The first in a series of stories on the people behind your favorite YouTube channels, new and old. First up, YouTube "TV on the Internet" newcomer Alison McDonald (sister of Broadway star Audra McDonald) who seeks to show a different side of the black female experience that likes French films and musical numbers.
Alison McDonald is a Fullbright Scholar, aspiring film director, actress and "funny lady," currently studying with the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City. But she also has "problems" as evidenced by her new web series chronicling the more bizarre aspects of her singledom and career.
In a Q&A with The Snob, Alison talks about her ambition, the artists she admires and what it's like to make a go for it with a web series (in hopes of it becoming a TV series or film) in a world of both great opportunity (think Shonda Rhimes and "Scandal") and a world of obstacles (think of how it's pretty much just Shonda Rhimes right now) for a black actress, writer and director.
Snob: What was the inspiration behind She Got Problems?
I wanted to create a character in the mold of the great comedic heroines, with their crackling wit and irrepressible brio, from 1930s and 40s screwball comedies; namely, Claudette Colbert (The Palm Beach Story), Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday), and Barbara Stanwyck (The Lady Eve).
The two “trailers” I’ve written and directed (She Got Problems and Alison Is Having A Really Bad Day) aren’t traditional trailers, in the sense that they’re not edited scenes from the first two episodes. The thought behind them was to establish the series’ wantonly whimsical tone, and to illustrate the range of musical numbers it will feature: from Busby Berkeley spectacles to steamy tangos.
I’ve actually been developing She Got Problems for the past six years. When I began, there were no television shows on any of the major networks, or premium cable channels, with African-American female protagonists. (The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency was canceled after its initial season.) Six years later, there is exactly one! Thankfully, she isn’t a humble maid, an emasculating cop, or a weave-snatching banshee. I’m stating the obvious here, but, with very few exceptions, we’re not portrayed in any other manner.
Snob: What are your long-term goals, dreams for the series?
My goal is to see She Got Problems fully realized, whether as a television series, a web series, or as a film. I’ve experimented with all three versions, and believe that all three could serve the subject matter well. So, the determining factor will be financing.
Snob: How did you get into film-making?
I originally set out to be a playwright, but was slowly seduced by film while a student at NYU. I still hope to have a play produced. However, I first need to conquer my fear of directing for the stage – or strong-arm George Wolfe into directing my play for me!
Snob: What are some of your favorite films and/or directors?
Compiling a list of favorites is always agonizing! Among my favorite films of all time are: Cuban filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Under Development, Czech filmmaker Jiri Menzel’s Closely Watched Trains, Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train, Howard Hawks’ Bringing up Baby, Fellini’s 81/2, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
I also love the “pre-code” comedic melodramas that celebrated depravity, shining examples of which are: The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich, and Read-Headed Woman and Red Dust, with Jean Harlow. Best of all is when the genre was combined with a musical, as in Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dancing Lady, which featured the Three Stooges and Fred Astaire (in his screen debut) alongside romantic leads Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. That film has something for everybody.
Favorite directors, for the sheer scope of their work and their indelible mark on the art form: Fellini, Wong Kar Wai and the Coen Brothers.
Snob: What do you think of how black women are represented in scripted television and film? How is it different -- better or worse -- from the 1990s? Recently several black actresses, particularly those who worked during the 90s, have expressed dismay at how things seem to be going backwards for them in terms of roles and progress.
It boggles the mind to recall the time when The Cosby Show, A Different World (It’s criminal that Jasmine Guy and Cree Summer couldn’t get steady work after that show!) and Living Single were all on major networks. That’s unthinkable now. Sadly, even when black actresses had a more prominent presence on screen, it rarely translated into jobs for black female writers or directors. That discrepancy still exists.
Snob: What do you think of all the buzz around Lena Dunham's "Girls" for HBO? Have you seen it? If so, what are your thoughts and what do you think of the absence of black women (or any real diversity) in it?
I did see the pilot, and think Lena is talented. However, I certainly understand the outrage arising from her monochromatic portrait of contemporary Brooklyn. As a New Yorker, and former Brooklyn dweller, it almost felt anachronistic to me, which is all the more baffling for a show staking its reputation on authenticity. Of course, as a writer one wants artistic freedom; if, to Lena, that means excluding other races from her central cast, then so be it. I honestly don’t take umbrage at that. (Hollywood has an unsavory tradition of White writing staffs creating characters of color, and look where it’s gotten us.) That said, I could do without another prickly Asian girl at a computer, and another a homeless black man accosting a White girl. (To me, those particular artistic choices speak volumes.) If there’s a silver lining to Girls, it’s that its racial exclusivity is considered newsworthy. Two years ago it wouldn’t have garnered a single headline.
Snob: Is there any show/film, past or present, that you really felt spoke to your experience as a woman or minority? This can be a black film or TV show or not. Some of the films that I felt spoke to me the most were the MTV production "Better Luck Tomorrow" -- which was about suburban Asian American kids, "Eve's Bayou," and the film "Mixing Nia" that starred Karyn Parsons.
I honestly can’t think of a film or television show within those parameters. (Of course, it’s impossible to overstate the psychological impact of seeing Bill Cosby and Phylicia Rashad portrayed as quintessentially American parents. It signified validation for an entire generation of black youth.) However, there are numerous examples in literature: Langston Hughes (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”), Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon), James Baldwin (The Fire Next Time), Thulani Davis (Everybody’s Ruby), George Wolfe (The Colored Museum, The Wild Party) and, perhaps most profoundly, the collected plays of August Wilson, my favorites being Two Trains Running and Jitney.
Snob: What do you think of YouTube and potentially, video-on-demand sites like Netflix, impact on creating more diversity in content targeted to minorities and women? Often the mainstream seems to just pick one acceptable ethnic "trope" (in the 90s it was "hood" films, now it's Tyler Perry films. If you're Asian is all kung-fu all the time. And Hollywood doesn't even really bother to make films to appeal to Latinos with any frequency), but on-line it really lowers the entry/audience bar for aspiring film-makers. Do you think YouTube can turn into real success for women and minority film-makers?
Access to the means of production remains a big hurdle for most filmmakers of color, especially women. What Youtube can ultimately do is eliminate the gatekeepers of traditional media.
Snob: What's next for you and "She Got Problems?"
Bringing it to a screen (large, small, or portable) in the very near future! Thank you for devoting space on “The Black Snob” (something I’ve surely been called) to my trials in Hollywood. Simply being an African-American female writer/director/performer means I “got problems,” but I’m determined to overcome them – through song & dance!
Up next: The anonymous woman behind your favorite "Diva Variety Show," Patti LaHelle with "Got 2B Real," Issa Rae's hugely popular "Misadventures of An Awkward Black Girl," and Tanjareen's "The Celibate Nympho."