Although America today can feel extremely divided, modern life — and in particular modern transport — has broken down silos, making it easier than ever for people to meet, mix, and trade beliefs. Take Uber: like the train platform or the airplane aisle, it forces people from disparate backgrounds to share a common space.
Inspired by this idea, Anna Jones and J.S. Davall created MY AMERICA, a six-part web series that explores what happens when Carmine, a white ex-cop, gets into a car driven by Lucian, an African-American Uber driver. The series was released in the actual days proceeding the 2016 presidential election and uses the interactions of characters of different backgrounds to ask questions about diversity, politics, and the values in our country.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Sophia Jennings (producer), Anna Jones (writer/director), J.S. Davall (Lucian), and Marcus Chan (editor), about the intersection of art and politics, the transition from theater to web series, and the challenge of capturing the voice of America.
Carrie Mullins: I’d love to hear the backstory for the series. Where did the idea for the show come from? You’ve worked mostly in theater — why did you decide to tell Lucian and Carmine’s story as a web series?
Anna Jones: Jamel and I moved to Los Angeles last year from London and New York before that. We spent a decade working in theatre in those cities, and want to keep doing theatre; but coming here has also opened up the potential for telling stories for the screen, both the small screen (smartphones)! and the big screen (cinemas). A web series felt exciting to us as a forum for this project because it is such an immediate outlet! You make the show then upload it then tell people about it… It’s exciting to make something so timely that can also be seen and distributed so quickly.
J.S. Davall: Theatre is a political arena. As we’re from a theatre background, we wanted to bring that kind of discourse into the film world. It felt natural to us. Also, there are no gatekeepers to a web series. It’s given us the opportunity to hone our voice and skillsets as artists without the need to ask for permission.
There are no gatekeepers to a web series. It’s given us the opportunity to hone our voice and skillsets as artists without the need to ask for permission.
AJ: The idea for Lucian and Carmine’s story arose out of the last summer of discontent — all the shootings by the police —
JD: And it becoming a frighteningly normal occurrence —
AJ: — And our wondering how both sides felt and would speak to each other if the opportunity presented itself.
CM: You made the six episodes available in lead up to the election — can you talk a little about the timing of the show’s release?
AJ: We were excited about releasing the episodes on the day on which they were set; and making them as closely as possible to that time so that they accurately reflected this moment in time.
JD: Setting them in the run-up to the ballot created an atmosphere of high stakes and dramatic tension that was mirroring everything that was swirling around us.
Marcus Chan: It is incredibly exciting and challenging — and ultimately emotionally satisfying — to be working on a tight schedule designed to connect with what’s happening in the real world. It has been a most refreshing experience for me to take part in creating content that kept evolving and staying relevant and up-to-date through the election period and I think that was part of the appeal to our target audience.
Sophia Jennings: Yeah it was all pretty nuts. I met Anna and Jamal on October 3rd, which was exactly a month before we premiered our first episode. In those four weeks, we developed the script, cast the actors, shot, and edited the series. It was almost similar to the adrenaline of the election itself.
CM: MY AMERICA deals with so many of the questions and challenges facing our country; I’d say it goes beyond telling a story to the realm of political discourse. Do you see an intersection between entertainment and activism? Was that on your mind?
SJ: I think entertainment has the ability to really ask people the important questions without asking if it’s okay.
AJ: Right. That’s a great question. In relation to the Hamilton curtain speech, Donald Trump tweeted that theatre “must always be a safe and special place”. Yes, but safe to ask hard questions of society and to promote dialogue and articulate the raging differences of opinion; not to stop dialogue or cut it off. Storytelling and journalism alike need to exercise freedom of speech in order for a healthy society to thrive. So yes, I think there is some intersection between entertainment and activism; but that’s really only to say that art has power to articulate and reflect our times; and in doing so, to make all of us think about the world we’re in and our place within it.
art has power to articulate and reflect our times; and in doing so, to make all of us think about the world we’re in and our place within it
CM: Along those lines, MY AMERICA represents diversity of all kinds; racial, religious, socio-economic. It’s an awesome challenge. What is the process like as artists for you to try to authentically portray diversity, or to accurately depict America right now?
SJ: For me, I was of course mindful producing a show about so many characters from different backgrounds. But at the end of the day, I found moments in the script that really resonated with me, that embodied so much of my frustrations about the way the world is today.
JD: As creators co-writing a piece about people of different ethnicities, genders, and beliefs, we had to seek out each character’s humanity through extending our imaginations to meet them. In the same way you care about a relative or friend whose point of view you may not agree with, you seek out empathy for their position and choices.
MC: I think as an editor my job was to make the characters talk and act real and avoid melodrama or artificial emotions. I am glad that Anna and I share similar sensibilities in terms of our preference for subtlety, nuances and subtext that was suggested instead of told to the audience.
AJ: We did a lot of research into different points of view — online and in person, seeking out conversations which would expose us to different mindsets, including with the actors and the rest of the team involved, and then we tried to understand where those beliefs came from, and crucially how they might shift when exposed to the changing world around them.
JD: America is a nation of immigrants and to forget that would be silly and dangerous. There’s no one voice of America; there are many voices, skin tones and beliefs that make up the fabric of America. America is ultimately more than just the three colors of red, white, and blue.
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December 15, 2016