I love Living Single. I’ve watched every episode, and I know the characters inside out. Even though we might get a reboot soon, I’ve longed for another show to give me that same comfortable vibe of friends who have each other’s backs while calling each other out on their mistakes. If you’re like me, wishing and hoping for a show to follow Living Single‘s leave, give Dafina Roberts’ Giving Me Life a watch.
Giving Me Life, a Kickstarter Creator-in-Residence project and a 2017 New York Television Festival Official Selection, focuses on a core group of friends–Nala (Lori Liang), an artivist who has to reconcile her idealism with the stark realities of making money; Leah (Natalie Jacobs), a career-driven Type A investment banker whose studying for the GMATs and only dates up; Travis (Marshall star Mark St. Cyr), a highly spiritual, charismatic guy who thought he’d found the right spiritual partner; Cam (Sly Maldonado), a lovable party boy who is actually looking for the right woman to settle down with; Jess (Nathaly Lopez), a middle school counselor who uses her counseling skills to be the listening ear for all of her friends–even though she has problems making room for a girlfriend in her life; and Gil (Jarvis Tomdio), Nala’s crush, a people pleaser and “the epitome of geek-chic.”
These friends are trying their best to make it in New York and achieve their dreams while not losing their minds in the process. Thankfully, these guys have each other, and regardless of whatever problems they have, they all have each other’s back. The camaraderie is what makes the show so easy and enjoyable to watch. So far there are only four episodes, but once you finish, you’ll wish there were more.
Honestly, the show has left me wondering why this hasn’t been snapped up for TV pilot season. I think this show is good enough to rival series like Insecure, Dear White People and Master of None. It definitely gives viewers everything they’re asking for in these representation-focused times. We have tons of diversity, but more than that, we have inclusion; we’re told stories that reflect the lives of real people from the perspectives of people of color. The characters are never cookie-cutter; they are dynamic, fresh, well-rounded and behave like people we’ve come in contact with before (for some of us, we might be those characters). Their different socio-economic, ethnic, and sexual spaces these characters reside drive the storylines in an organic way, and there’s never an episode that feels like it’s a “very special episode.”
What might be the most refreshing thing about Giving Me Life is that it gives its LGBT characters room to be imperfect people. I think one failing some shows on TV have when it comes to representing LGBT characters is that there’s a tendency to make the characters the poster children for the LGBT community. There’s a compulsion to try to make them perfect or edgy in some way. The characters in Giving Me Life, however, aren’t treated like stereotypes. Their needs and wants are just as fleshed out as their straight counterparts, and they are allowed to make mistakes.
For instance, Travis believes he’s found his soulmate with his boyfriend, but realizes that his boyfriend might want more than Travis can give him. After a bad experience with swinging (something the deeply religious Travis didn’t want to do in the first place), Travis breaks up with his boyfriend, but later wonders if he made a wrong choice. Leah, on the other hand, meets and falls in love with a man who also seems like the perfect match–they’re both climbing the ladder to financial success, they enjoy a certain level of luxury, they’re both bisexual, and they both feel the strain from stereotypes placed on bisexual people. But the catch is that Leah doesn’t even know her guy’s name. Not knowing his name makes her feel thotish, and one thing Leah won’t let herself be is a thot.
Overall, Giving Me Life will, in fact, give you life. You’ll feel like you’ve found a new set of friends, and it’ll leave you with the hope that more episodes come very soon.
The web series is the new place for inclusive messages and nuanced stories about marginalized people that aren’t always shown in the mainstream. 195 Lewis is one such example of the web series making its mark with an underserved audience.
195 Lewis focuses on a cast of black LGBTQ women of color as they live and love in Brookyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The show’s creators, Rae Leone Allen and Yaani Supreme, have created the show from their own experiences–like their characters, they are also black women in the LGBTQ community who hail from Brooklyn. From their experiences, they were able to create a series that finally put love between queer black women–people who are rarely ever shown on TV–on the main internet stage.
Emily J. Smith interviewed Allen for Broadly. Here are three moments from her interview worth noting.
On the inviting feeling of 195 Lewis
“We’ve been able to create this warm and embracing world. We want people to join and feel safe there.
On white male privilege in the media industry:
“The only thing we need to take from white men is their audacity. Women are different kind of creatures, we’re constantly asking questions and interrogating ourselves, we know we’ll be responsible with our art. We just need to get audacious.”
On the groundbreaking nature of 195 Lewis :
“We’re showing beautiful black women on screen loving each other and being themselves. That’s revelatory in and of itself.”
If you’ve seen Marshall, the origin story of future Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, you’ve seen Mark St. Cyr. The actor plays August, the boyfriend of Thurgood Marshall’s frenemy, poet Langston Hughes.
While August might be happiest acting as a support system for Hughes, St. Cyr is hoping to stand out from the crowd and make a big dent in Hollywood. Marshall is just one of the major plays St. Cyr has under his belt; he’s also starring in the upcoming webseries Giving Me Life: In the Land of Deadass, which St. Cyr described as Friends, if Friends was directed by Issa Rae. The webseries has made its world premiere Oct. 24 at the New York Television Festival and has been featured as a Kickstarter creator-in-residence.
I’m glad I got a chance to speak to St. Cyr and learn more about his character in the film, his experiences on set, and what it’s like to be in the same room with Empire‘s Jussie Smollett and Chadwick Boseman, who has played Jackie Robinson in 42, James Brown in Get On Up, and the Wakandan king T’Challa in the upcoming Marvel juggernaut Black Panther. Check out these five moments from our conversation.
On playing August: I play August and the key thing that August does in the film is he represents the outside world. Marshall is kind of in a small, claustrophobic courtroom world—he’s trying to solve the case at hand [involving] Sterling K. Brown [star of NBC’s This Is Us]. In the middle of the movie, he takes a break from that small courtroom and comes back to his hometown of New York to see what the world going on. [People] in the black world have their own opinions on how it’s going to go. August and Langston Hughes represent what the black elite artistic culture are thinking about Marshall at that moment. August supports the opinions of Langston Hughes as he and Marhsall duel it out at the jazz club.
On working with Jussie Smollett: He’s great. He’s incredibly humble and very warm and open. He shared a lot of wisdom with me, I was able to ask him about things that could help me on my own journey, and he was very gracious and generous and he did a great job.
On playing opposite Black Panther‘s Chadwick Boseman: It’s pretty cool [laughs]. It’s a little surreal. He’s a man—you get used to thinking he’s going to jump on top of cars, and then you see him in hair and makeup getting his hair [styled] into Marshall’s. It’s a funny juxtaposition, but it’s cool.
Everybody’s celebrating Chadwick and it feels like when one of us succeeds in a major way, all of us succeed in a major way. The fact that it’s being made at all is a [big win]. There’s just a lot of energy supporting that film and getting that [energy] so far before it’s been released– that’s a victory in and of itself. Having an opportunity to be a part of that energy is really great.
What St. Cyr learned about Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes: Marshall’s all about going inside the system and changing the laws. He’s very direct in his method and Langston Hughes is about creating art that moves people and stirs people from the inside out, writing about it in a way that…moves people’s conscience. It’s kind of a covert mission whereas Marshall is guns blazing. In the movie, Marshall disagrees with the way Langston goes about [challenging racism] and I think that’s still something we deal with now.
What moviegoers can learn from Marshall: People see Marshall as this iconic figure who won everything he ever did and went to the Supreme Court and lived happily ever after. I think a lot of times, people need to see the struggle chapters of some of our heroes, and I think this is the moment to show you [that] he was a man and he was not invincible. He may have become an American hero, but he was [human]. Our heroes are human…but they are capable of doing great things, as we all are. The world is always going to need heroes.♦
This article was edited and condensed.
Kenny Leu is an actor you’ve probably seen before in your favorite shows and films, like NCIS, The Player, and Independence Day: Resurgence. He’ll make his biggest mark yet as Sgt. Eddie Chen in the upcoming National Geographic miniseries The Long Road Home, based on ABC News’ chief global affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz’s book about the true story of American forces who are ambushed in Sadr City, an Iraqi neighborhood. But before that, you can get to know him better as the star and an executive producer of the new webseries, Munkey in the City, which follows a young man who is trying to find fame–and himself–in the big city.
In my hour-long conversation with Leu, I got to better understand Leu’s commitment to increasing Asian American visibility in the media, his thoughtfulness on nuanced topics such as colorism, his willingness to learn from others’ cultural and racial experiences, and what he learned on the set of The Long Road Home. Here are five takeaways from our conversation.
•On landing the part of Munkey:
“I’ve been in LA now for almost four years. Before I moved out to LA to pursue acting full time, I was pursuing acting part-time in the San Francisco Bay area. I forget how I got this audition notice,but I was told about this project…went into audition for it, and ended up getting the part. We started to collaborate after I read the script and…it just reads as a very genuine story.
Our version of the series came out all right; there were a lot of things I felt I could have done better; I was still growing a lot as an actor and he was still growing a lot as a filmmaker. We shot our first draft of it in the San Francisco Bay before I moved down. I had already moved down to LA for a year before I saw his latest draft…By that time, I had taken really great classes, I had really learned a lot. I was like, “Michael, if I get another chance, I want to redo it.” He was like, ‘Dude, let’s do it then!’”
•On Munkey’s importance:
“One of the biggest things that drew me to this project is that I relate a lot to Munkey. He’s an aspiring writer, he moved to the city to become someone. He’s still figuring out who he is and what he wants in life. I feel that’s a very universal theme for a lot of people. What kind of struck me most about this project is that it’s a character who’s Asian American yet has these universal themes. He’s very human—he’s not perfect, he’s not a bad person, he’s just a guy who’s trying to get by. There’s a lack of stories in mainstream media where you have an Asian guy who’s just trying to live. That was the first thing that really drew me to this project; he just felt like this very real person and he just happened to be Asian American.
I relate very much personally to this to because I feel this is something very unique to Asian Americans. I feel like Asian Americans in general don’t ask ourselves what we want until later in life than most other cultures. At least, that’s me personally and a bunch of my friends who went through the school system, were very successful students, and before we woke up to what we wanted in life, we kind of already had this career going for us.
Before I was an actor I got a degree in mechanical engineering from Berkeley, and I was working…before I realized acting was something that fulfilled me more deeply than engineering will. It was a matter of taking everything that I’d had, everything I’d worked hard for—terrific salary, great job, terrific opportunities, potentially a family, your parents’ smiling faces, knowing they’ll have grandkids soon, health insurance—it’s all in my hands. I remember the moment I took all of it and threw it away. That’s something I think a lot of Asian American families, especially the ones who immigrated in the ’80s, really had to go through, that there is a choice between what everyone tells you is happiness and what you really want for yourself.
I think Munkey is reflective of that. I’d like to imagine Munkey had a career before he became a writer and that’s why he’s so lost,[thinking] ‘Am I stupid for doing this? Why do I want to become a writer? I’m not making any money from this, my roommate’s hooked on coke, I’m living such a shitty existence and some instinct tells me this is the only path forward.’”
•On Asian representation in Hollywood:
“I think things are definitely changing. Me being a part of the industry down here, I know for a fact that executives are trying. I think their efforts are still pretty clumsy and they’re still just holding onto some old beliefs that just aren’t true anymore. For instance, they still don’t believe an Asian American man can be the lead of a movie. …It’s very discouraging to see that that’s still a belief, because it’s still very much reflected in how people see each other here, I believe. My take on it is that I’m very optimistic, but cautiously [so]. I think there could still be more changes.
I think this is the first time ever where Asian American voices are united and persistent on something…It’s very hard to unify our voices because we come from such different backgrounds. But this is the first time I feel like we’ve worked in unison on something, and it’s made an impact, especially on Twitter, #OscarsSoWhite, [etc]. I’m very excited this is happening.
My hope is that we get an Asian American movie star whose name transcends his ethnicity. I feel like if you’re African American, you’ve got Denzel Washington and Will Smith, who I believe are such stars that their ethnicities aren’t as important as their names. I feel like we as Asian Americans don’t have that. That’s the crux of how I feel like a lot of Asian Americans get treated out here. It’s very easy to feel like you’re invisible, to feel like you don’t matter. Personally, I’ve received this a lot—a person treats me based on my race rather than on who I am. We’re fighting for the constant visibility that I think is specific, but not unique to, growing up Asian American in the United States. It’s not the overt hostility that African Americans face; it’s the complete opposite. It’s complete apathy.”
•On colorism in Hollywood, as seen in Crazy Rich Asians
“On the one hand, I think this Crazy Rich Asians is terrific. I hope this is going to be our generation’s Joy Luck Club and people will see that it’s interesting to watch Asian Americans on the big screen…and people will become more confident in investing in films like that in the future. Me personally, I tried reading the book, and I read a lot, but for some reason I just couldn’t finish this one. There was nothing interesting about it to me; a lot of it was just talking about clothes and a culture I couldn’t relate to at all. Maybe I was expecting it to be more of an Asian-American story…it’s not; it’s very specifically Asian, and it’s also very specifically the ultra-ultra-ultra-ultra-rich Asian. That’s very hard to relate to. I think going back to the crux of what Asian-Americans need to tackle in order to become accepted in the mainstream is this idea that we’re human too and we deal with universal issues like what Munkey’s going through and not like kung fu movies and math problems.
On top of that, something that bummed me out was when they cast Henry Golding in the lead. The reason why is because…something that I’ve noticed a lot is that our faces are kind of getting erased. Almost all of the parts go to Eurasian people. It sucks because we’re being horribly misrepresented, like our features aren’t good enough to be on the big screen. ‘He looks too Asian to ever be all right. It’s just a very Eurocentric way of looking at what beauty means and what it means to be handsome and that kind of stuff…I’m very cautious of our faces getting erased for an ideal that I believe is not true.
I know that this is something that has stemmed back [with black America] for hundreds of years; I’m reading a Malcolm X book, his autobiography, and he talks about that even back in the 1930s. Being lighter-skinned was a thing that made you more accepted by white society. It’s very analogous to what all the other minorities will be going through [in Hollywood]; the whiter you look, the more accepted you are, but only on screen. It’s such a nuanced, yet perverse thing to have happen to us, which subconsciously tells all of us that if you’re ethnic, you’re less than, you’re beautiful, and you don’t deserve [someone relating to you].”
• On playing Lt. Eddie Chen in The Long Road Home
“Our whole platoon is incredibly diverse, reflective of true life. It’s just something you would never see Hollywood casting if it wasn’t based on a true story. Our lieutenant commander is Hispanic, and we’ve brought in a whole number of ethnicities. I’m the only Asian man in it, but you’ve never seen that in a military show. All kinds of people are being represented in this platoon[.]
The vets all came out to give us their blessing. This is the first week that I showed up, and the vets were already there, saying, “Thank you for telling our story, thank you for not making us heroes.” [The miniseries] is about these really awful, difficult decisions they had to make in order to live. It was such an incredible experience on that level.
On my first day of shooting, I was really nervous because we were shooting this big scene, and there were 400 extras in the scene. We’re all soldiers saying goodbye to their families; obviously, it’s very emotional. I’m walking through my scene with the director, making sure I’m hitting all my marks and that I know where the cameras are. In the middle of all of that, there are all of these extras that come up to me. Imagine the most Texan guys you could think of—they had the long mustaches with sunglasses and the big boots and big belt buckles and big bellies—they surrounded me and came up to me, and I was wearing my uniform at the time and they were reading my [character’s] name and my insignia. There was like a moment of silence. I was like, “Oh f***, what’s going on?” They were like, “You’re Sgt. Chen…we served with Eddie 13 years ago.” He was like a big brother to them and he was the guy everyone looked up to. He was the most honest, genuine person they’d ever known. I’m standing there on this field suddenly realizing how meaningful this story is to all these people. I was like, “Oh my God.” …That was something that rattled me to my core. You realize how important it is to tell stories like this, where people are represented properly. It makes you realize what a responsibility storytelling is.”♦
Watch Munkey in the City on its website , Vimeo page and YouTube page, and follow the series on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram. The Long Road Home premieres on National Geographic November 7 at 9/8c.
This article has been edited and condensed.
Official synopsis (courtesy website):
Munkey in The City is a whimsically poignant dramedy series about a delusional young novelist in search of a dream–of fame, of fortune, and the pursuit of happiness. But he also brings the one thing standing in his way: himself. His name is MUNKEY, and he’s learning that The City is one big jungle he needs to survive.
Munkey dreams of writing the great American novel. The problem is, it’s already been written. He’s also looking for love in all the right places, but he’s just the wrong person. And just what is that thing that’s following him?
Determined yet confused, hopeful yet awkward, he comes to The City, one of the most vast and wildest places on Earth, in order to “make it.” On his journey, he struggles to connect with the people around him, escaping instead through alcohol, drugs, and his own writing. Through much trial-and-error, and with the help of an eclectic band of friends, Munkey must come to realize his own purpose in life, before The City swallows him whole. Though he soon realizes that the singular Evet is the key to unlocking his full potential and future.
Can our hero make it out alive with his sanity intact? Possibly not. But he’s going to try anyway.
Munkey in the City, the debut webseries from Michael T. Nguyen, is one that deftly weaves surprising turns of mystery and surrealism into a coming-of-age meets fish-out-of-water story about a young man who wants to find himself. The only problem is that he keeps getting in his own way.
The hero of the story, Munkey (Kenny Leu, who will be seen next in National Geographic’s miniseries The Long Road Home) is a man who is scared to use his own voice to make his mark in the writing world. Instead of coming up with his own story to sell to a publisher, he keeps rehashing the plots of famous ideas, plots he knows have found an audience. His creative struggles mirror his personal ones, as he’s a man who has no bearing on his place in the world or who he’s meant to be. These struggles are made known in overt ways, from his alcoholism, has failure with the ladies, and his severe lack of style (except for the glasses–I actually like the glasses, unlike other characters in this show). But there are also unspoken ways we see him struggle, from being adopted into a white family, his fear of adapting to a big, bustling city, and his fear of facing himself.
That’s where the Munkey King comes in.
The Munkey King (spelled that way on purpose) acts as Munkey’s aggressive conscience. The aggression is because Munkey is intent on not listening to it. Each time the Munkey King tries to show Munkey things he has to face, all Munkey can muster is a blank stare, unwilling to tap into the root of that hidden anger.
The inclusion of the Munkey King is just one surprise this webseries has to offer. Even though it’s only six episodes, with each episode only lasting about five minutes, Munkey in the City manages to address certain tropes associated with Asian American male characters and turn them on their heads. Munkey never gets the girl in the end. But his lack of game isn’t based on Asian stereotyping; it’s because Munkey is so messed-up, he’s not mentally ready for any girlfriend (what’s sad is that he doesn’t even realize it). Ditto for Munkey’s dorkiness; he’s a dork because he’s been sheltered and because he’s insecure, not to mention that he’s also emotionally and mentally lost. Basically, his traits are there because of the life he’s lived and the choices he’s made, and seeing a well-rounded character who also happens to be Asian is refreshing.
If you’re wondering if revealing the Munkey King and Munkey’s lack of romance are spoilers, don’t worry; both points are well established before you ever get to the final episode. What I won’t reveal is the series’ biggest secret, and it has to do with this lady, Evet (Monica Barbaro).
Keep an eye on her.
I will say that even with a mysterious character like Evet, character moments become barbs aimed straight at old tropes. Are you sick of the “lesbian-turns-straight” trope? One scene featuring Evet will show you that Munkey in the City is tired of it, too–in fact, it uses the moment as a way to take a stab at its leading man, further showing the place of desperation Munkey is at in his life.
I found Munkey in the City to be fun and surprising. Munkey, like the fabled Monkey King in Journey to the West, is hoping to find his own nirvana at the end of a sojourn. I’m excited to know just how Munkey plans to tackle his demons as he goes along his quest to find himself.
Here’s a webseries that’s been simmering for a while–it’s finally ready for viewers to see, especially if you’ve been following the career of Kenny Leu, who’s starring in National Geographic’s upcoming miniseries The Long Road Home. The webseries? Munkey in the City.
Munkey in the City, created and developed by Michael T. Nguyen, stars Leu as an aspiring writer who wants to make it big in New York City, while having tons of misadventures and growing pains along the way.
Check out the trailer:
A few years ago, I spoke with Nguyen about Munkey in the City. He told me the webseries is partially based on his own experiences as a writer in a big city.
Munkey in The City is actually based on my real life experiences living in San Francisco. I had moved here in 2010 hoping to start a new life for myself, but two years after, I was still confused about the direction I was headed in. I was busy working a job I was unhappy going to, and as a result, found myself delving deeper into alcohol as an escape. I had just dropped out of film school so I could focus on paying my overpriced rent, and I felt like I couldn’t do anything right or connect with anyone. My life was going nowhere and I realized I needed a change. Then, I decided to channel my energies into something more creative. I wrote my experiences down and decided I could use them to help me further my career as a filmmaker. Munkey in The City is really a story about my struggle with adulthood and the real world, while trying to achieve my dreams in a vast new place.
I happened to name the main character Munkey, because “Monkey” is actually a nickname I’ve acquired over the years for various reasons. And I added the fact that San Franciscans simply call San Francisco “THE City.” Thus, Munkey in The City was born. Now I’m determined to bring this story to life, not just for me, but also to share it with anyone striving for their own dreams as well.
Nguyen also laid into Hollywood’s reticence to casting Asian actors for big parts, particularly leading male roles.
Compelling movie and television characters just aren’t written for Asian American males. That, combined with the industry’s unwillingness to take chances on them, for fear that audiences won’t fork over time and money to see them, equals very few opportunities outside the martial arts genre. The industry happens to run on a very basic premise: if you can bring in money, you can be on screen. But even with John Cho’s huge success with the Harold and Kumar franchise, the industry still hesitates to put him into leading roles. So there has to be something else at work here. And I can call it bias and racism all I want, but the industry will just call it a poor business decision.
The fact is that it’s going to take a lot more work by a lot of people to fight for that opportunity from Hollywood, and to sway audiences into accepting an Asian American as a dynamic leading man. But the foundation is being laid, for sure.
Asian Entertainment Television is an outlet featured on JUST ADD COLOR before (you can read more about the service here). Now, the premier global Asian American streaming platform, has announced its first mobile app.
The AET Branded App was added to the Apple App Store April 15, giving Asian American content a distribution channel in the OTT space on the iOS platform.
“We not only want to give our users a great experience by providing uniquely curated representAsian content that gives Asian American genuine representation, but we also aim to give Asian content–which, until now, is largely homeless–a home,” said Sinakhone Keodara, CEO of AET. “AET aims to make a dent in helping end the whitewashing and yellowfacing practices of Asian roles in Hollywood movies and TV shows. We’re essentially putting Hollywood on notice that we’re here to change the game.”
Apart from the app, here’s another thing you need to know: Asian Entertainment Television has added a talent directory to its main site. The InvAsian Talent Directory will act as a database for Hollywood can find actors, directors, cinematographers, production designers, writers, and other creatives from the Asian Diaspora. To learn more about the InvAsian Talen Director, click here.
You learned a little bit about the inner-workings of Pretty Dude creator Chance Calloway in his #RepresentYourStory article; now he’s back in a full-length interview!
Pretty Dudes has recently wrapped its two-part season finale as well as filming for its theme song music video, all of which is available on the series’ YouTube page. Calloway, who is currently in the middle of casting for the second season, said he is even more consumed with the mission to cast inclusively.
“We purposefully put out a call for more actors with marginalized backgrounds and conditions,” he said. “We want people with skin conditions or disabilities, people who you typically don’t see represented on screen. …We want everybody[.]”
I was happy to speak to Calloway about why he created Pretty Dudes, why he thinks fans are attracted to the series, and his take on the talk about representation that’s consuming Hollywood at the moment.
Go check out the webseries, which you can watch here. You can find Calloway on Twitter. Pretty Dudes releases a new episode each Tuesday, and you can also keep up with Pretty Dudes on Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Facebook. You can also support Pretty Dudes through a donation via PayPal.
What was the inspiration for Pretty Dudes?
I would say probably the main thing is that I love those sitcoms where everyone lives in one house, like The Golden Girls and Living Single. But…they’re pretty much monochromatic, no matter how you look at it. So…I really liked the idea of having an inclusive environment where we’d be able to talk about a lot of different things, not just have, “Oh, this week, the Latino neighbor comes over,” or “this week, we have the gay sister.” I wanted it to be every week. I figured that would free up more storytelling, but that is also the reality for most people, myself included–we have people with different lifestyles than we have, so I wanted to really explore that and put that out there because I’m thinking if I’m…missing that, then there are other people as well.
A lot of your viewers are clamoring for that storytelling. How important was it for you to have that kind of diversity and the kind of cast that you do have? How important was it for you to cast a multicultural range of actors?
It was very important. When we were doing the initial casting, the only role we specifically requested a certain race for was Ellington because we’d set up this entire storyline of him being black. But all the other characters [ethnicities] weren’t mandatory. [For some of the characters] I specifically did not ask for any Caucasian actors because I didn’t want to be overwhelmed with a lot of white actors who could get cast in anything else and not have an opportunity for these actors of color who are working in the industry but never get to play any three-dimensional roles. I wanted to have that reality play out based on the casting, and thankfully, we were able to pull it off.
Webseries including yours are pushing Hollywood further more than the mainstream is. What do you think about the fact that there are a lot of webseries out there doing what folks have wanted Hollywood to do for a long time?
I think it’s great. The great thing and difficult thing about making webseries is that they’re often independently funded. So even though that creates a financial struggle, it allows for a freedom in storytelling and in choices of how you tell that story. So, the mainstream industry won’t greenlight something because they want something that’s safe. Whereas if I just wanted to make it, I could just make it, and a viewer out there could see it and get exposed to a whole world they never would have been exposed to before if it wasn’t for [a] particular series. There are a lot of things about the trans experience or the lesbian experience that I had no knowledge of until I started watching webseries and that’s something that you’re not going to get from Hollywood. I think that’s great because we can be bold in our storytelling and we can really do whatever we want. I think that’s huge.
What kind of response have you gotten from fans of Pretty Dudes?
Oh gosh! It’s been really positive. I’ve been really excited because you never know what you’re going to get. We had pretty much filmed the entire season before the first episode came out…So to put that much blind faith and trust into a project when you don’t know what the response is going to be is a little nerve-wracking. But the stories we keep hearing from people is “This happened to me” or “This happened to my friend,” and people who are really appreciating the inclusion in the storytelling. So, that’s positive.
In the past few weeks, there’s been a lot of discussion about casting, whitewashing, inclusion, diversity, erasure, all that kind of stuff.
As someone who is trying to make stuff that is combating those issues, how have you been taking in the conversations that have been going on right now?
Two-fold. One is that over the last five years, the majority of films that have focused on whitewashing, on white savior narratives have bombed spectacularly at the box office, so that’s been so vindicating–other people aren’t just accepting what Hollywood’s putting out. But on the other hand, it’s frustrating because it reminds you that these are the tastemakers, so to speak, who keep greenlighting these things, which have bombed spectacularly, then you have wonderful content that don’t have any kind of backing who are changing the game, who are making great strides, and it makes you wonder how long it’s going to take before Hollywood wakes up and realizes [this] is where it’s at.
You have a Hollywood film like Hidden Figures, films like Moonlight, Get Out, that have done amazing things, because people are looking for something fresh; people are looking to see themselves represented. It really kind of boggles the mind that you have Death Note and Ghost in the Shell, and they’ll come up with any excuse [for] whitewashing. They’ll even bring up feminism to excuse whitewashing, as if those two things don’t overlap in the Venn Diagram of representation and where Hollywood needs to move to. Like the whole thing with Tilda Swinton [in Marvel’s Doctor Strange]–[the excuse is] it’s so powerful to cast a woman, well they could have cast an Asian woman in Doctor Strange. I don’t get why that’s when things are so quick to descend [into] whitewashing and using white as the default and expecting the rest of us to just kind of show up for it as if we’re okay with it.
And even that argument with feminism–it basically says that white women are women and everyone else is just people.
That doesn’t make any sense at all because like you said with Doctor Strange, if they wanted a female Ancient One, they could have cast any woman. An Asian woman preferably, but any woman could have been cast, it would have been a nod towards feminism, not just a white woman.
Right, exactly. And then they’ll bring up tropes and that they’re trying to protect from those tropes. “If we had cast an Asian man, then we would have been accused of this.” If you look at a lot of the conversations that white filmmakers are [having], they’re never, ever conflicting with people of color. It’s always them saying “People would have said.” Well, who did you talk to? Did you have a room of people with varying opinions and went forth from there? The answer’s always “No,” otherwise, that’s what they’d be referencing. They would be saying, “We had test audiences,” or “We talked to this group of people,” but it’s always like, “We know that these types of people would have said this.” Well, did you ask?
…There needs to be diversity behind the screen as well as in front of the screen. The reason why people behind the screen keep making those mistakes…is because they’re not having conversations among a diverse group. You can go back to the Project Greenlight episode where Matt Damon basically shouts down Effie Brown, just shouts her down about her being wrong instead of listening. You have room for the white guys and one black woman, and you’re not going to listen to the black woman when she’s talking about diversity in the casting, and that’s where the major problems come in.
I purposefully reach out to have female crewmembers on Pretty Dudes, because with me writing the majority of the episodes–even though I’m an at intersection [of being] a gay black man, that still has nothing to do with the fact that I’m writing women characters. So, I know that what I’m writing may be problematic, so I want as many women to read it and tell me what they think as possible because I am not a woman, and I’ll never be a woman. I don’t know what that’s like. In order for me to write a story or a character that’s not problematic, I need voices behind the screen who are going to give me a different point of view. If you look at the situation with Iron Fist or even Ghost in the Shell, you have a lot of white men who are telling you what you’re supposed to think and feel. I’m kinda over that.
Or you have Scarlett Johannson telling you what to think. I still don’t understand how she thinks we’re supposed to think she’s not playing an Asian woman.
Thank God for Black Twitter and Shaun [Lau] of No, Totally and all the other voices out there [including] Asyiqin Haron [for Geeks of Color]. I love the fact that people are bold enough to speak up on a platform that we do have, to say “No, this is not good and these are the reasons why.” If you’re still [not listening], then you are choosing not to listen. It’s just like the co-creator of[the Iron Fist comic book] when he referred to Asian people as Orientals and he said, ‘I know that’s not the word.’ Okay, so you’re blatantly being racist, you’re blatantly showing that you’re unwilling to change. That’s the reality of it all, just blatant disregard. I call it “willful ignorance” of a lot of people, to just live in this darkness because that’s what they’re comfortable with, and they feel it doesn’t impact them. White isn’t the default, and that really needs to change.
— Pretty Dudes (@PrettyDudesWeb) March 11, 2017
Onto a lighter topic, what shows do you watch on a regular basis?
I just started Riverdale, which is a guilty pleasure of mine because it’s just diverse enough for me to feel like, “Okay, cool.” I’m a huge Archie Comics fan. I’m still finishing up Black Mirror. I think I only have one episode left. That show is amazing. I just started Season One of How to Get Away with Murder because I’m super behind. …I feel like when this interview is over I’m going to to think of five more, but those are the ones I’m watching. I’ll always go back to my tried-and-trues, which are A Different World, Golden Girls, and Community. I’ll watch those any day of the week.
I do want to give shout out–my friend Danielle Truett, her show Rebel just started on BET. I love that this is a show about police brutality through the eyes of a black woman, especially because black women are usually at the forefront of all social change–if you have Hollywood tell it, that’s not the case. But Black Lives Matter is started and led by black woman, and I love that Rebel is looking through those eyes as well.
My final question–with everything that we’ve talked about, where do you see the industry going as far as being more inclusive?
What I think what’s happening is that people are gravitating towards inclusive filmmakers like Jordan Peele and Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler, Cary Fukunaga. You can see the people who have the…passion to be more inclusive are the ones who are getting an audience–Donald Glover with Atlanta, Issa Rae with Insecure. I think what’s going to happen is that you’re going to keep seeing people watching those shows, those channels, those movies, and Hollywood’s going to have to change or Hollywood’s going to continue to stay behind the longer they stay set in their ways. It’s likely that the industry could recover [or] the industry’s going to metamorphosize into something we don’t completely anticipate, because it’s fascinating that a film like Moonlight won Best Picture. Now, all of these other filmmakers like me, I all of a sudden thought after Barry Jenkins won that I had superpowers. …You just put in the dedication and the talent, and you can change the course.
There are a lot of upcoming filmmakers…who are invigorated by what they’re seeing and by seeing this type of representation, it’s pretty inescapable. But I think we also have to do that not just for black people and queer people, but we have to continue doing that for Asian people and Indigenous people and Latinos. We have to keep going forward and I think it’s also important that we band together, as we did with Ghost in the Shell. All of the marginalized communities have to support each other; that’s the only way we’re going to overturn how things are now.♦