Friday, November 06, 2015

Dear Offended People

I just watched the video on Dear Black People by Nicole Arbour. I'm not posting a link - you can find it pretty easily yourself.

So naturally the response all over my left-wing feed is one of righteous outrage, and understandably so. This broad is taking advantage of every obnoxious thing about the internet and cashing in. Ms. Lutkin summed up the favored view craftily when she wrote: She's a troll who lives under a troll bridge posting troll videos, and it's making her rich.Arbour is offending mass quantities of EVERYONE (fat-shaming, racism) and reaping the benefits of notoriety in a country where no publicity is bad publicity.

And she’s a perky young blond girl with the kind of looks that deafen teenage boys. So yes, it’s super easy to hate.

Unfortunately, what she did is to some degree what I’m about to do - talk about race - so I had to watch a little more closely.  Because as much as I fear the consequences of my words… I need to hear what she has to say about race.

Oh crap, I thought, as I watched this video. If this is a meta-stunt, she might be very very very smart. There were statements in this video that RESONATED with some people, and whoever is editing it has a strong sense of comedic pace. At least in the sense that if the joke didn’t land it moved on too quickly to the next moment to notice… It’s not exactly amateur hour here - this woman has gotten the vlog down to a practical science.

And then I watched her interview on The View, (she was defending another offensive video) and I relaxed. Nope, she really IS just a jerk who is cashing in on Trump-level bullying tactics. Phew. I mean for God’s sake, she keeps using the word “satire” incorrectly, and her one potentially justifiable defense (“men can joke like this, so why can’t I?”) is sadly only backed up by repetition of same defense. Elaborate, Nicole, and you might have tapped into something. Recognizing her lack of self-awareness (or inability to be verbally concise without an editor), I breathed a deep sigh of relief.

But why am I relieved?  Because on the one hand, her video about race (not the one about obesity, I can't even begin to approach that chaos) creates a conversation. In my book, we DO need to talk about race. ALL OF US. We need to speak out candidly so that we can get past the fears and start the healing.  We need to bravely step into a minefield of unknown perspectives in order to feel empowered to rise up against a system we ourselves created and participate in.

So where is the difference??  That’s what I needed to put words to: how is what she’s doing DIFFERENT from what I’m doing? Because here’s what I DON’T agree with: A blogger’s response triumphantly linking Elon James White’s quote: “You could just say NOTHING.” Now I’m probably taking issue with this statement because it’s most likely taken out of context by said white blogger who angrily railed against Arbour, spewing facts that Arbour clearly doesn’t care about. But White (from the posts I scanned) doesn’t think women, or anyone should be silenced en masse, and this blogger was missing the point. EVEN NICOLE ARBOUR NEEDS TO SPEAK UP. We need everyone to start talking. Because YES, some of it is going to be incomprehensible trash. But like Orlando Jones said (joked) about the confederate flag: “This way, we know where all the a**holes are!”

Right now we’re simmering in sweet Southern passive aggressive politeness.  See no evil, Hear No Evil, Speak no evil. Don’t speak unless spoken to. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

All these misunderstood aphorisms - this is where I’m coming from. Nobody talked about racism with me, when I was growing up. There were certain things you didn’t say, that you just didn’t bring up in polite society. And voila: Ignorance.

And in another world, these well-meaning writers seem to be saying - unless you have a certain level of understanding, education, (PERSPECTIVE) then you need to keep your mouth shut and LISTEN.  

That’s the key, isn’t it? We all need to do less talking and more listening. And more DOING.

But then what the heck am I talking about? Here is my dilemma: on the one hand, I believe that a “CONVERSATION” needs to be had.  On the other hand, I agree that our community would be better served by less talking and more action. And since I can only be responsible for me, the question becomes: WHERE ON THIS SPECTRUM DO I BELONG?

I’m afraid the truth is probably further down the road toward shut up and dance. I’m afraid of this because I have recently signed up to do the opposite: I’ve agreed to WRITE a one-woman show about racism and my journey towards activism. I’ve agreed to TALK about it. When I could be going to any number of organizations and volunteering. Yeah, I only have so much time, people! So if I’m going to talk about this stuff, I’d better get my white ducks in a row, and make sure I don’t end up in the same stew with Nicole Arbour.

So, for the sake of practicing my favorite art form: The Benefit of the Doubt, I’m going to watch this obscene video one more time and try to squeeze out the few drops of honesty that might be hidden within… Had she actually attempted to have a real conversation, instead of a One White Woman Show in a Bouncy Castle, what she might have been trying to say:

Dear Black People” - One blogger claimed that there is NO WAY Arbour actually saw last year’s Dear White People - an independent film about modern day racial divides - so it’s just a coincidence that she has “appropriated” this clever title into what is clearly a throbbing target of offensiveness tacked on to the front of her shame parade. Except that it achieves exactly what it’s supposed to: attention. Genius? Well...Maybe. But the more interesting question it evokes is: WHY is this inappropriate? The title Dear White People isn’t just a title, it’s the radio show conducted by a character in the film who comes to discover [spoiler alert] that her "angry black woman" radio persona doesn’t do justice to her more culturally mixed life experience.  It’s a great movie, by the way, but I myself had to watch it with a glass of white guilt nearby to wash down the taste of privilege gone sour. Yep, that was my crappy metaphor for ‘taking my white medicine.’ It tastes bitter, but its supposed to fix what’s broken… I’m saying it’s not easy to hear how wrong white people are. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t happen. Although I do find it hard to believe Arbour thought her title through quite so deeply. And that would be me making a dumb blonde stereotype.

“Can we just get on this whole appropriation of black culture thing?” - OK, let’s talk about the concept of Appropriation. Is it wrong for me to like rap music? What does this phrase really mean and where is the line? Let’s talk about this phrase because it makes me ashamed to enjoy certain things, as if I need to be doing it in secret. In some way it seems to create more of a divide in a time when equality is our goal. To what end is this phrase useful to me as a form of awareness, and at what point can we ease up on the separation?

Cause even when I do the exact same job as a man, I get paid less money. But I don’t know anything about inequality." (italics = spoken sarcastically) - Nicole believes that her experience of misogyny is an equivalent experience of inequality to that of racism. I hate to tell you folks, but there are a lot of people out there who don’t experience inequality of race… (BECAUSE THEY ARE WHITE)… and therefore don’t understand what it really does mean. Yep, she’s definitely not getting it, but she also does experience a form of inequality. What she doesn’t get is that it’s not the same. By a significant margin. Neither did my mom until we talked it out. Seriously. Ever heard a person use the term "Reverse Racism"? Arbour is not alone in this type of thinking. However, ignorance-shaming results in people getting angrier and defending their ignorance, instead of approaching the conversation with the deep awareness that we are ALL good people on the inside, and given the opportunity, we can come to a better understanding of each other.  Before we (the enlightened) react with shock and disgust at her ignorance, let’s give each other the BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.

“You guys are appropriating your own culture!” - Phew. Yeah this part got a little tough to parse out. I… THINK… she’s trying to say that we all… yeah I don’t know what she’s trying to say… it’s something about the perceived hypocrisy of the attempt to represent a level of black culture that one does not actually represent…and that being unfair?? I have a feeling this is where she REALLY lost people. Also, she’s talking about stereotypes here, too: the idea that a stereotype comes from some element of truth, and that (shock face) one prefers the positive over the negative. She suggests that one can’t retain one without the other, but that is just fallible logic.  It won’t take much to shake her of this erroneous belief… I hope.

“[The Klan is] proof that white people invented the hoodie” - OK, now we just need to school her in the art of dark (not race) comedy. TOO SOON. It’s like the whole Daniel Tosh rape controversy… There IS a way to be funny about controversial topics, but you better be real good at comedy… This is just a bad joke.

“Why don’t we all just enjoy whatever the f**k we want from every culture?”  - We do. It’s called cruise ships. We can, however, talk about the difference between enjoying and exploiting.

“Let’s talk about slavery. It was really f**ked up. But the thing is? I wasn’t there! I am f**king sick of hearing that I don’t know the struggle. Cause you’re right, I don’t. I’d really like you to explain it to me so that I can HELP.” -  Wait. WHAT? Where did this come from? I was about to rail on this chick and then she said what I wish she’d say: “I’m ignorant and I want to be educated.” I guess all that’s missing here is me believing her. And there went the benefit of MY doubt. Because when you leap from bubbly rants to genuine concern, it's a little tough for me to catch up. So let’s address the first half: guess what? This isn’t the first time the slavery mea culpa has been brought up. There are a lot of people who secretly feel like they are being unfairly held responsible for slavery. It’s a misunderstanding of the need for Affirmative Action, etc. How can we address this misunderstanding? 16 (mostly) Southern States and districts feel that in the 21st century they are unfairly targeted by the Voting Rights Act. This debate exists on many levels. So yes, Nicole, let's talk about it.

And then… “I’m making jokes because that’s what I do in awkward situations. But I find what I see happening to the black population disgusting.” … Um. OK. Well, even Arbour sees there’s imbalance. That was something I did not anticipate. Because we are now on the same page and I would not have seen that coming. She goes onto describe minimum wage and the American Jail system as modern forms of Slavery. Which is exactly what this article in the Washington Post says. Oh wow, I would not have expected this girl to be reading the Post. PS, neither did I. I just happened to Google "modern day slavery and minimum wage" and that’s what I found. I might go back and read the article later. To cover my hypocritical butt.

“Bill Nye the Science Guy says that we are all actually from the same race. I think it’s about damn time we started acting like it.” - So that’s her point. Nicole Arbour wants equality. So do I. So what’s the problem? No really, what is the problem with her way of phrasing such questions, and how can we address it? Instead of getting so mad and telling people to shut up?? - Even this poorly choreographed stump speech from a person that nobody can convince me is underserved in any way. Yeah, she has very little tact and even less depth, but we need to meet people where they are and then lift them up. How’s that for a non-violent approach?

Unless of course you just hate what she stands for… The Rich Blond Troll. In that case, let’s get to hating! Or... you go. I'll be over here reading that Washington Post article...

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Actors: Don't Move to Atlanta (Reverse-Psychology Font)

Atlanta - the Hollywood of the South, the land of hope for countless actors who dream of credits to populate their empty resumes. Hundreds of millions of dollars of production has made its way to our steamy, swampy, tax-free corner of the country and every hungry actor has tilted their nose in our direction. Low-hanging fruit is no uncommon sight in our agricultural homeland.

So it should come as no surprise that every actor who is unhappy with their career now has Atlanta on their radar. Can you feel it, fellow artists? The satisfying feeling of control over your destiny? A chance to DO SOMETHING about all those closed doors, all those minutes ticking by without progress? Because what an actor is best at is imagination, and Georgia's burgeoning film industry has been crowding the trades with Big-Fish/Small-Pond success stories. If an untrained yokel can book a gig on the Walking Dead, imagine what an LA-seasoned actor could do!

So I'd like to offer some perspective from the inside. Before you pack your bags and give up your rent-controlled duplex. Before you toss your Starbucks apron on the floor, break up with your yoga teacher and call your cousin in Macon who said you could crash there anytime:

Only move to Atlanta if you are ready to QUIT ACTING. 

Yup, I said it. And now I get to explain myself. Because on my tax forms, for the last 6 years of living in Atlanta, I have stated the truth - I am a full-time ACTOR. I make a living as an actor, I have bought a 3-bedroom home on a quarter-acre of land, and two months ago I spent Oscar weekend in LA in a fancy dress at a party I would never have been able to get into 6 years prior, laughing and cheering as a movie I was in won an Oscar.

As Glinda at Agatha's Murder Mystery Dinner Theater
Does that sound like the Hollywood of the South fairytale come true? Of course it does, because I wrote it according to old rules of success that I no longer believe in. Because when I left LA 6 years ago, I QUIT ACTING. I was done with the LA model, and it was certainly done with me.

The LA model: Success is defined by the number of credits on your resume. If you have enough, 'they' let you get more. Someday you get enough credits to regularly be offered more credits. Then you get a house with a pool and take care of all your poor friends who haven't gotten enough credits yet. If you are talented enough and work hard enough, this will eventually happen for you. In the meantime, you must make yourself miserable wondering why it hasn't happened yet.

The ATL model: The Film/TV industry doesn't need you. No matter how talented you are, no matter how hard you work, you are not necessary. (Unless you are crew - then you are DESPERATELY needed.) The Atlanta pond has plenty of actor fish. There are plenty of people available to play Vampire #3.  It has way less fish than LA or NY and even so there are way too many fish. Those untrained yokels that got small roles that became medium-sized roles that became a series regular role after 4 seasons? Actually, they've been working here in Atlanta for MANY years, have been on camera countless times prior, as well as on stage or in other industry jobs, and have earned their "credit."

Performed this for one night in November.
When Out of Hand Theater calls, I always say YES
But you can make a living as an actor here. You simply have to quit acting. Stop thinking of what you do as some sort of magical gift you were granted as an infant and start thinking of acting as a trade. Like a plumber, you need to go where the sinks are broken. Because there IS a need for storytellers. And there is a need for your unique story. You simply need to figure out what that story is and who needs to hear it. While keeping in mind that your audience probably isn't the one watching the CW. They've got plenty of mindless content to devour. Think LOCALLY. How can you use what you do to serve others? Is there a story that you can tell, that will help/entertain/unite a smaller audience?

It's an incredible feeling when you go where you're needed. When you finally stop insisting that people who don't need you include you anyway. Find a community that needs your skill-set, and start taking control of your business. My business earns me a comfortable living, but only about 5% of that comes from film and television work. Where does the other money come from? Two dozen other acting-related jobs that I usually don't have to audition for, and that use my skills in a myriad of creative ways that keep me interested and busy. I teach, I do voice-overs, I write and perform live theater pieces, I improvise, I coach, I entertain.

Dad's Garage Theater. Oh yeah.
In Atlanta, I found a world of employment outside of the Hollywood of the South. I turned my focus away from what civilians consider "success," and instead looked to work where I was needed. Because they don't need me on Guardians of the Galaxy 2. But there's a few hundred local Atlantans a week who could use a laugh, or a chance to learn improv, or an imaginary witness to practice their courtroom technique on. And after 20 years of experience and training, I'm just the actor for the job.

I won't get famous. And being at an Oscar party was fun, but the party we're going to throw next year when my new theater opens is going to be EPIC. I can't define my happiness by random uncontrollable acts of fate. I get my fulfillment by being where I'm needed. Like any good plumber.

** Want to read more? Stages of L.A. is my experience of moving to Hollywood **

Monday, March 09, 2015

A Thank You Note to Selma

Dear Mayor Evans and the City of Selma,

Thank you for a weekend that my parents and I will never forget. Spending time with you during this historical celebration of one of our country's most courageous moments has been inspirational, eye-opening and empowering.

In days to come you will probably hear some complaints about an event that became bigger than your city could have ever prepared for, so I want you to know the truth from three participants who could not have asked for a better experience. And we did not have VIP badges.

Friday afternoon when we parked on the far side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge and walked our bicycles over the bridge, we had already made friends. A retired Marine/preacher and his wife from a small town in Mississippi didn't have any idea where to go. We shared what little information we had, an address for a church and the time of a rally later that evening. Someone else may tell you that your website wasn't helpful enough, but rather than spend time scrolling through webpages, my nose buried in my cellphone, I got to hear the story of this couple's journey to greet history. I got all the information I needed.

Saturday morning my parents and I wandered into downtown Selma as vendors scrambled to get sausages grilling and BBQ heated up. The streets were already filled with as many people as your population, twice over, most of them standing in a self-organized line wrapped around two city blocks to hear the President speak. After waiting over an hour, the line growing in front of us as buses pulled up and people joined the line wherever they saw fit, we decided not to bother and found instead a position on a curb three blocks away from the Bridge, just behind the back barriers.

Some may complain of long waits, sound problems, the heat, not being able to see. But not us. We stood all day in the sun, and when the President finally began to speak two hours after he was scheduled, we couldn't hear anything above a mutter. I'll tell you what I did hear: Rev. S.P. Powell, one of the foot soldiers on the bridge on Bloody Sunday was sitting on a trash bin just behind me, and before we knew it, the crowd around us was gifted with a word-for-word account of his experience, of the power of his faith to carry him through, of how Dr. King bought him a '55 Chevy to help in the coordination of the efforts. He really loved that car.

On Sunday afternoon, we stood amidst 40,000 people outside Brown Chapel, listening impatiently to a service gone on too long, (and yet every word just as meaningful as the next,) wondering when we'd finally be allowed to march. As the clock ticked past the scheduled hour, rumors of the March being cancelled began to filter through the crowd. Eyeing the almost entirely white police force and the majority
African-American marchers, I began to worry. I looked in the eyes of officials dressed in suits moving swiftly through the masses and they seemed focused,wary and guarded. Sunday afternoon could have been a disaster, when over 80,000 stirred-up, sunburnt participants were told the March could not proceed. But that's not what happened. Instead those of us at the chapel walked together, singing, the half mile to downtown to greet the rest and mill about for photo-ops.

The bridge was packed; ambulances couldn't easily get to injured or exhausted participants. My parents and I didn't try to get near the milieu and instead stopped blocks before the river to stand with the dancing youth of the Freedom Foundation, RATCo and Students Unite. We held up petitions to change the name of the bridge while our friends sold T-Shirts to fund their new Youth Center. You may hear accounts of disappointment and the unfulfilled promise of an organized march - but that day I walked, sang, held hands - and I worked for change.

"I was there." It's a phrase I will be able to utter with pride and gratitude for the rest of my life. I was there with my parents, with my new friends, and most importantly with the living heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. I felt the spirit, I heard the passion, and I knew the reason why Selma is the place where change began.

So thank you, Selma. For 1965 and for 2015. You did your best, and it was good enough.
TL: Mom and I Sunday afternoon, bridge in the background.
TR: Robin White, Mary Liuzzo Lilleboe, myself and Sheyann Webb Christburg at the NAACP Awards Gala in Montgomery
LL: Dad meets Jimmy Webb           LR: Mom meets Sheyann

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Selma - Discovering Viola Liuzzo Part 2

I used old photos of my grandmother to help inspire the
look for Viola.  Granny (Elizabeth Sellars) is pictured 
Lower Right and Viola is Upper Right
It was late on a Sunday night in June when I finally found myself on US Route 80, westbound for Selma, Alabama, on my way to our final week of filming - on location at last. It was my first time traveling a modern version of the road Viola Liuzzo drove the last night of her life. Even though this highway is now bigger, straighter, flatter - it is still a haunting drive. I was alone and the fog kept my vision limited; the occasional pair of headlights approaching gave me an ominous feeling. I wanted it that way. I wanted to have, if I could, even a small understanding of the life of the martyr I was portraying. She was an elusive woman. Accounts I had read of Viola were contradictory, and for good reason. Most Americans, until recently, had no idea who Viola Liuzzo was, myself included. Her greatest of sacrifices for the Civil Rights Movement - the only white woman to give her life - is buried in history beneath layers of misinformation.

On March 25th, the night of the completion of the third march to Montgomery, Viola Liuzzo was traveling back and forth on Route 80 delivering marchers back to Selma and running various errands as part of the transportation committee. After departing in her Oldsmobile from Selma at approximately 8 in the evening, driving with a single passenger, Leroy Moton (a 19-year-old African American), she was gunned down by four Klansmen on the highway in Lowndes County. Moton survived the attack physically unharmed.

If this description seems vague to you, it's intentional. The facts of Viola's death are equivocal, primarily because one of the Klansmen involved in the murder was paid FBI informant Tommy Rowe. So it depends on who you ask, what documents you consult, and who you believe as to what actually happened to Mrs. Liuzzo that night. And not only were the events of that evening obscured, but Viola's reputation, her history were twisted to fit multiple agendas.

For example: the death of a white woman in the name of civil rights is way more incendiary if the photo used in articles trying to elicit sympathy is of a beautiful young woman, aged 24, blonde hair perfectly coifed like an angel. But Viola was 39 when she passed, beauty of a different nature, a figure of strength, determination and full awareness of the boldness of her actions. As I searched for truth, I found that photos and books only spoke of moments and ambiguous facts, and that her humanity, her motivations, were yet a mystery.

Until I stood on the bridge. Wearing a trench coat, with my hair pinned and lips painted red, I found myself drenched in history. Not just the setting - a magnificent steel arch bridge welcoming visitors into downtown Selma, Alabama's second oldest city and home to 1250 historical structures in varying states of restoration. I found myself surrounded by living history. Many of our background players were lifelong residents of Selma - some had even participated in the original marches. And they shared a common love for the woman I was portraying. Faces glowed with pride as stories were shared; tears flowed freely as we prayed together in gratitude. Viola had only been in Selma for a short while, and yet she had inspired a commitment in the people of Selma to remember her and honor her. These were the hands that washed off the confederate slurs from her marker year after year. These were the voices that insisted on honoring her name in council meetings and in the media. Viola may not be remembered by a nation, but she is loved by many in Selma.

That day I felt as close to the truth as I am ever going to get. By marching hand in hand with those who love Viola, I felt what it meant to be beloved. I finally came to understand a martyr.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Selma - Being the White Girl Part 2

Marching with StudentsUnite in Selma; MLK weekend
So for a few months now I've been dealing with this Selma-induced awakening. Watching Ava's prophecies come true. Yep, sure enough, she's right.  There's still racism happening everywhere. Can't believe I didn't notice before...

So now, I'm awake.  I'm thinking about it, talking about it - asking everyone I can to wake up with me and start some real conversations. And boy am I feeling righteous. I'm on some kind of mission - I fill my tanks at the Center for Human and Civil Rights and I blog about it with you: "Hey world! I'm uncomfortable, and I want to do more!"...  I want to know how to be better and I'm not afraid to make some mistakes along the way so long as I keep marching. I've found student groups I can help, I've encouraged young people of color to express themselves positively in an artistic forum and offered my assistance in getting them started. I've spoken at churches and schools and MLK events.

In short, I'm feeling empowered. I've got hope and I see change on the horizon.

And then I met THEM. The ACTUAL racists. Oh wait. You see, I'd been using that clever word: systemic. A clever word because when you fight a system, you don't actually have to fight a person. But one night in Selma, Alabama, I ran smack dab into two probable survivors of Bloody Sunday. And by survivors, I mean they were likely there (they are old enough now) and they were most likely on the wrong side of the bridge.

What does a racist look like?  Well, these two were probably making themselves easy to spot. They sat outside a diner, smoking unfiltered Pall Malls, wearing camouflage jackets and pants.  And... oh yeah, they were white males. In Selma, AL. Over the age of 65. And they asked me, like any good local would, with almost no suspicion in their voices, what I was doing here. Where did I come from?  I told them about the march that had just happened, how Selma filmmakers were honoring the town with a concert and free screenings of the movie.

Without hesitation, Old Racist #1 turns to me and says: "You won't get me into that theater full of N*** unless I got a machine gun."

And the phrase "I can't breathe" drifted into my head. Oh my God. Ava is right. And the kids of StudentsUnite, who during the march kept pulling me aside and saying - "No one is talking about the REAL problems"... they were also right. Because while the true survivors of Bloody Sunday still honor us with their breath today, so too do the antagonists still live and breathe and hate.

My awakening is complete. And I'm done talking. Well, no, that's not entirely true. If I was talking before, now I want to shout. But more so I'm ready to ACT. To take action.

I spoke a moment longer with those old men. I foolishly attempted to change their minds. In the course of our dialogue in which I managed heroically not to say out loud that I was relieved they would probably die soon anyway, I heard some actual information. These men are racists, yes. They are incorrectly attributing misbehaviors and social difficulties to race. But they are also frustrated with those same systemic issues: the welfare state, poverty, criminalized behavior.

What I wanted to do wasn't change their minds - they have the same issues I do. What I wanted to do was change their hearts. Maybe that would be my biggest dream for the movie Selma - that it could change a person's heart. Because that's what art can do, right?

So I'll hope that a movie can change a man's heart, because I truly don't know how. And in the meantime, I've got work to do, fighting the system.  At least now I have a better picture of what that means, and WHO I'm up against.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Selma - Including Women

I love this picture. It's of myself, Tessa Thompson and Carmen Ejogo on our way to a BBQ one night in Selma. All of our faces are glowing from a day of filming the marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and we've scrubbed all that movie makeup off, taken down (or off) our 60s hair, and we all probably could be mistaken for college kids. For a month on the set, we were surrounded by incredible, powerful women. And that wasn't an accident.

Last night I was performing at Dad's Garage - an improv comedy show - which for one special weekend included Scott Adsit of 30 Rock and Big Hero 6 fame. He is formerly from Second City, a real veteran of the boards, and a team player. Before we went on stage that evening, he asked if Jessica and I could also play in the second half. He had noticed that our company was imbalanced in terms of gender and he was simply taking steps to correct that. It was then I had one of Oprah's Aha moments!

Ava DuVernay made it a priority to include women's stories in Selma. Scott Adsit made a point of including women in our show last night. It's really that simple, and sadly that hard. Gender inequality can be shifted in quite the same way racial inequality can. Beginning with intentional inclusion -   making balance a priority.

It's not easy to be that first woman. Or that only woman. The actual fact of Viola Liuzzo's departure to Selma is that she did not ask for permission from her husband and family to leave, she just left. She had to call from the road to say that she was leaving, because otherwise she probably would not have been allowed to go. In 1965, women had very little rights. The horror of the aftermath of Viola's death upon her family was multiplied by the fact that many felt Viola had acted outside of acceptable behaviors for a woman, a wife and a mother. A Ladies' Home Journal magazine survey taken right after Liuzzo's death asked its readers what kind of woman would leave her family for a civil rights demonstration. The magazine suggested that she had brought death on herself by leaving home -- and 55% of its readers agreed.

I was raised in the South, and taught to behave like a lady. Much of that upbringing I value - to treat everyone with respect, to behave with dignity and to ensure that others are cared for first. But I also recognize the trappings of a system which was well-entrenched in 1965 and still clings to its position of power today. Gender inequality, racial inequality, human rights inequality - these are issues we cannot sleep on. I chose to enter the world of improv comedy in 1995 in Tallahassee because it looked like fun, and I was needed because there were no women playing in the local troupe. I was asked to join by a man who noticed the imbalance. He was the same man who had been, (the years before,) the only gay man in the troupe. It is tough to be a first and an only. But it starts with a choice.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Selma - Controversies and Snubs

This morning while listening to a news quiz show on MSNBC, I heard the host refer to Selma as a "controversial film." As in: President Obama screened what controversial film for cast and crew this weekend? DING DING DING Selma! The guesser earned 100 points, and the host earned my complete frustration. UGH. Really? Out of billions of adjectives, that's the one some writer picked? Sigh. How about historic, dramatic, timely, award-nominated... Oh right.

So fine - let's talk about controversies and snubs. Because with the way Selma seems to be affecting audiences nationwide, I suppose its fair to admit there is a big white elephant in the room.

First: the LBJ "controversy." Friends, that's a non-starter. Read the Washington Post article, and then go watch the film. Selma shows President Johnson for who he was: A Master Politician. And Dr. King is shown to be a Master Activist. They both did the job in the way they knew how, with the resources they had. The End. That's no controversy.

Second: As awards season shifts into high gear, I know I personally have been disappointed by gaps in the nominations. I'm not the only one. But I refuse to call it a "snub." A snub by definition is done with intent. So let's call it instead a "miss." And here are my thoughts on the "Misses:"
1. Selma has received Academy nominations for Best Picture and Best Song - these nominations are great honors, amid strong competition this year. Ground-breaking films like Boyhood and Birdman are sharing this category with us. We are in stellar company.
2. Many great films and individuals in the past have been overlooked by the Oscars. Here too we are in stellar company.
3. Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Bradford Young - they are all going to be just fine. They have faced much bigger hurdles than an empty trophy shelf to get where they are.
4. Selma speaks for itself. If you are unhappy with the nominations, cast your vote at the box office. Because at the end of the day, an Oscar is a huge honor - perhaps the highest in our industry - but money makes movies. Not accolades.
5. This is the most important thing I want you to know about Selma. When Ava created this film, I don't think she envisioned an audience whose demographic reflected the Academy. Selma wasn't made for a generation that REMEMBERS SELMA. It was made for all of those who weren't born yet. Like me, yes, but much more importantly, for the young men and women like our four girls who played the roles of the victims of the 16th St Baptist Church bombing. When I hear them speak about how this movie has changed them... When I see how my friend Heather has taken her middle school students in Dallas to see the film and talk about it... When my cousin in Kansas shares with me something her daughter found out about Viola Liuzzo that I didn't already know (and believe me that's not an easy trick)... Well, those are the awards for which Selma and Ava and David - and all of those who worked on the film - have been nominated and have won.
For more information on how students can see Selma for free, click here.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Selma - Discovering Viola Liuzzo

I was sitting in the hair trailer, quietly contemplating the past week of shooting on location in Selma, Alabama - an experience that will warrant an entirely separate blog post - when Colman Domingo tapped me on the shoulder. Colman plays Ralph David Abernathy in the film, and has been the heart of our cast. A person I will forever be grateful for having met. He was sitting in the chair next to me getting his hair sifted on (Hollywood magic!) and he spoke some powerful words to me that I will keep for myself except to say this: He said, "Viola is with you." I wept. I would like to share with you the story of how I discovered Viola. While preparing for the audition for Viola, I did my obligatory actor type research. I found pictures, I wiki'd, I googled. The role in the script was almost non-existent, just a few simple lines from a woman to her husband, telling him she was heading to Selma to participate in the marches. The director, Ava DuVernay, essentially rewrote the script, and in the process fought to make women a more vital part of the story - hence Viola's inclusion. The script didn't say much more about Viola, just how she was there, and then murdered, so I had to make quite a few of my own choices. I started digging. The deeper I got into Viola's story, the more overwhelmed I became. We only get a glimpse of her courageous existence in the film, but beneath that is an ocean of pain and bravery that I was stunned to find. I want to tell you the whole story, but it would take one hundred blog posts, a film, a field trip, and a tattoo. Because Viola's life isn't just her own. It is her children's, it is a movement's, a race's, a gender's, a conspiracy laden miasma of buried truths, disseminated misinformation and resentful failures on the part of people who should have known better. I will tell you more of her story, but I'll start here with this experience. The image I have of Viola in my mind is the photograph of her marching along the highway. She is focused, determined, weary. She carries her shoes in her hands. The shoes were the first thing that struck me. I hate wearing shoes. While shooting the scene with David Silverman of Viola and husband Jim at home watching the Bloody Sunday footage, and subsequently planning for her departure, I insisted on being barefoot. All I wanted for the entire month of shooting was to pay as much respect to her spirit as possible. It was my job alone to make sure that Mrs. Liuzzo's voice was heard in the few words and multiple moments I had on camera. I was absolutely overwhelmed with the monumental responsibility.
On a day off from shooting I went to visit Viola's marker on Hwy 80. True to the words I'd read, it is incredibly difficult to spot. I drove past it four times before I finally arrived at a lonely, fenced in granite marker at the top of a hill off the highway in Lowndes County, Alabama. It was 3 in the afternoon, 100 degrees and cloudless. I parked the car and stepped into the enclosure. Old plastic flower wreaths were shattered and scattered about, from weather and time, and grass overtaking the stone covered mound was a testament to how few know who Viola was. I stayed at this place for an hour. I spent most of the time pulling weeds and rearranging the old flowers, talking out loud to no one at all. Well, to Viola, I guess. I told her I was sorry. It should have been Meryl Streep. It should have been Cate Blanchett. I wasn't sure why they hadn't called yet to tell me I was fired, that Kate Winslet would be taking over. Because Viola deserved that - the greatest actress in the world. She has deserved so much that she hasn't received, as does her family. I asked her how she had the courage to do what she did - leave a family that she loved, travel hundreds of miles alone, in spite of what society told her women, wives and mothers 'should' be doing and fight so fearlessly for what she believed in. It seemed super-heroic. That day, at Viola's marker, I received a simple answer. What Viola Liuzzo and thousands of others did in 1965 wasn't an example of superhuman courage, unique and godlike motivation or power. They were all just people. Just people. Like me. And you. If we were all in those same shoes, (or out of them in Viola's case) we would and COULD do the same. I could represent Viola because she wasn't different, she was a mom and a wife and a nurse and a student and a white woman who wanted change. So maybe Colman was right. Maybe Viola was with me. I desperately hope that she got to be there on our last day of shooting and stand again in triumph at the steps of the capital in Montgomery, and listen again to words of hope spoken by a man with a gift for oratory. And I hope with all my heart that each of you will get a chance to discover Viola and be changed by her story as well. And if you find her marker on Highway 80, please take her some fresh flowers and some weed killer. I can't get back there again until March.