Michael B. Jordan, Riz Ahmed, Eva Longoria want more diversity onscreen
In the upcoming Warner Bros. film “Just Mercy,” Michael B. Jordan portrays civil rights defense attorney Bryan Stevenson, who works to free a death row prisoner played by Jamie Foxx.
Minutes after Warner Bros. showed the first footage of the legal drama at Tuesday’s CAA Amplify leadership summit in Ojai, Jordan noted his hope that the film can “be used as a tool to really make some real change.”
Foxx portrays the ill-fated inmate Walter “Johnny D.” McMillian — a role he said he’s been preparing for all his life. Foxx then shared tough stories of his upbringing in Terrell, Texas, like when he was subjected to racial slurs while playing piano at a Christmas party, and even noted how he was pulled over by police while driving in Los Angeles.
“I know the real America,” Foxx said. “You guys tripped out when 45[th president Donald Trump] won. But America lives in between New York and L.A. And that real America, that perception they have [of people of color], it hasn’t changed.”
Written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the legal drama also features Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Tim Blake Nelson. It is the first Warner Bros. production to formally adopt an inclusion rider, as part of WarnerMedia’s studio-wide push for inclusivity.
The project sees Jordan fighting for social justice both onscreen and behind the scenes. “I’m never about money, I don’t chase clout or limelight,” he said. “I just do things that are honest, and I want to help people grow.”
Making films and television with a notable social impact was a top topic throughout CAA Amplify, an invite-only event at the Ojai Valley Inn’s Farmhouse. It also included sessions with Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, former national security advisor Susan Rice, National Immigration Forum executive director Ali Noorani and Valerie Jarrett, former senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
Riz Ahmed asked for help from the Hollywood names to put forward positive portrayals of Muslims in film and television.
“It’s really scary to be a Muslim right now,” said the actor, highlighting Islamophobia in the United States, United Kingdom, China, Myanmar and New Zealand, to name a few countries.
He called for research on Muslim representation onscreen, and guidance about establishing a production company to make content that passes the Riz Test, the equivalent of the Bechdel Test for Muslims.
“Lives are quite literally at stake here,” Ahmed said. “The representation of Muslims onscreen affects the policies that get enacted, the people that get killed, the countries that get invaded.”
To combat the national onslaught of abortion bans, Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund co-founder Fatima Goss Graves urged the room of storytellers to consider discussing the topic as Busy Philipps did, either on their personal platforms or within their narrative projects.
“One in three women have had an abortion, and it’s still so shamed and stigmatized. You rarely see those stories,” she explained. “Embed those stories so that it’s far more typical, which it is — people in your family, your coworkers, your neighbors — but that’s not how we see this issue [onscreen].”
Eva Longoria — who began her chat with her young son on her lap “because that’s the reality of being a working mom in Hollywood” — spoke about staffing her new series, “Grand Hotel,” with directors who are female and people of color. “I’m consciously hiring [them] instead of unconsciously ignoring them,” she said.
“If you’re a woman and you have a chance to hire a woman, you hire her. If you’re a person of color and you have a chance to hire a person of color, you hire them,” Longoria stressed. “We have to build the pipeline of talent and we can’t get that experience if we’re never given the opportunity.”
Throughout the daylong summit — which was attended by a select group including Alan Yang, Aneesh Chaganty, Randall Park, Yara Shahidi, Marcus Scribner, Eva Chen, Storm Reid, Natalie Morales and David Fizdale — many chats were complemented by smile-filled family photos and applauded childhood anecdotes.
Though Hollywood’s lack of diversity and inclusion has long been a roadblock for many, it can instead be viewed as an advantage for content creators of color, said comedian and political commentator Hasan Minhaj.
His series “Patriot Act” stands out in a late-night landscape dominated by white hosts (“There’s two Jimmys!” he joked), with Minhaj covering world conflicts from a South Asian perspective. “These stories haven’t been told before from that point of view,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to make great art. We’re artists.”
The key to making inclusive content is “making sure you’re connecting to the material, amplifying certain voices and staying true to the community,” said “Fresh Off the Boat” showrunner Nahnatchka Khan.
“Special things happen when you center people who have never been centered before,” Khan said of her new hit film, “Always Be My Maybe,” recently released on Netflix. “You can be layered, you can be more than one thing, you can exist outside the box.”
“It’s shifting in all the right directions,” she added. “There are so many more choices, and there’s so many more points of view that are necessary. And you keep going.”
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