Emmy-nominated screenwriter and multi-genre author, Trey Ellis, has penned some of black America’smost-loved films, such as The Inkwell (1994), Good Fences (1993), and HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen (1995), which starred Laurence Fishburne and was based on the true story of a group of African American pilots in World War II.
The Stanford University alum is the recipient of a Peabody Award, multiple NAACP Awards, and is also a novelist, journalist and playwright; having written the novel Platitudes,a play titledFly, among others, as well as articles for The Huffington Postand The New York Times.
Tell me more about your role as an educator and your strategies for balancing your multiple interests.
Ellis: I always wanted to be a writer since elementary school. About eight years ago, the opportunity came to teach screenwriting at Columbia University. I don’t think it’s so much a challenge, but a privilege. I can make a living writing all of the different things I like to write.
The balancing act is more: if I have something to express I decide, ‘Is this a book? Is this a novel? If it’s a book—is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it journalism? Is it a screenplay, a play or a television show?
I teach [my students] that storytelling is storytelling, [it’s] expressing human behavior in some sort of way that’s interesting. What I’m trying to do is ‘pull’ out from my students what’s already inside of them. I like to talk to them and guide them to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them.
What are your thoughts on the exceptionally high costs of M.F.A. programs and the increase in their popularity?
That certainly is the number one issue that we at the school wrestle with—working to bring the cost down and [bring in] more financial aid for everybody who needs it; which is most people.
There’s been an explosion of arts M.F.A. programs but I think, in general, graduate school is much more the norm.
During the recession they’re weren’t any jobs and a lot of people went into M.F.A. programs. There is this kind of culture these days that says everything can be taught. In the past, a lot of things just worked under, sort of, an apprentice [like] program.
As a writer who has written in multiple genres, what most inspires you?
To have an audience respond. The idea that I can express something and hold their attention; especially these days when there’s so many different choices, feels really good.
Kenya Barris’ mark on Hollywood extends well beyond the creation of his hit series Black-ish on ABC or his writing for America’s Next Top Model, the producer/writer will pen the film adaptation of the 1970s African American sitcom Good Timesfor Sony Entertainment; along with veteran producers Scott Rudin and Eli Bush.
Barris is also collaborating with Tracy Oliver for a female-driven ‘Girls Trip Project‘ for Universal Studios, and was recently signed by New Line Cinemato write the screenplay for the new Shaftremake. Although many of Barris’ projects have been comedies, he describes his Good Times adaptation as a dramaedy — the best of both worlds.
What attracted you to Good Times? What do you see as the ‘tone’ for the movie?
Barris:Good Times was so iconic, in terms of that family and the struggles they were going through were so honest and real. [The writers] didn’t ignore that this was a ‘slice of life’ that a huge amount of Americans were living. The chance to have a voice and to say something as a writer is the ultimate blessing. To have something to say that affects people and makes people want to change their life or be inspired— to hear words come alive—for me that’s the ultimate blessing.
When you think of Good times as an actual show, as much as it was a comedy there was some serious stuff going on. So, I feel like [the film will be] more of dramaedy, to do it any other way would be a disservice to the poverty. The movie is actually a look back. Michael has grown up. He’s in politics and he’s looking back on his life, at something in his life that has affected him and the decision he’s making currently. I was not going to do a spoof of Good times, I felt like it was too important of a [show] to support that.
Tell me about your friendship with Tyra, your upbringing and its impact on your writing.
Tyra Banks is one of my best friends. We grew up together. Watching her—when I was in high school and college—watching her career take off was a big inspiration for me, to know that [success] was possible; coming from where we came from.
I feel like that’s what put me in a different place, where if I wanted to make people laugh there was a way to do it and it wasn’t necessarily just a dream scenario.
It was something that could actually happen, that I had seen happen. I’m from Inglewood. We were broke growing up, [but] you didn’t know you were broke because everyone else around you was broke.
My father got into a chemical accident at General Motors, where he was employed, when I was ten or eleven.
We got a big settlement and moved from, basically, ‘ashy to classy.’ We moved out of the hood and I started at a different school. I remember realizing for the first time, ‘Oh. We were broke.’
My mom worked really hard, got me through school and college and when I had my kids I looked around and the world they were growing up in was a completely different world than the one I remember growing up in. That was the inspiration for [Black-ish]. We’re taught that you want to give your kids more than you had, but in doing that I started wondering; with the added things in their life, what were the things that were being subtracted.
Many of the popular shows on television today with lead African American characters don’t deal explicitly with race. For instance,ScandalandHow To Get Away with Murder. What motivated you to write a show that, thematically, openly discusses race and black culture?
For all the amazing things that I felt from The Cosby Show growing up, the one thing I looked at was that they sort of [looked over the fact that they were black].
I felt like every day as an African American; as a black person, you’re never not aware of [race]. It’s part of who you are. It’s part of the people who deal with you. So why would you do a show in a time when we have a black president and choose to ignore [race]?
That doesn’t mean it has to be a black show, but it is about a black family. It’s not done in an ostracizing way. To me, the idea of talking about it makes it more inclusive.
Conversation is part of what makes America work at its best, and that’s what we were trying to do: start the conversation.
Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com
Ron Simons, founder and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment, is a force to be reckoned with in the world of film and theater. His critically-acclaimed roster of produced films include Night Catches Us (starring Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie) Gun Hill Road, Blue Caprice, and Mother of George; all of which premiered at The Sundance Festival. He’s produced numerous successful Broadway productions, such as the Tony-award winning revival of Porgy and Bess, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike; which won the Tony award for Best New Play.
In addition to producing, Simons is also an actor, having performed in theatrical works, film, and television. The multi-talented creative and businessman started his career as a software engineer at companies like Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Microsoft, and holds an M.B.A. from Columbia Business School and an M.F.A. in acting from the University of Washington’s Professional Actor Training Program.
SimonSays Entertainment values artistic integrity, as well as commercial viability. Can you talk a little about that?
Simons: My first project, Night Catches Us, was a film about two former Black Panthers who reunite in 1970s Philadelphia. It was a period piece. I’m very proud of that film. It was a labor of love for everyone. But there are some things that I might have been able to do differently, had I been more savvy and in the industry longer, that could have made that film commercially viable.
All of my projects have, so far, creative integrity, but they haven’t all been commercially viable. I’ve learned a lot of lessons between my first film and my more recent film.
What motivated you to get an M.B.A in addition to an M.F.A. in Acting?
Before I got my M.B.A., I was in corporate America as a software engineer. I developed knowledge-based systems, or artificial intelligence systems, for fortune 500 companies. I was encouraged by my current employer to get a Ph.D. in computer science, which they would pay for, and then come back to work for the company because it was a small AI company and most of the staff there had Ph.D.’s from Stanford.
So I reached a crossroad where I had to decide if I wanted to go deeper into the technology side or more into the business side.
I decided that business would be more in tune with my goals of leadership, so I ended up going to Columbia Business School. When I graduated from Columbia I started working at Microsoft and was there for a number of years. Then I reached a crossroads in my career when I was offered a promotion with the company.
This little voice in my head had been quietly murmuring—I refer to it as the dream deferred—about acting. So, I thought that was a good time to get my head out of the sand and decide that leadership and entrepreneurship was going to be my goal or whether I wanted to move into the arts.
How has your corporate experience impacted your role as a producer?
SimonSays Entertainment, as a producing entity, is the nexis where all the paths of my life meet; where I can leverage my storytelling skills as an actor, my business skills as a business man, everything I’ve ever learned in corporate America and my analytical studies in computer science. In my job as a producer, I have to touch upon so many different areas. I’m a creative producer, so for me it’s all about story. My acting has helped me tremendously in that regard.
Alot of producers don’t know story because not all producers come from the arts, in terms of writing or acting or directing. So they have the technical side perhaps, but maybe don’t have the artistic side. Also, there’s times when it’s important for me to understand the technology. When I deliver a film, it has to be in various formats and these formats are fairly technical. Producing uses all that I’ve ever learned, ever done in my life.
There has been a decline in movie-going, along with what some are calling ‘the golden age’ of television. Has the audience shift from film to television influenced your business?
From a percentage standpoint, the answer is yes. I’m not abandoning film. I’m developing content for film, as well as television, as well as the web. I’m a content provider.
My goal is to create content for the variety of platforms that are emerging.
I have developed content for film. I’m now developing content for television [and] for the web. I’m developing educational content that is going to be delivered through CDs. I’m expanding and highly diversifying my content. One of the things you learn in business school is that if you diversify you lower your risk.
Monday, Aug. 17, actor, producer, and humanitarianDanny Glover, Misadventuresof Awkward Black Girl series creator Issa Rae, and Black Lives Matter Co- founder Patrice Cullors, participated in a dynamic panel in Martha’s Vineyard titled, Changing the Script: Media, Culture, And Black Lives.
The panel, moderated by Alan Jenkins, provided an invaluable platform to discuss culture makers, activists, and their utilization of media and creative strategies to tell stories about black Americans.
YouTube phenom Issa Rae expressed her desire to “talk about reclaiming the narrative of African Americans in the media, television and film,” as motivation for joining the panel. When asked about her own writing, Rae said she hopes to provide “an alternative depiction; a real depiction, showing that [African Americans] are capable of doing anything and being anything.” Social Activist Patrice Cullors said of the event, “I think it’s always important to talk about the way we’re treated; the narrative of blacks, how it’s being told and how we’re intervening.”
Adding, “I wanted to hear from my co-panelists, as well as the audience, about what they’ve seen in the last couple years around the impact of The Black Lives Matter movement on exposing racist media images of black people or helping shift to a new narrative.”
Tell me about The Opportunity Agenda and the inspiration behind organizing this panel.
Jenkins: My organization— The Opportunity Agenda — is a social justice communication lab. We use communication and culture to build public support for greater or more equal opportunity. We’ve been around for about ten years. One of the things that we do at The Opportunity Agenda is study media and culture and how issues of race and identity and opportunity are depicted in different communities.
Four years ago we did a study of media depictions of black men and boys. What we found is that there were some really persistent and harmful trends that depict a very warped picture of black folks in the media.
We are, in the media, overly associated with criminality, with poverty; with intractable problems. The idea [of this panel] is to look at different perspectives, at the new era we’re in; an era of activism— Black Lives Matter—criminal justice reform, and many other issues of race and equality.
There is an absence of diversity in creative decision makers, as it relates to the entertainment industry. Do you think increasing diversity behind the camera will result in the telling of more diverse stories?
Increasing diversity on both sides of the camera is vital. It’s necessary, but not sufficient. We could have diversity there and still not have diversity of storytelling and things that reflect the breadth of the black experience.
We can have better storytelling and still be grossly underrepresented.
So we need to work towards both. It’s certainly the case that when you have diversity of storytellers, you’re much more likely to get a fuller and more accurate depiction of the lives of black folks and our place in the broader American society and world.
What motivated your decision to include Danny Glover and Issa Rae as panelists?
Danny Glover has been, in many ways, fortunate—he’s tremendously talented—but there are a lot of talented people of color who don’t get to play the diverse and rich roles that he has gotten to play.
Issa Rae has used the medium of YouTube and the Internet to get her story out: that’s a real change.
This is the first moment in human history, in which almost all of us have the ability to speak and tell stories to millions of people and hear back from them without mainstream media and gate keepers.
Issa Rae, like Danny Glover, is a very talented story teller. She’s been innovative in finding new ways to tell her story; in the way she wants to tell it, through a medium that literally didn’t exist a decade ago. So, that was the idea behind bringing together this diverse panel, which of course includes Patrice Cullors who has used Twitter to [support] activism and concern about police killings of unarmed black men.
Social media has played a pivotal role in the development of social justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter. Can you talk about some of the ways technology has impacted activism and differences between today’s black activism and the civil rights movement?
Social media is an organizing tool. So, people [from] far reaches of the country and the globe now know they have allies with whom they can connect.
Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. had access to Twitter—the movement he would have been able to create.
Today activists are able to tell their story, organize, and bring people together to demand action; that’s transformative. There are certainly differences between 20th and 21st century movements. 21st century movements tend to be more decentralized; there are fewer recognizable national leaders.
They are more networked. But I think when we look back a decade or two, at the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ll see that there were a cadre of leaders, just as there were in the previous civil rights movement. We’ll see that there were people who exerted tremendous personal courage and leadership, and were the glue that held these movements together.
The event was held at the Harbor View Hotel, Edgartown Room, 131 North Water Street, in scenic Martha’s Vineyard. To learn more about The Opportunity Agenda visitwww.opportunityagenda.org.
Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com
African American heartthrob, thespian, director and author, Blair Underwood, has long been a staple in black cinema, television and the arts, maintaining a successful professional career for three decades. The two-time Golden Globe nominee made his film acting debut at the tender age of 21 in Michael Schultz’s Krush Groove (1985) and has given emotionally compelling performances in movies such as Murder in Mississippi(1990), Heat Wave (1990), and Mama Flora’s Family (1998), where he shared the screen with acting ‘force of nature,’ Cicely Tyson.
Currently, Underwood plays the role of Dr. Andrew Gamer on ABC’s hit super-hero drama, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, and will direct the independent film, Silent Voice. He’ll be returning to his theatrical roots this summer, starring in the world-premiere of Dominic Morrisseau’s Paradise Blue, a play based in Detroit’s Blackbottom neighborhood, at The Williamstown Theatre Festival, July 22 through August 2, 2015.
What advice do you have for young, aspiring African American actors, or those hoping to pursue a creative passion, in terms of career success and longevity?
Blair Underwood: Be creative in how you plan your future. Young people understand that, I think, better than my generation – that the world is constantly spinning, turning, changing, and evolving. As a creative person, you have to find the stories you want to tell, create the characters you want to play.
Whatever you’re creating, be true to yourself. You have to watch the market, the patterns and all of that, but you have to be true to yourself. Create what you love. Do what you love, that’s the main thing I would say.
Also, decide what kind of creative person you want to be. I have to say that, first and foremost. Do you want to be successful within this industry?
If you want to be successful in a certain industry, you’re going to have to comply with the rules of that industry. If you just want to act, you can act in your backyard and that’s fine. Do you want to be famous or do you want to be great at your craft? Two different paths. Two antithetical paths. If you’re going after fame, you can do a YouTube video and a reality show. [But if] you want to be a great artist, that’s a different path.
There are a number of students graduating from M.F.A. programs in theatre, film, and creative writing with tremendous amounts of loan debt – upwards of $100,000 for some. What advice do you have for these students, in terms of finding a balance between creative pursuits and economic realities? What has been your experience?
I have my own experience, and I have my experience as a parent of an 18-year-old son who’s going to college in September. I’m sure in four years we’re going to accrue a lot of debt. It’s a very good question. When you look at that quandary, if you will, then you have to make some very real decisions about what path you’re going to take, because you have to contemplate making money.
You have to contemplate providing for yourself and eventually others: wives, husbands, children or whatever that may be. Those are your responsibilities [and] that costs money. It’s a very, I think, noble but challenging path in life—the path I took—to be a creative person. We all need to survive. You’re constantly riding that fine line of keeping your integrity but also knowing you have to pay the bills.
What are your thoughts on blacks in Hollywood; particularly the need for stories that expand the African American narrative?
I believe that there’s always room for more, but I also say ‘if you want more, then create more.’ In other words, it’s not enough to stand on the sidelines. You can create your product and distribute your product by yourself on the Internet, on YouTube. There are more avenues today than ever before – Hulu, Amazon.com, Netflix. There’s more than just the traditional route of networks, or even studios for that matter, formovies.
You can make a film for much cheaper today because of the technology. You can make a film with your Iphone. It can be high quality, have a good story and, if it’s good enough, get you attention. Not always, but that’s life. There’s so much that happens to be in the hands of the creator, [now more] than ever before.
It’s not enough to say ‘nobody’s allowing me to do anything.’ Go do it yourself.
There’s not enough diversity, but there’s more than there has been in a long time – Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder, Empire. Because of that there are many more opportunities for African American actors in this coming season of new shows.
Reporting by Rebecca Nichloson. Article originally appeared on BlackEnterprise.com
Late last year, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Shonda Rhimes, creator of ABC mega-hits Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, talked about her new book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun, and Be Your Own Person. The interview was held with New York Times best-selling author and journalist, Jake Tapper.
Year of Yes, published by Simon & Schuster, documents a year in which Rhimes, a notorious introvert, decided to say ‘yes’ to people and activities she would normally say ‘no’ to—this included speaking engagements, parties, and other social events, which Rhimes says were out of her comfort zone.
She even went as far as to describe herself as a ‘wall hugger’ at social events, telling NPR, “I’ve always been an introverted person,” and that fame and success were, to her, “daunting.”
But for an entire year, whenever she wanted to decline an invitation or new experience, she made the choice to say ‘yes,’ and the results, she says, were phenomenal.
During the panel, Rhimes talked about her childhood growing up in a highly-intellectual home where her parents encouraged her to read and write and envision her own reality. She also talked about being the only African American girl in her school and being lonely because off this. Her imaginary world, ‘Shondaland,’ served as a creative refuge.
Rhimes discussed her disdain for the term “diversity” when describing her shows, she feels she’s simply normalizing television by creating roles for actors of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other underrepresented groups; not revolutionizing it. She also rejects the notion that she alone is responsible for breaking “the glass ceiling” by being, arguably, the only black woman to definitively own an entire evening of network television. Instead, she stated, breaking the glass ceiling is a collective effort.
During the Q&A session audience members were invited to ask questions. To my delight, my question was the first one answered by Rhimes.
I asked her if, when she first started writing, she was ever afraid of her own voice—afraid of the depth of her talent and where it might lead. Her response: “As a writer, write as if you are the only person who will read your work.” In other words, create from honesty, not the need for approval or validation.
So what can we learn from this phenomenal African American pioneer?
Truthful representations can lead to success. Just like the saying goes, ‘sex sales,’ in today’s competitive entertainment arena, so does the truth.
Stay open to new things and allow yourself to be surprised. Sometimes not knowing is a gift.
Build a strong support system of people who respect and inspire you.
Although my question was specific to writing, Rhimes’s advice to create from a place of truth or, at the very least, adhere to your own standards of excellence, is invaluable.
Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared in Black Enterprise.
In 2013, theater critic Ben Brantley, in his New York Times review of Dominique Morisseau’s Sunset Baby, described the playwright as a writer “who knows the code for getting under our skins . . .”
Perhaps this is what has actor Blair Underwood, Golden-Globe nominee and star of ABC’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, so excited about playing the role of Blue in her latest work, Paradise Blue. In a BE Exclusive, Underwood referred to the role as “powerful,” but Morisseau, story editor on Showtime’sShameless, is no stranger to this kind of description.
The University of Michigan graduate has won a monsoon ofawards and fellowships, writing plays such as Detroit ’67 (Public Theater; Classical Theatre of Harlem/NBT; Northlight Theatre), Sunset Baby(Labyrinth Theater Co – NYC; Gate Theater- London), and Follow Me To Nellie’s (O’Neill; Premiere Stages). Paradise Blue, directed by Tony Award-winner Ruben Santiago-Hudson, is based in Detroit and centers on an African American trumpeter struggling with whether or not to sell his beloved jazz club.
Tell me about The Williamstown Theater Festival, Paradise Blue, and what inspired you to write it?
Morisseau: I’m from Detroit. My play, Paradise Blue, is part of a three-play cycle about my city. The cycle is called The Detroit Project. The first play was called Detroit ‘67 and that was about the 1967 riots in the city, kind of like what we’re seeing in Ferguson, New York, and all over the country.
The second play in my cycle is Paradise Blue and that’s looking at 1949 during the Jazz era of the city when Detroit had its own little Harlem renaissance, if you will, a thriving black community called Blackbottom, and a black business strip called Paradise Blue where they had automobile shops, lots of bars and nightclubs, and jazz spots.
Alot of the great jazz legends used to come through Detroit and play in Paradise Valley. In 1949, a housing act got passed that would eventually lead to the wiping out of Blackbottom and the building of the 75 Chrysler Freeway. Blair Underwood plays the owner of the jazz spot, and [the piece centers on] what happens when the city gets ready to start its Urban Renewal Campaign and get rid of the black folk. [It’s about] who’s on board and who’s not.
Williamstown Theatre Festival produces works that are in practice, transitioning to another city, or getting incubated for the first time with the hope of transferring to another city. So, this is a safe space for things to get on their feet, get in front of audiences, get tried out and get the chance to move to New York or transfer somewhere throughout the region.
It’s also a really special place because it was started by a guy named Nikos Pappas, a Greek man who believed in theater and creating a safe haven and artistic space for theatre makers. The tradition has been going on for several decades now and has new leadership, Mandy Greenfield, who has just taken over as artistic director.
As you know, Black Enterprise believes in African American personal and professional empowerment. What advice do you have for creatives looking to enter the entertainment industry, along those lines?
I definitely think artists of color need to think about how to tell our own stories and make space for ourselves in our respective industries— be that theatre, film, or television. We need to think about not just participating in the telling of other people’s stories, but how to bring the stories from our experiences into the spotlight. It takes more and more storytellers to push their stories forward to create balance in our industry.
I think in order for us to be able to tell our stories and tell them the way that we want to, we really have to tap into our entrepreneurial side and figure out how we’re going to be the leader of our narrative, how we’re going to run our own shows or create our own films, find capital to make our films, and create distribution companies for ourselves.
Invest in the opportunities in your community. Build a community around you of like-minded artists that you can create a support system for.
The reason why I was able to transition into television writing is not because I just woke up one day and got lucky, it’s because I built myself—ten years in New York City— a strong community of supporters who, eventually, became my biggest audience and my biggest fans.
A few years ago, I had a premiere of one of my plays in London. I started an Indiegogo campaign to be able to afford housing in London so I could be around to help give shape to my work. We really have to lean on each other and think about where we’re circulating our investments and our support, so that we’re getting it back. Where you put your energy is where you’re going to get it back. Build a foundation—that starts with relationships and community.
There was a New York Times article, Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit, about the growing number of artists leaving New York for other, more artist-friendly, cities. Detroit is one of those cities. How do you think this new influx of, largely non-minority artists, will impact the cultural landscape there?
I was actually just talking about this with some friends last night; some of the actors in my cast. All cities need new blood, mixed with old blood, to keep the city reviving itself. However, what happens with this exodus of people leaving their cities and going to Detroit is that they’re not integrating with the culture that exists in Detroit. I’m not saying all of these [people] are doing this.
Alot of times they just see an abandoned building and they just go and they buy it. But are [they] talking to the people in that community to see what the relationship between that building and the community that surrounds that building is? How can you come in and offer something to that community?
You can’t offer something to a community, that it needs, if you haven’t figured out what it needs. Therefore, you’re not actually building with people, you’re building on top of them or you’re displacing them.
Detroit has a gifted artist community that already lives there. There are legendary poets, legendary writers living in Detroit, that are from Detroit, that have been building there and can’t get grants from the state of Michigan for the art they’re doing because of these new people coming in. The state is more interested in the new than the old, and that’s the problem across the board.
The people that are coming in have to learn how to bring an idea and offer something to the community that the community needs. You can’t do that if you’re not talking to the community and getting to know them.
Many of the artists moving there—not all of them—but many of them are well-intentioned. They’re energized by the idea of the city. They’re interested in trying to shift something. But we, collectively, have to figure out a way for that to happen without making the people who are already there feel like they’re unwanted in their own city.
Do you have any stories about the African American experience in Detroit? Share your thoughts in the comments section.