Gabourey Sidibe is probably best known for her breakthrough Academy Award-nominated performance in Precious, in which she played a teen living under incredibly traumatic, devastating circumstances. More recently, she’s found success on the small screen, playing Queenie in American Horror Story: Coven and Becky on Empire, and this year added another line on her resume: Director. Her short film, the Nina Simone-inspired The Tale of Four, debuted online earlier this week, and follows a day in the life of four black women, played by Aisha Hinds, R&B singer Ledisi, Dana Gourrier, and Megan Kimberly Smith. You can watch it now via Refinery 29.
At the New Orleans Film Festival earlier this month, Sidibe sat down with Represent’s Aisha Harris to discuss the film and her career. Below you’ll find a transcribed and condensed excerpt of that conversation, about putting together a predominantly female creative team, dealing with sexism while hiring for the set, and how the recent hashtag #WomenBoycottTwitter ignored the voices of black feminists. You can also check out the full episode in the audio player below.
Aisha Harris: The thing I noticed is that all the people you’ve mentioned [as being part of your creative team] so far are women.
Gabourey Sidibe: Ladies!
When you have that environment, I imagine it makes everything a lot—especially in this industry—go a lot smoother.
It sounds great that you had that camaraderie and all that support. In the midst of hiring, you were looking for an assistant director, first assistant director. You mention in your memoir that you interviewed a man who immediately thought that he was gonna get the job and was very sort of condescending. Can you talk a little bit more about that experience?
Sure, let’s talk about men! So, one of my mentors, Victoria Mahoney, who—you will know her soon if you don’t because of Dawn, the Octavia Butler book. She’s making that into a television show with Ava DuVernay. Get into Victoria Mahoney.
So, Victoria is one of my mentors and we, very early on before we even had a script, we would sit with her and she would give us pointers. Then she wrote the script with us and she said, “You know, more than likely your assistant director’s going to be a man. That’s just the way it is. There aren’t enough female assistant directors.” And she’s like, “Your crew’s going to be mostly men, which means that they do not want to listen to you. Even though you’re the boss, they’re going to want to talk over you. They’re going to want to just, you know, make everything you say null and void. So make sure you find an AD who listens to you and if he doesn’t listen to you, make him. The way you treat the crew and the way they treat you in the first five minutes of any shooting schedule is the way they will treat you until the last five minutes.”
So I … was set up with two people. The first AD, yeah, he seemed to be put off by how smart I am, which is weird, right? What is that? I’m a nerd … I’m all over the place. I’m always spouting off facts. I think we were having tea and he hiccupped. I said, “You know, actually, scientists don’t know why we hiccup. You think it comes from the diaphragm but it actually comes from the brain. That’s why there are lots of different tricks to stop hiccupping. There’s swallow air, stop breathing, and also drink water. There are a lot of different tricks because your brain is doing something and the only way to stop it is to keep your brain from doing it. That’s why after you do something a long time, it doesn’t work anyone. Your brain’s like, “I know that fucking trick,” and it keeps doing it.”
So that’s what I said … He looked at me and said, “Oh. You smart, huh?” But like that, you know what I mean? Not like, “Oh my god, you’re smart!” but like “Oh–you smart?” I was like, this is not the guy. This is not. He said it, like, three times during the meeting. I was like, “Not you, bro.” And he really thought he got it. He was like, “So, when do I get my call sheet and what time are we shooting?” And I was like, “Mmm, goodnight.”
… Let’s pivot a little bit. You mentioned [earlier] the violence [portrayed in Tale of Four] … the whole movie is about these four women and their proximity to violence and the violence around them, whether it’s getting choked out or a rape. There’s a lot going on. There are ways in which directors can portray these things and there’s ways in which they can portray them in an exploitative manner, especially when you’re dealing with women and women of color. Was there anything you were thinking about when going into actually getting behind the camera and directing these scenes? Did you think: ” What is proper way to approach this sensitively?”
I thought a lot about it, actually. So my first ever audition into my first ever job was Precious. There’s a rape scene. I was 24 years old, I’d never kissed anyone on film. Shooting that scene was really, really tough. I’ve always known that these … no matter, even if it’s a love scene, you have to be really, really sensitive because these things can be … Not only can they be sort of embarrassing, it could also bring up a lot of your past.
Yeah. It’s traumatizing. So I knew I wanted to be … That’s why I was like, “Look, if Aunt Sara’s being abused, I don’t want to see his face.” I knew that immediately. We don’t need to see his face. We didn’t need to see the cop killing Peaches’ son. We didn’t need to see Peaches’ kill. I didn’t want … You get it. We don’t need to see it.
Even the love scene between John and Sweet Thing, we were very, very sensitive about it. Because also that was day one of shooting and they’re both two of my best friends and I wanted to make sure they’re comfortable. I don’t want anyone to walk away having a bad experience. I also approach directing the same way I would have approached the story as a viewer. I know what I want to see and what I don’t want to see and what I don’t need to see, and so I really try to be sensitive to that …
Even the love scene between those two felt teetered on this sort of … it wasn’t violent, per se, but it had an aggression to it in a way that I thought was really well handled and didn’t feel overly scary.
Absolutely. I wanted Sweet Thing to be the aggressor. It sort of flips it. We’ve wanted … Originally we wanted to use Nina Simone’s “I Put A Spell on You,” but money. We couldn’t ‘ford it. I still wanted to relay the idea that John … John is a married man. He just left her house. He left his ring so he had to go back up there. He already boned her, now he’s gonna bone her again. I wanted … you know, why? Why? Why is he so attracted to her? Why does she have this power? And I needed to get that across without the song. I wanted to show that she had the upper hand. It was his marriage. All of that stuff was his but when he was in front of her, he belonged to her …
[On a different note], you have an entire chapter [in your memoir] devoted to your tweets, or the tweets that you would tweet if you wanted to or if you felt comfortable doing so. I wouldn’t want to have this conversation without mentioning the fact that right now in Hollywood, there’s a whole thing about Harvey Weinstein and all of that that’s happening. Just yesterday there was a hashtag going around in support of Rose McGowan. Basically women were supposed to boycott Twitter.
Right. Twitter. Which is interesting that you want to meet silence with more silence.
Yeah, I didn’t understand that.
So that part didn’t really make sense to me but also, women like Ava DuVernay said, “Well, where were you when ESPN’s Jemele Hill was getting dragged for that stuff? Where are you when women of color get into these messes?” There’s no support for that. How do feel about the way in which this is all taking place on Twitter? Do you feel as though your voice matters on Twitter?
Absolutely. I think it’s sort of a controversial idea but white feminism is a thing. It seems … feminists are only riled up about things that happen to women that look like them, but we’re women. We’re women of color, and you don’t stand for us. It’s a lot. Our voices are absolutely so important. That’s why it didn’t make sense to have a day without tweets because you’re … It’s silence upon silence. The problem is that they want our silence. Why are you silent?
Yeah. The men should have been silent, I thought … Men who claim to be feminists or claim to be allies were the ones who should have been doing the boycott.
Absolutely. Our voices need to be louder and louder and louder because they will tell us to shut up. When they do, we should just be louder and louder and louder. No one’s gonna fight for us like we will and black women have been out here fighting for all of America since the dawn of America. Since we were dragged here. Ooh, that got dark. You know, it’s dark. Slavery, y’all. But it’s true. The thing is, we fight for all of America and white feminism fights for white women.