. Fantastic, Vol. 2 by Slum Village
I am a proud NY Native who rides HARD for NY Hip Hop…but when I heard this album and then went back and discovered the work the super sorcerer producer behind it, Detroits own JayDilla (RIP), I was transformed. His beats bridge soul funk and jazz tracks to the sonic classic drumbeats born out of the James Brown sound. This album sees the trio being quite messy and braggadocios but the beats….I have free-styled over these beats for hours on end. Jay Dill is a Sound God to me.
10. The Story by Tracy Scott Wilson
I was a theater aficionado from a young age. I loved going to NY theater with my late mother, Carol Blank who was an artist. The Public Theater under the direction of George Wolfe was a destination for us. But when I saw this play I knew I wanted to write theater. The Story not only followed an ambitious reporter hunting down a story but she was flawed, imperfect and human. The Story was rapid, quick paced. You had to keep up. It was the kind of play that gave me permission to break away from convention and present many different timelines and locations on stage at once. I was a student of cinema. This play was cinematic and yet never compromised on its language or layers of each character. I had a screenplay named seed. After seeing The Story I transformed it into a play and it became my theater debut getting lots of love from audiences in what would be my most successful foray into theater to date.