Seventeen-year-old Yara Shahidi once said that playing Zoey on ABC’s “Black-ish” is her “activism through art.” Since saying this, however, her forms of activism have increased, both within the art world and beyond. In October, she promoted the presence of girls in STEM fields by starring as Malison on the Emmy-nominated Disney Junior series “Miles From Tomorrowland.” In January, she’ll bring her character Zoey to college through the spinoff series “Grown-ish” on Freeform. Plus, she continues to use her social media platform to defend black and brown bodies – and bald her followers with gloriously lit selfies from time to time. Now, based on a series of Instagram and Twitter posts the actress shared this week, it appears Shahidi is bringing her art behind the camera as the director of a short film for R29’s video series, Shatterbox Anthology – and hopefully she’s bringing her activism there, too.
The directorial debut is a much-needed one, considering the musty air in the film industry at the moment. Greta Gerwig’s “Ladybird” ignited widespread sentiment for a coming-of-age film in a Hollywood era where young women have mostly been depicted as fighters against dystopia. Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman” broke records by grossing over $800 million at the box office. Nonetheless, the 2018 Golden Globes saw no nominations for a female director in the Best Director category, a disparity that mimics the very report R29 Shatterbox is a response to. A 2017 report revealed that women continued to account for just 7 percent of directors in the top 250 films of 2016. R29’s Shatterbox Anthology is a video series of weekly short films, all with women in the director’s chair.
Shahidi, an outspoken critic of diversity in the film industry, is definitely worthy of a seat. She has spoken out against “diversity for the sake of diversity,” a move in which actors of different backgrounds are cast in film and television but play roles that all perpetuate the same stereotype. “We want to talk about identity in a deeply multifaceted way because our definition of diversity has, and must, continue to expand,” Shahidi wrote in an essay for Vice earlier this year. Shahidi is both extremely aware of the film industry’s failing of people of color and extremely self-aware of her place within this issue. Just last week when a Twitter user declared that she would not be watching “Grown-ish” because “a spinoff only occurs when the oldest daughter is racially ambiguous,” Shahidi responded with a simple reflection on colorism in the media. “Now, we can have a separate conversation on the ever present colorism and the monolithic black aesthetic on TV of 3C hair and lighter skin,” Shahidi said on Twitter. There’s a reason they call her “grown.”
Shahidi’s venture is also exciting because of R29 Shatterbox’s history of riveting short films featuring black directors, writers, and stars. Robin Cloud directed and starred in “Out Again,” which follows Cat (Cloud) and her new wife Liz as they reveal to Cat’s Alzheimer’s-diagnosed mother that they got hitched. Gabourey Sidibe had her directorial debut on Shatterbox this year with her film “Tale of Four.” Taking inspiration from Nina Simone’s 1966 hit, “Four Women,” which follows four archetypes of American black women from slavery to 1966, the film follows modern black women coping with mass incarceration and police brutality. Like Shahidi, who calls for complexity in black characters, Sidibe has used “Tale of Four” to promote the inclusion of black people in a wider range of positions in Hollywood. “They had never been on any set with this many Black people, and in these positions. It’s something I’m so proud of,” Sidibe said in an interview with R29 in October, referring to people that worked on her film.
Official promotional material for Shahidi’s short film has yet to be released. All R29 Shatterbox films can be found here.
Please note: All opinions held are my own. This piece was not sponsored by Refinery29.