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.