Hollywood

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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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 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.

Lena Waithe Breaks Down …

…What It’s Really Like to Be a Black Woman in Hollywood

Image via Getty

Earlier this year, Lena Waithe became the first black woman to be nominated for an Emmy for comedy writing for her work on “Thanksgiving,” one of the best and most acclaimed episodes of the last season of Netflix’s Master of None. But Waithe is by no means resting on her laurels. She’s also producing her own series for Showtime called The Chi, has a role in the upcoming Steven Spielberg film Ready Player One, and has been getting Whoopi Goldberg on the phone (okay, that’s an old story).

Waithe sat down for an interview with The Atlantic to talk about her career, the challenge in “selling complex minority characters,” and what her experience has been navigating Hollywood. And in true Lena Waithe fashion, she told it the way it was, giving us some really interesting insight on what it’s like for women of color in entertainment:

Honestly, [I learned about] decorum and the way specifically black women have to carry themselves in this industry. You can’t be pissed about a note, you can’t be angry about the way that something is happening, you can’t be unhappy about the creative process. When you handle it, you have to be Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

In that town, there is still a stigma that goes along with being a woman, particularly a woman of color, where people already want to label you difficult or not easy to work with. It’s happened to me. So we ultimately have to navigate this industry in a different way. We have to sometimes be kind to people who aren’t kind to us, we sometimes have to be polite, even when we’re not in the mood, we have to handle dealing with executives in a different way because otherwise we run the risk of being put in industry jail.

We’ve seen the films and shows. We’ve seen the data. We know for a fact that women of color are immensely underrepresented in entertainment, even though Hollywood is (slowly) waking up to the fact that it’s not the people “in charge” who are creating the culture that people actually want. But hearing what the experience is actually like, and what it takes to keep moving forward, is important and makes the success of women like Ava DuvernayGina Prince-BythewoodShonda Rhimes, and Waithe herself all the more notable.

Read the full interview here.

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Disrupting Hollywood

by Sheree L. Ross

Over a hundred thousand scripts will be written in 2017, as well as tens of thousands of independent films made. Hundreds of contests will be entered and most filmmakers will not move very far towards their goal of a distribution deal or theatrical release.
What once seemed like the “impossible dream” has now almost become a thing of the past.  Yet, so many filmmakers go forward as they make their films like the magical payday myths of the industry still, if ever existed.
Most distribution deals and all of Hollywood have created an accounting system where only they get paid and the creative winds up with accolades (hopefully) but empty pockets. Crowdfunding has been a big move forward to help mitigate the ever shrinking traditional access to funds but after a film is made the blue print to a sustainable business model is rarely understood. It is especially hard for women and women filmmakers of color, where financing a film can be a Herculean event – as well as finding access to, and building an audience large enough to not only pay cast, crew, and themselves but make enough to distribute it and then do it all over again.
The industry has changed even for Hollywood. This change began decades ago but was solidified when the markets crashed in 2008, and demystified with access unprecedented with digital cameras, the internet, and streaming platforms. This is a new and ever more inclusive frontier yet so many indie filmmakers still structure their business model like it’s the 1970’s – still believing in the big payoff yet never realizing that filmmakers getting paid on the net receipts has been an inside myth perpetuated by industry media to entertain the public and string along hopeful filmmakers since time began.
The power of the industry is shifting but the new paradigm must be created by the independent filmmakers themselves. Big business has always had too much of a say and taken all of the profits. We, as creatives, are the reason they have built fortunes, mostly because we have wanted others to take care of the business while we concentrate on the creative. The other truth of many creatives is we haven’t developed the emotional and mental stamina for the business side of our filmmaking and have often blindly handed the responsibility over to others. This is a wake up call to build that muscle and take full control of our careers and creations. Owning our IP and figuring out how to distribute in a way that puts the rewards back into our own business is key to growing and maintaining a healthy and striving independent film ecosystem for all of us.

Black Panther Footage Reveals the Ferocious Female Warriors

…of Wakanda

April 18, 2017 12:13 pm

Update 7:35 E.T.: A Marvel representative reached out to say that the nature of the relationship between Danai Gurira’s Okoye and Florence Kasumba‘s Ayo in Black Panther is not a romantic one and that specific love storyline from the comic World of Wakanda was not used as a source.

Whether or not he had the approval of Disney when he did so, Beauty and the Beast director Bill Condon caused quite a stir in the April issue of Attitude—both of hopeful expectations and of conservative pushback—when he touted Josh Gad’s character LeFou and his “exclusively gay moment.” Though Condon surely had his heart in the right place, the phrase overpromised on what the film ultimately underdelivered: the moment comes when LeFou ends the movie by dancing, briefly with a man. O.K. However, early footage of Marvel’s upcoming Black Panther screened for journalists Monday night movie promises much more.

The scene in question features Walking Dead star Danai Gurira dancing on a boat with her fellow Dora Milaje, i.e., Black Panther’s personal female bodyguards. These women—first introduced to moviegoers in Captain America: Civil War— are the warriors who watch over Chadwick Boseman’s royal family. In Civil War, Uganda-born actress Florence Kasumba made an instant impression on audiences as one member of the select group when she curtly ordered Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow to “move” aside for T’Challa.

In the rough cut of this Black Panther scene, we see Gurira’s Okoye and Kasumba’s Ayo swaying rhythmically back in formation with the rest of their team. Okoye eyes Ayo flirtatiously for a long time as the camera pans in on them. Eventually, she says, appreciatively and appraisingly, “You look good.” Ayo responds in kind. Okoye grins and replies, “I know.”

This quick moment between two warrior women on their way to T’Challa’s coronation leans into a current very popular run of the Black Panther comic. A 2016 spin-off called World of Wakanda by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona Harvey is all about the relationship between two members of the Dora Milaje. The official description:

A Wakandan love story—its tenderness matched only by its brutality.

You know them now as The Midnight Angels, but in this story they are

just Ayo and Aneka, young women recruited to become Dora Milaje, an

elite task force trained to protect the crown at all costs. What happens when your nation needs your hearts

and minds, but you already gave them to each other?

Other footage from the film screened early for reporters centers more closely on T’Challa, including scenes of a traditional and elaborate Wakandan ceremony, and a shoot-out in a South Korea casino featuring Andy Serkis’s Claw and Martin Freeman’s Everett K. Ross. For fans of Lupita Nyong’o, there was also a pair of scenes showing her character dancing (she gets her own boat) and taking out several armed guards.

The costumes in Black Panther—especially the ones worn by the Dora Milaje—are truly dazzling, with a lot of bright colors and elaborate patterns. Angela Bassett, as T’Challa’s mother and Queen of Wakanda, sports a jaw-dropping coiffure of snow-white dreadlocks. According to the production team, director Ryan Coogler was interested in giving Black Panther—the star of which debuted in Civil War—an updated look that was more faithful to the current run of comics. And though Marvel didn’t screen any footage of Michael B. Jordan in costume—he’s playing villainous Erik Killmonger—concept art tacked to the Marvel office walls revealed a fearsome mask compete with horns and mane.

In other words: even if Marvel and superhero fatigue is setting in, rest assured that Black Panther isn’t going to look like anything you’ve seen from them before.

Full Screen

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See the Tony-Nominated Costumes from Eclipsed and the Sketches that Inspired Them

Photo: Left, courtesy of Clint Ramos; Right, courtesy of Joan Marcus.

Will ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Be the Last Racially Insensitive Blockbuster?

Between the phenomenal success of “Get Out” and the failure of “Ghost in the Shell,” might Hollywood finally wise up?

Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell

“Ghost in the Shell”

Between the phenomenal success of “Get Out,” the imminent next chapter of the emphatically diverse “Fast and the Furious” franchise, and the recent failure of “Ghost in the Shell,” (among other examples), is there genuine reason to hope that racially insensitive blockbusters might soon become a thing of the past?

Vadim Rizov (@vrizov), Filmmaker Magazine

I think a lot about Bilge Ebiri’s 2013 piece on how the “Fast & Furious” franchise blew up by self-consciously becoming “diverse.” The short takeaway: Universal execs didn’t throw together a super-diverse cast out of the goodness of their progressive hearts, but out of a keen awareness that targeting multipole, oft-underserved demographics was a key, underexploited pathway to making much more money. It’s long been reported that there’s a big gap between onscreen representation and the audiences showing up: Latinos are the biggest moviegoers in the US, which you wouldn’t guess from the number (or lack thereof) of prominently cast Latinos onscreen.

So the examples cited are, sure, apposite, but what we’re really talking about here are two examples of black filmmakers breaking through plus one self-consciously “inclusive” blockbuster — hardly a monster wave, and anyone with a memory of how the late ’80s wave of black filmmakers ground to a halt after a while should be wary that non-white filmmakers are now, finally, about to become an integral part of the Hollywood apparatus, with attendant changes in onscreen diversity to follow; all it takes is one flop for the machine to change its mind (which is admittedly very stupid). So I’m sadly wary that we’re on the way to a more inclusive onscreen future.

READ MORE: ‘Ghost In The Shell’ Anime Director Defends Scarlett Johansson’s Casting

Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelance for Vulture, Nylon, the Guardian

While it would certainly be nice if Hollywood got its shit together and stopped casting white people in nonwhite roles, and while I agree that there have been tiny incremental decreases in that practice year by year, I fear it’ll be a long time until it become a complete thing of the past. You trace a positive trend through “Get Out,” “Moonlight,” and “Fastly Furious 8: Fambly Matters,” but we could just as easily draw a less heartening conclusion from a glance at the next few months. By the end of June, we’ll have a film in which Guatemalan-born Oscar Isaac plays Armenian, something called “How to Be a Latin Lover” (gulp) from my beloved Ken Marino, and loads of all-white studio projects.

Things are definitely better now than they were as recently as 2014, but until people of color have been installed in key decision making positions, I fear a meaningful step forward will be impossible.

The Fate of the Furious Fast 8 Vin Diesel

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic), Freelance for Little White Lies, The Film Stage

In our frequent tearful and angry comments against the big monster that is Hollywood, we critics often fail to recognise this industry’s undeniable complexity. Somewhat simultaneously, progress seems always on the cusp of realisation, while signs of Hollywood’s backward ideas about race and identity continue to surface in countless new films, especially blockbusters. In theatres this weekend, a brave spectator — or one into cognitive dissonance — can have herself a double-bill of the ground-breaking “Get Out” and the whitewashed “Ghost in the Shell” remake. Hollywood is a messy place.

Nevertheless, “Moonlight”’s exhilarating critical triumph (with a gobsmacking twist ending on Oscars night) and “Get Out”’s massive commercial success recently may make “Ghost in the Shell” seem like an anomaly, a last misjudged attempt by Hollywood to pursue its long-held tradition of reappropriation and flattening out of racial difference in favour of the majority. It almost feels like real change is taking place, which can explain the vigorousness of the outcry against “Ghost.” Yet while evidently justified, this violent dismissal also risks making us forget about the similar and in fact not so distant scandal of “Doctor Strange,” which followed many others. Despite all the anger that these previous films generated, such attitudes evidently persist.

Hollywood nonetheless always tries to give its audience what it wants, if only because this strategy makes economical sense. And this explains the very existence of a “Ghost in the Shell” remake: the original regained popularity in recent years by becoming more available to Occidental spectators and thanks to the surge of interest in anime. But as the casting of Scarlett Johansson blatantly reveals, Hollywood is a clumsy pleaser. It is willing to tap into different stories, but cannot fully commit to their specificity. In some cases, as with the casting of Tilda Swinton as “the Ancient One” in “Doctor Strange,” traces of Orientalism even emerge, where Asian cultures are not only populated with white people, but also made to look inaccessible, exotic, magical and even dangerous.

Perhaps the solution to Hollywood’s racial problem lies in this very desire to please: critics, and social media users in general, might have the power to guide the big studios on their tedious path to sensitive representation. Through trial and error — that is, unsatisfying attempts at diversity in films, then virulent attacks by spectators in the press and the media- the industry might eventually understand what is so wrong about itself, and finally deliver consistently racially conscious movies. Until then, we shall stay mad.

Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) Pajiba/Nerdist/CBR

Man, I wish. And not just because I’m an alleged and unrepentant SJW, but also because wouldn’t it be amazing if films as original, challenging, and riveting as “Moonlight” and “Get Out” became the standard and not the exception?

Personally, I’m hopeful that the success of these films — as well as the box office success of “Hidden Figures”— will prove to Hollywood once and for all that white-straight-male need not be the default setting for any given story. And I expect we’ll start to see a shift toward more Black actors getting lead roles, instead of the parade of blandsome white ingendudes of which Hollywood seems to have an endless supply. But I’m doubtful the success of these movies will impact Hollywood’s loathsome tradition of Asian erasure, as Asians and Asian-Americans are all too often left out of the race and representation conversation.

It all comes from Hollywood believing only white heroes (often white men) sell movies globally (which is bunk). Yet, this year alone we saw examples of Asian erasure in “The Great Wall,” “Iron Fist,” and “Ghost in the Shell.” While not all are clear examples of white washing, each is a story that relishes in an Asian culture, while centering on a White protagonist. And that reduces Asian people to set dressing, even within their own stories. What needs to happen for this kind to change is not only the failure of such properties, but also the success of ones that dare to recognize Asian and Asian-American stars as more than cameos that’ll help bolster overseas sales. We’ll know a sea change is actually happening there when Asian/Asian-American women can front a story that doesn’t involve martial arts, or when an Asian/Asian-American man can be cast as the lead in a romantic-comedy. Because — as Jack Choi pointed out last year — allowing an actor to be seen as a sex symbol is a crucial step in making him a star.

Here’s hoping someone soon will finally realize the untapped potential of the internet’s crush John Cho, or that some clever producer will run with the swoons Dev Patel has stirred from his surfer-bro “Lion” look. Because here is the rare case where objectification could actually help in representation.

Jordan Peele Get Out

Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker

The “Fast and Furious” franchise has a diverse cast; so do the most recent “Star Wars” entries, and so does “Captain America: Civil War”; and these films’ successes have hardly ushered in a new era in empathy and justice. Or, rather, unfortunately, not at all. Big-budget, mass-market films are effects, not causes. The commercial success of these movies with diverse casts and the failure of “Ghost in the Shell” may give studio executives the hint they need. On the other hand, “Life” was a failure, too (the capital letter matters). On the third hand, one of the things that makes “Get Out” a great movie is its depiction of racial identity as a matter of historical consciousness and personal experience.

Tentpole movies don’t offer much of either — for people of any ethnicity; the amount of human experience that filters into these films is pretty slender overall. That’s why the diversity of casts needs to be joined by diversity behind the camera — executives, producers, directors, screenwriters; otherwise, the diverse casts (though important in themselves, as opportunities for the actors) will have little effect on the films’ substance.

Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics, Film School Rejects

The sad thing is that “Ghost in the Shell”s disappointing box office may not be seen as the result of the casting controversy, and maybe it is not entirely. But we’ve seen so many movies that have had similar issues, including “Gods of Egypt” and “The Great Wall,” unable to financially back up the offenses in terms of being what audiences want, that it has to be getting to Hollywood. Unless they see the success of films like “Get Out” and “Fast and the Furious” being enough to counter the films deemed insensitive, like “Ghost in the Shell,” which is a box office failure, and Doctor Strange, which is not. And they may be doing well enough outside America where the controversies don’t alway carry over, that they don’t care. Maybe the only way to tell if anything was learned with “Ghost in the Shell” is to see what happens with “Akira.”

Tasha Robinson (@TashaRobinson), The Verge

I don’t think we’re ever likely to be entirely rid of tone-deaf adaptations, for the same reason we’ll never be rid of bloated blockbuster sequels or dumbed-down copycats of hit movies: at least half of Hollywood is always chasing what looks like the safest payday, by trying to plug “bankable” stars into everything, regardless of appropriateness or optics. What the success of films like “Get Out” and “Hidden Figures” gets us that I find heartening is a new set of profitable stars. There’s always going to be some clueless money-minded Hollywood exec pushing Tom Cruise or Matt Damon for the lead role in a President Obama biopic, because “Their films make money, and making money is what’s important.” But as actors like Michael B. Jordan, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer, and Mahershala Ali gain more cachet as Hollywood moneymakers, we’re more likely to see their names come up in conversation. The success of films like “Get Out” and “Hidden Figures” — or, on another scale entirely, the admirably diversity-minded “Star Wars: Rogue One” — isn’t just a boon for people who want to see themselves reflected onscreen, and it isn’t just a boon for people who want to point to “diverse” films and say they make money and have an audience. It’s also a boon for producers and directors and casting agents who want to widen their net, and need to be able to point to past successes when they’re pitching future projects. The more “bankable” stars of color we have, the less likely we are to live in a world where Scarlett Johansson is seen as the only possible star for an action film about a tough woman, regardless of that woman’s race.

 

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