March 2018 - JuVee Productions

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The History of the Hollywood Sign

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Leo Braudy is Leo S. Bing Chair in English and American Literature at the University of Southern California Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

Every year at the Oscars, the cameras pan to the famed Hollywood sign and its bold white letters.

Ask someone today what the sign symbolizes, and the same words will likely crop up: Movies. Stardom. Glamour.

But as I point in my book on the Hollywood sign, the sign didn’t always represent fame and fortune. As the city changed, so did the meaning of the sign, which, at one point, was even considered a public nuisance.

Come to … Hollywoodland?
California has long possessed the lure of material and personal fulfillment.

What started as a destination for those hoping to strike gold became, in the late 19th century, a mecca for anyone with real or imagined ailments. The state’s temperate climate and natural springs, guidebooks claimed, possessed “restorative powers for weakened dispositions.”

The state’s gold has since been drained, and the quest for perfect health has spread to rest of the country. But the erection of the famed Hollywood sign in 1923 marked the start of another phase, one still with us today.

During that decade, a real estate development group, one of whose principal backers was Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, built a large sign – essentially a billboard – on an unnamed mountain between the Los Angeles basin and the San Fernando Valley.

“Hollywoodland,” the sign read. Its 40,000 blinking light bulbs advertised a new housing development built to accommodate the city’s surging population, which more than doubled during the 1920s to become the fifth largest in the country, as the city drew people from all over the country for its weather, open spaces and jobs.

The city of Hollywood had been absorbed into Los Angeles only a decade earlier. At the time, it was a wealthy area that had grudgingly accepted the movie business. Many mansions dotted the hillsides below the sign, and utopian communities like Krotona, the U.S. headquarters of a mystical organization called the Theosophical Society, had sprung up in the foothills and on the flats.

Accordingly, early advertising for Hollywoodland emphasized the development’s exclusivity. It would offer an escape from the smog, dirt and unwelcome neighbors of downtown Los Angeles.

Saving the sign
Because the sign holds such a prominent place in the nation’s cultural imagination today, it may be surprising to learn that it wasn’t until fairly recently that it achieved its iconic status.

In the 1930s and 1940s, the sign makes an appearance in only a few of the movies that were about Hollywood or the movie industry. Other Hollywood institutions, like the Brown Derby restaurant, tended to represent the film world.

In the 1940s, Los Angeles – as both city and symbol – started to change. A dense smog settled over the metropolis, which would be featured as the grim, shadowy setting of noir films like “The Big Sleep” and “Double Indemnity.”

The sign – a little dingier, a little more unslightly – reflected the changing city. Since it was originally intended as an advertisement, few had considered its permanence or long-term significance.

The hillside where it had been built was dangerously steep; workers had cut the letters from thin sheet metal, which they tacked onto telephone poles. Heavy winds could easily rip the letters away, and by the late 1940s, there had been so much deterioration that the city of Los Angeles proposed to tear it down, calling it a dangerous public nuisance.

Color photo of the Hollywood sign with blue sky above
The Hollywood Sign after a 2005 refurbishment (Photo by David Livingston/Getty Images)
That dismissive view of the sign began to change in 1949, when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce told the city that it would take over its ownership and maintenance. With that exchange, the “land” suffix was dropped. We could say that this is the point that the Hollywood sign we know today was actually born.

However, improvements and maintenance occurred in fits and starts. By the early 1970s, committees were being formed to “save” the sign in order to restore it beyond shoddy paint jobs and patchwork repairs.

Finally, in 1978 a committee headed by Hugh Hefner and Alice Cooper collected the funds – about $27,000 per letter – to not simply repair, but rebuild the sign.

Today the big white letters are a permanent fixture in the Los Angeles landscape, and it’s even withstood the attempts of adventurous vandals to emulate the art student who, in 1976, tweaked the sign to read “Hollyweed.”

The ConversationIn their own way, these vandals are trying to carve out their own slice of the Hollywood dream – a quest not for gold or for health, but for recognition and fame, whether by talent, ambition or selfie.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation, an online publication that features academics writing about their research and ideas for the public. KQED and The Conversation are partners in the California Dream project, a collaboration looking at the Golden State’s promise, whether we are achieving it, and the future of California.

Disability Community Deserves More Visibility in Hollywood

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Diversity and inclusion are two important cultural topics gaining attention and focus by employers nationwide, including Hollywood. And yet, disability is almost always overlooked in this conversation. This award season, in looking across the many films and television shows honored, why are there so few that represent our country’s most diverse population — the disability community?

One in five Americans has a disability, making it the largest minority population, some 57 million strong. However, our stories, meaningful and varied, often go untold. People with disabilities are the most underrepresented population across entertainment and media, with too few opportunities afforded in front of or behind the camera. Variety’s recent article on a USC study noted of the top 900 films between 2007 and 2016, just 2.7% of characters were portrayed as having a disability. What’s more, in most cases these characters are played by an actor without a disability, further limiting industry opportunities for the talented actors with a disability.

People with disabilities “have virtually no influence in cinema and the enduring myths that are being created about them are by able-bodied filmmakers,” notes a recent op-ed article for the Guardian. “The industry is not giving a voice to a huge section of our society and that needs to change,” the piece concludes, making the point that diversity is good for business; it sells tickets. Just look at how female-directed and -starring films like “Wonder Woman” or largely diverse casts like “Get Out” are outperforming at the box office. Likewise, it’s time for genuine disability-forward projects to grace the big and small screens.

Frances McDormand’s Alleged Oscar Thief Arrested
Oscars: Jordan Peele’s WTF Moment, Disney Studios ‘Coco’ Congrats Among Top Social Posts
Many global brands agree. Fortune 500 companies, like Toyota, Gerber, Target and Guinness, have dedicated national advertising to reflect disability in constructive and relatable ways, while using this same airtime to promote their products. Comcast NBCUniversal and Google make significant R&D investments in “disability-friendly” products and marketing them, as such. From product innovations such as Nike FlyEase, to athlete sponsorships, and global marketing campaigns, Nike has a long history of serving athletes with disabilities.

National media is beginning to provide more prominent space for disability viewpoints. For example, the New York Times established the first ongoing disability opinion series to give people with disabilities a national platform.

As a result of such awareness efforts, public perception of disability is undergoing a positive transformation. These are great strides forward, but we still have a long way to go. Here’s where YOU come in.

Entertainment is one of the most effective ways to influence public perception and advance social change. The industry has the incomparable ability to help shape the way the world defines and views disability.

We are not asking for your altruism. Iconic brands now understand the potential buying power, waking up to this virtually untapped disability market. Recent estimates show people with disabilities represent a market of more than $200 billion annually. This demographic represents new buying potential for the entertainment industry to creatively leverage.

Consider taking these simple steps forward. First, be more inclusive in your hiring practices and casting. The next time you cast a project, make it commonplace to give people with disabilities a chance. Second, when hiring extras for a crowd shot, include at least one person with a disability.
Become involved in the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge. This film challenge gives aspiring filmmakers — with and without disabilities — the platform to collaborate, tell creative stories and showcase disability in its many forms. Its winners receive invaluable access to entertainment professionals, opening the door to a notoriously difficult industry to enter. Many past winners credit the challenge for creating greater industry opportunities. Resources and support from entertainment partners help grow the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge and expand our impact across the entertainment industry, and beyond. Sponsorship dollars and promotional and in-kind support are vital if we truly want to accelerate change.

Engage with us via social media. Encourage filmmakers to enter competitions like the Easterseals Disability Film Challenge, so that we increase the number of interesting stories shared about the diverse lives of people with disabilities.

Every day we make generalizations and stereotype people with disabilities — and we may not even realize we are doing it. Easterseals just launched “Change the way you see disability,” a public service campaign, using authentic experiences, to directly confront preconceived notions about others. We offer our campaign as a place for you to start.

The time is now. True inclusion will happen when people with disabilities have a prominent seat at the creative table. The path forward is expanded employment opportunities for people with disabilities in front of and behind the camera and increased representation of people with disabilities in more storylines. Help us inspire change.

How One Woman Challenged Discrimination in Hollywood 75 Years Ago

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At the 90th Academy Awards on Sunday, at a time when women in Hollywood are helping to drive the national conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace, the question of how the #MeToo and Times Up movements will show up on the red carpet is as relevant as the question of who will win. But, though other events of this year’s Hollywood awards season have been preceded by announced protest plans, there’s a reason why such has not been the case for the Oscars.

“It’s really important that you know that Time’s Up is not about the red carpet,” Shonda Rhimes has said. “And those women you saw on the red carpet representing Time’s Up are now off the red carpet working their butts off being activists.”

But those decisions about the relationship between movies and activism aren’t new. “Every year we have this amnesia about what’s happened in the past,” Ellen C. Scott, assistant professor and vice chair of Cinema and Media Studies at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, says.

One thing that is new is the set of resources and technology that today’s activists can use to get their message out. Their predecessors often had to work even harder to be heard. One example of that phenomenon was Almena Davis Lomax. In 1941, in part to address that problem, she ended up founding a whole newspaper, the Los Angeles Tribune. “She was a woman whose career as a journalist was constrained both by her race and her gender,” says her son Michael L. Lomax, who is now President and Chief Executive Officer of the United Negro College Fund. “She had to sharp-elbow her way into journalism, and she did that — happily.”

The paper drew a prominent readership from not only black radicals such as Langston Hughes, but also white radicals such as Dalton Trumbo. Martin Luther King Jr. himself would say her writing on the Montgomery bus boycott was “journalism at its best,” rendering a “great service for our cause” in a July 5, 1965, letter to her. But the paper’s coverage of political and cultural issues relevant to the local African-American community was where it stood out most. Of course, since it was based in Tinseltown, that included what Hollywood was doing — or more accurately, wasn’t doing — in terms of fairly depicting African Americans on screen.

“Mother was very concerned about the portrayal of black women,” says Michael Lomax. She was frustrated by the “stereotypical romanticizing of some older image of black folks, as happy servants and contented slaves,” and black women as “oversexed and primitive,” and black men as “brutal figures” and the black community in general as full of promiscuous gamblers and drug addicts.

“She was the most consistent picketer of Hollywood films of any Black activists of the Hollywood era,” Scott writes in her book Cinema Civil Rights: Regulation, Repression, and Race in the Classical Hollywood Era.

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She objected to The Little Colonel (1935) and Rainbow on the River (1936) because black actors Hattie McDaniel and Louise Beavers played black women who didn’t want to be free, and, with Leon Washington of the Los Angeles Sentinel, she picketed the movie Tales of Manhattan (1942) for depicting African Americans as ignorant sharecroppers, according to Scott. Signs used during the protest read “Hollywood, take your feet off the Negroes’ neck” and “March on Washington Movement–West Coast Branch,” in a reference to the activists then advocating for the desegregation of the armed forces.

She also spoke up against the 1959 movie Imitation of Life, starring Lana Turner. The plot involves the light-skinned daughter of a black single mother who wants to pass as white, and who is beaten by a male suitor when he learns about her background. “This scene is not only a libel against the Negro, it is a libel against white America,” Lomax wrote in her review of the film. “The Imitation of Life lies in the false notions of color and racial superiority of the white man.”

On Feb. 2, 1959, Lomax announced she would picket the movie, in a statement that the Hollywood Reporter picked up: “Imitation of Life…is a libel on the Negro race,” her message said. “It libels our children and the Negro mother [and] should be banned in the interest of national unity, harmony, peace, decency and inter-racial respect.”

But, just as today’s Time’s Up advocates have said that their work must go beyond the red carpet, Lomax was not satisfied holding a mirror up to Hollywood. She wanted to do the same for the rest of the world, too.

She shut down her paper in the early 1960s and headed east to cover the Freedom Riders who were participating in the desegregation of public transport in 1961 under the leadership of Martin Luther King.

Her sharp, biting commentary even made its way into the Letters to the Editor section of TIME. After the Watts Riots, the violent clash between police and African Americans in L.A., in August of 1965, she wrote that “white people missed the point of the riots, which guarantees that they will happen again.” Many times her views rendered her an “outlier,” says her son Michael, from telling Dr. King that his protests were too peaceful to telling TIME in another letter in the editor that Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes were “ridiculous.” She also aimed her sharp wit at racism she saw in the mainstream Women’s Lib movement, calling it “a frivolous bid for attention by the most privileged and coddled women in the world who don’t know when they are well off,” in a 1973 Ebony oped. White women “want to get out of their kitchens,” she wrote, “We want to get out of their kitchens!”

Now, years after her 2011 death, her son sees her legacy in ongoing conversations about how white and black women experience sexism differently, including conversations about whether black women are overlooked within the #MeToo movement.

“[As] a proto black feminist she was ahead of her time. Social media would have been perfect for her because she wouldn’t have been muted. But I don’t think she would have been living comfortably. She would have been pushing boundaries,” Lomax says. “She would be on the side of the women, obviously, but I think she’d also be telling the story of women of color who have been not always as clearly identified as both initiators of this movement and victims of the male-dominated industry.”

Viola Davis for The PORTER EDIT

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There is no shortage of women raising their voices against abuse and injustice right now. But what a woman, and what a voice, is Viola Davis. On January 20, the Oscar-winning actress took to the stage at the Women’s March in LA to speak about rape and trafficking, and how no change is great unless it costs us something. She did the equivalent with words of reaching into our chests and tearing at our heartstrings.

And not for the first time, either. On winning an Emmy in 2015 for her role as law professor Annalise Keating in ABC’s hit series How to Get Away with Murder (the first African American ever to win in the Lead Actress category), Davis didn’t squander the moment with thank yous. Instead, she talked about the lack of opportunity for women of color, quoting her heroine Harriet Tubman, and delivered one of the most rousing speeches of the year: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes – people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.”

One newspaper called it “a masterclass in delivery”. But they might as well have called it a masterclass in one woman knowing exactly how she feels and not being afraid to say it. Which is how I find her, sitting on a sofa in a house in the Hollywood Hills, talking frankly about everything you’d want her to set the record straight about: #MeToo; ‘Time’s Up’; the gender pay gap; #OscarsSoWhite; and, well, the How to Get Away with Murder/Scandal crossover episode, which brings together the characters of Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington) and Keating for the first time ever. “I don’t know how else to describe it,” Davis says, beaming. “It felt like we were creating history. I mean, to have two really strong, well-written, well-rounded characters in the same room together, who are women of color? It’s black-girl magic at its best.”

“I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are [usually] relegated to…auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person who is always described as ‘sassy’”

Davis knows all too well that roles like Annalise Keating don’t come along often, “especially for a woman who looks like me,” she says. “I’m 52 and darker than a paper bag. Women who look like me are relegated to the back of the bus, auditioning for crackheads and mammas and the person with a hand on her hip who is always described as ‘sassy’ or ‘soulful’. I’ve had a 30-year career and I have rarely gotten roles that are fleshed out, even a little bit. I mean, you wouldn’t think [these characters] have a vagina. Annalise Keating has changed the game. I don’t even care if she doesn’t make sense. I love that she’s unrestricted, that every week I actually have to fight [showrunner] Peter Nowalk not to have another love scene. When does that ever happen?”

Has playing voracious Annalise changed the way she sees herself sexually? “Yes, and it’s been a painful journey,” she says, laughing, presumably because these sex scenes often take place across desks and up against walls. “It costs me something,” she continues, more earnestly, “because very rarely in my career – and in my life – have I been allowed to explore that part of myself, to be given permission to know that is an aspect of my humanity, that I desire and am desired. I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, to be a certain size, to walk a certain way. Until I realized that what makes people lean in is when they see themselves. There’s no way I am going to believe that all women who are sexualized are size zero or two, all have straight hair, all look like sex kittens every time they go to bed and want sex from their man, all are heterosexual. I am mirroring women. I always say it is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual. That’s the difference.”

She breaks off: “That’s my daughter, by the way.” And there, standing behind me, is a pretty girl in a blue dress. “Say hi, Gigi! I’m doing an interview.” Mother and daughter blow kisses to each other across the room, and then the six-year-old, whose name is actually Genesis, scoots off with her nanny. It’s a side to Davis I’d like to see more of, the doting mother. I’d also like to see more of the off-duty side; the Davis who throws barbecues and drinks tequila and likes hot-tubbing with her actor-producer husband, Julius Tennon. “I’m actually fun,” she cries at one point, as if to free herself from all this serious talk. But we both know she has a lot more to say, including about race.

This Sunday, Davis will be attending the Oscars, after winning Best Supporting Actress last year for her role in Fences. But when I ask about the several nominations awarded to non-white artists this year, following 2017’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, she isn’t impressed. “Here’s the thing: it’s not about the Oscars,” she starts, “it’s about how we’re included in every aspect of the movie-making business. When you look at a role as a director or producer that is not ethnically specific, can you consider an actor of color, to invest in that talent? The problem is, if it’s not an urban or civil rights drama, they don’t see you in the story. People need to understand that they shouldn’t see people of color one way. We don’t always have to be slaves or in the ’hood or fighting the KKK. I could be in a romantic comedy. I could be in Gone Girl. Or Wild. I could be seen the same way as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore. I actually came from the same sort of background; I went to Juilliard, I’ve done Broadway. I’ve worked with the Steven Spielbergs. I should be seen the same way. That’s what I think is missing: imagination.”

There’s also the issue of pay, “especially for actresses of color,” she says. “If Caucasian women are getting 50% of what men are getting paid, we’re not even getting a quarter of what white women are getting paid. We don’t even get the magazine covers white women get. And that is not speaking in a way that is angry,” she adds. “They deserve everything they get paid. Nicole Kidman deserves it. Reese Witherspoon deserves it. Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Frances McDormand… But guess what – I deserve it too. So does Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Halle Berry. We’ve put the work in too.”

Does she think white actresses have a part to play in changing that? “I don’t want to tell anyone what to do,” she says, “but I think Jessica Chastain did a really boss move with Octavia Spencer [on their latest, as yet untitled project] by saying Octavia’s got to be paid the same as her. She actually upped Octavia’s quote for that movie because she took a salary cut. I think Caucasian women have to stand in solidarity with us. And they have to understand we are not in the same boat. Even a lot of female-driven events in Hollywood, like power luncheons – which I’ve been to, and are awesome by the way – there will be 3,000 women in that room and five of them are women of color. And it’s by invite! So, you’re not even inviting us.”

Jacket Roksanda; pants Racil; earrings Alighieri
“I always felt in playing sexuality you have to look a certain way, be a certain size. Until I realized that…I am mirroring [real] women. It is not my job to be sexy, it’s my job to be sexual”

Earrings Alighieri

Dress Cushnie et Ochs; earrings Annie Costello Brown
You can see why Davis is the perfect champion for this moment – she is unapologetic to her core. “Every time I do an interview,” she says, “I am always quick to say, I say it out of love but I got to speak my truth. If I don’t, it’s like a friggin’ cyst that hasn’t been popped. I don’t want to come off sounding bitter, because I’m not. I’m actually quite joyful in my life; my life could not have played out any better. But my authenticity is my rebellion.”

Jane Fonda, of all people, once praised Davis for having presence. And it’s no exaggeration to say that, for much of our conversation, I feel goosebumps hearing her speak, particularly when talk turns to #MeToo. When I ask if she thinks the movement would have gained traction if the women who first came forward had been women of color, she cuts me off even before I’ve finished – “No,” she says. “No. Recy Taylor came forward in 1944 when she was gang raped by six men in Alabama. Tarana Burke was the founder of the #MeToo movement in 2006. There are plenty of black women who have come forward. I don’t think people feel we deserve the same empathy. Or investment. We are not as valued. If the story wasn’t coming out of Hollywood, and the predator wasn’t someone like [Harvey] Weinstein, I don’t think it would have gotten the spotlight [either].”

Dress Michael Lo Sordo
“I went to Juilliard, I’ve done Broadway. I’ve worked with the Steven Spielbergs. I should be seen the same way [as white actresses]. That’s what I think is missing: imagination”
But why, in her view, have these allegations surfaced now? “Fannie Lou Hamer, the ’60s civil rights activist, has a saying: ‘I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.’ I think that sums it up. All the women I have known and had private conversations with have been sexually assaulted on some level. But we talk in private. I think after a while you hit a wall, and then it becomes a no-brainer. You have to speak up in the midst of no one speaking up for you.”

Davis has talked unspecifically about her own #MeToo story and I ask if she will ever share it. “Oh no, not only do I have my own story, I have my own stories. I am telling you, I have had men touch me in inappropriate ways throughout my childhood,” she says. “I have had men follow me on any given day – and I am saying during the day, at one o’clock in the afternoon – and expose themselves to me. I remember one day, when I was 27, waiting at the bus stop in Rhode Island for my niece to get out of pre-school. I was probably there 25 minutes, and I am not lying because I counted, 26 cars drove by with men in them who solicited me, harassed me, yelled at me, verbally abused me. Some of these men had baby seats in the back. And yeah, it makes you feel like crap, it makes you feel like, what would a childhood be if that were removed? And it’s hard to separate that stain from who you are. You tattoo it on yourself. Those personal experiences have allowed me to feel compassion for the women who have spoken up.”

Inevitably, we get talking about the #MeToo backlash, and the women who have publicly criticized the movement, who Davis thinks are missing the point. “Hollywood is a microcosm,” she says, “and however you feel about the movement, it has given women permission to talk about their sexual assault and be a community with each other.” She slaps her hands together. “Community, that’s a good word. I know it’s a ‘kumbaya’ word, but you know what, the minute you feel isolated and you’re on your own, is the minute you’re dead.”

Jacket and pants Racil
“There are plenty of black women who have come forward [with #MeToo stories]. I don’t think people feel we deserve the same empathy. Or investment. We are not as valued”

Top Rosetta Getty; pants Nili Lotan; earrings Alighieri
She tells a story of being sat next to a life coach at a party. “He kept saying, ‘Viola, a lot of people feel disillusioned once they get everything they want, because everybody fights for success, they get there and realize they forgot the next goal. And the next goal is significance.’ That is what I would say to women who are denouncing the ‘Time’s Up’ movement: what is your significance? What do you want to leave the world? If you ever have a daughter or niece or young girl who looks up to you, who wants to say, ‘You know what, I remember when I was three and sexually assaulted…’ You can either choose significance, or you can choose that soundbite that took two minutes to give a Twitter feed.”

She goes on. “I always say life is like a baton and you got to run your leg of the race and pass it on to the next great runner. I want to pass a fabulous baton and leave something that makes me immortal, in a fabulous way. I want to leave an elixir that people can taste and that makes them feel alive.”

All I can think is, me too.

Major film industry gender equality movement launches in France

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The aim of the initiative, launched on the eve of the country’s prestigious César film awards this evening, is to put in place concrete steps to bring about equality across the business, says film sales executive Bérénice Vincent, co-founder and spokesperson for the collective.

The initiative is among a raft of gender equality campaigns to have sprung up across the film world amid the ongoing reflection on female representation in the cinema business sparked by the anti-sexual harassment #MeToo movement last year.

It launches, however, against a complicated backdrop in France, where there has been a mixed response within the film industry and beyond to the related issues of sexual harassment and gender inequality in the cinema business.

“In spite of the shockwave of #MeToo, French cinema has not really been shaken by the Weinstein affair, and nothing concrete has come out of it. It’s raised awareness of inequalities, but our expectations are for this to go further and for speeches to be joined by actions,” explained Vincent.

“Discussions were begun across different circles in the industry which we’re growing by bringing together all sides of the profession, both on the creative and industry side,” she continued. “The idea is to seize the moment in a positive way and to structure the reflection around the question of inequalities and the distribution of power.”

Vincent said the collective would act as an “action think tank” that would “create tools” aimed at changing present day thinking as well as put pressure on public institutions and the private section to make structural changes fostering gender equality.

Artistic figures joining the movement include directors Catherine Corsini, Justine Triet, Valérie Donzelli, Virginie Despentes, Robin Campillo, Jacques Audiard, Laurent Cantet, Bertrand Bonello, Thomas Cailley and Houda Benyamina as well as actresses Léa Seydoux, Lily-Rose Depp, Clemence Poésy, Virginie Efira and Natacha Regnier.

On the industry side, members include producers Didar Domehri (Bang Gang , A Modern Love Story), Melita Toscan du Plantier (Eva, La Quietud), Caroline Bonmarchand (Souvenir) and Benedicte Couvreur (Girlhood) as well as cinema press attaché Viviana Adriani; distributors Sarah Chazelle at Jour2Fête and Michèle Halberstadt at ARP Sélection and Carole Scotta and Caroline Benjo, founding co-chiefs of production of leading independent distribution and exhibition company Haut et Court.

A number of executives from the French sales scene are also involved including Pyramide International’s Agathe Valentin, Bac’s Mathieu Robinet, Kinology’s Gaelle Mareschi, Urban Distribution International’s Delphyne Besse and Rym Hachimi at The Bureau Sales.

César inequalities
As part of its activities the collective has also launched a new website setting out it aims as well as sharing data highlighting gender imbalances throughout the cinema chain in France.

Tying in with its launch on the eve of the Césars, the body looked at the statistics for past awards.

The study revealed that over the past 42 editions, women accounted for 548 out of 2812 nominations, or 19%. In terms of awards, women had won 134 Césars out of 670 possible awards, accounting for 20% of the total.

Looking specifically at the best director category, just 21 women had been nominated out of 219 best director nominations and only one woman had ever won the coveted best director prize: Tonie Marshall for Venus Beauty in 2010.

Women fared better in the editing category where they had won 31 of the past 47 editing awards, representing 66% of the total. But across the rest of the craft awards their presence was minimal.

BVOD (Blockchain Video on Demand), “Crewfunding” and VR Enthusiasm

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Artificial intelligence (AI), the blockchain and mixed reality were at the center of the recently completed Berlin Film Festival’s newly expanded Horizons section. Taking place within the European Film Market (EFM), the 2018 program’s focus on buzzy technological innovations bucked the predictions of some skeptics by drawing sold-out crowds and with several tech companies choosing the festival to launch their platforms.

The continued expansion of virtual reality (VR) was also in discussion, with a wide range of projects, including the virtual behind-the-scenes of Wes Anderson’s opener Isle of Dogs, available for viewing in the festival’s inaugural VR cinema.

EFM Director Matthijs Wouter Knol explained at the event that the industry is in a digital transformation. Blockchain technology and artificial intelligence, he said, will affect the way the film industry does business, and the way it will choose films to fund, buy or sell in the future. “They [AI and blockchains] offer the possibility to rethink how systems are working and for us to find out if and how the involved changes are adaptable to the film industry,” he said.


Bewildered yet curious filmmakers attended the blockchain workshop, where a range of startups and executives explained the fundamentals behind the decentralized system that uses cryptography to create and keep secure exchanges and crypto-currency to process financial transactions.

“We should not confuse this with bitcoin,” insisted Digital Media and Blockchain consultant Manuel Badel, who separated the utility of blockchain technology from the current spate of ICOs (initial coin offerings), which can appear to be nothing more than digital currency “pump and dump” schemes. He instead said the blockchain would ultimately find uses outside of pure currency exchange and offer alternative ways for both film industry individuals and companies to conduct business. Badel provided examples where the service could benefit media organizations, including intellectual property (IP) protection, digital rights management for tracking royalties, automated contracts with stakeholders, residual payment systems for production members and distribution companies, crowdfunding support, open sourced creative collaboration like scriptwriting and decentralized content distribution.

Announced during the EFM was Swedish start-up Cinezen Blockchained Entertainment AB, that deems itself the first decentralized and community-driven blockchain video-on-demand (BVOD) distribution model. Sales agents including Denmark’s Level K and the UK’s Celsius Entertainment have come on board, signing worldwide BVOD agreements that are similar to licensing for transactional video-on-demand (TVOD), except that consumers pay for the content with Ethereum, the world’s second largest crypto-currency after Bitcoin. The system does not require invoicing and royalty reporting as every content provider is part of a blockchain network that has direct access to ”incorruptible and transparent transaction data”.

Since the project started in August 2017, Cinezen’s CEO and co-founder Sam Klebanov has met with over 250 rights holders, both sales agents and local distributors, with, he says, an overwhelmingly positive response. The company vets an official launch later this year, while an alpha version will be made available for public testing before Cannes.

Further demonstrating how quickly blockchain technology is finding practical purposes within the film business, Glenn O’Farrell, a lawyer and CEO of Toronto-based public media organization TFO, said at the event that use of the blockchain is already enabling TFO to reduce costs and billing complexities by removing intermediaries and allowing the organization to deal directly with financial partners.

Several businesses within EFM’s Startup section, where technology businesses are coupled with film professionals, also included blockchain within their business models. Based out of London and New York, Big Couch co-founders Irina Albita and Maria Tanjala have coined the term “crewfunding” as part of their business strategy, which utilizes blockchain to help independent film producers fund their films. Toronto-based research and development studio Three Lefts meanwhile has developed a “smart contract” program using blockchain solutions. And Harold Dumur, founder of Montreal-based OVA, is integrating blockchain to his open sourced platform that allows non-professionals to develop their own VR/AR environments.

Additional speakers included Berlin/Brandenburg-based Chris Hobcroft whose open-sourced video-sharing company LivePeer is using blockchain to create a live streaming platform in which all participants have the ability to shape the business, rather than one single company or individual. Hobcroft is also using currency tokens as a means to further drive the business financially.

“It’s the way forward,” insisted Matthew Rappard, CTO and co-founder of Three Lefts. “Think about a production where you can easily hire non-union actors and crew members, where you can more efficiently work with third-party rights holders and where you can easily follow the trail of money for residuals. Then in one click, everyone can quickly be paid.”

Rappard also mentioned Disney has its own blockchain titled Dragonchain that allows the multi-faceted conglomerate to better interact with its studios, subcontractors and third party organizations.

Artificial Intelligence

The complexities of artificial intelligence were broken down in another panel, with “machine learning” as the on-topic buzz word. The group of panelists included Robert Richter, Google’s EMEA Partnerships Solution Exec, who explained that the function of machine learning is to give computers the ability to learn pattern recognition. Richter gave examples such as contextual ad targeting, that matches keyword-targeted ads to sites within the Google Display Network to assist advertisers focused on performance and cost-efficient conversions. He also referred to the company’s translation API that VICE is currently using to expand its global reach, as well as Google’s video intelligence API that allows users to search every moment of their video file within their catalogue.

“Imagine you have a large archive, or you have a lot of content from a film production, and you want to search for a specific moment. The pre-trained API can find it in seconds,” said Richter.

Specifically on the film side, Scriptbook was on hand to explain their script analysis platform that utilizes a stacking of algorithms to determine a script’s “DNA.” Using Suburbicon as an example, the company’s co-founder Nadira Azermai explained they correctly predicted its financial forecast through an analysis of the script’s projected cast and crew, its characters’ sentiments and a comparison to other like-minded films.

“Our machine learning algorithms are capable of automatically reading and analyzing a script, and from there generating an assessment of a film’s commercial value prior to financing, producing and distributing,” said Azermai.

Dr Marion Jenke of German film and television production company UFA GmbH was quick to put her hand up, insisting the likes of predictive analysis can be limiting. She used an example of an ad they placed on the television program Deutschland 83 whose audience trajectory was different than what the algorithms suggested was appropriately targeted for the popular German spy series.

“We wanted to be creative, we wanted to target different types of audiences, and it worked,” said Jenke, who was also dismissive of the secretive algorithms that the likes of Amazon and Netflix rely on.

Other topics of discussion were 20th Century Fox’s trailer for the 2016 film Morgan in which the marketers hired IBM supercomputer “Watson” to select the most appropriately dramatic scenes for a human editor to include. Richter said this process didn’t replace the human editor but instead sped up the process, allowing the editor to focus on more creative tasks. While this type of AI is still in the early stages, Richter said it’s likely the industry will see more of this type of footage evaluation in the near future. “We’re seeing how AI can make more interactive viewing experiences for less of the costs, while helping creators personalize content,” he explained.

Mixed Reality

While VR and AR may seem like they have taken a quieter turn, industry executives at the VR NOW Summit Day insisted the medium is still in full swing.

Following on from Sundance where CityLights acquired the three-part VR series SPHERES for a low-to-mid seven figures and where Dogwoof purchased the 15-minute interactive VR experience Zikr: A Sufi Revival, which also includes location-based installations and an interactive online version, chief content officer and co-founder of Littlstar Matthew Collado said his premium VR network would now start charging for content.

The move is integral for VR creators like Montreal-based Felix & Paul, whose work — Wild and Isle Of Dogs Behind The Scenes co-created with FoxNext (formerly Fox Innovation Lab); the Emmy-winning The People’s House (centering around eight years of the Obamas at The White House) and the eye-popping Cirque du Soleil piece, Dreams of ‘O — is helping to drive the medium forward.

“We are constantly working out how to streamline our budgets since financing is still not there yet,” said Felix & Paul co-founder Stephane Rituit. “We need to demonstrate there is a market, so for networks like Littlstar to start charging is important. This helps us better convince investors.”

Both Rituit and Collado were also excited about the continued innovation on the technology side, with handset creators such as Oculus, Google and HTC Vive working on less expensive standalone headsets that won’t require a device.

Furthermore, Samsung’s second-generation 360 camera has faster connectivity and support for more devices and Sony Playstation’s latest Gold Wireless Headset is lighter, more comfortable and works with Sony’s PS VR console as well.

“These are ways we can entice people to try VR,” explained Collado. “But we need to keep focusing on content. Right now, we rely heavily on established IPs and marketing budgets.”

Rituit said Felix & Paul Studios are working hard to change this, with upcoming projects such as Vikings Valhalla, where MGM is giving them “carte blanche to explore VR, and not marketing.”

Antoine Cayrol of France-based Atlas V, who helped co-produce SPHERES, also said extending content across both linear and non-linear platforms, such as VR apps, YouTube channels, location-based VR and three-screen devices, is key to attracting audiences to the work.

“It’s just like releasing a film — we have to think in terms of getting am A-list cast and film-makers attached, followed by minimum guarantees, co-production financing and support from government funds, as more countries are realizing there is a market for VR,” added Cayrol.

MK2’s Senior Sales Executive Victoire Thevenin said the company’s foray into location-based VR continues to expand, as does their acquisition of VR series which they can distribute as individual segments or together as a series.

The session concluded with a look at the continued growth of MR, with all panelists eager to see this year’s roll-out of Magic Leap One’s mixed-reality headset with Digital Lightfield technology and the Microsoft MR capture studios that are opening in San Francisco and London. Apple is now also touting their ARKit with the iPhone X that combines device motion tracking, camera scene capture and advanced scene processing.

“The market is going to change very quickly once mixed reality makes its way into the consumer market. But first, we need more content,” said Cayrol.

EFM Director Wouter Knol added, “EFM’s new VR cinema allowed producers of VR content to book market screening slots, similar as they would for theatrical films. It is evident there is a growing demand to experience and buy VR content.”

The Man Who Made Black Panther Cool

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“I’m an asshole. I’m abrasive. I am so sure that I’m right about virtually everything. I can sing you an aria of reasons to not like me,” says comics writer Christopher Priest, his bass voice rising to the brink of anger but never quite tipping over. “Not liking me because I’m black is so juvenile and immature, because there’s many reasons to not like me.” He’s speaking, as he often does, about the racism — both overt and structural — that he’s faced in the comics industry over his 40-year career. But that set of attributes, seen from another angle, can apply to the reasons to like him, or at least admire him — he’s unwaveringly outspoken, endearingly opinionated, as well as a pioneer in the comics industry. He’s also likely the only comics writer to have taken breaks from his career at various times to toil as a musician, pastor, and bus driver.

Priest, who’s 56, is about to see some of his most influential work go wide in a major way. His turn-of-the-millennium run at Marvel Comics, when he was writing the character Black Panther, has served as an inspiration for this year’s feverishly anticipated Marvel Studios film Black Panther. Given the comics world’s self-image of liberal inclusivity, and the fact that Priest is the first black writer to work full time at either Marvel or DC, starting with his first regular writing gig back in 1983, you might think he is long established as an elder statesman of the industry.

But until recently, Priest had bounced from job to job (including the aforementioned bus driving) and was largely denied the recognition he deserves. Indeed, talk to comics historians and they’ll have to pause for a minute and think before they conclude that, yes, he probably was the first African-American writer to truly break that barrier in superhero comics. Even among fervent fans, his milestones are far from common knowledge. He’d worked in quasi-obscurity for three decades before angrily retiring in 2005, opting to pursue work as a man of God in Colorado.

During that period of self-imposed exile, though, something happened, something Priest himself finds curious: He not only became recognized; he became a kind of icon. His run on Black Panther now merits its own multivolume reprint, Black Panther by Christopher Priest: The Complete Collection. He has reentered the spotlight, returning to Marvel — a place with which he has had a contentious relationship, to say the least — to write a new title, as well as taking on DC’s flagship team-up series, Justice League. To his surprise, he finds that crowds now pack convention halls to see him speak.

At a moment when Marvel Studios is making a self-consciously bold statement on inclusivity with Black Panther, Priest’s breaking of a color line deserves to finally be acknowledged. While Priest did not invent the Black Panther character — a superhero and king of a fictional African nation who had been kicking around Marvel for decades — in many ways he revolutionized it.

“He had the classic run on Black Panther, period, and that’s gonna be true for a long time,” says Ta-Nehisi Coates, who currently writes Black Panther for Marvel. “People had not put as much thought into who and what Black Panther was before Christopher started writing the book.” While previously the Panther had been written as a superhero, Coates notes, “[Priest] thought that Black Panther was a king.” It seems doubtful there’d even be a movie about him today if not for Priest’s refurbishing. Yet Priest himself has been chronically underappreciated.

Excerpt from Black Panther. Photo: Mark Texeira and Brian Haberlin/Courtesy of Marvel

Priest is nothing if not candid about his own career and the industry as a whole. In interviews and copious self-published essays, he speaks fiercely about injustices in comics, naming names and pointing fingers at people responsible for failures he thinks have been undeservedly ascribed to him. You might say that’s just a case of his being, to use his words, an asshole, but he’s frank about his own shortcomings and poor decisions. Still, he sees his predicament as part of a larger pattern. “When I read these self-congratulatory histories of Marvel and DC, they completely omit not just me but other persons of color or firsts,” he tells me. “Who was the first woman editor? Who was the first woman penciler? And I think part of it is that the people who were assembling these histories of it just didn’t think it was important. But these things do count, and they really do matter.”

Priest has not always been Christopher Priest — he grew up poor in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens and, back then, his name was James Christopher Owsley. Young James was, to put it indelicately, a dweeb. And the kids in his neighborhood weren’t very fond of dweebs. “It was a fairly hostile environment,” Priest recalls. “I got beat up a lot in that environment. I was mugged in that environment. I had guns pointed at me in anger in that environment.” Later in life, he’d write about lower-class black urban life — which he remembers unromantically. “I’d climb into the closet and just close the door and cup my hands over my ears and try to scream out this noise and just cry and go, ‘I hate being poor. I can’t stand being poor.’ ”

But the closet also brought a kind of aesthetic solace for young James. “I’d go in there and I’d read comics,” he says. “It was a big storage area, and I would climb in there, and I would put on a little lamp, and that was the only place I could get away from the maniacs.” He started out perusing DC, then moved on to Marvel, and he became an obsessive reader and collector. He dreamed of working at the latter of those two publishing giants, and during high school he began an internship there in 1978 — something no black person had ever done.

Before we go further, we should note that Priest was not the first black person to work in comics as a whole. Though small, there had been a tradition of African-American and mixed-race people having gigs in the industry, stretching from Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman in the early part of the 20th century; through Jackie Ormes, a black woman who drew terrific strips for the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier from the ’30s to the ’50s; to sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany, who did bits of comics writing here and there; and Marvel artist Billy Graham, who helped shape the character Luke Cage in the early ’70s and occasionally helped out with some writing duties. Their contributions should not be understated.

However, the fact remains that no black people had been full-time comics writers or editors at the so-called Big Two of Marvel or DC until Priest entered the scene. The editor-in-chief of Marvel at the time, a stubborn and revolutionary leader named Jim Shooter, tells me he didn’t even notice that the office had been lily-white prior to Priest’s arrival. As for Priest, Shooter has nothing but praise. “He was crazy, high energy, and did everything you could ever ask of him,” Shooter says. “He started to wear roller skates so he could go back and forth on the floor. He was a really great kid and loved being there with all these creative people.”

Priest soon secured a gig as an assistant editor and became a full editor in 1984 at the tender age of 22. He also dipped his toe into writing: He penned a goofy one-off parody title called The Official Marvel No-Prize Book, then got a job writing a four-issue mini-series about longtime Captain America pal the Falcon, a black character. Then he was put on the long-running series Power Man and Iron Fist. He could do action with the best of them, but he was better at mixing humor and social commentary than anyone in the business at the time.

There’s a splendid scene in issue No. 121 of Power Man and Iron Fistwhere Power Man — who is black — finds himself chaperoning a shape-shifting alien who appears in the form of a white man. The alien orders some collard greens at a Harlem restaurant, and some nearby black patrons crack up: “You dig my man? He say, ‘And perhaps some collard greens!’” To defuse the situation, the alien tries to fit in by transforming into a jive-talking black man with an enormous ’fro, much to the patrons’ shock and disgust. “Check it, blood! Slide me a piece o’ the porgie on the down fry side, greens ’em beans!” the alien shouts earnestly. The patron grabs him by the collar. “You’re not funny, white man.” Few in mainstream comics were doing comedy this envelope pushing.

Excerpt from Power Man and Iron Fist. Photo: M.D. Bright, Jerry Acerno, Janet Jackson/Courtesy of Marvel

Unfortunately, Priest wasn’t as successful when he wasn’t holding the writer’s pen. His tenure as an editor was a disaster. “He wasn’t good at that,” Shooter recalls with a laugh. “He’s obviously a smart guy, but just had no interest in bureaucracy and wasn’t dealing real well with getting people to work on time and keeping a schedule and all that stuff.” His status as the only black editor made him a figure of inspiration and kinship for black freelance creators, which spurred some of his white co-workers to charge that he was coordinating some kind of African-American conspiracy. Priest responded by writing an open memo headlined “MARVEL WHITE SUPREMACY MEMO” identifying all the black creators he worked with and exactly why each one was present in the office.

“It was a terribly unhappy time of my life, both personally and professionally,” Priest later wrote of those years. He was put in charge of the Spider-Man titles, which he says was “an incredibly bad call. Saddling me with several beloved staffers as creative talent on books that constituted over $2 million of Marvel’s bottom line was a very bad idea.” He got into acrimonious fights with the writer-artist team on the lead Spidey title, Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz, fights so bad that DeFalco and Frenz would later create what seemed to be a thinly veiled parody of Priest (who was then going by Jim Owsley) named Aloysius Jamesly, a flashy and delusional architect who refuses to heed the critiques of his builders and declares, “Don’t bother me with such petty details! I am a genius! An artist! This building will be my masterpiece!” “And our nightmare,” whispers one of the employees.

Eventually, recalls Shooter, “I called him into my office and said, ‘I have to fire you,’ and he said, ‘Thank you.’ ” Priest continued writing, even as Shooter was ousted from the company, removing his final quasi-friend. After penning a hit 1987 story called Spider-Man vs. Wolverine, he wasn’t asked to do a sequel — something Priest suspects had to do with racism. “That bothered me more than anything else,” he says. “That’s where I realized, Okay, yeah, I’m a black guy. Not just a black guy, but I’m really not well-liked up there.” He published his final Marvel script and moved over to DC Comics to work on a few titles, but grew frustrated when he was put through what he saw as too many rewrites of the first issue of a series called Emerald Dawn. Pissed off yet again, Priest chose to go into exile and, as he recalls, “settled into a quiet life far, far away, driving big Greyhound-style buses for Suburban Transit in North Brunswick, New Jersey.”

During this period, Priest entered the sights of DC editor Mike Gold. A political radical who had once worked on the defense of the Chicago Seven as a media coordinator and had done extensive work with low-income residents of that city’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, Gold cared deeply about the lack of black representation in the comics industry. “It was difficult to hire any black person back then, because it was an old white-boys’ club. You’d get a lot of questions like ‘Why do you want him? Boy, I hear he’s not reliable,’ ” Gold says. Gold admired Priest’s work at Marvel for its cleverness and edge, so he reached out in an effort to bring Priest in from the cold and make him an editor. Priest initially declined, but Gold was persistent.

Priest eventually took the gig in 1990 but kept his bus driver’s job as a backup. He raised eyebrows for putting up a poster of a gun-toting Malcolm X over his desk. It was during this period that he started going by Christopher Priest, to the confusion of his co-workers. Priest would later write, in an odd, third-person bio on his website, “He never discusses the true reasons behind his name change but insists every story you may have heard about it is absolutely true.” (Asked about it now, he says the name change, which came after his divorce, was because he wanted a more distinctive moniker.) Then the wheels came off of his DC run when he became infuriated with various editorial disputes over a title called Xero that left him feeling the company only had “callous disregard and contempt” for the book — and, one infers, for him. He left DC for nearly 20 years.

Luckily for whatever cult fan base Priest may have attracted, his finest work to date began just as his time at DC was crashing and burning. As the century ended, Priest wrote two series that are his greatest legacies: Quantum and Woody and Black Panther. The former was a project with artist M.D. Bright for a short-lived publisher called Acclaim Comics, a buddy-comedy about two men — one responsible and black, the other louche and white — who gain superpowers that require them to meet every 24 hours.

Excerpt from Quantum and Woody. Photo: M.D. Bright, Greg Adams, Atomic Paintbrush/Courtesy of Valiant Comics

Told in nonlinear fashion, it was a delightful challenge to read: Details were withheld, recollections were unreliable, and jokes often required a detailed memory of what had gone before. In Priest’s mind, it was a “dysfunctional Batman and Robin starring Eriq La Salle (the nearly postal Dr. Benton from ER) and Woody Harrelson (reprising his character from White Men Can’t Jump and Money Train),” as he put it in an essay. As was becoming even more typical of Priest, it dared to poke at race in a way no one else was in the medium back then, playing with hand grenades like the N-word and the intersection of skin color and social class. It was a comics-lover’s comic, never quite moving the needle in sales, yet perpetually spoken of in reverent tones by critics and jaded geeks.

But the big action came when Priest made his unlikely, prodigal return to an old disaster site: Marvel Comics. By 1998, Marvel was in a financial tailspin and furiously tossing out new ideas. One such project was the Marvel Knights imprint, a stab at telling edgier stories about classic characters. Among them was Black Panther — a character that Knights editors Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti thought had potential. When they approached Priest about writing it, he was less than enthused.

“I was a little horrified when the words ‘Black’ and ‘Panther’ came out of Joe’s mouth,” he would later write. “I mean, Black Panther? Who reads Black Panther? Black Panther?!” But they were adamant, and Priest acquiesced — with “one basic stipulation: Black Panther could not be ‘a black book.’ ” Even though he had become the best interpreter of race in the game, Priest saw something troubling happening to his career. “I stopped being a writer, or being thought of as a writer,” he tells me, “and started being thought of as a blackwriter.”

So, in order to make this new endeavor interesting for himself, he managed to persuade Quesada and Palmiotti to let him give a book called Black Panther a white protagonist. While watching the Friendsepisode “The One With the Blackout,” Priest was taken by a scene in which Matthew Perry’s Chandler Bing finds himself trapped in an ATM vestibule with a supermodel. “Respected and successful, Bing nevertheless was the horrified fish out of water,” Priest later wrote. He felt he needed a Chandler, so he created Everett K. Ross, a hopelessly overwhelmed white man who works for the U.S. government and serves as a diplomatic escort for the Panther when the monarch embarks on a trip to Brooklyn. It was a genius move that allowed a book about a stoic superhero to be hilarious.

The first page of Priest’s Black Panther run, published in 1998, remains one of the best openings of any superhero epic. We see Ross huddled on a toilet in a grimy bathroom, wearing only a shirt, dress socks, and some tighty-whities; eyes wide, he’s pointing a gun toward the page’s bottom-right corner. “THE STORY THUS FAR,” Ross’s narration begins, throwing readers into a recitation about characters and terms with which the reader decidedly has no familiarity. “BUSTER, a rat so big you could put a SADDLE on him, continued to elude me. The CLIENT and his personal entourage had, moments before, collectively leaped out of an open window, leaving me, EVERETT K. ROSS, Emperor of Useless White Boys, to fend for himself among the indigenous tribes of The Leslie N. Hill Housing Project. ZURI was into his THIRD re-telling of how the great god T’Chaka ran the evil white devils out from their ancient homeland. The bathroom had no door. I still had no pants.”

Excerpt from Black Panther. Photo: Mark Texeira and Brian Haberlin/Courtesy of Marvel

The tone was set, and one of the great comic-book writing stretches had begun. The run lasted for 62 issues and is still the definitive take on the character. Nevertheless, Priest was once again dissatisfied with his treatment at Marvel. Black Panther ended, and a quasi-spinoff called The Crew was canceled after just seven issues in 2004. What’s more, Priest was exhausted after decades spent on the B- and C-lists, never writing a Superman or an Iron Man. “It felt like I just was wasting my time,” he tells me. “What’s the point? Everything I do gets canceled, and I’m never gonna be put on a top-tier book.” In 2005, he walked away from comics again — this time, it seemed, for good. Long a religious man, Priest, somewhat appropriately given his name, became a pastor and started a website about religion called He did web-design work for various churches in Colorado, where he lives. A longtime musician, he played at worship services. “To be perfectly blunt, I think I was probably happier doing that than writing comics,” he says.

But he wants to be clear on something: Even though he stopped pitching comics, he was still open to writing them. He was just peeved about what he would periodically be asked to write. “Every 18 months, I’d get a call from Marvel or DC and they’d say, ‘Hey. We’re bringing back All-Negro Comics and we want you to write it.’ ‘We want you to do Black Goliath.’ ‘We want you to do Black Lightning,’ ” he says. He did a five-issue Quantum and Woody revival at Acclaim’s successor company, Valiant, in 2014, but remained estranged from the Big Two.

Then, something remarkable happened: Priest was offered Deathstroke the Terminator, a DC character. “My first question was ‘Is he black these days?’ They said, ‘No, he’s still a white guy.’ And I went, ‘Okay, I’m listening.’ ”

Priest agreed to write a new series, Deathstroke, as part of a DC initiative called Rebirth. When the lineup for Rebirth was announced, industry-watchers scanned them and found themselves surprised to see the name of Priest included on a mainstream book. They were not disappointed when the title began publishing. It’s consistently been one of the company’s best series, filled with popping action and — yes — interesting commentary on race. In the first issue, Deathstroke, a mercenary, stands above a pile of dead bodies in an African country alongside a local warlord. The warlord says he thinks America might send in Marines to stop the ongoing conflict in the region. “These are black people, Matthew,” Deathstroke tells him. “The Marines aren’t coming.”

Excerpt from Deathstroke. Photo: Carlo Pagulayan, Michael Jason Paz, Jeromy Cox/Courtesy of DC Entertainment

Priest’s career has been on an upswing ever since. Aside from the attention to his work on Black Panther, he’s in the middle of a Justice League run that finally allows him to do what he always wanted: play with Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and more of DC’s most valuable toys. Last year, he helped launch a new superhero universefor indie publisher Lion Forge. Most surprisingly, Priest also returned to working with Marvel Comics with a just-concluded series about the long-running characters the Inhumans. As he put it in an interviewabout that last project: “I was a little shell-shocked at how easy the handshake was.”

If there’s one thing to learn from his odd career trajectory, it appears that comics need Priest more than Priest needs comics, so it’ll be interesting to see how long he sticks around this time. His absence would be a shame, if for no other reason than the fact that he’s already been so absent — not just as a writer but as a historical figure worth recognizing and reckoning with. “I’m a little insane, and I’m going to be a little different,” he says. “But hopefully, somewhere in there, in that creative arena, something will emerge that is new, and different, and unique.”

Daughters of African Immigrants Use the Stage to Tell of Two Worlds

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Nigerian death rites can be quite elaborate — even after a funeral, there is often a “second burial” with days of lavish celebration to ease the deceased person’s journey to the afterlife.

Ngozi Anyanwu knows this because she’s heard about it from her mother and father, who traveled back to Nigeria to bury their own parents. And she knows that, when the time comes, she will have to do the same for her father, who has spent his entire adult life in the United States, but still expects to be buried in the country where he was born.

But what does Ms. Anyanwu, a 35-year-old performer and playwright born in Trenton and raised in Bucks County, Pa., know about Nigerian burial customs?

That question, and the puzzle of what it means to be simultaneously connected to and disconnected from the country of one’s family, prompted Ms. Anyanwu to write “The Homecoming Queen,” a new play that opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company, an Off Broadway nonprofit. The poignant drama is about a Nigerian-born American novelist who is confronted by her own ambivalent feelings about home and homeland when she returns to visit her dying father.

The play is the latest indicator of an emerging trend: American playwrights who are the daughters of immigrants from Africa. Ms. Anyanwu is the fourth female playwright born to African immigrants to have a play produced by a prestigious New York theater in the last two years, and all of the shows have been critical successes.

Ms. Udofia: “I felt little pockets of anger and frustration because I wasn’t seeing me or the people that I knew in a very nuanced way on stage, so I started writing them to show that we are here.”CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

“You can complain about how your culture is depicted, or you can do it yourself,” Ms. Anyanwu said. “That’s why you’re seeing a bubbling up of first-generation African stories. We have not been feeling satisfaction with the kind of African stories being told, so we have to do it.”

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The pioneer is Danai Gurira, a 39-year-old Zimbabwean-American actor and writer (best known as Michonne on “The Walking Dead”) whose searing play “Eclipsed,” about captured women in war-torn Liberia, was staged on Broadway in 2016. Now her drama “Familiar,” about a Zimbabwean-American family in Minnesota, which was staged in 2016 at Playwrights Horizons in New York, is being presented next month at Woolly Mammoth in Washington, followed by productions at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Seattle Repertory Theater.

Last year saw two well-received New York productions of work by playwrights born to African immigrants: New York Theater Workshop presented “Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau” by Mfoniso Udofia, a 33-year-old Nigerian-American writer who is working on a nine-play cycle about a Nigerian-American family; and MCC Theater presented “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” a comedic drama by Jocelyn Bioh, a 34-year-old Ghanaian-American writer and performer.

“It’s such a beautiful thing and an inspiring thing and a surreal thing to see a Ghanaian story on an American stage — I never even knew something like that would be possible,” said MaYaa Boateng, a 26-year-old child of Ghanaian immigrants from Maryland who graduated from N.Y.U.’s graduate acting program last year and is now developing her own solo show. Ms. Boateng said a visit by Ms. Gurira to her university “is one of the reasons why I picked up a pen the very first time,” and said seeing work by other women of African descent leaves her feeling that “we all have stories worth telling — they need to be spoken.”


Ms. Gurira: “When I first started realizing I wanted to tell stories from an African female perspective, I felt pretty lonely out there.”CreditElizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

The trend is an outgrowth of demographics: African immigration to the United States has surged since the 1970s, so that by 2015 there were 2.1 million African immigrants living in the United States, up from 80,000 in 1970, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The economic migrants are coming in extremely educated, and there’s pressure on their children to do very well,” said Onoso Imoagene, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Beyond Expectations: Second Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain.”

“There’s pressure to pursue professional careers — medicine and law and pharmacy — but because they’re becoming a large enough population,” she added, “you have some saying, ‘I don’t want to do that — I want to do arts or music or fashion,’ and you do have quite a number who are trying to create art that showcases their ethnic background.”

The playwrights are emerging amid a rise in interest in African culture in the U.S. — including the work of contemporary Nigerian novelists as well as first-generation writers and artists. Several important theater performers are the children of African immigrants, including the British actors David Oyelowo, who played the title role in a 2016 New York Theater Workshop production of “Othello”; and Cynthia Erivo, who won a Tony Award as the star of a 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple”; as well as the American actor Michael Luwoye, who has just stepped into the title role of “Hamilton” on Broadway. All three are the children of Nigerian immigrants.

“We’re at a time right now where the word immigrant again has become something that seems sort of toxic, and when we hear the ‘shithole’ comment, it’s very piercing,” Mr. Luwoye, a 27-year-old born and raised in Alabama, said, referring to President Trump’s reported use of that word this month in a discussion about protections for people from Haiti and some countries in Africa. “The plays that are coming up today, as well as the literature and the television, are at least attempting to humanize what it is to be an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, so it’s easier to connect with, rather than something that creates a stereotype.”

The doors began to open with Ms. Gurira, who was born in Iowa, raised in Zimbabwe, and then moved back to the U.S. for college. Ms. Gurira was a graduate student at N.Y.U. when she started collaborating on “In the Continuum,” a 2005 play seeking to humanize women with AIDS.


From left, Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh in “Eclipsed,” staged on Broadway in 2016.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times


A scene from Ms. Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” staged last year at the Lucille Lortel Theater.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times


Chinasa Ogbuagu, left, and Lakisha Michelle May in Ms. Udofia’s play “Sojourners” at the New York Theater Workshop in 2017.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times


From left, Mfoniso Udofia, Patrice Johnson and Vinnie Burrows in “The Homecoming Queen,” which opened this month at the Atlantic Theater Company.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

“When I first started realizing I wanted to tell stories from an African female perspective, I felt pretty lonely out there,” Ms. Gurira said. “I had to be like a mad scientist and have the hypothesis that if I put a multidimensional narrative about an African woman in front of a Western audience, they will enjoy it.”


Ms. Gurira, who is featured in the upcoming superhero film “Black Panther,” said she is writing new work constantly (“I am up to my eyeballs with writing,” she said) and is thrilled to see other writers of African descent now getting productions. “There are so many stories to go,” she said. “There is a hunger for this perspective to come out.”

Ms. Udofia, born in Texas and raised in Massachusetts, trained as an actor and started writing when she was having a hard time finding roles on stage. “I knew immediately what I would be writing about — I felt little pockets of anger and frustration because I wasn’t seeing me or the people that I knew in a very nuanced way on stage, so I started writing them to show that we are here,” she said.

A founding artistic director of the Now Africa Festival, which seeks to introduce New Yorkers to African drama, Ms. Udofia is so eager to champion the work of others that she agreed to star in “Homecoming Queen” to support Ms. Anyanwu, even though she hadn’t acted in years. “It’s important to build kinship, and to dismantle the thought that there can only be one of us,” she said. “It makes the foundation of the house stronger.”


Ms. Anyanwu: “You can complain about how your culture is depicted, or you can do it yourself.”CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

Ms. Bioh, who grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan, had a similar path to writing — she wasn’t getting cast in college productions, so she took a playwriting class. She had some success acting, landing a role on Broadway in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” but also kept writing. Her work is funny — a deliberate counterpoint to what she sees as the grim story lines of many dramas about Africa.

“I was just really alarmed at African stories only portraying struggle and war and famine and AIDS, and I wanted to add levity,” she said. “School Girls,” a riff on “Mean Girls” set in a Ghanaian school at which several young women are competing to represent their country in a beauty pageant, was a big hit for MCC — and the crowds were unusually diverse, thanks to outreach to African-American and African immigrant communities.

Of course, identity can be complicated. LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater this spring will present “Pass Over,” a play by Antoinette Nwandu, a 37-year-old from Los Angeles whose biological father is a Nigerian immigrant but who was raised by her African-American mother after her parents divorced when she was a baby; she has only spoken to her father once since, and knows little about her Nigerian background.

“I definitely think that my heritage informs characters who are searching for self, who are wondering and grappling with whether or not they can remake themselves,” she said.



Ms. Bioh: “I was just really alarmed at African stories only portraying struggle and war and famine and AIDS, and I wanted to add levity.”CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

Ms. Nwandu said seeing shows by writers with stronger knowledge about their African heritage inspires her. “And of course this is another wave of first or second generation immigrants wrestling with belonging in two worlds, and it’s very exciting to add to the canon of immigrant theater like ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” she said. “Seeing it now from an African lens and an African viewpoint is really thrilling.”

Ms. Anyanwu, the writer of “The Homecoming Queen,” found herself drawn to theater in high school. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a nurse — something stable and financially secure — but she knew she wanted a career in the arts. “I like the camaraderie, and the community, and the openness, and the rigor,” she said.

She turned to writing, like others, when she encountered a shortage of roles as an actor. “As a black female performer, the reality is there’s not so much work for us — Dominique Morisseau or Katori Hall will have a great play, but that’s only four parts,” she said. “So making things is a big part of my identity.”

After graduate school at the University of California San Diego, she visited Nigeria, and when she came back she started the First Generation Nigerian Project — a group of female Nigerian-American performers and writers in New York.

“The Homecoming Queen,” her first play produced in New York, is directed by Awoye Timpo, a 39-year-old daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. Ms. Timpo said the new work by children of African immigrants has the potential to change the way audiences see the United States.

“Our understanding of who we are as Americans, and what our history has been, hasn’t embraced the complexity of all the stories that make America,” Ms. Timpo said. “With this new wave of storytellers, we’re getting to see who we are.”