For Alison McDonald, creating a path to breaking the glass ceiling in Hollywood as a Black producer who happens to be a woman, has not only been a long journey, but a rewarding one as well. Having written for hit television shows such as Nurse Jackie, Everybody Hates Chris and American Dad, McDonald is now embarking on her own webisode series, She Got Problems, set to portray her comical and at times taboo love life.
The series is especially timely in light of the fact that Hollywood is especially closed to Black female directors, writers and producers with only a few exceptions in the past few years. We know about the success of Shonda Rhimes and her ABC hit drama "Grey’s Anatomy," and of course, there is Mara Brock Akil, producer of soon-to-be-released film, Sparkle and BET’s “The Game," but the question is, who's next?
McDonald finds it imperative for web series like hers and Issa Rae's "Awkward Black Girl" (which won the 2012 Shorty Award for Best Web show), to finally gain some substantial recognition to help break the Hollywood glass ceiling that often feels like cement. Here, McDonald gives EBONY.com the low down about She Got Problems and why she feels Hollywood is afraid of Black women.
EBONY: Why do you feel as though the film and TV industry is afraid to have a Black female protagonist?
ALISON MCDONALD: I wouldn't describe it as fear, necessarily. I think it's probably a by-product of Hollywood's collective myopia.
EBONY: Do you feel that media views Black women as less human or dynamic than white women, hence keeping us in a box, pushing us away from seeing a Black female protagonist portrayed on television and many times in film?
AM: Black women are invisible to Hollywood. Every now and then there will be break-out performances, like Viola Davis's and Octavia Spencer's in The Help, or Taraji P. Henson's in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, whose sheer force demand recognition. However, as you know, these are the rare exceptions. Moreover, despite their sudden visibility, most of these women rarely have a worthy follow-up vehicle, and just recede back into semi obscurity. It's a heartbreaking waste of talent.
I actually first saw Viola perform years ago in a Juilliard production of Caryl Churchill's play Cloud Nine. At the time I was visiting my sister, who wasn't in the production, but was a schoolmate of Viola's. I was transfixed by her performance; it was one of those "bearing witness to greatness" moments. Years later, when I was in film school at Columbia, a fellow student was directing a script I'd written, and the lead called for an African-American actress. He showed me tapes from auditions he'd held, and while all of the women were capable enough, none of them truly embodied the character. I had the craziest whim, and called my sister to ask if she knew how to get in touch with Viola, just on the off chance that she wasn't currently performing in something (this was after Seven Guitars, but before her Tony win for King Hedley II). And by sheer luck, Viola agreed to act in my student film! As grateful and over-the-moon as I was, I remembered thinking, why isn't she booked in back-to-back feature films or TV shows?
EBONY: When did you decide to push this web series?
AM: Believe it or not, She Got Problems is an idea I've been developing for the past six years — and, appropriately enough, its original title was The Invisible Woman. It was also originally going to be a feature-length film; it may yet become one…
EBONY: I know that you play yourself in this web series. But, what true events or experiences have inspired your character?
AM: The series is entirely inspired by actual events! The monologue that bookends She Got Problems is ripped from the pages of my pitiful love life. I actually dated that guy, and the event — or non-event — I describe actually happened! Sadly, it wasn't the worst date I've ever had…
EBONY: How will we get the opportunity to see more of She Got Problems? Are you working on developing more series?
AM: I hope and pray that I'll be able to raise enough financing to create full-length episodes of She Got Problems. The two trailers I've produced thus far have been entirely self-funded, and I simply can't sustain that — I've plundered my savings! The BBC six-episode season (or what HBO is doing with Eastbound and Down) is a great template for quality control, and particularly if, as a writer/creator, you want to maintain creative control. I think most writers always have new ideas percolating — they become a welcome detour whenever you hit a mental roadblock with your current project. I'd really love to write a play, or dust off an old one.
EBONY: What budgetary issues have you experienced with creating She Got Problems?
AM: Just one crippling issue: I have no more money! But after years of lean and mean guerrilla-style filmmaking on the streets of New York, I know how to get money up on the screen. The shot on the Brooklyn Bridge was done with a crew of five people, five extremely hard-working, dedicated people.
EBONY: When taking a completely different angle to black female media, many directors and writers may get discouraged, and feel like they won't be understood, that their audience just won't "get it." Did you have any reservations that surfaced around that feeling?
AM: That's a tricky balancing act. You're always trying to refine your ideas and express them in the most succinct and provocative way; you do this simply because that's your job as a writer, and you hope that if you've done your job well, the audience will come along for the ride, no matter how unfamiliar the territory. But fear is destructive to any creative act, so you're doomed if that's what's informing your choices. That's why most TV is so bad; everything is focus grouped to death, with the unattainable goal of appealing to every human being on the planet. And the resulting product is bland, indistinguishable matter.
EBONY: You incorporate a musical feel in your production, which adds an interesting element to She Got Problems. Was it hard to find the right balance between musical/Broadway integration and television/film acting?
AM: I consider She Got Problems a genre-bending musical series. As such, I plan to explore all of my movie musical and Broadway musical influences in creating the big dance numbers, which are "Alison's" fantasies. As far as the acting goes, you certainly modulate your performance when you don't have to "nail them to the back of the wall" in a live theatre. The camera doesn't miss the subtlest of actions or expressions — at least, not if you're doing your job as a director! But it's an on-going experiment. I study improv at the Upright Citizens Brigade Training Center here in New York, and it's both the most ego-eviscerating and confidence-boosting task (when successful) I've ever undertaken. Improv forces you to be resourceful and to take wild leaps of faith. I recently heard Hilton Als (theater critic and feature writer for the New Yorker) speak about his writing. He said that he never feels entirely satisfied with a piece, that with each subsequent assignment he endeavors to learn more from the process of writing, or to "fail better." I won't attempt to explain it better than Hilton.
EBONY: Many probably have and will begin to compare you to Issa Rae, creator of Awkward Black Girl. Where do you feel your differences lie and where do you feel you share a similar avenue?
AM: I think a comparison is inevitable whenever you have two black shows or films that simply share the basic distinction of not being set in the ghetto! I'd say our milieus are similar and that we both explore the subject matter of personal relationships and life's absurdities, much in the way that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David do. While their sensibilities are undeniably similar, especially as collaborators, they, nevertheless, created shows that were unique. And it goes without saying that I cheer Issa's success — she's hilarious and a huge talent! But I don't think anyone would argue that there isn't room or abundant need for more than one storyteller, especially for a marginalized group. Are Monique and Wanda Sykes similar? They're both outrageous, but their subtle and profound differences in perspective and style, and how they attack their material speak volumes. I don't want to live in a world without both. (I'm certainly not going to choose between James Baldwin and Langston Hughes.) Incidentally, my first job in show business was writing for Whoopi Goldberg on her NBC sitcom, Whoopi. Whoopi gave me my big break and I'll be forever grateful.