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SPARK TV Week: Brittani Nichols’ Words With Girls

by Montgomery Jones

Issa Rae is something of a legend in the YouTube/webseries community.  Her successful show The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl has garnered positive feedback from The New York Times, Forbes, and viewers around the world.   With masterminds like Shonda Rhimes and Pharrell reaching out to Ms. Rae, it’s safe to say this “awkward black girl” has just begun her world domination.  A book deal, an HBO show in the works, and slew of other online shows–what’s left to do?  But even with people like Issa Rae and Shonda Rhimes creating amazing television shows, there’s still a gaping hole in terms of people of color, women, and LGBTQIA writers in TV.  Without a diverse group of writers, there’s a lack of diversity in the scripts themselves resulting in the same people on our television screens night after night.  Issa Rae has set to correct this with her new initiative, ColorCreative.TV.  ColorCreative developed three 30-minute pilots, which were then released on YouTube in pursuit of the studios checking them out and a loyal audience developing.  The shows–Bleach, Words with Girls, and So Jaded–are vastly different from one another, which makes this initiative even more courageous.  I was lucky enough to talk to Brittani Nichols about the show she writes and stars in, Words with Girls.

Congrats on Words with Girls!  It has fantastic reviews and is one of the three shows featured on Issa Rae’s Color Creative!  Did you apply for WWG to be showcased or did someone reach out to you?

Deniese Davis, the co-founder of Color Creative, reached out to an email list I’m on soliciting half-hour comedy scripts. No questions asked I just sent my script off into the void and weeks later I got an email from Issa and Deniese saying they liked my script and asking if I’d want to take a meeting with them. So I guess it was a mix of both, though it wasn’t them seeking me out personally. They’d never seen the webseries so it was all sort of by chance.

I noticed that there were cast changes from the initial season to the 25 minute pilot episode under Color Creative, is this in the same universe with different friends or just completely different people?

The world is the same but it’s a pretty different tone than the webseries, and I think the medium of television called for different characters. If this goes to series, I’d love to have those actors [from the webseries], Lauren Neal and Hannah Hart, involved though playing different roles since everyone just played a wacked out version of themselves in the web version. The most obvious pull from the webseries is each episode being themed around a word but other than that, it’s sort of a different beast altogether, though it’s obviously still about lesbians in LA.

WWG has an entire season of 3 minute episodeson YouTube. Is the intent of Color Creative to get this show on network television?

Our goal for the current incarnation of the show is for it to go to series on a cable network or streaming platform like Netflix, Amazon, etc. I think we proved that we can make something of quality on a low budget so it sort of blows my mind to think about what we’d be able to do with a lot more time and resources. Hopefully someone else will be blown away by this prospect and decide to pick-up the show.

Words with Girls in hilarious in that it captures those offhanded remarks people make to their best friends, one that any bystander may not understand.  How do you get the dialogue to hold such an important and almost sacred tone? Do you ever improvise?

For the most part everything I write starts with conversations I have by myself–let’s call it one woman improvising so I sound less crazy–and then figuring out who the characters are from that. I think writing the story based on the characters that come from that process rather than the other way around definitely positions the dialogue as the most important thing because to me, it is. I love how groups of friends talk and how their collective vocabulary shifts together.

I read you describe yourself as a triple minority in that you are black, queer, and a woman.  I can imagine you get this quite often but why is important that we talk about race, sexuality, gender, etc.?  Why is representation itself so crucial?

I think the more specific your point of view, the stronger your voice is and the more relatable you are. So being the the most female, the most black, and the most gay I can be is really the way to reach the most people because at the end of the day, all of those experiences are human, and though the details might be more applicable to certain groups, the underlying feelings that inform my point of view are universally relatable. There are so many other stories being ignored for the sake of white heterocentric narratives. We could stop making shows about straight white men right now and there would still be enough to last until the end of time. Television and movies are all about recreating the human experience, and when you’re blatantly excluding certain types of people, the underlying message is “you aren’t part of this experience” which is bullshit.

Admiration does not even remotely summarize how I feel about your ability to bring up and make light of some pretty heavy stuff, things that in my opinion other shows and movies would not dare touch.  From being the “token” black friend and being intimidated by another black person (which to verbally say or even type sounds kind of loony but is actually quite common) to the somewhat offensive offhanded remarks friends may say in casual conversations about being black.  I loved “she probably uses more slang than me” in one episode.  Why do we feel like we are almost in a competition to be “blacker” than another?

Well that is super kind so thank you. I’m super self-aware and so the show has no choice but to be the same way, which causes a lot of reflection on sensitive topics. And truth be told, it’s sort of hard to talk about certain subjects when the people that face them aren’t present, which is often the case in media and probably why it feels like that’s lacking on the whole. When you’re queer or trans or of color or a woman or some combination of those things, how you experience the world is not only informed by your own insecurities but also how other people’s insecurities are put onto you in pretty serious ways sometimes. I want to do that and take it one step further, as was the case with “Token,” and show what it looks like when these groups put these insecurities onto each other but still have it be super real and funny.

If the show is picked up what will the central theme be?  What is it about Los Angeles that attracts characters like Pace, Aspen, and Micky? The city itself almost acts as a fourth cast member.

The show will focus on the struggles they go through to keep their relationships intact depending on how their careers, what brought them all to Los Angeles, are progressing (or not progressing). LA is this place where people are rarely happy with where they are lifewise so there’s a lot of the “putting my career before a relationship” talk, which is all fine and good until people wake up one day and they’re like, “FUCK.” I think a lot of people find themselves wondering if they passed up on one type of happiness to achieve this other kind of happiness, when I think probably happiness is happiness and if there’s a way you can achieve it, you should just fucking go for it. But this is coming from someone who feels like they only understand what happiness is in theory so maybe don’t listen to me. So yeah, it’ll be a lot of grappling with that.

Watch the Words With Girls pilot here, then go here to tell networks that you want to see it on your TV!

SPARK TV Week: 5 returning shows to check out

by Maya Brown

Welcome to SPARK’s TV week! Fall means a whole new slew of TV shows and the return of some favorites. This week we’re going to do a roundup of what’s new, what’s bad, what’s coming back, and what we think is worth watching. Why? Because a lot of us have a lot of feelings about TV shows and because TV is important. More so than movies, TV both shapes our culture and reflects it back at us. TV also oftentimes tends to be more progressive than other kinds of media, and it’s fun to watch, especially when your attention span stops after the 45 minutes mark like mine does.  But there can also be a lot of bad TV out there, so our goal for this week is to point out the good stuff and the shows we want more of, as well as start some conversations about critiquing the not-so-good stuff.

To start the week off, I’m going to do a roundup of my top 5 returning shows for you to catch up on before they come back on air. Keep in mind that these only reflect my very narrowly chosen Hulu queue of family dramas and comedies, so I’m sorry if I missed any fabulous ones. Leave your own returning favorites in the comments!

1. Parks and Rec because of course it’s on this list. Leslie Knope is the bomb, and we’re written about her like at least 5 times already. She’s driven and spunky and also deals with a lot of the issues that women in government face. One of my favorite parts of the show is Leslie and Ann’s friendship. It’s one of the most positive, best female relationship out there. The female characters on this show are just amazing in general, and they actually get air time and well-written comedic moments. This is so important because it proves that shows like The Office can be just as successful when headed by women. Also, we have a lot of feelings about Leslie and Ben’s relationship.

2. The Fosters. We wrote about it last fall, and if you never watched it, I highly recommend starting. This show can feel a little bit “issue of the week”-y, but it makes my list because it tends to deal with all of those issues really well. Or maybe I’m just blinded by the beauty that is an interracial lesbian couple on TV. But actually, I love that no matter what drama the teenagers in the show get into, they’re coming home to really supportive and loving parents. However, the real reason I love this show is the youngest cast member, Jude. I have to admit that I’m not fully caught up, but I know that as the season was ending he was starting to see that he had a crush on a boy in his class. This is actually so important—to see a middle-school aged boy on TV come to terms with his sexuality without having to fit into the angsty after-school-special trope of having to come out to his religious parents. Also there was a scene near the beginning of the first season where Jude compliments Mariana on her fingernail polish, and she does his, and of course he gets picked on for it, and Stef and Lena just handle it all so well! It gave me a lot of feelings.

3. The Mindy Project. I know this one can be a little complicated, but I need to give it a shout out for starting to take up the massive 30 Rock sized hole left in my heart. Mindy Kahling is hilariously talented and is making her way in the severely white male dominated space that is comedy. I love that she writes her own show and stars in it, and sets a really body-positive example. It may not be a feminist wonderland at all times, but I think it’s really important to have a woman of color at the front of a show like this.

4. Bob’s Burgers. I have to admit that this is my guilty pleasure show, but I’m starting to see a lot of feminist undertones. It’s also the only adult cartoon that makes me laugh instead of want to vomit. All three women in the family are downright hilarious; Linda acts and looks like a real mother, Louise is always the one with the crazy plan, and Tina, who was originally a gawky teenage boy, was changed to a female character without removing any of her awkwardness. Tina is the unsung feminist hero of the show. She is quiet and weird and writes “erotic friend fiction” but has a supportive family who loves her for all of it. What’s more, the TV show pushes away the common tropes of the deadbeat dad and annoying mom who are dismissive of their daughters. Everyone in the Belcher family is weird, and they all embrace it. Also Kristen Schaal as Louise is like my favorite casting decision ever.

5. Grey’s Anatomy. This show. OMG. I have a lot of feelings about this one because I marathoned it this summer and am still not quite done, but it was my little feminist surprise. There are three major things I love about it (once I got past the gory bloody stuff). The first is the relationship between Christina and Meredith. They are the real soulmates of the show, and no matter what relationships come and go, they always return to each other. I love this because it is honest, and real and is an amazing example of a female friendship that really has substance to it. The second thing I love about Grey’s Anatomy is how dedicated it is to diversity: half the cast are people of color, and they’re sympathetic and developed characters, not tokens. And finally, I love that it actually deals with some amazing feminist issues. The story arch I always return to is Miranda Bailey’s in the second and third season. Bailey has a son and faces prejudice at her job for being a mother, and is forced to learn how to balance her job and her baby. The pain she goes through serves as such an important critique on how we treat mothers in the workplace, and it makes the whole season worth it.

These shows are what I want more of. I want shows with just as many female characters as male, but who face issues that aren’t always gendered. And when they are gendered, they’re real issues, like motherhood vs. a career, or the right to choose to have an abortion. I want more TV shows where the gay characters can have their moment, but are allowed to fall out of the spotlight and act like any other couple, like Callie and Arizona on Grey’s. I want diversity to be so well done that more than half of the cast are people of color, but they are treated and developed just as fully as the white characters. I want to see interracial relationships and bisexual characters and women in nontraditional careers. I want female characters who are allowed to be sexual without being sexualized. I want the minor characters in the show to be just as diverse and break just as many stereotypes as the major characters. I want TV to start working to change culture. I want it to reflect our culture and show the flaws that are there, but not to shy away from real ways to deal with it. I want shows that I would be happy to see little girls watching, because I know they will see themselves represented in them. Clearly I want a lot of things–or maybe I just want a TV show about Miranda Bailey; that could work too.

What I learned from a pair of strappy heels (that I didn’t even buy)

by Calliope Wong

I’m Calliope, pre-med English major at the University of Connecticut Honors Program.

I’m also 5’8” and the daughter of Chinese immigrants from very different backgrounds, my mother from mainland Nanjing, my father from the once-British-colony Hong Kong. Looking at me, most people’s reaction is probably that I’m an awkward-turtle Nerd™—true!—and I make no excuses, with my professed love of videogame design and my happy squeeking every time I get into a conversation about the metaliterary criticism and cultural ramifications of ‘90s anime. I am totally that girl…that Gold-level support on your League of Legends friends list, that fan of Apoptygma Berserk that arrived to the party 10 years too late, that girl on your newsfeed, posting about transgender activism at women’s colleges.  I’m the girl to call when you need living proof you’re not too weird.

But, like anyone, I sometimes get trapped by self-doubts and internal conflicts of the Weird Meter. Like on that late-June day, with the “Hot/Scorching/YOU ARE ON FIRE BUY OUR STUFF” Sales” already going up for July 4th—that Saturday when I went clothes-shopping for school with my mom.

The day didn’t start off with me thinking I was too weird—actually, it was very pleasant at first. Although shopping with Mom has historically been an exercise in body-shaming and contorting into clothes that didn’t fit, compounded by the fact that people used to misread me as a “militantly-queer man shopping in women’s aisles” earlier on in my transition, it’s changed over time into mom-daughter bonding time. (A prayer here: I am thankful, so thankful that I no longer feel threatened whenever I go clothes shopping. And I am grateful to Mom, for enduring with me through all the public shaming unto now. Let this be every queer kid’s brave mom.)

So here we were at the end of June, frizzy-haired and stalwart 5’5.5” Chinese lady with goofy, 5’8” daughter, entering the local secondhand shop called Savers.

I made a sleepy, pawing effort to look through some Things Mom Liked–and by logically fallible extension, she thought I would. Sequined sundresses wouldn’t keep me safe from the winds howling down on the UConn campus (my school lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere); I just did not do hot pink sweaters. We settled for a few dressy button-ups and a pair of red shorts.

I didn’t really need shoes—in an indulgent and perhaps guilty step, Mom had bought me a bunch of things when we first went shopping together as mother and daughter. I had 2 pairs of decorative Converse at home! There was no need. (And I really wanted to just go home and nap!) But this particular Saturday was my mom’s day off. I couldn’t fight a woman sacrificing for me; she got her way. We went shoe browsing.

I’ve always had an issue with shoes. My feet are larger than I think they have any right to be—they remind me of the things people say about transgender women in order to invalidate our lives and identities. They remind me that, in many peoples’ minds, my body and I have no place in this world. I also want to re-iterate that I identify as a girl who sees herself as—did I say it before?—a goofy nerd.

But sitting in the women’s size 9 aisle were these perfect shoes. Blue velvet at the bottom, with teal and red straps intertwining like fighting serpents: they were Jennifer Lopez-brand stilettos with what must have been 6-inch heels. They were $10.

I wanted them very, very badly. At the same time, fear ripped at me from all directions. It felt like being dragged many backward steps into places I outgrew a long time ago.

And I began to worry in overdrive:

About how capitalism has become this necessary part of my bonding with my mother, as if the only way in which we can share quality time is through the purchase of things we like but don’t need. I don’t want to be dependent on material goods for happiness—I can be happy without so many things, and money isn’t easy to come by anyway.

About how I felt so guilty for updating my wardrobe so many times in the past few years, in an effort to close the lagging gap between who I and what I looked like, functioned like, could be in the physical world. At the quiet heart of me I’d always wanted, in a desperate kind of way, to be found attractive—or to find what “attractive” meant to me. But it was at my parents’ monetary cost.

About who I was, if I wasn’t just the nerdy girl at the bottom of the “attractive” pile. I wasn’t meant to stand out in a crowd, right? I was a plain-at-best Chinese girl, boring in body but interesting when you got to talk with me…or something. I wasn’t supposed to attract anyone’s attention—because I’m transgender, and attracting the wrong kind of people could spell social or physical violence. Right?

I didn’t really know what to think—but that I was messed up and weird for this internal conflict. I liked these pretty shoes. I was so, so stressed. This wasn’t normal, right?

But the swarming worries seemed to swallow themselves, the moment I tried on those ridiculous shoes.

I’ll admit that life had been moving pretty fast up until that Saturday, when I went clothes-shopping with Mom and ended up essentially panicking about this pair of strappy heels. From my own brand of militant-queer granny aesthetic (combat boots and brown floral-print handmedowns) during high school, complete with overgrown mullet, to half a year later with the Invisigoth girl who refused to wear anything but black turtlenecks and skinny jeans, to the current, goofy nerd who sometimes threw in colored socks with Mary Janes for fun but refused to be looked at.

It might seem like I’m some sort of image-obsessed person. But it wasn’t about aesthetics—it was never just about how I looked. I just kept on looking for ways to fit comfortably, inside my skin.

And the moment I actually tried these strappy, impractical heels, I felt… powerful.

I felt that no one could push me down from where I stood—I was owning up to my body, my sexuality, the whole of me. Rather than fearing for my safety or trying to divert attention away from myself–rather than holding the weird and loud person in, I was wearing myself in a way other people could see me. In the moment, I didn’t care that Mom was telling me to “come down from there or else I’d break my ankles.” I didn’t care that I was over six feet tall and blatantly calling attention to myself. I loved that the women trying on shoes next to me gasped a little bit at me as I stood and walked to the dressing room with my head held high.

“Those look nice on you.”

“I could never wear those like you.”

I wore those shoes with a pride in myself I had never known.

In the end, I probably spent a good twenty minutes with those J-Lo heels before I put them back down in the bargain pile. Mom was pressed on time and wanted to go to the Goodwill down the street; she asked me several times that if I really wanted them, I could get them—“just hurry up and make a decision so we can go to the next store.”

It wasn’t her rushing me, though, that made me return the heels.  I’m still not sure what it was.

But I reasoned that if I could feel that good with the shoes on, then I didn’t need them.

I told myself I was and could be hot, just the way I was.

And here I am in September, looking back at summer days. I’m trying to remember how to feel the same way.

DoodleUs Update: fewer “dude-les,” but still lacking people of color

by Celeste Montaño

Earlier this year, SPARK launched DoodleUs, a campaign asking Google to improve the representation of women and people of color in their Doodles. In case you missed it, Google Doodles are those fun animations that replace the Google logo on the company’s front page, often in celebration of historical individuals. And since we launched our campaign, a lot has happened.

Google's Doodle celebrating tennis legend Althea Gibson's 87th birthday

Google acknowledged our campaign within the first day, and we got to speak via Google Hangout with Ryan Germick, the Doodle Team leader, and Megan Smith, a Vice President at the company. (Yes, we hung out with Google!) They told us that even before our petition, they were already making plans to ensure that men and women have 50/50 representation in the 2014 Doodles. But the best part is that SPARK and Google are talking together about ways to raise awareness of women’s historical contributions.

Despite the busyness of the past few months, we haven’t stopped tracking the gender and racial distributions of the Doodles. When we launched DoodleUs back in late February/early March, it was too early for patterns to emerge in the 2014 Doodles. But now that most of the year has flown by, we figured it was time for an update.

So, good news first:

Compared to 2013, representation of women in Google Doodles has definitely improved, with the number of Doodles celebrating women more than doubling. In 2013, only 22% of the doodles celebrated women, whereas this year that number rose to 46.3%.  In fact, during every month of 2014, the ratio between men and women has been pretty close to 50/50. Ann Martin of Speaking Up for Us shows similar findings–as of her May 2014 count, Google’s representation of women in Doodles increased 78% overall.

Not that Google should declare victory yet, since analyzing based solely on gender gives us a skewed view of what’s going on. When we examine the Doodles through the lens of both gender and race, we get a different picture. Like white women, women of color are now represented in Doodles twice as much as last year, going from 6.4% to 12.2%. But that still means that white women are celebrated almost three times as much as women of color—12% v. 34%. And the trend appears overall, not just between women: white people are celebrated 68.3% of the time, and people of color honored less than half as often—31.7% of the time.

When Google acknowledged SPARK’s DoodleUs campaign, they spoke of women being underrepresented in the Doodles, but didn’t mention other factors that SPARK took into account, namely race and region. So while the situation has improved significantly for white women, the problem of underrepresentation mostly remains the same for women of color. It’s a problem that we see repeatedly when large corporations and organizations try to improve their treatment of one identity (in this case, gender) without considering that one person can have several identities (for example, you can be a woman and a person of color at the same time).

If Google is truly committed to increasing diversity in their Doodles, it also needs to break away from the notion that all history originates in Europe. It’s an idea they’re still perpetuating by having the vast majority of their Doodles honor European individuals. Of the current 82 Doodles, 47 have honored people from Europe. That’s more than half. The only region that even comes close to Europe’s 47 Doodles is North America, with 12.

But it should start getting better, potentially any minute now. Germick told us this year that Google plans Doodles about six months in advance, meaning that all the Doodles we’ve seen this year were planned before DoodleUs even launched. And since we unleashed our research six months ago in late February, Doodles that were made with our findings in mind could start appearing right around now.

Although even if things suddenly change, it will take months for new patterns to emerge, so we might not see significant change until 2015. It’s a waiting game at this point. But we’re a little impatient, and excited to talk about amazing women in history, so in the meantime we’re having some pretty great conversations with Google about ways to create a sort of digital monument to women in history. We’ll keep you posted on that–and as for any diversity in future Doodles, we’ll keep an eye out.

Beyond Pepper Potts: the grim state of women and girls on screen

by Anya Josephs

Thanks to SPARK’s generous friends at the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media, I was able to join SPARK Executive Director Dana Edell and Program Coordinator Melissa Campbell at the 2nd Global Symposium on Gender in the Media. This afternoon-long conversation featured speeches by Geena Davis and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive-Director of UN Women, as well as panels on global storytelling and the impact the media can have on issues concerning girls. However, the centerpiece of the afternoon was really the presentation by Dr. Stacy L. Smith of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, on the research she and her team have done, “Gender Bias Without Borders.”

This work is so incredibly vital. Smith and her team have worked hard to come up with solid statistics that prove just how wide the gender gap of representation in films and television is. A lot of the work we do here at SPARK is on that subject, but we often talk about specific films or television shows, whether we’re praising or critiquing them. In other words, we have anecdotes—individual examples, considered in isolation. Smith’s work allows us to see a broader picture of the status of women and girls in the media—and the picture is very grim indeed.

In the 120 films and 5,799 speaking roles surveyed, 31% of speaking roles belong to women, and a mere 23% of protagonists are women. Only 10% of films in the sample have an equal number of girls and boys in the cast. Women onscreen are almost all sexualized. The women that do appear are rarely in positions of leadership—for instance, of the thousands of characters studied, there were only 11 female CEOs, and two of those 11 were Marvel character Pepper Potts (who was gifted her fictional corporation by her boyfriend). There are almost no fields were men and women have parity in representation. This is the first global study of its kind, and Smith’s research shows that it isn’t just a problem of US media. All around the world, girls and women are being mis- and underrepresented in media. However, it also a uniquely American responsibility, since so much media (up to 80% of films worldwide) is created in the U.S.

brutal tbhThis isn’t just a question of the media. The Institute’s motto is “if she can see it, she can be it”—they argue that girls need many possibilities for their lives represented in the media. They point to the fact that the proportion of women in crowd scenes in movies—17%– is the same as the proportion of women in many arenas of the real world, from Fortune 500 boardrooms to tenured professorships. Their suggestion is that we get so used to not seeing women in the media that we don’t notice that we’re not seeing them in the real world either. Media creates the expectation that girls and women are sexualized, disempowered, or just plain not there—and that makes people complacent when women are sexualized, disempowered, and invisible in the real world as well.

The problem is huge, and progress is slow. In her keynote, Ms. Davis mentioned that at the current rate of improvement, women will have equal representation in the media in a mere seven hundred years. However, it isn’t all bad news.

At the conference, Ms. Davis described the responses she’d gotten from content creators—directors, producers, and screenwriters—she presented this data to. She didn’t get apathy or disinterest. Instead, most of the people who saw this information hadn’t recognized the problem and were deeply concerned to realize they were perpetuating this problem. She even said that many have already made changes based on her report.

The symposium was an event that reinforced the best and worst things about women’s representation in the media. It clarified—and proved rigorously—just how far we have to go, and how slow progress has been. Yet it also emphasized the hard work people everywhere are doing to overcome these problems. With the dedication and commitment of organizers, activists, and researchers, there is hope to show the next generation of girls and boys a brighter image of what they can be.

Black Women Create: Amandla Stenberg gets out from behind the Yellow Wallpaper

by Montgomery Jones and Joneka Percentie

In 2012, I won a TV competition to interview the cast of The Hunger Games at the world premiere in Los Angeles,  and that’s when I met Amandla Stenberg.  She was a 13 year old that looked younger than she was and I was an 18 year old that looked older than I was.  The crowds were hectic and everything was fast paced but Amandla’s interview (one of a trillion she did that day I’m sure) with me stuck out.  She was so incredibly poised and articulate and at the time I remember feeling immense pride.  Not sure why exactly.  Perhaps it is because Amandla is a mixxie just like myself, so I felt a bond.  When a lot of racist backlash began in regards to Amandla playing the beloved Rue (who if you read the book, is in fact African American), she held her head high and didn’t feed in to the negative hysteria.  I, on the other hand, was a wreck. I felt this weird protective big sister role (for a girl who didn’t even know me!) and I kept arguing with trolls on the internet and friends who said snarky remarks or simply didn’t agree with casting. 

In June 2013, Amandla was interviewed by SPARK mentor Jamia Wilson, in a  wonderful piece that made even more people love Amandla.  Later, Tavi Gevinson interviewed/had a magical conversation with/ had a super fun and intellectual conversation with Amandla for Dazed and Confused in which they discussed everything from religion to feminism, but what stuck out to me was the talk of roles for young African American women in Hollywood–or the lack thereof.  Amandla talked about how refreshing it is to play a complicated character.  Complex female characters as a whole are lacking, and complex roles for women of color that don’t trade on horrible stereotypes are basically nonexistent. 

Amandla aspires to be a director, and if her short film and our conversation with her are any indication, she will be one of the best directors around.  I’m even more excited for what this means for the film industry, because with people as aware as Amandla behind the scenes and calling the shots, I predict realistic people from all backgrounds will be represented and discussions like these will be a thing of the past. 

–Montgomery

Joneka: There’s a series we are doing for SPARK called Black Women Create. What we’ve done is interview so many different Black women who work in the production process, and the directing process, filming, independent filmmakers, all that sort of thing, and highlight their work because we want to showcase not only in front of the scenes but the work done behind the scenes. So when it was posted in our group that you had this short film based on “The Yellow Wallpaper,” I was like ‘oh this is so awesome and so exciting!’

The Yellow Wallpaper (Short Film) from amandla stenberg on Vimeo.

Joneka: So one of the first questions I have is about your personal directing style and editing style, because I’m sure it’s so different being behind the camera and holding all the power in your hands so to speak. So what is that like and what is your style?

Amandla: I don’t quite know that I have a style yet as this is my first thing that I’ve done, but I am definitely someone who is really connected to and attached to aesthetics so I paid a lot of attention to the colors of the film. When I was first brainstorming, one of the first things I thought of was, what is the color palette going to be like? What music is there going to be?  Those were the two most important things to me.  I felt like the film would fall in to place after I had decided what those would be. In terms of editing, I really like to use this whole sort of surrealists like subliminal messaging thing because I think that works really well when doing horror.

Joneka: It’s cool that you mention the music because I remember one of the most intense scenes was with the violin going all sharp and crazy and it really creeped me out which was really cool!

Amandla: That was me playing!

Joneka: That was you?!  No way!  That’s so awesome.

Montgomery: You’re in a band right?

Amandla: Yeah! I just used a bunch of different tracks on garage band because I can actually play.

Montgomery: That’s so cool!

Joneka: That was definitely a standout point as far as music went!  I also want to ask you, since you mentioned this was your first directing project ever, do you see yourself doing more projects like this in the future?

Amandla: Definitely, it’s something I really connect to and I hope to be able make a career out of.  I think acting is a really awesome gateway in to that.

Joneka: We talked earlier about how important it is to showcase diversity behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera, so how do you think Black women behind the scenes and in the production process affects representation on screen?

Amandla: Well I know that I, personally, as a director in the future, would absolutely love to create projects centered around black women.   And I think there definitely needs to be more black women behind the camera. Those directors who are African-American women are so important to me, because representation is completely linked to inspiration and confidence within the African-American communities. I look up to those people and I hope that by being a director I can inspire and create representation by casting black women and sharing powerful stories.  That’s the dream.

Montgomery: What drew you or attracted you to the subject matter, The Yellow Wallpaper? Was it an assignment?  Did you choose it?

Amandla: How the project started was there’s actually a class in my school called ‘Lit to Film.’ And what they do is read books and watch the film adaption of those books, and one of their projects was to read classic short stories and other pieces and adapt them in to screenplays.  So what they then did was they pitched those screenplays to the film class, and I was pitched “All Summer in a Day” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and of course “The Yellow Wallpaper.” I just thought The Yellow Wallpaper was so fascinating and I read the short story and I loved the themes it had around feminism. I like to call it sneak-attack feminism because it’s right there under the surface and it really highlights and exposes how women were treated with mental illnesses during that time, which I think is really interesting and really important.  That’s why I chose to actually to make a film out of that screenplay.

Montgomery: That’s the coolest school class I have ever heard of!  I’ve never even heard of that, that’s awesome.  So do you think the material is still relevant to today?

Amandla: Definitely, I mean there’s this whole metaphor of the woman being behind the paper and her feeling trapped by it.  And I think that part is definitely relevant.  I think there is still a stigma around women and mental illness and women being “crazy” or being “unstable.”  I think even more so now it’s important how the woman felt trapped behind the paper and wanted so desperately to get out.  ‘Cause I feel like now there’s this whole surge of, like another surge of feminists and people who want to get from behind the paper.  I think it’s definitely still relevant.

Montgomery: When did you come to grips with being a feminist? Because not to be patronizing cause I’m only five years older than you, but “you’re so young” [laughter], and I know that’s such a clichéd line, but when did you have your aha moment, like “I’m a feminist!”?

Amandla: I was talking about this today with a friend of mine because we were talking about the definition of the word feminist and how a lot of women don’t think they’re feminist because they don’t understand what the meaning of it is.

Montgomery: Yes!

Amandla: And the meaning of it is just equality, you know it’s not placing women over men.  It’s equality.  I think I discovered feminism just means being someone who can be themselves and have equal rights in the world…. so probably about a year ago.  And it wasn’t like I decided to be a feminist, I just realized I was one.

Montgomery: That’s so awesome, that’s exactly what we always say in SPARK, they ask the celebrities and they say “no I’m not a feminist” and we’re like “you don’t know what that means!”

Joneka: We’re just like “actually…..”

Amandla: Like you areeee.

A huge THANK YOU from us to Amandla! We’re so excited to see where her career goes–and we’re pretty sure it’s gonna be AMAZING!