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Empire Ticks all the Boxes for Diversity on Steroids!

 Original article from huffingtonpost.com
Written by Lauren Duca
10.06.15

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Empire” is easily one of the most progressive network shows on television. It’s been a pioneer in bringing (almost all) black actors to lead roles while setting new standards in LGBT and mental health representation. So, when you imagine the face behind it, Doyle from “Gilmore Girls” (a.k.a. Danny Strong) is an unlikely image.

“He’s the voice of black America,” Amy Sherman-Palladino said sarcastically during the “Gilmore Girls” reunion at the ATX Television Festival on June 6. “The community finally found someone to speak for them: Danny Strong!”
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Strong laughed politely from across the stage. Although, during an interview with The Huffington Post at the Roaring Fork restaurant in Austin, he bristled when asked about how he checks his privilege in crafting these characters.

“I write characters of every race, gender and sexual orientation. I write some characters that are animals. That’s just my job,” he said, grimacing as he looked up from his phone. “To me, writing ‘Empire’ is not more difficult than Sarah Palin [in ‘Game Change’]. … I mean, I’m not a Republican from Alaska.”

As a middle-aged white man from Manhattan Beach, Strong doesn’t directly address any specific challenges of building authority or credibility in creating a series about aspects of the black experience, let alone writing the fictional roles that portray them. Instead, when he talks about the tasks of writing for “Empire,” Strong mentions only transitioning mediums.

“It’s difficult writing episode after episode, as opposed to a self-contained movie,” Strong said. “I don’t really know what was the most challenging. It’s all the same process for me.”

The reality is there are straight, white men behind the overwhelming majority of TV shows. Still, it’s a bit unsettling to hear how Strong came up with “Empire.” The show is so ground-breaking, series Empire_Cast_Album_Cover writer Wendy Calhoun said during ATX, that she was warned: “If [‘Empire’] fails, they’re not going to let another all-black show on television for 20 years.” And yet the idea is credited to a white guy realizing he likes hip-hop.

“It’s so random how it came about,” Strong told moderator Jarett Wieselman during the “Empire” panel. “I was driving in a car in Los Angeles … and there was a story on the radio about Puffy and some deal that he closed. I don’t remember what the news story was, but hearing the news story, I thought, ‘Hip-hop is so cool! I wanna do something with hip-hop!’ That was literally my mind set.”

Strong started writing when he was 25, after he’d spent some time as Jonathan Levinson on “Buffy” and before he landed the role of Paris Geller’s boyfriend and budding journalist Doyle on “Gilmore Girls.” Hoping for a lead role, he wrote a film for himself to star in. It was a dark comedy about two guys who try to kill an old man to get his rent-controlled apartment. Nothing came of it, but he liked the process so much he decided to pursue a career separate from acting.

His first actual writing job came with “Recount,” a film which met detractors citing his roles on “Buffy” and “Gilmore Girls.” “It was just what people used when they wanted to attack the movie,” Strong said, clarifying that, for the most part, his primetime character acting has been a non-issue in finding writing jobs.

“In the writing community, if it’s on the page they’re into it,” he added. “You have proof of your abilities, or lack of, with the script. So, having the acting background didn’t hinder me at all.”

Strong, who turned 41 the day of the “Gilmore Girls” reunion at ATX, has now gone on to work on several major projects including crafting the screenplay for both of the “Hunger Games: Mockingjay” Lee-Daniels-Taraji-Pmovies and, more importantly, “The Butler,” which led Strong to work with Lee Daniels and eventually partner with him on “Empire.”

Strong explained that he originally thought of the show as a movie “with a father who was a Jay-Z-Puffy-esque hip-hop mogul” and then applied Shakespearian archetypes to the narrative. “The whole concept flooded into my head in about 30 seconds,” he said.

He was in post-production on “The Butler” at the time and decided to pitch the idea to Daniels as a musical movie, noting he “had it mostly worked out” by the time Daniels was on board. Daniels liked the idea, but thought it would work better as a TV show.

“We instantly started talking about ‘Dynasty’ and ‘Dallas,’ and if we could do a black ‘Dynasty,'” he said. “So the only thing that’s pretty interesting about this is that literally ‘Empire’ was created from every single first idea that happened spontaneously. So, it was, ‘We should do it as a TV show!’ “Yeah, we like ‘Dynasty’!’ ‘Yeah, that’s what I was thinking, like, a black ‘Dynasty’!'”

When speaking with HuffPost later that day, Strong mentioned that he had since “done research” to be able to represent the black community. But inevitably, there are certain things he must address when his perspective feels, at the very least, out of place.

One such example popped up during the aforementioned panel, when Strong addressed Terrence Howard’s comments that “Empire” characters “don’t say n–” on the show. “It’s not a documentary about hip-hop,” he said. “It’s a soap opera that takes place in the hip-hop world.”

It’s clear the saving grace comes is the writer’s room, an area where Daniels has been proudly vocal about diversity (most recently pressuring his peers to consider the range of their staffs during a panel conducted by The Hollywood Reporter).

While Strong is a straight, white man, perhaps best known in the mainstream for running the Yale Daily News, his concept for such a powerful black show is brought to life by a diverse group of people behind the scenes. There is a wide range of voices working on each script. And, as Wieselman noted, with the exception of one (written and directed by Strong), every episode has been credited to a writer or director of color, sometimes both.

“Is it diversity when it’s almost entirely African Americans?” Strong asked (to silence from the audience).

“It is mind-blowing,” Calhoun chimed in. “You have to understand, for me, up until ‘Empire’ I was usually the only black writer in the room for the most part. So, for years, I was carrying that torch.”

“It really sunk in for me, because I started to realize that we were really able to get into the nuance of our culture,” she said. “We were no longer just talking about the surface of our culture that I think many people know and are familiar with, because that’s kind of all they hear about. We were able to get really down into it, because we were so familiar with it.”

For The Love of Oscar: Our 2015 Report

Written by Graeme Wood
24.02.15

 

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As the year’s major award ceremonies draw to a close it’s easy to see which films have been the clear winners and the losers. This year more than any other it seems the glitz and glamour of our awards ceremonies have been under attack for their lack of recognition and prize-giving to a slew of actors and films that appear to have been snubbed. While you could usually rely on BAFTA to recognize its home grown talent this year it bizarrely missed out on nominating Selma or its British star David Oyelowo but there was also a distinct lack of recognition for black and ethnic minority based talent from the UK.

As Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris ribbed in his opening monologue “Tonight we honour Hollywood’s Neil_Patrick_Harris_at_the_best and whitest. Sorry, brightest!” The host drawing attention to the controversy that has dogged this year’s nominations and awards, so concerned were the ceremony organisers that it seems they were anxious to fill the presenter’s roles with as may non-Caucasian faces as possible. Drafting in a number of more ethnically mixed presenters including; Kerry Washington, Eddie Murphy, David Oyeleow, Zoe Saldana and Viola Davis, in what appeared to be an effort to dampen the cries of a lack of diversity and snubbing.

While the Independent Spirit Awards earlier in the week had mirrored many of this year’s other award ceremonies; Birdman taking Best Picture, Richard Linklater taking Best Director, Michael Keaton taking Best Actor, Julianne Moore winning Best Actress, JK Simmons holding onto Best Supporting Actor and Patricia Arquette taking home Best Supporting Actress. They did however gift the Best First Screenplay Award to Justin Simien for Dear White People. Would Oscar go further and do the unexpected to surprise us with some new winners?

Well yes and no, Birdman led the evening taking home Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography awards. The Grand Budapest Hotel took home a clutch of technical awards including Costume Design, Production Design, Best Original Score, Make Up & Hairstyling and Costume. The hotly contested Best Actor category was won by the UK’s Eddie Redmayne forEddieRedmayne The Theory of Everything, Julianne Moore continued her winning streak taking home Best Actress for Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice (due in the UK in March), JK Simmons deservedly took away Best Supporting Actor and Patricia Arquette walked away with another Best Supporting Actress win. Arquette won over the audience with her speech addressing it to ‘every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation”. “We have fought for everybody’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America”. It was the only win of the evening for Boyhood, a big award winner elsewhere, having been nominated in six categories. The other biggest losers of the evening were The Imitation Game picking up only 1 award out of 8 nominations and American Sniper picking up 1 award out of six nominations.

As was expected Big Hero 6 took home the Best Animated Feature award (The Lego Movie having cruelly been overlooked for nomination). And what of Selma, nominated in only two categories, Best Selma_CorineScott_MLKPicture and Best Song, the official excuse being the film had been released too late to be campaigned for successfully. Selma’s Glory written by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn – better known as John Legend and Common- walked away with the Oscar for Best Song, also performing the track captivatingly live at the ceremony. During the intense, powerful performance Selma star David Oyelowo was visibly moved to tears and at the finale many of the Academy were on the feet in appreciation. Collecting his award Legend said; “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world…people are marching with our song, we are with you…March on!” Some were less impressed with Lady Gaga’s Sound of Music tribute however, Shonda Rhimes tweeting; ‘That was not okay. I mean, Idina is there. She is right there. RIGHT THERE. And oh dear God, Julie had to hear that,” The Scandal showwriter referencing both Julie Andrews and Idina Menzel who were in the audience. Billboard however, thought it was the second best performance of the night.

The Academy Awards are no stranger to controversy its perceived snubs dating all the way back to a lack of recognition for Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights and Modern Times films. Each year brings a new list of should have beens like Shawshank Redemption, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Spike Lee, Jack Nicholson, Ben Afleck and many more. Many, like myself, wonder how a film can be nominated in the Best Film category and yet the director not be nominated, this has happened many times and again this year with Selma nominated as Best Film but no nomination for its director Ava DuVernay.

So what is the worth of an Oscar Nomination and even a win? Do the awards signal industry recognition of talent and art, or are they a celebration of a critical or box office success? Certainly in terms of getting a nomination the prestige can provide a secondary bout of marketing and see the film resurface into theatres with a guaranteed boost in box office sales. This year’s BAFTA wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel, Whiplash and The Theory of Everything helped boost these films at the February UK box office. Similarly last year Gravity, The Wolf of Wall Street and 12 Years A Slave also benefited from their BAFTA nominations and wins.

Does the winning of an Oscar guarantee the actor offers of the best available roles and most prestigious films on offer? Well you only have to look at Halle Berry’s career for that answer, following her Academy Award win in 2002 for Monster’s Ball, which was seen as a major break through for black actresses at the time, her roles have consisted of mostly superhero sequels and forgettable horror thrillers. Similarly, Denzel Washington, who also won in 2002 for Training Day, can hardly have noticed any change in his career – although he still turning out an impressive and consistent body of work but not always getting the headline grabbing prestigious roles.

Hattie McDaniel the very first African American actor to win an Academy Award back in 1939 for Gone With The Wind found her career continually consigned to little more than bit parts and maid HattieMcDaniel_kushfilmsroles following her Academy win. McDaniel broke into movies after many years singing in choruses and working as an extra until David O.Selznick cast her as Mammy in the epic but troubled production of Gone With The Wind. She later found herself censured by many of her own race for continuing to play the stereotypical role of a menial in films and for not criticising Hollywood’s portrayal of Negros on the big screen. McDaniel remained ‘in love’ with Hollywood and acting as she later said; though her treatment at the time is now considered something of a scandal, The Awards that year were held at The Cocoanut Grove nightclub, part of the Ambassador Hotel, which then had a strict no-blacks policy, McDaniel was not allowed to sit with the rest of the film’s crew and was placed at a separate table near the far back of the room. Gone With The Wind producer Selznick had to call in a special favour just to have McDaniel allowed into the building. Her win led to her being pigeon-holed in stereotypical roles and the NAACP disowned her for ‘perpetuating negative stereotypes’. Following her death, in 1952, her Oscar which had been left to Howard University was deemed valueless by appraisers and later went missing from the school, her final wish – to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery was denied her because of the colour of her skin. In 1944 she had this to say about her disappointing prospects following the Oscar win, “It was as if I had done something wrong”.

More recently Mo’Nique, who picked up Best Supporting Actress in 2010 for her performance in ‘Precious’, has complained that she’s lost out on several roles due to not campaigning for her award. She says Precious director Les Daniels has told her that the perception in Hollywood is that she is monique-precious-oscars‘difficult’ ‘tacky’ and as a result has been blackballed, losing out on several key roles that were offered then later withdrawn.

At the 2010 awards ceremony Mo’Nique wore white gardenias in her hair – just as Hattie McDaniel had done in 1940 when she picked up her Oscar. During her acceptance speech the actress thanked McDaniel ‘for enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to”. In response to the criticism McDaniel faced for taking maid roles Mo’Nique had this to say: “Well tell me what other roles were available, because what she was; was an actress – and at the time, she wasn’t getting the roles that her white counterparts were getting. She was saying,’I’m an actress. When you say ‘cut’ I’m not (a maid anymore). “So I say to those people: know that woman in full before you judge.”

Les Daniels himself offered this statement on Mo’Nique’s interview: “Mo’nique is a creative force to be reckoned with. Her demands through Precious were not always in line with the campaign. This soured her relationship with the Hollywood community”.

A recent Los Angeles Times survey of the 6,028 Academy Award voters revealed that 94% of Voters are White, while 77% of those are also Men; only 2% of the voters were Black with another 2% Latino.

This year has seen a more centralised campaign to bring more diversity to the Academy. Black activist organisation ‘Colour of Change’ have launched an online campaign and petition for the Academy to disclose it’s make up of diversity numbers and accused the Academy of marginalizing Black art because the membership is overwhelmingly white. The campaign began largely because of the perceived snubbing of Selma particularly the lack of nominations for its lead actor and director.

The debate has been fuelled also by interviews given to the Hollywood Reporter by members of the Academy, an anonymous Academy member said;” What no one wants to say out loud is that Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there’s no art to it. If the movie had been directed by a 60 year old white male, I don’t think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were. And as far as the accusations about the Academy being racist? Yes, most members are white males, but they are not the cast of Deliverance-they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they’re not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies. When a movie about black people is good, members vote for it. But if the movie isn’t that good, am I supposed to vote for it just because it has black people in it? I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying ‘I can’t breathe’ – I thought that stuff was offensive. Did they want to be known for making the best movie of the year of for stirring up shit”. The Academy member went on to praise American Sniper, Birdman and The Imitation Game as being their picks of the year but felt Boyhood was less of a success; “If you told me when I saw Boyhood that it would win best picture-or even be in the running-I would have told you that you were insane. Watching it, I thought it was ambitious and a directorial triumph, but the kid was uneven and Patricia Arquette probably was sorry she agreed to let them film her age over 12 years”.

Another Academy Voter had this to say about this year’s crop of nominations; “Whiplash is offensive – it’s a film about abuse and I don’t find that entertaining at all. The Grand Budapest Hotel is beautifully made but its story just isn’t special. I didn’t think Selma was a particularly good film, apart from the main actor (David Oyelowo) and I think the outcry about the Academy being racist for not nominating it for more awards is offensive – we have a two term president who is a black woman (Cheryl Boone Isaacs) and we give out awards to black people when they deserve them, just like any other group. Birdman I didn’t get at all-I look around and its doing so well and I just don’t get it”. While another Academy member felt American Sniper had been entertaining, Birdman masterful, The Grand Budapest Hotel underrated, of The Imitation Game they said ‘it had it all; Nazis, gays, World War II. Nobody does this sort of movie better than Harvey Weinstein”. Of Selma the anonymous Academy member commented ‘I thought Selma was great but it just came out too late. And if the director (Ava DuVernay) suffered from anything, it was gender discrimination, not racial discrimination. This whole race thing was spun out of control by the press”.

In a recent interview Spike Lee also pitched in on the Selma controversy; “We don’t have to even use Selma as an example. We could use Do The Right Thing versus Driving Miss F*****ing Daisy. But Do The Right Thing wasn’t the only thing the Academy messed up. My point is; it’s not a new problem. And great art is going to prevail. The door (to black filmmakers) is not knocked down. It’s cracked open a little bit. I wish that door was wide open”.

Lee and Low Books recently published an infographic showing the make up of the Academy that proves a troubling lack of diversity, independent filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood prince-bythewood-gina-imagetold Lee & Low; “The numbers do not surprise me because very few Academy Award level films with no white leads are being greenlit. Until this changes the abysmal numbers will not change. The box office drives which films get greenlit. The hope is that with this year’s success of a variety of films with African American leads, Hollywood will be more open to taking chances.” Lee & Low published the infographic as part of their ‘Diversity Gap’ study series and have monitored a lack of diversity across the Emmy Awards, Tony Awards, the NY Times Top 10 Bestseller List, the children’s book industry and politics. “The lack of diversity across these various industries has been ‘disturbingly consistent’, the publisher wrote, “This is not an isolated incident, but a wide reaching social problem”

There is hope that with all the pressure that one day things will change (hopefully soon!)
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Read Hattie McDaniel’s 1947 Hollywood Reporter Essay:
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hattie-mcdaniel-defies-critics-1947-774493

Read the full Hollywood Reporter interview with comedian/actress Mo’Nique:
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/monique-i-was-blackballed-winning-774616?source=gravity

Read the Hollywood Reporter’s interviews with Academy Members here;
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/race/brutally-honest-oscar-ballot-2015-773902

View and support the Colour of Change petition here:
http://act.colorofchange.org/sign/oscars_diversify/?t=1&akid=4126.747541.gIn_nT

The Butler: Michael Dequina Film Review

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Written by Michael Dequina © 2013

Upon the most brief and superficial of glances, it’s easy, if not somewhat understandable, to approach Lee Daniels’ The Butler with some trepidation.

After all, history be damned, another high profile Hollywood film about African-Americans doing domestic service work?  But to dismiss the film off hand is to not give director Daniels and screenwriter Danny Strong their proper due for the value of the story they tell–and not necessarily speaking in terms of its notable fact-based story: that of a White House butler who served under seven presidents from the 1950s to the 1980s.

The fact that said butler, here in fictionalized form named Cecil Gaines (played for most of the movie by Forest Whitaker, with a strong assist from Michael Rainey Jr. and Aml Ameen as younger incarnations), was a witness to such revolutionary eras of socio-political change, particularly for African-Americans, in such close proximity to the nation’s commanders-in-chief is indeed remarkable.  However, for all the monumental signpost events touched on and recognizable actors taking on the roles of various iconic figures (such as, for a start, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Liev Schreiber, John Cusack, and Alan Rickman are seen as Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan, respectively; Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King; Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan), what ultimately registers and resonates most strongly is *not* the film’s brisk and showy tour of 20th Century American history, particularly in terms of racial politics.

Where Daniels and Strong truly engage is in the uncommonly seen story and experience of a late-in-life self-actualization, following the intimate, gradual internal journey as Cecil slowly, inevitably grows away and out from the comfortable silence of servitude to an awakening and awareness of his own value, place, and identity as an individual in the world and, above all else, within his own family.   But this is all painted in a more complex way than merely an arc of a silent bystander discovering his voice and strength.  Rather, it’s one in allowing his strength to develop and evolve with the times; one witnesses how adopting such an outwardly passive role from an early age was a necessary and rather brave survival tactic in the era of his youth, especially after witnessing the brutal loss of his father (a briefly seen but effective David Banner) as a child; and as times progress, so do prevailing attitudes shift from one of remaining in sheltered safety to daring to take the risk of proactive self-expression.

Serving as both a counterpoint and unexpected complement to Cecil’s journey is the rising political consciousness of his eldest son Louis (a terrific David Oyelowo).  His more militant trajectory naturally causes conflict within the more traditional values of Gaines household, but if Cecil is able to ultimately take from his son inspiration to be more assertive, Louis learns from his father’s example that one can still fight the existing power without compromising his own by being constructive rather than destructive.

As Cecil’s loyal but often neglected wife Gloria, Oprah Winfrey reminds that not for nothing did she first win major widespread attention as an actress, and her natural empathy that has made her such a multimedia phenomenon over the decade’s works to her advantage in this return to the screen.   If some of her darker struggles, such as her oft-mentioned but only momentarily seen struggles with alcohol, are somewhat glossed over, Winfrey effortlessly connects the viewer to those ups and downs.  But no one connects as strongly, powerfully as Whitaker. Cecil is a deceptively simple and exceedingly difficult part to pull off, what with his relatively few words and placid inaction for most of the film; but appropriately for a film that follows a lead character whose largely a witness, Whitaker’s ever-observing, ever-expressive eyes tell the tale of how he actively processes, thinks, and feels even if outwardly he may appear as nothing more, as his job requires, than a virtually invisible bystander.

Daniels’s measured, deceptively unadorned direction works in a similar fashion.  Far removed from the brash, in-your-face, go-for-broke approach that has largely characterized the films he’s thus far either directed or  produced, he exhibits a mature restraint not only in terms of his own body of work but in terms of decades-spanning historical films, with broader melodrama often sidestepped in favour of a more straightforward,  matter-of-fact depiction.  If, as the film bounces from historical event to historical event, this may feel somewhat routine as a moment-to-moment to viewing experience, it effectively places the viewer squarely in Cecil’s literal and figurative vantage point–not only as a fly-on-the-wall observer to the stream of events, but also how the effect of the experiences build to a far-from-routine cumulative catharsis that one could not so easily foresee. Much like the butler by the end of his film journey, a still, silent viewing audience is moved, perhaps to a surprising degree, by the totality of the entire experience, and maybe even enlightened and inspired by discoveries not so much about the world than what the events of it illuminate about oneself.

Michael Dequina
The Movie Report: http://themoviereport.com


The Butler is in UK Cinemas Now
More info Here

Academy Conversations: The Cast & Director of The Butler in Conversation