Illustrations by Adams Carvalho
(Note: This piece originally appeared in Paste Quarterly #1, which you can purchase here, along with its accompanying vinyl Paste sampler.)
I don’t know what my mother would have said, and I never will. I was 30. My three boys were seven, five and two. In September, I was renting this one-bedroom, basement apartment (which I somewhat jokingly referred to as the “trap house”) month-to-month. I was only supposed to stay for two months—when my three-bedroom apartment in a glorious, desperately needed subsidized housing apartment complex would be available.
New Year’s Eve rolled around, and I was still in this apartment, still sleeping on an air mattress, my kids sleeping on their mattresses on the floor (we hadn’t had enough room for their bunk beds). I sat in the bathroom and thought, seriously, about the possibility of not living anymore. How nice that would be, and what a relief I’d find in non-existence, as opposed to this existence.
I don’t know what my mother would have said to me in that moment. I never will. But I do know what Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway were saying to me, directly and indirectly.
Let me clarify. It’s not that two women—who I had yet to meet in the flesh—had saved my life. (In that moment, two glasses of wine and the distraction of reality TV probably did it.) It’s that there were these voices in my head that kept insisting things would get better, that I would get better, and DuVernay’s and Soloway’s were among them. Since becoming a film and TV critic for Paste, I was constantly interviewing writers and filmmakers doing things I wanted to do. Every once in a while, one of them would reach out to me later and offer up a gift, telling me in some way or another what I wanted desperately to hear: that those impossible things I wanted were not so impossible. That the “trap house” was temporary, that my kids would never sleep on the floor—out of necessity, anyway—again.
At different points and to varying degrees, I received such gifts from DuVernay and Soloway. I didn’t realize it then, but in becoming voices in my head, and in creating works of art that would help talk me down off certain poverty-induced ledges, they were being activists. This is proof that activism is so much more complex, and personal, than we usually give it credit for. And although we rarely hear their works mentioned in the same conversation, when the new gospels of filmmaking and TV writing are composed, DuVernay and Soloway must be consulted.
“I take it with me,” DuVernay told me, in a conversation at the JW Marriott Essex House Hotel in New York about her acclaimed documentary 13th, and some of the most difficult scenes from her 2014 film Selma. She was acknowledging the relationship between her art, her work, her activism and her emotional state. For her, they’re all intertwined, and while such a connection can make for a powerful movie, it weighs heavily on an auteur.
“Doing [13th] and Selma back to back was challenging, and I don’t know how soon I’ll do it again, because it takes an emotional toll to look through 1,000 hours of violent, racist footage,” she went on to say. “It takes a toll to call action, to tell actors to beat each other up, to spit on each other, get shot. But it’s in my heart, and I know that I have to practice more self-care around it. That’s why I’m going to make A Wrinkle in Time! I need a break,” she laughed.
Creating something as personal as it is political or historical is no small feat. And DuVernay could operate the way many other Hollywood directors do—willing to take on the personal stresses of her work, but unwilling to use her position to change the face of Hollywood. There remains this idea (or myth) that someone whose job it is to entertain, to create things of beauty, must not also be burdened with the responsibility of activism. Perhaps it’s time to stop thinking of activism merely as a responsibility. Haven’t we seen enough to consider it no less a creative undertaking than filmmaking, TV-making, writing, sculpting or any other fine art?
In addition to highlighting this inherently creative side to activism, DuVernay and Soloway have made it obvious that inclusivity is incredibly simple to accomplish, if it’s something of actual interest to you.
But, of course, the source of such a seemingly political interest is almost always personal.
I don’t know what my mother would have said, and I never will. I was studying theory at Sarah Lawrence. I always found a way to incorporate black culture into my work, but I was decidedly not an activist. There were students, organizing. For what? I thought. I’d just left Cleveland public schools. I couldn’t fathom what these well-to-do black kids were protesting.
Still, I’d think about my mother, and the world she’d introduced me to. She was holding a FREE MUMIA sign in Philly, her last march of hundreds or thousands, before she died. She was pale, thinning, and unable to walk the entire distance. But present, and as angry as ever on behalf of the political prisoner. The last protest I’d ever attend was shortly after her death — George W. Bush’s January 2001 inauguration. I remember the police shoving me, a teen; I remember that taste of fear and disgust in my mouth, as I looked in some of their eyes.
By the time I got to college, I felt I’d been given this gift—an education unlike anything most of my classmates from Cleveland School of the Arts were getting. I didn’t have anything to prove, I told myself.
But perhaps I was just embarrassed to speak openly about how much I did care, and how much I hoped to achieve what my favorite writers had: that seemingly perfect balance
between art and protest.
I think about this when Jill Soloway admits to a certain shame associated with activism—one she’s managed to shed over the years. She even cites her first conversation with DuVernay as one moment in which she felt like less of an outlier for her vision of art and activism.
“[DuVernay] is an amazing filmmaker, and I think it’s probably her off-screen work that has been so revolutionary for me,” Soloway says. “When I made Afternoon Delight, I really noticed that the distribution for feminist films—not even feminist films, fuck feminist!—for films by and about women, wasn’t there. I was like, ‘Am I gonna have to figure out how to fucking create wine nights for women to get them to drink wine and go to a movie together’? Like, I can do the marketing campaign, why can’t anyone else?” She laughs, still in disbelief at what she experienced on her first film.
When Soloway was put in touch with DuVernay, who was heading her own grassroots distribution company, AFFRM (now called ARRAY), she says she finally got a clear perspective on marketing her own work, and championing work from other underrepresented women, too.
“I jumped on the phone with her and she talked me through the possibilities of bundling my film with other female filmmakers,” Soloway says. “She explained to me how we had to sort of name, and mold, and create a product around our aggregated product. She was telling me how to do this for independent films by women, the same way she was doing it for films by people of color. I was just so amazed and impressed that she was willing to see the big picture, and with a lot of vigor tell me, ‘You need to do this, this and this.’ And as someone who’s always been a bit embarrassed by the movement aspect of my art things, it’s always so exciting to meet someone who thinks bigger, and has the same kind of messiah complex.”
DuVernay might not describe herself as having a messiah complex, but there are many of us who couldn’t help but see a savior when we saw her in photos, posing with each of the women she chose to direct the acclaimed first season of Queen Sugar. In this so-called era of “peak TV,” only 17% of TV episodes that aired during the 2015-2016 season were directed by women. What’s there to talk about? DuVernay seemed to shout from behind her smile. What dialogue needs to be had when it’s as simple as hiring women and people of color?
In the same way that Soloway has pushed for inclusivity in her writers’ rooms for Transparent and the upcoming I Love Dick, DuVernay wasn’t interested in hiring people who’d previously directed TV. She hired indie filmmakers and actors she’d worked with to do what no one in the industry had given them the chance to do. Soloway, too, did what was once the unthinkable and found creative trans people who had never stepped foot in a writers’ room, and trained them for the job of working on Transparent.
Visibility for female writers and directors is not unlike visibility for marginalized film and TV characters, like black women and queer individuals—it’s all related to the privilege of having an amplified voice or image.
“Protagonism is privilege,” is something Soloway has been saying for some time now, and it turns out this idea, too, was partly inspired by DuVernay.
“Privileging as a verb—which is something film does—is something I’d picked up from an interview [DuVernay] gave about Middle of Nowhere, and the notion of privileging the Other. [Her idea] of the way that filmmaking privileges, as a verb, was a huge light bulb moment for me.”
Soloway says she’d always had a vision for a movement that was creative and sought to amplify the voices of others—“a full-tilt, large-scale reimagining of female power.” In the same way that DuVernay’s ARRAY has celebrated the works of other people of color and their stories (in films like Vanishing Pearls, Ayanda and Mississippi Damned), Soloway’s production company, Topple, will work with Amazon Studios to bring an eclectic group of stories and voices to the world.
And because Soloway looks for talent in uncharted territories, and because she’s a champion of intersectional feminism, one of those voices is my own.
She called me in August 2016 and said, “This is the part where you scream.” Because Amazon had just offered to buy a pilot I’d written for a show called Womanish—with her encouragement, with her guidance (along with involvement from her Topple team, Carly Kahane and producer Andrea
Sperling), which I’d only “earned” as someone who’d written three or four pieces about her brilliant series. So I screamed. It was happening; something was happening.
But it had almost always been happening, I realize now, in part because I’d had this great gift in watching two women write a women-led gospel of art as activism, and activism as art. It was happening because strange stories about transition, loss and salvation in the form of Transparent and Queen Sugar were carving out space for stories like mine—making room for women grieving, mothering, becoming and un-becoming. My something is happening because of the shock of the dresses of those four little girls in 16th St. Baptist Church, in Selma. It’s happening because of the Vicks VapoRub scene in Afternoon Delight; because of the way Ruby wrapped her hair in Middle of Nowhere; because of Davina, Maura and Shea; Nova, Charley and Aunt Vi. In centering women in so many ways, in daring to give the gift of authentic, flawed women, Soloway and DuVernay have opened (burned down?) a door that, otherwise, might have remained forever closed.
I don’t know how my mother would explain this, and I never will. But years after her death, when I was finally able to read her obituary, I discovered that her decision to adopt me was as much a political choice as it was a personal one. As a long-time activist, she decided that if she wanted a family, it was her duty to give back to the community by raising a child who’d otherwise be a ward of the State. It wasn’t especially romantic, learning this. I wanted to know that she’d adopted me out of love, pure love—because of something she saw in me from the moment we met, when I was six. I thought this, thinking personal and political motivations must be separate. I thought this, as if pure love isn’t, always, wrapped in some sort of social, political movement happening inside and outside of us.
There’s another voice that I hear often, as many writers do. It’s the one telling me to stop, to hold back. I’m over-sharing. I’m harping on the Mom thing too much. But in a conversation about her work, DuVernay reminded me of the importance of historical context, which is not so different from personal context.
“What if I just appeared in the middle of this room? And the lights were out? I don’t know where the door is. I don’t know where the window is. I don’t know how to get out of the room. I don’t know how to get out of the dark if I don’t know how I got in the dark. We work from a place of ignorance if you don’t know the historical context of the thing you’re talking about.”
Without knowing it, DuVernay was giving me—along with a room full of other writers—the encouragement we needed to embrace our own pasts, to keep writing in search of (for some of us) our mothers’ gardens.
Young, still-unrecognizable writers aren’t allowed to say such things but if—if—anyone should ever be interested in my story, they certainly wouldn’t be able to tell it without considering the woman who raised me. Nor could they tell it without considering the other women who’ve raised me—the Jills and the Avas, the Ginas and the Shondas and the Julies, the Alices and the Tonis and the Zoras.
Soloway and DuVernay are certainly not the first creative beings to give the gift of art as activism, but they stand out in this moment when TV and film are being taken to task, when something very real is happening in American culture. It’s a terrifying time. And so, it is our time to work.
And in this moment, as their gospels are being written, DuVernay and Soloway commit acts of love and activism everywhere as they continue to work, and continue to be fishers of women, and fishers of people of color. Because of their work, such gospels, once completed, are destined to be rewritten, dismantled and disrupted by other artists—people like me, and the many others being “put on” by the two. We young, still-unrecognizable, forthcoming (yes, we are coming) storytellers stand on the shoulders of these masters, these giants. We topple, we affirm, we rewrite ourselves into history. And we activate a still-imagined, but always attainable, free future.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.