The Trolls franchise is one of the most popular animated series in the world. It brings together recognizable music and fantastic animation to tell stories of joy and challenges in relating to one another. The new movie Trolls: Band Together explores the fun and frustrations of being part of a family. It was a fun, focused, fantastic edition to the Trolls saga that truly brings families together. UrbanFaith sat down with the Director of Trolls Walt Dohrn to talk about the new movie which is in theaters everywhere November 17. The full interview is above. A trailer for the movie is below.
The following is an edited excerpt for clarity, the full audio interview is above.
One of the things I thought Creed III did so well was to give space and allow for complexity in emotion and aspiration for black people, but especially for black men. Why was it important for you guys to show joy, loss, sorrow, pride, and you were able to capture so much of that. Why was that important?
Michael B. Jordan
I think because the narrative has often been one note for a long time. Through cinema on a project like this that’s going to get so many eyes, so many different points of view, to show those layers and complexities that is us. That is black men, men in general, but specifically our stories. We wanted to give it the respect and the honesty because we all know a Damian, we all know an Adonis, at some point at some level. And being able to represent those stories in a truthful way was really important to see.
Another thing that stuck out to me as well was that you have all these different relationships, you have mentor mentee, friendships, black marriage, fatherhood, being a child with an aging parent, and of course rivalry, all of that is so much a part of our story. What was it like to inhabit all those different roles?
Michael B. Jordan
Felt freeing. Honestly, for me, as a filmmaker, now a real storyteller, in a real way, being able to talk about and show the things that I’ve experienced that affect me in my life. Other people [and myself] have those type of relationships. Also, I think it felt it felt great to do work, I felt completely honest, real, and grounded. We do projects, different movies for different reasons. And all of it may not feel personal, [but] you try to bring a little bit of yourself to these roles. Feels good. It felt good.
I think my mission was a lot different. It’s really a commentary on brotherhood. What [does brotherhood] look like to you? At one point, [Creed] is my best friend, my homeboy, my ally. One point he’s my nemesis. One point, he’s my motivation. The man to that one relationship. We’re gonna continue the relationship between them and beyond as the primary attachment. My mission and my objective was to show the complexity of that relationship. In this one partnership, there’s all these different facets. It’s not just best friend. Sometimes a student- teacher, sometimes it’s beggar-rich man, sometimes it’s prisoner and freemen. There is a slave [and] master within the brotherhood. [Damien] was a coyote, [Creed] was purebred puppy. We were both dogs. Both men were both gladiators were both fighters, but there are these differences. It was difficult to establish those relationships.
I think that you guys left so much room, just to see a movie like this with a majority black cast. Black director, I think you’re carrying on legacy of Oscar Micheaux, Spike Lee, of these black directors, right. And you carrying on for these black actors, the Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Phylicia Rashad was in this movie. I mean, it’s incredible. What is it like for you all to be carrying on the legacy of black art and black film from actors’ and directors’ perspective now?
Michael B. Jordan
It feels good. It feels like we’re honoring their path and the race that they’ve been running. It’s our responsibility as filmmakers in the platform that we have and opportunities that we’re given because of their hard work to continue that work, that study, those ideas. Without Sydney, Denzel, and Harry Belafonte and in all the work that they’ve been doing, and have done, we couldn’t have been given this opportunity to run the way we are. We’re just trying to get every drop of juice out of the lemon, say as much as we can, be truthful and honest. And working with Phylicia, is fantastic. Amazing. Yes, ma’am. Anything you want ma’am. (laughs) Just honoring that it’s surreal sometimes, honestly, for me, it kind of it feels larger than life. You know, I have not really been a guy to stop and like smell flowers often. I’m like, what’s next? But when I hear somebody say that and break it down that way, it just kind of hits me like, wow, okay!
What we are talking about, it means something because he is going to transcend whatever an actor is, and transcend whatever are director is, you’re a part of popular culture. And that may be a bad word, but popular culture is the culture. When you begin to move at that level, you begin to do what Mike has done and is doing, you join the pantheon of these legends. Not only do we feel motivated to continue it, but to grow it. I mean, respectfully, we know things that Denzel, Sydney, and Harry were learning, we grew up knowing those things. It is our job to push it forward. You know, I think what is happening now is there’s a clear establishment of the new Vanguard. And that’s us. Whether or not we want it, it’s us, and [we have a responsibility.] We have athletes joined us in the fray, but it’s about moving the entire culture forward. You know a huge part of pop culture is black culture. The more we mature, the more sophisticated we become, the more intelligent conversations, the more in-depth conversations become, the more complex they becomes, the more we are adding to our culture and the richness of our culture, but also moving everything forward.
Just pulling back a little bit. You all have both just succeeded so much are two of the greatest black actors in this moment, some of the greatest actors of our generation, if I may say so. And I know that a huge part of that has been growth, and my audience is interested in faith. I know that’s been huge, especially in Jonathan’s journey. Can you talk a little bit about what faith has meant to you all as artists, and even as you continue to climb these ladders and open new pathways?
Michael B. Jordan
Faith, you know, for me is strong. I think we’re in an industry where, you got to have a lot [of faith]. You’re one of many, [who will face] a lot of no’s, a lot of rejection, a lot of obstacles that are in your way, in order for you to see a vision of what success looks like to you. You got to have faith in yourself, you have faith in something bigger than you. I think meditation, spirituality, for me, silence [are impactful]. And then that brings those thoughts that are [helpful] that comes to you. I think it’s extremely important. And also faith in evolving things. I think there’s a way in this industry… a lot of roadblocks that can get in your way and that represent life. As you travel life has a lot of different roadblocks that would come in your way and being the main character of your own movie, as being the hero of your own story, got to have that faith in order to kind of achieve it, reach the mountaintop, so to speak. So that’s something that sticks with me. We have strong faith.
To me [faith] means everything. I know it’s a scary word [in some circles] but I pray all the time. You know this tiny, small little voice, that’s [what has] always guided me. And the building of faith, you know, stepping out on faith. I mean, this whole thing set me off. I hadn’t read the script. This idea of discernment. Michael, and I spoke about that [discernment], that’s what was happening in those 30 minutes [when I was offered the role of Damien]. There’s a Hollywood version where I go, “oh, nice” and I just knew. But I was told. [Or I wouldn’t have done it]. I’ve met Michael’s mother, you know. These are praying, folks. We’ve all been prayed [over] our entire lives and the building of the faith, even having this conversation with you right now. Being asked about [faith], it’s probably a good time, as we both are both tired. I’m not gonna preach. But I have no doubt where my strength comes from.
I appreciate that. Last question for you all. Our audience is young people, young adults, I work with high school actors. What advice would you give to those young folks, young artists who are trying to be successful trying to find their voice. What advice would you give to the next generation?
Michael B. Jordan
Be relentless. I always say be relentless. Find something you care about, that you obsess over, and just go for it. There’s going to be a lot of noise, a lot of resistance. But try not to be distracted by a lot of distractions. [They’re] all around you in a lot of different forms, by way of that little box right there [your phone]. We’re all guilty in a certain way, shape or form sometimes. But I think for young people who grew up with that as the norm [it’s even worse]. I grew up with dial up modems, printing out directions on mapquest lol. That’s, that’s my generation. But a lot of these kids, [smart phones] that’s their truth, that’s their norm. There’s a lot of distraction nowadays. So just being able to put that thing down for a minute and be to your own thoughts, you know what I’m saying, focus, and have the work ethic and not think everything’s so instant and immediate.
Because a lot of things they feel like, it’s right now, right now, and it’s not, you know what I’m saying? These are products of years of work, dedication and discipline. And I think, I would always preach it to the next generation, to these young kids, to just find that work ethic, because there’s something true to it. There’s something that nobody can take away from hard work. You put the time in and you can’t they can’t take that away from you. Whether that’s reading, whether it’s mastering the craft, doing your 10,000 hours. That is legit.
I’m in it now. I would pray for purpose. I would pray for anointing. And once you know what your anointing is, that’s it. A lot of times, we’re just going after the wrong thing. The work ethic, a lot of people think me and Mike just have a dog work ethic. That’s not, not true. But I think something that me and Mike also have in common is that we know what we’re supposed to be doing. We gain a great deal of pleasure from it. It’s our anointing. You hear Michael B. Jordan, it’s not just Michael B. Jordan, something was put in him. Something was put in me, so I have to be aligned with that. When we begin to walk our path, there’s still no’s, there’s still impossibilities… but there’s God. So it’s all good. It’s all good. That’s what I was saying. Then yeah, all the grit and all that…yeah, absolutely. But a lot of times you’re actually just going after the wrong thing. I will say to the young folks, you don’t need your phone yet. Grown ups need phones. We actually have businesses. I don’t use [social media and] stuff like that. But I do understand my colleagues who do. They’re like, in the game, in the matrix, there’s no getting out of it. But for young people, you can keep it so simple. And it can always be simple, unless you complicate it. Suddenly you begin to work through that thing. Then you got to work for it. If you can, if you can abstain for as long as you can. It’ll let you know when you need it. Insta-chat-facebook-tweet. Pay attention a little longer. They won’t last. [Social media we grew up on didn’t last].
View the final movie trailer below
When Marvel Studios released “Black Panther” in February 2018, it marked the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film to feature a Black superhero and star a predominantly Black cast.
Its estimated production budget was US$200 million, making it the first Black film – conventionally defined as a film that is directed by a Black director, features a Black cast, and focuses on some aspect of the Black experience – ever to receive that level of financial support.
As a scholar of media and Black popular culture, I was often asked to respond to the resounding success of that first “Black Panther” film, which had shattered expectations of its box office performance.
Would it lead to more big-budget Black films? Was its popularity an indication that the global marketplace – the real source of trepidation about the film’s potential – was finally ready to embrace Black-cast films?
Yet as I review the cinematic landscape between the original and its sequel, I am inclined to restate the answer I gave back in 2018: Assumptions should not be made about the state of Black film based on the success of the “Black Panther” franchise.
Reason for optimism
Prior to its release, the producers of “Black Panther” faced questions about whether there was a market for a Black blockbuster film, even one ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
After all, since the Wesley Snipes-led “Blade” trilogy, which came out in the late-1990s and early 2000s, Black superhero films had experienced diminishing returns. There was one notable exception: the commercially successful, though heavily panned “Hancock” (2008), starring Will Smith.
Furthermore, until “Black Panther,” no Black film exceeded a $100 million budget, the average benchmark for modern Hollywood blockbusters.
Nonetheless, despite these early concerns, “Black Panther” earned the highest domestic gross, $700 million, of all films released in 2018, while earning $1.3 billion in worldwide gross, second only to “Avengers: Infinity War.”
“Black Panther” emerged at the tail end of what many industry experts considered to be a surprisingly successful run of Black films, which included the biopic “Hidden Figures” (2016) and the raunchy comedy “Girls Trip” (2017). Despite their modest budgets, they earned over $100 million apiece at the box office – $235 million and $140 million, respectively.
However, both films were mostly reliant on the domestic box office, especially the R-rated “Girls Trip,” which was only released in a handful of foreign markets. Conventional wisdom has long held that Black films will fail abroad. International distributors and studios typically ignore them during the presale process or at film festivals and markets, reasoning that Black films are too culturally specific – not only in terms of their Blackness, but also their Americanness.
Films like “Black Panther” and the Oscar winning “Moonlight” (2016), which earned more on the international market than the domestic market, certainly challenged those assumptions. It has yet to upend them.
Black films after ‘Black Panther’
What do those Black films released in theaters in the nearly five years between “Black Panther” and “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” tell us about the former’s impact?
The simple answer is that the original “Black Panther” has had no discernible influence on industry practices whatsoever.
Since 2018, no other Black blockbuster has emerged, save for the sequel itself. Granted, Black filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s remake of “A Wrinkle in Time” (2018) reportedly cost an estimated $100 million; however, while Black actors portrayed the protagonist and a few other characters, the film features a multicultural ensemble cast – which, as scholars such as Mary Beltran have pointed out, has become the primary strategy for achieving diversity in film.
Even if one were to include “A Wrinkle in Time,” the grand total of Black films with budgets exceeding $100 million is three, with the two “Black Panther” films being the others – all during an era in which there have been hundreds of mainstream films with budgets exceeding $100 million.
Otherwise, most of the Black films released in theaters between 2018 and 2022 typically were low budget by Hollywood standards – $3 million to $20 million in most cases – with only a handful, such as the 2021 Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” costing $50 million to 60 million.
Perhaps the most notable change has been the medium. Many Black films now appear on either cable networks that cater to a Black audience – namely Black Entertainment Television and, more recently, Lifetime – or on streaming services such as Netflix. Tyler Perry, the most popular and prolific Black filmmaker of the modern era, has released his latest films – “A Jazzman’s Blues” (2022), “A Madea Homecoming” (2022) and “A Fall from Grace” (2020) – directly to Netflix.
Furthermore, no other Black film has approached the financial success of “Black Panther.” Granted, several Black films have fared well at the box office, especially relative to their production costs. Foremost among them is Jordan Peele’s “Us” (2019), which cost an estimated $20 million, yet earned approximately $256 million worldwide despite its R rating and the fact that it was never released in China.
Whither Black film
Without question, large budgets and commercial success are not the only measures of a film’s value and significance.
As has historically been the case, Black film has managed to do more with less. The critical acclaim afforded to films such as “BlackKlansman” (2018), “If Beale Street Could Talk” (2019) and “King Richard” (2021) reflect this fact. All reflect trends in contemporary Black filmmaking – comedies, historical dramas and biopics abound, for instance – and were made for a fraction of the cost of both “Black Panther” films.
In truth, the zeal with which some cast “Black Panther” as a bellwether for Black films is part of continued haranguing over their viability, particularly after the #OscarsSoWhite movement that drew attention to the lack of diversity at the 2016 Academy Awards.
However, its positioning as a Disney property within Marvel’s transmedia storytelling effort makes it so atypical that its success — and that of its sequel — portends little about Black film.
King Richard is a film honoring the legacy of Richard Williams, father of Tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams which is in theaters everywhere and on HBO Max this Friday, November 19.
The film tells the story of Richard and the Williams family’s remarkable journey from the rough environment of Compton, CA to the fame and fortune of professional tennis stardom. King Richard is the Williams family’s tremendous story of faith, perseverance, and triumph that is truly inspiring. The cast was phenomenal and I left the theater wanting to put into action the value for planning, humility, and passion that the family exemplified.
UrbanFaith sat down with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton who play Venus and Serena to discuss the experience of bringing the lives of these legends to the big screen alongside Will Smith.
The full interview is above!
Director Spike Lee had not released a film during the Obama presidency until this week’s release of Red Hook Summer, just a couple months before the next presidential election.
Remember Spike Lee? This was the man who helmed groundbreaking, commercially successful films on race like Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, and Do the Right Thing. When he arrived on the scene with 1986’s She’s Gotta Have It, he was hailed as a brave new voice in American filmmaking and the chronicler of the late 20th century black experience. As time has gone by, his films have become less urgent and far less racial. His only hit in this century was 2006’s Inside Man, a heist movie that happened to star Denzel Washington but was in no way a serious work on race. And in the last four years — since Obama has been president — he has not released a movie, period.
During his presidential campaign, Obama positioned himself as the first post-racial candidate. He made us believe that by voting for him we would usher in a new era in which labels like “black” and “white” would grow increasingly irrelevant. He was, of course, uniquely positioned to make this argument, given his background; the effect of his personal story and his rhetoric on this topic was intoxicating. He made affluent whites feel that by simply voting for him they were accomplishing more for black people than we had as a nation since the Civil Rights Act. With their vote, they would cleanse America of its original sin.
But despite that unspoken promise, many Americans remain in a state of de facto segregation. Most whites don’t know the black experience, and what they do know, they learn from the media. Electing a black president has not changed that. In some ways, it has made things worse, since the issue of race is barely discussed in public forums. When black issues are discussed, it is usually in a historically comparative sense. The civil rights era is used today as a point of comparison to discuss immigration issues or the rights of the LGBT community.
Despite the lack of conversation on the subject, there is no doubt that Obama’s election changed the way we look at and talk about race in America. Obama himself said it best in his 2004 keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention:
[T]here’s not a liberal America and a conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.
In retrospect, that moment was the beginning of Obama’s ascendance to the presidency. It was also the first time he explicitly defined himself as a post-racial candidate. And lastly, it was the end of director Spike Lee’s career. For if there is no black America, what happens to the filmmaker whose job it has been to chronicle it?
The Mainstreaming of Racial Transcendence
Lee’s first true masterpiece was 1989’s Do the Right Thing, a drama that took place over the course of one sweltering summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood. In a key scene, our black protagonist, Mookie, argues with a white colleague, Pino, about race. Mookie questions how Pino can admire some African Americans — like Prince, Eddie Murphy, and Magic Johnson — but disdain those that live in his community. Listen to his response:
The 1980s, when Prince, Eddie, and Magic reigned supreme, was the era in which the idea of racial transcendence was mainstreamed. And they were not alone. In that decade, black stars Michael Jordan and Bill Cosby were welcomed into the homes of middle-class, white Americans on a regular basis. Cosby eschewed serious discussion of race on his hit television show for fear of losing his audience. The problems that the Huxtables faced were those common in upper-middle class American families. Never did the show discuss poverty, HIV/AIDS, or serious drug use, each of them an epidemic in 1980s black America.
Jordan, the NBA icon, similarly protected his brand by staying mum on racial politics. When asked why he did not weigh in on a close Senate race in his home state of North Carolina that involved former KKK-member Jesse Helms, he responded, “Republicans buy shoes, too.”
The generation that grew up on The Cosby Show and Michael Jordan is the same one that elevated Barack Obama to the White House, and there is much evidence to suggest that they were subconsciously linked in the minds of voters. Obama, like Jordan, made his name in Chicago and exhibited in his campaign the same calm under pressure that made Jordan the best to play the game of basketball. Of course Obama, a big sports fan, never hesitated to bring up his fandom of the Bulls. As for the Cosby connection, many newspapers wrote, when describing Obama’s high polling numbers with white, suburban voters, of the “Huxtable effect.”
Even his future running mate, Joe Biden, said of Obama that he was the first African American candidate who was “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” In other words, he was not what Joe Biden usually thought of when he thought of “black.” The fact that Biden’s remark did not prevent him from becoming Obama’s vice-president should be evidence enough that Obama is more concerned with appealing to white than black audiences.
Ultimately, there is no industry that has been more eager to accept the notion of racial transcendence than Hollywood; it’s an idea that is useful to filmmakers who are increasingly pressured to make films with crossover demographic appeal. But this quest for widespread popularity has a dark side.
Lord, Help Our Blind Sides
The films of Obama’s first term portray racial disharmony in an antiquated, conclusory fashion, making everyone feel good about race without asking audiences to lift a finger or even have an uncomfortable thought. Two such films, The Blind Side and The Help, were not only massive box-office hits but also were nominated for Best Picture by the mostly white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The Blind Side and The Help connect to white Americans because they reflect the feeling Obama created during the campaign — that America had done something important to help African Americans. Exposed in these films to the problems of black America, audiences leave the theater feeling that the drama in the film has been resolved — in each case by a white, affluent character.
In The Help, that character is Skeeter (Emma Stone), a young, ambitious Southern woman who breaks convention by writing a book that compiles the horrible, sometimes hilarious stories of local black housekeepers. Skeeter is, for all intents and purposes, a modern woman and seems completely out of place in early 1960s Mississippi. She wants to work, not marry. She despises any form of prejudice, which is odd because most of her friends are unbashed racists. Skeeter is an accessible and sympathetic entry point into the story for a modern, white audience, but the implication in her characterization is troubling. She helps an entire community of oppressed African Americans housekeepers by giving them a voice. She is, in a small way, freeing them. The implication is that the politics of today — represented in this modern woman — have rectified the politics of the past, and in this way, “The Help” asks us to believe that race is no longer an issue in America, as long as there are millions of young Skeeters out there.
It is a similar story in The Blind Side, which was based on true events. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy, a strong, willful Southern housewife who takes Michael Oher, a poor black young man, into her home and teaches him to assimilate into white society, represented by a large football program at a southern state university.
We share Leigh’s sadness when we hear of Michael’s poor upbringing. But we are also asked to be thrilled when she takes the “street” out of him. A pivotal moment comes when he tells her that he hates being called “Big Mike,” the nickname he has been saddled with since childhood. He prefers being called “Michael.” In this moment, he transcends his previous existence in a poor, African American community. It is almost as if he is casting off his slave name.
In both films, the central African American characters are rescued from the bonds of the black experience, yet there is little care taken to relay what happens to them afterwards. The real Michael went on to play in the NFL, a profession in which ex-players are increasingly suffering from mental illness and suicide — due to the high number of concussions they suffer during their career. Given the opportunities afforded to him by living with Leigh Anne and her rich husband, perhaps a career as a modern-day gladiator was not the finest choice, but it is in reality the best choice for some who grow up in inner cities without education.
In the final scene of The Help, Aibeleen, the middle-aged housekeeper whose story we have been following, is fired by her boss. As she walks away from her home, she tells us that she feels free for the first time and that she never took a similar job again. But she never shares with us how she earned a living. It is as if not working for an oppressive white boss is enough; but what will she do with her newfound freedom? What other jobs exist for a middle-aged black woman with no education or experience? These are the questions that are not asked in a post-racial film, and they are questions that have not been asked enough by our current post-racial president.
Blacks continue to suffer from the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, obesity, death from cancer, and infant mortality. But Obama has done little to improve federal nutrition programs. He has stood idly by while Republicans cut food stamp benefits. He has extended the Bush tax cuts that favor the wealthy and refused to tackle a tax reform plan that does not continue to burden the poor. He has been nearly invisible on education. And he has been worse than that on “the War on Drugs.”
Of course most of these are not racial issues, per se. They are class and economic issues. And this is the problem with a post-racial president. Because of how he framed his candidacy, Obama allowed middle and upper-class whites to bump the issue of racism far down their list of urgent American problems and, in doing so, gave them the liberty to ignore the class issues that so disproportionately affect minorities.
Where Art Thou, Spike?
And so with the black experience so far from our minds these days, the skills of Spike Lee have just not been called for. In fairness, his problems getting funding for his films have not solely been the result of a post-racial environment. His most recent feature films about the black experience (She Hate Me and Bamboozled) have been wildly uneven and even more controversial than normal.
So instead, Lee took his talents to cable. In 2008, the year Obama was elected, Lee produced and directed When the Levees Broke, a powerful and urgent two-part documentary on Hurricane Katrina that focused specifically on how the disaster affected poor, black communities in New Orleans. It was an important film that exposed suffering that had been glossed over by the mainstream media. But he had to make it at HBO, which is not beholden to ratings or ticket sales, and it’s doubtful that a major studio would ever have sponsored such a project or that most of American has even heard of it.
That brings us to Lee’s latest film, Red Hook Summer, in which he reprises his role of Mookie from Do the Right Thing. But interestingly, the film is not about race. Its subject is religion, which may have replaced race as the divisive American institution of the day. Even Red Hook Summer has obtained only a miniscule distribution. You will have to live in a major urban area to see it.
And so Lee appears to be a casualty of post-racialism, albeit one that no one will cry any tears for. He has made his millions. But as a reflection of white perception of the black experience, his disappearance is a real loss. We have lost a powerful voice for the poor and a filmmaker who made visible that which society tries to hide. He could have been Obama’s counterpoint from the left, someone who pushed him away from his comfortable spot in the center. Instead, next year Lee is remaking Oldboy, a hyper-violent Japanese thriller. If it does well enough, maybe someone will give him a chance to make a serious movie again. In the meantime, we will wait patiently and simply hope that our original sin is not just hidden or dormant but truly redeemed by a single election.
This article originally appeared at Noah Gittell’s Reel Change blog.