- Created on 21 October 2013
ATLANTA -- ATLANTA (AP) — For Rozanda "Chilli" Thomas and Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, there were several uncomfortable moments watching actresses portray them in a new TLC biopic.
But it was especially strange to watch Lil Mama, who played the role of the late Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes — the third member of the Grammy-winning R&B group who died in a car crash in Honduras in 2002.
"She totally came into character," Chilli said of Lil Mama, who wore contacts to mimic Left Eye's distinctively large, dark pupils. "It was kind of scary. The resemblance was just crazy at times. Naturally, she kind of had some of the similar characteristics like Lisa. It was kind of eerie at times for us."
Alongside Lil Mama, Keke Palmer stars as Chilli and Drew Sidora as T-Boz in the film, "CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story," which premieres Monday on VH1. The two-hour movie chronicles the trio's rise to fame, their drama-filled love lives — famously including Left Eye burning down the house of lover and former NFL player Andre Rison — group spats and financial struggles, despite two multiplatinum albums.
"You never know how you look to someone else until you see for yourself," T-Boz said. "It was weird. It was very weird seeing my haircut on Drew. ... To see them do our dance moves really took us back."
This is VH1's first biopic in nearly 10 years since Michael Jackson's "Man In the Mirror: The Michael Jackson Story" in 2004.
"When we looked at all the artists that would resonate with our audience, TLC was like on top of the list," said Jill Holmes, the network's senior vice president of West Coast production and development. A "Behind the Music" on the group and "The Last Days of Left Eye" were both highly rated. "Our audience came of age listening to TLC and our young viewers grew up listening to their songs. So it seemed like a perfect fit."
TLC debuted more than 20 years ago and became one of the best-selling female groups of all time. They addressed serious topics such as the dangers of AIDS in "Waterfalls" and the unrealistic expectations of beauty in "Unpretty" and had No. 1 smashes with "No Scrubs" and "Creep," and their 1994 album, "CrazySexyCool" is diamond-certified.
"They really put their whole lives out there," Palmer said. "They did it fearlessly. I think it'll be amazing to see how genuine their music was and how close it was to what they were going through."
Chilli and T-Boz, who were executive producers of the film, were hands-on with its development. They had several sleepovers with the leading actresses, and spent extra time coaching Lil Mama due to the absence of Left Eye.
Initially, Lil Mama said it was tough prepping to play Left Eye — the energetic and most outspoken member of the group. But with the support of T-Boz and Chilli, she was able to grasp her character.
"I looked at different interviews of Lisa, watching the way she speaks and her delivery," said Lil Mama, who joined Chilli and T-Boz onstage, rapping Left Eye's verse on "No Scrubs" at a concert this year. "With her not being there, I leaned on Tionne and Chilli for help."
The first time Sidora and T-Boz spoke on the phone, their conversation lasted for nearly five hours, with T-Boz opening up about her past and struggle with chronic sickle cell anemia. Sidora said she already had an understanding — for the past eight years, she has been a spokeswoman for the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Illinois.
Sidora trimmed down a couple of sizes for the role after trying on T-Boz's original outfit from the "Scrubs" video for the first time. For four weeks, a trainer helped her work out three times a day and made sure she ate healthy meals.
"It was a very physically challenging role," Sidora said. "Mentally, I understood her struggle. My challenge was to not only portray T-Boz, but to also introduce Tionne Watkins — the individual, the woman, the person."
Chilli hopes their movie can show how resilient TLC has been despite all the ups and downs. The two surviving members continue to move forward as a group, releasing their greatest hits album, "20" last week.
"We're fighters. Even when we wanted to give up, we didn't," she said. "We want people to see how resilient TLC really is till this day."
- Created on 21 October 2013
(AP Photo / Matt Sayles, File)
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Overseers of Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque say they asked pop star Rihanna to leave the compound after she posed for photographs considered to be at odds with the "sanctity" of the site.
Rihanna hasn't publicly responded to the actions by staff at the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Her show took place on Saturday in Abu Dhabi.
Photos posted on various websites show the singer posing on white marble, dressed fully in black, with her hair covered according to the mosque's guidelines.
The mosque statement, published Monday in local newspapers, said Rihanna was in an area normally off limits for visitors. It says the fashion-style photo session violated rules on the "status and sanctity of the mosque."
The mosque is a major tourist site in the United Arab Emirates' capital.
- Created on 21 October 2013
(This image released by Fox Searchlight shows Chiwetel Ejofor, left, and Michael Fassbender in a scene from "12 Years A Slave." (AP Photo / Fox Searchlight, Francois Duhamel)
(CNN) -- This year's critically acclaimed films take audiences from places like slave plantations in the antebellum South, to packed Ebbets Field as Jackie Robinson steps up to bat, and to inner-city public housing on a scorching summer day. While set in various eras and depicting diverse stories, many of the films on the short list for the 2013 awards season show an emerging trend; Hollywood is making movies about the black experience in America.
This year alone there have been at least half a dozen movies portraying African-American narratives, including Lee Daniels' "The Butler," "Fruitvale Station," "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete," "Blue Caprice," "42" and "12 Years a Slave," which hits theaters October 18.
"Certainly 2013 has been a banner year with regards to the number of films that feature African-American themes," said Gil Robertson, co-founder of the African-American Film Critics Association. "Those films all really arrive at the threshold in terms of the quality that will seriously put them in the running for Oscar consideration."
Not only do the movies portray the African-American experience, but they're also created from the ground up by today's most prominent black filmmakers and actors. Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, who played the lead role in "The Butler," says the trend in Hollywood allows for a more diverse storytelling.
"There are so many projects where people are being able to have their voices heard," Whitaker said. "I think that's hopefully going to continue to expand in the African-American community ... and all the voices can be heard in the tapestry of who we are as people."
Hollywood has not seen such an emphasis on African-American storylines since the 1980s and '90s, with Spike Lee and John Singleton's street dramas like "Do the Right Thing" and "Boyz n the Hood."
"They were speaking about what was happening in the present day," said Ya'Ke Smith, professor of Film at University of Texas at Arlington and independent filmmaker. "Speaking to a lot of gang violence, debunking stereotypes about young black men in the hood, speaking to racism going on not only in Brooklyn but all over the world."
By the early 2000s, the American blockbuster took a turn with film series like "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings." But in 2009, Hollywood rekindled a fascination with African-American storylines, with movies like "The Blind Side," "Invictus" and "Precious." Subsequently, "The Help" (2011), "Red Tails" (2012) and "Django Unchained" (2013) hit mainstream theaters.
"I think the American attitude has changed with regards to going to see films that perhaps feature all African-American casts or that tell African-American stories," Robertson said. "Americans are more open to paying their 10-15 dollars and taking in those experiences."
Some credit the shift in Hollywood to Washington, citing President Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration as the spark that reignited interest in the African-American experience, from slavery to the Oval Office.
"People have talked about the 'Obama effect,'" said Chiwetel Ejiofor, star of "12 Years a Slave." "If people are interested and they want to go and see movies that have diversity or are about different things in that way, then in a way that allows them to be created more."
Ejiofor's "12 Years a Slave" co-star Michael Fassbender agrees that the election of the country's first African-American president, along with other timely events, helped trigger universal consciousness. "We're dealing with 150 years since the abolition of slavery," he said. "There are a lot of anniversaries at the moment, (the assassination of) Martin Luther King Jr. We have a black president in America. All of those things perhaps contribute."
Yet Smith warns that filmmakers must be cautious when focusing on historical narratives, saying too much emphasis on historical events minimizes issues that many African-Americans deal with today.
"When it comes to African-Americans, it's easier to talk about it like it happened, not like it's happening," he said. "That can create a safe dialogue because it happened 50, 100, 150 years ago. It allows us to look at it from a safe distance, but sometimes I think it's irresponsible because these issues are continuing to happen.
"That's why I want to see both sides of the narrative," he continued. "The historical side and the current side. We've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go."
Ryan Coogler is one filmmaker who wanted to address the issues that contemporary African-Americans face with his movie "Fruitvale Station," which chronicles the 2009 shooting of black 22-year-old Oscar Grant by a BART police officer.
"That's something that I deal with on a day-to-day basis, losing friends to gun violence," the 26-year-old director said at the movie's premiere. "I've seen lives cut short too soon, whether it be police-involved shootings or whether it be black-on-black crime.
"What gets glossed over is that we're human beings, too, like everybody else, young African-American males. I hope the people can see a little bit of themselves in the character if they sit down and watch the film."
Similarly, "The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete" illuminates the struggles of people living in the inner-city projects, following 13-year-old Mister (Skylan Brooks) as he tries to survive through a stifling New York summer after being abandoned by his mother (Jennifer Hudson).
"Mister's journey is not often heard," actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje said at the movie's premiere. "What he does is he just shows the humanity of who he is as a young black child, and you're able to see his humanity, his heart, beyond his skin color."
More than simply stories on the streets, this year's batch of movies also represent African-American family life on the big screen. Oprah Winfrey revealed she was very drawn to the cast of "The Butler" because of the central portrayal of the African-American family—doing typical things, like dropping a son off to college and finishing one another's sentences.
"One of the reasons why I love this film and wanted to be a part of it is the tenderness between the husband and wife, the tenderness and nurturing nature of the middle-class family," Winfrey said.
When it comes to depicting black family life, Robertson said the film industry has been slow to catch up to television, referencing sitcoms like "The Cosby Show" in the 1980s. And some argue that Hollywood still needs to stop putting African-Americans in roles of servitude, like slaves and servants, and start casting them more often as regular characters in mainstream movies.
"Critics don't look at a film and notice that every one of the lead roles is white," said Ronda Racha Penrice, author of "African-American History For Dummies" and editor at "Uptown" magazine. "We're taught it's the norm, and it's not the norm. We believe that we can have really good films that have majority white casts; why can't we believe that we can have a majority black, Latino, or Asian cast, and have a good film as well?"
However, some point out that the idea of a black renaissance in the film industry can be simplistic, and argue that in Hollywood the most important color isn't black or white, but green. Filmmaking is a business, and ultimately diverse story lines in mainstream theaters depend on funding and subsequent success at the box office.
"I don't think it's because there's any age of enlightenment," said Alfre Woodard, who is in "12 Years a Slave." "I think it's just serendipitous for those individuals that fight to get funding for the stories they want to get told; it just sort of happened that way right now. It will go just as dry as it ever was shortly."
Nonetheless, the resurgence in movies that focus on African-American stories is apparent, with more than a dozen such films opening in the past four years. Even more, like "Belle" and "Get On Up," are set for release in 2014.
"The commercial and critical success of these films is showing," Penrice said. "Just like there are audiences for the various 'Avengers' movies, there are people who want to see these slices of wider America."
The push for more diversity is coming from within Hollywood as well. Lupita Nyong'o, another actor in "12 Years a Slave," said she looks forward to the day when films that feature African-American stories will no longer be an anomaly. Meanwhile, "The Butler" director Lee Daniels is reportedly planning production for an action movie starring an interracial gay couple.
"They have to fund those movies" said Octavia Spencer, one of the stars of "Fruitvale Station." "You have to create a level playing field for women, for people of color, gay, straight, whatever. We just need to do it. The money's there. The subject's there."
- Created on 21 October 2013
Diahann Carol, left, and Angela Bassett pose together at the "House of Flowers" dinner honoring Carol and AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs at the home of Tracey Edmonds on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)
LOS ANGELES (AP) — At 78-years-old Diahann Carroll keeps a sense of humor.
"I don't think I realize what the passage of time really means until people talk about things that I did in the '50s and I wonder 'Who the hell are they talking about?,'" the actress, singer and Golden Globe-winner said while being honored at a House of Flowers dinner Saturday evening.
Beverly Johnson, Angela Bassett, Regina King and Anika Noni Rose were in attendance to applaud Carroll and fellow honoree Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The dinner, hosted by television producer Tracey Edmonds and film and television producer Debra Martin Chase, was held at Edmonds' home.
Fellow honoree Isaacs said the evening made her feel "on top of the world" and described her new post as AMPAS president as "going from zero to 60 in four seconds."
Conceptualized by Chase and deemed House of Flowers after Truman Capote's Broadway play, in which Carroll starred in 1954, the affair was meant to "celebrate female empowerment and to help open doors for future accomplishments," said Edmonds.
"Diahann is a legend who's broken so many barriers and has always represented glamour," said Chase.
Occasionally brushing the soft curls from her face with her heavily jeweled hands, Carroll cracked grins as ladies like Johnson, Bassett and dancer and producer Debbie Allen lined up to collect hugs and kisses.
"I certainly don't feel like an icon," said Carroll in an interview before dinner. "I've had long stretches of unemployment. This is not an easy game." Later in her acceptance speech she said, "I really appreciate knowing that you've heard my name and remember it. I don't even know if I would have been allowed to drive down this street back in the '50s. Being here has given me new passion."
After a 30-year hiatus, Carroll will return to Broadway in April to play Denzel Washington's mother in "A Raisin in the Sun." Rose will also star.
A Tony Award-winner, four-time Emmy nominee, Oscar nominee and the first black actress to star in her own prime-time series, "Julia," Carroll says there is still one role she has yet to conquer: "I would love to be a part of a studio that tells our stories and has a means of growing."
"Julia" debuted in 1968. Carroll is still making TV appearances as a recurring character on USA's "White Collar."