April 2018 - JuVee Productions

Monthly Archives: April 2018

The Women of CAA in the Eye of the Storm

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Four days before the 2018 Academy Awards, at an intersection a few blocks away from the Dolby Theatre, a different type of gold statue appeared: a life-size Harvey Weinstein. Titled Casting Couch, it depicted a seated, bare-chested Weinstein, one hand hovering ominously over the belt of his robe. Whether he was in the act of closing or opening it depended on how you felt about Hollywood. In the five months since Weinstein was brought down by the testimonies of his victims in The New York Times and The New Yorker, Casting Couch was a well-timed reminder ahead of the industry’s biggest night that the producer was once its golden god—before it finally tossed him out.

But a steady rain washed Casting Couch from its corner before the Oscars began, which served as a different kind of reminder—that of the sweeping tide of voices that had turned on Weinstein and on many men after him: a rousing chorus of the women of Hollywood. They were actresses, writers, producers, and directors, both past and present, some popular and some heretofore forgotten. They were women who walk down red carpets and command crews, writers rooms, and increasingly high (if not yet quite equal) salaries; but they were also, crucially, agents, those behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealers found in the background of almost every silver screen success—and, America had learned, more than their fair share of casting couch degradations.

Four powerhouse female agents and agency executives—Maha Dakhil, Michelle Kydd Lee, Hylda Queally, and Christy Haubegger, who are among the agents Vogue photographed here—were some of the first industry heavyweights who scrambled to react structurally to Weinstein’s fall from power, and the gender-based discrimination, abuse, and harassment it exposed, with the creation of Time’s Up. They were among the 300 total women in entertainment who established a legal defense fund that has since amassed more than $20 million for low-income women to secure representation in workplace disputes. Time’s Up (the industry-specific sister to its predecessor, Tarana Burke’s Me Too movement, with its dress codes, its pins, and its hashtags, has become shorthand for Hollywood’s burgeoning feminist transformation).

But Dakhil, Kydd Lee, Queally, and Haubegger also happen to work for the behemoth Creative Artists Agency (CAA), so closely associated with Weinstein during the height of his clout that the company was named as part of his “complicity machine” by The New York Times. At least eight CAA agents, according to the paper, had been informed by their clients of Weinstein’s behavior over the years and had not taken action (CAA issued an unprecedented apology not long after the revelations, to “any person the agency let down . . . as individuals and as a company”). It was notable to many, when Time’s Up launched on New Year’s Day 2018, that some of its founding female members worked in a place that had once enabled Weinstein’s predation. In early March, The Hollywood Reporter ran a story that quoted anonymous sources suggesting that CAA was using Time’s Up meetings as a place to poach other agencies’ clients; that the agency was attempting to “inoculate itself” against questions about its ties to Weinstein; that the movement had become cliquey (favoring movie stars and farmworkers, according to one source); and that it lacked direction, which some attributed to “growing pains.” (In response, CAA cited the $21 million it has raised from 20,000 donors across 80 countries in 60 days for Time’s Up, and said in a statement that “the work we have done for Time’s Up has not only been heartfelt and deeply meaningful, but it is also consistent with our decades-long commitment to social action and community involvement.”)

When she started at CAA in 2003, talent agent Haubegger says, “Most of the interns were people who had conspicuously important last names.” Similarly, the demographic breakdown of the agency’s client list “looked a lot like the agents.” The Times investigation included a photo of CAA in 1999 that illustrates her point: Six agents in suits pose triumphantly on the roof of a building—all men, all white. Twenty years later, Hollywood is determined to put the CAA of Weinstein’s era in the rear view. As the 12 prominent female superagents and executives who were photographed by Nigel Shafran for Vogue depict, the company has moved far beyond its demographic origins. And if you ask the women of CAA, the changes demanded by Time’s Up have long been on their personal agendas, now and throughout their careers. When the call came to figure out just what could be done to prevent another Harvey Weinstein, they were ready.

The women of CAA complicate the big-talking, power-brokering professionals that Americans have known mostly in caricature—and as men—in Jerry Maguire, Entourage, and elsewhere. They understand how powerful, and marketable, the desire Americans have to see themselves on-screen and in public life is, and who those Americans actually are. “Now, more than ever, we have the responsibility to support projects that reflect the world in which we live,” says CAA talent executive Queally. “Audiences should be able to relate to the characters and stories they see on-screen.” CAA’s Motion Picture Diversity Index, which the agency commissioned in 2017 to analyze more than 500 films since 2014, proved, they say, that “diverse casting” is financially viable, now they can cite last year’s Wonder Woman and this year’s Black Panther as examples. But they’re not the only ones to understand that storytelling from the margins is a powerful branding strategy: With his company, Miramax, Weinstein pioneered a model for indie films, even those powered by “strong female characters” that made it big, which also gave him, a serial offender, access to vulnerable women under the guise of being their champion. Which raises the question: How do we move beyond a version of diversity and feminism that’s just another branding opportunity? “We realize [that],” Haubegger says, “ ‘Oh, you can make a lot of money when a woman tells a story, or a person of color tells a story.’ How do we get more? Well, we actually have to address the other structural issues around it.” Says Thao Nguyen, an art, architecture, and design agent at CAA: “The work for inclusion is constant, not just in this moment of recognition. It’s committing to bringing awareness to it in every layer of work, every day.”

And speaking of which, it was just at this year’s Oscars that Frances McDormand set the Internet alight by mentioning something called an “inclusion rider” during her acceptance speech for Best Actress. Essentially an equity clause in a contract, it can be used to stipulate that the cast and crew of a film should more accurately reflect the demography of real life. It’s also something that would likely be negotiated by one of those Hollywood agents you hear about. McDormand’s transparency, her nod to female solidarity and, of all things, contract law, capped off a confused if joyful night in which the industry was trying to understand its own transformative potential. “It’s a weekend; it’s an inflection point; it’s a momentary stop on a long journey,” said Haubegger, ahead of the ceremony. But the momentum is there. “We are not accepting the status quo we have inherited from patriarchal legacy,” says Dakhil. “Now is the time to question everything and rewrite the answers together, men, women, all gender identities, all colors, all walks of life. Why accept the way it’s always been done? Bring in the good. Bring in the new.”

From Superhero Shows to Soaps, South Asian Actors Are Taking Over TV

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Typically, South Asian-American TV characters tend to be terrorists, funny foreigners, or quirky best friends. But while several South Asian-American actors have been cast to play sidekicks on this year’s crop of pilots—and even more of them are playing doctors, another stereotype—other roles are breaking the mold. Mouzam Makkar is a lead on ABC’s The Fix, a traditional law drama from the mind of Marcia Clark. Sarayu Blue leads an NBC sitcom about a video-game storyboard artist trying to “have it all.” Vinny Chhibber plays a gay teacher in CBS’s Red Line. Kosha Patel was cast as a lead in ABC’s “comedic soap” False Profits, alongside Vanessa Williams, Bellamy Young, and newcomer Kapil Talwalkar.

The crop also includes CBS’s Pandas in New York, the rare domestic comedy about an Indian-American family—yes, they’re all doctors—and ABC’s The Greatest American Hero reboot, which has been rejiggered to feature TV’s first female Indian-American superhero, played by New Girl’s Hannah Simone.

Not all of these programs will make it to air—but The Greatest American Hero seems like a safe bet for a fall pickup. “Hannah was one of the most sought-after actresses this year. She had multiple offers on the table,” says Claudia Lyon, V.P. of talent and casting at ABC Studios, in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “The broadcast networks need to appeal to broad audiences. So when you cast Hannah Simone, that’s like a game changer.”

An in-demand South Asian-American actress, doing a network TV show created by and produced by South Asian-Americans? We’ve come a long way from the 80s and 90s, when the most prominent Indian face on TV was Apu from The Simpsons—a two-dimensional character comedian Hari Kondabolu has memorably described as “a white guy doing an impression of a white guy making fun of my father.” And while shows created by white people often still lean on stereotypes when they feature brown characters—arranged marriage comes up frequently—brown creators have been leading the charge for something different.

Lyon, who describes herself as “half Indian, half Hispanic,” traces this tectonic shift to The Office’s Mindy Kaling-written “Diwali” episode, which aired in 2006. Kaling cast her own parents in the half hour, which centered on a ceremony that most Indian Hindus would recognize: a puja celebrating the festival of lights. It was broad enough not to alienate non-Indian audiences, while still incorporating details that would feel viscerally familiar to anyone who shares Kaling’s background—the sumptuous clothing, the food setup, the Bollywood soundtrack mixed with Beyoncé.

Broti Gupta, a comedian and writer for Netflix’s Friends from College, also cites Kaling as an inspiration—particularly for the way her character on The Office, airheaded Kelly Kapoor, subverted expectations audiences may have had for an Indian-American woman.

“When she’s asked to explain what Diwali is about, she’s like, ‘I don’t know; I don’t care,’” says Gupta. “There’s something so honest about [that] . . . you ask me what the history of Diwali is, I will Google it on my phone.”

Kaling pulled off the same thing on her next show, The Mindy Project, which launched on Fox in 2012 and aired its final episode on Hulu last November. “It wasn’t about going and telling an Indian story,” says Lyon. “It wasn’t ‘My parents won’t let me do this or that,’ or ‘I’m really shy or socially awkward.’” Aziz Ansari followed a similar trajectory, first playing attention-seeking Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation—a character whose background partially mirrored Ansari’s own—then creating and starring in the more ambitious Netflix series Master of None, which premiered in 2015.

It can feel like the surge in South Asian representation on TV happened suddenly—“but it’s definitely been a process in the time that I’ve been working in television,” Lyon says. For example: ABC has been tracking former Daily Show correspondent Aasif Mandvi “for years,” but it wasn’t until he auditioned for cop drama The Mission that the network felt they’d found the right role for him.

That series engaged in color-blind casting, which matches actors with roles without considering their ethnicities. But other ABC pilots took a more deliberate approach: the role that Patel plays in False Profits, for example, was specifically written for a South Asian woman. They found Patel through the diversity-focused ABC talent showcase, which counts Lupita Nyong’o among its alumni. The program is designed to pay dividends for the network: “You might not cast someone you I.D. this year, but it’s the long game,” Lyon explains. “[So] when a show like The Greatest American Hero gets picked up, we have people.”

Gupta also sees the shift in casting as the result of South Asian-American creators finding more platforms for their work online, on TV, and in film—as Kumail Nanjiani did with his Oscar-nominated comedy The Big Sick. “Online, there are just so many ways for people to create their own space to tell stories that we haven’t seen otherwise,” she says. Gupta herself found representation after writing humor columns for The New Yorker’s Shouts & Murmurs section.

Those who have been keeping an eye on the state of South Asian-American representation in TV know that these actors have become increasingly visible in recent years. But this pilot season could be something of a watershed. And perhaps next year, there’ll be a new story to tell: one about South Asian-American actors, writers, and producers entering an arena in which their presence is the norm, not the exception. And with that will come new levels of representation—not one narrative told over and over again, but a breadth of increasingly specific stories. “It won’t be: ‘this is the Indian-American experience,’” says Gupta. “We’re going to see regional differences; we’re going to see very specific identities that we, as a community, understand—but that the global platform has never seen.”

Not every woman who’s sexual is a size 2 or walking like a supermodel

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The room hushed. And Viola Davis began to speak.

In a rousing end to opening night of the 9th annual Women in the World Summit, Viola Davis discussed equality in Hollywood, the long-lasting effects of sexual assault, and her urge to tell human stories — not just ones with a social message.

The push for equality in Hollywood has already created change, the acclaimed actress said in conversation with MSNBC host and author Joy-Ann Reid. “I do see a moment becoming a movement,” Davis said, noting that people are looking for female-driven narratives and are more conscious about hiring female directors. “Women are much more aggressive out there in terms of getting what they want.”

But what Davis wants to focus her laser-sharp eyes on isn’t the red carpet — it’s the personal aspects of sexual assault.

“Listen, I’m an actress. I want my Sophie’s Choice. I want to be in a great John Ford movie. I want be the black girl accepting her third and fourth Oscar. I have those visions, I have those dreams. But I want to reiterate to people that I don’t want what’s going on in Hollywood to be a metaphor for what the movement is,” she said. “Once that sexual assault happens, women always say that that’s the day they died,” with long-lasting issues like body dysmorphia and suicide rates traced back to sexual assault.

Davis wants to focus on the 15-year-old abuse survivor, bringing her from that traumatic moment to getting a rape kit, to healing, becoming a survivor and finally an overcomer. “We have 324 million people in this country and 51 percent are women, and when one is traumatized, it escalates into rage issues, all kinds of things. That to me is appalling. That’s the sweet spot. It’s not just about an actress wanting to promote her career.”

The reason it’s so easy to turn a blind eye to these stories, Davis mused, is because American culture looks to entertainment for escape — and Hollywood has spent decades watering down real issues to make it palatable to people who just want to munch their popcorn, swig their Diet Coke and eat Sour Patch Kids.

Moviegoers who make up the prime demographic for box office receipts — males between the ages of 18 and 34 — don’t want to see a woman who has been sexually assaulted or has PTSD, Davis said. Rather than a complete woman, they’re shown figments of fantasy.

That’s also why this triple-threat, award-winning actress says she still struggles to be seen as someone other than the black Meryl Streep. “Jim Crow did a job on us,” she said, pointing to post-slavery policies that essentially kept African Americans in a new type of bondage. “So when you have me coming in as someone’s love interest, it doesn’t compute, because no one thinks I’m pretty, no one thinks a black woman darker than a paper bag is pretty. They don’t think she’s sexual, they think she’s more mannish, they associate her with more ‘earthy’ and ‘soulful’ and ‘sassy.’ ‘I see you more with an apron than rolling around in bed with someone,” she says. “That’s the American mindset and what it’s done is it’s seeped into art.”

That’s why she fought for Annalise Keating, her groundbreaking character in How to Get Away with Murder, to remove her wig in the first episode, solidifying her as a real woman, not one with flawless makeup who’s described as “cold” without reason. “I felt like if I took that wig off, and if I do this show for seven years, then it’s going to force the writer to write the woman,” she says. “And I know women. I’m sorry, not every woman who’s sexual is a size two. Not every women who’s sexual is walking like a supermodel, and not every women who’s sexual is lighter than a paper bag.”

Viola Davis and Joy-Ann Reid onstage at the Women in the World Summit in New York City.

The box office smash Black Panther revealed black audiences can open a movie, Davis pointed out — and she added that upcoming films by Barry Jenkins, Spike Lee, and Steve McQueen will further prove the point. “Look at any studio in Hollywood at all the scripts they’re developing and 98 percent of them are predominantly Caucasian,” she says. “If you told them that, they wouldn’t be aware of it. It’s just built into our mindset.”

As for her biggest hurdle now, Davis spoke out about the presumption that actors of color must constantly be didactic. “Every time we’re on screen and every time we make a choice, the next question is, ‘What did that mean? What social statements are you making?’ There is no social statement,” she says. “The social statement is just … me.”

David said she is asked by people if she wants to play the first black female pilot. Or maybe the woman who blew up a town hall in Tulsa, Oklahoma? But stories championing a social message aren’t the only types of narratives she wants to tell — and they’re not the only ones she feels African-American actors are allowed to tell.

“Sometimes we just want to tell a story. We just want to be. We don’t always want to go up against the KKK. We don’t always want to come in and be like, ‘You think I’m a housewife, but I’m really not.’”

A devotion to telling human stories and working to perfect her craft was evident from the very beginning of her acting career. Her most joyful experience as an actor was working on Noodle Doodle Box, a play she and her sister Dolores created together at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. The drama department head told them to pick a play, and they directed, produced, made their own costumes, built the set, “laughed and cried and hugged,” she told the audience.

“They say in acting that the stage in a set is a sacred place,” Davis said. “You can have your shit, your piss, your mess, your joy, everything — and it’s just celebrated. You leave it all on the floor, and the more you leave it on the floor with the same amount of not holding back, the more celebrated it is. What happens is that you’re sort of healed from a lot of things.”

A photo of Viola Davis as a young girl was shared with the audience at the 2018 Women in the World Summit in New York City.

Through that play, Davis found a sense of solace from her difficult childhood, growing up in poverty with an abusive, alcoholic father. “Through the journey of leaving it all on the floor, exploring everything in rehearsal, messing up, making mistakes, and finally coming to that end point which was the play, I got closer to my sister,” she said. “And for me that’s perfect. For me that doesn’t always happen — sometimes it culminates into bad box office,” she added with a laugh.

Davis has expanded her reach into producing — a space that’s perhaps even more untouched by women than most in Hollywood. When Reid asked how women can find their way into that inner sanctum, wondering, “Do you have to be Viola Davis in order to do it?” Davis responded, “Yes, you have to be Viola Davis in order to do it. You have to be Meryl Streep in order to do it. You have to be Julianne Moore in order to do it.”

Building a career in Hollywood — or a life anywhere else — is a relay race, she said. You have to take the baton and pass it on to someone who can run the next leg. Problems, she said, only come up when the baton falls into the hands of the clueless.

“There are a lot of people in my profession who have no idea what they doing,” she said with a signature blunt honesty that’s anathema in Hollywood. “They have no idea what’s good or what’s bad. They have no idea what to fight for. They’d rather fight for what outfit the woman is wearing in the scene than how the scene is written.”

The solution is to walk into the room with strength and conviction and to ask for what you want, she says. “You have the baton,” she says. “What are you going to do with it?”

Beyonce and the End of Respectability Politics

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Beyoncé is at the pinnacle of her career. At the Coachella festival in the Southern California desert on Saturday, she showed that there’s nothing this mother of three can’t do. But she didn’t just kill the performance; she also rewrote the book on black respectability politics. She could have decided to play to the majority-white audience with a show that made it easier to forget cultural differences. Or she could be herself. Beyoncé chose the latter.

In putting on a show that celebrated the diversity of black people, she conveyed that no matter how much fame or money she has, she will refuse to divorce herself from black culture, even the parts that are underappreciated, disrespected or misunderstood by white people. Beyoncé was performing her music, but she was also saying that the performance of respectability — the policing of black people’s behavior and appearance to better appeal to white people — is an oppression we don’t need in our lives.

Black musicians in particular have long been told how they should look and perform to sustain their success and be marketable to a larger audience. That often meant that black artists distanced themselves from the things associated with black culture, especially the things that might be coded as not-respectable.

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Whitney Houston famously struggled under this weight. At the urging of her mentor Clive Davis and others, she wore glamorous clothes, sang pop-driven songs instead of R&B and obeyed other unwritten social norms that circumscribed how she could live her life and express herself.

Members of Beyoncé‘s audience at Coachella.CreditKyle Grillot/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama have all been accused of staying aloof from black culture to gain more power and be more relatable to a wider, whiter audience. It is a common belief among black people that the more successful we become, the more we should keep away from black culture — especially when white people are looking. And especially at work.

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Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Lawson, echoed this sentiment before her daughter’s performance: “I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and black college culture because it was something that they might not get,” she wrote on Instagram.

But Beyoncé assuaged her fears. “I have worked very hard to get to the point where I have a true voice,” Ms. Lawson recalls her daughter saying. “And at this point in my life and my career, I have a responsibility to do what’s best for the world and not what is most popular.”

It would have made sense if Beyoncé decided to perform songs that were more culturally ambiguous, as to not alienate the people she was hired to entertain. However, before a mostly white audience, Beyoncé sang “Lift Every Voice,” widely regarded as the black national anthem. That song melted into “Formation,” her own pro-black anthem, where she talks about loving “Negro” noses and positions herself as a black Bill Gates.


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She also amplified Malcolm X’s famous words about black women: “The most disrespected woman in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” This centering of black womanhood is not what black people have been taught to do when given as much power and attention as Beyoncé has.

It would have been reasonable to assume Beyoncé would perform the entire show in a glamorous couture number, like the Nefertiti-inspired costume she came onstage in. Respectability is also imagery: Black people are told, when we gain power, and are under the gaze of the public, we must always wear our most formal and elegant attire.

Instead, with millions of people watching in the desert and online, Beyoncé reappeared in blue distressed denim shorts and a hoodie advertising a fake historically black college. Success does not need to have a preferred style; a black person does not have to wear a glamorous gown or a tailored suit to captivate the imagination of the public. Beyoncé shows that talent and discipline are enough.

She follows in the tradition of black performers like Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, but she is unique in imagining blackness as something so big. To Beyoncé, attending a historically black college is more than a niche experience coveted only by students and alumni. Instead, it’s something thematically paramount and worthy of an enormous stadium.

You might think that Beyoncé’s promotion of historically black colleges and their intellectual traditions also might have conflicted with her sexually charged songs like “Partition” and “Drunk in Love.” We’re taught that an intellectual being can never be sexual one. This is especially true for black people who have been hypersexualized in media and daily life. So it wouldn’t have been odd for her to edit her sexuality to fit society’s ideas of what it means to be proud, black and smart.

Not at Coachella. Beyoncé performed her sensuality proudly in those songs making political statement that a person can be both intellectually rigorous and sexually expressive.

We know Beyoncé can sing and move, and that she treats stadiums as if they are her living room. But it wasn’t clear whether, after Clive Davis called her “the first lady of music,” she would adhere to respectability politics, especially on a stage like Coachella, where she may have alienated a large portion of her audience. The easier route would have been cultural ambiguity. But excellence is found in risk, and Beyoncé has proved to be an artist most interested in excellence.

All black people should follow her lead and refuse to shrink blackness. Black people often negotiate how much of ourselves we should show to make others comfortable. Black people often feel the need to edit parts of our culture and upbringing for the sake of appearing respectable — that is, of course, until our music and style are appropriated by the very people we were attempting to not alienate.

Beyoncé’s Coachella performance suggests that, as black people’s power grows, we should intentionally amplify the culture that nurtured us. This anti-respectability politics that Beyoncé brought to the stage is what transformed her performance into a political statement.