Be The Change: Director-Writer-Producer Lexi Alexander
May 9, 2019
It's no secret that Hollywood has long had diversity issues both in front of and behind the camera. Plenty of classic cinema’s legacy has been marred by racism and/or sexist stereotypes—issues that still plague the industry today.
With the rise of social media, and the advocacy of April Reign's #OscarsSoWhite and Tarana Burke's #MeToo movements, we're starting to see change come to Hollywood. Slow change, but movement in a more inclusive direction nonetheless.
In the past, speaking up was a gamble, but that's also starting to change. Brie Larson advocating for more seats for journalists of color during the Captain Marvel press tour was a wonderful example of leveraging privilege for representation. While behind the camera, Ava DuVernay translated her Selma success into helming a Disney tentpole and the ability to provide opportunities for filmmakers of color. With her OWN series Queen Sugar, DuVernay kickstarted several careers, and began ARRAY, a "grassroots distribution, arts and advocacy collective focused on films by people of color and women."
But inclusion and representation in Hollywood still has a long way to go. We sat down with director Lexi Alexander to try and unpack some of the ways we can begin to affect change behind the scenes and in front of the camera. Her new diversity initiative, The New Shade Brigade, focuses on mentoring marginalized and under-represented writers and journalists. Something that all began thanks to Twitter.
“I get a lot of requests on Twitter from aspiring writers or directors who need help breaking in, maybe because I come off on social media like a person who is fairly accessible. I also follow people back based on smart things they say in my replies, rather than based on blue checks and follower count. I’m aware that by following someone back I create a path for them to send me a private note—and many people do. I can’t reply to all of them, but I make a deliberate effort to help members of marginalized groups as much as I can,” Alexander states.
“At a certain point, I had a whole group of POC writers I was DMing advice to. So, I created a DM group. A) it was easier for me to write a piece of advice once, and B) because I also knew they could support each other. That’s exactly what happened, they all became really good friends, and when I’m shooting on set and don’t have time to check messages, their conversation is as lively and supportive as when I am around,” Alexander remarks. And the group skyrocketed from there.
“Mo Moshaty, one of the writers in the group, took the initiative to create a website for The New Shade Brigade and they, as a group, also invited some other people in, so that’s how we came to include entertainment reporters as well,” Alexander says. But she also believes that the onus still falls to filmmakers of color to begin diversifying Hollywood from the inside out; that a lot will come from leading by example.
“I watch all of these successful, white male showrunners and filmmakers talking about movies and film history on Twitter, and my mind is blown that after all this talk about inclusion, very few are willing to do the work.” Alexander continues, “Yet for two weeks I watched LaToya Morgan promote more vulnerable writers during this writers/agents dispute. She created a hashtag and is tweeting dozens of writers’ names out every day. Out of curiosity, I went to the Twitter feeds of some of the really famous, white male showrunners to see what they’re doing for others… and it was disappointing, to put it mildly.”
“Now, LaToya isn’t just some writer in between jobs who has time on her hands. I hear her name in every room I step into,” Alexander says. “There’s been a dozen announcements in the trades about projects and companies she’s attached to. So, I do the math and figure she’s losing a lot of money, because she could be spending her time writing and working on these projects in order to collect the deliverance fees for those scripts, or get on of those projects on the air. Her time spent highlighting other writers on Twitter is a serious sacrifice.”
“I’m not sure how some of the writers, who have so much money they never really have to work again, can just watch a Black woman do all this work almost on her own and not feel ashamed—and before someone replies with #NotAll, I’m very aware there are others who joined her #WGAStaffingBoost campaign. Still, the difference between her effort and those of the top grossing one percent in the WGA is as big as the Pacific Ocean.”
Alexander often speaks out on the stereotypes Arabs face in popular television both in the U.S. and abroad. But it turns out, simply hiring Arab writers isn’t always the answer, either.
“What’s funny is that the Arab community suffers from a white proximity addiction problem. You can have Arab writers in the room who uphold white supremacy more than white people. A showrunner friend once complained to me that he hired a writer whose agent pitched her as Lebanese-American writer, but who ended up refusing to make any contributions to the Arab-American storyline and who knew nothing about the Middle East or about anti-Arabism in the West,” Alexander says.”
“The Arab-American community is very complex. You can have a dark-skinned Muslim who shares his first name with one of the 9/11 terrorists, who therefore has trouble booking an Über or Airbn’b, and who gets terrorized by different law enforcement units on a daily basis. On the other hand, you can have a light-skinned Lebanese Christian named Zack Schmohin, who only plays his Arab card when there’s an open director assignment for 1001 Arabian Nights, but otherwise insists Arabs must stay white on the census and Muslims really do have to learn how to assimilate. The point is, you can’t just hire any Arab. You have to meet and talk to some; understand the diversity of our people at least a little,” Alexander says. “Because in our case, any Arab isn’t necessarily better than no Arab.”
“We’re still at a point where people feel completely comfortable creating entire storylines about Arabs and/or Muslims based on their imagination and whatever knowledge they garnered from the New York Time’s opinion page,” Alexander says. “As for the stereotypical portrayals of Arabs on screen, we can’t pretend those are created out of ignorance and aren’t meant to cause harm. For 30 years people have been writing articles about the racist depiction of Arabs on screen, Dr. Jack Shaheen (a Christian Lebanese man who did the opposite of upholding white supremacy and instead stood up for Muslims) has dedicated his life's work to this cause, as seen in his documentary Reel Bad Arabs.”
So how can we make sure scripts from underrepresented voices are seen and these writers given big opportunities? “If someone was interested in portraying Arabs in a manner that would humanize us instead of de-humanize us, you could find the right voices to help you achieve that easily. We are quite loud on Twitter, after all,” Alexander remarks.
Giving opportunities to writers and filmmakers of color is a much-needed thing, but it's also not the only place we need inclusion. Think: inclusive casting that’s not whitewashed, straightwashed, or played by able-bodied actors, as well as underrepresentation in below-the-line hires.
“I would love for entertainment reporters to investigate the process of how below-the-line crew can break into the industry, because I did, and it was eye opening,” Alexander says. “Many unions have deliberately created bylaws to exclude. You need 100 days on a non-union movie or TV show before you become eligible for a union. That’s the perfect scenario to exclude people who are poor and don’t have connections in the industry, while making sure that the kids of those who are in the union get in.”
It seems getting into the union—and therefore, the industry at large—is still very connection-based, according to Alexander. “Let me put it to you this way, non-union shows don’t hire unqualified people. But they will make a deal with long time union key grip “John Smith”—this is a random department selection, it happens in all departments—to put his son, Ben Smith’s name on the call sheet instead of his, so now this movie has an industry pro working as a cheap key grip, and the grip’s son has enough days in the union. I’ve asked dozens of below-the-line crew from all departments about how they got in the union, and almost every single one has a story like that. We will never become more inclusive if breaking into the industry is still based on connections.”
As for casting, I believe all parts should be open to all ethnicities, though I do agree that disabled or gay/trans actors should be the first choice for disabled or gay/trans roles,” Alexander continues. “Not because I believe you need the life experience to portray those roles, but I believe that they deserve those parts because Hollywood tends to exclude them from all other parts. The minute an actor comes out, the family father/mother, or straight romantic lead roles dry up. And we never even consider disabled actors for roles that aren’t written specifically with the disability as part of the storyline. To me, this must be a remedial effort, to make up for years of exclusion from all roles.”
The pressure on filmmakers and writers of color to not just succeed, but dominate at the box office, is tremendous. But sometimes, projects just don’t, unfortunately.
“I think this is why most of us are so excited and protective of companies like Netflix. WOC, MOC, and women have spent years in director’s or writer's jail for movies that bombed at the box office, or shows that got canceled too early at no fault of our own. Now there are these streaming networks who don’t put a lot of money into P&A across the board, who don’t release our shows in limited numbers, and who don’t publish opening weekend numbers—and suddenly, many of us are extremely popular content creators at these places. They’re not non-profits. They’re not hiring us to be kind. They’re hiring us because our stories, when they’re not sabotaged by limited releases or lack of P&A investments, have a very large audience,” Alexander says.
“I heard once that Warner Bros. spent as much on the marketing of Watchmen as on the actual production, because it was important to them to not let Zack Snyder fail. I think that’s beautiful. Creatives need this kind of support, and they need room for failure in order to feel safe to take risks. It’s just a problem when studios and networks only summon this type of support for white men, while making us more insecure with their constant doubt about our skills and talent,” Alexander reflects. It’s so true that the power of belief and support have real sway on creatives, and according to Alexander, “A lot of box office failures or canceled shows were a result of confirmation bias. ‘If you release my movie on limited screens and you spend only a quarter of the marketing budget you spend on all your other movies, then the movie’s failure is a result of your doubt, more than my talent.’”
Which is why allowing creators of minority and underrepresentation the freedom to experiment and “fail” without it negatively impacting their career is important. A shift in expectations and benchmarks is crucial for change.
Written by: Jamie Righetti