Issa Rae

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.

NYFA Looks Forward to the 2017 Golden Globes

The American film and television community awaits the Golden Globes 2017 with bated breath. This year, the awards ceremony will take place on Sunday, Jan. 8 at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, California starting at 5 p.m. Pacific/8 p.m. Eastern. “Red Carpet Live,” hosted by Giuliana Rancic and Ryan Seacrest, will air on E! at 6 p.m. Eastern/3 p.m. Pacific, while the “Golden Globes Arrival Special” will air on NBC at 7 p.m. Eastern/4 p.m. Pacific. The 74th Annual Golden Globes Awards will start at 6 p.m. Eastern/5 p.m. Pacific on NBC. And don’t worry if you don’t have a television set — TV Guide suggests borrowing a friend’s cable log-in and watching at NBC.com.

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Though the news of Jimmy Fallon hosting and Meryl Streep earning the Cecil B. DeMille Achievement Award are exciting, the New York Film Academy family has its own cause for celebration. One is an alumna’s inspiring accomplishment, while the other is a titillating opportunity given to current students.

Here are two special NYFA connections to this year’s Golden Globes:

Early “La La Land” screening

In December 2016, students on the NYFA Los Angeles campus had the chance to watch an early screening of Golden Globe nominated musical, “La La Land.” The film opened nationwide on Christmas Day.

Prior to the screening, student Sarah Holmberg told NYFA, “I’ve been watching this movie as it goes from festival to festival. I’ve wanted to see it for a long time. I’m really excited.”

The film, which was written and directed by Damien Chazelle (known for “Whiplash” and “10 Cloverfield Lane”), has been recognized by the Oscars, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Toronto International Film Festival, and other noteworthy festivals and organizations. It stars Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, who play out the story of two lovers who want both their relationship and careers to flourish.

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After the screening, which was organized by Lionsgate, student Miriam Sanchez said, “I’m rushing home to tell everyone to buy a ticket. This is my favorite movie of the year.”

Alumnae Issa Rae’s nomination

NYFA grad Issa Rae struck out on her own to make the webseries, “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” because she wanted to defy on-screen stereotypes of people of color.

“I knew if I didn’t shoot it myself, it was never going to get done,” Rae told NYFA in Sept. 2011.

That webseries eventually gave to way to “Insecure,” which Rae co-created and stars in on HBO. Rae has been nominated for best performance by an actress in a television series. That puts her in the same Golden Globes category as Rachel Bloom (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), Julie Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”), Gina Rodriguez (“Jane the Virgin”), Sarah Jessica Parker (“Divorce”), and Tracee Ellis Ross (“Blackish”).

On Jan. 5, the alumna tweeted, “Remember watching the Golden Globes last year wishing like, ‘One day…’ Now a nomination? Four more days…”

Yes, now a nomination. Congratulations, Issa Rae!

Here’s more about Rae and her brave (and resourceful) leap into the industry:

Awkward Is the New Black ( ISSA RAE DOCUMENTARY) from Dylan Valley on Vimeo.

What do you most look forward to in the 2017 Golden Globes? Let us know in the comments below!

NYFA Around the World: Latest Industry News from Our Film School Alumni

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Just as the hearts of parents swell with pride and a little bit of heartbreak as they watch their children head off to film school, we too get a little teary-eyed when watching our students graduate before going off to make waves in the working world!

Successfully completing one of the most intense film school programs in the world is a feat worth celebrating in and of itself, so we’re doubly proud whenever we see headlines featuring our alumni’s names.

Here’s a round-up of just a few of the feature films and shows our alumni have been working on that have either just hit the screen or are coming up imminently this fall.

“Kevin Can Wait” – Michael Soccio

Comedian and actor Kevin James (who you’ll recognize from his hit show “The King of Queens” and feature film “Grown Ups”) recently took to the stage for an informative and delightful talk as part of our Guest Speaker Series, and in tow was NYFA’s very own directing alumnus Michael Soccio.

As explained on the panel, Soccio channeled everything he learned about directing into becoming a better writer, and has collaborated with James on a number of projects including the aforementioned smash successes “King of Queens” and “Hitch.”

But the successes don’t stop there. As of this week, Soccio and James have been commissioned by CBS for a full a full 22-episode season of their newest comedy “Kevin Can Wait.”

Kevin might be able to, but we sure can’t!

“Insecure” – Issa Rae

Following her graduation from NYFA, the hugely talented Issa Rae went on to establish the hit YouTube series “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.” It garnered her a quarter of a million subscribers (with the individual episode view counts numbering in the multiple millions), leading her to be recognized with a Shorty Award for the series.

It also caught the attention of HBO, who admired her sheer grit and determination in producing the show almost singlehandedly. A two-year deal followed, and as of this month we’ll be seeing the first of Rae’s HBO work with the release of “Insecure.”

There’ll be eight episodes in total (which began airing Oct. 9) and we applaud HBO’s decision to focus on diversity within its programming.

They definitely hired the right girl for the job.

“The Magnificent Seven” – Manuel García-Rulfo

Mexican-born García-Rulfo originally majored in communications and went on to pursue a career in that industry, but he couldn’t shake off a nagging thought: his real passion was acting.

In a brave move, he ditched everything he’d worked towards and decided to go back to studying, this time at NYFA. It was a move that was to pay off — big time.

Since 2006, García-Rulfo has starred in a slew of features and shorts. What could be considered as his “big” break, however, was a role in the brilliant “From Dusk Till Dawn” TV series between 2014-2015. He’s using that momentum to go from strength to strength, having received prominent screen time as The Outlaw in the this fall’s “The Magnificent Seven,” now in theaters.

“Amanat” – Sanzhar Madiyev

It’s with great honor and privilege that we’re able to report that alumnus Sanzhar Madiyev has appeared in a movie that has been nominated (and is looking like a strong contender to win) the 2017 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.

“Amanat” was screened in May in Madiyev’s native Kazakhstan to great reception, and NYFA will be reporting on its wider international successes in the coming months.

And Madiyev is not the only NYFA graduate involved in an Oscar nominated film…

“Sparrows” – Atli Fjalarsson

“Sparrows” is a dramatic, endearing coming-of-age story set in Iceland, and is the country’s own entry into next year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.

A celebration of both Icelandic culture and an intricate tale of the 16-year-old Ari (played by Fjalarsson), “Sparrows” is already gaining traction ahead of the Oscars thanks to two critically-acclaimed screenings at TIFF and the San Sebastian Film Festival this year.

We pay a huge debt of gratitude to all our alumni who fly the NYFA flag into their successful careers. Share your NYFA success story in the comments below — we love hearing from you all!