Blue Caprice star, Isaiah Washington; Director: Alex Mores. Producers/Actors: Ron Simons & April Yvette Thompson, Kim Jackson. Actors: J.W. Cortes & Cassandra Freeman.
At the two year mark of my graduate school acting career and again at the two year mark of my professional acting career, something insidious was at work. It happened very systematically and at the exact moment when my work started getting good. The moment when I had begun to rack up an impressive list of credits. The powers that be, industry decision-makers starting telling me what was wrong with me and putting me in my place by casting me in only denigrating roles: maids, crackheads, abusive ghetto mothers, sexually repugnant women, angry, dangerously obese women bent on self-destruction, broken women relying on even more broken men and sad women without any hope of their lives getting better. And this was all that was on the table as if that was all that existed in the realm of possibility for me as an actor and as a human being. I was auditioning for sad, oppressed people who sat around complaining about what white people did to them and how they were going to do it again. And that was it.
And I thought: Oh, I see what's going on here. Once you feel powerful and that's clear to everyone, we're going to remind you just how powerless you actually are. My response was fuck that. I remember my great grandmother waiting in the front yard for me to come from my all white private school on scholarship. She was eyeing the drug dealer on the corner trying to rap with me. Walking toward my house, she met me and him at the front gate, pistol in hand and gently allowed him to know that I had 4 hours of homework to do, so there was no need for him to form a relationship with me because I was leaving this place, he was staying, so wasn't shit more to talk about. That drug dealer left me alone and took it upon himself to inform all the other drug dealers on the block that I was off limits. That's who I come from. Fighters. People with so much self esteem that they didn't allow me to play with white doll babies. My parents and grandparents reasoning was if we give her blonde doll babies, that's what she thinks her life mission is going to be: raising somebody's blonde children. They got that there's a whole lot of stories that get spinned for us from a very early age and those stories try to limit your thinking. And it was their intention to give me an alternative, powerful story for myself. I came from people who discussed books and Africa and stories of liberation with me. I came from people who assumed my God could look like me instead of him looking like the same pale, bearded figure Western culture used 100 years ago to justify my enslavement. They presented the idea that maybe, just maybe, J.C. was a hippie radical bent on selling the world a bucketful of love as opposed to a bucketful of money and controlling institutions. They made me re-think the story being handed to me and it was the greatest gift of my life. And if I could re-frame that story, how much good can I do in one lifetime, to build on the forward momentum of the freedom fighters shoulders that I stand on. I came from people who self-defined their worth in spite of the outside world's message of "You ain't shit." The latter was not an acceptable notion for me to have. They re-shaped the world to make it big enough to handle them. They were/are fierce.
So, there was no way on God's green earth I was going to be playing the maid in my final graduate school performance for my family to see. People who have been footing the bill for my education so I would never be a maid. Not the great grandmothers who after 30 years of not working as maids, secretly took on sat cleaning gigs to help pay for my books for Vassar and Rutgers. Not people who had run their own businesses in the midst of segregation, pistol-ready when the Klan showed up at their doors for taking money out the white man's pocket. We're all appalled by Florida's Stand Your Ground, yes? Well, let me put that in perspective. I'm appalled by how many times I drove up on the Klan having a rally in the abandoned lot 4 blocks from my house during my teens. I'm appalled by how many times, the Miami's black community have been put under an illegal martial law after the police force killed innocent black teens and molested 8 year old black in the back of their cruisers. And everytime, the officers were acquitted. From the time, I was 6 until about 16, this happened three times. My rights were illegally taken from me without further ado because of crimes, my city did not protect me from. I'm appalled that someone can decide to shoot me for being Black in Miami and rape me and that I learned that by the time I was 8 years old. Miami taught me what a dangerous place America can be when you're not in charge of the story of who you are. How peoples feelings about race cannot be mandated by law and as a result, just being black "can get you very very dead." So acting became the way I changed the perceptions of who I am as a Black woman in America. So, no, my great grandmothers, women who had demanded that their men respect them in public and private or else (in Good Bread Alley, you'll learn all about that "or else") could not see me play defeated Black characters. No, that was not going to be an acceptable portrait for them or me. So it became clear that I was going to have to write my story into being. My new barometer for accepting a part was: Can little black girls see me in this role and holler back? Can my Mommy watch this and feel proud? Because if not, this shit has to go because I should be in charge of my story.
That left self-definition or unemployment. I chose the former and like everything else in my career, I set about learning how to write within an inch of my life: How to structurally tell story and build rock solid narrative. And then I learned how to produce and to produce well. I hunted down a brilliant writer who was doing political, life-changing work as one of the co-writers of "The Exonerated," (a play/movie that alerted us to how often the death sentence has to do with racism and classism and less with justice in our country.) I realized that I must know an artist/writer whose success was equal to the profound sharpness of her vision. She had no idea she was going to be my mentor and friend until I told her. Poor Jessica Blank, she didn't have a chance. And for that I will love and respect her forever. When I saw an actor break my heart and put it back together again, I ran up to him after the show. I told him he was going to be my friend because I wanted to do what he just did. It took a special human being to see such light in the midst of so much darkness in that particular role. So when that actor, Ron Simons, formed SimonSays Entertainment producing the finest, most important work happening in Independent film, I tracked him down like a thief in the night to learn how to produce from him. Again, another helpless soul in my journey to find my tribe of artistic warriors. I was relentless in my pursuit to find mentors, guides and comrades who could teach me to see myself in story. And when I first read Marcus Gardley's Shakespearean verse in the American Standard of the African American church, I was awe-struck. Discovering his Mississippi river transforming into a slave woman dropping her apron to scoop up runaway slaves and carry them off to freedom was the first magical realism I had ever experienced in the American canon. Because I'm part Cuban, I knew how it looked in Spanish from Marquez, Neruda, Borges and Allende, but had no idea how to translate that into my American artistic consciousness. As I read Marcus' "Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi" where Jesus sits down for a plate of grits in the slave master's home where only the slave master's black child and white child can see the son of God bear witness to slavery's peculiar perversity; I knew I was in the presence of the kind of genius that would change the way we told story in America. Marcus Gardley was my next target and I am ever grateful that I jumped into his world because there is where I learned how to sing.
So my tribe of dream builders was set. The only thing to do was to make my work and then produce it which I began with a ferocity of purpose. And again, when I stepped into my place of power, another wall rose up like magic. The internet is the independent artist's manna from heaven. The industry responded with a quiet attack on artists' self-promoting their own work, but more importantly their own brand. The Hollywood that is corporate America pushed back against artists not only deciding how their stories would be told, but also promoting their own work which threatened the power of the corporate template of storytelling and marketing in this country. American entertainment has types and formulas that are guaranteed money-makers. It's no mistake that the same company that makes biscuits and pancakes also owns news outlets and and buys up prime time advertising like most people buy sugar. The result is these same companies also dictate content. And the content must have the American brand of storytelling at it's forefront, a brand that is rife with stereotypes, cynicism and fear-driven hopelessness. These brands are driven by corporate imperatives that want no competition from independent artists' non-formulaic storytelling brand. So unless these corporations can co-opt that artist's brand and make money off of it, they don't want this alternative clogging up the marketplace. Hip Hop began as protest movement. Kids in parks protesting no arts classes in school because of budget cuts, kids talking about who has the power and prison systems in America replacing schools. The corporations immediately co-opted those messages into Bling Bling, getting a fancy American gas-guzzler and treating women like ho's and bitches. So the American brand has reduced what began as a young peoples movement fueled by organic intellectuals into something dark and sad . At the center of that marketing strategy is removing thought-provoking messages that operate outside the corporate entertainment brand. These corporations throw marketing money at the least thoughtful, least controversial ideas. They do this by making it really hard for independent artists to gain a following. The internet is a very dangerous, powerful tool for individual artists, because it gives us the power of self-definition, the power to create another audience, another story, another movement.
I first became aware of this when artists who were regularly disenfranchised from the casting system, starting getting criticism for self-promotion. And worse, they were made to feel ashamed for producing their own work, self-promoting their brand and themselves which is insane. You spend years dues-paying and honing your craft. If you don't think your work is one of a kind, why should anybody else? Besides, the marketplace is constantly advertising less than stellar work and folks pay to see it because they know about it from billion dollar advertising.
The whole press assault on Melissa Leo paying for ads to promote her Oscar win was some serious bullshit. She's an actress of a certain age who's been toiling away for pennies for the last 30 years. In a business where network execs, managers and agents are demanding that 25 year old women get botox or else because 12 year old, white boy-like beauty is the American brand; there can't be too many alternative choices competing in the marketplace. The result is that women are shunned unless they starve to weigh 100lbs, have child-sized hips and become powerless. The last time we had curvy, powerful women as heroines was in the 40's because all the men were off to war, so storytelling had to cater to whoever was left: working American women. But when the men returned and found women didn't need them quite so much, the backlash was disappearing women from the role of heroine and bringing back the one dimensional hero to the entertainment industry. Starve the women and make them look like little boys was/is the new aesthetic and god, forbid giving them too much to say. Besides, if she's hungry, she won't have the energy to say much. Woman power lives in the curves, the vulnerabilty, the ability to think/feel simultaneously and to drive an emotional agenda with the precision of strategic thinking. That's the power of the feminine: it's complicated, layered, textured and deep.
The new brand has no room for curvy femme fatales, bad ass black women leading revolutions while cooking for her man and basically no people of color at all except servants and sidekicks who must die quickly and violently. Ever notice why you can't stop staring at Mad Men's Joan ? Because she is the only normal-sized leading lady in America. Yes, people that is the average weight of an American woman and actress Christina Anderson dares to work it and I love her defiance. In a world where women have to be defiant to look like women, we need all the fierce self-definition and promoting we can get. We are our only support. There is so much pressure, that an actress needs an Oscar and a ton of botox to keep working past her 30th birthday. And even then, she could still languish in obscurity for the rest of her career. Melissa Leo publicized her brillant Oscar-winning performance in The Fighter. She won, in part because she self-promoted a fantastic product. What's the difference between her paying for her press as opposed to letting a studio or record company demand that a star pose half naked on magazine covers? The difference is that in shaping her PR, she got to control the vision of herself and her work that she felt was important and representative. Screw the corporations and all their criticism of her, she won the Oscar without having to humiliate herself on silly press junkets devised by the studio. And screw all the press that's mad because a woman acted on her own behalf stepping out of the starved, botoxed, helpless role allotted to her. There's some insidious control mechanism at work and quite frankly, no one can represent me, the artist, as well as I can and neither Melissa Leo or MoNique had to get naked to do it. MoNique has never done the Hollywood Corporate machine. She refused to do the Hollywood press junket and still won the Oscar for Precious. She deserved it for such a complicated role that easily could have been demonized, but she had integrity, craft and a fierce compassion for the fragility of the human spirit. She has never done the Hollywood corporate system of getting approval from agents, studios, managers on how her work should get done. With her brother managing her, she took her career to the people, built a following and creates work for her audience. She didn't ask permission to self-define and self-produce, she just did it and took control of her destiny which meant studios/corporations had to deal with her on her own terms. In both cases, the work product of these artists is exceptional which is why the self-promotion of their brand is necessary and we need more of it.
I try to use the term Hollywood as little as possible, because whining about what Hollywood is doing to us is a tiresome exercise in relinquishing your personal power as a storyteller. But also, it's far deeper than than that. Hollywood is made up of American corporations. The film, The Corporation "shows the development of the contemporary business corporation, from a legal entity that originated as a government-chartered institution meant to affect specific public functions, to the rise of the modern commercial institution entitled to most of the legal rights of a person."
When I saw this, I was like no fucking way does a corporation have the right to run for president. But essentially that's what that means and in many ways, what has happened. They may not run for office, but these corporations have a huge hand in who does and they define the messages about who's in office through media outlets. Ever wonder why we saw body bags on 60 Minutes during the Vietnam war and Cronkite was objectively reporting to America the real story and that no longer happens? Because objective journalism allowed Americans to come to their own conclusions resulting in the antiwar movement. Since then media outlets have been purchased by corporations, often the same corporations that fund presidential campaigns, so we're not allowed to see the dead bodies of soldiers in countries fighting wars designed to make American corporations money AND have jackshit to do with freedom. Instead of news, we now get gossip about untalented pop stars finding new ways to take off their clothes in public as they lip sync formulaic songs. Because if we got real objective journalism, if we did see those truths about the real reason for us going to war, Americans would be up in arms. So we get 30 seconds of fact, 20 minutes of gossip.
That is deeply problematic because it gives our story over to corporations. So on a larger scale, that means, individual artists telling their own stories and creating their own brand to get them out there is a reaffirming of our constitutional rights in the midst of some seriously dangerous power held by corporations. We better tell stories about the human condition, stories whose emotional imperative is to remind us of our shared humanity, to remind us to be compassionate and rely less on our fears and more on our commitment to freedom, justice and all those lovely things the constitution wrote. We can forget when the message of who we are is controlled by a company who's only imperative is to make money. And I am seriously not mad at them wanting to make money, but they cannot squash storytelling that has a deeper goal than making money.
We need to re-frame the thinking that we're being selfish or self-serving by producing and promoting our stories. When we let fear and insecurity disguised as humility guide how we get our stories out into the world guide, we give over the power of the individual to corporate machines who are not looking out for the American spirit, the American moral character. The artist exists as our moral consciousness in the building of civilization: to remind us where we've been, what we've learned and to have patience with our frailties, compassion for each other and to celebrate what we've accomplished no matter how small. With social media, we have a chance (for the first time in history) to replace complaining about the work we're offered with creating a following for the kind of stories we're all dying to see. Often complaining is a substitute for inventive thinking and creating another business model, a business model with feeding the human spirit as its primary directive. The day I realized this, I got so busy reinventing myself and my work that I had zero time for worrying about what someone else was doing. I have 15 years of experience, a 6 digit education and a lifetime of examples of fearless social change agents and I think what I have to say is worth hearing. Ain't shit wrong with relentless self-promotion if your product is exceptional. So get to it, people! Make something happen for yourselves and for us, your audience. Remind us of our history, of when we were great, of when we were broken and give us some perspective on how much possibility lies ahead of us. We've been eagerly awaiting your arrival. Don't leave us hanging.
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