interviews

#RepresentYourStory: Chance Calloway, “Pretty Dudes” creator

Chance Calloway Twitter

#RepresentYourStory is back! Our latest entry into the #RepresentYourStory series is Chance Calloway, the creator the web series Pretty Dudes. In case this is your first foray into the world of Pretty Dudes, here’s the jist. Four good-looking, yet shallow guys (Xavier Avila, Tae Song, Kyle Rezzarday, Yoshi Sudarso) try to help their other good-looking friend (Bryan Michael Nuñez) find a lifelong partner and hopefully break their “pretty boy curse”—being extremely handsome and attractive, but unlucky in love. The web series, which you can watch here, is funny and charming, and I’m happy to have Calloway provide us with some of his own experiences and how he overcame them. Hopefully, what he’s learned throughout his life when it comes to overcoming differences can help you in yours.

You can find Calloway on Twitter. Pretty Dudes releases a new episode each Tuesday, and you can also keep up with Pretty Dudes on Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Facebook. You can also support Pretty Dudes through a donation via PayPal.

If you want to participate in #RepresentYourStory and read past entries, click here to read more about the project and where to provide your answers!


Where does your story begin? What first caused you think you were different?

Watching The Cosby Show in a room full of cousins when I was six/seven, and the reaction I got when I said one of the guest actors, a male, was “cute.” My mom pulled me outside to tell me why I couldn’t say he was cute. He remained cute to me.

What external and/or internal factors reinforced your idea that you were different?

Being a gay man who the other Black boys at school called the f-word, and being a Black man who the other gay boys at school said they just weren’t into.

How did you internalize your supposed difference? Did you accept it or struggle?

Struggled for a long time. Suicidal and depressed for the majority of my life.

Have you come to terms with your supposed difference? If so, how did you come to self-acceptance? If not, what issues do you still find yourself wrestling with?

I have. I had friends who accepted me before I did. And that made it okay for me to be who I am.

What would you say to someone else struggling with the same or similar difference you have?

You are not malformed. You are not a mistake. You are a piece of work, soon to be a masterpiece.

What would you tell your former self? What insights have you gained now that you wished someone had told you back then?

We make too big of a deal about our differences. Life would be so boring if we were the same. Differences create a kaleidoscope of beauty. Embrace that.♦

Being Asian in Hollywood: Actors, directors, and creators talk representation

(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)
(Top row, from left) Sinakhone Keodara, Jodi Long, Asia Jackson, Kesav Wable. (Bottom row from left) Quentin Lee, Mandeep Sethi, Kunjue Li, Chris Tashima. (Photos: IMDB, Twitter, Kesavmwable.com)

Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.

JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.

This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:

Whiteness as the default

IMDB
IMDB

Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.

The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.

“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”

Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”

“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”

“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.

“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”

“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”

Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”

Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”

Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)
Dev Patel in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. (Twentieth Century Fox/IMDB)

Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”

“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience.  It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries.  With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”

“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”

Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”

Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)
Scarlett Johansson as The Major (Major Kusanagi) in Ghost in the Shell. (Paramount)

Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”

“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”

Next: The pain of exoticism

Exclusive Interview: Brandon Stacy Discusses “Roots”

The updated, modern retelling of the seminal classic miniseries Roots left most Americans knee-deep in emotions Memorial Day weekend, and you have The Big Short star Brandon Stacy to thank for some of that. Stacy’s role aired during Night 4 of the miniseries, and Stacy was happy to discuss his role and what it was like to be a part of Roots with me during a recent phone interview. We also discussed his love for Star Trek and what it was like playing Spock in Star Trek: The New Voyages.

JUST ADD COLOR: I watched Roots, and just like the first one, this one left me in shambles, so congratulations to you and the cast for affecting me and a lot of other people in America like that. 

BRANDON STACY: Thank you. Yeah, it’s definitely intense, powerful stuff. It’s very moving; we knew it would be, and we’re glad that it is moving people.

Just for the folks reading this interview, can you refresh us on your character?

Sure, I play Clingman. He’s in Night 4 of the mini-series. The Civil War’s approaching, and Clingman serves as council to one of the key players, Frederick, who is not a nice guy. Neither is Clingman. I guess he has some sort of qualities that might be admirable, as far as standing up for his country in the way that he was brought up. But he’s a product of his environment, and that’s not a good thing sometimes. He’s got these traditions that he was brought up with, so I think we all could be bad people given our environment and our lack of understanding of humanity and right and wrong. Ultimately, he’s a pretty dangerous guy.

When the original Roots came out, it changed TV forever. What does it feel like to be in the retelling of that story?

It means a lot to be able to reach so many people and it’s a lot to live up to, making Roots again. But we do cover some new ground in a new way, [with] a more modern way of storytelling. It is very, very powerful stuff and hopefully people take a positive message [from it] and use it for something positive. People can always use history to divide us, but the point is to use history to unite us. I hope that’s how people take from it; that a new generation can learn from the past and we can all shape a better future.

That segues into my next question; you mentioned the younger generation—what specifically do you hope they take away from it, since they might not have seen the original and with everything going on in the media and politics today, there are a lot of opinions about what America is supposed to be. So what do you hope the younger generation took from this retelling?

Well, it’s a fine line to walk, but I hope that we all can use the past to unite us like I said and to do something positive rather than to deconstruct us and divide us. We have the past, and there’s nothing we can do to change the past. But we can use it, we can heal, we can come together to make something positive in the future. That is something we have the power to do. We can shape the future. That’s what we need to take from this, while honoring our roots. That’s what I want people to take from this and I’m certainly glad to be part of such a moving, inspirational story.

Roots came back at an interesting time in television because before Roots aired, we had Underground telling one side of the story of slavery, then we had Roots, and in movies, we’ve got Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and the HBO Harriet Tubman biopic coming. So what do you think about the fact that this year there have been and will be so many stories like this in one to two years?

The great thing about these shows and that it comes at a great time is that it does showcase great actors, fantastic black actors…and that’s what we want. The important thing is that these are great stories. We will always have this era to showcase fantastic talent, and that’s great, I think that’s a good stepping stone. Now, we can go on to some other stories. We’ll always have those stories to go back to, but now is the time to really seize the moment and branch out from that once we get through this period.

How did working on this project affect you personally?

It’s tough. I definitely can get involved in my characters and still be in the trauma and that dark place for that moment…Certainly when you watch it, me being Caucasian, I feel pain. I feel shame, even. I’m not sure the exact things that happened my lineage, but it’s certainly shameful what did go on, and I think it’s in our DNA that we feel that pain no matter who we are, as humanity. We just have to live with that and made something positive. That’s what we face everyday; we can take anything and spin it negatively and go down a negative path.

I think now is a very important time and I think as society, we are evolving in a way that really speaks to the energy inside us. We can use that in a positive way that we haven’t before. There’s something special going on between us right now energetically that we can really come together.

My last questions are about Star Trek; I read that you’d played Spock in [Star Trek: The New Voyages] before so my questions are 1) how big of a Star Trek fan are you and 2) what do you think of the new Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, that’s going to come out soon?

I’m a huge Trek fan. The Gene Roddenberry message is really something special. For me personally, I like to be involved in things that comment on society and [focus on] ways to move society in a positive direction. That’s what The Big Short tries to do, that’s what Roots tries to do, and all of Gene Roddenberry’s projects do the same thing.

Star Trek is a really special thing, and certainly being able to play Spock in any capacity is wonderful. He’s a really, really layered being and I certainly enjoy the subtleties that show so much in his character. You have to look closely for it, but you find that he is quite emotional while trying to be so logical. He’s a torn person; he’s constantly at war with himself, which I find very interesting to play. And the new movies—I love them. I love J.J. Abrams; I think he does a great job of producing these things. It’s not the ’60s Star Trek, and that’s fine. We evolve. I think there’s a place for ’60s Star Trek and I think there’s a place for what’s going on now, so I’m a big fan of all of it. ♦

Exclusive Interview: #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend Creator Jessica Salerno

The voices are getting louder and stronger for Hollywood, Disney in particular, to include LGBT characters in their properties.

A few weeks ago, the hashtags and  trended on Twitter, showing not only how vast the audience is for mainstream LGBT content (unlike what Hollywood studios think), but also the urgency with which this type of content is needed. Around the same time #GiveElsaAGirlfriend trended, GLAAD released its annual Studio Responsibility Index, which found that out of Disney’s 11 properties released in 2015, none of them featured LGBT characters. (Paramount also featured no LGBT characters in its 2015 output.)

GLAAD stated in the report how Disney could rectify their issue, using Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I think must be a slightly veiled reference to the online movement for Finn and Poe to be in a relationship). To quote GLAAD:

As sci-fi projects have the special opportunity to create unique worlds whose advanced societies can serve as a commentary on our own, the most obvious place where Disney could include LGBT characters is in the upcoming eighth Star Wars film. 2015’s The Force Awakens has introduced a  new and diverse central trio, which allows the creators opportunity to tell fresh stories as they develop their backstory. Recent official novels in the franchise featured lesbian and gay characters that could also be easily written in to the story.

Elsa and Captain America are two other characters that have become part of Disney fans’ stable of coded characters. Many have said that Elsa’s self-acceptance and “coming out” moment regarding her ice powers relates to kids wrestling with their self-identity and the courage it takes to reveal that truth to family and friends. The song “Let It Go”, as the Guardian states, has been adopted as an anthem for LGBT fans. On the Marvel end of Disney, Captain America‘s close friendship with Bucky Barnes has been seen as having gay overtones by many fans, as well as Cap’s immediately close relationship with the Falcon; in fact, Falcon and Cap’s relationship in the comics inspired one fan to write Marvel, moved by how the two characters expressed emotions that, as the comic panel itself explained away, were emotions that were “left unsaid.”

With the tide turning higher and heavier towards Disney finally making a move and acquiescing to marginalized fans’ concerns and wants, I decided to reach out to the hashtag creators who were helping give renewed hope to fans wanting to see LGBT relationships on screen. Below is my email interview with Jessica Salerno, #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend*, who gives more insight into the creation of the hashtag as well as why it’s so important.

JUST ADD COLOR: Why did you create #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend?

Jessica Salerno: When I created the tag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend, it was something I definitely wanted to see be translated into the movies because of what it would do for the LGBTQ+ community, and because I myself love the Captain America movies and know many others do too! I had no idea people would actually catch on and help me trend it, but I couldn’t have been happier when they did.

#GiveElsaAGirlfriend has also been making the rounds. What do you think about these two hashtags and the message they represent? In other words, why have the hashtags hit a cord?

Both of these hashtags call for everyone to voice their support for two huge characters in the film industry, on a platform where they can be heard. These tags, once they get trending, show film studios everywhere that people want this representation of the LGBTQ+ community. these tags are both so important because when this many people speak up, they’re going to be heard. Having characters like Elsa and Captain America date the [same] sex would be revolutionary. People want superheroes and princesses to be able to be just like them—to show everyone that you can be a superhero and be bisexual, etc. It normalizes these sexualities and concepts that most of the world still shies away from, and these characters specifically speak out to the youth who view them—teaching them that no matter who they choose to be, they can still be a princess or a hero.

Why do you think Hollywood hasn’t made a prominent, out LGBT superhero or princess?

I think Hollywood hasn’t embraced the idea of a leasing LGBTQ+ character in films like these because they are worried about money. Frankly put, there is a huge amount of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc…worldwide that threaten the net worth of these corporations like Disney. The amount of backlash received from #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend just showed how many people still wrongly deny the LGBTQ+ community. But that’s why Hollywood needs to take these steps to normalize it with the platforms that they have.

How do you think the lack of LGBT characters has affected movie-going audiences?

I think the lack of LGBTQ+ characters in movies has affected the audiences, dwindling the amount of viewers who attend a movie if they know its another movie with an unnecessary heterosexual relationship forced into the mix just to make sure nobody tries shipping the male characters together. People want more representation, and they’re not going to be as willing to see a movie full of heterosexual stuff because that’s what we’ve been seeing for decades and its just not normal or realistic anymore. it hasn’t been for a while, and it needs to be realized.

What message do you hope people take away from your hashtag?

From #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend and from #GiveElsaAGirlfriend I hope people start to realize we can make a difference in the industry through just tweeting support from our phones or computers. I hope people start to realize the lack of LGBTQ+ representation, and I hope they start to support it and this cause. I hope people start to feel hopeful again that change is possible and happening for the LGBTQ+ community and that they see how many people are here to support that. It’s not just those in the community that want this change, and it’s empowering to those in it to see that again. from this tag I really hope people just continue to push for more representation and take a stand, because we can make this happen.

If Captain America was given a boyfriend, who would you choose?

I would love for Captain America’s boyfriend to be his long time friend Bucky Barnes! ♦

*JUST ADD COLOR reached out to Alexis Isabel, the creator of #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. She couldn’t be reached for comment. 

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.”♦

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 triforcure.com.

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.♦