interviews

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-Selfie-ABC-LARGE
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

 

JUST ADD COLOR’s “Ghost in the Shell” and “Dr. Strange” Online Roundtable featuring Claire Lanay and Keith Chow

Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange are two of the latest in a litany of projects in Hollywood that have whitewashed and otherwise erased Asian identity from film. The films have been an issue for as much as a year in advance (or, in Ghost in the Shell’s case, longer) before their initial releases, meaning worry for the respective studios and mounting anger for fans and moviegoers who want an authentic and culturally respectful film experience.

Each film has its many problems, but to give a short overview of what’s plaguing these films, here are the bulleted points:

Ghost in the Shell

• Scarlett Johansson cast as Major Motoko Kusanagi (now just called “The Major” in the film, possibly the first clue that the film is not only wiping away the main character’s Japanese racial identity, but also the property’s inherent ties to Japan’s post-World War II tech boom).

Scarlett-Johansson-GITS

•According to ScreenCrush’s source, Paramount allegedly hired visual fx company Lola VFX to create a Japanese filter for a character, probably Johansson’s Major. Paramount maintains that the fx filter was for a background character and never for the Major, but the fact remains that Paramount engaged in yellowface, regardless of who the character is.

• Sam Yoshiba, the director of Kodansha’s international business division (based in Tokyo), states that he’s fine with Johansson as The Major and that this is a great opportunity for a Japanese property to make it to the international (i.e. American) market. (which has rights to the Ghost in the Shell property). According to Kotaku, Yoshiba told The Hollywood Reporter, “Looking at her career so far, I think Scarlett Johansson is well cast. She has the cyberpunk feel. And we never imagined it would be a Japanese actress in the first place.” Yoshiba also told The Hollywood Reporter that “he was impressed by the respect being shown for the source material.”

• Max Landis, the screenwriter of American Ultra, released a video condemning the casting, but also states in his video (as reported by Entertainment Weekly), “The only reason to be upset about Scalrett Johansson being in Ghost in the Shell is if you don’t know how the movie industry works.” He also stated that outraged fans are “mad at the wrong people,” stating that the problem isn’t with parties such as Johansson, the studio or the director, but with the film industry itself. He also argues a point that many would disagree with—that there’s a dearth of big names in film. “As recently as about 10 years ago, there stopped being big stars,” he said. “There are fewer and fewer stars who mean anything.” Not true.

Meanwhile, the internet took matters into their own hands by fancasting Rinko Kikuchi, from Pacific Rim, as Kusanagi. What’s heavily ironic is that it seems like the costuming/hair department took direct inspiration from Kikuchi’s Pacific Rim character Mako Mori when designing The Major for the big screen.

A video features Japanese participants talking about the Ghost in the Shell controversy. The throughline of the video is that the people interviewed don’t see a problem with Johansson as The Major. But now the video is being used by pro-Ghost in the Shell movie fans to denigrate those, particularly Asian Americans, who are against Johansson as The Major.

•Fresh Off the Boat actress Constance Wu invokes the term “blackface” when discussing the Ghost in the Shell casting controversy, making people upset.

The statement was made during a panel including Wu, Ming-Na Wen, Joan Chen, and Lynn Chen, moderated by Teddy Zee. “It was particularly heinous because they ran CGI tests to make her look Asian,” said Wu. “Some people call it ‘yellowface,’ but I say ‘the practice of balckface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” She also said the special effects tests “reduces our race and ethnicity to mere physical appearance, when our race and culture are so much deeper than how we look.”

Before the conference, Wen had tweeted about Johansson’s casting, writing, “Nothing against Scarlett Johansson. In fact, I’m a big fan. But everything against this Whitewashing of Asian role.”

Dr. Strange

• Tilda Swinton is cast as The Ancient One, originally a Tibetian character as well as an antiquated stereotype of an Asian mystic. Swinton was cast as a way to create a more updated, non-stereotypical version of the character, and while casting a woman is a unique decision for the character, the casting also erases the character’s original Asian roots. Check her out in the trailer:

(Personal commentary: aside from Swinton as a jarring Ancient One, hearing Benedict Cumberbatch with an nasally American accent is…upsetting.)

•Swinton tells Den of Geek that when she was approached to do the character, she was never told that she was playing an Asian man. “The script I was presented with did not feature an Asian man for me to play, so that was never a question when I was being asked to do it. It will all be revealed when you see the film, I think. There are very great reasons for us to feel very settled and confident with the decisions that were made.”

• C. Robert Cargill, the co-screenwriter for Dr. Strange, tells his friends, film reviewers and hosts of movie review/comedy show Double Toasted Korey Coleman and Martin Thomas, about the process he took in remaking The Ancient One. In his words, he didn’t want to offend China with a Tibetan character. (Discussion occurs around the 18 minute mark.)

However, Cargill later clarified his comments on Twitter, since his original comments suggest that he and Marvel were of the same mind about the Tibet-China situation. “CLARIFICATION: that interview answer going around was to a question from a fan specifically about MY JUSTIFICATION, not Marvel’s…FOR THE RECORD: no one at Marvel or with the film ever talked to me about China, so contrary to headlines, I didn’t confirm anything.”

Entertainment Weekly also states that the film version of The Ancient One is now based in Nepal, which makes it even more confusing as to why a non-Asian actress was chosen.

• Marvel releases a statement about their record of inclusion, obtained by PEOPLE.

“Marvel has a very strong record of diversity in its casting of films and regularly departs from stereotypes and source material to bring its MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe] to life. The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”

One could say their statement features many fictional statements as far as their film universe goes, because the MCU is still not diverse enough in terms of race, gender, and sexuality.

These are a lot of moving parts, and there’s a lot to parse through. At first, I was going to write a post providing my point of view, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt like I, a black woman, might want to sit this one out. I’ve written on entertainment moves affecting Asian Americans before, but let’s be honest; I’m not Asian, and I’m not about to wade in any “honorary Asian” waters, especially with how nuanced the issues surrounding these films have become. Instead, I thought I’d ask some of my online buddies if I could interview them about their opinions on these films.

Keith Chow is the creator and head of The Nerds of Color, a site focusing on the nerdy side of entertainment, but from the perspective of POC and other marginalized peoples. Claire Lanay is the new weekend co-host of podcast Afronerd Radio and CEO of Renegade Nerd Entertainment. I was happy to interview them both via email and break down just what people needed to understand about the lack of foresight and sensitivity that went into the creation of the Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange movies.

What were your initial reactions to the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Scarlett Johansson as Kusanagi?

Chow: I think like most folks, I was disappointed but not surprised. It’s hard to believe that whitewashing is still considered acceptable practice in Hollywood, and these castings are no exception. But in light of the outrage (and lack of box office) that movies like Aloha and Gods of Egypt engendered, you’d think the studios would start taking the hint.

Lanay: Initially, I was mildly annoyed yet amused by Swinton’s casting as The Ancient One…I tried to play devil’s advocate and ask myself what discussions led to this outcome? Similar to the problems with the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, many of these comic book characters were created several decades ago and are inherently racist.  Other properties were created as a result of cultural appropriation which has now become a recognizable trope in it of itself i.e. White guy learns the ways of the East, masters it in a day and is better suited to unlock the wisdom, magic and skills of these mystic teachings in a manner the savage natives never could – Iron Fist, anyone?

So why switch The Ancient One from a Tibetan man to a British woman? Could the reason have been that without including another female character, the film would look the way most movies, comic book or otherwise, do – a sausage fest?  OK fine.  Let’s make her a woman.

I half-jokingly tell my friends that Hollywood has an unspoken rule about not allowing more than one person per color per movie or TV show (if at all). On the rare occasions there is more than one person per color, they’re usually a minor/expendable character and therefore, the first to get killed off…Unless you’re Empire or Blackish, you can’t have more than one black character…Doctor Strange has Benedict Wong playing the servant.  They have Chiwetel Ejiofor playing Baron Mordo.  So, of course, they most certainly cannot have another POC playing the Ancient One.  Heavens, no! Too many minorities!  I may not like Hollywood’s twisted logic and how they conduct ethnic/gender musical chairs to feign balance or political correctness, but I’ve grown accustomed to it.

Now that they’re saying the reason why the character isn’t Tibetan is because it would piss off China… I’m right back to square one asking “WTF?” Here I was trying my hardest to understand their reasoning and then they go throwing me for a loop with their mental gymnastics in a weak attempt to rationalize whitewashing.  Just because you don’t want the character to be Tibetan doesn’t mean the character cannot be Asian.  Would The Ancient One originally have announced him/herself as Tibetan? If they’re so worried about making all that Chinese dough… why not make the character Chinese? Have him/her speak Mandarin.  Have him/her walk around with a large neon sign that says “Made in China”.

They’re implying that in order to avoid offending other cultures, they have to erase them.  Are they so lazy that they are not willing to put any thought into how they could modernize these POC characters for today’s audience?

As for Ghost in the Shell, here are some thoughts I had in regards to Max Landis’ comments:

To make a blanket statement that there are no Asian A-List actors, well yeah, if Asians are not even allowed to play Asian, then I don’t see how it would be possible for them to be visible enough to become A-list. That’s not by accident, that’s by design.

The other thing that was mentioned was that there are no Asian actors capable of getting a movie greenlit… See the highlighted movies on this list [in this article’s inset]. [Most] fail, flop, bomb.  Yet, nothing changes.  I’m starting to wonder if they ever will…Scarlett Johansson is playing a character named Motoko Kusanagi.  It baffles my mind that there are people who don’t see this as offensive.

Marvel has had a long-standing issue with casting for a certain demo; i.e. casting all male leads except for the Black Panther as a white male (even more specifically, a white male with either dark or blonde hair and a “dudebro”-ish attitude, even if the character wasn’t originally written that way). Marvel has no Asian superheroes, and the chance they could have had to give representation, with Iron Fist, was missed [for more information on Iron Fist and the lack of Asian representation, visit The Nerds of Color and Twitter hashtag #AAIronFist]. With that said, how do you feel Marvel should have tackled The Ancient One?

Chow: The problem is that Marvel, like a lot of people, assume whiteness is the default. So when they encounter tricky ethnic characters (i.e., stereotypes) like the Mandarin or the Ancient One, their solution is to remove that character’s race and think they’re doing us a favor. I said this during the whole #AAIronFist thing, but the way you deal with negative racial stereotypes isn’t to erase race from the equation, just write the character better. In the case of the Ancient One, just make the character not one-dimensional, and he/she could still have been Asian.

I guarantee an actress of Tilda Swinton’s caliber would not have taken the role if it was one-note. So why not afford that opportunity to an actress of color? Better yet, if you had to racebend Ancient One (for fear of Chinese censors or whatever) then don’t cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange! Can you imagine someone like Sendhil Ramamurthy or Naveen Andrews in the role? Hell, I would have been happy with Keanu Reeves (who was rumored). But they cast the whitest man in the world? Come on now.

Lanay: Wasn’t anybody out there the least bit curious as to what George Takei could have done with The Ancient One?  Ken Watanabe?  Chow Yun-Fat?…How about Michelle Yeoh?  Joan Chen?  Gong Li?  Bai Ling?

I’ve had so many heated debates and arguments with people about Iron Fist.  The argument for keeping Danny Rand white is that “it’s what the author intended for how that character’s story should be told”. According to that logic, we should stay 100 percent true to the original cannon and lore even if that means 80-plus years of American comic book history has primarily only given us white male leading characters as the hero and a handful of female/POC characters seen mostly as sidekicks, background or filler.

Recall, if you will, Michelle Rodriguez’s comments after Michael B. Jordan was cast as Human Torch and Jason Momoa was cast as Aquaman – “Stop stealing the white people’s characters and make some of your own”.  As if no one has tried?  Even if I understood why it’s bemoaned when a POC is cast as a character originally envisioned as white, why is it ok to “steal” our characters who were specifically created to be of color?

As much as I like and respect Marvel, I am truly disheartened by their approach to this issue.  They rather avoid it than face it head on.  For a company whose brand is kick-assery and bravery, this looks cowardly. Am I surprised?  No.  Disappointed?  Yes.  Captain America: Civil War will be their 14th film and only now are they barely getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel on the film schedule.

I will say that they do seem to be putting in a concerted effort on the TV side.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has the wonderful Ming-Na Wen as Melinda May and Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson (nee Skye) has addressed her bi-racial parentage.  I’m pleased to see that has been acknowledged since other hapa actresses such as Kristin Kreuk have played fully white characters on shows like Smallville.

Dr. Strange, as a comic book series, draws its inspiration from the 1930s radio series Chandu the Magician, which also features a white man receiving mystic instruction from an Asian teacher, this time an Indian yogi. With all of the stereotypical Asian mysticism Dr. Strange is based in, how do you feel the film should have been approached (despite the fact that we haven’t seen the full movie)? With Benedict Cumberbatch playing Dr. Strange and set pictures featuring non-Asian actors in Asian locations and in Tibetian monk-esque clothes, how do you feel about the appropriation factor of the film? 

Chow: It’s the same problem with Iron Fist, Doctor Strange is another example of the white man goes to the Orient for enlightenment trope. It’s so obvious that people’s reaction to the trailer was “Didn’t we already see this in Batman Begins? And I’d answer, yeah, you’ve seen it in every movie! At this point, Hollywood should start casting more POC leads just to stand out from the pack. Studies have already proven those films make more money anyway. But Strange and Iron Fist and even Daredevil prove Hollywood only thinks of Asians as set decoration and not human beings.

Lanay: I do not deny they have a very talented roster.  I’m a Sherlock fan, so I don’t doubt Cumberbatch will bring something interesting to the role.  Tilda Swinton also played a role originally meant for a male in the movie Snowpiercer. Her bizarre character was in no way defined by gender or race regardless of the fact the movie was directed by a Korean or that the story was based on a French graphic novel.  Swinton’s look is androgynous, unique and has always benefited her with sci-fi roles.  For all we know, she’ll be utterly fascinating to watch in Doctor Strange.

As for them playing dress up in monk-esque attire?  Appropriation is unavoidable.  I’ll say this – I have a problem with folks using all of my toys but not allowing me to play with them.

Swinton has come out and said that the way she was approached for the role was never under the guise that she was playing an Asian man and that she’s confident in how she’s portrayed the character in the film. How do you feel about her statement? Also, what do you think about the compounded problem Marvel has created by whitewashing a character, yet adding diversity by making the character a woman?

Chow: It could have been a woman of color. Just because they gender bent the character doesn’t give them a pass if they’re still being racist. If they were going to change the character, and not make him “Asian,” then what’s with all the orientalism in the setting? Even then, it’s still wrong because they’ve taken yet another POC character and erased him from existence.

That goes back to what I said earlier, she may not be “playing Asian” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t whitewash the character. They still took an originally Asian character and bent over backwards to come up with a reason for why said character had to be played by a white person. This is the double standard that’s the most frustrating. When I called for an Asian American actor to play Danny Rand, I had to come up with every justifiable reason for the suggestion, how an Asian American would not alter the character whatsoever. But white folks are like “just shave your head, it’s all good.”

Hollywood’s History of Whitewashed Asian Films (as provided by Claire Lanay)
  • BORIS KARLOFF
    Fu Manchu in ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu’ 1932
  • KATHERINE HEPBURN
    Jade in ‘Dragon Seed’ 1944
  • JOHN WAYNE
    Genghis Khan in ‘The Conqueror’ 1956
  • MARLON BRANDO
    Sakini in ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’ 1956
  • MICKEY ROONEY
    Mr. Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ 1961
  • ELIZABETH TAYLOR
    Cleopatra in ‘Cleopatra’ 1963
  • DAVID CARRADINE
    Kwai Chang Caine in ‘Kung Fu’ 1972-1975 &
    ‘Kung Fu: The Legend Continues’ 1993-1997
  • FISHER STEVENS
    Ben Jabituya in ‘Short Circuit’ 1986
  • LIAM NEESON
    Ra’s Al Ghul in ‘Batman Begins’ 2005
  • JUSTIN CHATWIN
    Goku in ‘Dragonball Evolution’ 2009
  • JAKE GYLLENHAAL
    Dastan in ‘Prince of Persia: Sands of Time’ 2010
  • NOAH RINGER, NICOLA PELTZ, JACKSON RATHBONE
    Aang, Katara, Sokka in ‘The Last Airbender’ 2010
  • BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
    Khan Noonien Singh in ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ 2013
  • JOHNNY DEPP
    Tonto in ‘Lone Ranger’ 2013
  • CHRISTIAN BALE, JOEL EDGERTON
    Moses, Ramses in ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ 2014
  • EMMA STONE
    Ng in ‘Aloha’ 2015
  • ROONEY MARA
    Tiger Lily in ‘Pan’ 2015
  • GERARD BUTLER, NIKOLAJ COSTER-WALDAU
    Set, Horus in ‘Gods of Egypt’ 2016
  • TILDA SWINTON
    Ancient One in ‘Doctor Strange’ 2016
  • SCARLETT JOHANSSON
    Motoko Kusanagi in ‘Ghost in the Shell’ 2017

Ghost in the Shell is, as Jon Tsuei has written on Twitter, an inherently Japanese story, but now the history is probably getting taken out of the film. Do you think the film is on the path of ignoring some of the historical and cultural elements that makes Ghost in the Shell as provocative as it is?

Lanay: If that’s the case, then why call it Ghost in the Shell?  If you’re going to remove the character’s backstory and culture, then call it something else.  At least Tom Cruise and Doug Liman understood that when they were making ‘Edge of Tomorrow’.  It was an American adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill.  They weren’t going to be idiots and keep the same title, the same character names and the same history.  Would you buy Tom Cruise playing a character named Keiji Kiriya?

The publisher of Kodansha has stated that he sees nothing wrong with Johansson playing Kusanagi, and quite a few Japanese movie goers have expressed the opinion of not going to see the movie anyway. What does this tell you about how the international market, particularly the Asian market, might accept or reject this film?

Chow: The way we view and discuss race in America is very different than how people in other countries view and discuss race. Japan has its own issues with how it views race and ethnicity that is irrelevant to Asian Americans in America.

To be blunt, folks in Japan or China might flock to the movie. Who knows? But that isn’t the problem. My advocating for Asian American actors has nothing to do with Chinese moviegoers, to be honest. China has its own movie industry with its own stars. There are a billion and a half Chinese people in the world. In China, “representation” of Chinese faces isn’t an issue. That is not what’s happening here, however. We [in America] have to move away from this idea that Asians in America are all foreign. Going back to Iron Fist, the whole gist of my original essay was to prove that we too are American. Why does “westernizing” something automatically require casting white people? This is the question I want people to ask themselves.

Lanay: The reason why a lot of folks in Japan are not upset about Johansson’s casting in Ghost in the Shell is because they already have their own media infrastructure.  They already have their own, actors, singers, dancers, writers, producers, directors.  They already have their own content made for them by them.  So they don’t really care about one movie with one white actress.  In this country, Hollywood gives us less than a handful of opportunities to see ourselves represented in movies and television, so of course we’re clamoring for whatever crumbs and scraps are tossed our way.  The rest of the world soaks up our content, but we don’t promote or watch content from the rest of the world.  That makes seeing diversity in American media all the more important to POC in this country because it’s such a rarity.

Do I think it’ll do as well as Lucy? Doubtful.  Do I think a Black Widow movie would be the better option for Johansson?  Absolutely! She’s not hard up for cash or some struggling actress trying to make her big break.  She didn’t have to say yes to Ghost in the Shell.

I want to see Doctor Strange.  Controversy aside, I am a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor.  I’ll take a look at Iron Fist since I’ve enjoyed watching Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  Even though the nasty discourse has left a bad taste in my mouth, I’m very curious to see how they build towards The Defenders.  Can’t wait to see Luke Cage!  Will I watch Ghost in the Shell?  Nah, I’ll be skipping that one.

Recently, several actresses of Asian descent have called The Major “blackface,” launching another layer to the outrage. Do you think about the controversy over calling such casting “blackface,” despite the term “yellowface” in existence?

Chow: Yeah, I cringed when I saw that report. I in no way condone the analogy, primarily because yellowface is an offensive and racist enough practice on its own — but I get why Constance felt she had to make it. One of the problems is that most people think race in America is binary. This has always been part of the struggle for Asian Americans when discussing race in that context.

Often in matters of race, Asian Americans are only perceived depending on their relation to whiteness or blackness. But I don’t think that excuses co-opting black struggle to make a point. I think as a community we have to be mindful about how we coalition build and support one another without being anti-black in the process. This is why the backlash against #OscarsSoWhite was disheartening. This was an example of a pan-ethnic protest against the industry’s overwhelming whiteness, but for whatever reason non-black POCs thought their issues were being ignored. It didn’t help that during the telecast aired, Asians were still openly mocked.

So I understand the frustration and feeling like you’re invisible. But we shouldn’t criticize others for not standing up for us if we don’t first stand up for ourselves. This is why I’m working with Ellen Oh (of #WeNeedDiverseBooks fame) to launch a campaign to bring even more attention to the racist practice of whitewashing. We’ll be attempting to take to social media on May 3 with the hashtag #WhitewashedOUT. I’ll have more details on that soon[click here for that information].

Lanay: As someone who was fortunate enough to grow up with friends and influences of all backgrounds… As someone who has so much love and respect for the African American community… As someone who is deeply proud to call many intelligent, creative, beautiful Black people my friends… I’m very troubled by Constance Wu’s choice to use the term “blackface” over the term “yellowface” in regards to what we’re discussing here.  She specifically said “blackface” because she thought it would be more “evocative”.

While I fully appreciate the outrage towards her comments, I have some idea of where she’s coming from. During the Oscars telecast, Chris Rock did a fine job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room.  So all the more reason people in the Asian community were upset and insulted by three little Asian kids being paraded on stage to make fun of their own kind. Can’t forget Sacha Baron Cohen’s “little yellow people with the tiny dicks” joke.

While I deem her tone to be a little aggressive or hostile, I can understand why Wu and many others were incensed by these jokes during a show that was basically hammering diversity down people’s throats.  Yes, there were no Black nominees.  There were no Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Disabled, or LGBT ones either (as far as I know).

…When I came across the “blackface” comment, my first thought was: “Why all of the sudden, are Asians getting angry now?  Why weren’t they speaking out and standing up when we were getting disrespected or excluded before?”  I was starting to feel like I was the only Asian-American who gave a damn.  Why are the rest of them so late to the party?

…I’m bothered by Wu’s comments because it reinforces the divide amongst POC.  We should be working together.  It’s bad enough that we keep falling into the trap of begging Hollywood for a seat at the table and trying to convince white people of our worth without us turning on each other too.

What do you want Hollywood to learn from these casting debacles?

Chow: Mainly that white people are not the only people in the world. I wan the studios to understand that having non-white people in a movie can actually be a good thing. But mostly, I want there to be more opportunity for actors of color. 

Lanay: The studio executives don’t view these decisions as debacles.  They’re not listening.  They don’t care. They wanted to cast name-actors, so they did.  White is the standard of beauty.  White is the grade for which excellence is measured.  White is the default setting.  Anything outside of that is seen as an abnormality.

Rinko Kikuchi is an academy award-nominated actress for her role in Babel.  She’s already in the nerd-sphere starring in projects like Pacific Rim.  Tao Okamoto is a supermodel in Japan.  She was in The Wolverine and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  I bet you anything, these women weren’t even considered.  I bet you no Asian actress was considered for Ghost in the Shell.

There have been plenty of white-starred movies that have failed.  There have been plenty of diverse-starred movies that have succeeded.  Hollywood learns nothing.  The outliers who take risks and go against conventional wisdom are the ones who will instill change… eventually.  I hope I’m still around to see that change.  Scratch that.  I am going to be part of that change. ♦

The controversy surrounding these films are needed, and the conversations they’re starting are necessary. If Hollywood is really going to put their money where their mouth is when it comes to proper representation, two of the first places to start are finally ending the practices whitewashing and yellowface. When a group of people grow up hardly ever seeing themselves on-screen, that causes serious psychological, social, and cultural repercussions. Ending these practices and representing people fairly on-screen would allow for everyone to feel accepted and like they are a valued part of America. Lanay states this point best:

“For a long time, I hated being Asian.  I hated the way I looked.  I hated not getting the auditions I wanted.  I hated not being taken seriously.  My mother would always tell me not to make waves.  With all due respect – F*ck that sh*t! I’m making some damn waves!  Nobody should feel like they were born in the wrong skin.  Nobody should feel ashamed for being what they are.”

Other articles to check out:

#S4MBlerds: Dear Hollywood, whitewashing doesn’t make better movies|Blavity

Scarlett Johansson, Tilda Swinton, and How Hollywood Keeps Giving Asian Roles to White Actors|Complex

6 Japanese Actresses Who Could (and Should!) Replace Scarlett Johansson in ‘Ghost in the Shell’|Yahoo

Hollywood’s glaring problem: White actors playing Asian characters|L.A. Times

N.O.C. One-Shot: Whitewashing in Black and Yellow| The Nerds of Color

Some Thoughts on Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell|The Nerds of Color

Hollywood’s upcoming films prove it loves Asian culture – as long as it comes without Asians|Media Diversified

What a Shitty Week to be an Asian American Woman in Hollywood|The Nerds of Color

Constance Wu And Ming-Na Wen Protest Hollywood’s Whitewashing Of “Ghost In The Shell”|Buzzfeed

Why Won’t Hollywood Cast Asian Actors?|New York Times

Exclusive Interview: Alice Wong (the Disability Visibility Project)

The Disability Visibility Project (DVP) is a site everyone working towards equal representation needs to visit. Too often, those of us in the online field of social justice journalism/opinion-making stay within the racial and sexuality boundaries and forget that there is yet another group we need to reach out to; those with disabilities. People with disabilities often fit within one or two of the aformentioned groups, but all of their needs and issues are hardly ever catered to at the same time. I realized this about my own site, and while I still have work to do (and still looking for guest posts from people far more experienced than me who might be able to speak to the issues of the disabled), I decided the best thing to do would be to reach out and ask for help. One of the first people I asked was the owner of the Disability Visibility Project, Alice Wong.

Wong is a Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco and has authored and completed research for the Community Living Policy Center, a center for rehabilitation research and training funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. She has created the Disability Visibility Project with the goal of amplifying the voices of those with disabilities, voices who often get shouted down by the media. The site is also a partner with StoryCorps, a non-profit organization that allows people to record their stories and share with others, as well as provide a way to create an oral history of families and communities. I was excited to interview Wong and get her perspective. In this email interview, you’ll read her thoughts on how disability is treated in the media, what non-disabled people can be better allies to their friends and family members with disabilities, and how you can contribute to the Disability Visibility Project.

What led you to start the Disability Visibility Project?

Alice Wong: I listen to NPR a lot and every Friday on Morning Edition they broadcast a short piece from StoryCorps. I also love their animated stories from their website and appreciated the wide diversity of stories. Later on I discovered that San Francisco had a StoryCorps recording booth and attended one of their live events and that’s when I first came up with the DVP.

StoryCorps is a fascinating initiative to the partnered up with. How did the Disability Visibility Project and StoryCorps join forces?

At the StoryCorps event I attended in SF around 2013, they mentioned how they have various community partnerships and I immediately thought there should be a disability-specific partnership since the SF Bay Area has large and vibrant disability community. I reached out to them and after a series of conversations on how a partnership would work and what’s involved, it was relatively easy. What’s great about StoryCorps is they have the infrastructure in place: the people, the equipment, and the relationship with the Library of Congress to archive these oral histories. Our goal as a community partnership is to make sure our people are represented.

There are some inherent problems in how the media portrays disability. What are some of the biggest problems you see in the media when it comes to reporting on disability or portraying disability in entertainment?

So many problems! I’ll focus on one: media (both creators of popular culture and professions such as journalism) is overwhelmingly non-disabled. When you have non-disabled people pitching, writing and editing stories about disabled, you’re missing the lived experience that’s intimately tied to accurate depictions of disability. And it’s more than a matter of hiring more disabled people in media–there’s also a need for a culture shift to examine how ableism is entrenched in the media. I spoke about this issue herehere and here for more information.

How does the Disability Visibility Project aim to uplift the voices of the disabled? What kind of impact do you think the Disability Visibility Project has had?

The word ’empowerment’ is overused but the DVP truly does empower people—the tools and resources are there for disabled people to use. They can shape their narrative in any way they want and by creating new media that’s more authentic, it will amplify and uplift those voices. Not really sure what kind of impact the DVP has on mainstream media but the disability community seems to dig it and that means the world to me. I hear people are using the content from our website in classes and that’s awesome.  As the DVP evolved, it created a space online for people to have conversations outside of the recording booth. Our Facebook group has over 5000 members and it’s a place where I curate links to blog posts and information about disability culture. Some interesting debates take place in that group, sometimes very heated and contentious but overall folks are respectful of one another. I also host Twitter chats on specific issues such as a recent one on 4/14 on North Carolina’s bathroom law and the conversation was about transgender and disability solidarity w/ 2 disabled transgender people as the guest co-hosts. These kinds of activities energize me.

Have you seen any improvements in the media when it comes to showcasing the disabled, the issues affecting the disabled, etc.?

It’s still pretty sucky. The recent report by the Annenberg Center that was widely touted as the go-to report on diversity in Hollywood completely excluded disability in their report. It’s hard to improve things when you’re totally erased at the outset. However, there are many people working hard to start those dialogues and slowly work their way in to a ‘seat at the table.’

Social media is great in trying to balance out this lack of representation where there is room to create and signal boost great work that’s diverse and authentic.

There a lot of diversity fights out there, but unfortunately, we don’t see too many groups who advocate for the marginalized extend that fight to the disabled. What are ways the non-disabled can support the disabled in the fight for inclusion?

I know there are lots of folks tired of supporting others while others don’t support them. I noticed the conversation during the Oscars when there was pushback of Asian Americans who talked about the lack of diversity in Hollywood in response Chris Rock’s comments. It can sound like, “What about me?” and the push to de-center any specific conversation or focus.

I’m probably guilty of that too or may seem like it because it is rare that disability is ever mentioned so I have to say, “What about us?” to even introduce the notion. At the same time I genuinely try to be a good ally and support activism across movements and intersectional identities.

One thing non-disabled people can do is think, “Who’s missing?” and do something about it whenever there is a discussion of diversity. It’s not only about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Plus engaging with disabled people is another step after asking that initial question.

We know about Black Lives Matter, 18 Million Rising, CAIR, NCLR, etc. But even though disability and racial issues overlap, it doesn’t seem like they’re always focused on at the same time. With that said, who are some disability advocates/advocacy groups the non-disabled should get to know?

I’ve had to good fortune to come across some amazing disabled people of color in my local community and online. Here are some disabled people of color your readers should check out (among many others):

Leroy Moore, founder of Krip Hop Nation who collaborated on Where Is Hope? a documentary looking at police brutality toward people with disabilities.

Mia Mingus, a queer disabled woman of color who writes about and works in disability justice and transformative justice community organizing

Showing Up for Racial Justice has a Disability and Access toolkit that folks can use

Dior Vargas, a Latina feminist mental health activist who is the creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project.

How can individuals contribute to the Disability Visibility Project?

There are several options—folks can record their story using the StoryCorps app, if they live in San Francisco, Atlanta, or Chicago they can go in person to the recording booth. We also accept guest blog posts for as another option for those who prefer to communicate via written or visual language. We also partnered w/ another organization’s Instagram campaign #365DaysWithDisability where people can submit photos. Details on how to participate here: https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/how-to-participate/

What’s your vision for an inclusive America?

One that understands and embraces intersectionality without having to use the terms ‘intersectionality’ or ‘diversity.’ Where differences in bodies, ways of thinking and being, and in identity, are embedded and the default in definitions of ‘normal’ or ‘American.’♦

Exclusive Interview: Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn (“Lovers in Their Right Mind”)

Lovers in Their Right Mind is a film looking to change the conversation about interracial and interfaith relationships. Much of the interracial conversation revolves around the black-white dynamic, even though there are tons of other types of interracial, intercultural, and interfaith relationships out there. Lovers in Their Right Mind, written by journalist-author Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn and screenwriter Barrington Smith-Seetachitt, focuses on the love between a black woman and an Iranian immigrant and the learning curves both go through in the relationship.

I’ve already covered Lovers in Their Right Mind on JUST ADD COLOR, so I was excited to speak with Littlejohn about the film and how her experiences influenced the film. Lovers in Their Right Mind is still in pre-production. A crowdfunding campaign will be announced later this summer. Keep up with Lovers in Their Right Mind on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

How did you come up with the story for Lovers in their Right Mind

I had co-authored a book [with Christelyn Karazin] called Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate, Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, which was on interracial, intercultural and interfaith dating and relationships. It had been optioned by a company and they offered me an opportunity to write my vision. As I was trying to come up with the character that spoke to both the three factors of race, culture, and religion, I was looking for a singular couple that would inhabit that. While [with] that particular [book] option, they decided to go in a different direction with everybody swirling, I felt like what I had created spoke to what I wanted to see on screen, which was a different kind of conversation about black women and who they have opportunities to date. I felt like we had seen so much of black women and white men in television and film that we never get sense of black women outside of the black and white coupling. The options for black women are so much more vast…and from my own experience, that was true.

I began to look at my own dating habits…I had been dating a Persian man and the conversation of meeting families had come up. The thing he said was, they wouldn’t have a problem with you because you’re black, but because you’re American, you don’t speak Farsi, and various other things. So that’s where the idea for the outline came from, and when it was turned down, there was an actor who I knew and had interviewed, and I was talking to him about it because he was asking me what was swirling (because it was in my signature in my email account). I told him I was trying to explore this idea of an African American woman with a Persian man, and his comment was, “Well, am Persian!” So we had a really good conversation.

I had dated some Persian men before, and…when I began to look back on my own dating [experiences], it became a really great source of narrative tension and drama, comedy and romance. As I continued to research, there are a lot of wonderful similarities between the two cultures and, at least here in southern California, Iranian Americans tend to be more insular, black people live in their communities and never the ‘twain meet, it became a really great story to talk about my city that I grew up in and people in my city that never get seen on screen.

You mentioned Swirling; since the book discusses interracial relationships, what do you think America needs to know to become more educated about interracial relationships?

I think that swirling has become a hot topic because we are seeing the demographic shifts of our people. We are more a multicultural, multiracial America and globally, people are intermixing and intermarrying. You look at films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and how that was really popular; it’s not lost on pop culture that these things are happening in our own world. I think the thing I wanted to bring to the table was a different dynamic that you haven’t seen. I think with Swirling as a book, it became interesting in that it invited black women to open up their options. Many times, the books we had read previously and that I had seen were very regal-focused or focused on biology or the dearth of black men.

What I wanted to bring was a different discussion…what are some of the reasons black women don’t [date outside of their race] because black women are still the least likely to date outside of their race or culture out of any other ethnic group. What were some of the factors that were keeping black women from reaching outside of their comfort zone? I think those discussions are important to have, particularly when we look at issues like black love and black lives matter. All these things are interconnected with us socially, but what does it mean when we are looking for a mate, for someone who speaks to our heart’s desire?

Oftentimes, that social construct of race doesn’t hold up when you’re looking for someone to partner with. It’s important to look at factors beyond race when considering a mate, and I wanted to present a non-apologetic narrative that it’s okay for black women to date [outside of their race], because of the hundreds of women I spoke with, it was always [discussed] with shame, or controversy, or “My momma won’t jive with this,” or “My daddy won’t think this is great” or “My cousins will think I’m crazy.” It’s very rooted in fear. So the thing that is important to me about the book and about this movie is to see how we can reach beyond the lines of fear, beyond even the rhetoric of our own cultures and explore who we are as people and what we want; what fulfills us as people instead of subscribing to a group-think mentality.

One thing you said reminded me of Jungle Fever; in one part of the movie; you have Wesley Snipes’ character’s girlfriend hanging out with her friends, and they’re talking amongst themselves about whether they would date outside of their race. Wesley Snipes’ girlfriend says that she wouldn’t because she’s a strong black woman and feels that she should only date strong black men. It seems like she puts a very racially-charged focus on why she only dates black men, as if to prove her blackness, not whoever I might like if they aren’t black. With that said, how do you feel about some black women who feel like they need to date inside the race to prove their blackness to themselves and to the world?

Well, we [Littlejohn and Smith-Seetachitt] address this in the book and in the film. I do think that there is an identity concern among black women, that if they’re dating someone that’s not black that it somehow negates or dilutes their blackness, but that’s overwhelmingly not true. The black women that we spoke to for the book and interviewed for the film are, very definitely, black women, and own their blackness and blackness is not given or taken based on who you’re partnered with. Blackness is who you are, and they bring that sense of who they are into their relationships and give that sense of themselves into their children, they pass along that history to their children.

Rarely have I encountered women who completely buy into or absorb into another cultural…or racial construct because they have now partnered with a man who is non-black. You are who you are, and you bring that into your relationship. That’s an important thing with a relationship with anybody, whether they’re black, Latino, Persian, what have you. When you’re in a relationship, it’s not that you’re negating who you are racially. It’s that you’re sharing a part of yourself with someone. The thing that I find really exciting about interracial and intercultural dating, both personally and writing, about it is that people learn to appreciate people as people. They learn to understand different cultural traditions and understanding. There was a woman I was interviewing for the book, and she was dating a Swedish man. They eventually married and she learned how to speak Swedish and they now live in Sweden. She learned a lot about another culture that has broadened her, both in her life and work experiences.

I think there’s value in that. If we’re going to be this global community we keep saying we are, if we’re going to be this post-racial community we say we want to be, then we need to learn how to talk to people, and address people and learn about people who are different than us, in ways that allow us to appreciate people as people instead of under this blanket of colorblindness. You see my color when you see me; it’s not about being colorblind. I’m quoting Mellody Hobson here–it’s really about being color brave. It’s about looking at my color, my experiences, my heritage, my people, and getting to know that as a part of who I am. This black construct isn’t all of who I am; there are so many other things about me that are worth getting to know and that’s an important part of loosening the shackles of fear and being able to open yourself and your mind to something different. It doesn’t change who you are; it just gives you an opportunity to know who somebody else is.

Now I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate—

Sure, go ahead!

What about fetish? Because I’ve been several online forums and Facebook groups about interracial dating and experiences with interracial dating, and a topic that always comes up is when some fetishize another race. For some, it seems like the line between fetish and a regular relationship is muddied. What do you make of this issue and how it comes into the discussion?

Well, if you find that your partner is fetishizing you, then that’s a relationship you don’t want. Then to say, I’ve dated a white man, an Italian man, a Mexican man, and they fetishized me, therefore I’m not going to date any more white or Italian or Mexican men, is pretty sad! You may be missing out on some white or Italian or Mexican man somewhere down the line that adores you for who you are.

I think any kind of new experience, if there is something you’re concerned about—be it a same-race relationship or an interracial relationship—you need to talk about it. If you don’t get the answers you need or deserve, then that’s not the type of relationship you should be in with that person instead of [labeling] that race of people. I was married to a black man, but that wasn’t my cue to then say, “I will no longer date any black men.” I date men of all races and of all cultures. I date people who I find appealing and attractive, interesting, invigorating, and worthwhile. A lot of the relationships I’ve had have led me to this particular moment and to this particular story. Had I not had those experiences and turned them down, not only would I have not had those experiences, but I’d also be sitting around saying, “I don’t have any love in my life.”

Men have fetishes, women have fetishes, that’s not cool; if you feel like that’s what’s happening to you in your relationship, then move on from that relationship; don’t label the whole race of people, the whole culture of people as such and such because you’ve had one bad experience. You never know what wonderful experiences you could have with someone who appreciates you for you.

(L-R) Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Picture courtesy Littlejohn
(L-R) Barrington Smith-Seetachitt and Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn. Picture courtesy Littlejohn

Since Lovers in their Right Mind also includes the interfaith element, how would you suggest people approach tackling interfaith issues in relationships?

I think for all of these questions, it can be summed up to talk about it [with your partner]. My religious needs and wants may be different from someone else’s, and it’s a part of being upfront in that relationships. I know a lot of Jewish-Christian relationships, a lot of Muslim-Christian relationships. It’s about what you want and need from your religion, your faith, your relationship, and what you want for your children.

I’m not going to say that I’m a dating expert–I’m a filmmaker and a journalist who’s writing about a situation that I find intriguing, and after a ton of research and this is what I came up with–but the throughline in all of it is communication. Talk about it. I think we’re so fearful of having those conversations. The same conversation you need to have with your partner about STDs and how you want to have sexual practice are the same type of conversations you need to have with your partner about faith and what your faith means to you.

I go back to My Big Fat Greek Wedding; Ian wanted [Toula], and she wanted to be married in a Greek Orthodox Church and he got that done; they got married in a Greek Orthodox Church because he felt like it was worth it for him. For other couples, it goes further; will we celebrate Christmas or will we celebrate Jewish holidays and how do we do that with our children? I think those are very individual, personal discussions, and once the couple has had them and comes to terms with what they want in their marriage, that’s between them, their God, their marriage, and their children, and nobody else really has any say in that because that’s what they decided as a couple.

…This conversation comes up for same-race people as well because they may be from different cultures. When we talk about this issue of interracial, interfaith, and intercultural, you can have intercultural experiences with people who are racially the same with you. These are conversations are still things you’d have to have.

Lovers in their Right Mind was chosen to be part of the DreamAgo’s 2016 Plume & Pellicule screenwriting atelier. How does it feel to have been chosen for that?

I’m still happy dancing! It’s a wonderful validation of the work we wanted to do. It’s really gratifying that an international workshop believed there was something valid in the story we wanted to tell. Here’s the wonderful thing; as we’ve been going through the process and getting all of our updates on things we needed to do, one of the gentlemen we’d been corresponding with…said he was very intrigued to read our script because he’s a French man married to a Persian woman.

It said to me a couple of things; that this was not an isolated story or just a cute little love story. This was something that resonated not only in the bounds of where it’s set, in Los Angeles, but it reached someone in France and the folks of DreamAgo in Switzerland. It’s not just an LA story. It’s not just a U.S. story. It’s a global story. It goes back to what I was saying; if we’re going to be this global nation of people who understand one another and work together…it makes sense to know who we are. It’s a super special honor. Hopefully, it’ll take us far. ♦

Exclusive Interview: Chantel Riley (“Race”)

Race, the biopic of Jesse Owens and his historic Olympic Games showing in 1936 Berlin, will soon be in theaters to trill and inspire audiences. The film, starring Stephan James as Owens, focuses on perseverance and success amid what would appear to be insurmountable struggle. Owens’ driven quality have inspired Chantel Riley, who plays Quincella Nickerson in the film.

JUST ADD COLOR was excited to have this exclusive interview with Riley, who talked about her stage life prior to film, how Race could be a contender for the 2017 Oscars, and her feelings about #OscarsSoWhite. To learn more about Race click here to see film stills and clips. Race comes to theaters Friday, Feb. 19.

Tell me about Quincella, your character. 

Quincella Nickerson is real, so she was actually around. She met Jesse in California. He had a track meet there and she’s always been into sports. From the research I read of her online–there’s not much–said that she was Jesse’s number one fan. Quincella Nickerson was always around when he was around. She was at all of his track meets and even at special events with celebrities and politicians, she would be around and he would invite her to the parties.

She was well known herself; she was a socialite. Her father was a businessman, very affluent in that time, especially in the 1930s; being a wealthy African-American man in the 1930s wasn’t very known in that time. So, a lot of people knew who her father was and who she was. I think she loved going out and being around people.

This is your first movie role. How is it to cut your film teeth on a project like this?

I was very shocked when I booked this role, and now I’m really excited. For it to be a movie like this is a big deal for me. I haven’t been in the industry that long, compared to most people, and to have your first film be something like this, and that this story is so powerful and for it to be about someone like Jesse, is such an honor for me. I’m so glad I can call this my first film project.

You come from the stage, having played Nala in The Lion King. First, how cool is it to have played a role like that, and second, what were some of the differences between stage and film acting that you had to get used to?

I’ve been in the [Nala] role for four years now, going on five, and it was the only thing I’ve done. It was very challenging to me at first to be on set. You have to be aware of your surroundings; you have to be aware of camera angles and…to make sure [the cameraman] can see your face. A lot of that I had to get used to. But on the stage, you just have to make sure your back’s never to the audience. When you’re on set…you’ve got to make sure you’re well aware of your surroundings and of every angle; they’ll shoot a scene from one area and they’ll shoot the exact same scene and you have to do it the exact same way from across the room. That was a little bit challenging.

Also, too, [The Lion King] was a live performance every night, so I think I pressured myself a lot to get every take perfect the first time because you’re so used to doing that onstage. You get one chance on stage in front of the audience; it’s not like you do a scene and then you’re like, “OK, guys, let me take that from the top and try this again.” You go all out. That’s definitely another major different from stage and set.

chantelriey

Race is a film that’s hoping to inspire audiences, much like 42. How did the film and its story inspire you?

Just knowing what Jesse had to go through during that time, I can’t even imagine what it’s like. I mean, it’s not too far off from what’s going on now, but just getting adversity just from the color of his skin and people looking down on him because of the color of his skin. It really taught me to push through no matter what and to not let anybody’s idea of you stop you from becoming the star you want to become or the person you really want to see yourself to be and God sees you to be also.

I just admire his courage to go through what he did, especially in a time during the Hitler regime and going to the Olympic Games…[Owens] had to make that decision [to go to the Games or stay]. He made that decision to go, and thank God he did, because he killed it, obviously, and won four gold medals. [He] proved not only to Hitler, but to the world, how amazingly talented he is and how you can be if you just put your mind to it and push. What he did for people of color was just incredible and proved to the world that we are more than what [they] think we are. It really inspired me to push.

Even in the film industry right now, #OscarsSoWhite has been going around and I don’t want to use [Hollywood’s discrimination] as an excuse to say they won’t hire me because I’m black. I want to be able to use that as a challenge and flip that around for the better for myself and say I can overcome that challenge, the same way Jesse did. I’m not going to use it as an excuse to say I’m never going to make it. No–I’m going to break that barrier and show [Hollywood] that I can make it!

#OscarsSoWhite has been a big topic. Race could be one of the films that breaks the Academy’s color barrier come nomination time in 2017. What do you think of the importance of a film like Race for our culture, especially in light of the Academy debacle?

It’s such a relief to see people that look like myself on film, and to see that people are excited about it. What it’s doing now is that it’s inspiring other filmmakers and directors and casting directors to now say, “Let’s try to make a difference here, let’s change it up and give people of color a chance.” There’s no doubt that we aren’t just as talented, just as smart, just as creative as they are. And goes for black, Hispanic, Native, Asian–we can do just as much as they can, it’s just a matter of giving us the chance to do so. That’s why I’m so excited for Race, and for the Nat Turner film that just came out at Sundance [The Birth of a Nation]. It [shows] what we are capable of doing and…[gives] us that chance to tell a story. Whether it’s a historic figure or non-historic figure, just give us the chance to tell that story.

It’s kind of bittersweet what’s going on, because it’ has to be talked about. I’m glad that it’s now being talked about and people are now making changes to make that happen. Because I believe that you have to start from the internal. Look at the makeup of the Academy. It’s like 95 percent men and 90 percent white or some kind of crazy, ridiculous number like that? It just starts form the internal source and make a change that way. And it’s not just a race difference, but age difference matters too. A guy that’s 80 years old isn’t going to understand or relate to films like Straight Outta Compton, you know what I’m saying? They definitely need to change it up and I’m glad that they are finally making that decision to do so.

What do you hope people learn from Race?

What I really hope people learn from this film is perseverance and believing in yourself to know you can make a difference. Jesse worked hard his whole life and pushed himself to limits only a few of us could ever imagine, but you see the benefits of doing so, of pushing and not letting trials and tribulations cut your dream off. We all go through it–we all have a dream and we all struggle, but you can’t let the struggle completely cut off the goal. We get to the point where we’re so close, and I just want everyone to persevere and push through because there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Exclusive Interview: April Reign Discusses the Effect of #OscarsSoWhite

#OscarsSoWhite has been the headlining news topic, and with so many opinions out there about the hashtag and the movement, the one opinion that’s probably the most important to understand is the opinion of the hashtag’s creator herself. April Reign, managing editor of Broadway Black, spoke with JUST ADD COLOR about the creation of #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy’s decision to change the status quo, the fallout surrounding the new Academy rules, and what she hopes people take away from the movement.

What prompted you to make #OscarsSoWhite last year? Did you think it would find the life it has found on Twitter?

Creating the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag happened very organically, in which I was sitting in my family room watching the Oscar nomination announcements. …I was just disappointed in the lack of representation of people of color and marginalized communities, especially in the acting categories but also behind the camera [like] the directors, especially last year with Ava DuVernay for the movie Selma and just overall—directors, cinematographers and screenwriters and so forth. I…was venting my frustration at that time. The very first tweet was “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair.” It took off, and I had no idea then—and even today—that it would be as pervasive and as international as it has become. I’m humbled by the support I’ve received and that the hashtag has received. It’s gratifying to see that the voices of so many have made a difference.

Last year, #OscarsSoWhite hit a nerve, but this year, that nerve was hit in an even bigger way. What do you think prompted the scale of the outrage we’ve seen?

I’ve been asked that question a couple of times now and I really don’t know. The only thing that I can think is that perhaps people thought that last year was just a fluke that people of color and marginalized communities weren’t represented, and when it happened this year with the major acting categories, people said, “Oh, maybe this is an issue. Maybe this is a pattern, so let’s take more of a look at the underlying statement that #OscarsSoWhite is trying to make.”

I can say that a couple of days before the nominations were announced in 2016, people were coming to me saying “We’ve seen some of the predictions as to who the nominations are going to recognize, so maybe it’s going to #OscarsSoWhite again.” …And in fact, it definitely experienced a resurgence. While I did several interviews last year and talked about it quite a bit, I definitely did not see the amount of interest I’ve seen this year, not just nationally, but internationally. I’ve done interviews with organizations in New Zealand and Australia and Ireland and London and more BBC organizations than I knew even existed. Those are not interviews I did in 2015.

How has it been to see the reactions, both good and bad, to #OscarsSoWhite?

I’m gratified by the support, and we see that the Academy has made substantial effort to address the issues underlying in the hashtag. With respect to the criticism, I have yet to see any that was well founded. …I can give you the critiques and how they’re unfounded, but none of them really held any water when you shine a light on the underlying issues. I guess because I’m so active on social media, especially on Twitter, you’re readily available for anyone to come at you with memes and criticism of the hashtag, of you, and misunderstanding of what it’s really about. I hope that I’ve handled all of that with grace and really stayed consistent with the underlying issue, which is the lack of inclusion and diversity in film.

From what I’ve seen, you’re handling it great. 

Thank you. …There are definitely some recurring themes that sort of come at me, like “You’re making this an all black thing.” No. I’ve always said it’s all people of color, it’s all marginalized communities. It’s not just a race issue, it’s also a gender issue and a sexual orientation issue and an issue for differently-abled communities to be represented.

[Some say], “If you look at the past 15 years, black people have gotten 10 percent of the awards even though they’re 12 percent of the population, so that’s roughly equal.” Well, that’s fantastic for the last 20 years, but the Oscars have been around for 80. You can’t just cherry-pick the facts to support your narrative. And even if that is true with respect to black people, it’s not true with respect to all people of color. The fact that I’m black doesn’t mean that I’m only advocating for black people. Let’s talk about the number of Hispanic actors and actresses or Latino/Latina actors and actresses, or Asian actors an actresses. This affects everyone and everyone should be included.

If you really run the numbers from 80 years forward, it’s still even taking into account [that] it was 37 years between Sidney Poitier winning the first Oscar for Best Actor as a black man and Denzel [Washington] winning it…and there’s no inbetween. I find it inconceivable that there were no qualifying performances within that 37 year span. Similarly, we’ve had one black actress with Best Actress within the entire span of the Oscars, and that was Halle Berry for Monster’s Ball. You can’t tell me that there haven’t been outstanding performances by black actresses. Even [with nominations], there were films who weren’t nominated that are fantastic, and that’s just with respect to black people. Clearly, there have been no Asian women, no Latina women, who have ever won [Best Actress]; why is that? In 2009, the first woman [Kathyrn Bigelow] wins for Best Director? It’s inconceivable to me that we are here in 2016 and we can rattle off on our fingers, with some to spare, the number of people of color and marginalized communities who have been properly [awarded] for their work.

And also with The Revenant; the film is being celebrated for having a large Native American supporting cast, but none of them are getting nominated for their work; Leonardo DiCaprio–even though it’s great how much he has spoken out on Native American issues on their behalf–is getting nominated, and not a Native member of the supporting cast.

That’s exactly right. …Hollywood is supposed to be a liberal bastion of whatever, and yet there are still some issues. I saw that Matt Damon spoke out…about how there should be more and so and so forth, but we saw how he treated Effie Brown on Project Greenlight. It’s like, but, bruh, that wasn’t even a full year ago! [He] said [on Project Greenlight], and I’m paraphrasing poorly here, something to the effect that diversity takes its point from casting, but not necessarily from who’s behind the camera. That’s what I took from it, anyway. So yeah, we want to have a diverse cast onscreen, but that doesn’t apply to who’s behind the screen, and that’s really the issue because it’s so important that these stories are told, but also who is telling the story. Who is the director? Who is the screenwriter? Who is the producer? What experiences are they bringing to this project and that was borne out this year with Straight Outta Compton. The only thing it was nominated for was Best Original Screenplay, but the screenwriters are white. So that’s an issue as well.

Something you said a while ago goes into one of my questions: Some of the conversations surrounding #OscarsSoWhite have been, unfairly, categorizing it as being  primarily focused on black actors and as a black and white issue. How do you feel about some people keeping the conversation in a binary mode of thought instead of thinking about how Hollywood portrays all minorities?

I think it’s unnecessarily limiting and I think it’s unfortunate that they can’t get out of that box for themselves because I’m not in that box. I know why they’re doing it and I’ve had brought to me “Oh, you’re being a racist.” It’s not racism to speak truth about the lack of existence of roles for people of color. Speaking facts isn’t racism in and of itself. It it is without merit because I have never made this a black/white issue.

It’s not clear to me why people think that is. I don’t know if it’s because I’m black and they can’t see past who I am and understand that I’m multifaceted, or if it’s just easier for them to think in binary terms. But that’s not what #OscarsSoWhite is about at all. Race is just one portion of it; it’s all marginalized communities, and within race, it’s not just black people; it’s definitely about Asian people. It ‘s definitely about Latinos and Latinas and Hispanics. It’s about everyone who should be represented on the screen.

After the nominations came out, Jada Pinkett Smith released a video stating how people of color should consider reinvesting in our own community and celebrating our own. Some believe the Oscars is a lost cause, seeing how it was created to celebrate white actors in particular. Some people also view the Oscars fight as minority voices vying for white validation while not uplifting (or even attending) other awards shows like the NAACP and BET Awards. What do you think of these sentiments and the fight for the Oscars?

I feel very strongly that we should support those award shows and programs that celebrate our individuality and uniqueness. I hope that one of the outcomes of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is that more people of color and marginalized communities continue to support and support even more the NAACP Image Awards, the Alma Awards, the BET Awards, the Soul Train Music Awards versus the Grammys [in relation to music] because it’s so very important. Those award shows were borne out of the same frustration that I have; the lack of representation of the so-called “mainstream” awards, so we had to make our own. But I will also say that I think we can multitask. We can celebrate our own and still critique for better or worse the pinnacle in film. Whether you are a fry cook or a corporate CEO, you want to be recognized for your achievements amongst your peers. If the Oscars are considered to be the top of that, why wouldn’t someone, anyone, want to receive that recognition?

We also know that very often, having “Oscar-nominated” or “Oscar winner” after your name, it brings with it some benefits. It may mean that it’s easier for someone to land a role or to even to get into auditions. It may mean you can command a higher salary or get taken more seriously the next time you want to take a chance on a film. So it does matter, and if the other award shows are uplifted to the  extent that they are on the same level of the Oscars, then fantastic. That just gives everyone more opportunity to shine.

The Academy has taken the mobilization of stars and fans seriously and released a statement promising sweeping change to the Academy and how it does business. All of this came about because of the hashtag’s popularity. How do you feel that #OscarsSoWhite has brought about this change?

I’m very encouraged by the announcement that was made by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. I appreciate that she spearheaded this issue because I know change is never easy–pushing against the status quo and something that has been in place for over 80 years had to have been difficult.  I was happy to see that the vote by the Board of Governors was unanimous; I think that’s important because it sends a message that they are serious about making changes with respect to diversity and inclusion. We’ll see how the changes are implemented and what type of pushback they’ll receive, but I still think there’s more to be done by the Academy and definitely by Hollywood.

To that point, there have been several stars old and new decrying the lack of diversity and some boycotting or standing with the boycott. Meanwhile, we’ve seen some stand against change (particularly today, with Charlotte Rampling, Michael Caine, Julie Delphy and producer Gerald Molen) and other actors and actresses who have decided to remain anonymous speak out against the hashtag and the Academy’s decision. Do you think this divide is indicative of the state of Hollywood at large? To me, it seems like Hollywood’s facade of liberalism has been taken away. 

Yeah, I think that what we know—I think the numbers are from 2012—at that time, that the Academy is 94 percent white, over 75 percent male, and the average age was 63. So even though Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs invited 300 new members to the Academy; that was 300 [versus] 6000. Change is hard, so the Academy members who, for example, have not been active in film in the last decade and have now had their votes taken away, of course they’re going to speak out. It’s a change to the life that they’ve known. But I think that when the dust settles, the Academy members was the change for the better.

Although I have been pushing for more diversity with respect to people of color and marginalized communities, this is also a benefit to the white people in the industry because it gives them more of an opportunity to interact with—and act and direct and produce with—people of color and those marginalized communities that they might not have had the opportunity to do otherwise. So I think everybody can win from this, and if it spurs more seasoned Academy members to get back involved in film so they can regain their ability to vote, then all the better, because there’s a reason why they’re already in the Academy. At some point, they were Oscar-nominated or Oscar winners, which means they’ve put out quality work. If they’ve been resting on their laurels for 30 years and come back into the Academy, even better.

The Academy gave themselves a deadline of 2020 for their changes to bear fruit; What kind of Hollywood would you like to see by then?

I hope to see a Hollywood that’s more diverse and inclusive than it is now. I think there’s no shortage of talented people of color and marginalized communities out there. I am hopeful that the Academy will proactively seek out these creatives, these artists, and welcome them with open arms because there are stories that need to be told. I think it’s important  and hope that that the Academy, in increasing its diversity, pressures Hollywood to do the same because the Academy can only nominate films that are made. So it’s fantastic if the Academy becomes more diverse. But if Hollywood isn’t doing the same and is only making the same homogeneous movies year after year and aren’t being thoughtful about who can play these roles or who should tell the stories behind the camera, then still, when it’s nomination time, we won’t see any difference even if he Academy wants to see more films that are representative of everyone in society.

That goes into my next question : What are your hopes for the Academy? The Academy’s statement gives the sentiment of the Academy wanting to lead from in front, not from behind; do you think the Academy can change the industry from the front?

I think they can. I think the Academy is large enough that they can exert significant influence over Hollywood, but it really comes down to the studio heads being willing to consider groups that don’t necessarily look like them and don’t have shared experiences when determining which films they’re going to greenlight. That’s really the issue, that those perspectives must be shared. I’m hoping that there will be a significant push from the Academy to Hollywood to make these stories a priority.

There are those out there who still have their head in the sand when it comes to acknowledging the racism of the Oscars and the Hollywood industry. What message do you have for those who still don’t see a problem with the Oscar nomination process and Hollywood in general?

…I strongly believe that nominations should be made based on merit, but what we know, at least before the announcement, is that Academy members are not required to watch the films before they vote. If that is the case, then one can not say that the nominations or the winners are based on merit. If the argument is that only the best people should get nominated, I agree. But how are we ensuring that the best people are even being seen? I encourage everyone to dive into the rules of the Academy because they’re on their website and [see] how decisions are actually made….For the first vote, you have to vote within your category, so directors only vote for directors and screenwriters only vote for screenwriters. We have one female in the director category period. We have one Asian man [Ang Lee] in the directors portion of the Academy period. Why is that? You can’t say there haven’t been qualified people, but if that’s all we see, and based on the numbers, it’s overwhelmingly older white men who aren’t viewing the films before they vote, then how can we say the votes are based on merit and how can we ensure that the best films are being seen?

…I think it’s imperative that you challenge yourself and see a movie that you might not normally see…Let’s just talk about when you get nominated…once you get to the second vote, everyone can vote for everything. You’ve got to watch all five films. If you’re voting for Best Actress, you’ve got to watch all five films and make your choice. You can’t base it on that a friend of yours told you it was a good film, or you really like their ad in Variety so you’re voting for them, or you feel like someone’s just due for an Oscar because they were snubbed in the past, so let’s vote for them now. That’s what happens. Or, you recognize the name of the person, and since you don’t know any of the other names, you just go with whom you know, and, to my knowledge, that’s what happens, because if you’re not watching the other films, then on what are you basing your vote? It has to be that. It has to be some personal reason as opposed to something unbiased based on the quality of the work. Therefore, it’s not based on merit, and that’s [the point] I’m trying to get back to. Make sure that diverse and inclusive films are being made, look at those, nominate those for the first round, and after that, go see all five within the category and choose which one you think is the best. That makes sense to me and I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t agree to that. [The votes] should always be merit-based, but make sure the net is cast wide enough so all the films that are great in that particular year get a shot at a nomination.

Exclusive Interview: Dan Parent (“Die Kitty Die!”)

Archie Comics fans are well acquainted with their favorite artists, such as Dan Parent and Fernando Ruiz, and if you’ve been astute fan, you might have heard about the pair’s upcoming comic book project, Die, Kitty, Dieand the project’s Kickstarter campaign. The campaign’s original $25,000 goal has not only been met, but has nearly reached double the amount originally set, with many heavyweights in the comic book industry joining in to provide special covers and pin-ups.

I’ve been a fan of Parent’s for years, and after having met him at the 2013 Miami Book Fair International, I became an even bigger fan. I’ve interviewed him before in the past, but I was excited and honored when he reached out to me to tell me about Die Kitty Die!. Check out the interview with Parent below, in which we discuss Die Kitty Die!, the Kickstarter campaign, and what fans can expect from this bewitching new series, as well as an exclusive update on that elusive Kevin Keller relaunch. The Die Kitty Die! Kickstarter campaign ends this Friday, Dec. 18, so if you’d like to contribute (click the link above), you’ve still got time!

How did you and Fernando Ruiz come up with Die Kitty Die!?

Fernando and I came up with idea for Die Kitty Die! on a plane trip to Dallas Comic Con last year. We started sketching and writing , and before you knew it, we had a story!

The Kickstarter has been uber successful. How do you feel about the success?

We are thrilled about the success of the Kickstarter. The most satisfying thing is that our fans have supported us and are looking forward to the project.

This project has a lot of popular comic book artists involved; who are some of the artists involved?

We are really lucky to have some great talent on board. Gisele Lagace is our friend, mega talent, and also a great business person. She has not only helped us set up our Kickstarter, but has contributed art to the series. Next is Jason Bone, another friend who is not only a great inker but a great artist too! Phil Jimenez and Glen Hanson are also 2 well known talents who are going to contribute to the book. And then we have superstar artist Darwyn Cooke, who is doing the cover to the trade. I’m his biggest fan, and have been lucky enough to become his friend over the years. When he agreed to do the cover, we were over the moon!

This project also has strong ties to pin-up art, specifically Dan DeCarlo (which makes sense, since both you and Ruiz are Archie artists). What about pin-up art appeals to you?

We love pin up art, as well as fashion pages . And Dan DeCarlo is a huge inspiration to all of us. So if you see signs of dan DeCarlo in our work, that’s a good thing!

What can fans of yours expect from Die Kitty Die?

Fans can expect Die Kitty Die to be a fun mix of romance, adventure, horror and comedy. It’s an homage to the comic book industry , but we also think it fills in a gap that is missing in comics right now. And that is classic comics told with a modern twist, that focus on two important things: Good story and good art!

On an unrelated note: Kevin Keller’s comic is supposed to be relaunching (at last check). What can fans expect from the relaunch?

There is supposed to be new Kevin Keller book, but that has been delayed. I’m hoping to get the ball rolling in that again in 2016!

Die Kitty Die! artwork by Dan Parent (Facebook)

Exclusive Interview: M.J. Fièvre (“A Sky the Color of Chaos”)

One of my favorite times of year in South Florida is November, when the Miami Book Fair International rolls into town. This year, M.J. Fièvre debuted her new book, A Sky the Color of Chaos, a memoir detailing her tumultuous childhood in Haiti and her journey towards understanding her father.

I was excited to learn more about Fièvre’s book and her writing process, and in this in-depth email interview, you can also learn more about Fièvre’s literary process, what she hopes the book teaches readers, and how she came to better understand her father and herself.

A Sky the Color of Chaos is avaiable from Beating Winward Press and can be bought at outlets like Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Books-a-Million.