Perspective: Celebration of women filmmakers triggers heated debate among Salma Hayek, Jessica Williams and Shirley MacLaine
“Is your coat wool?” Alfre Woodard asked as she sat at a long, flower-filled table draped with purple paisley Italian linen. “I’m allergic to wool. I can never wear anything nice.”
Under the cavernous, vaulted ceiling of a mountain mansion, where the driveway was heated, an indoor stream trickled and a string of faux llamas stood guard on the stone staircase, Woodard sipped a spoonful of vegan cream of vegetable soup served by celebrity chef Cat Cora. Nearby, Marti Noxon, one of the creators of the Lifetime series “Unreal,” talked about her feature film debut, “To the Bone,” which would sell the next day to Netflix for a reported $8 million.
Here at the home of ChefDance CEO and founder Mimi Kim, Woodard, Shirley MacLaine, Elle Fanning and Jill Soloway were just part of a formidable group gathered during the Sundance Festival for a lunch to celebrate women in film.
Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, explained how the magazine had partnered with photographer and talk-show host Amanda de Cadenet’s Girlgaze, a digital initiative for women behind the camera. They wanted to explore how they could support women filmmakers through their respective platforms.
But while these types of occasions present plenty of moments for business-card trading and jealousy-inducing Instagram photos, the open discussions usually stick to polite words of encouragement and empowerment stories.
In that spirit, the idea of mentorships for up-and-coming women in the industry was floated by De Cadenet. Director Kimberly Peirce spoke about how it was important not to stray from female pleasure on-screen and told a story about how the MPAA took issue with a female orgasm that lasted too long in her film “Boys Don’t Cry.”
Then the conversation shifted to our new president.
“My feeling,” said Salma Hayek, “is that we are about to go to war.”
But she had a warning. Hayek, at Sundance with Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” agreed that more women need to be hired so that female voices can continue to be recognized by the new administration. “But be careful that we don’t fall into victimization,” she added.
“I don’t want to be hired because I’m a girl. I want them to see I’m fabulous. Don’t give me a job because I’m a girl. It’s condescending.”
Shirley MacLaine, at 82, wearing purple and pink in honor of Saturday’s Women’s Marches, chimed in, saying that Donald Trump presented a challenge to “each of our inner democracy” and urged everyone at the table to explore their “core identity.”
Find the democracy inside.
— Shirley MacLaine
Then Jessica Williams, the former “Daily Show” correspondent who was at Sundance as the star of Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” spoke up.
“I have a question for you,” Williams, 27, said to MacLaine. “My question is: What if you are a person of color, or a transgendered person who — just from how you look — you already are in a conflict?”
“Right, but change your point of view,” MacLaine offered. “Change your point of view of being victimized. I’m saying: Find the democracy inside.”
“I’m sorry,” Hayek said, jumping in. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Williams answered.
“Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?”
Williams took a deep breath. “A lot. But some days, I’m just black, and I’m just a woman,” she said. “Like, it’s not my choice. I know who I am. I know I’m Jessica, and I’m the hottest bitch on the planet I know.”
“No, no, no,” Hayek said. “Take the time to investigate. That’s the trap! ...There is so much more.”
“Right,” agreed MacClaine. “The more is inside.”
When I talk about feminism, sometimes I feel like being a black woman is cast aside.
— Jessica Williams
Williams, whose speech at the women’s march at Sundance was praised as one of the most powerful and effective last week, looked down and said she was struggling to articulate herself. Peirce tried to help her, saying that when she goes out in public looking masculine, she causes discomfort in a way Williams might as a black woman.
But that wasn’t quite right. So after a few moments of reflection, Williams returned to Hayek.
“I think what you’re saying is valid, but I also think that what you’re saying doesn’t apply to all women. I think that’s impossible.”
“What part of it is impossible?” Hayek responded. “You’re giving attention to how the other one feels.”
“Because I have to,” Williams said.
”If you have to do that, then do that,” Hayek said. “Then that’s your journey. But I want to inspire other people to know it’s a choice.”
They said, ‘Go back to Mexico. You’ll never be anything other than a maid in this country.’ By the heads of studios!
— Salma Hayek
This was when “Mudbound” filmmaker Dee Rees — who had moments earlier introduced herself as a black, queer director — jumped in. At this lunch, she said, she didn’t feel like she was posing a threat to anyone. But in line at the bank? Things were different. “I don’t see myself a victim,” she said. “[Jessica] doesn’t see herself as a victim. But it’s how you’re read.”
“I also feel like the word ‘victim’ — I feel like it has bothered me,” Williams replied. “When I talk about feminism, sometimes I feel like being a black woman is cast aside. I always feel like I’m warring with my womanhood and wanting the world to be better, and with my blackness — which is the opposite of whiteness.”
I don’t see myself a victim. [Jessica] doesn’t see herself as a victim. But it’s how you’re read.
— Dee Rees, director
Cora, who had been in the kitchen cooking lamb stew and halibut, wandered over to share that she grew up gay in Mississippi, where she was sexually abused from age 6. No matter an individual’s experience, she said, she just wished all women would have one another’s backs.
It was a somewhat of an abrupt turn, and “Transparent” creator Soloway returned to Williams to ask her to continue speaking.
“With intersectional feminism, it’s our responsibility as white women to recognize that when there are people of color or people who are queer — we need to prioritize your voices and let you speak the loudest and learn from your experience, because we haven’t been listening. So please, Jessica, finish your thoughts.”
We need to prioritize your voices and let you speak the loudest and learn from your experience, because we haven’t been listening.
— Jill Soloway
Williams, visibly uncomfortable, said she also wanted to encourage all of the women in the room to pay special attention to women of color and LGBT women. “I think we need to not speak over black women,” she said, “not assign them labels.”
“What does this mean, ‘speak over?’” Hayek asked.
“To project your ideas on me,” Williams said. “I think there is a fear that if we present an idea that, ‘Hey, maybe [black women] have it a little bit harder in this country’ — because we do; black women and trans women do — if we’re having it a little bit harder, it doesn’t invalidate your experience. I really am begging you to not take it personally.”
Williams continued, referencing Planned Parenthood to support her argument. While many women may rely on the clinic, she said, four out of five women who use their services are women of color.
“So when you say women of color,” Hayek began. Then she noticed that Williams was not making eye contact with her. “Jessica, do you mind if I look at your eyes?”
I think we need to not speak over black women, not assign them labels.
— Jessica Williams
Williams barely looked up. Still, the back-and-forth continued, with Hayek questioning whether or not she was considered a woman of color in Williams’ estimation. Nearly everyone in the room responded that Hayek was.
“Wouldn’t it solve it if women just all had each other’s backs in general?” Cora asked suddenly.
“Sure,” Peirce said. “The thing is this, yes, all women can work together, but we have to acknowledge that black women have a different experience. She’s here struggling and we keep shutting her down.”
“I don’t think anybody here shut her down,” Cora said, fighting back.
“Can I interrupt, because I feel misunderstood,” Hayek agreed. “It’s not shutting you up. I feel misunderstood on one point: We should be also curious about our brain. By being the best that you can be. That’s what I was trying to say to you. Let’s not just spend all the time in the anger, but in the investigation.”
“Baby, I’m Mexican and Arab,” she went on, addressing Williams. “I’m from another generation, baby, when this was not even a possibility. My generation, they said, ‘Go back to Mexico. You’ll never be anything other than a maid in this country.’ By the heads of studios! There was no movement. Latino women were not even anywhere near where you guys are. I was the first one. I’m 50 years old. So I understand.”
“You don’t understand,” Williams said, shaking her head quietly.
Leive attempted to wrap up the conversation, noting that many had planes to catch. But it was clear to all that despite the moments of palpable discomfort, an important discussion had just occurred. Rarely do prominent women in Hollywood voice such uncensored opinions.
In the days following the record-breaking women’s marches across the country, it’s tempting to view women as a unified force. But there are still thorny discussions to be had before everyone joins hands and starts singing “Kumbaya.”
Director Jim Strouse talks about writing the title character in “The Incredible Jessica James” for Jessica Williams.
Director Dee Rees talks about casting Mary J. Blige, Carey Mulligan and Jason Mitchell for her film “Mudbound.” After loving Mitchell’s performance in “Straight Outta Compton,” Rees said, “I’d be so lucky to get him in my film.”
Actress America Ferrera shares her thoughts on speaking at the Women’s March on Washington, the need for diversity in Hollywood and the purpose of art today.
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