Tag Archives: race

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

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

Take a look at moments from the hashtag for yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

• Social media has its pulse on what people want: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ashley M. Jones’ “Magic City Gospel” Tells History of Alabama with Haunting Poetry

I have some great news to report (and some nepotism to perform)! My sister, Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award winner Ashley M. Jones, has a great book coming out called Magic City Gospel! The book is a product of three years at FIU’s creative writing program, creating a body of work representative of her life and her experiences. I was there at every step of this book, watching her create each poem and providing feedback (some of my suggestions may have found their way into her poems).

Magic-City-Gospel-Ashley-M-Jones

However, I’m not lauding this book just because she’s my sister. Jones’ Magic City Gospel is a collection of haunting poems detailing the sorrows and the highs of living in Alabama, a place soaked in the blood of black slaves and Native Americans, a place that is as known for the KKK and Jim Crow as it is fried chicken and good potato salad. In short, Magic City Gospel focuses on the strange complexity that makes Alabama, and more specifically Birmingham, a simultaneously fantastic and horrifying place to live. Here’s the official blurb and more about Ashley:

Magic City Gospel is a love song to Birmingham, the Magic City of the South. In traditional forms and free verse poems, 2015 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award-winner Ashley M. Jones takes readers on a historical, geographical, cultural, and personal journey through her life and the life of her home state. From De Soto’s “discovery” of Alabama to George Wallace’s infamous stance in the schoolhouse door, to the murders of black men like Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner in modern America, Magic City Gospel weaves its story through time, weaving Jones’ personal history with the troubled, triumphant, and complicated history of Birmingham, and of Alabama at large. In Magic City Gospel’s pages, you’ll find that “gold is laced in Alabama’s teeth,” but you will also see the dark underbelly of a state and a city with a storied past, and a woman whose history is inextricably linked to that past.

ashley-m-jonesAshley M. Jones received an MFA from Florida International University. She was a finalist in Hub City Press’ New Southern Voices Contest, Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award Contest, and the National Poetry Series. Her work has been published by the Academy of American Poets, pluck!, PMSPoemMemoirStory, Prelude, Kinfolks Quarterly, and other journals. She received a 2015 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and a 2015 B-Metro Magazine Fusion Award. She is an editor of [PANK] Magazine, and she teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts.

“But I wanna read some of her poetry before I trust your word, for it, Monique!” Well, lucky you; Ashley’s got tons of her work at her website, most—if not all—of it will be published in Magic City Gospel. Here’s just a sampling:

Danez Smith and Jericho Brown, two big names in today’s poetry, have already given Magic City Gospel their seal of approval:

Ashley Jones lays Alabama bare, wide, beautiful, terrifying and familiar in Magic City Gospel, this wonderful collection thick with where form, history, and even the wind are all rendered blackly and masterfully. Jones’ poems are alive with ghost and kin, God and Black girls, and all are sung, SANG really, under her capable hand. The red dirt is smeared all over this book, where we get to see Sammie Davis Jr. sing for Mike Brown & the Virgin Mary painted Black and Southern. Let Jones show you her land and her people, let me drive you across roads and time and show you what Alabama is about. —Danez Smith, author of [insert] boy

Ashley M. Jones’ Magic City Gospel is exact and exacting. Her intention is to name—and she does so in a way that renders into beauty all that is harsh about the American South. This is a poetry book that knows how to be a history book, a religious text, a book of redemption. —Jericho Brown, author of The New Testament

Ashley’s book will be out Jan. 3, 2017, but you can pre-order it right now! Click here to pre-order and secure your copy. You can also connect with Ashley through her website and Twitter.

Five Fantasy Books by Native Authors to Combat J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”

You might have heard about J.K. Rowling’s literary misfire in recent days. The Harry Potter writer is busy creating new stories for her Magical Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, and a new set of stories, telling the history of magical North America, hit Pottermore to eager fans. A promotional trailer was also released, in which some of the details of her North American history are revealed.

I’ve been a fan of the Harry Potter books, despite my personal gripes. But one of gripe I had while reading her textbook tie-ins was that America was always put into stereotype. We didn’t get Quidditch; we got some dumb analog to American football because Americans are just more brutish that way (that’s how I interpreted it anyway). Now, we Americans don’t have the simple term “muggle” to describe non-magical people; we have some clunky term like “No-Maj,” which seems to imply that America’s usage of English is clunky and fumbly, unlike the Brits’ musical-sounding words. But she’s not the first European to view America as an overbearing, loud place, and she won’t be the last. And in truth, if she had stopped at just a history of white America, she might have saved herself some grief. But she decided to include Native American history into her fictional tale, and that has proved disastrous, and rightly so.

The major points of contention are:

• JKR lumped all of Native American culture together in one term, a term we should all be careful about using: “Native American community.” Native Appropriations’ Dr. Adrienne Keene writes that that phrase represents “[o]ne of the largest fights in the world of representations,” which is “to recognize Native peoples and communities and cultures” as “diverse, complex, and vastly different from one another.”

•  JKR appropriated the Skin-walker myth. JKR writes in her story that skin-walkers are a myth created around Native American Animagi (animagi being people who can transform into animals, like Professor McGonagall). The myth states that the skin-walkers had “sacrificed close family members to gain their powers of transformation,” but in her world, the Native American Animagi used their powers “to escape persecution or to hut for the tribe.” She goes AWOL when she decides to call the Skin-walker myth itself “derogatory rumours often originated with No-Maj medicine men, who were sometimes faking magical powers themselves, and fearful of exposure.”

The skin-walker (yee naaldooshii) legend itself, in actuality, is of Navajo origin, and refers to a witch who gains their power to transform by breaking cultural taboo. Medicine men aren’t the same as skin-walker witches, since witches are using their methods to harm, and medicine men are using theirs to heal. I got my info from Wikipedia as well as other sites, which shows that it’s not that difficult to at least try to pay homage to a particular culture’s legends. I admitted the little research I’ve done because I’m not going to act like I’m an expert on Navajo culture; far from it. But Keene’s statement on the myth tells you what you need to know. “…[T]he belief of these things (beings?) has a deep and powerful place in Navajo understandings of the world. It is connected to many other concepts and many other ceremonial understandings and lifeways. It is not just a scary story, or something to tell kids to get them to behave, it’s much deeper than that.” So with that said, why does JKR feel she can call a part of someone else’s belief system “derogatory”?

• JKR doesn’t address the atrocity of white colonialization on Native peoples. In her story, JKR calls Europeans settlers merely “explorers,” as Keene points out, when we know that there was a lot more that went into their “exploring.” It’s currently unclear as to how she will address the full extent of devastation brought on by colonialization, but some clues are probably in how she addresses Africa and India’s magical histories in that same Magical Beasts textbook I mentioned above.

Native American fantasy and sci-fi, written by Native Americans

The story hasn’t gone without getting properly reamed in social media and on numerous websites. But this story is also just one of many stories out there that appropriates and erases Native culture until it can fit into a highly limiting, Eurocentric, often stereotypical view of Native Americans as a whole. JKR’s misstep also begs the question of if this, a story written by a non-Native, is out there, and if there are plenty other books by non-Native authors writing about cultures they might not know anything about, where are the fantasy stories (and sci-fi stories) written by Native American writers? How can we expose ourselves to fantasy that respects Native cultures and exposes non-Native readers to new ideas? Well, check these five examples out:

• Walking the Clouds: An Anthology of Indigenous Science Fiction, edited by Grace L. Dillon

This anthology is a great entryway into the world of Native American fantasy. The anthology, the first of its kind, features fantasy, stream-of-consciousness, sci-fi, and magical realism. Indian Country Today Media Network also states that Dillon, a professor of Indigenous Nations Studies at Portland State University, provides literary and cultural context for each piece, “making this book an excellent starting point for scholars and sci-fi fans alike.”

• Intersection of Fantasy and Native America: From H.P. Lovecraft to Leslie Marmon Silko, edited by Amy H. Sturgis and David D. Oberhelman

This book is more a literary study than an actual sci-fi or fantasy novel, but such a text is also useful for those wanting to become more versed in Native American fantasy and speculative fiction. Sturgis, part of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and David D. Oberhelman examine the push and pull between stories by Native authors such as Gerald Vizenor, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Louise Erdrich, and non-Native uthors like J.R.R. Tolkien, H.P. Lovecraft, and ironically enough, J.K. Rowling.

• Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles, Gerald Vizenor

Vizenor, part of the Anishinaabe people and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, White Earth Reservation, envisioned the destruction of America amid, as Wikipedia describes, “white greed for oil,” leading tribe of pilgrims to traverse the country’s dystopia. It could very well be argued that Vizenor’s then fictional world is coming true, seeing how bad climate change has become, much of it fueled by irresponsibility and a desire for oil. Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles was part of the literary movement known as the Native American Renaissance, which took place during the 1990s.

• The Tantalize Series by Cynthia Leitich Smith

The Tantalize Series, by Smith, a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation, writes young adult science fiction that also reflects today’s highly diverse society. The series is set in Austin, TX and focuses on a werewolf protagonist who, along with her uncle, open a vampire-themed restaurant. But when a murder leaves them without a chef, they have to transform their new fill-in into a convincing vampire. This leads to a love triangle, skirmishes with the supernatural, and the reveal of just who is playing whom.

• Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse, by roboticist, Popular Mechanics contributor, and television host Wilson, of Cherokee heritage, advances the idea (and the fear) of robots becoming sentient and, of course, against humanity. In Wilson’s world, a supercomputer turns the world’s technology against its creators, killing most of the world. The only hope left is, as Tribal College Journal’s Ryan Winn describes it, “an off-the-grid Osage stronghold where humans resisting the assault find sanctuary.” The fact that this book (and its sequel, Robogenesis), is written by a robotics engineer makes the story even that more terrifying due to its potential plausibility.

There are more books out there, but the difference between throwing up your hands in defeat and actually finding them is putting in the work. The literary world is still very homogenous, to be nice about it. To be honest about it, the literary world is a colonialized, whitewashed place, with too many literary agents (many who are white) picking authors (many who are white) that reflect their same worldview. Finding proper representation in the literary world takes some work, but it’s out there.

What we as a society should work on is lifting up marginalized voices, such as Native writers. Their stories are just as valuable to the literary framework, and lifting up those voices would alleviate the anxiety that comes when other writers are given unmitigated freedom to write about characters from different cultures and races. When more Native American writers are given the chance to write about their experiences, and when they’re given the correct exposure, then everyone wins.

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But you still want to write your story about Native Americans. What you can learn from JKR’s missteps when it comes to writing about Native cultures (and any culture that’s not your own):

With all of this said, I’m sure there are still many of you writers out there who want to use Native American characters and cultural elements in future stories, but don’t want to fall into the JKR trap. From both my passive and active experiences, I can offer the following advice that might come in handy.

The lessons we can glean from JKR’s mistakes are lessons that we can learn from many books throughout history, including classics like the Tarzan series, movies like Disney’s Peter Pan, and books-turned-movies like The Help.

• Do your research. If you’re not of a culture, it would behoove you to crack open a book, or get on Google, or do something to arm yourself with knowledge before ever writing anything down. JKR’s lack of success when it comes to writing about Native American beliefs as a whole is that it would appear she did cursory research, but neglected to go deeper into any of the things she was investigating. For instance, Skin-walkers. Instead of co-opting the term and turning it into something of her own creation, she could have incorporated the belief as it is and as it has been for centuries without changing it into a “derogatory” set of “rumours” created by non-magical people. She could have shown some level of sensitivity.

• Once you do your research and get comfortable, you still might have some questions. It doesn’t hurt to ask someone—RESPECTFULLY—to help you out. As an outsider, you will never know everything that comes with being the race you’re writing about, but you can gain some valuable insight from someone who agrees to work with you on your story.

JKR could have asked for a Native American writer or consultant, or several Native American writers, consultants, and historians, to help her edit her story and point out some things she should include more of or forget altogether. This brings up another point: I’d suggest you only ask a person of the culture you’re writing for help after you’ve done the proper legwork necessary in terms of research. Don’t expect a person not of your culture or race to fill in everything for you, since that’s not how reciprocity or actual cultural exchange works. You come with your knowledge, and ask for guidance. Don’t expect that person to be the representation of all of their people. No race or ethnicity is a monolith; Native American culture is certainly not a monolith, since there are many different nations and tribes with their own customs and cultural attitudes. I can’t say this enough: CULTURES AND PEOPLE OF THOSE CULTURES ARE NOT MONOLITHIC. THIS ISN’T STAR TREK.

•Don’t take something of another culture and appropriate it to mean something else. Where JKR lost many is when she decided that the Skin-walker myth was something she could create into her own idea. It’s similar to how white Christianity turned voodoo into the devil’s religion, when it’s not that all. Cultural mythos and belief systems, especially the belief systems and myths of cultures that are routinely forgotten and appropriated in society, should be honored and respected. There’s still a way to incorporate these ideas into modern literature, but to me, the way to do that is to keep the original myth intact.

To this point, I also add: Don’t rewrite a peoples’ entire history on the earth to suit your whims. JKR’s attempts to write a complex history of American magic and provide a nuanced, diverse approach to inclusion, but her efforts became hamfisted, seeing how her knowledge on Native America, and America in general, is limited to stereotype. JKR writes of Native Americans, as a whole, as a magical people, but limiting an entire group to “magic” undercuts any of JKR’s good intentions and just makes her Native American characters “magical ethnic” tropes and flattens any inroads towards learning at least the very basics about the many types of Native American cultures. Again, to use voodoo, Americans (and I’m sure Europeans as well) tend to limit Africa to witchcraft (or huts, child solidiers, or the Savannah). None of these express the cultural, societal, ethnic, and racial complexities of an entire continent.

• If you still feel uncomfortable and believe you could offend people, just don’t write about that culture. There’s a lot more I could say about this, but you can’t write about what you don’t know.

• Despite your best intentions and even after you research and get outside help, you’re still taking a risk in misrepresenting a culture that’s not your own. Taking precautions and utilizing sensitivity can help you mitigate any issues, but you’ve got to remember that you’re still the outsider, and the insiders have every right to dissect what you’ve put out. Be careful.

These are just basic lessons, and I’m sure there are plenty more that can be learned from JKR’s mistake. Overall, if a writing decision feels sketchy, just don’t do it. You’ll save yourself headaches.

Great blogs on the subject:

They Are Not Ghosts: On the Representation of the Indigenous Peoples of North America in Science Fiction & Fantasy (aidenmoher.com)

“Formations of ‘Indian’ Fantasies: European Museums and the Decontextualization of Native American Art and Artifacts”

Non-white Protagonists in Fantasy and Science Fiction (theillustratedpage.wordpress.com)

Native American and Speculative Fiction: An Interview with Amy H. Sturgis (journeytothesea.com)

Native Americans to J.K. Rowling: We’re Not Magical (National Geographic)

Critic’s Notebook: J.K. Rowling’s ‘History of Magic in North America’ Reads Like a High School Textbook

 

 

Four Reasons “Underground” is Must-See Television

Did you watch WGN America’s Underground Wednesday night? I did, and it was everything I’d hoped it would be, and it still surprised me with just how much information and action they managed to pack into an hour. I was so tense throughout the hour, I was tired afterwards.

There are multitude of reasons to be a huge fan of Underground, but I’ll provide you with four great reasons you should watch the show and use it as a platform to deepen your understanding about slavery and the issues that continue to plague America.

1. Underground makes slavery relevant to today’s issues again

Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Photo credit: WGN America
Jurnee Smollett-Bell. Photo credit: WGN America

The one thing that has hurt slavery narratives in the past is that they were always told in a past, passive tense. Slavery is something that ended roughly 200 hundred years ago, but some of the narratives put in the media about slavery would make people think that the effects of slavery aren’t in effect today. Surprise, surprise for those who didn’t know this, but the effects of slavery have always been effect because there’s still two Americas within the same country. There’s still the feeling that one aspect of America doesn’t want to listen, or doesn’t care to listen, to other viewpoints. The after-effects of slavery show themselves in economic inequality, police brutality, white flight in neighborhoods, gentrification in urban areas, pay inequality, the denial of basic human rights both in the justice system and in social aspects (like allowing Flint, MI residents, many of whom are black, to drink lead-filled water from the polluted Flint River while Detroit gets its water from a different source).

What Underground does through various modes of storytelling and the usage of modern music (Kanye!) is bring slavery back to the present. Making the story modern makes the injustice that much more difficult to watch, and you can’t help but think about how this hateful practice of slavery still reverberates today. I think the handling of the characters and the story will make even the most casual and most “colorblind” of viewers wake up and think about what’s going on today and how they may or may not be playing a part in the continuing degradation of a people. In short, it’ll make folks think if they’re part of the solution or part of the problem.

2. Underground puts slaves at the forefront of their own story

L-R: Alano Miller, Aldis Hodge, Theodus Crane. Photo credit: WGN America
L-R: Alano Miller, Aldis Hodge, Theodus Crane. Photo credit: WGN America

The most annoying thing about some films about slavery or discrimination in general is that the “good” white people are put at the center of the story. Daniel José Older (who I’ve interviewed on JUST ADD COLOR before!) wrote for Salon that the Oscar-lauded 12 Years a Slave still had a white savior narrative with Brad Pitt’s character Bass saving Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup:

“About three-quarters through the movie Brad Pitt suddenly sohws up and, essentially, saves the day. Never mind that Pitt is also one of the film’s producers…In this otherwise monumental and groundbreaking film, written and directed in the age of stop-and-frisk and ‘stand your ground,’ of Trayvon and Aiyanna and Marissa and Renisha, did we really need yet another white savior narrative? We absolutely did not.”

Older also brings up Lincoln, which featured the idea that Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln alone fought for the rights of slaves, instead of showing the layered and multi-faceted effort it took to get Lincoln to actually consider ending slavery, an effort which involved abolitionists like Frederick Douglass.

“Steven Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’ erased Frederick Douglass, reinforcing the tired notion that a singular white man, through the sheer force of his moral conviction, brought slavery to an end. In ‘Lincoln,’ ans in ’12 Years,’ this cliché not only hobbles the film’s cultural relevancy, it is a narrative failure as well.”

The Help isn’t about slavery, but it still put Emma Stone’s character and her book writing journey at the center of the story, when the real story is about how these maids have been surviving amid the unchecked racism and unearned privilege of their white women “employers.”  In all of these stories, the feelings of white America—of wanting to absolve white guilt, of wanting to appease an injured ego still coming to terms with slavery itself—are at the center, when their feelings, while valuable, aren’t the feelings we should be focusing on in these stories. The characterizations should revolve primarily around the characters who are most oppressed, the characters who are facing these uphill battles on a daily basis. The focus on the white experience of learning about oppression is also another thing that keeps some slave movies stuck in a passive tone; the act of an outsider looking into a new world is a passive one, since the outsider can throw away the experience at any point. The act becomes more of a professorial anthropological exercise than one actually immersing themselves to the point of a complete understanding. A call to action doesn’t come from studying a group from afar; it comes from feeling akin to that group, feeling like your well-being depends on their well-being.

Having the oppressed tell their own story is what gives a show like Underground its power. There are two white characters that do become part of the Underground Railroad, but it already looks like they aren’t set up to be “white saviors,” necessarily. They are part of the cogs of the Railroad, but the show isn’t depicting them as being the initial catalysts. In fact, the characters exemplify the difference between viewing slaves and slave rights as an anthropological study and feeling the call to action to actually help them. John Hawkes starts out as an abolitionists of sorts, but he’s still advocating for the law, which was set up to go against black people in the first place. Elizabeth, his wife, is initially against him advocating for slave rights, but once she visits John’s brother, the evil plantation owner Tom Macon, she sees a boy fanning her from the rafters. That boy, combined with her own desire for a family, changes her mind completely about slave rights. She finally sees herself in them and feels that call to action, which spurs her husband on to do the same. But, they are working in conjunction with slaves securing their own freedom; they’re not acting as shepherds herding a flock.

L-R David Kency, Jessica De Gouw, and Marc Blucas. Photo credit: WGN America
L-R David Kency, Jessica De Gouw, and Marc Blucas. Photo credit: WGN America

The slaves themselves, not John and Elizabeth, are the leads of this story. Aldis Hodge’s Noah is the one who is hell bent on getting to freedom, and he’s not planning on going alone; he’s taking a group of slaves with him. Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee is, of course, going to go with him, but we see her come to terms with her place on the plantation and how clearly not-free she is, even though she works in the Big House. Much of this realization comes when Suzanna Macon, the “lady” of the house, starts talking about selling Rosalee’s little brother James. (Of course, there’s going to be the big realization that Rosalee and James are both Tom and Rosalee’s mother Ernestine’s children.) The slaves decide for themselves how they want the rest of their lives to play out, and they take action to make their dream of freedom come true. This makes Underground stellar television as well as a stellar take (and more truthful take) on the slave story.

(For another slave story with slaves actually at the forefront of their story, check out this Atlantic article on the film Sankofa.)

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3. Underground highlights the insidious nature of white privilege

(L-R) Amirah Vann and Reed Diamond. Photo credit: WGN America
(L-R) Amirah Vann and Reed Diamond. Photo credit: WGN America

There are many scenes that are terrible to watch, but the scene that probably made me want to throw up the most was the juxtaposition of the little baby’s funeral (the baby who was killed by its mother, who didn’t want it to grow up in slavery) to the birthday of Tom and Suzanna’s daughter Mary. That, coupled with the family sitting down at dinner and being waited on by the house slave staff just made me want to scream to the rafters. But these scenes are also important because it shows how ugly the phenomenon of white privilege is. Or, to put it another way for those who get blindsided by that term, I’ll use a phrase I’ve already used in this post: unearned privilege.

For those who either hate/feel offended by the term “white privilege” or don’t understand what it means, here’s the definition, per the students of The Social Construction of Whiteness and Women class at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. (The page itself is housed by Mount Holyoke College):

White privilege is a set of advantages and/or immunities that white people benefit from on a daily basis beyond those common to all others. White privilege can exist without white people’s conscious knowledge of its presence and it helps to maintain the racial hierarchy in this country.

The biggest problem with white privilege is the invisibility it maintains to those who benefit from it the most. The inability to recognize that many of the advantages whites hold as a direct result of the disadvantages of other people, contributes to the unwillingness of white people, even those who are not overtly racist, to recognize their part in maintaining and benefiting from white supremacy.

The definition goes onto give examples, such as interpreting types of dressing, manners of speech, and general behaviors as being “racial neutral” when in fact, as the definition states, “they are white.” It ends with this:

“…White privilege is having the freedom and luxury to fight racism one day and ignore it the next. White privilege exists on an individual, cultural, and institutional level.”

The definition also quotes James Baldwin, who stated, “Being white means never having to think about it.”

What is great about Underground is that it makes a point to show not just how extreme white privilege can be in how it excused and upheld slavery, but how it works its way into even the most well-intentioned of people, like Elizabeth and Tom, who still have the option to decide if they want to help slaves or not, and for a while decided not to help slaves for the sake of building a family. White privilege is something that needs to be worked out of the American system. The sooner the better, because all of us are Americans and deserve true equality, not a system based on antiquated, racially-based ideas.

4. Underground is just plain good

L-R: Aldis Hodge and Alano Miller. Photo credit: WGN America
L-R: Aldis Hodge and Alano Miller. Photo credit: WGN America

What else can I say? It’s terrific. It’s got no commercials, for one. Second, John Legend has proven himself to be a fantastic executive producer with this show; I’m still waiting on more news about that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas film. Third, it’s got a great cast: Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Alano Miller, Amirah Vann, Jessica De Gouw, Renwick Scott, Mykleti Williamson, Marc Blucas, Reed Diamond, Adina Porter, Theodus Crane, Johnny Ray Gill and Christopher Meloni, to whom I tweeted this:

Because weren’t we all rooting for Stabler to bop heads and take names? (There’s still time to stop being a wildcard and get on the right side of history, August Pullman! But his character also proves a point about white privilege; August can choose to play both sides—tricking the slave woman trying to escape by pretending to be a freedom fighter—solely for his own benefit.)

What do you love about Underground? Give your opinions below, and make sure to watch Underground Wednesdays at 10/9c on WGN America.

3 Reasons Why #Richonne is a Black History Month Gift

Hip hop hooray, Richonne (Rick and Michonne) is now officially canon in The Walking Dead! And, as luck would have it, such a development has happened in one of the most hallowed of months, Black History Month. This didn’t go unnoticed by many on Twitter:

So why is this the Black History Month gift we didn’t know we were going to get? Three reasons:

1. Finally, the truth is acknowledged

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Richonne has been a long time coming. Probably too long, according to some fans. The purpose was for the slow build, but with that slow build came dull love interests for Rick. Finally, Rick has figured out that he needs to be with Michonne, someone who is at his caliber of zombie-killing as well as a viable, intelligent leader.

2. Richonne made racists mad

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Now, let’s just say for the record that #notallRichonnehaters are racists. Some just genuinely don’t like it, and that’s cool. However, some don’t like Richonne (or The Flash‘s WestAllen or Sleepy Hollow‘s Ichabbie) purely for the reason that it’s a white man with a black woman. 

I’ve written before about the multiple viewpoints surrounding black woman/white man interracial relationships on television (and an article outlining more viewpoints around interracial fetishism is in this month’s issue of COLORBLOCK Magazine). But overall, a relationship like Richonne is progress. For example, Richonne shows that: 

  • The Walking Dead reflects its audience. Sure, the show still has a problem with killing off black guys. But at the very least, the inclusion of Rick and Michonne’s relationship (along with Glenn and Maggie) represents a large quantity of the audience (and America in general) who are in interracial relationships. They want to see themselves represented on screen, and what better power couple is there than Richonne?
  • Michonne is treated as any other woman on The Walking Dead. That is to say, she’s treated like a love interest. More detail on this later in the post.
  • Most audience members want to see diversity in all forms, including in their love stories. For the longest, The Walking Dead‘s only interracial love story has been Glenn and Maggie. For them to be the only ones out of all of the characters that have been on The Walking Dead (well, the only ones that are still alive, anyways) is quite astounding and, demographically speaking, doesn’t make sense. Richonne adds some much-needed diverse realism to the proceedings.

But, despite all of the positives that Richonne have going for it, there are some folks in the fandom who are pissed because Michonne is a black woman. There’s still a color barrier when it comes to relationships on television, and that color barrier seems to get even tougher in genre television. But Richonne has helped break that barrier, and those who are mad about it for the wrong reasons can fall back. 

 

Want to read more about diverse entertainment? Read the February issue of COLOR BLOCK Magazine!

• Black women are shown to be viable love interests for the white male lead

Danai Gurira as Michonne and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes - The Walking Dead _ Season 6, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC
Danai Gurira as Michonne and Andrew Lincoln as Rick Grimes – The Walking Dead _ Season 6, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

 

Black women have had a history of either being desexualized or hypersexualized, and both depictions act as reasons why they aren’t seen as viable love interests for the main character, especially if that main character is a white man. For example:

  • Julia Baker from the 1970s show Julia is an example I use a lot for everything, but the character is perplexing in how chaste she is. First, it’s written that her husband was killed in the Vietnam War; writing out the husband and portraying a black family without a two-parent household is an issue in itself, but Julia herself is portrayed as being the perfect black woman, a woman who is “clear” enough in attitude and personality that she can be accepted by her white neighbors, but in order to stay outwardly virtuous, she must remain unwed. She’s a symbol of black respectability rather than just being a multifaceted black woman. Diahann Carroll herself, who played Julia, called her character a “white Negro” with little to do with the black experience.
  • Grantchester featured a troubling storyline in one of its episodes. The episode featured an American jazz group that was touring England, and the jazz singer, Gloria Dee, falls in love with Sidney and sleeps with him. However, the next day, Sidney comes to regret the decision, since he only slept with her to forget about the love he had for his best friend, Amanda, who was marrying a rich jerk. Gloria’s heartbreak is touched upon, but it’s also portrayed as if heartbreak for her is par for the course. She was also depicted as being a stereotype of a black woman jazz singer; every line was hilariously cartoonish, her voice had a Mae West lilt, and her persona was that of the “bad girl.” Sidney’s disgust with himself for sleeping with Gloria gets so bad that he throws out his jazz records; while his character was throwing them out because it reminded him of his personal and moral transgressions (he’s not one to just sleep with anyone), the act could also be interpreted as him believing that jazz (a black medium) and the singer herself led him astray, not his own actions.
  • Michonne herself has been touted by some as a “strong black woman,” even though such a stereotype-laden description strips her of her roundedness as a character. There are pockets of people who feel that, in order for the show to have a feminist angle, Michonne should stay the silent warrior. But these demands aren’t placed on other women (usually white women), like Carol (who is just as deadly with weapons as Michonne) or Maggie (who is, as has been written earlier in this post, in a relationship).

The reason for this distaste and exoticism of black women has its roots in the slave trade. As Paula Byrne wrote in her book about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice, many sailors and sea captains would rape African women and girls on the ship, later claiming that black females’ supposed hypersexuality made them do it (instead of taking responsibility for a lack of morality). The myth of hypersexuality continued throughout slavery, with white plantation owners blaming their victims for their own sexual abuse. Slave owners also helped with desexualization (and a slave’s further removal from personhood) by employing slaves as caretakers, which led to the “Mammy” stereotype. Today, the remnants of both stereotypes make it hard for black women characters, and black actresses, to exist in a fully realized way. Either black characters are “tough” (desexualized), a “Mammy” or caretaker (“desexualized”) or they are a Jezebel (hypersexualized). Hardly ever have they been portrayed as human beings.

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The feeling of bias towards black women in television, especially when it comes to black women characters possibly being the love interest for white male characters, also has antebellum roots. One of the many excuses for slavery was that it kept black men in line and kept their “prey,” white women, safe. Black women were also seen as threats, but the threat was based on a black woman gaining the same rights and status as a white woman. White women during this time benefited from this white supremacist view by being uplifted as genteel prizes.

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White supremacy is a dirty word today, but white women characters (and actresses, to a certain extent) are still lifted above other characters (and actresses) for no reason other than race. The fear of a black woman “stealing” a white man, especially the white male character, still holds true for some viewers of The Walking Dead, Sleepy Hollow, The Flash and other shows that have a black female lead who shows interest in the white male lead. Because of unresolved historical issues, which has led to us seeing mostly white men/white women pairings in the first place, a black woman character with a white male lead might seem to some as a black woman not knowing her station. If Michonne wasn’t who she is, there wouldn’t be any problem.

Sharon, a guest post writer for Black Girl Nerds, summed it up succinctly:

Here’s what it comes down to: if Michonne weren’t a dark-skinned black woman, many of the people who were so surprised by Richonne would have expected it a long time ago. Were it a white actress (the kind we’re used to seeing as love interests on TV and in movies) playing the role of Michonne, sharing intimate scenes with Rick, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. It wouldn’t have been a case of if Rick and Michonne get together, but when.”

The thought that white goes with white and black goes with black is dying, thanks to the rise of black-white interracial relationships. But television still shows that pockets of this ideology is still alive and well. There are still moments when the media decides to portray black women as objects or obstacles instead of people. But thankfully, Richonne isn’t one of those moments. Richonne does the opposite; it turns the trope of the “strong black woman” on its head. Not only can a black woman be strong and kickass, but she can also be nurturing (like how Michonne is to Carl) and woman worthy of love. Basically, a black woman can be a human being.

As Rick himself, Andrew Lincoln, told TV Line:

“When we [shot it], we wanted it to have a feeling like these two great friends just looked at each other and realized, “Of course.” It was natural…and Michonne has been a mother figure and best friend to Carl for so long. And she saved Rick’s life and Carl’s life on countless occasions. There’s something rather moving about these two warriors getting together.”

So there you have it.

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

Exclusive Interview: Chantel Riley (“Race”)

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

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

Tell me about Quincella, your character. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chantelriey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you hope people learn from Race?

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

New ‘Race’ Clips + Image Gallery Show Jesse Owens Go For Gold

The Jesse Owens biopic Race is on its way, and if you’re excited about seeing Stephen James in the iconic role, check out these new clips! Also posted are some film stills; both the clips and stills are courtesy of Focus Features.

We’ve been talking about #OscarsSoWhite a lot recently; once the film comes out, let’s see how the film will fare in the 2017 Oscar race. Hopefully, it’ll be right up there at the top. Race comes to theaters Feb. 19.

“Sportsmanship”

“Meet Jesse Owens”

“Do You Want to Win?”

“We Must Not Go”

Synopsis (Focus Features):

Jesse Owens’ quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler’s vision of Aryan supremacy.
Directed By: Stephen Hopkins
Written By: Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse
Starring: Stephan James, Jason Sudeikis, Jeremy Irons, Carice van Houten, Shanice Banton and William Hurt
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 134 minutes

Exclusive Interview: April Reign Discusses the Effect of #OscarsSoWhite

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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