Once Hollywood just expected its young female stars to look pretty and not have an opinion. Now, talented young stars like Yara Shahidi are using their position of influence not to sell eyeliner but to try to change the world. Sarah Ell writes.
These are interesting times we are living in, where a 16-year-old girl with plaits can side-eye the President of the United States, then berate the United Nations General Assembly about the state of the planet. And Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg is not alone in being a teenager on a mission. While the Millennials might be crying into their smashed avocado over the state of the world, the Generation Zers now entering early adulthood aren't afraid to talk about it, even shout about it — and try to change it.
Often saddled with the weighty tag of "voice of her generation", 19-year-old actor and activist Yara Shahidi is the walking, talking personification of the term "woke" (and if you don't know what that means, then you need to, like, get with the programme). Shahidi has been working in entertainment and media almost all her life — her first major acting gig came as a 9-year-old, playing the daughter of Eddie Murphy's character in the 2009 movie Imagine That — but she has become best known for her roles in the socially aware television sitcoms Brown-ish and its spin-off, Grown-ish. Also for using her high public profile to activist and philanthropic ends.
Shahidi is not only talented and photogenic but one of the smartest teenagers you could ever meet. When not working in film and TV projects, she is reading sociology and African-American studies — at Harvard, no less — and spearheading awareness campaigns to encourage young people to vote. She's also a major voice for inclusion in her own industry — raising awareness of and trying to addressing gender and minority imbalances in film and TV.
It's this latter role which is bringing her to New Zealand this week to deliver a keynote presentation at The Power of Inclusion summit . The Auckland event, organised by the New Zealand Film Commission and supported by the Walt Disney Company and Women in Film and Television International (WIFTI), features 35 speakers from New Zealand, Australia and the United States focusing on representation, belonging and inclusion in the screen, entertainment and technology industries.
Shahidi was invited to take part in the event through her connection with Julie Ann Crommett, Disney's vice-president of multicultural audience engagement (Black-ish and Grown-ish were both produced by Disney-owned ABC). Crommett's role at the monster studio is to encourage "diversification of talent", both in front of and behind the camera, as well as building a more inclusive culture within Disney.
"Julie Ann is someone we work closely with, who's there to make sure that the media being produced is mindful and intentional in the way it's presenting different people," Shahidi says. "We've had extensive conversations in our field of work and it seemed like a no-brainer to expand that conversation we've had ourselves with a wider audience."
Also featuring at the summit is American actor Geena Davis, who has founded an eponymous Institute on Gender in Media, working towards gender parity in the media; Steven Canals, creator of award-winning transgender drama Pose; and New Zealanders Niki Caro (of Whale Rider fame, currently working on Disney's live-action Mulan remake) and Heperi Mita, son of pioneering Māori film-maker Merata Mita. Of course, our own Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern will also be making an appearance.
That's a hefty line-up but one that Shahidi is certain to take in her stride. She has worked with Davis before, including appearing in Davis' film project This Changes Everything, which screened at this year's International Film Festival. The documentary looks at the history of the struggle for gender parity in the entertainment industry, featuring voices such as Shahidi, Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman. Long story short: it seems #TimesUp is not only about sexual misconduct but the entire patriarchal system that has dominated Hollywood for the past century.
In Auckland, Shahidi will be speaking partly about her work with young voter consciousness-raising campaign Eighteen x 18 (more on that later) but also painting a larger picture of the industry and what inclusion actually looks like in action.
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"It's very easy to talk about the idea of inclusion but this is really breaking it down and looking at every aspect. That's how in depth the programme is — looking at what does inclusion look like and feel like."
She will share the stage in the opening session with Ardern, who Shahidi says "set an example for the rest of the world" following the Christchurch mosque attacks this year. She says seeing Ardern and the New Zealand government's rapid response and decisive movement on gun control was significant, "being from the US and seeing gun violence occurring on a massive scale and then nothing being done about it and as somebody who comes from a family that is Iranian-American. But just seeing that happen somewhere that should be seen as safe, no matter where you are ... it's completely heart-breaking," she says.
"I'm looking forward to being able to hear her talk and, as someone who is so interested in policy myself, to have the opportunity to hear from a young, powerful woman leader."
Shahidi will also doubtless also use the opportunity to learn more about our local film and TV industry, which has seen both female and Māori directors achieve internationally. She is sufficiently self-aware to note that she hasn't yet done much research on this — but you can bet she will be brushing up on it and you can expect her to be super well-informed by the time she appears here.
"It's something that I honestly and transparently have to familiarise myself more with," she says. "I will be talking with some film-makers to discuss the parallels between the US studios and New Zealand studios in regards to representation of indigenous peoples and where people of colour fit in in the industry."
Shahidi says that while progress is being made in the US industry towards increased diversity and inclusion, with more programmes and films featuring characters of differing identities, it's "something that needs to continue to grow". Change, she says, goes beyond just the faces we see on screen. "It's this idea of infrastructural change. We need to get the executives and people behind the camera and people funding these projects to be diverse and inclusive."
She is cynical, however, about writers and studios using "inclusive" characters "as a commercial sales tool, just because it looks good. We needs to see corporations making a real commitment and double-down on this idea of inclusion on a fundamental level.
"You can tell when a film is made for the sake of social capital rather than the actual impact of connecting with the audience. You can also see the flip-side of it — it's beautiful when a movie that is truly inclusive comes together, that is connecting people with other identities in an authentic moment of storytelling."
An increased climate of inclusion has, of course, benefited Shahidi. Not only is she young and female but also of Iranian, African-American and Native American descent. But typically she sees this as not a personal gain.
"It has affected my career, because I've been able to be in a community that has affected my career and work in terms of the experience I've been able to have. On Black-ish and Grown-ish, I not only think about my role but being on a set that's representative of the world around me — not only in the sense of the cast but in regards to the writers and directors coming in and the crew. This things bring an environment that supports authenticity — we're thinking about it every step of the way. Every part of it is representative of the world we feel is true."
She adds that the success of shows like Black-ish — the most successful TV series to centre around an African-American family since The Cosby Show of the 1980s — sets a new precedent, proving that diversity can also mean commercial viability.
For someone who takes on some pretty serious issues, Shahidi's greatest acting success has come through comedy — but she is also smart enough to know what a Trojan horse the sitcom format can be for getting across a more serious message. Over its five seasons, Black-ish tackled difficult topics from racism to sexuality, police brutality and, perhaps most controversially of all, the election of Donald Trump. (In 2014 Trump described the show as "racism at the highest level"; Shahidi recently called the comment "laughable".)
"I'm grateful to be in two shows that use comedy to do such a thing [provoke political discussion]," Shahidi says. "Comedy is a more approachable way to start making difficult conversations more easy. It's not like you have to hold back or be less assertive with the conversations that you're having. You can see the difference in the number of people willing to engage with a conversation.
"When people feel as if they're being targeted in any way or treated as ignorant, their first response is to shut down. Comedy is able to address that because of the laughter aspect. It can be something they enjoy even when it's talking about something serious."
Shahidi chooses the projects she gets involved in carefully, considering not only what story is being told but also how she can relate to it. Her most recent film project, released this American summer, was a film adaptation of YA novel The Sun is Also a Star, in which a pair of teenage lovers are separated by deportation.
"It's just making sure that what I'm doing is complex and can't be oversimplified or doesn't take everybody back a few hundred years in the way the story is being told," she says.
Acting is one thing; activism is another. Shahidi is thoughtful and articulate in her responses about the entertainment industry, but it is clear her real passion is politics and its impact on people's lives. Two of her most recent high-profile campaigns have been Yara's Club, a partnership with The Young Women's Leadership School, that brings high-school students together to discuss taking action on social issues and Eighteen x 18, which aims to galvanise young voters.
"I was 16 during the last presidential primaries [in 2016] and I and my peers felt like what was happening was going to impact [our] life for years to come," Shahidi says of Eighteen x 18, which will continue spreading its message for the 2020 presidential election. "I'm in this privileged position where I have two parents who are able to vote and I have the ability and resources to understand what I see on the news but even with all that I, myself, was struggling.
"So this platform is about voter education and registration — how do we get first-time voters to take this first step? We're not telling them how to vote but what should they consider — what will that policy look like in action?
"We tend to talk about policy in all these technical terms like 'GDP and the economy' but who does this affect and how does this affect them? Obviously those things matter but how do you balance the two?"
With local body elections underway here, Shahidi says "of course" this is a good place for young voters to get started. Getting teenagers interested in choosing who is going to run the local council and health boards might be an uphill battle but Shahidi says voter engagement at this level is also "extremely important".
"The main thing is, when something horrific happens within a community, it's up to the people in our local office in terms of how to deal with it. Thinking more positively, local officials have more direct control over our everyday lives [than national politicians] in terms of access to services," she says.
University of Waikato lecturer Patrick Barrett recently suggested lowering the voting age here to 16, to get younger voters more actively engaged in the processes that shape their lives. Shahidi is interested in this idea and is also an advocate of automatic voter registration, recently introduced in a handful of US states. This system means people who have interaction with government services are automatically enrolled to vote unless they opt out.
But Shahidi adds that this broadening of eligibility to vote comes with a need to educate "not just young people, but all people, about policy. It will require a change in how we talk about our political system, making it more accessible."
And, as a woman of colour, Shahidi is especially sensitive to engaging both women and minorities with politics.
"Especially when you think about US history, where women got the vote in 1920 due to the actions of the suffrage movement, it's often neglected that women of colour and other minorities were given the vote much later than other women. It's critical that when we're talking about voting that we talk about the people who are the most disenfranchised, the most repressed."
So where to next for Shahidi? Before even leaving her teens she's appeared on the cover of Vogue (as one of the Duchess of Sussex's "Forces of Change" ) and had a Barbie doll made in her image. Oprah Winfrey has famously said she hopes she lives long enough to see Shahidi become President; the actor herself has equally famously said she would prefer to be "policy adjacent" and influence the political system from without.
Trump had better watch out; if he can describe Thunberg as "a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future", you can only imagine what he makes of Shahidi.
She may well be among the generation who firmly answers Beyonce's question: "Who run the world? Girls."
* The Power of Inclusion summit is at the Aotea Centre, October 3 - 4. powerofinclusion.co.nz