Month: May 2016

“Me Before You” Sparks Outrage with Disabled Audiences

Me Before You looks, at first glance from the poster, like a typical, probably shlocky romantic movie. But that innocuous poster hides what many have stated is a sinister message.

Like me, you probably didn’t read the book (or ever hear of the book until the movie came out), but Me Before You is the adaptation of the book of the same name by Jojo Moyes. The story revolves around a woman named Louisa who falls in love with a man named Will, a guy who felt like he was on top of the world before his spinal cord injury. Louis has been hired as Will’s caretaker, and instead of still having a zest for life, Will, now needing the use of a wheelchair, wants to kill himself. Louisa asks him to hold off on his plans for a couple of months so she can show him how great life can be. The weirdest part of the plot is that Louisa succeeds at showing how great life can be, yet the man still wants to die. And does.

The story is supposed to be uplifting (which is what its promotional hashtag #LiveBoldly is supposed to represent), but for whom? And to whom is the film and book’s message for? Exactly what is the film’s message? For many disabled people, the message is clear: that life is only worth being lived boldly if you’re able-bodied. Non-able bodied people need not apply for their happy ending, because even if you do get your happiness (which the man does receive throughout the film), you can’t really appreciate it due to your disability. This is what has made so many people so angry. For further proof, check out the Storify collection created by Disability Visibility Project’s Alice Wong:

David Bekhour wrote about the film in his Medium article “People Who Use Wheelchairs Don’t Actually Want to Kill Themselves.” Bekhour writes about his own usage of a wheelchair and how his disability hasn’t ruined his desire to live.

I was born with a rare neuromuscular disease, and I’ve used a wheelchair my entire life. My condition affects the muscles throughout the body, slowly creating greater and greater paralysis. I went from an adolescent boy who double-fisted most meals to a man approaching middle age who has eaten through a feeding tube for the past twenty-two years. Most recently, I had a tracheostomy placed and began using a ventilator to support my respiratory muscles.

And life still goes on.

It actually goes on in quite a busy and fulfilling way. After being mainstreamed into public school in the fourth grade, I went on to earn two degrees from a major California university, rushing a fraternity and participating in the honors program. Then I graduated from law school. And then I became a member of the State Bar of California. Today, I work with people from around the world as a freelance writer. I make some people laugh, I piss others off and I worry about the grey hair in my goatee. I have wonderful friendships and an awesome family. And from personal experience, I can assure you that Helen Hunt does not portray the only woman in the world who has ever made love with a man who uses a wheelchair.

Bekhour states that films like Me Before You are allowed to flourish because not everyone has someone in their life who has a disability, and that such films make people who do have disabilities feel like they are left out of the collective conversation.

Popular films help shape the public psyche, reinforcing perceptions, influencing opinions and contributing to the notion that lives like mine are somehow less valuable, less capable. Though less dramatic, the reality is that people who use wheelchairs contribute to society in meaningful ways–and they don’t actually want to kill themselves.

The film also seems like it could be spreading another harmful message. Despite casting heartthrob Sam Claflin, Will’s suicide suggests that he himself doesn’t see himself as desirable and, by extension, that other people with disabilities shouldn’t see themselves as desirable as well.

Nik Moreno wrote about the intersection between disability and desirability in her Wear Your Voice piece, “If You Think All Disabled People are Undesirable, Check Your Ableism.” She writes about how she internalized harmful views of herself from the outside world.

I learned that I wasn’t lovable. I was always their secret–or their fetish. They only wanted to sleep with me because they were that desperate. They would only give me the time of day out of pity. Even now, folks rarely find me desirable, usually because they see my wheelchair first and think of everything involed in being with someone who has a disability. We aren’t viewed in the same light that able-bodied folks are. We’re either seen as disgusting or unattractive—and people try to pass it off as a “preference” as if it isn’t rooted in ableism.

Will seems to view himself from an ableist perspective (probably because the author viewed him from an ableist perspective) and therefore pities himself and sees himself how a severely ableist person might see him; undesirable and unworthy of life. Moreno also tackles the subject of pity in her essay, stating that pity is just another way of erasing the human experience from a person with disabilities.

Pity is such a prominent experience for people with disabilities. Able-bodied people pity us because they think we’re helpless. Folks see us and think that we lead awful, sad lives. Pitying us definitely plays into desirability and dating. Able-bodied people often date us because they feel sorry for us. Even younger, high-school-aged folks will ask a disabled person to a dance or prom out of pity. But when you pity us and make us into a sad story, you almost don’t even see us as a person; you just see our disability. It’s dehumanized.

It seems like Will has dehumanized himself simply because of his injury. It’s like he doesn’t realize he’s the same person he was before his injury. He now sees himself as someone that’s not worth Louisa’s love.

The creative team behind Me Before You have chided activists and potential audience-goers for disapproving of the film. As reported by Metro UK, the film’s director Thea Sharrocke the outlet that she found the story “life-affirming,” saying:

Within that is one man who has a choice to make, and he makes his own individual choice, and that’s another thing that I think is incredibly important to remember—that we all have earned the right to have our own choice. People are so quick to judge and make judgments about other people and maybe that’s something to be reminded of, and take a breath, and not necessarily know, or think that you have the right to judge somebody else until you’ve been in their shoes.

It’s a little rich that she says this, since this is precisely what those against the movie are saying. Sharrocke wants to advise those who don’t like the movie’s message not to judge the character by his actions, but the people against the film are also advocating that the film’s cast, crew, and those who watch the film not to judge people with disabilities and believe that they all feel so undesirable that they want to kill themselves.

More importantly, maybe the author didn’t do enough due dilligence when writing the book and screenplay. Bekhour writes in his article that Moyes “describes her motivation for writing this novel as being related to family members with disabilities and a news account of a paralyzed rugby player who sought out assisted suicide.”But, as Bekhour states, that explanation rings hollow. “At its core, it’s a story that embraces an idea that people with disabilities (and their families, friends, teachers, colleagues and lovers) have been pushing back against for decades; the idea that our lives are somehow less worth living,” he wrote.

IsaJennie of the site Journey of IsaJennie wrote about the film in the article “#LiveBoldly…Unless You’re Disabled?”, and at the very beginning of the article, she states that the story isn’t Moyes’ to tell.

First and foremost let me say that the author of this book turned screenplay is abled-bodied and healthy by her own admission. She has never met a paralyzed person. My absolute biggest criticism of this book and the movie is that this was not her story to tell. This topic requires in-depth knowledge of the community, it requires some level of lived experience, and it requires a sensitivity to the far-reaching implications of the work and the people harmed. Jojo Moyes lacked all of these attributes.

Overall, it makes sense that people would be up-in-arms over the reckless ramifications presented in this film. Let’s hope Hollywood hears the outcry and understands why it’s happened instead of what it has done in the past, which is ignore it.

Another article to check out: Weekly Reading List: “Me Before You” Edition | Disability Thinking

Hadji Demystified: Monique Revisits Michael Benyaer Interview

The first in a series of articles for: hadji

Between 2009 and 2010, I wrote extensively about Hadji Singh from The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest in a series of posts called “Hadji Demystified.” Why “demystified”? Because the kid Hadji from the ’60s might have been spectacularly acted, but the character itself was filled with tropes such as Hadji somehow knowing magic, thereby making him mystical. The mystical aspect of Hadji bleeds into popular tropes Hollywood has about Indian characters, and non-white people in general; that we’re somehow full of wisdom, magical (either literally or in terms of the value the characters bring to white characters), and are exotic specimens, not actual human beings.

When I fan out about characters, I take it seriously, and usually that means learning everything about them and their backgrounds. I did such with both the kid version of Hadji and the teenage version from Real Adventures. The teenage version affected me even more because while kid Hadji was the only person I could identify with (he was the only non-white face, the only person who ever shot down Jonny’s notions of following the danger, etc.), teenage Hadji–and the treatment his character received from the character development team–gave me a different perspective entirely.

Through my love for Hadji, I’d put it upon myself to learn more about Indian cultures and what was right and wrong about Indian representations in America. As I found out, there was a lot that could be questioned about Season Two Hadji (the change in voice actors, the heavy reliance on stereotypes and tropes, the fact that Hadji became a maharajah even though maharajahs had stopped being in power in Bangalore long before, etc.), but Season One Hadji was a character that was meant to positively represent not just Hadji as a fleshed-out character (for instance, the introduction of his last name and his devotion to Sikhism), but an aspect of the immigrant experience.

To use two quotes I used ad nauseum while writing my Hadji posts:

  • What was the inspiration for Hadji? Was he a paradigm of Eastern thought, or based on a friend in that hemisphere of the world?

I did have a great Pakistani friend at university, Tahir Attar. Educated in Europe at expensive private schools but retaining deep cultural roots. I believe, for example, that he entered an arranged marriage – quite happily. He was a perfect mix of East and West and I took a lot from him for Hadji. We did, of course, add an additonal dose of mysticism (for want of a better word), for dramatic reasons and in an attempt to keep the stories really open. (Minds, too, perhaps – but God forbid that we were proselytizing.) Yeah. Compare our Hadji with that moron in … oh, god, what was that silly robot movie? it will come to me. Or most of the silly sing-song morons which Hollywood makes of Asian Indians.
Clearly you have some knowledge of my own background – brought up in Zambia. (Tongue in cheek, Buzz, Stephanie and others said that I had a lot in common with Jonny – and, actually, I really did identify with our vision of him.) Not just in Zambia but deep in the bush. I grew up with Africans. I was an African, albeit white. When I went to Europe and, later, the US, I was stunned at the casual racism, the unthinking stereotyping, the sheer ignorance of other cultures. So, when it came to Hadji I was determined to make him real. Or as real as he could be in the context. Michael Benyaer really ‘got’ what we wanted to do with this character and that made it easier to ‘hear’ Hadji’s voice while writing. I wonder where Mike is now?
In fact, however pretentious it makes me seem, I wanted this authenticity in all the characters. That’s why we went for some rather ‘out there’ casting – and that’s why, of course, the succeeding producers undid everything and went safe. It’s pretty sad, and quite indicative of the xenophobia of our culture and the play-safe of the industry.

JQ:TRA’s Peter Lawrence on re-developing Hadji’s character for the series

“[he] is one of the few roles for an ethnic actor that is not a bad guy. I mean, how many East Indian heroes have been on television? Hadji is for the sensitive kids out there. He is the outsider in all of us.”

–Michael Benyaer (Season One Hadji) on why he loved playing Hadji for the series

The latter quote by Benyaer made it imperative for me to get his point of view on playing Hadji during the first season of Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and how it felt playing a character that had been thoughtfully approached by the development team. All it took was one simple email and some great timing for me to get my interview (I still remember that Benyaer said it was serendipitous that I’d email him right around the time he’d actually read some of my Hadji-centric writing.)

Thus ensued the following interview. We talked about acting, of course, but we also discussed the state of diversity in 2010. At that point, the type of movement on diversity we’re seeing now was just a pipe dream. But while there’s been a lot of movement, there’s still more that can be done; Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project can’t be the only two holding it down for our American Desi friends. In any event, check out the interview.

I’ve been writing about Hadji for a while, just giving my viewpoints on how Hadji is important to the entire conversation of race and culture on television, learning about different religions, etc. But now you don’t have to take just my word for it. Take it from Hadji’s own voice.

Michael Benyaer, film and TV actor, got his start in acting straight out of high school, appearing in an episode of 21 Jump Street that was filmed in his native Vancouver, B.C. Soon after, he landed his first voice acting role as Ken in Barbie and the Rockers, which garnered him quite a bit of press. “I guess people thought it was pretty funny that Canadians were voicing Barbie and Ken,” he said. He later landed roles on G.I. Joe and Reboot.

When he was cast as Bob on Reboot, Benyaer was able to add his own experiences to the character. “As the role progressed, they wrote more to what I was doing. I was able to help create the character. It was exciting to be able to help create a character.” Part of how he identified with Bob was through his favorite cartoon character, Spider-Man. “It was nice to be able to play a hero who was fallible; he was like Spider-Man/Peter Parker, someone who was thrust into his job and learning to cope with it.”

When he moved to California, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the job that opened him up to Hollywood. Through landing the role of Hadji for season one of Real Adventures, he was able to relive part of his childhood while befriending and learning from veteran actors. “It was very ironic to think that I watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a kid and that later I’d be working where they made those cartoons,” he said. “I got to meet Frank Welker [long-time voice actor who was voicing Jonny’s dog Bandit], George Segal [long-time movie and TV actor, voice of Dr. Quest] and Robert Patrick [movie actor best known for Terminator 2, voice of Race Bannon]; I’d have lunch with them every week, and just pick their brains.”

However, through the casting for Real Adventures, as well as casting for live-action jobs, Benyaer said something that mirrors what a lot of ethnic actors have to contend with. “Hollywood is…Hollywood is very specific,” he said. “Hollywood casts roles based on what you look like.”

Character art of Hadji. Hanna-Barbera.
Character art of Hadji. Hanna-Barbera.

During his tryouts for Hadji, he was aware of Indian stereotypes that were still in play. “There were actors who were using this accent like Apu [from The Simpsons], and I was like, ‘No, that’s offensive!’” Also, said Benyaer, many people in Hollywood do not differentiate between accents that originate from India and the Middle East. “To them it’s all the same,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘No, that’s a Pakistani accent,’ [or] ‘No, that’s an Israeli accent.’”

It was revolutionary, said Benyaer, that Hadji was created for the ‘60s version of Jonny Quest. “He was an early character of color that was not black or Hispanic on TV,” he said. To further push a positive portrayal of brown-skinned character on TV, Benyaer set out to bring a touch of class. “I based [Hadji’s accent] on Gandhi—someone who’s worldly with traces of a British education. I wanted to give [the role] respect. I wanted to give it some sort of class. And Peter Lawrence, the producer, responded to that. I was also allowed to add some understated humor to the character.”

Benyaer said that Hadji is very important in the conversation about race and culture being represented in entertainment. “He is the touchstone of Indian chracters,” Benyaer said. “During the ‘90s, there was no one [of Indian ancestry] on television. There was Apu, but that’s it. In 2010, there’s [Mohinder from Heroes, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy], The Cape, [Adhir Kaylan from Aliens in America and Rules of Engagement], and Harold and Kumar. Slumdog Millionaire was the movie that made everyone think of making Indian characters, and Hadji was the precursor of this.”

It is important that everyone gets represented in entertainment. “I have Asian American or Asian Canadian friends, and I ask them [about what cartoon characters they liked], and they always remember the people that looked like them in the cartoons,” he said. “Indians in Britain are more like how African Americans are here in America; Indians have a lot of representation on television. In Canada, Indians have supporting roles. It’s just in America where that’s not the case.”

As far as how ethnicities should be represented today, Benyaer is hopeful that the representations of ethnicities spans beyond more than just the character’s color or accent. “I think what we should see now are people of color that don’t have the accent of their ethnicity, like a character like Hadji with an American accent.” But, he is also glad that the number of ethnic characters on television have increased. “The quote that I said back in 1996 [about Hadji being one of few minority characters that wasn’t the bad guy]—fourteen years later, I’m glad it’s not true.”♦

Redefining “Archie”: Jughead’s Evolution as a Counterculture Icon

The second in a series of articles for: 2

Back in the late ’00s, I wrote a ton on Jughead, my favorite Archie Comics character. The main reason I identify with him so much is because he’s the “weird” one; to quote one of the many Poirot episodes out there, Jughead’s of the world, but he’s not in the world. In other words, he can see the strings behind everything going on in his environment, yet doesn’t desire to become a part of it, nor can his friends ever truly understand his lack of desire to lose himself in the day-to-day minutae of life. Whereas Archie, Betty, and Veronica are constantly embroiled in pettiness, Jughead is usually the one with the subtle, existential view on things.

The main body of the article I’m presenting now is one of those early Jughead articles. It’s focusing on Jughead as Riverdale’s representative of American counterculture, both through his personality and, in particularly, through his clothing and hair styles. Even though all of the characters go through changes over the years, Jughead is the only character who became repurposed by Archie Comics as a window into America’s constantly evolving counterculture. Whereas Archie is “America’s Favorite Teenager,” Jughead is “America’s Favorite Outcast.”

Whether he knew it or not, John L. Goldwater, publisher and editor of Archie Comics, was a genius to have created such an influential character like Forsythe Pendleton Jones III, or, as we know him, Jughead. Actually, I think he was a bit ahead of his time. To many (and probably to Goldwater), Jughead is quirky-someone who follows the beat of their own drummer, in the cliché sense. But Jughead’s off-center personality and nonconformist aesthetic has been reflected in the decades after his first appearance in 1941.

Some background on the creation of Jughead, first. Goldwater was quoted as saying that his high-school friend, named Archie, was part of the inspiration for the character Archie. In turn, Goldwater himself was the inspiration for Jughead. “I felt like Jughead to him,” he said about their days at the New York Teachers’ Training School. “I was a very loyal friend.” It would seem that Goldwater brought a lot more to Jughead’s personality than just his loyalty; Goldwater was an orphan who hitchhiked westward during the Depression, finding work. This rough lifestyle Goldwater led in his earlier years was sure to have supplied Jughead with his loner, self-sufficient, and non-conformist sensibilities and a personality more unique than the other Archie characters.

Jughead in the 1950s-early 70s: Beatnik

Through most of the ‘40s, Jughead was the standard slacker who provided the snappiest comebacks in stories-lines that usually weren’t reserved for characters like Archie and Betty. But in 1947, the Beat Generation-a free-form, alternative lifestyle that rejected the conformist “square” culture and focused on different ways to realizing spirituality-bubbled up from the subculture dregs and this started seeping into mainstream throughout the 1950s. Once the Beat culture caught on, however, and college students started dressing in stereotypical berets and black leggings, the term “beatnik” arose, and this version of the Beat Generation is the one most Americans associate with the 1960s.

With Goldwater’s work with the Comics’ Code, I doubt he would’ve wanted people to view Jughead as a person with Beat sensibilities, but the laid-back, drifter personality he has, coupled with his rejection of his parents’ standards and goals for him (much to his father’s aggravation), Jughead has lends itself to those sensibilities easily. Incidentally, his love of jazz music and jazz drumming also fits eerily well into the Beat aesthetic. (I don’t think this part of his personality was made up during the time when beatniks were the rage, however.) During this time, Jughead’s clothes were either a lot more streamlined than those of other characters (fitting in with the Beat aesthetic), or there’d be something off-kilter that would differentiate him from the dress styles of the other characters:

In the late 1960s to mid-1970s, Jughead’s clothes became a little more psychedelic, again representing the Beat-and now hippie-countercultures of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

(Incidentally, in two different covers, he’s wearing the same psychedelic shirt.)


Jughead in the 1980s-1990s: Skate punk

When the Jughead comic book reached 1990, there was a huge schism between the old Jughead and the new, revamped, skate punk Jughead. And boy was it drastic. So drastic, in fact, that the powers-that-be quickly changed Jughead back to his old look. But I believe their thought process to change Jughead to fit more with the times were along two lines-first, the street-skateboarding lifestyle was everywhere during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and if it’s the hottest new thing, why not cash in on it? Secondly, Jughead’s personality was all about being the exception to the rule and the counter to the mundane that Archie represented; it would seem natural that he would take up a skateboard and start skating. I don’t know if he would shave his head, as shown in the examples below, but he definitely might take up skateboarding.

Also, one of the characteristics of the punk lifestyle (the original punk lifestyle, not just skate punk) is the D.I.Y. ethic-to make, grow, or find everything you need yourself. Even though Jughead would have to satisfy his Pop Tate-made hamburger cravings every now and again, the do-it-yourself idea seems like it would be something Jughead would take part in, at least for a little while. Being honest, even though the beginning of the ’90s saw the most radical change in Jughead ever, the covers were the most creative and innovative I’ve ever seen. I wish they made covers like these again, sans-Jughead weird haircut.

So how does Jughead represent counterculture today? In fact, what is today’s counterculture? I’ll analyze that in my next article. But for now, what do think about Jughead’s role in representing America’s counterculture? Discuss in the comments section!



Check Out the Stills, Poster, and Trailer for “Free State of Jones”

Free State of Jones is coming to theaters June 24, and if you’ve been interested in this film since word got out that it was even being made, look below to see some stills, behind-the-scenes photos, poster, and the trailer for the film.

Hollywood is beginning to catch up with the wave of inclusion, but even with this film, which is based on a true story, there will be questions that must be addressed. Number one: Is this just a re-jiggered “Good White Man” story with a new coat of “inclusion” polish? Perhaps. Will Gugu Mbatha-Raw have a fleshed-out character beyond being just Matthew McConaughey’s “exotic” love interest? One hopes so. Will this story be centered around the feelings of McConaughey’s character, with the feelings of the black characters who are in the most peril as the film’s remote satellites? I certainly hope not. I don’t want to feel like another Dances With Wolves situation, in which the white man is taken in by the darker people of the region and is, in some ways, made their proverbial king.

Anyways, I’m interested to see this little-told (or never told?) part of American history, if just to see how much the film tries to assert the “We’re the good white people!” storyline that has gotten told too many doggone times in slavery films. But, for all intents and purposes, the film looks good.

Written and directed by four-time Oscar® nominee Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville), and starring Oscar® winner Matthew McConaughey, Free State of Jones is an epic action-drama set during the Civil War, and tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy.

Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones.

Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.

Genres: Epic Action-Drama
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Directed By: Gary Ross
Produced By: Scott Stuber, Jon Kilik, Gary Ross

EDIT: The latest trailer is shorter and mostly a recut of the original trailer:

Exclusive Interview: #DisabilityTooWhite creator Vilissa Thompson

The hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite went viral recently, and with good reason; even though coverage of issues facing the disabled might be out there, the coverage is too frequently focused solely on how disability issues affect white Americans, not all Americans. I was happy to interview the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite and founder of the site Ramp Your Voice!, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW. In our email interview, we discuss the origins of the hashtag, some of the problems with mainstream coverage of disabiilty issues, and what people should take away from the messages stated in the hashtag. If you want to read more about the lack of diversity in coverage about the issues facing the disabled, read Thompson’s article, “White Privilege & Inspiration Porn.” Like Thompson states in her article, I too had an epiphany while reading this and will work on internalizing all of the complexities surrounding “inspiration porn.”


What prompted the hashtag?

It was an article on xoJane that a friend and fellow advocate shared that showcased the standard image of disabled women: white disabled women.  Of course, we need more visibility of disabled women as a whole, but the “face” of this subgroup is typically white.  As a Black disabled woman, that frustrates me because I know how it feels to be invisible in the communities I hold membership to — disabled, Black, and female.  I, like so many Black disabled women and other women of color, are frankly tired of that erasure of who we are, especially when it is an issue that gets rarely discussed publicly in our community.  The hashtag was something that came to me instantly when I replied about my annoyance of the lack of diversity and inclusion, especially on platforms that specifically focus on women.

What problems have you seen when it comes to representation of POCs with disabilities?

There is this “excuse” that circulates within the community about not being able to “find” disabled people of color.  To me, that’s a poor excuse to utter, especially with how many disabled people of color advocates utilize social media and speak out on the issues that matters to them as folks who hold multiple memberships.  As I wrote in a recent article, that excuse can no longer be tolerated – you don’t find us because you aren’t looking hard enough TO find us.  We have been here since the start of the Disability Rights Movement, yet if you were to let the history books tell it, disabled people of color were not around.  This has been a continuous issue of erasure in our community, and it’s something many of us, including myself, make known and speak out on unapologetically. It’s 2016 — it is beyond time for disabled people of color to be visible in our community in every capacity; from organizations to articles published about the disability experience.

There’s been a lot of needless pushback against the #DisabilityTooWhite. What do you make of the backlash and what lesson do you want the hashtag’s detractors to take away from the hashtag instead?

From what I saw, many of those detractors were trolls — they just wanted to infiltrate and derail the conversation that was being held.  With those individuals, I personally ignore them, and continue to get my message across — they will not be a distraction to the bigger picture for me as an advocate.

The persons who really need to understand the hashtag are the disabled people, particularly disabled Whites, who felt that the hashtag was an personal attack on who they are as disabled people and/or was “unnecessary.”  One thing I noticed as an advocate of color: the disabled community is very uneducated on experiences that goes beyond disability; meaning that anything that discusses differences outside of disability meets great resistance (we see this on both an individual level and within disability-centered organizations).  That resistance perpetuates the silence and erasure of individuals who hold dual or multiple identities, which in this case, would be disabled people of color and disabled women of color.

Disabled people have to realize that though we are disabled, that doesn’t negate the privileges we have; admitting that we all have privileges isn’t shameful, but the way some of us react when it’s pointed out is problematic.  I am intimately aware of the privileges I hold, and I use them to help those access spaces that they cannot because they don’t have those same privileges as I do.  When disabled people of color vocalize that they endure plights that disabled Whites do not, it is not us creating an “us vs. them” realm; we are simply stating how the world works for us, and in many cases, works against us due to multiple memberships.  The pushback of trying to understand our stories shows a lack of respect for the diversity of the community, and shows disabled people of color that they cannot feel truly comfortable about how they are and the unique struggles they endure if those thoughts will be challenged by those of the majority (in this case, disabled Whites).

Being open-minded to the realities of others that live and look differently from you as a disabled person is the key takeaway – yes, we may have a disability, but the world interacts with us differently that goes beyond disability status.  Being willing to listen to disabled people of color is so important, and the detractors missed a prime opportunity to do just that.

There are those who have learned a lot from the hashtag and have interacted with you personally to thank you for creating it. What do you think of the hashtag’s positive effect?

The most positive effect of the hashtag was the fact that disabled people of color were able to freely share their truths.  We talk amongst each other or keep it to ourselves — we rarely have the opportunity to discuss these matters so publicly.  Being able to share your experiences, the good, bad, and painful, is an empowering moment, especially when you are able to connect with others who have endured similar circumstances.  This public sharing validates who you are and the life you live — as disabled people of color, we seek out that validation greatly because of the lack of attention to our lives in the community and the broader society.  Our community and society can no longer feign ignorance to who we are and how the world responses and treats us – that’s a powerful realization when these hashtags are created and gain mass attention.

Having the ability to connect with other disabled people of color on social media and build an incredible network and support group is another positive effect.  Personally, one of my favorite things about being a blogger and advocate is befriending and collaborating with disabled women of color.  The hashtag allowed me to bond closer with the women I already knew, and to meet disabled women of color who understand the world I, and we, live in.

How do you think the media could rectify how they cover disability issues, especially disability issues relating to people of color?

Diversity and inclusion are huge problems in the media, and it’s being resolved at a snail’s pace.  The media perpetuates the “default” face (i.e., white) for disability when they only share stories about White disabled people, as well as write inspiration porn-themed stories about disabled people of color.  Learning how to write about disability that isn’t disrespectful or plays on the “good feels” or pity emotions is so important, no matter the color of the individual being written about.  There are so many disabled people of color who are advocates, and are doing incredible work in their specific areas of interest and in their communities; the failure to highlight us is inexcusable.

With how connected we all are due to the internet and social media, we should not still have this problem with journalism that plays on disability stereotypes and inaccurate understanding about what disability actually is, along with only amplifying the voices and experiences of one subgroup in the community.  The media plays a huge role in how the society reacts, interacts, and understands disability — it’s long overdue for the media, in all forms, take this responsibility seriously and depict all of our experiences fairly and respectfully.

What is the ultimate goal you have for #DisabilityTooWhite?

I want the hashtag to shine a light on the issue of race and invisibility in our community and force the issue to be discussed openly and not in private, as it tends to occur.  I hope the disabled people of color who participated, and those who read the tweets shared, truly understand that their voices and experience matters, and to not allow anyone quiet them because they are uncomfortable with what they have to say.  One of my favorite quotes comes from Zora Neale Hurston:  “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”  I want every disabled person of color to speak up and speak out about the ableism, racism, discrimination, prejudices, sexism, homophobia, and every other injustice they endure in our community and to do so without worrying about hurting feelings or making others squirm in their seats because the truth is hard to hear.

What we did with the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag was just that:  there were some who did not want to hear what we had to say, but there were many more who needed to hear it.  The latter group is I hope feel the lasting effects of the hashtag, and learn that they aren’t alone and there’s plenty of work left for us to do as advocates to change the status quo.♦

Exclusive Interview: “TRI” director/co-writer Jai Jameson


Late last week, I debuted my interview with TRI co-writer/producer Theodore Adams III, and this week, the TRI interview fest continues with my discussion with the film’s director and co-writer Jai Jameson. During our phone conversation, Jameson and I discussed how he came to work on TRI, as well as his personal reasons for investing in inclusion and diversity in entertainment.

TRI, starring Jensen Jacobs, Shawn Pelofsky, Jaylen Moore, Chris Williams, Kelly Spitko, Walker Hays, and Tim Reid, will be shown at triathlons and in triathlon communities around the U.S. and Canada. In the fall, the film will be available on digital outlets and a TV broadcast deal is in the works. Keep up with the film and find out how you can request the film to be shown in your area through

How did you and Adams come to work together on TRI?

I went to grad school at American University; I got my MFA in film from there. One of my mentors at American University is Russell Williams [II], who is the artist-in-residence there and is a two-time Academy Award winner. [Adams] contacted Russell just for advice on doing his first film and having him as a mentor to him as well. When they were looking for a director for the project…Russell recommended me and sent some of my work to him, and [Adams] really responded to the films…I’d done.

I think the one that really spoke to him the most was “Speak Now,” which is my thesis film…and he got me on the phone, sent me the script, and started talking about how we would approach the material. We really bonded early on. We had a very similar aesthetic. We very quickly got on the same wavelength in terms of the type of movie we could make and what we thought the project could be.

I had spoken to Adams earlier about the film, and he said it was about beating the odds and how a lot of people in his life had been able to beat cancer and the triathlons they participate in. How did that storyline affect you as you were working on the film?

I think for me, the process of making the film and the themes within the film quickly started blurring together for me. The ideas and themes of perseverance and pushing yourself and getting things finished, those were definitely inspirations that meta-structurally informed the themes within the film. I was definitely able to draw upon a lot of personal experience just in terms of my own struggles and my own pursuit in the film world.

I’d been trying to get [another] feature made for over four years when Ted gave me the call [to do TRI]. It was one of those things where it was greenlit, we were ready to go, and this actor dropped out. Or, we were greenlit…and this financing that we thought we had we didn’t actually have. We went to various producers and people were attached and then people weren’t attached. There were four years of that where it’s just like, “Is this going to happen?”, and one of the first things that one of my first mentors told me about the film industry that it’s based on perseverance. So those were all themes that was able to personally, emotionally connect to that I transmuted into these characters who were going through these physical and mental challenges of overcoming what you think your body’s limitations might be.

I say that, for me, there’s no more fitting film to be a first film than a movie about triathlons, because filmmaking in itself is an endurance sport. It’s just hanging on and getting to the end and getting something in the can…I think the mental aspects of perseverance and what that means was something I was able to bring to the project.

As you said, this is your first feature film, and it’s already making history as the first scripted narrative about triathlons made for theatrical release. How does it feels to have that marker on your resume already?

It’s really amazing. This is such an amazing project, and in terms of what a first feature could be, this is more than what I could ever hope for, in terms of the team we were able to put together, the film we were able to make, and the response we’ve been getting to the film. I think it’s accomplishing its goal…Our goal was to inspire people with this film. We wanted people who had done a few triathlons, people who were thinking about doing a triathlon, and just random Joe Schmo off the street who only vaguely knows what a triathlon is, to watch the film and be inspired to leave the theater with a good, warm feeling, ready to attack the world…That’s what our goal was with the film. …Being able to do something that’s accomplishing its goal and getting feedback from people across the world just based on the trailer…the response has been overwhelming and extremely humbling. It makes all of the last few years of struggling to get things made worthwhile.

The film’s protagonist is a woman and I asked Ted this too, but I’ll ask it a little differently this time. As you know, Hollywood is going through a transitional period when it comes to being more inclusive to everyone. What do you think TRI adds to the conversation about having a diverse range of leading roles, particularly leading roles for women?

I think diversity in storytelling is very important. It’s one of my number one goals in terms of lending  my voice to film and the types of stories I want to portray and the types of characters I want to put out to the world. I think with TRI, there are three leads. There’s the lead of Natalie, and there’s a 1A and 1B in Candice, who is going through cancer treatment, and Christy, who is competing in her first triathlon since finishing cancer treatment. I think what we’ve been able to do is showcase levels and layers of various women who are exhibiting strength in different ways. What I really wanted to do was create well-rounded characters that have depth to them.

I take this from a very personal standpoint in that my sister is an actress. She just finished her first year [of grad school] at Yale School of Drama. And I look around and the opportunities for her as a woman, in terms of roles, and beyond that as a black woman. There aren’t a lot. I’m from Richmond, VA, and we get a lot of production in Virginia, but it’s a lot of historical production. It’s Civil War and Revolutionary War stuff. The two big productions in Richmond right now are Turn and Mercy Street. And it’s great to have them there, because you bring in amazing crew, you’re building the film infrastructure there in Richmond, everyone who works on those projects are amazing people. The film community in Richmond is fantastic. But the thing that’s frustrating to me as a filmmaker is that because of what those projects are—they’re both television shows—the only roles that are available are slaves or freed slaves. That’s frustrating. And there are really interesting things they’re doing with women, but in terms of black women, there aren’t a whole lot of juicy roles.

Beyond that…I’ve talked to a lot of women who have said that the only roles that [they] have are slaves or sassy best friends. I look at that in terms of being very cognizant of representation and telling stories that are more inclusive, more diverse, because that’s more interesting to me. Those are the types of stories that I respond to. There are plenty of stories that are about men. That’s not to say that I’m not going to tell stories about men as well, but I was very cognizant [of having complex female roles], especially for TRI, because it is a sports drama, but it stars mostly women. I was cognizant of wanting to pass the Bechdel Test, which I’m pretty sure we do. It’s such a low bar, but it’s amazing that so many projects don’t pass that simple test. So…with TRI and future work going forward, that’s been my focus. From a purely selfish standpoint, I want to create more and more roles for my sister and for people like her that are just talented actresses who are not given the opportunities to shine like I think they could.

That segues into my next question—for those who want to be in film, particularly people of color, and they see all the discrepancies in Hollywood and all the hashtags and movements and they still want to be in film, what advice would you give them to start them on their journey?

I think…the marketplace and the medium is opening up at a rapid pace and it’s being disrupted. The networks and the agencies—everyone is being extremely reactionary right now. The one good thing about #OscarsSoWhite is that it shown a spotlight on what was happening. The issue wasn’t the Academy; the issue was that they didn’t make enough movies with interesting roles for non-white actors and the movies that they did make they didn’t market correctly or didn’t get them into the public consciousness. The response to that is that Hollywood is a pendulum. They kind of overcorrect a little bit.

I think in the next couple of years, you’re going to see a lot of stuff. The key is to not let them overcorrect back in the other direction. The way to do that is to utilize this new marketplace that’s opening up and using this foot in the door that [the #OscarsSoWhite] movement has created to generate more and more content and build up more and more stories. We’re telling stories about all kinds of people, and there’s a marketplace for it. It’s just finding your market, your audience.

What I’ve learned with TRI is that there’s a very dedicated social media audience that we have hit upon that is really interested in the world of triathlons. Runners, cross-fitters, people who are really into fitness, overcoming things, and inspirational sports movies. We’ve engaged that audience. That audience exists for all other people and subject matter and themes. The key is finding that audience and telling a stories that are true to your experience because there are going to be people who are going to respond to that and what to see what you’re saying.

The key is to not try to be someone else. We already have Spike Lee, we already have Tyler Perry, we already have Ang Lee. We already have those folks who are telling their own stories. That’s great; we just need more people who are telling stories that are true to their experience and their point of view. The medium is opening up, whether it’s through television or independent television now where you can make a series and sell it directly to Amazon or Netflix, or whether it be a web series or independent film. The key is being true to yourself and your experience, and finding the audience that might respond to that.♦


The Inside Scoop on #BlackPantherSoLIT + What Marvel Can Learn From It

If you’ve been on the internet and haven’t heard of #BlackPantherSoLIT, then you are clearly doing something wrong. The hashtag went viral once news of Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o joining the film adpation of Black Panther spread. As countless articles have already said, the fact that the hashtag went viral two years–two years–before the film hits theaters shows how much of a need there is Marvel (and for film in general) to showcase non-white superheroes. To be even more precise, the hashtag shows how large (and how under-served) the audience is for non-white superheroes and non-white leads in general.

Take a look at moments from the hashtag for yourself:

I reached out to the creator of #BlackPantherSoLIT, @ChadwickandChill, and got their take on the creation of the hashtag and what impact it’s had. Here’s what they had to say in a statement:

I would always chatter with other fans about Chadwick and decided on December 5, 2015 to start a new page. I’ve held dedicated to engaging fans more. Starting this page was not met with the applause I expected from other core fans. I do it first to show lots of love to a cinematic light and talented Black man, Chadwick Boseman, and secondly for the fans. I don’t cheer and swoon for followers and it’s really just to engage the fandom! I’ve started other pages/campaigns as well – , ,  – and supported numerous others like . It’s all to unite fans and particularly those of us part of the African Diaspora, to edify work within our own collective versus waiting for an outside group to do so.

The goal is to not only make history with any effort, it’s to retell our own regal history and sustain it so that generations from now everyone will know that we are more than slaves and disenfranchised and we are not animals nor are we uncivilized. We are black, we are full of vitality, we are beautiful, we are supremely intelligent, innovative, creative, alive, well,  human, and thriving! Most importantly, We are kings, queens, regal through and through!

I also asked them two other questions about the hashtag, and here’s how they replied via Twitter:

So far, we’ve got Ryan Coogler writing and directing, Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan as a possible villain, and Lupita Nyong’o as the love interest. Who else would you like to see join the cast?

Casting wise: I would love Cicely Tyson, James Earl Jones, Denzel [Washington], Taraji [P. Henson],… So many to name.

What other POC Marvel superheroes/superheroines would you like to see brought to the big screen?

As far as another POC comic book hero: I’m not as versed in the comics at this stage today. As I learn, I’m sure I’ll have an opinion on that. Black Panther is stealing the show for me at this moment, it’s too historic for cinema history & Black Regality. I’m in Formation…

There are a couple of lessons Marvel, and Hollywood in general, can take from the popularity of #BlackPantherSoLit:

• Social media has its pulse on what people want: 

As I’ve said on the Sleepy Hollow episode of the Black Girl Nerds podcast, showrunners and show creators should know that their industry is just like any other industry that’s catering to others; your audience is your customer base, and it only makes sense to know what they want. Knowing what the audience wants is too easy nowadays; all you have to do is go on Twitter to see what the latest hashtags are discussing. Everyone’s discussing what they want from television and movies, so for creators of media to ignore that doesn’t make good business sense. Usually, ignoring the audience comes back to bite shows in the butt nowadays. See The 100 and, of course, Sleepy Hollow.

• People of all backgrounds want diversity in their stories, so actually give it to them:

It doesn’t make sense to have white superheroes and white characters in general stand in as the “default” American or the default human being. Entertainment, for me, is at its best when it provides a look at an idealized world that embraces all people. It’s through imagery that we know what is possible, similar to how some use religion to realize what they are actually capable of. If we never see what we could be as a society, we won’t strive for better.

Let’s remember that the biggest factor in the ’60s Civil Rights Movement was the usage of television and newspapers. There was a reason the revolution was televised; it was because without images, it would be easy for people to pretend that inequities didn’t exist. But with the eyes of the world focused on the members of the movement, they were able to hold the narrative in their own hands. The same goes for something as seemingly trivial as a superhero film. The person who holds the power can tell the story, and Hollywood’s been telling the same discriminatory story for decades. It’s time for Hollywood to give many other people the reins to tell their own stories and finally help the industry create the idealized version of America the real America can aspire to become.

• A black superhero (or a superhero of any other minority) doesn’t cater to a niche audience:

Once again, the idea that white equals “default” is at play with this thinking. How can someone not identify with someone else simply because of their skin color or culture? Hollywood has always been reticent to put a non-white face as its leading hero or heroine because of their tired “money” argument (which will be addressed in the next bullet point).

But the real reason non-white actors aren’t thought of for leading roles is because of a tribalism-rooted fear. When most of the people in Hollywood are of one color (or all straight), they will generally make entertainment that suits them and treat other voices as threats to their tribe and their perceived superiority. The majority will then believe that others won’t identify with the “minority” because they don’t. But Hollywood is out of touch, and it’s only just beginning to wake up to what the rest of the world is becoming, which is multicultural, more accepting, and tired of the “good ‘ol boy” way of doing things.

People want to see their friends, spouses, siblings, and children represented in entertainment, and it’s past time for Hollywood to do this. Black Panther doesn’t just speak to black America in a monolithic way; Black Panther speaks to the family who has adopted a black child and is searching for entertainment that reflects that child. Black Panther speaks to the woman who can finally go to a Marvel film with her black boyfriend or husband and see someone who looks like him as the superhero, not just “the best friend” to the superhero. Black Panther speaks to the son of African immigrants who can finally see portions of pan-African culture in mainstream entertainment. Black Panther speaks to more people than just the stereotyped idea of “black America.” Black Panther speaks to America, period.

• Practicing celluloid segregation isn’t where the money is:

As The Atlantic writes, Hollywood’s constant excuse for using white actors over non-white actors, that audiences want to see white faces, is a lie. University of North Carolina’s Venkat Kuppuswamy and MgGill University’s Peter Younkin studied data from Hollwyood films and their grosses, and found that more diverse casts generally fared better at the box office. It makes sense: under-served markets are desperate to see themselves on screen and will eagerly support films that showcase reflections of themselves.

Marvel is probably already realizing this in a big way with both the immediate viral success of Black Panther and the backlash against Doctor Strange with #whitewashedOUT. If you want to address more of your audience, show them in films. They’ll practically do the marketing for you, that is if the movie is actually good and is racially and culturally respectful, not just a “diversity” cash grab.

What do you think of #BlackPantherSoLIT? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Exclusive Interview: Theodore A. Adams III (Co-writer/Producer, “TRI”)

A new indie film is on its way, and it’s breaking records in the process! TRI, directed by Jai Jamison and written by Theodore A. Adams III, Monica Lee Ballais and Jamison, is the first film to focus on triathlons and is tapping into the triathlon market with a story about hope, perseverance, and determination. 

I was happy to speak with Adams about his film and the process it took to bring it to fruition. We also talked about how the film shines a light on how triathlons are one type of outlet many cancer survivors utilize to celebrate life. TRI will hold screenings at many major triathlons and triathlon communities around the country and Canada. Triatlons in the US and Canada and locations with huge triathlon communities. Visit the film’s site for full details and how you can request TRI to come to your area. TRI will also be available this fall on iTunes, Amazon, VOD, and other digital outlets.

How did you Jai Jamison come to work on TRI?

Actually, I had the idea of TRI January 2015. I used to go to triathlons myself…I’ve been a part of a tri team [Team in Training] that raises money for cancer awareness. Because of that, I’ve met a lot of phenomenal people who have done very well, not only with raising awareness for cancer research, but cancer survivors or people who have lost loved ones who are doing the races in honor of someone who had cancer. Even myself–my father passed away from multiple myeloma, so I joined the Team in Training group because they raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. So my interactions with these people…inspired me to do a…scripted narrative. I worked with another writer named Monica [Lee] Bellais…and we worked together to write the first draft. Our mentor, Russell Williams II, the first African-American to win two Oscars, he recommended a number of former students he had…and one of them was Jai Jamison. I met Jai through Russell and we hit it off from the get-go. Jai had some great ideas to make [the film] even more enticing…that’s when we turned it into a new script and then we turned it into a movie.

You mentioned being inspired by people who are facing cancer and have been able to overcome odds. What was it like during the creative process to take those stories and mesh them together to make this film?

The main character of the story is Natalie, and she works for a…hospital as a technologist who does scanning for transvaginal examinations. In the story, she’s examining a patient named Candice, and Candice actually works for a group that organizes [a] triathlon. Part of Natalie’s backstory is that she also never finishes anything. She stays in this very dark room of scanning equipment; you typically see her in this dark, cave environment. Candice actually connects with her because a lot of these folks try not to get to connected to their patients because they might see someone who looks pretty bad and they can’t say anything because they’re not the oncologist. But Candice is able to break through that barrier and connects with Natalie and tells her [she] should give [a triathlon] a shot. Natalie does agree to do it and she enters this world of triathlons. She’s basically brought out of her shell and into the world of not only to triathlons but to trying to complete things[.]

Getting back to your original question, when I did these races earlier on…I met one of my very close friends who’s on my friend. I raced her in Hawaii during the Lavaman [Waikoloa]. The Lavaman race is an Olympic distance race, which means you swim for .9 miles, you bike for 25 miles, and you run 10K. This friend of mine is a cancer survivor; she’s been in remission for 10 years. But during the race, she somehow broke her hip and didn’t realize it. I saw her and she was crying; I went to ask if I could help her and she said “No, it’s okay.” I finished my race and I waited for her. Turns out, when she returned to Virginia, which is where we live, she found out her hip was broken…That’s the kind of people you meet in the world of triathlons…Triathletes by their very nature are type-A people who are determined to finish something and complete something.

I’d say that 95 percent of triathletes are not trying to win the race, they’re trying to complete the race and fulfill their own personal goals or records; it’s not about competing with someone else, it’s about competing with yourself. So the tie-in with cancer is that if you have cancer, you want to get through it. But there are also some people who not only get through it but then they [think], “What else could you do to inspire other people?”.  By the way, no triathlete would compare triathlon training to cancer. But being in that realm of pushing through very difficult challenges, that’s the tie-in.

TRI  is the first scripted narrative about triathlons made for theatrical release. How does it feel to make that kind of cinematic history?

It’s fun because this world of triathlons is one that not many people know about…The intriguing part of [triathlons] are the stories of the people behind it. The triathlon itself sets the stage for people with like-mindedness to get together and do this crazy journey. The race itself is more of a celebration. It’s the training that really defines what a triathlete is. Do you want to get up on a Saturday morning when you don’t have to to train with a group? Do you want to go swim in the middle of the week? Those are the things triathletes do; they don’t look for a lot of accolades, they just do it…Being able to expose the rest of the world to these types of stories is fun. There have been a lot of documentaries [about triathletes] and they’re phenomenal documentaries about triathletes, but really, how do you put this together to touch a lot of people in a meaningful way? That’s what we tried to do with TRI. 

The lead of this film is female; how important was it to have the leading character be female, especially since Hollywood is currently coming to grips with creating more leading roles for more women?

It’s funny–I’m African-American, Jai’s African-American, the other writer is female, but I honestly make the female protagonist on purpose other than that the character we developed was inspired by the female triathletes I knew. I mean, there are certainly many male stories that are intriguing and inspiring, but when we did the original story, it was based on private stories of some female [triathletes]; the female that the protagonist is inspired by is Julie Moss, one of the Hall of Fame inductees who…in the Ironman World Championships in 1982, was about 20 yards away from the finish line and she completely fell apart. She lost all faculties and was crawling, and this lady passed her and was about 10 yards away from the finish line. But that story of her completing it and going on…transcends gender, but in this case, it happens to be a woman who is breaking into this world.

Another thing to keep in mind for the target audience is that it’s not just for triathletes; it’s for people who do endurance events like running. And…60 percent [of finishers in running races] are women. So again, this is a story that will resonate not just with men, but with women who want to overcome something. It’s something that I think a lot of people are going to identify with. We also had a very diverse team that put this movie together. That’s also something that you do but you don’t really think about it. Our director of photography, Jendra Jarnagin, who is a phenomenal director of photography; we chose her for her skill and her being a female really didn’t play into this at all. But when we found her, she was the best person for the job, so we chose her.

You mentioned that you and Jai are African-American; there are a lot of people of color who want to break into films, but are also looking at the state of Hollywood and the problems pointed out by hashtags like #whitewashedOUT and #OscarsSoWhite. For those who still want to break in after weighing all of the hardships, what’s your advice?

I have an engineering company that does quite a lot of work with the federal government, particularly the Navy. So my engineering background and business background played a lot in how I put the whole story together and how I put the plan of telling this story together and getting [the film] out[.] A lot of this wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t put together a great team. Jai is a first-time director. I’m a first-time producer. But as an engineer, I’m very good with logistics, and my job as a producer is that the tools are there to make the best possible production. Jai’s got a great eye for storytelling and directing, but I surround him with the best possible people I can get…everything we could possibly do to make it the best film we could possibly have. So what I tell anyone making a film or anything is to get the best possible resources you can. Thankfully I was able to put together the financing myself, which I think it is the biggest obstacle for folks…but the key was making sure we did the best quality possible for [the budget] we had.

When people say they want to be actors, try to be a producer or director so you’re not just going in asking to play a role. If you can write a script, write a script. You can be part of the whole process. That’s where people miss the boat when they say, “Why aren’t I getting a break?”—create your own break. Create your own business. I started my own production company…if you can set the stage for your own success, then that’s how you do it. Just like Sylvester Stallone. When he wrote Rocky and before he sold it, he said, “The only way I’m going to sell this to you is if you put me in the lead.” And he did, and that’s how… he built his career. So always add value whenever you can and in as many places as you can, and that’s how you can control your own destiny as much as you possibly can.♦

Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

Exclusive Interview: #NoIWontJustMoveOn Co-creator Vincent Schilling

Twitter has become the place to get a crash course education on all the stuff not covered on television or in the history books. Hashtags like #whitewashedOUT and #OscarsSoWhite have opened people’s minds up to the discrimination in Hollywood, and one of the latest hashtags on Twitter, #NoIWontJustMoveOn, is opening Twitter denizens up to atrocities leveled against Native Americans, both in the past and today.

Vincent Schilling, author, photojournalist and editor of Indian Country Today Media Network’s Arts and Entertainment section is one of the co-creators of #NoIWontJustMoveOn, and I was excited to converse with him via email interview. In the interview, we discuss the hashtag and its impact, as well as if America will ever come to terms with its horrible past.

Why did you create the hashtag #NoIWontJustMoveOn?

I created it along with my wife Delores who actually said it first, I said, “That would be a great and appropriate hashtag.” We both tweeted it and it just trended.

As I said in my Indian Country Today Media Network article which now has nearly 10,000 likes on Facebook, as a Native American/First Nations man, (Akwesasne Mohawk,) I have been asked on too many occasions why I am still talking about the atrocities that have befallen Native American and First Nations people and told, “Why don’t you just get over it” or “Why don’t you just move on?” Because my history, no matter how far away it seems, still affects me and my fellow indigenous brothers and sisters.

You have written about how the past still affects Native Americans today. For those who don’t know (and still ask the insensitive question of “Why don’t you just get over it?”) what would you say to them?

I would say to them, ‘If a loved one had died in your family and you are explaining how much of an impact they had on your life, in the midst of your tears and sadness, I won’t tell you to just get over it. Even if their death happened 20 years ago.” This is where the confusion, I believe comes in. People believe that Native people are supposed to follow a regimented timeclock in terms of cultural suffering.

The thing so many people do not realize is that we as Native people still genuinely feel the suffering of our ancestors in our DNA. Their pain, their tears of genocide, rape, torture and having children stolen from families is still felt in our blood. Our blood is mixed with the tears of our ancestors they were never cried from their eyes. This is what runs through us. We feel the sadness, the loss, the mourning and we are not just going to get over it because someone tells us to.

I’d like to add, many times people that tell us to get over it cannot stand to feel even a small percentage of our suffering; to fully realize the intrinsic value of our suffering is simply too much for some people to bear.

People tell us to get over it, but you can’t move on from something that is still happening today. Our Native kids are being told they can’t wear sacred cultural items to their high school graduations today. Our Native women are still sexually assaulted at higher rates than any other ethnicity (by non-native offenders) today. They are going missing (#MMIW) today. People still ask me if we exist today. We are fighting Native mascots today.

There are many ways America has tried to erase Native American history, and there are so many ways that erasure is still active today, from Halloween costumes to lack of coverage of missing Native American women and police brutality against Native Americans, to lack of presence in the media, lack of large-scale federal government support/advocacy (aside from Native representatives in Congress), etc. With so much going on, how do you feel all these issues could be best addressed by The Powers That Be (the government, the media, etc.)? 

“The Powers That Be” are no longer the only ones in charge. No matter how hard they try to silence the voices with policy, government regulation of even private interest lawmaking, there is just too much to gain by creating platform to give the public a voice.

“The meek shall inherit the earth” is happening. No longer can a world leader, a corporate entity or even a country can any longer make a move without the massive collective voices on social media coming to the call. News organizations are now reporting on the response to public figures making bad moves on social media as opposed to just reporting on the act itself.

Yes, even institutions of learning are now being held up to the light and are having to answer questions posed by the public. They are finding out about how Christopher Columbus never landed in the upper 48 states – ever – and how he committed horrible atrocities against Taino people and supplied nine-year-old native girls to his men.

People are learning how Black Indians are one of the most successful societies in history that were targeted and hated by other less successful communities who out of jealousy, burned the Black Indian communities to the ground. People are now unlearning.

#NoIWontJustMoveOn has helped educate many who aren’t aware of these issues. In fact, someone tweeted, “There are things that are being revealed to me in #NoIWontJustMoveOn that I’m learning for the first time ever in my life…” How does it feel to have that kind of an impact?

It feels wonderful and sad. I am glad that people are learning about the tough things faced in Indian Country, but it is a reminder of how desperately the hashtag is needed.

What do you hope people who weren’t aware of these issues do with that knowledge now that they have it?

I hope they realize that everything, and I mean everything, has the right to be questioned. But I’d like to offer them to question things with kindness. I am not suggesting they lay on the floor if someone is kicking them; I just mean to question things in a way that solicit information. As a journalist, I have questioned people I was so horribly furious at it was hard to think straight. They assumed I was going to attack them – but I did not.

What happens in a situation like this is that people are caught off-guard and because they feel as though they are not in the line of fire will offer much more insight into their thought process. This is important to remember. It is not without struggle and I am not perfect as I am more than certain my frustrations have taken a precedent, but for the most part, there is a lot more empowerment when you are coming from a place of being kind as well as constructive.

The advent of the internet has helped many marginalized groups, including Native Americans and Canada’s First Nations, reach people on a global scale in a way they probably couldn’t before. How do you feel social media has helped Native voices get heard? Similarly, how do you think social media has helped the activism community within Native nations?

As I said previously, social media is a massive factor in allowing the Native community as well as all communities across the world, connect in a way that was never possible before. Yes and unequivocally, without any doubt these types of efforts could not have gained the momentum without social media. It has empowered all of us and gives us more and more to look forward to.

One example is when I attended the White House tribal youth Gathering last year when Lady [Michelle] Obama spoke to Native youth who had traveled to DC from all over Turtle Island (Native reference to the US and Canadian continent). All of the reporters – including myself – were positioned at the very back of the room, with limited access to the youth and Michelle Obama. Our coverage was sufficient, but lackluster because we could really only see the backs of kids heads and Lady Obama from a distance. The talk of the town was not anyone’s coverage, but the beautiful coverage and moments on Snapchat, people were watching the Native youth’s personal coverage of lady Obama – not us. Their perspective was the major issue, not a news organization.

Ultimately, what do you hope becomes of #NoIWontJustMoveOn in the long run? What kind of long-term impact do you hope it has?

I hope this hashtag stays going forever. I want people to always realize the devastation faced by Indian Country, but how we are also becoming more and more empowered every day.

What do you hope for America when it comes to addressing the years of abuse Native Americans have faced? Do you think America will ever come to terms with what it’s done to its first people, or do you think that realization (along with the realizations of other horrors leveled against other groups) is just too much for the collective consciousness of America to bear?

No matter how much I would like this sentiment to change, sadly it will always be too much for the collective consciousness of America to bear. That is just human nature. Overprotective moms will always cover the ears of
their children when sometime speaks about something the mom, not necessarily the child, is uncomfortable with. But within this collective, are a plethora of voices and minds that simply had no idea, or were never told. And when
they hear things for the first time are changed forever, those are the ones I am always trying to reach. I sincerely don’t want to waste my energy on those people who only want to argue, but are never willing to change.♦

Exclusive Interview: #StarringJohnCho creator William Yu

Could John Cho have swept Emilia Clarke off her feet in Me Before You? Or could have been everyone’s favorite astronaut in The Martian? Or could he have been Captain America in The Avengers? These possibilities and more are imagined with the hashtag #StarringJohnCho.

#StarringJohnCho, which also has a site and Twitter page by the same name, explores the roles John Cho (and by extension, other actors and actresses of Asian descent) could have played, and played well, but were denied solely because of race. The site and Twitter page, both of which contain photoshopped posters featuring Cho in the films’ leading roles, has gotten tons of press, and rightly so; the movement’s mission is to make people think critically about who gets cast in roles, why they get cast, and who gets left with the riff raff. Even better: #StarringJohnCho also has the support of Cho himself.

I was excited to speak to the man behind the movement, William Yu. In an email interview, Yu discussed the origins of #StarringJohnCho, Hollywood’s annoying casting practices, and what film role he would have liked to see Cho crush.

How did you come up with #StarringJohnCho?

As a Korean-American who has a passion for television and film, I’ve always had the lack of representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood in my mind. With the rise of television shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None that bring nuance to the portrayal of Asian-Americans, I wondered why the current state of racial diversity in Hollywood remained largely unchanged. When I read that films with more diverse casts result in higher box office numbers and higher returns on investments for film companies, I couldn’t understand why Hollywood wouldn’t cast lead actors to reflect this fact. I’m tired of hearing from people that they can’t “see” an Asian-American actor playing the romantic lead or the hero, so I created #StarringJohnCho to literally show you.

Are you surprised by the immediate success of the hashtag/Twitter movement?

This was a relevant topic that was important to me, so I always hoped that it would take off. But I am definitely blown away by the support that has come since I first launched a week ago. I’m very grateful that the majority of the reactions to the movement have been positive! I’m really appreciative of the followers who have gone the extra mile and created their own movie posters, it’s been amazing to see people really make it their own. While there have been a few opposing individuals along the way, I think their reactions prove that this conversation is a necessary one.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Why do you think there was such a groundswell of support?

I think a number of factors came into play at the right time. John Cho has always been a cult figure for Asian-Americans and those that have followed his work, but there has never been a rallying cry to bring these people together. With #OscarsSoWhite and #whitewashedOUT trending, the conversation of diversity in Hollywood has never been more relevant and top of mind. When I’ve had conversations with others about how Asian-Americans are represented in media, many times it comes down to being able to envision or imagine how an Asian-American would be a part of a film or TV show. Having a tangible, in your face solution, is something that I think people didn’t even realize that they needed to drive the message home.

John Cho has always been very vocal about AAPI visibility in Hollywood, so it must be great to have him like the hashtag/Twitter page. How does it feel to have Cho’s support?

It’s wonderful knowing that he acknowledges and understands the message of what we’re trying to get across. Choosing Cho as the focal point of the movement was a conscious decision, but there was definitely some risk in using his face, especially if the tag started to take off. It’s been great having other Asian-American thought leaders like Margaret Cho, Constance Wu, Ellen Oh, and Phil Yu also support the movement! Because as much as #StarringJohnCho is centered around him, there is a greater conversation about how Asian-Americans are perceived in our society to be had.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Cho’s most recent TV endeavor, Selfie, made waves for actually casting an Asian-American in the leading male role, but the show eventually went off the air. It was probably thought that another Asian American man wouldn’t be cast as in a leading male role, but now we have Daniel Wu on Into the Badlands and Aziz Ansari in Master of None. Albeit that’s only three roles in the tons of roles awarded to non-Asian men in Hollywood, but with that said, do you think the tide has shifted (if at all) for Asian actors on TV since Cho’s romantic comedic turn in Selfie? And why do you think there’s been no movement in film?

While I love seeing Wu and Ansari on screen, as well as Randall Park and Ki Hong Lee making waves, I don’t think we’re at the point to say the tide has shifted. I’m hopeful that these shows and actors are setting the right precedents for demonstrating that there is a desire and appetite for story-telling that integrates Asian actors. It represents possibility and opportunity. The staying power will be proven in the frequency and reception of future programs.

As for film, I believe that there is an issue in that Asian-Americans are not seen as individuals who can carry a major film. As the 2016 Hollywood Diversity Report from UCLA’s Bunche Centers shows, films with more diverse casts perform better at the box office and have higher returns on investment than those that are less diverse. I don’t understand why Hollywood doesn’t cast leads to reflect this fact, as the risk seems worthwhile. I think Alan Yang said it best in The Hollywood Reporter‘s article when he said, “[Hollywood] cast Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic World. He wasn’t a movie star until they put him in those movies. For people who are making decisions, you have to take that risk.”

Hollywood seems to adhere to a set of stereotypes when it comes to uplifting or degrading men that are or aren’t their idea of a “viable leading man.” Why do you think Hollywood still lives by these stereotypes, particularly the stereotypes affecting Asian actors?

I think it dates back to the time when movie audiences would typically go see movies because of the actor who was in it, not because of the story that was being told. Thinking of Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt, these stars draw audiences before a trailer gets released. As such, I’m sure executives want to continue to greenlight movies that feature these few individuals or find those that closely resemble them. But with franchises like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hunger Games, and many Marvel films, we’re seeing a greater focus on the stories that these films are telling. There’s an opportunity for diverse casting because the films make the stars, not the other way around. #StarringJohnCho demonstrates that these stories still work with Asian-America lead, so why not take the chance?

John Cho in ‘Selfie’. ABC.

How do you think #StarringJohnCho ties into other AAPI/POC-visibility movements like #whitewashedOUT, #OscarsSoWhite, etc.?

The goal of #StarringJohnCho was always to ignite a conversation and build upon the amazing discussions currently being had around race. I think that the movement adds another facet to the discussion by questioning why Asians can’t play leads that aren’t race specific. It’s not just about jobs and Hollywood dollars, but asks how we perceive people of color in our society.

How do you hope #StarringJohnCho affects Hollywood? Also, what message do you want viewers of the hashtag to come away with?

I hope that #StarringJohnCho will not only show fellow Asian-Americans that they can be anything they want to be, but also show those with less active imaginations that the opposition to an Asian-American playing the lead of a major motion picture is an unfounded and antiquated notion. It’s been great seeing those in the film industry support the movement, and I do hope that those in the decision making positions are taking note. #StarringJohnCho demonstrates the desire for an Asian-American lead, now Hollywood execs just have to see it.

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

The film adaptation of Crazy, Rich Asians is coming. Do you think the film could open the door to more Hollywood films starring all-Asian or mostly-Asian casts?

I love that a movie like Crazy, Rich Asians is getting made. With films that feature an all-Asian or mostly-Asian cast, I think what’s great is that they are amazing opportunities to show the world the complexities and nuances of Asian-American culture that are not typically brought to life onscreen. I am hopeful that these stories will resonate with audiences both Asian and non-Asian. And with its success, films like these will absolutely make the thought of creating similar movies will be far less daunting for Hollywood.

What would be your dream film or TV show starring John Cho?

My favorite movie last year was Ex Machina. Would love to see John Cho tearing up the dance floor as Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman.♦

Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho
Courtesy William Yu/#StarringJohnCho

Other articles to check out:

THR Dream Casts the ‘Crazy, Rich Asians’ Movie|The Hollywood Reporter (written back in 2015!)

Working in Hollywood When You’re Not White|The Hollywood Reporter

#StarringJohnCho Was A Reality, Briefly, in ‘Selfie’|Inverse