As we do our work in partnership with professional artists, activists and community members, there is a learning curve that accompanies a pursuit of social justice. Cast and crew members come to embrace a new identity of artists/activists as they train in the social justice issue(s) at hand and how best to present them on screen. Activists learn the importance of translating messaging into art, with a growing awareness that audiences are apt to invest their emotions and intellectualism into compelling stories as a precursor to changing their hearts and minds on an issue and/or taking political action. Community members participating in our films rise to the demands of fast-paced production and the expectation of artistic excellence, a step beyond the volunteerism experiences they may have had in the past.
While the artists of Mixed Operations are at their core, “justice seekers,” we are conscious that we bring our whole, intersectional selves to the table in an effort to build community. Since a Jewish woman of color leads the company and because women filmmakers and filmmakers of color almost always lack access and visibility, we prioritize mentorship and representation, both in front of and behind the camera.
A few years ago, Mixed Operations developed the first few webisodes of a web series, Crazy Love, about a somewhat mismatched couple and their “crazy” relationship tales. In the opening webisode, Rebecca talks with Adam about bringing him to her hometown for the first time over the Thanksgiving holiday. She spends most of the webisode trying to convince her boyfriend to present a somewhat staged version of himself in order to please her family. She suggests that he wear long sleeves to cover his tattoos that might “give her grandmother a heart attack”. In the original lines Rebecca jokes that she didn’t want his “tattoos to be the shofar blaring to her bubbe that her granddaughter is marrying into the goyim” – to which Adam responds: “Wait, we’re getting married now?”
As I was the writer as well as the interracial actress playing the role, I changed the line to the far more generic: “Your tattoos could give my grandmother a heart attack,” concerned that audiences would not get the fact that I am indeed Jewish, or that even if they did get it, they wouldn’t really believe it. When I look back on this, I realize that I had become so indoctrinated in American Hollywood standards of representation that I somehow did not think that I had the right to represent something that I actually am. I was also insulting the capacity of the audience to draw upon their own set of diverse experiences and perspectives without even realizing it, violating what my favorite (and Pulitzer Prize winning) playwright Tony Kushner advises; “write as if the audience is smarter than you.”
Fast forward a few years and I am watching the Netflix movie, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and its sequel, based on the teen novels by Jenny Han. There are many reasons to identify with the Asian American protagonist, Lara Jean, from her unique fashion sense, to her endearing vulnerability, to her ability to whip up a platter of homemade snickerdoodles as she contemplates the ups and downs of relationships #pensivebake. What I relate to the most, however, is her delightful default to draw upon the support of her diverse, eclectic friends and mixed family as she navigates life choices and the ideas for what she wants her relationships to look like. While I haven’t been a teen for several years, I’ll be mixed for the rest of my life and it’s refreshing to see that Lara Jean inhabits the same planet that I do, a world where each of us can claim multiple identities and a world in which we all belong.
Author Jenny Han explains how important it was for her to find a production company that would put an Asian American teen actress in the role as she reflects on her own adolescent years:
“What would it have meant for me back then to see a girl who looked like me star in a movie? Not as the sidekick or romantic interest, but as the lead? Not just once, but again and again? Everything. There is power in seeing a face that looks like yours do something, be someone. There is power in moving from the sidelines to the center.”
As we sprint towards 2042, when the United States is projected to be a majority, people of color nation, we know that it is our multiracial faces and mixed ethnic identities that will likely reflect the future of North American communities and beyond. Mixed Operations is excited to do its part in mending broken, outdated representation by building, showcasing and amplifying more diverse pictures of what our nation is actually becoming, engaging in the repair of the world (or as Jews say Tikkun Olam) frame by frame.
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