Black History Month

Black History Month Recap: A Q&A With NYFA Faculty

As Black History Month comes to a close, New York Film Academy celebrates the diversity and strength of its community. We had a chance to sit down with a few members of our faculty to hear their insights and inspirations in light of this important month. Joining the discussion are NYFA’s Chair of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department Nancy Kwang Johnson; digital editing instructor and professional Hollywood editor Leander Sales; and film directing instructor and Chair of Community Outreach Mason Richards.

Here is what they had to say:

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Nancy Kwang Johnson

NYFA: Can you share a little about your career or journey in the entertainment industry, and what has driven your success? What makes you get up in the morning? What are you working for?

Leander Sales: I got into the industry because Spike Lee was determine to see more diversity in the film industry and I was determine to be part of this industry. The joys and duties of being a parent [are what get me up in the morning]. I’m generally a very optimistic person and I look forward to what the future may hold. [I’m working for] My kids and making more movies.

Mason Richards: The film industry is extremely rigorous and challenging because there is no real clear path to success, therefore it takes an extreme amount of tenacity and vigor to navigate. The industry is such that in order to be able to tell your own story, you have to work extremely hard. It’s also a great feeling when you get those opportunities to share your journey and tell the stories that matter most to you.

NYFA: Tell us about the first time you saw a character or story on the big screen that really resonated with you culturally and that you felt you could personally identify with. What was that moment like for you?

Leander Sales: Seeing “Cooley High” and getting a chance to meet the director, Michael Schultz.

Mason Richards: One of my favorite films of all time is “To Sir, With Love” directed by James Clavell — the film tells the story of an idealistic engineer-trainee and his experiences in teaching a group of rambunctious high school students from the slums of London’s East End. One of the reasons I love this film is because it stars one of my favorite actors of all time, Sidney Poitier; and this film was the first time I saw someone on the big screen who was from my birth country, Guyana, South America. It was a great feeling then, and it’s always a great feeling when you see strong characters in leading roles that reflect your identity.

Nancy Kwang Johnson: I am Korean and African American.  My great grandmother on my father’s side is full-blooded Cherokee.  As a result, as a teenager, I would empathize and hold onto every word of Cher’s hit song, “Half Breed.”  

As far as languages go, I grew up in a household with two parents who were fluent in Korean.  As a result, my mother tongue is, and will always be Korean; it’s the only language that I can speak without an accent.  I teach in French and English, and I speak basic Albanian and Wolof.

Because of my mixed racial heritage, I always had two types of dolls when I was growing up – an African American doll and a Korean doll adorned in the national costume (hanbok).  As I did not have dolls that actually looked like me, I gravitated towards female role models on the silver screen – tv and film – who were also mixed like me.  

From the onset, I would gravitate towards my namesake, Nancy Kwan (of “The World of Susie Wong”) as she was my mother’s (Kwang’s) favorite actress and [she] had been on the set of “Susie Wong” during her pregnancy.  

As a child, I was a huge fan of the television show called “Zoom,” because one of the cast members was Puerto Rican, also named Nancy, and looked like me (for example, she wore her hair in two braids). As a teenager, I gravitated towards Irene Cara of the hit show, “Fame” (1980) and Tai Babilonia (the 1980s Olympics hopeful). Why? As a Korean and African-American female teenager, it was refreshing to see aspiring actresses and Olympic-calibre figure skaters break the boundaries of race and gender on the silver screen.

Throughout my college years at Vassar, I would have to say that the person who made the most impression on me would have to be Jennifer Beals of “Flashdance” (1983) for a number of reasons. Jennifer Beals, like myself, was bi-racial, had an upbringing in Chicago, and is also a fellow Ivy Leaguer. She attended Yale and I attended Cornell.  

In 2012, I was invited to the first White House Korean-American briefing.  On this momentous occasion, I would have to confess that of the 150 plus Korean-Americans in attendance I was one of two Korean-Americans who had an African-American parent.

The French have a saying, “…bien dans sa eau (to be comfortable within one’s skin).  With respect to images on and off of the silver screen coupled with the absence of images – that look like me – I am comfortable within my skin.

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Mason Richards

NYFA: Is there a particular film, piece of art, or Black artist that has had a profound impact on your life? Why?

Mason Richards: I’m inspired by the art of Jean Michel Basquiat, not only because of his use of color, form and medium, but also for his ability to tell his personal stories through art – this inspires me as a filmmaker. 

Leander Sales: James Baldwin’s books have been very important to me because while I lived abroad, I often found myself reading his book of essays “Nobody Knows My Name.” Why? His essays gave me deep insight into American and European racism.

NYFA: What stories would you like to see brought to the screen that are yet untold?

Leander Sales: There are many, but I would like to see more movies like “Hidden Figures,” “Malcolm X,” etc. I guess you would say historical which may be movies we may find on Netflix.

NYFA: How have you seen the industry shift or grow over time in terms of diversity in representation?

Leander Sales: Recently, things are getting very interesting after a few years of #OscarsSoWhite. We will see if this is temporary.

NYFA: What is your favorite moment from Black television history?

Leander Sales: I have to say my favorite moment was when I realized we, as a people, have a lot of work ahead of us. Why? We have so much to offer to this world. Our talents and genius has made this world a better place. Can you imagine America without African Americans?

NYFA: How does your culture, environment, and experience inspire your artwork?

Leander Sales: Many things have influence me, but visiting Africa six times really gave me a deeper understanding of who we are as a people and who I am as an individual.

Mason Richards: I like to tell stories that reflect the world we live in. Film is a beautiful medium to inspire, reveal, and share different views and perspectives of the world.

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Leander Sales

NYFA: Any words of wisdom for aspiring black artists and creators?

Leander Sales: Put in the work. Climb to the top and throw the rope back down.

Mason Richards:  It’s really important for any artist or filmmaker to tell their own personal truths; and although this can be intimidating and challenging at times, it’s an amazing feeling when you get to see your story, your personal truth, and your own narrative on the big screen.

NYFA: Is there anything we’ve missed that you’d like to speak on?

Nancy Kwang Johnson: Having lived abroad (namely, South Korea, France, Senegal, Canada, and Albania), I learned very quickly that the manner in which race is conceptualized in the U.S. differs greatly from its European, Asian, and African counterparts. As a result, I have become accustomed to the social construction of race, and know that in the U.S. people tend to fixate on the one-drop rule (if you have one drop of Black blood then you are black). For example, in the U.S., people tend to categorize me as Black albeit I self-identify as Korean and Black, or I will check the “other” box and list both Korean and Black.

On the other hand, all of the other countries that I have lived in (such as South Korea, France, Senegal, Canada, and Albania), I am deemed as the exotic “other” and racial mixing is more accepted. In South Korea, I have the same racial mixture as Hines Ward. In France, Parisians approach me and greet me in Polynesian. In Senegal, I am called “Madame Chinoise.” In Canada, I am classified as a Francophone and a First Nations member. And in Albania, I am dubbed the Francophone Ivy Leaguer with North Korean ancestry who is also biracial like President Obama.

New York Film Academy would like to thank Nancy Kwang Johnson, Leander Sales, and Mason Richards for taking the time to share a part of their stories with our community.

Black History Month: Blazing Trails in the Entertainment Industry Part II

In the second part of this series, we’re bringing you six more (one is a husband and wife team) industry insiders who are blazing trails in the field.

Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil

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Mara Brock Akil and husband Salim are no strangers to television, with each respectively boasting a list of writing credits that include writing credits on ‘90s hit tv shows like “Soul Food,” “The Jamie Foxx Show,” and “Moesha.” This duo has proven to have a winning formula for Hollywood success, having created and written other longstanding hits like “Girlfriends” and “Being Mary Jane,” which stars Gabrielle Union. In fact, their formula is so potent, that the couple most recently inked a multi-year development deal with Warner Bros. Entertainment.

Donald Glover

This multi-hyphenated artist (actor, writer, singer, songwriter, rapper, comedian) who also goes by the stage name Childish Gambino is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, with a degree in dramatic writing. He has taken the industry by storm.

Early in his career, Glover submitted a spec script for “The Simpsons” which garnered him an invitation to write for “30 Rock,” a gig he held onto for three years while simultaneously working in stand-up comedy, rap albums, and a vigorous touring schedule on top of cameos on “30 Rock.” Later, he secured a series regular role on “Community.”

2016 proved to be a big year for Glover. He was cast in“Spider Man: Homecoming,” and debuted his series “Atlanta,” which follows a Princeton University dropout trying to make a name for himself in the music industry. The show, which he created, stars in, writes, and executive produces, has already met rave reviews in its first season — and was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Music or Comedy TV Series.

Kenya Barris

Writer and producer Kenya Barris is no stranger to television. The creator of several shows including “America’s Next Top Model,” he also co-created and co-produced and “The Game.” His most recent series, “Black-ish,” chronicles a black family living in an upper-class and predominantly white neighborhood, and has received critical acclaim — as well as a Golden Globe win for lead actress Tracee Ellis Ross. Ross was the first black woman to win the award since 1983.

Mr. Barris’ work behind the scenes has been meant working up the ranks from staff writer on shows like “Soul Food,” “Are We There Yet,” and “Girlfriends,” to producing. Now, Barris has added director to his already impressive list of credits, having directed episodes of “Black-ish” just this past year.

Misha Green

Former staff writer for “Heroes” and “Sons of Anarchy” Misha Green, together with fellow “Heroes” writer Joe Pokasky, created the WGN hit “Underground.” This is a true-to-history thriller about a group of slaves planning to escape a Georgia plantation. The show, soon to be in its second season, and for which Green is also executive producer, boasts a score by R&B crooner John Legend, and has been hailed as a harrowing portrayal of plantation life and the journey to freedom for thousands of African-American enslaved people. 

Gina Prince-Bythewood

Screenwriter-turned-director Gina Blythewood has been contributing to great television and film since her days as a staff writer on the show “A Different World,” where she met her husband and sometime partner, Reggie Rock Bythewood, also a screenwriter. Her first film, 2000’s “Love and Basketball” starred Sanaa Lathan and was developed at Sundance Institute’s directing and writing lab. Soon to follow would be “The Secret Life of Bees,” based on the bestselling book by the same name, and “Beyond the Lights.”

In 2016, it was announced that Prince-Bythewood would direct an adaptation of frequent NY Times contributor and author, Roxane Gay’sAn Untamed State,” with whom she would also co-write the script.

Which industry trailblazers have made your list of inspiration during Black History Month? Let us know in the comments below!

Black History Month: Blazing Trails in the Entertainment Industry Part I

Celebrated annually in the United States and Canada in February, Black History Month is a dedicated time to honor impactful people and events in the black diaspora. And while there have been countless contributions of African-descended people to world history, here at NYFA, we’re recognizing those who are blazing trails in the entertainment industry as they pursue their craft.

On the heels of the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards (SAG) and as we gear up for Oscar season, we’ve compiled a list of five history-makers to watch right now in 2017. So without further ado, drumroll please…

1. Mahershala Ali

An Oakland, California native, Ali was raised Christian by his mother, an ordained minister, before converting to Islam and changing his last name from Gilmore to Ali. While attending St. Mary’s College of California on a basketball scholarship, Ali decided to go into acting and landed an apprenticeship at the California Shakespeare Theater. He went on to enroll at NYU, where he earned a master’s degree in NYU’s graduate acting program.

Until this year, Ali was perhaps best known for his appearances in “House of Cards,” “Luke Cage,” “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1,” “Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2,” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” Now, Ali’s performance as a supporting character in “Moonlight,” which follows the coming of age of an African-American gay youth, earned him the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Supporting Actor in December 2016. This was followed by the Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Supporting Actor and an Oscar nomination in 2017.

2. Issa Rae

This former NYFA student was born Jo-Issa Rae Diop in Los Angeles to a pediatric doctor from Senegal and a teacher from Louisiana. Eventually attending Stanford University, where she majored in African-American Studies, she wrote and directed plays, music videos, and even a mock reality series while still in school. Fellow Stanford classmate, Tracy Oliver, would eventually produce “Awkward Black Girl” and star on the show.

After accepting a fellowship with The Public Theater, Rae joined Oliver in taking classes at New York Film Academy, while they continued to develop and produce “Awkward Black Girl” for YouTube, raising $56,249 through a Kickstarter campaign to release the rest of the first season due to popular demand. Rae continued to write, produce, and edit original content on her YouTube channel, working on Ratchet Piece Theater, ”The ‘F’ Word,” ”Roomieloverfriends,” and ”The Choir.” Rae partnered up with Pharrell to premiere season two of the series on his YouTube channel, ”iamOTHER.” Rae also began releasing other content on her original channel, predominantly created by and starring people of color In 2013, she began writing a comedy series pilot with Larry Wilmore, which was eventually titled ”Insecure” and was picked up by HBO. This year, the show — which Rae also produces — earned her a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in a TV Comedy or Musical.

3. Ava DuVernay

Hailing from Long Beach, California, Ava DuVernay attended UCLA, where she majored in African-American Studies and English. Pursuing journalism at the start of her career, she was assigned to cover the O.J. Simpson trial, eventually turning to public relations and opening up her own firm, The DuVernay Agency, while producing documentaries to learn and hone the craft.

Her feature films include “I Will Follow” and Martin Luther King Jr.-based “Selma.” She was the first African-American woman to win Best Director at the Sundance 2012 festival for her feature, “Middle of Nowhere.” In 2010 DuVernay began AFFRM (the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), her own company to distribute films made by or focusing on black people, after which she later rebranded the company under a new name, ARRAY, to include a focus on women filmmakers as well.

Most recently, DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which explores the 13th amendment abolishing slavery and our nation’s disproportionate incarceration of African Americans in prisons, was met with critical acclaim, as it sheds light on America’s history of racial inequality.

4. Raoul Peck

Born in Haiti and fleeing the Duvalier dictatorship as a young boy with his family to Kinshasa, Congo, Peck studied electrical engineering and economics at Berlin’s Humboldt University before attaining a degree in film from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. With a focus on socio-political themes in his documentaries and narrative films, Peck is well known for his feature films “Man by The Shore,” about the Haitian Duvalieriste regime, and “Lumumba,” which covers Congolese independence from Belgium. Both of these, along with his other films, were produced through his production company, Velvet Films.

In 2016, amidst the political and racial strife in the U.S., Peck released his “I Am Not Your Negro,” based on 30 pages of an incomplete manuscript by renowned African-American writer James Baldwin, which examines race in America from the Civil Rights era to the Black Lives Matter movement. This documentary has already earned him an Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.

5. Viola Davis

Born in St. Mathews, North Carolina, Viola Davis attended Rhode Island College and The Juilliard School, where she studied drama. After years of playing supporting roles in both television and film, it was Davis’ one scene in the film adaptation of “Doubt,” starring Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, that earned her Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Soon after, Davis was inducted into The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Davis’ role in “The Help” earned her two SAG awards, a second Academy Award nomination, a BAFTA nomination and a Golden Globe award. Currently starring in ABC’s “How to Get Away with Murder,” she is the first black woman of any nationality to earn a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series.  

While 2016 has been quite a busy year for Davis — she starred in and executive-produced the courtroom drama ”Custody” as well as performing in the DC Comics adaptation “Suicide Squad” — it was her role opposite Denzel Washington in “Fences” that won her the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress, yet another SAG Award, and her third Academy Award nomination. As she is continuing to expand her work behind the scenes through her production company JuVee Productions, Davis has just put a comedy series into development with ABC.

Stay tuned for a list of five more people to watch as we continue to honor Black History Month at NYFA.

5 Feature Films to Watch for Black History Month

As American cinema expands to tell stories from a wide variety of cultural experiences, we’re seeing more and more authentic African-American stories hit the big screen. This goes both for documentaries and features. While Hollywood still has a ways to go before it achieves racial equality, the industry has made many strides in recent years. Just look at some of the titles, plots, directors, and cast members that have come out and received recognition in the past decade. In fact, make that your unofficial homework: Since February is Black History Month, you have all the more reason to be extra conscious of films that portray what it’s really like to be black in America.

Here are five feature films released in the past five years to binge-watch this month:

“Fences” (2016): “Fences” follows the story of a black garbage man named Troy who lives in Pittsburgh during the 1950s. The Oscar-nominated film is based off of a Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson play that debuted in 1983 as part of the Pittsburgh Cycle. The Pittsburgh Cycle was Wilson’s series of 10 stage plays capturing the black experience in 20th century America, with a play representing each decade. Wilson, who was a prolific black playwright from Pittsburgh, wrote the play to shed light on the lives of working-class African-Americans.

With middle class America steadily declining and racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter gaining momentum, now could not be a more perfect time for “Fences.” Plus, just look at the cast: Denzel Washington (who also directed it), Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, and recent NYFA Guest Speaker and Master Class Lecturer Russell Hornsby.

 

“Selma” (2015): You can’t have a Black History Month film list without including a biopic of Martin Luther King, Jr. This award-winning film, directed by Ava DuVernay, follows MLK’s efforts to achieve equal voting rights for African-Americans. The most visible part of that campaign involved marching from Selma to Montgomery, in Alabama, in 1965 … hence the inspiration for the movie’s title.

“Selma” will feel especially timely right after the 2016 presidential election and recent rallies and marches. In MLK’s day, marches were just business as usual. “Selma,” which was written by Paul Webb, stars David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, and Tim Roth. There’s even an Oprah cameo, so keep your eyes peeled.

“Race” (2016): Once upon a time, black athletes faced overt racism off and on the field. “Race” shows how African-American runner Jesse Owens dealt with such discrimination. The year is 1936 and Owens has one goal: to become the world’s best track and field athlete in history. But when he heads to the Olympics, he’s suddenly up against not just homegrown American racism, but Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship.  

TheWrap critic Inkoo Kang praised the film. In her review of “Race,” she wrote, “The Jesse Owens to cheer on here is, sure, the fastest man in the world, but also the canny would-be celebrity who knew exactly how to bet on himself in a world that had little use for his dignity and intellect. If that’s not an inspirational story, I don’t know what is.”

“Dear White People” (2014): This satirical comedy-drama was written, directed, and co-produced by triple threat Justin Simien. It explores the lives of four African-American students at a fictional Ivy League college. There, undergraduate experience is less like “Animal House” than it is a battlefield for students of color. But the real controversy starts when a biracial student named Samantha White gets elected as the head of a traditionally all-black house on campus. Unlike the aforementioned films, which ground racial struggles in the past, “Dear White People” reminds us how race still affects Americans today.

“Beasts of the Southern Wild” (2012): Now for a movie from a child’s perspective. “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is a coming-of-age story about a six-year-old black girl named Hushpuppy. Hushpuppy is just starting to understand her place in the world as she grapples with more than many children do at her age. For one thing, her father’s health is fading fast. Then there’s the health of her bayou community, which is falling prey to flooding caused by global warming. Young actress Quvenzhané Wallis gives a stunning performance in her challenging role as a little black girl who’s anything but a stereotype.

 

What films will you be watching during Black History Month? Let us know in the comments below!