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.
Latinx representation in Hollywood is something that seems to be suspiciously under the radar, even though it’s highly important, as the Latinx identity is one that is diverse and multifaceted. Despite characters like Sofia Vergara’s Gloria in ABC’s Modern Family and the casts of Lifetime’s Devious Maids and TNT’s Queen of the South existing in the media, there’s still more that needs to be done in Hollywood, such as focusing more on darker-skinned tones, racial diversity, and whitewashing. For every Gloria onscreen, there’s only one April Sexton, Yaya DaCosta’s Afro-Brazilian role on NBC’s Chicago Med, or Carla Espinosa, Judy Reyes’ proud Dominican character on NBC’s Scrubs. Even the roles like Vergara’s role—which is a “sexy Latina” stereotype—need work in order to exist outside of the stereotypes that have been wrongly attached to Latinx characters and actors.
Two of the latest instances of Hollywood’s failure at Latinx representation are X-Men Sunspot and Dr. Cecilia Reyes. The Afro-Latinx characters, which will be part of the new X-Men film The New Mutants, will be played by Henry Zaga and Alice Braga. Zaga is Brazilian, but he isn’t black or biracial, which removes much of the context from Sunspot’s character, as his characterization stems from the racial issues he’s had to face as a biracial Afro-Brazilian. Alternatively, Braga is Afro-Latina, but being light-skinned, she’s able to exhibit a privilege that the original, darker-skinned actress up for the role, Rosario Dawson, can’t. Again, it takes an important piece away from a character that is not just Puerto Rican, but defined by her place in the African Diaspora.
Throughout this year, I spoke with several Latinx creators about how they feel about Hollywood’s Latinx representation and what can be done to make it better. This is a longform piece, so I’ll break this up into several sections:
- The roles afforded to Latinx actors in Hollywood
- Whitewashing and brownface in Hollywood
- The good and bad of Hollywood’s Latinx representation
- Wrapping up—why you must take Latinx representation seriously
The roles afforded to Latinx actors in Hollywood
Latinx actors, like many POC actors, are offered less than their fair share of meaningful roles. When they are offered roles, they’re often racist.
“When Latinx actors do get roles, I feel they’re oftentimes stereotypes,” wrote Desiree Rodriguez, Editorial Assistant for Lion Forge sci-fi comic book Catalyst Prime and writer for Women on Comics and The Nerds of Color, in an email interview. “The Spicy Latina, the Buffoon, the Tough Chick Who Dies, the Sexual Exotic Fantasy, the Drug Dealer, the Gangster, and so on.
“…What I find frustrating is when Latinx actors do get roles, it’s a struggle and they are locked into stereotypes,” said Rodriguez. “I’m a huge fan of Diego Luna, but the first role I saw him in he played a Cuban – when he is Mexican – man who was basically the exotic fantasy for the white female lead in Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. This isn’t even getting into how Afro-Latinxs, Asian-Latinxs, and other mixed raced Latinxs are barred from roles because they don’t fit Hollywood’s pre-packaged idea of what being Latinx looks like.”
“I think currently, while we are seeing more visibility, the current roles that are offered or available to Latinos are the role of a servant position, like a maid or something that falls in line with the stereotypes people have about Latinos, like maybe a sidekick or a criminal,” said Janel Martinez, founder and editor-in-chief of Ain’t I Latina, a site celebrating Afro-Latinas and Afro-Latinx culture.
“For example, in Orange is the New Black, a lot of people were hyped about the fact that there was a great representation of Latinas in the actual show, which is awesome, but when you look on the flipside of that, this is a show about women in jail,” she said. “Also, Devious Maids, [co-produced by Eva Longoria], it’s a full cast of Latinas, two of them identifying as Afro-Latina, and they were maids. I think people are seeing the visibility, people are excited to be able to say if you’re watching the show, you’re seeing our representation…but I think it’s still in a very limited scope. I find that it’s not just a Carrie Bradshaw or just someone who happens to be a Latina but maybe they’re the magazine editor in the movie. Their identity, while it’s important, isn’t in line with stereotypes and then manifested in the character that they essentially embody.”
“Typically, I see lots of immigrant, day laborers and criminal roles going to Latinx actors,” wrote Gerry Maravilla, Head of Crowdfunding at Seed and Spark and writer-director of Cross, in an email interview. “I think this comes from often lack of interaction on behalf of writers and filmmakers with Latinx people in the real world. As such, they rely on what they’ve already seen in films or what they see from the vantage point of their more insulated experience.”
“By ‘insulated,’ I don’t mean that they live secluded or antisocial lives, but rather the lives they lead don’t actually include Latinx people in any meaningful way,” he said. “Instead, they see the Latinx peoples working in roles like day laborers or think about Latinx gang culture because of its coverage in the media.”
“I think the most important thing to remember about stereotypes is how detrimental they are to Latinx actors who are trying to be cast in roles that are meaningful [as well as] to creators and consumers as a whole,” said Kimberly Hoyos, filmmaker and creator of The Light Leaks, a website designed to support, educate and empower female and gender non-conforming filmmakers. “As a Latina creator, I’m not going to write a character that I wouldn’t personally maybe want to act as. I wouldn’t create someone who is my ethnicity that doesn’t represent something larger as a whole. As a consumer growing up, that’s what I would see, maids and…anything that was oversexualized or overcriminalized. I think that in part pushed me to be a creator so I would be in charge of what was being produced.”
Amy Novondo, singer and actor, said that several people she knows are frustrated with the lack of quality roles.
“[Hollywood] thinks of that over-dramatized telenovela atmosphere and [they think that] Latinos are only capable of that kind of acting their minds,” she said. “I know a couple of Latinos who are really mad about this because we barely get a chance to get into the audition room and when we do, we’re stereotyped right out of the box. It’s like, come on—I want a little more than that.”
Why have these stereotypes stayed around, and why have they kept their power? The answers lie in the pervasiveness of media itself, wrote Rodriguez.
“Media has a lot of power. The images we see, coupled with the words we read or we hear imprint on us however subtly,” she wrote. “It’s something of an irony that the Latin Lover trope can be attributed to Rudolph Valentino’s – a white Italian man – performance in 1921’s The Sheik, while stereotypes like The Domestic – where Latinx characters are gardeners, maids, etc – are perpetrated by popular, well known Latinx actors like Jennifer Lopez. And in Lopez’s case, we have an instance where Hollywood shows how deeply entrenched it is with its discomfort and ignorance dealing with the Latinx identity.”
Rodriguez references The Wedding Planner and Maid in Manhattan, which exhibit Lopez in two roles that reinforce racial and ethnic hierarchies.
“In The Wedding Planner, Lopez plays an Italian woman who is, for all intents and purposes, highly successful and comfortably well off. In Maid in Manhattan, Lopez plays a Latina woman who works as a maid in an expensive hotel, just scraping by as a single mom, and only finds success after she falls in love with a white man,” she wrote. “This creates a distorted image. As an Italian woman, Lopez’s character is an independent and successful career woman who eventually finds love. As a Latina woman, Lopez’s character is a single mom (enforcing the idea that Latino men are absentee fathers/bad family men), working as a maid until a rich white man “saves” her; then and only then does she find success.”
“This is, perhaps, a cynical viewing of what are two separate, and admittedly tropey romantic comedies. But again, media has power. Consciously or not, there’s a negative message to be had in the fact that Lopez’s Latina identity was erased in favor of an Italian one in The Wedding Planner,” she wrote. “By erasing our Latinx identities in favor of white ones, either by erasing the very existence of our Latinx identities or whitewashing them with white actors, media contributes to misinformation about what being Latinx is. Who we are as a collective culture and people – which is highly diverse and layered. Yet these stereotypes are upheld by this continued enforcement of ignorance and whitewashing.”
“[Stereotyping is] very, very detrimental and limiting because when you think of Latin America, we’re talking about over 20 countries and yes, we’re talking about Spanish [as a language] there are other languages [as well]…so I will say that when it comes down to not just representation, but inclusion in Hollywood, a person has to be invested in learning about the culture because there’s so many different moving parts,” said Martinez. “You can be Latino, Latina, Latinx, but you can be black, you can be Asian, you can be white and Latino. There has to be a great understanding of the culture.”
“…I think the work that is needed to really depict a Latino hasn’t been done and I think, specifically, when it comes to the representation, a lot of times they don’t even specify the nationality of the Latino [character]. …[Viewers] don’t even know if this person is Ecuadorian or Puerto Rican or if they’re from Honduras or Nicaragua or wherever because whoever wrote the role[.]”
Martinez also talked about how the different languages, slang words, and other cultural identifiers that make up Latin America aren’t taken seriously as characterization tools.
“When we see the portrayals on our screen, those things are not necessarily taken into account,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a strong grasp on what it means to be Latino, either Latino in America or Latino abroad.”
Hoyos said that stereotypes are at their most insidious when people don’t even recognize them as such.
“I think the most dangerous thing about stereotypes is that to the untrained eye, they’re not seen as anything negative…To the average viewer, if they see one crime movie with Latinx as they gang members or the thugs, they may not even call that movie racist,” she said. “They might be like, ‘Oh, other movies do that.’ It becomes a normalized thing, and I think that’s why need to educate ourselves as a whole. I think a lot of that goes to correcting others when we see problematic media as a whole.”
Maravilla echoes this point by examining the news’ portrayal of Latinx Americans.
“I think these stereotypes originate from a similar place as the kind of roles that go to Latinx actors. They come from an isolated or insulated experience from Latinx people that prevents them from seeing or understanding them as complex, three-dimensional people,” he wrote. “When you look at other films, Latinx people are often criminals, immigrants, blue-collar people, and when they look at news coverage, this is also typically our depiction.”
“As filmmakers try to balance telling an engaging and affective story, it’s easy to get caught up in the mechanics of making a narrative work at a story level, he wrote. “Because their focus or interest isn’t necessarily on accurate cultural representation, they rely on stereotypes to satisfy their story needs, but end up not fully realizing (and in some cases just not caring) about the harm these stereotypes are doing.”
Next: Whitewashing and brownface in Hollywood
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.♦
Representation in Hollywood is an issue by itself, but Asian representation in Hollywood is near non-existent. With the state of Hollywood being that black equates to “diversity” (despite there being more types of diversity out there than just being black) and Asian characters are still overrun with stereotypes or whitewashing, Asian actors and actresses have had a tough uphill battle in breaking through the glass ceiling.
JUST ADD COLOR is all about exploring how all types of diversity are showcased in Hollywood, so I thought it would be fantastic to have an ongoing series called POC in Hollywood. First up, the Asian American experience in Hollywood. In this longform piece, we’ll take a closer look at some of the issues and biases plaguing Asian creatives in Hollywood.
This is a longform, so if you’d like to jump to specific parts, here’s the table of contents:
- Whiteness as the default
- The pain of exoticism
- The #OscarsSoWhite effect and the Academy
- What Hollywood’s doing right and wrong
- What audiences need to know
Whiteness as the default
Historically, Hollywood has used Asian locales and people as props, while white characters are given layered characteristics. In short, white characters have been treated as humans, while everyone and everything else are only developed in stereotypes.
The most recent examples of this include The Birth of the Dragon, in which a white character is used to frame Bruce Lee’s biopic, Doctor Strange, which sees Tilda Swinton playing an Asian role and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange, which is a white character used to exploit a stereotypical Asian mysticism, Ghost in the Shell, which uses Japanese culture to frame Scarlett Johansson as The Major and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel series, which features India as a backdrop for white characters and Dev Patel playing a stereotypical Indian character.
“What’s particularly silly about The Birth of the Dragon is that they invented a fictional white character thinking that that would be what North American audience would want,” wrote Quentin Lee, The Unbidden director and founder of Margin Films in an email interview. “The filmmakers obviously fell flat on their faces. Not only it wasn’t historically accurate for the story, the film ended up insulting Bruce Lee and the audience who would support it. It was a creative misfire.”
Chris Tashima, an Academy-winning director for the 1998 short film Visas and Virtue and co-founder of Cedar Grove Productions, wrote that while he hasn’t seen The Birth of the Dragon yet, he found the basis of the film “ridiculous.”
“It’s understandable, why this has been the practice—being that traditionally, decision makers have been white males, and like anyone else, will want to see stories about themselves, and that audiences have traditionally been thought of as young, white males,” he wrote. “However, all of that is changing. It has been changing for a while, and it’s easy to see where it’s going: towards a diverse world. That’s an old practice and you’d think Hollywood would want to project, and put themselves on the cutting edge, and be more inclusive. It’s old, and tired, and more and more, I think audiences will want to see something different, something more truthful.”
“I think the overarching theme that runs through how Hollywood/the West represents POCs has to do with the ease with which they are able to strip POCs of agency over their own stories,” wrote Kesav Wable, Brooklyn-based actor, writer, 2011 HBO American Black Film Festival finalist for his short film, For Flow and Sundance lab short-listed screenwriter for a script about a Pakistani boxer wrongfully accused of planning a terror attack.
“This may come across as a bit exaggerated or radical, but I do believe that there is a link between white imperialist concepts such as ‘manifest destiny’ and ‘white man’s burden,’ which validated a lot of the literal takings from POCs that happened throughout earlier periods in civilized history, and now, in a media-hungry world where information, content, and stories are the most valuable currencies, there is an analogous “taking” of the narratives that POCs have lived through. By depicting POC characters through the lens of a white character, it enables white audiences to keep POCs’ stories at arm’s length, and to not completely empathize with those characters because they are not given the complete human dignity and complexity that is afforded the white character.”
“Perhaps, this, in a way, damps down the guilt that white audiences may feel if the POCs stories/circumstances have to do with the literal takings that were exacted by their ancestors. Or it’s just good for a cheap laugh. The truly insidious effect of POCs being usurped from their own narratives is that, even many of us POCs begin to start viewing things through a white lens and stop questioning whether these stories truly represent who we are because of how pervasive white-controlled media is.”
Wable used the upcoming film Happy End, which is about a bourgeois European family living amid the current refugee crisis. “Granted, I haven’t seen the film, so it’d be presumptive of me to conclude that refugees are not conferred with dignity/complexity as characters, but the very thought that French filmmakers think that shining a light on a bourgeois family with the refugee crisis as a ‘backdrop’ can be instructive about their world, speaks volumes about what it is white people are most interested in; themselves,” he wrote. “In this case, apparently, the context is a rueful rumination on their own blindness to the refugees’ plight. Somehow the irony of the very film’s existence as a manifestation of that blindness seems to be lost on them.”
Mandeep Sethi, filmmaker and emcee, also discussed about Hollywood’s tendencies to erase non-white people from their own stories. “I think centralizing POC stories around white characters is Hollywood’s way of taking a black or brown story and making it about white people,” he said. “Our culture is full of amazing stories and histories and Hollywood loves to cherry pick what they like but leave out the real nitty gritty including the people who created, interacted, and setup that story.”
Sinakhone Keodara, founder CEO of Asian Entertainment Television and host of Asian Entertainment Tonight, wrote that Hollywood’s penchant for using whiteness as a default is “a heinous tradition that is long overdue for a change.”
“Rather than trying to normalize Asian presence on screen to a wide American audience, Hollywood often goes the tired, well-worn and ‘safe’ route of using a white character in an attempt to more easily relate the character to a majority white American audience. It’s cheap and unnecessary, because the proper and more effective way of relating a character to an audience is writing a character with emotional depth,” he said. “Ethnicity informs and colors our individual and community experiences, but emotion transcends ethnic boundaries. With political correctness aside, Hollywood needs to stop engaging in a form of neo-emotional and neo-psychological colonialism against people of color, especially Asians by injecting whiteness into our stories.”
“I think that centralizing PoC stories around white characters is always going to happen as long as the people telling these stories are white,” wrote Asia Jackson, an actress, model and content creator. “What Hollywood needs is not only diversity on-camera, but to also make greater efforts to allow filmmakers of color to tell their own stories.”
Jodi Long, an actress who was a castmember of the first Asian American TV sitcom All-American Girl and member of the actors branch of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, wrote that while whiteness as the default is the reality in Hollywood, a study shows a much needed change in film. “I just saw a new study The Inclusion Quotient done by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media where the reality in terms of box office is changing, where women and diverse actors in lead roles are now performing extremely well,” she wrote. “Money talks in Hollywood but we still have to get beyond the implicit (unconscious) bias that factors into which projects get greenlit based on outmoded ways of thinking.”
Kunjue Li, Ripper Street actress and founder of China Dolls Productions Ltd., also addressed how money rules Hollywood, despite Hollywood not making the audience demand actually work for them financially. “I don’t think [whitewashing] is the right thing to do, and second of all, I don’t think it’s very commercial,” she said. “…[I]f they want to sell to Chinese audiences, which is the second biggest film market, then they need to tell a Chinese story…I think you have to tell a Chinese story [with] a Chinese cast.”
“If the film [was] an an American-Chinese co-production, [it would] actually help with the film itself because then it doesn’t have to go through the quota system…which means that only 30 percent of foreign films are allowed to show in China markets every year. If they do it as a co-production, then they get 1/3 of Chinese funding, but they have to have 1/3 of a Chinese [cast]. They’ll have one-third of Chinese funding, they’ll have domestic showings, they don’t have to go through the quota system, it’s much more feasible. Commercially, [whitewashing] doesn’t even work. I don’t understand why people keep doing that.”
The updated, modern retelling of the seminal classic miniseries Roots left most Americans knee-deep in emotions Memorial Day weekend, and you have The Big Short star Brandon Stacy to thank for some of that. Stacy’s role aired during Night 4 of the miniseries, and Stacy was happy to discuss his role and what it was like to be a part of Roots with me during a recent phone interview. We also discussed his love for Star Trek and what it was like playing Spock in Star Trek: The New Voyages.
JUST ADD COLOR: I watched Roots, and just like the first one, this one left me in shambles, so congratulations to you and the cast for affecting me and a lot of other people in America like that.
BRANDON STACY: Thank you. Yeah, it’s definitely intense, powerful stuff. It’s very moving; we knew it would be, and we’re glad that it is moving people.
Just for the folks reading this interview, can you refresh us on your character?
Sure, I play Clingman. He’s in Night 4 of the mini-series. The Civil War’s approaching, and Clingman serves as council to one of the key players, Frederick, who is not a nice guy. Neither is Clingman. I guess he has some sort of qualities that might be admirable, as far as standing up for his country in the way that he was brought up. But he’s a product of his environment, and that’s not a good thing sometimes. He’s got these traditions that he was brought up with, so I think we all could be bad people given our environment and our lack of understanding of humanity and right and wrong. Ultimately, he’s a pretty dangerous guy.
When the original Roots came out, it changed TV forever. What does it feel like to be in the retelling of that story?
It means a lot to be able to reach so many people and it’s a lot to live up to, making Roots again. But we do cover some new ground in a new way, [with] a more modern way of storytelling. It is very, very powerful stuff and hopefully people take a positive message [from it] and use it for something positive. People can always use history to divide us, but the point is to use history to unite us. I hope that’s how people take from it; that a new generation can learn from the past and we can all shape a better future.
That segues into my next question; you mentioned the younger generation—what specifically do you hope they take away from it, since they might not have seen the original and with everything going on in the media and politics today, there are a lot of opinions about what America is supposed to be. So what do you hope the younger generation took from this retelling?
Well, it’s a fine line to walk, but I hope that we all can use the past to unite us like I said and to do something positive rather than to deconstruct us and divide us. We have the past, and there’s nothing we can do to change the past. But we can use it, we can heal, we can come together to make something positive in the future. That is something we have the power to do. We can shape the future. That’s what we need to take from this, while honoring our roots. That’s what I want people to take from this and I’m certainly glad to be part of such a moving, inspirational story.
Roots came back at an interesting time in television because before Roots aired, we had Underground telling one side of the story of slavery, then we had Roots, and in movies, we’ve got Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and the HBO Harriet Tubman biopic coming. So what do you think about the fact that this year there have been and will be so many stories like this in one to two years?
The great thing about these shows and that it comes at a great time is that it does showcase great actors, fantastic black actors…and that’s what we want. The important thing is that these are great stories. We will always have this era to showcase fantastic talent, and that’s great, I think that’s a good stepping stone. Now, we can go on to some other stories. We’ll always have those stories to go back to, but now is the time to really seize the moment and branch out from that once we get through this period.
How did working on this project affect you personally?
It’s tough. I definitely can get involved in my characters and still be in the trauma and that dark place for that moment…Certainly when you watch it, me being Caucasian, I feel pain. I feel shame, even. I’m not sure the exact things that happened my lineage, but it’s certainly shameful what did go on, and I think it’s in our DNA that we feel that pain no matter who we are, as humanity. We just have to live with that and made something positive. That’s what we face everyday; we can take anything and spin it negatively and go down a negative path.
I think now is a very important time and I think as society, we are evolving in a way that really speaks to the energy inside us. We can use that in a positive way that we haven’t before. There’s something special going on between us right now energetically that we can really come together.
My last questions are about Star Trek; I read that you’d played Spock in [Star Trek: The New Voyages] before so my questions are 1) how big of a Star Trek fan are you and 2) what do you think of the new Star Trek film, Star Trek Beyond, that’s going to come out soon?
I’m a huge Trek fan. The Gene Roddenberry message is really something special. For me personally, I like to be involved in things that comment on society and [focus on] ways to move society in a positive direction. That’s what The Big Short tries to do, that’s what Roots tries to do, and all of Gene Roddenberry’s projects do the same thing.
Star Trek is a really special thing, and certainly being able to play Spock in any capacity is wonderful. He’s a really, really layered being and I certainly enjoy the subtleties that show so much in his character. You have to look closely for it, but you find that he is quite emotional while trying to be so logical. He’s a torn person; he’s constantly at war with himself, which I find very interesting to play. And the new movies—I love them. I love J.J. Abrams; I think he does a great job of producing these things. It’s not the ’60s Star Trek, and that’s fine. We evolve. I think there’s a place for ’60s Star Trek and I think there’s a place for what’s going on now, so I’m a big fan of all of it. ♦
The voices are getting louder and stronger for Hollywood, Disney in particular, to include LGBT characters in their properties.
A few weeks ago, the hashtags
#GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend and #GiveElsaAGirlfriend trended on Twitter, showing not only how vast the audience is for mainstream LGBT content (unlike what Hollywood studios think), but also the urgency with which this type of content is needed. Around the same time #GiveElsaAGirlfriend trended, GLAAD released its annual Studio Responsibility Index, which found that out of Disney’s 11 properties released in 2015, none of them featured LGBT characters. (Paramount also featured no LGBT characters in its 2015 output.)
GLAAD stated in the report how Disney could rectify their issue, using Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I think must be a slightly veiled reference to the online movement for Finn and Poe to be in a relationship). To quote GLAAD:
As sci-fi projects have the special opportunity to create unique worlds whose advanced societies can serve as a commentary on our own, the most obvious place where Disney could include LGBT characters is in the upcoming eighth Star Wars film. 2015’s The Force Awakens has introduced a new and diverse central trio, which allows the creators opportunity to tell fresh stories as they develop their backstory. Recent official novels in the franchise featured lesbian and gay characters that could also be easily written in to the story.
Elsa and Captain America are two other characters that have become part of Disney fans’ stable of coded characters. Many have said that Elsa’s self-acceptance and “coming out” moment regarding her ice powers relates to kids wrestling with their self-identity and the courage it takes to reveal that truth to family and friends. The song “Let It Go”, as the Guardian states, has been adopted as an anthem for LGBT fans. On the Marvel end of Disney, Captain America‘s close friendship with Bucky Barnes has been seen as having gay overtones by many fans, as well as Cap’s immediately close relationship with the Falcon; in fact, Falcon and Cap’s relationship in the comics inspired one fan to write Marvel, moved by how the two characters expressed emotions that, as the comic panel itself explained away, were emotions that were “left unsaid.”
With the tide turning higher and heavier towards Disney finally making a move and acquiescing to marginalized fans’ concerns and wants, I decided to reach out to the hashtag creators who were helping give renewed hope to fans wanting to see LGBT relationships on screen. Below is my email interview with Jessica Salerno, #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend*, who gives more insight into the creation of the hashtag as well as why it’s so important.
“Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky”- Steve Rogers, Marvel’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” pic.twitter.com/V0NdkyAEEL
— Captain America (@CaptainAmerica) June 1, 2016
JUST ADD COLOR: Why did you create
Jessica Salerno: When I created the tag #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend, it was something I definitely wanted to see be translated into the movies because of what it would do for the LGBTQ+ community, and because I myself love the Captain America movies and know many others do too! I had no idea people would actually catch on and help me trend it, but I couldn’t have been happier when they did.
#GiveElsaAGirlfriend has also been making the rounds. What do you think about these two hashtags and the message they represent? In other words, why have the hashtags hit a cord?
Both of these hashtags call for everyone to voice their support for two huge characters in the film industry, on a platform where they can be heard. These tags, once they get trending, show film studios everywhere that people want this representation of the LGBTQ+ community. these tags are both so important because when this many people speak up, they’re going to be heard. Having characters like Elsa and Captain America date the [same] sex would be revolutionary. People want superheroes and princesses to be able to be just like them—to show everyone that you can be a superhero and be bisexual, etc. It normalizes these sexualities and concepts that most of the world still shies away from, and these characters specifically speak out to the youth who view them—teaching them that no matter who they choose to be, they can still be a princess or a hero.
Why do you think Hollywood hasn’t made a prominent, out LGBT superhero or princess?
I think Hollywood hasn’t embraced the idea of a leasing LGBTQ+ character in films like these because they are worried about money. Frankly put, there is a huge amount of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc…worldwide that threaten the net worth of these corporations like Disney. The amount of backlash received from #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend just showed how many people still wrongly deny the LGBTQ+ community. But that’s why Hollywood needs to take these steps to normalize it with the platforms that they have.
How do you think the lack of LGBT characters has affected movie-going audiences?
I think the lack of LGBTQ+ characters in movies has affected the audiences, dwindling the amount of viewers who attend a movie if they know its another movie with an unnecessary heterosexual relationship forced into the mix just to make sure nobody tries shipping the male characters together. People want more representation, and they’re not going to be as willing to see a movie full of heterosexual stuff because that’s what we’ve been seeing for decades and its just not normal or realistic anymore. it hasn’t been for a while, and it needs to be realized.
What message do you hope people take away from your hashtag?
From #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend and from #GiveElsaAGirlfriend I hope people start to realize we can make a difference in the industry through just tweeting support from our phones or computers. I hope people start to realize the lack of LGBTQ+ representation, and I hope they start to support it and this cause. I hope people start to feel hopeful again that change is possible and happening for the LGBTQ+ community and that they see how many people are here to support that. It’s not just those in the community that want this change, and it’s empowering to those in it to see that again. from this tag I really hope people just continue to push for more representation and take a stand, because we can make this happen.
If Captain America was given a boyfriend, who would you choose?
I would love for Captain America’s boyfriend to be his long time friend Bucky Barnes! ♦
*JUST ADD COLOR reached out to Alexis Isabel, the creator of #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. She couldn’t be reached for comment.
Between 2009 and 2010, I wrote extensively about Hadji Singh from The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest in a series of posts called “Hadji Demystified.” Why “demystified”? Because the kid Hadji from the ’60s might have been spectacularly acted, but the character itself was filled with tropes such as Hadji somehow knowing magic, thereby making him mystical. The mystical aspect of Hadji bleeds into popular tropes Hollywood has about Indian characters, and non-white people in general; that we’re somehow full of wisdom, magical (either literally or in terms of the value the characters bring to white characters), and are exotic specimens, not actual human beings.
When I fan out about characters, I take it seriously, and usually that means learning everything about them and their backgrounds. I did such with both the kid version of Hadji and the teenage version from Real Adventures. The teenage version affected me even more because while kid Hadji was the only person I could identify with (he was the only non-white face, the only person who ever shot down Jonny’s notions of following the danger, etc.), teenage Hadji–and the treatment his character received from the character development team–gave me a different perspective entirely.
Through my love for Hadji, I’d put it upon myself to learn more about Indian cultures and what was right and wrong about Indian representations in America. As I found out, there was a lot that could be questioned about Season Two Hadji (the change in voice actors, the heavy reliance on stereotypes and tropes, the fact that Hadji became a maharajah even though maharajahs had stopped being in power in Bangalore long before, etc.), but Season One Hadji was a character that was meant to positively represent not just Hadji as a fleshed-out character (for instance, the introduction of his last name and his devotion to Sikhism), but an aspect of the immigrant experience.
To use two quotes I used ad nauseum while writing my Hadji posts:
- What was the inspiration for Hadji? Was he a paradigm of Eastern thought, or based on a friend in that hemisphere of the world?
I did have a great Pakistani friend at university, Tahir Attar. Educated in Europe at expensive private schools but retaining deep cultural roots. I believe, for example, that he entered an arranged marriage – quite happily. He was a perfect mix of East and West and I took a lot from him for Hadji. We did, of course, add an additonal dose of mysticism (for want of a better word), for dramatic reasons and in an attempt to keep the stories really open. (Minds, too, perhaps – but God forbid that we were proselytizing.) Yeah. Compare our Hadji with that moron in … oh, god, what was that silly robot movie? it will come to me. Or most of the silly sing-song morons which Hollywood makes of Asian Indians.
Clearly you have some knowledge of my own background – brought up in Zambia. (Tongue in cheek, Buzz, Stephanie and others said that I had a lot in common with Jonny – and, actually, I really did identify with our vision of him.) Not just in Zambia but deep in the bush. I grew up with Africans. I was an African, albeit white. When I went to Europe and, later, the US, I was stunned at the casual racism, the unthinking stereotyping, the sheer ignorance of other cultures. So, when it came to Hadji I was determined to make him real. Or as real as he could be in the context. Michael Benyaer really ‘got’ what we wanted to do with this character and that made it easier to ‘hear’ Hadji’s voice while writing. I wonder where Mike is now?
In fact, however pretentious it makes me seem, I wanted this authenticity in all the characters. That’s why we went for some rather ‘out there’ casting – and that’s why, of course, the succeeding producers undid everything and went safe. It’s pretty sad, and quite indicative of the xenophobia of our culture and the play-safe of the industry.
“[he] is one of the few roles for an ethnic actor that is not a bad guy. I mean, how many East Indian heroes have been on television? Hadji is for the sensitive kids out there. He is the outsider in all of us.”
The latter quote by Benyaer made it imperative for me to get his point of view on playing Hadji during the first season of Real Adventures of Jonny Quest and how it felt playing a character that had been thoughtfully approached by the development team. All it took was one simple email and some great timing for me to get my interview (I still remember that Benyaer said it was serendipitous that I’d email him right around the time he’d actually read some of my Hadji-centric writing.)
Thus ensued the following interview. We talked about acting, of course, but we also discussed the state of diversity in 2010. At that point, the type of movement on diversity we’re seeing now was just a pipe dream. But while there’s been a lot of movement, there’s still more that can be done; Aziz Ansari’s Master of None and Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project can’t be the only two holding it down for our American Desi friends. In any event, check out the interview.
I’ve been writing about Hadji for a while, just giving my viewpoints on how Hadji is important to the entire conversation of race and culture on television, learning about different religions, etc. But now you don’t have to take just my word for it. Take it from Hadji’s own voice.
Michael Benyaer, film and TV actor, got his start in acting straight out of high school, appearing in an episode of 21 Jump Street that was filmed in his native Vancouver, B.C. Soon after, he landed his first voice acting role as Ken in Barbie and the Rockers, which garnered him quite a bit of press. “I guess people thought it was pretty funny that Canadians were voicing Barbie and Ken,” he said. He later landed roles on G.I. Joe and Reboot.
When he was cast as Bob on Reboot, Benyaer was able to add his own experiences to the character. “As the role progressed, they wrote more to what I was doing. I was able to help create the character. It was exciting to be able to help create a character.” Part of how he identified with Bob was through his favorite cartoon character, Spider-Man. “It was nice to be able to play a hero who was fallible; he was like Spider-Man/Peter Parker, someone who was thrust into his job and learning to cope with it.”
When he moved to California, The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest was the job that opened him up to Hollywood. Through landing the role of Hadji for season one of Real Adventures, he was able to relive part of his childhood while befriending and learning from veteran actors. “It was very ironic to think that I watched Hanna-Barbera cartoons as a kid and that later I’d be working where they made those cartoons,” he said. “I got to meet Frank Welker [long-time voice actor who was voicing Jonny’s dog Bandit], George Segal [long-time movie and TV actor, voice of Dr. Quest] and Robert Patrick [movie actor best known for Terminator 2, voice of Race Bannon]; I’d have lunch with them every week, and just pick their brains.”
However, through the casting for Real Adventures, as well as casting for live-action jobs, Benyaer said something that mirrors what a lot of ethnic actors have to contend with. “Hollywood is…Hollywood is very specific,” he said. “Hollywood casts roles based on what you look like.”
During his tryouts for Hadji, he was aware of Indian stereotypes that were still in play. “There were actors who were using this accent like Apu [from The Simpsons], and I was like, ‘No, that’s offensive!’” Also, said Benyaer, many people in Hollywood do not differentiate between accents that originate from India and the Middle East. “To them it’s all the same,” he said, “and I’m like, ‘No, that’s a Pakistani accent,’ [or] ‘No, that’s an Israeli accent.’”
It was revolutionary, said Benyaer, that Hadji was created for the ‘60s version of Jonny Quest. “He was an early character of color that was not black or Hispanic on TV,” he said. To further push a positive portrayal of brown-skinned character on TV, Benyaer set out to bring a touch of class. “I based [Hadji’s accent] on Gandhi—someone who’s worldly with traces of a British education. I wanted to give [the role] respect. I wanted to give it some sort of class. And Peter Lawrence, the producer, responded to that. I was also allowed to add some understated humor to the character.”
Benyaer said that Hadji is very important in the conversation about race and culture being represented in entertainment. “He is the touchstone of Indian chracters,” Benyaer said. “During the ‘90s, there was no one [of Indian ancestry] on television. There was Apu, but that’s it. In 2010, there’s [Mohinder from Heroes, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy], The Cape, [Adhir Kaylan from Aliens in America and Rules of Engagement], and Harold and Kumar. Slumdog Millionaire was the movie that made everyone think of making Indian characters, and Hadji was the precursor of this.”
It is important that everyone gets represented in entertainment. “I have Asian American or Asian Canadian friends, and I ask them [about what cartoon characters they liked], and they always remember the people that looked like them in the cartoons,” he said. “Indians in Britain are more like how African Americans are here in America; Indians have a lot of representation on television. In Canada, Indians have supporting roles. It’s just in America where that’s not the case.”
As far as how ethnicities should be represented today, Benyaer is hopeful that the representations of ethnicities spans beyond more than just the character’s color or accent. “I think what we should see now are people of color that don’t have the accent of their ethnicity, like a character like Hadji with an American accent.” But, he is also glad that the number of ethnic characters on television have increased. “The quote that I said back in 1996 [about Hadji being one of few minority characters that wasn’t the bad guy]—fourteen years later, I’m glad it’s not true.”♦
The hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite went viral recently, and with good reason; even though coverage of issues facing the disabled might be out there, the coverage is too frequently focused solely on how disability issues affect white Americans, not all Americans. I was happy to interview the creator of #DisabilityTooWhite and founder of the site Ramp Your Voice!, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW. In our email interview, we discuss the origins of the hashtag, some of the problems with mainstream coverage of disabiilty issues, and what people should take away from the messages stated in the hashtag. If you want to read more about the lack of diversity in coverage about the issues facing the disabled, read Thompson’s article, “White Privilege & Inspiration Porn.” Like Thompson states in her article, I too had an epiphany while reading this and will work on internalizing all of the complexities surrounding “inspiration porn.”
What prompted the hashtag?
It was an article on xoJane that a friend and fellow advocate shared that showcased the standard image of disabled women: white disabled women. Of course, we need more visibility of disabled women as a whole, but the “face” of this subgroup is typically white. As a Black disabled woman, that frustrates me because I know how it feels to be invisible in the communities I hold membership to — disabled, Black, and female. I, like so many Black disabled women and other women of color, are frankly tired of that erasure of who we are, especially when it is an issue that gets rarely discussed publicly in our community. The hashtag was something that came to me instantly when I replied about my annoyance of the lack of diversity and inclusion, especially on platforms that specifically focus on women.
What problems have you seen when it comes to representation of POCs with disabilities?
There is this “excuse” that circulates within the community about not being able to “find” disabled people of color. To me, that’s a poor excuse to utter, especially with how many disabled people of color advocates utilize social media and speak out on the issues that matters to them as folks who hold multiple memberships. As I wrote in a recent article, that excuse can no longer be tolerated – you don’t find us because you aren’t looking hard enough TO find us. We have been here since the start of the Disability Rights Movement, yet if you were to let the history books tell it, disabled people of color were not around. This has been a continuous issue of erasure in our community, and it’s something many of us, including myself, make known and speak out on unapologetically. It’s 2016 — it is beyond time for disabled people of color to be visible in our community in every capacity; from organizations to articles published about the disability experience.
There’s been a lot of needless pushback against the #DisabilityTooWhite. What do you make of the backlash and what lesson do you want the hashtag’s detractors to take away from the hashtag instead?
From what I saw, many of those detractors were trolls — they just wanted to infiltrate and derail the conversation that was being held. With those individuals, I personally ignore them, and continue to get my message across — they will not be a distraction to the bigger picture for me as an advocate.
The persons who really need to understand the hashtag are the disabled people, particularly disabled Whites, who felt that the hashtag was an personal attack on who they are as disabled people and/or was “unnecessary.” One thing I noticed as an advocate of color: the disabled community is very uneducated on experiences that goes beyond disability; meaning that anything that discusses differences outside of disability meets great resistance (we see this on both an individual level and within disability-centered organizations). That resistance perpetuates the silence and erasure of individuals who hold dual or multiple identities, which in this case, would be disabled people of color and disabled women of color.
Disabled people have to realize that though we are disabled, that doesn’t negate the privileges we have; admitting that we all have privileges isn’t shameful, but the way some of us react when it’s pointed out is problematic. I am intimately aware of the privileges I hold, and I use them to help those access spaces that they cannot because they don’t have those same privileges as I do. When disabled people of color vocalize that they endure plights that disabled Whites do not, it is not us creating an “us vs. them” realm; we are simply stating how the world works for us, and in many cases, works against us due to multiple memberships. The pushback of trying to understand our stories shows a lack of respect for the diversity of the community, and shows disabled people of color that they cannot feel truly comfortable about how they are and the unique struggles they endure if those thoughts will be challenged by those of the majority (in this case, disabled Whites).
Being open-minded to the realities of others that live and look differently from you as a disabled person is the key takeaway – yes, we may have a disability, but the world interacts with us differently that goes beyond disability status. Being willing to listen to disabled people of color is so important, and the detractors missed a prime opportunity to do just that.
There are those who have learned a lot from the hashtag and have interacted with you personally to thank you for creating it. What do you think of the hashtag’s positive effect?
The most positive effect of the hashtag was the fact that disabled people of color were able to freely share their truths. We talk amongst each other or keep it to ourselves — we rarely have the opportunity to discuss these matters so publicly. Being able to share your experiences, the good, bad, and painful, is an empowering moment, especially when you are able to connect with others who have endured similar circumstances. This public sharing validates who you are and the life you live — as disabled people of color, we seek out that validation greatly because of the lack of attention to our lives in the community and the broader society. Our community and society can no longer feign ignorance to who we are and how the world responses and treats us – that’s a powerful realization when these hashtags are created and gain mass attention.
Having the ability to connect with other disabled people of color on social media and build an incredible network and support group is another positive effect. Personally, one of my favorite things about being a blogger and advocate is befriending and collaborating with disabled women of color. The hashtag allowed me to bond closer with the women I already knew, and to meet disabled women of color who understand the world I, and we, live in.
How do you think the media could rectify how they cover disability issues, especially disability issues relating to people of color?
Diversity and inclusion are huge problems in the media, and it’s being resolved at a snail’s pace. The media perpetuates the “default” face (i.e., white) for disability when they only share stories about White disabled people, as well as write inspiration porn-themed stories about disabled people of color. Learning how to write about disability that isn’t disrespectful or plays on the “good feels” or pity emotions is so important, no matter the color of the individual being written about. There are so many disabled people of color who are advocates, and are doing incredible work in their specific areas of interest and in their communities; the failure to highlight us is inexcusable.
With how connected we all are due to the internet and social media, we should not still have this problem with journalism that plays on disability stereotypes and inaccurate understanding about what disability actually is, along with only amplifying the voices and experiences of one subgroup in the community. The media plays a huge role in how the society reacts, interacts, and understands disability — it’s long overdue for the media, in all forms, take this responsibility seriously and depict all of our experiences fairly and respectfully.
What is the ultimate goal you have for #DisabilityTooWhite?
I want the hashtag to shine a light on the issue of race and invisibility in our community and force the issue to be discussed openly and not in private, as it tends to occur. I hope the disabled people of color who participated, and those who read the tweets shared, truly understand that their voices and experience matters, and to not allow anyone quiet them because they are uncomfortable with what they have to say. One of my favorite quotes comes from Zora Neale Hurston: “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” I want every disabled person of color to speak up and speak out about the ableism, racism, discrimination, prejudices, sexism, homophobia, and every other injustice they endure in our community and to do so without worrying about hurting feelings or making others squirm in their seats because the truth is hard to hear.
What we did with the #DisabilityTooWhite hashtag was just that: there were some who did not want to hear what we had to say, but there were many more who needed to hear it. The latter group is I hope feel the lasting effects of the hashtag, and learn that they aren’t alone and there’s plenty of work left for us to do as advocates to change the status quo.♦
Late last week, I debuted my interview with TRI co-writer/producer Theodore Adams III, and this week, the TRI interview fest continues with my discussion with the film’s director and co-writer Jai Jameson. During our phone conversation, Jameson and I discussed how he came to work on TRI, as well as his personal reasons for investing in inclusion and diversity in entertainment.
TRI, starring Jensen Jacobs, Shawn Pelofsky, Jaylen Moore, Chris Williams, Kelly Spitko, Walker Hays, and Tim Reid, will be shown at triathlons and in triathlon communities around the U.S. and Canada. In the fall, the film will be available on digital outlets and a TV broadcast deal is in the works. Keep up with the film and find out how you can request the film to be shown in your area through triforcure.com.
How did you and Adams come to work together on TRI?
I went to grad school at American University; I got my MFA in film from there. One of my mentors at American University is Russell Williams [II], who is the artist-in-residence there and is a two-time Academy Award winner. [Adams] contacted Russell just for advice on doing his first film and having him as a mentor to him as well. When they were looking for a director for the project…Russell recommended me and sent some of my work to him, and [Adams] really responded to the films…I’d done.
I think the one that really spoke to him the most was “Speak Now,” which is my thesis film…and he got me on the phone, sent me the script, and started talking about how we would approach the material. We really bonded early on. We had a very similar aesthetic. We very quickly got on the same wavelength in terms of the type of movie we could make and what we thought the project could be.
I had spoken to Adams earlier about the film, and he said it was about beating the odds and how a lot of people in his life had been able to beat cancer and the triathlons they participate in. How did that storyline affect you as you were working on the film?
I think for me, the process of making the film and the themes within the film quickly started blurring together for me. The ideas and themes of perseverance and pushing yourself and getting things finished, those were definitely inspirations that meta-structurally informed the themes within the film. I was definitely able to draw upon a lot of personal experience just in terms of my own struggles and my own pursuit in the film world.
I’d been trying to get [another] feature made for over four years when Ted gave me the call [to do TRI]. It was one of those things where it was greenlit, we were ready to go, and this actor dropped out. Or, we were greenlit…and this financing that we thought we had we didn’t actually have. We went to various producers and people were attached and then people weren’t attached. There were four years of that where it’s just like, “Is this going to happen?”, and one of the first things that one of my first mentors told me about the film industry that it’s based on perseverance. So those were all themes that was able to personally, emotionally connect to that I transmuted into these characters who were going through these physical and mental challenges of overcoming what you think your body’s limitations might be.
I say that, for me, there’s no more fitting film to be a first film than a movie about triathlons, because filmmaking in itself is an endurance sport. It’s just hanging on and getting to the end and getting something in the can…I think the mental aspects of perseverance and what that means was something I was able to bring to the project.
As you said, this is your first feature film, and it’s already making history as the first scripted narrative about triathlons made for theatrical release. How does it feels to have that marker on your resume already?
It’s really amazing. This is such an amazing project, and in terms of what a first feature could be, this is more than what I could ever hope for, in terms of the team we were able to put together, the film we were able to make, and the response we’ve been getting to the film. I think it’s accomplishing its goal…Our goal was to inspire people with this film. We wanted people who had done a few triathlons, people who were thinking about doing a triathlon, and just random Joe Schmo off the street who only vaguely knows what a triathlon is, to watch the film and be inspired to leave the theater with a good, warm feeling, ready to attack the world…That’s what our goal was with the film. …Being able to do something that’s accomplishing its goal and getting feedback from people across the world just based on the trailer…the response has been overwhelming and extremely humbling. It makes all of the last few years of struggling to get things made worthwhile.
The film’s protagonist is a woman and I asked Ted this too, but I’ll ask it a little differently this time. As you know, Hollywood is going through a transitional period when it comes to being more inclusive to everyone. What do you think TRI adds to the conversation about having a diverse range of leading roles, particularly leading roles for women?
I think diversity in storytelling is very important. It’s one of my number one goals in terms of lending my voice to film and the types of stories I want to portray and the types of characters I want to put out to the world. I think with TRI, there are three leads. There’s the lead of Natalie, and there’s a 1A and 1B in Candice, who is going through cancer treatment, and Christy, who is competing in her first triathlon since finishing cancer treatment. I think what we’ve been able to do is showcase levels and layers of various women who are exhibiting strength in different ways. What I really wanted to do was create well-rounded characters that have depth to them.
I take this from a very personal standpoint in that my sister is an actress. She just finished her first year [of grad school] at Yale School of Drama. And I look around and the opportunities for her as a woman, in terms of roles, and beyond that as a black woman. There aren’t a lot. I’m from Richmond, VA, and we get a lot of production in Virginia, but it’s a lot of historical production. It’s Civil War and Revolutionary War stuff. The two big productions in Richmond right now are Turn and Mercy Street. And it’s great to have them there, because you bring in amazing crew, you’re building the film infrastructure there in Richmond, everyone who works on those projects are amazing people. The film community in Richmond is fantastic. But the thing that’s frustrating to me as a filmmaker is that because of what those projects are—they’re both television shows—the only roles that are available are slaves or freed slaves. That’s frustrating. And there are really interesting things they’re doing with women, but in terms of black women, there aren’t a whole lot of juicy roles.
Beyond that…I’ve talked to a lot of women who have said that the only roles that [they] have are slaves or sassy best friends. I look at that in terms of being very cognizant of representation and telling stories that are more inclusive, more diverse, because that’s more interesting to me. Those are the types of stories that I respond to. There are plenty of stories that are about men. That’s not to say that I’m not going to tell stories about men as well, but I was very cognizant [of having complex female roles], especially for TRI, because it is a sports drama, but it stars mostly women. I was cognizant of wanting to pass the Bechdel Test, which I’m pretty sure we do. It’s such a low bar, but it’s amazing that so many projects don’t pass that simple test. So…with TRI and future work going forward, that’s been my focus. From a purely selfish standpoint, I want to create more and more roles for my sister and for people like her that are just talented actresses who are not given the opportunities to shine like I think they could.
That segues into my next question—for those who want to be in film, particularly people of color, and they see all the discrepancies in Hollywood and all the hashtags and movements and they still want to be in film, what advice would you give them to start them on their journey?
I think…the marketplace and the medium is opening up at a rapid pace and it’s being disrupted. The networks and the agencies—everyone is being extremely reactionary right now. The one good thing about #OscarsSoWhite is that it shown a spotlight on what was happening. The issue wasn’t the Academy; the issue was that they didn’t make enough movies with interesting roles for non-white actors and the movies that they did make they didn’t market correctly or didn’t get them into the public consciousness. The response to that is that Hollywood is a pendulum. They kind of overcorrect a little bit.
I think in the next couple of years, you’re going to see a lot of stuff. The key is to not let them overcorrect back in the other direction. The way to do that is to utilize this new marketplace that’s opening up and using this foot in the door that [the #OscarsSoWhite] movement has created to generate more and more content and build up more and more stories. We’re telling stories about all kinds of people, and there’s a marketplace for it. It’s just finding your market, your audience.
What I’ve learned with TRI is that there’s a very dedicated social media audience that we have hit upon that is really interested in the world of triathlons. Runners, cross-fitters, people who are really into fitness, overcoming things, and inspirational sports movies. We’ve engaged that audience. That audience exists for all other people and subject matter and themes. The key is finding that audience and telling a stories that are true to your experience because there are going to be people who are going to respond to that and what to see what you’re saying.
The key is to not try to be someone else. We already have Spike Lee, we already have Tyler Perry, we already have Ang Lee. We already have those folks who are telling their own stories. That’s great; we just need more people who are telling stories that are true to their experience and their point of view. The medium is opening up, whether it’s through television or independent television now where you can make a series and sell it directly to Amazon or Netflix, or whether it be a web series or independent film. The key is being true to yourself and your experience, and finding the audience that might respond to that.♦