“The doors are open again and you are very welcome back to the circle at The Modern Bee. I’m super excited because today, Shelby Stone joins the circle and adds her incomparable voice to the conversation. I’ve looked up to Shelby for years. She’s an executive producer for film and television by trade, and is inherently a woman who truly holds her own. Let’s dig right in.” – Michaela
The reverence goes way back! I first met you when I was about 14 years old and at a very impressionable age. In a room of bosses, I quickly noticed you were the only woman and from that point, I vividly remember zoning in on how you’d approach certain situations, how you made sure your voice was heard and how it was heard. To be honest, my sister and I started eating salmon because we saw you eating it and we wanted to “be like Shelby.” Can you talk about how you’ve navigated a male-dominated area of the film and television industry? Especially as a Black woman navigating these waters?
Wow that’s a lot to unpack. First let me say I’m so flattered you and your sister took up salmon because of me! I remember being so proud of your Dad for being what we now call “ A Girl Dad”. He loved you both and had clearly done his part in making sure the two of you knew it.
I have to say I owe a real debt to my father, who was an only child and a classic Alpha male. As the eldest, his solution to not knowing how to raise a girl, was to take me everywhere. I spent a huge amount of childhood in very male dominated societies and was expected to hold my own. He was adamant that my sister’s and I have no illusions about the world welcoming us and insisted we all learn to fight for a place at the table, and get the education necessary to get in the door and once in, to keep those table seats .
Early in my career, I had a male co-worker interrupt a discussion to announce that I sounded like all the women in his life. He wasn’t listening to the points I was making at all, just reacting to whatever unresolved issues he had with the women in his life. In a room full of men, I realized women frequently have to deal with not being seen at all past our gender. Buy dint of being female we may remind men of their mothers, lovers and and wives. It’s not really about who you are. You become a symbol of something they’ve not resolved. Realizing that helped but it’s still very frustrating. And because every scenario if different, you have to sort out how to manage it. Sometimes it’s just staying calm, sometimes it’s pointing out what’s going on. I try to mean what I say but not say it meanly. And sometimes you have to keep talking until you’re heard.
I love the film and TV business but, there have been times when I’ve been surprised me at the levels of blatant misbehavior and abuse it’s willing to tolerate as long the person is making everyone money. Harvey Weinstein’s long reign of terror is the perfect personification of that truth. Sadly he’s not the only one, just the one that’s become the poster child.
We’re going through a period of real and hopefully enduring reckoning in our country. Suddenly, it seems that so many people want to hear Black stories and there’s an opportunity for Black people to tell their own stories, with their own voices and to a wider audience. How do you think we can sustain this momentum and platform?
I’m cautiously optimistic about that. The networks, studios and streamers have to consistently be held accountable for their hiring and promotion practices, as well as for the projects they green light. Black, BIPOC, LatinX, Asian American and LGTBQ+ storytellers still have to go to the largely non-diverse gatekeepers to get money to make the stories we want to tell. There’s a lot of talk about senior level hires in the halls of power in Hollywood, which has happened before. We’ll see.
The Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith once said, “Listen to my story and everything will come out true.” A lot of the films and television shows you have produced, like Bessie, a film about the late, great Blues singer for which you won an Emmy for outstanding television movie, are about real life people. How do you honor the truth of a real somebody else’s story when telling it from an outside perspective?
Thanks so much! That was a very hard story to get right. It took years and years. We all did a lot of research and went through many different versions of Bessie’s story before we found Dee Rees. Dee came in with a very strong POV on Bessie’s life, a Black lesbian feminist frame in which to place her talents, achievements and her deeply complex love life, and it clicked. Dee started from scratch and created a whole new script and it was brilliant. Of course we consulted historians, the family and music experts, but that frame was the right one. I strongly recommend everyone take a look at Angela Davis’ book, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude “ma” Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. There was a whole generation of Black female artists who ran their own lives, had very successful careers, and were frequently, and openly sleeping with men and women. They were regular women doing something extraordinary, something for all of us to take note of!
All of the historical features I’ve done have involved copious amounts of research, hours of discussion with historians and more. For me I’m always looking for the essence of the person and how to illustrate it in the confines of whatever time and financial frame we have to work with.
We’re going to pick up the conversation with Shelby later this week, but in the meantime and in the spirit of summer reading, you can order a copy of the book Shelby recommended here,