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April 25, 2015

White Reservation: The Justification of Breath and Those Who Take It Away

My day ended with news of a Michael Brown memorial tree being chopped down in less than a day of it being planted. Amidst the maelstrom and versions of justice, it's hard to breathe when even the process of photosynthesis is being interrupted.

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A graduate of Princeton University and New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Shelton credits Bill Cosby, Spike Lee and Paris Barclay, among others, for teaching her the ropes in the industry.

BlackVoices.com recently caught up with the highly creative writer-director, who spoke about how she landed an internship working on the monumental film 'Do the Right Thing,' the first time she met Bernie Mac and where she was when she found out she was nominated for an Emmy.


BlackVoices.com: Congrats on your recent NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Dramatic Series for 'Men of a Certain Age.' Your work has been recognized by the NAACP before. What are some of your fondest memories of working with the late Bernie Mac?
Millicent Shelton: Bernie was a great guy. The first time that I met Bernie, before I started directing an episode, I walked into his office and said, "Hi, I'm Millicent Shelton, and I'm directing the next episode." And he said, "Who are you?" And I said, "I'm directing the next episode." And he said, "Says who?" [laughs]. And I said, "The producers" [laughs]. And he goes, "No one talked to me." And he goes, "What have you done?" And I told him. At the time I had mostly done music videos and one feature film. And he goes, "Don't like music videos." And then he said, "Where are you from?" And I said, "St. Louis." And he goes, "I'm from Chicago. I don't know if I like people from St. Louis."

Throughout the whole episode -- it was an episode featuring Anthony Anderson -- the two of them would just rip on me. Anything that had to do with a joke, Millicent was a part of the joke. At the very last day of shooting, at wrap, Bernie came up to me and said, "I like you. You have thick skin." And then he hired me again. Bernie was a great guy. It was a tremendous loss. He was a caring guy and I loved working with him. When he found out I was pregnant and he saw me, he said, "I gotta see those babies when you have them." And I literally had the kids about four months before he passed away. Bernie didn't forget you. He's one of a kind.



BV: In 2009, you received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for directing an episode of '30 Rock,' making you the first African American woman to receive a nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series. Where were you when you found out you were nominated?
MS: When I found out, I was doing 'Ruby and the Rockits,' a multi-camera show for ABC Family. I was in my car driving and playing 'I Got a Feeling' and singing really loud. And I get at the studio and get out the car, and the A.D. says, "Congratulations." And I said, "For what?" We walk into the stage and she pulls out this big printout for all the Emmy nominations and I look at it and I see my name, and I was like, "You've got to be kidding me." It was very shocking. I feel really honored to be nominated. I think I was in shock until the awards ceremony was over.

BV: You started off directing music videos. In 1991, you directed Salt-N-Pepa's video for 'Let's Talk About Sex.' Would you say that was one of the most important videos of your career?
MS: I do think that is one of the most important videos in my career because, at that time, the effect AIDS was having on the black community was really starting to come to the forefront. No one had really addressed it. I heard the song, came up with a concept and I talked to them about it. I told them that I think we should address safe sex and we should address AIDS. We had a really great conversation. After we shot the video, we did an AIDS campaign. We did a town hall meeting with Peter Jennings and we did an AIDS PSA. It became something that really did speak to a community and open a lot of eyes.

But there are a lot of videos that I remember fondly. I remember doing my first Aaliyah video, 'Back and Forth.' Right before we shot the video, they had the huge earthquake in L.A. A couple of days before we were supposed to shoot, R. Kelly promptly got on a plane and flew back to Chicago [laughs]. We had to find a new location. But it was fun. It was great working with Aaliyah. It was her first video. She was really young. She wore the sunglasses because she was a little shy. You're talking about another very special person; that was Aaliyah.

BV: Bill Cosby was a mentor of yours early on in your career. What did you learn from him?
MS:
I worked as a production assistant in wardrobe on 'Do the Right Thing,' and I worked as a production assistant in wardrobe on 'The Cosby Show.' The wardrobe department was right next to Mr. Cosby's office. I would go in there and talk to him. During hiatuses, I saved my money and started working on a short film. Every time I would have a little bit of it cut, I would go in and show it to him. And he would give me comments. He gave me really harsh constructive criticism, but it was great.

He was good in helping me find who I was as a director and sort of letting me see what a director needs to be. When he looked at my films the first time, he gave me really straightforward criticism. He made me make decisions. That's a big thing for a director to learn.

BV: How was it working on 'Do the Right Thing'?
MS
: I was greener than green. I was before green [laughs]. When I got to 'Do the Right Thing,' I had just graduated from college. I had no idea how I was going to get into the entertainment industry and I had no inroads.

Spike's brother David had gone to school with one of my older sisters. And my sister called and said, "David's brother is doing a movie." So Spike was known as David's brother [laughs]. I sent a cover letter off to Spike, and when I graduated and got back to St. Louis, I put a call into the office, and they put Spike on the telephone and he said he wanted to meet me. Luckily, one of my graduation gifts was a trip to Puerto Rico and I had a layover in New York. So, during the layover, I went down to Brooklyn and had a meeting with Spike. At that point, I think I had been offered a job in D.C. for something like $200 a week. Spike offered me an internship on 'Do the Right Thing,' and he said, "If you take that job in D.C., it's going to be the biggest mistake of your life." So I said, "When do you need me back here." He said, "Two days." I went back to St. Louis and told my parents I was going to work on 'Do the Right Thing,' and I was going to live in New York, and I was leaving in two days. It was an amazing experience.

I was walking down the street with Ossie Davis on one of the first shooting days. Halfway down the block he was just Ossie Davis, and then the other halfway he changed into Da Man, his character in the film. His posture. Everything changed. I had never been exposed to an actor that great before.

I don't think people give Spike as much credit as he deserves. One of the things that he was insistent upon was making sure that he had people of color in his crew. That little bit of effort is all it takes to open a way for a lot of people to get their foot in the door and make their own way.

BV: Speaking of women in the industry, there aren't too many women directors in Hollywood, especially black women, relatively speaking -- Gina Prince Bythewood is one, Debbie Allen, Julie Dash, Kasi Lemmons. Do you feel that you have had some obstacles to overcome in your career, and if so, how did you overcome them?
MS
: I never really had obstacles to overcome in my career. My first film did not turn out well, and I was put in director jail. It was a really difficult time, but in retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It made me really commit to being a director and making it work. I made a choice to go into television. I shadowed an African American director, Paris Barclay, who has won two Emmys. I hung out on TV sets with him and learned the craft of directing television. And another director that I followed was David Nutter. Literally, it took me three years to get my first break, which was on an episode of 'Barbershop.'

It is a boy's network, so, as a female, you sort of have to figure out where you fit in. It's challenging because it's just not set up for you. It would be easier if it was ideally just based on the quality of your work, but that's not how this industry works. There is bureaucracy behind it.

My advice for budding filmmakers would be learn your craft, know the industry, because that's one thing that got me in trouble. I really didn't know the ins and the outs. My advice for female directors is if you're not secure in your craft and in your vision, you are liable to sway, and sometimes you shouldn't. The other thing I would say is that you have to persevere. It's not going to be easy. Don't ever give up.
Tagged as: Emmy awards, EmmyAwards, film, millicent shelton, MillicentShelton, music videos, MusicVideos, NaacpImageAwards, Spike Lee, SpikeLee, women directors, WomenDirectors
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