Ava DuVernay Is in the Door-Making Business

Ava DuVernay is a force for change in Hollywood. And when we say force, we mean category-5 hurricane force. Her mission is to make Hollywood more “inclusive,” not just diverse. She’s fighting to not just open up old long-closed doors, but to also build new ones for women and people of color in the entertainment industry.

And as the first Black female director to helm a movie with an over $100-million budget (A Wrinkle in Time, 2018), 2017 has given her the biggest door-building opportunity yet.

“The images in our minds that make up our memories are all told by one kind of person, one kind of background. It shouldn’t be this way.”

To say Hollywood has an inclusivity problem is a massive understatement, particularly when it comes to women — and especially women of color. A recent University of Southern California study found that only four percent of the 1,000 top-grossing films during the last 10 years were directed by women.Only three of these films were directed by Black women, three by Asian women and one by a Latina.

In light of those grim stats, DuVernay’s successful rise to the status of powerhouse director is one of the most unlikely. She didn’t start her directing career until 2008, when she self-financed a documentary at the age of 36 after years of being a film publicist. Her first major studio success, Selma (2014) — which also made DuVernay the first Black female director to be nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award — happened within six short years.

Remaining Time -1:22

DuVernay has since seen massive success with the OWN network series Queen Sugar and the groundbreaking 2016 documentary, 13th for Netflix, which explored the “intersection of race, justice and mass incarceration in the United States.” The latter was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary and won four Emmy awards.

But DuVernay isn’t just resting on those laurels; she’s looking to make a sea change. Following the success of Selma, the directing powerhouse expanded her film distribution company to become ARRAY, dedicated to getting more independent films by women and filmmakers of color out in the world. And on Queen Sugar, she set out to build a crew of minorities and women both on set and in the writer’s room, and chose all women directors for season two of the show.

“If the person who gets to tell the story is always one kind of person, if the dominant images that we see throughout our lifetimes, our mothers’ lifetimes, our grandmothers’ lifetimes, have been dominated by one kind of person, and we take that? We internalize it. We drink it in, as true, as fact,” DuVernay wrote in Time magazine earlier this year. “The images in our minds that make up our memories are all told by one kind of person, one kind of background. It shouldn’t be this way. That is a deficit to us. A deficit to the culture.”

Among the biggest risks DuVernay has taken on in her mission is in her forthcoming adaptation of the Madeleine L’Engle classic novel A Wrinkle in Time. Starting last year, she showed just how daring she could be by casting young Storm Reid, a Black actress, in the role of main character Meg Murry, who was traditionally depicted as white. From there, DuVernay went on to add more diverse actresses to the mix, including Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who and Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Which.

When the film’s trailer debuted earlier this year and we got our first glimpse of Meg, it caused quite a stir. Alongside the praise of a more modern Wrinkle came reactions from those who thought DuVernay was aiming to politicize a childhood favorite.

“You’re seeing worlds being built from the point of view of a black woman from Compton,” she said at this year’s New Yorker Festival. “So when I’m told, ‘Create a planet.’ My planet is going to look different from my white-male counterparts’ planet, which we’ve seen 97 percent of the time, so you’re used to seeing that.”

Moving into 2018, DuVernay’s poised to have her biggest year yet. A Wrinkle in Time hits theaters in March, Queen Sugar has been renewed for a third season, and she’ll begin a new series for Netflix on the Central Park Five, part of a first-look TV deal with Oprah’s Harpo Films. Along the way, she’ll also keep chipping away at that mission, opening her own doors, and breaking her own glass ceilings.

This profile is part of our new project “Year in Women.” Check out all the women featured:

 

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“Yikes! I think I’m in over my head.” Or…making your first movie.

Camera and Laptop

by

Sheree L. Ross @womenfilmofcolr

Sheree L. Ross

November 14, 2017

So you we wake up one morning from a fevered dream with what seems like a brilliant idea, “I want to make a movie”. And then miracle of miracles, somehow every day you move forward on it. It actually starts to take shape as you call in favors from friends, even the ones from first grade. Everyday it looks more and more like you are really going to make this movie. You do all of the steps, which include writing the most brilliant script ever written. How do you know? Because all of your friends and family who you let read it, say so. You even go one step further and actually let people who know what they are talking about (because you found a writing group in your town) read it and they give you feedback that is sometimes painful (yeah, you cried once…maybe more than once), but you listen, do the adjustments, write a few more drafts – and now you have a solid working script.

And even though you’ve never directed anything before in your life you decide that you are going to be the director. You want to be an Auteur and this film will be your first shot across the bow. But one thing you didn’t know about yourself is that you’re not much for the tiny details and after two days of doing the stuff good producers can do in their sleep you put an ad on Craigslist and take the first person that will call you back.

At this point, of course, you don’t have any money but somehow they’re willing to work with you and wait until you’re able to raise some. And for the first month or so they’re completely on board and you get through most of pre-production. You get casting done, you find locations, and you put together a pretty solid crew. You are feeling great. Now you are three weeks out before you shoot and suddenly the producer gets a gig that will actually pay them their rate and they quit. But hell, you’ve got this. You’ve got everything in place…who needs a producer anyway? You can just add this as another feather in your cap. You’re sure now that you can direct and produce this script better than anybody because you know it better than anybody. You still don’t have enough money but you are moving forward as if you do as…Thanksgiving approaches. And what luck, your favorite aunt – who loves movies – overhears that you are doing a film and says she’ll give you the rest of the money. What a relief! But a week out you call her and she doesn’t remember the promise, blaming it on the several glasses of wine she had before dinner was served.

Now you’re a week out and everybody wants something. The art department is calling you to try to figure out how to do your sets, the wardrobe and prop people need to start shopping. And you get a text from one of your actors asking about rehearsals and blocking. It’s too late to crowdfund, you didn’t even know you should do a rehearsal, and one of the locations that you were promised just fell through. The next night you wake from another fevered dream with a thought that could possibly get you disowned. You have a savings that your parents set up for you with just enough to get the movie shot and you’ll have to edit it yourself. After thinking about the pros and cons of this conversation at Christmas next week, you decide to go ahead and do it.

Yay! You are making your first movie, congratulations! Now this is just one example of how crazy this process can be, and this should in no way stop you from making your first film. If you are in the middle of this process I hope this makes you feel better about what you may be going through right now. If you’ve already finished your first film (web series, short, etc) I hope it made you smile. Filmmaking is not for the faint of heart, and many filmmakers struggle their first time out (and even the second and third time before they find a rhythm). There is no right or wrong way to make a film, web series, or short, etc. If you think you’re in over your head but you keep moving forward and you keep focused on your idea, as well as communicate with everybody as often as possible…more times than not, no matter how crappy things might get, the people that you have brought on board to help you will do their best to help you see your vision come true. People are more forgiving and flexible than you might think, as long as you are honest with them.

The other advice I’d offer is don’t lie about paying people. If you intend to pay people and then your money falls through, be honest about it. You may lose half of your cast and crew (maybe all!) but you’ll maintain your reputation and this industry is smaller than you might imagine. Another bit of advice is that though it is not impossible to produce, direct, and act in your first movie (in fact it might be wise to do so for your first project, you will learn a whole bunch) don’t spend a lot of money on the project. Let this be an experiment that you can share with your family and friends, and maybe put up on YouTube. But the chances that you will be able to sell it or make your money back might be very low so let it be an opportunity to learn. Ultimately, if you’re new to this make a short film. Something that doesn’t cost you over $1000. Maybe you can engage some of your friends over the weekend and feed them for pay. Bill Murray once said (highly paraphrased) that no matter how crappy the movie is, the fact that it has made it into some form of watchable content is a miracle and should be appreciated as such because it takes so many people to make a movie. It can sometimes feels like you’re drowning (you’re not). It’s a lot of balls to keep up in the air no matter how much money you have (or don’t). So learn from your mistakes, learn from your successes, and be proud of whatever you create. And most of all, please have fun. Why do it otherwise? Because it’s just a step in a long line of many steps that will culminate into being your career.

 

Women’s Voices Heard at AFM

Women’s Voices Heard At American Film Market

Geena Davis
“The Future Is Female” session sparks lively discussion, cites problems, points to progress; Overall AFM shows gains in attendance, exhibitors

Known for drumming up business, the recently concluded American Film Market & Conferences also generated food for thought, particularly during an AFM session presented in partnership with the Alliance of Women Directors. Titled “The Future Is Female,” the panel discussion identified problems in the marketplace as well as signs of progress–both of which were touched upon, for example, by Jennifer Warren, chairperson and founder of the Alliance of Women Directors, in her introductory remarks.

Warren noted that 94 percent of feature films are directed by men. This lack of parity in the workplace is detrimental to society, she affirmed, citing the importance “for women and girls growing up to have role models and to see things from a woman’s point of view.”

She added that striving for hiring parity is good business, as proven by FX which instituted a program to get women to direct half of its content. Last year, said Warren, FX attained that 50-50 balance and saw its ratings go up 15 percent. Contending that a woman’s POV offered a fresh perspective to storylines and characters, helping to boost Nielsen numbers, Warren then turned the stage over to discussion moderator Wendy Calhoun, a Writers Guild Award nominee (and producer) for Nashville and Justified, and four panelists: Geena Davis, an Oscar-winning actress (The Accidental Tourist), who founded the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media; director Jen McGowan (Kelly & Cal, the upcoming Rust Creek); and Catherine Hand and Jim Whitaker, producers of A Wrinkle in Time, the Disney feature slated for release in March 2018. Based on the novel of the same title by Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time is the first feature with a budget of $100 million-plus to be directed by a woman of color, with that historic achievement being made by Ava DuVernay. A Wrinkle in Time features a cast which includes Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling and Chris Pine.

Davis noted that the launch of the research institute bearing her name was sparked in part by her noticing that children’s programming seemed to feature a disproportionate number of male characters. She saw the need for delving more deeply into this from a research standpoint, confirming that “there are profoundly more male characters than female characters in the content we are showing our kids. Female characters don’t take up half the space, aren’t doing interesting things, aren’t leaders, are more hypersexualized…The worst  ratio of male to female characters is in what’s aimed at kids 11 years old and under. We are training kids from the beginning to have unconscious gender bias.”

Feature films also don’t have much to boast of when it comes to casting diversity. According to Davis, “The ratio of male to female characters in film has been exactly the same since 1946.” She noted that most think the percentages have gotten better when there have been certain turning points over the years such as Ridley Scott’s Thelma & Louise, featuring two strong female characters, including Davis’ Oscar-nominated performance as Thelma. “You think that this [breakthroughs like Thelma & Louise] changes everything but nothing has changed,” said Davis.

Still she thinks that exposing gender bias and its negative impact on casting and society has resulted in more people proactively looking to improve the situation–but that’s not necessarily the case when it comes to those who have the power to hire directors. “Directing is a completely different problem that I don’t think is unconscious. People who are creating content that is gender biased are horrified to find out and immediately want to do better. The fact that there are no women directors is not a secret and hasn’t been for decades yet no one is making the change.”

Technology is also advancing to help the Davis Institute in its endeavors. “We have a brand new tool that never existed before to do our research with–Google gave a grant to develop the software that uses face and voice recognition to tell us how many female and male characters are in film and television, but also how much screen time they have and how many lines they have, down to the millisecond. It is very revealing and horrifying; far fewer characters are female and the ones that are, are on-screen less and talk less.”

On the casting front, Davis shared several other insights with AFM attendees. “In movies with female leads, the male supporting character is onscreen an equal amount, however if there is a male lead, the female counterpart is only on-screen 25 percent of the time.”

Davis continued, “When women are talking, they are onscreen less than when men are talking (the shot is cutting to something else), so now we need to talk to the editors! Unconscious bias is happening on every possible level.”

Moderator Calhoun, who’s currently working on a Grey’s Anatomy spinoff, said that re-writing certain characters to be female instead of male in TV and features, can help to address the situation.

Director McGowan said she  makes it clear on her projects that diversity is a must. “I do not want to see an all white, all straight, all male crew.”

Sadly, coming up the commercialmaking ranks, McGowan witnessed a profound lack of women. “For 20 years I worked in commercials; I never worked with a female first AV, grip department, electrical, and only three female directors (and only one who worked regularly). Those are all union and really high paying jobs, jobs that filmmakers use to supplement creative careers, and those are completely shut off to women.”

McGowan has set up Film Powered, a networking and skill sharing tool for female professionals in the industry. It is a free, membership based community of over 1,300 vetted women offering classes, social events and job postings designed to increase the skills and strengthen the contacts of and relationships between its members in an effort towards gender parity in the business. She advised AFM session attendees to check out her filmpowered.com site.

A Wrinkle in Time
Producers Hand and Whitaker discussed A Wrinkle in Time, a film which has been a lifelong dream for Hand whose storied career includes collaborating over the years with iconic TV series creator Norman Lear.

“When I was a little girl,” recalled Hand, “I read ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ and I thought it would make a great movie so I wrote a letter to Walt Disney to say he should make the film and that I wanted to play Meg. I never sent the letter and on December 15, 1966, when he passed away, I cried because I felt so guilty for not sending it, because no one else would make that movie. That day I promised myself I was going to grow up and find someone to make it. That was 50 years ago.”

It was worth the wait as Hand and Whitaker both said they treasured the experience of working with DuVernay. Hand said that DuVernay make it a point to seek out female and minority talent for her crew. For industry vet Whitaker, DuVernay was the first woman director with whom he’s collaborated. “It’s been an incredible experience,” he assessed–so much so that Whitaker is gearing up for a feature which too will have a female director. He provided some backstory for the pending project which he wasn’t yet at liberty to publicly discuss in full detail.

Whitaker, shared, “Most of my other films, candidly, were male driven films; can’t say that was by design; it comes down to the stories, finding stories that have, for me, an emotionality and hopefulness. I’m working on a story now that is all female…and an incredible true story; I would say influenced by the experience on Wrinkle, we made a contractual necessity that a female director make the film. It’s important for stories to be told from female perspective in general, not just for female-driven stories.”

Hand sees cause for optimism. “I think that the world is changing and we are in a really wonderful time. Women are in more powerful positions and have the pocketbook more than ever before.” She added, “Middle aged women are a market; when they start to realize we matter, they start to make product for us.”

Hand offered aspiring women filmmakers a simple piece of advice. “Don’t give up.” Alluding to the ability to post work and find audiences online, Hand affirmed, “In today’s world, you have so many opportunities to be heard.”

Increased attendance
Exhibitor and attendee numbers were up at the overall AFM. In total, 7,415 participants visited the event’s prime venue, the Loews Hotel in Santa Monica, as attendance rose by 6%. The market also saw 1,476 buyers arrive from 71 countries with China and Taiwan each seeing growth of 35% more buyers.

Overall exhibitor participation was up 18% with 445 registered exhibiting companies, with the largest number of exhibitors arriving from the United Kingdom, France, South Korea, and China, after the U.S.

AFM Conferences drew an international audience of more than 700 each day listening closely to advice and insights from the likes of Cassian Elwes (Producer/Agent), Jesse Sisgold, (Skydance Media), Adrian Alperovich (OddLot Entertainment), Tobin Armbrust (Virgin Produced),  Rebecca Cammarata (Stay Gold Features), Brian O’Shea (The Exchange), Alison Thompson (Cornerstone Films) and Sam Brown (STXfilms).

In addition to “The Future Is Female,” AFM Roundtables included sessions on Documentaries, Faith & Family films and LGBTQ representation in cinema.

The newly introduced Writer’s Workshop also proved to be a highly popular addition to the AFM experience with instructors from USC and UCLA teaching audiences of 400.

The AFM Campus was busier than ever as attendees took in screenings of 337 films (40 more than last year), including 264 market premieres and 61 world premieres. An additional 78 films screened on demand.

The American Film Market & Conferences is produced by the Independent Film & Television Alliance.

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HOW TO COMMUNICATE YOUR AUTHENTIC VOICE ON SOCIAL MEDIA

Sheree L. Ross @womenfilmofcolr.jpg

by Sheree L. Ross

Nov. 10, 2017

As a creative I find it difficult sometimes to always know how to communicate my authentic voice through social media, and I see other creators struggling with the same thing. There are so many different platforms to post on, not to mention the time I need to dedicate to my own work, and then there is the fact that I don’t want to come across as just trying to sell my wares. The whole social media game can be quite daunting, and yet in this day and age we all have to take the time to figure out how to convey what we create in a way that communicates it to our potential clients or customers. That is, if we want to do what we love to do all day and pay the bills. What we offer on these platforms needs to stay authentic to us as well as tell a story about us. It is no longer just about selling somebody something. It is no longer about just getting on the right or current social media platform, or sending out emails. Today’s artists are entrepreneurs and we need to start thinking about building long-term relationships with our audiences. But how? Who’s got time to create and think of ways to market and brand themselves, particularly since most artists don’t like boxes that are so easily recognized and commodified. But, if we want to create a sustainable career for ourselves, we need to start allowing ourselves to think this way.

One of the first ways to do this is to understand what the larger population is trained to ask – what promise are you making to us as an artist? Consumers (our audience and clients) are programmed to think this way after decades of being marketed to and the smartest way in, sometimes, is to use tools that are easily recognized. Since most of us create in more than one medium it’s okay to let each project speak for itself. Each project is created with its own promise or problem to present or solve. Asking these kinds of questions gives you a way to speak to a larger audience in a clear and focused manner. Use the answers to find communities of like minded people to tell your story. It will also help give you a clearer idea of ways to market your projects in all areas, with intentions of connecting people to your work.

Most creative people I know don’t like to think of themselves as a brand unless they have elevated themselves to the realms of a Beyoncé or Rihanna. But even these creatives craft what we consume of their art and selves. Most creatives are not at that level, many don’t want to be, and for those who do it is a strategic climb to get there. As an creative entrepreneur one must always be true to oneself. Thinking about how much money a project is going to make from the outset will more often than not dilute the impact that it will have. The next step is sometimes the hardest. It is about putting your authentic, vulnerable self out into the world as you create. If you are speaking your truth through your art then you are putting little bits of yourself into the world through your social media and marketing. Social media has made it cheap and easy for anyone around the globe to have access to your work. Being shy about your work, waiting for perfection, or procrastinating will not serve your bank account, or your ability to continue doing what you love with maximum freedom. It takes time to build an audience, so if you haven’t started, if you are not on any social media, or haven’t posted in a month or so, it is time to start, with regularity. If you are a creative just starting out you must build your audiences in real ways that connect you in person as well as build a following on social media. If you are a seasoned creative then it is about giving the audience you already have a place to enjoy your new creations, build a community, as well as provide a place for your followers to get in on the conversation and feel like a part of your larger community (as well as buy your creations).

No matter what, you have to start. Building a following is key. What about you is unique and authentic to you? It is important that creatives utilize these inexpensive platforms to impact the world and get their message out into the world. You don’t need to overwhelm yourself. Start with one platform and do it well. Find the social media platform that will work best for what you create and who you are as a person. Twitter works great for my business of supporting women filmmakers of color (@womenfilmofcolr), but for my personal business of being a filmmaker and writer – creating a Facebook page has worked better for me. Don’t be discouraged, have fun with it, be consistent, and let social media be another part of how you connect and communicate your artistry to the world.

This Is What It’s Like to Be a Latina Writer

…On Not Being Latina Enough: How Boricua Rapper BIA Found Her Place

This points to the fact that more often than not, writers’ rooms at major networks only allocate one slot for a diversity hire, creating a counterproductive sense of competitiveness between talents of color. Rather than building a community, this practice isolates them by making it seem there can only be one person of color on the team at a time. Having someone else with a similar background and perspective can validate ideas and provides a louder voice in terms of the topics and stories being told, as both Ornelas and Ramos can attest.

From getting a chancla gag included in the show to promoting the idea that diversity is a good business model, both writers share lots of tips on how to break in and navigate the white world of writers’ rooms, advice that can be applied to many other creative pursuits. Here are some highlights from the Latino Media Fest session.


Sierra on Her Advice for Being in a Writers’ Room

It was a lot of reading rooms, and trying to figure the way to talk and the way not to talk, taking the temperature of the room that you’re in. Finding a way to be useful, but at the same time, not annoying. At the staff writer level, the margin for error is so big. There’s no reason for a staff writer to be annoying, so much of it is just trying to be a positive force in the room. Be useful. I did all kinds of stuff. I offered to babysit, but don’t do that! Don’t make baked goods and don’t offer to babysit.

Vanessa on Getting Help from a Famous Comedian

An opportunity came up to submit for Jeff Ross, who was doing a Roast-based show called “Burn.” As a kid who grew up watching the Roast, it kind of felt like, “Yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” I begged a friend of mine, and he was able to get an agent to submit a packet. Jeff Ross has been great to me, and he was very honest. It came down to me and one other girl, and he said, “Look, I’ve known her longer, but I think you’re a great writer. I’ll pass along your stuff for the Roast, “and I was like, “Okay, he’s a very nice man, but he’s very high a lot of the time.” I was like, “Okay Jeff, sure you will.” But he did! He wasn’t that high that time, you guys! So he passed along [to] the Roast of Roseanne.

Sierra on Working with Another Latina Writer for the First Time

We’ve known each other all three seasons, and this was the first experience I had ever had working with another Latina women in the room. I’ve been to brunches with Latina writers because we’re like, “We have to go to brunch, because we’ll never be in the same room together.”

On That Chancla Joke

Vanessa: It wasn’t necessarily a chancla joke, but it was a thing where, Ben Feldman’s character, Jonah, comes in and he’s just met Amy’s mom, and so he’s like, “I’m not fully sure what this means, but she said, you’re not too old to get the chancla?” It was more like him guessing. I pitched that, and then the other writers in the room were like, “What is that?” I’d say, “Oh, it’s like a sandal used to hit kids.” They thought I was making it up, so they had an assistant pull it up, and they were like, “Oh my God it’s real.” Of all the things to make up, why would I make that up? So then [Sierra] backed me up.

Sierra: I had to co-sign the chancla joke. They were like, “This is a thing?” I’d be like, “This is very much a thing, ask any child.” But it was so much fun, and then they started trying to use chancla and we were like, “Don’t try to use chancla.” It was one of those things where you have backup, and it’s a great feeling.

Sierra on the Show’s Focus on Working Class People

I think one of the reasons that Justin wanted to make this show was because diversity is everywhere, but it’s so intrinsically in the workplace. He went to Northwestern, so he’s not a super working-class guy, but he filled the room with a lot of people like that. And I would also say that America Ferrera is just amazing, she’s a Producer on the show. She’s brought in a lot of people who are like consultants, who give lectures. There was a woman who wrote this book The New Working Class. Growing up, there was Rosanne, and so many shows that showed working class people, and I feel like Superstore is one of the few that does that anymore. It’s really trying to pay a lot of respect to that experience.

Vanessa on Being Asked to Play Up Her “Latina-ness” for a Job

We did a story in season one that was based off of this weird job that I had doing promos for a Tequila company in San Antonio. It was in a hotel bar, and they were like, “It’s going to be mostly be white guys, so amp up the Latin-ness.” They wanted me to basically put in a little “Vergara” and it was so ridiculous. I told that story in the room, and we did an episode in season one called Shots and Salsa where America’s character is trying to get people to sample the salsa, and she has to ham it up a bit more, and then people are like, “Oh, what’s happening here?” As soon as she get’s more festive, people are interested.

Sierra Ornelas on Why It’s Difficult to Be a Diversity Hire

There is a hierarchy, and you have to respect that hierarchy. Even if your boss is cool about it and says, “There is no hierarchy,” there is a hierarchy. They trust the people they know the most. They trust the people who look like them, which is why I think being a diverse writer in a room can be difficult. There were times as a staff writer where I would pitch a solution and I’ll get nothing, and some other guy would pitch a solution and it’ll be brilliant. I’d be like, “Fuck that guy,” but as I got older and was in the room longer that’s when my voice became more heard. It’s one of those things where you just have to get that sort of emotional currency going with your higher ups and once you have that you can spend that. That process is so hard to learn, especially when you are terrified.

Sierra Ornelas on How Diversity Programs Create Competitiveness

The one thing that these diversity programs create is that there can only be one. It’s like you climb your way Hunger Games-style and then you get thrown in a room with another one and you are like, “There is only supposed to be me,” because you have been trying to so hard and fighting all these people who look like you. One thing I learned very on from Silvia Olivas, who was in the program with us and who had been on Moesha, is how she was so smart at being supportive, helping other writers, and not being competitive. I think as women especially, but also as writers of color, we are taught to compete. I think the more you can help people the better off we’ll be.

Sierra Ornelas on Diversity Being a Good Business Model

Diversity is a good business model. Fast & Furious s the biggest franchise in the history of franchises, and there is a reason for that. People are going to want stories that come our perspective and from our experiences. Now I don’t go in being like, “Thank you so much having me.” No, it’s like, “You want me here because I will make you money and I will tell better stories.” I think having that confidence and trying to project that as, “This is just good business, this is not altruism.” I think that’s important.

How TV Writer Angela Nissel Is Bringing Her Unique Voice to Tyler

the Creator’s The Jellies, and Why Black Female Writers in Hollywood Need to Be Heard

Angela Nissel; scenes from The Jellies (Adult Swim)

If you took a look at the writers’ room of some of your favorite television shows, you’d be hard-pressed to find a black person, and even harder pressed to find a black woman. But for the last decade, Angela Nissel has been leaving her mark behind the scenes on shows like Scrubs, The Boondocks and, now, The Jellies—Tyler, the Creator’s Adult Swim show, which premieres Oct. 22.

Before Nissel’s foray into scripted television, she was best-known as one of the creators of Okayplayer and for her two sidesplitting memoirs that captured the essence of her formative years, and of being broke and biracial. Both The Broke Diaries: The Completely True and Hilarious Misadventures of a Good Girl Gone Broke and Mixed: My Life in Black and White were heralded by critics, as well as the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Halle Berry, and Nissel became the “it” woman of literature in the early 2000s.

It was those books that set the University of Pennsylvania grad (she graduated with a degree in medical anthropology) on her way to a career in TV. But, of course, Nissel’s ascent into television writing wasn’t easy, especially as a black woman. After being in the game for 15 years, she is still fighting her way into writers’ rooms, and she made it into The Jellies’ room even though she thought she hadn’t landed the gig.

“Me being old enough to be Tyler’s aunt, I said, ‘I’ve heard of him,’ but I don’t really know him. And then I researched him. I was nervous in the meeting, but when Tyler came in, he just wanted to get to know about me. Ten minutes later, the meeting was over. I called my agent and was like, ‘I’m pretty sure I didn’t get that job; they thought I was a total nerd,’” Nissel says.

As luck talent would have it, Nissel landed the consulting-producer-and-writing gig on the series, and so her work began. And, yes, she was once again the only black woman in the writers’ room. As Nissel segues back into animation (after lending her talents to The Boondocks), she notes that writing live action and books is totally different from writing for animation, especially when it comes to the fans.

“In books, everything you write, even typos, it’s your fault. When it’s live-action TV, people tend to realize there’s a writer behind the words,” Nissel says. “But in animation, people fall completely in love with those characters. I’ve never worked on anything quite like animation, where the fans are so into it. And with the way Tyler’s fans are, I can only imagine the response the show will receive,” Nissel says.

To call Tyler’s fans “die-hard” would be an understatement. From his music to his cartoons, they’re nothing if not loyal. Both Tyler and co-creator Lionel Boyce, who make up Odd Future, premiered The Jellies on Tyler’s Golf Media app in 2015. Some may think the premise of a family of jellyfish adopting a human boy strange, but to them, chances are it’s not.


The Jellies follows in the footsteps of cartoons like The Boondocks in that it is created by young black men. But as Nissel lends her comedy and writing expertise to yet another animated series, the question remains: Why is there still a lack of black people, particularly women, in Hollywood when it comes to writing? Veterans in the game, like Nissel, have paved the way for the Issa Raes out there, but it’s still a drop in the bucket.

“I’m usually the only black woman in the writers’ room. I remember I pitched a really shitty joke one time, but Tyler said, ‘No, maybe women will understand the joke.’ He was so good about listening to my point of view, where sometimes, in other writers’ rooms, I would get shut down,” Nissel says. “When you’re immediately shut down, you don’t feel like you ever have the space to speak up again. But he always gave me that space to feel free to speak my mind.”

It’s that aspect of being shut down that many writers have to deal with when they’re in the minority. Earlier this year, Tyler quickly had to shut down a question from a fan during Comic-Con, when he decided to change Cornell, the main character in The Jellies, from a white teen to a black teen.

“How many fucking black cartoon characters is it on TV right now?” Tyler responded. “Name five. I’ll give you time.”

Nissel shares similar sentiments about Cornell’s newfound blackness.

“If you don’t like Cornell being black, color him another color in your head. What is wrong with people wanting to see the representation of themselves on-screen?” Nissel asks. “That’s why I think their generation will do better, and hopefully build on what my old-ass generation wasn’t able to do. Tyler is an outsider coming into this industry and wants Cornell to look like him. I don’t understand how anyone can be upset with that.”


After watching the first two episodes of the new season, I was left wondering one simple thing: “WTF?” And it wasn’t a bad “WTF?” either. More like amazement at how and why jellyfish are living among humans and raising a black kid. Even with Cornell going through his own self-discovery and having jellyfish as parents, shortly after the 15-minute cartoon starts, you actually forget they’re even jellyfish. Especially when it comes to Cornell’s mother, who is a combination of Tyler’s and Lionel’s moms. She definitely has the whole “I’m tired of your shit” down to a T when dealing with her jellyfish husband.

“Cornell’s mom is so tired of her husband,” Nissel says. “He reminds me of my ex-husband, and that’s why it was funny to write her. If you had a husband like that, you’re going to drink just to forget about it. I look at her as the epitome of someone who’s had a hard upbringing and a hard life.”

In The Jellies season premiere, Cornell has to deal with his parents fighting, primarily over his father’s spending habits, and he decides to track down his parents’ favorite R&B singer, who ignited their love for each other.

So where does a teenager go to track down someone who was popular back in the day? The Gangster’s Paradise retirement home, of course. And yes, a life-size statue of Coolio welcomes each visitor. Viewers will also notice little jabs here and there at celebrities, as well as some pretty on-point pop-culture references. Basically, nothing is sacred.

People watching the cartoon will soon realize that the comedy isn’t for the faint of heart. Nissel realizes that and helped set the tone by cautioning against certain things making it from the script into the show.

“Sometimes I would say, ‘This may be going a little too far.’ Even if [Cornell’s mother] is a jellyfish, people might be offended. Sometimes you have to be that person, when you’re the only one in the room, to educate people on how others may view things,” Nissel says. “So, sometimes I’ve had to be the person to say, ‘Yeah, we’re all laughing in this room, but we all have the same type of humor. But when it gets outside of the room, it could be viewed differently.’”


As someone who has watched Nissel’s career and who considers her a black-writer heroine, I know she has experienced it all: from people promising to turn books into movies, to seeing others get their careers catapulted, all because they were social media famous, and most importantly, having to be somewhat of the oracle for everyone who isn’t white.

Adult Swim

“Being forced, till this day, to speak up for everyone who is not white is my biggest gripe. When they turn to you and ask, ‘What do you think a handicapped person would say about this?’ Having that burden of having to speak for everybody, when even among our own community, we all have different points of view,” Nissel relates.

“And then having to hold your breath when something comes out because you realize just because it has ‘written by you’ on it, [but] it has to go through the editor, studio and network, and someone is going to find fault in it. As an artist, you want people to be happy. In this day and age, when outrage sells, you don’t want people to be upset about something you create,” Nissel continues. “There’s not a lot of black women, or women, period, in comedy. We’re just exiting the era of ‘Women aren’t funny.’ We’re just now getting a black woman late-night talk show host. It’s slowly coming around.”

With the success of this summer’s blockbuster hit Girls Trip, the spotlight is now shining on funny black women in front of and behind the camera. And Nissel has some savory advice for the bigwigs in Hollywood.

“I wish more people realize that having one voice in the room sometimes isn’t enough because you’re only going to get one point of view. At the end of the day, I just wish people would go outside of the neighborhoods and make friends with people who aren’t exactly like them, so they can bring that to the room if they don’t have the budget to hire 25 women,” Nissel says.

“I really want to create shows that show that women over the age of 40 still have lives, and they can be messy,” she adds. “To talk about the imbalance of women and men, like my own personal story of paying alimony. I want to tell the richness of women of color over 40 because sometimes I look on TV and we’re all dead, except for Oprah.”

Nissel doesn’t mince words, and as far as The Jellies are concerned, it’s coming out at the right time. Between the doom and gloom of a Trump presidency, sex scandals and everything else shitty in the world, laughter is definitely going to be the best medicine that you don’t need health insurance for.

“I have grown tired of watching TV that shows the bad of the world. You go online and everyone is ranting about something horrible” she says. “The Jellies is a big bowl of WTF. It’s 15 minutes of Easter eggs and fun hip-hop references. It’s like traveling to a world of where jellyfish and humans co-exist. And you can just forget everything for 15 minutes. It’s just pure silly comedy, and I think that’s something comedy has gotten away from.”

The Jellies premieres on Adult Swim at 12:15 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 22.

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About the author

Yesha Callahan

Deputy Managing Editor. Don’t start none, won’t be none.

Ayesha Curry Inks Deal

…With Endemol Shine North America

TV and social media personality, best-selling author and chef Ayesha Curry has signed an exclusive deal with Endemol Shine North America. Under the pact, the studio will develop original unscripted content with Curry and Flutie Entertainment’s Yardie Girl Productions for Curry to both appear in and also executive produce. In addition, Endemol Shine North America will work in conjunction with Flutie Entertainment, supplementing its work on licensing and brand partnerships for Curry.

Curry, who has redefined the content distribution model and has millions of social media followers, is set to co-host ABC’s upcoming season of The Great American Baking Show and hosts her own series, Ayesha’s Home Kitchen, on Food Network.

“Ayesha is re-defining the way audiences connect with celebrities, brands and content and we’re thrilled to have her joining the Endemol Shine family,” said Sharon Levy, President, Unscripted and Scripted Television, Endemol Shine North America. “We’re already developing a number of potentially ground-breaking projects with Ayesha to front and we’re collaborating with her to executive produce others with our team.”

“From the very first meeting I knew that Endemol Shine was a great fit for me,” says Curry. “I believe that in today’s media landscape, we can create and distribute content on multiple platforms, while remaining fresh and relevant. Endemol Shine North America CEO Cris Abrego and Sharon Levy openly supported my vision of being able to push limits and be on multiple platforms and their creative spirit and enthusiasm made me feel comfortable and at home.”

Flutie Entertainment discovered Curry through her local Bay Area access show, Cooking with the Currys, and has been serving as her management firm since 2014.

Curry, who has had a life-long interest in food and is a self-taught chef, was encouraged by her husband to start a blog that parlayed itself into a YouTube channel and ultimately into TV and book deals. Curry also recently launched her own meal kit company, Homemade, and her line of cookware is now available at Target stores and will be released at retailers nationwide next month.

Her restaurant International Smoke, in partnership with Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina, has locations in Waikiki, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Curry, who is the mother of two daughters, Riley and Ryan, and married to NBA superstar Stephen Curry, was announced as one of CoverGirl’s newest brand ambassadors in September. For her first role as the newest CoverGirl, Curry will be starring in a national campaign that launches in October.

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