Black History Month is here and there’s tons of programming to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions Black folks have made to the world.
One program in particular is ABC’s Soul of a Nation. The first special, Screen Queens Rising, explores how Black actresses, a historically overlooked and undervalued group in Hollywood, have in recent years begun to ascend to the top echelons of entertainment and American culture.
In the special, journalists sit with celebrated Black talent. Deborah Roberts interviews Tessa Thompson and TJ Holmes chats with Halle Berry. Also, Sunny Hostin moderates an “In the Kitchen” discussion, where she speaks to “the powers that be” behind the scenes.
Shadow and Act spoke with Hostin, a current co-host on The View, about the importance of the special, how her experience in the journalism space has been parallel to Black actresses and what she’s doing to make sure her work encompasses change.
Can you preview the 'In The Kitchen' discussion that will take place during the special?
Sunny Hostin: This about the screen queens in Hollywood, the Black screen queens. I had the pleasure of actually interviewing the power brokers behind the scenes, because in my view, sometimes there’s more power behind the scenes than in front of the scenes. I interviewed Robi Reid, who is a legendary casting director. She started casting probably 30 years ago. She cast all of Spike Lee’s films. Now she’s a vet. So she’s someone that’s in the room that makes things happen. I also interviewed Carla Farmer, who is on the [Academy] Board of Governors for makeup and hair. And we talked about Black beauty and the evolution of what we see on screen now, especially because of people like Carla who put Afro puffs on film when we haven’t seen that in years and years. I interviewed Alana Mayo, who is, I think, the youngest studio head right now. She’s the head of Orion Pictures and she’s giving representation to those that are underrepresented, like queer folks, like African-Americans, Latinos. She’s telling our stories. And then I also interviewed Marsai Martin, who was the youngest producer in history and also happens to be African-American. She produced the movie Little when she was 13-years-old. So we know her from in front of the camera because of black-ish, but some of the insightful things she said was about power behind the camera. Now, she realizes how powerful a position it is because she gets to employ people and she just gets to give people opportunity. So we had a really insightful, affirming discussion with these powerhouses behind the scenes.
Though you're not an actress, you are an amazing talent. How do you think that your journey as a Black television personality is similar or linear to that of a Black actress?
SH: It was very linear as I spoke to these women because I haven’t done a lot of acting, but I did Girls Trip and Power, and so I’ve done some of that work. I’m on The View which is the No. 1 talk show in the country and there’s real power in that. There’s real power and there’s responsibility, of course, representing a community. And that’s something that we talked about. But I recently started a production company, Sunny Hostin Productions, which is backed by Disney. And it’s unbelievable how much power there is behind the camera, and I didn’t really understand the importance of that until I started my production company about a year and a half ago.
Some of the first projects that we have are in line with our mission, which is to give representation to the underrepresented and tell stories that we haven’t seen before. One of the stories we’re working on is based on a book that I wrote and I’m partnering with Octavia Spencer. I don’t know that I would have worked with an Academy Award winner like Octavia Spencer had I not had this production company and had I not created content. I think you’ll find that that journey is very linear because a lot of actors are now realizing that when you create content, when you get to greenlight projects, you get to employ people, you get to give people opportunities, you get to have a seat at the table and you get to open up the door for other people to walk in. And it’s really empowering and it’s an experience that I think people that are in front of the camera like myself are understanding more and more today, especially for black women.
Why do you think the 'Soul of a Nation' series is important for both Black viewers and non-Black viewers?
SH: We’re seeing now this rollback of portraying American history and the contributions of African-Americans. We’re seeing these anti-history laws passed all over the country. Soul of the Nation is particularly important right now because we’re highlighting the contributions of African-Americans, we’re highlighting history in those contributions. And for people who want knowledge, who thirst for seeing people that look like them, I think it’s a wonderful opportunity.
But it may be even a bigger opportunity for people that aren’t African-American, that aren’t Latino. We also did In the Kitchen and Soul of a Nation to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. And for those people that a lot of them are not – they don’t have access to our stories. And the trend is that they won’t have access to our stories and children won’t have access to our stories. So I think a series like Soul of a Nation is needed now more than ever, and I’m just really humbled to be a part of the soul family.
And because it's Black History Month and you are an influential television personality, you're constantly breaking barriers in your space. How do you feel like you work every day to make a change in your own right?
SH: I think that with this, the power of this platform – I mean, I get to go into three million households a day, and not many people can say that. I’m in their kitchens, I’m in their living rooms, I’m in their family rooms – I think that, my goal every single day is to educate, to represent my community. And I really think long and hard about how what I say not only will reflect upon myself, but more importantly, how it will reflect upon my family and how it will reflect upon the African-American community and Latino communities. Because I do believe that role models matter and that representation matters. And there’s not really a day that goes by that someone doesn’t email me on my website or tweet me to say, ‘Thank you. Thank you for representing me or thank you for representing my viewpoint. Thank you for teaching me. I didn’t know that.’ And I do it intentionally. I do the work. I do the research. And it’s sort of my mission and it’s my passion to teach people about our history. And I hope I do it well. I try to do it every single day.
We've come a long way in terms of actresses of color getting the roles that they deserve or being having more opportunities now thanks to streaming platforms and different things like that. But there's still an argument that could be made that there's still a handful of those who are chosen for the same few actresses. What do you think about that? And in what ways do you feel like we can continue to make progress and move forward?
SH: I think that’s true. You see a lot of the same stars get roles, and that’s good and bad. The good thing is that they’re honing their craft. They’re stars in their own right. But I think opportunity is really important and there isn’t enough representation. There can never be enough good, in my view, because what we’re seeing on the screen needs to reflect what we see in our country. And we’re certainly not there yet. But I think the way to get there is through people like the women that I interview for In the Kitchen.
Every single decision made about your career is made when you’re not in the room, especially in Hollywood. What you really need to advance and what we really need to get to true representation, equal representation, is we need someone in the room at the table that has the political power to greenlight projects to hire people, and that person must be willing to spend it on. People of color and women, especially Black women. And so I think that that is happening more and more.
We are now seeing folks like Robi Reed [and] folks like Alana who actually have the green light power. And a younger generation like Marsai Martin who has a team that she hires that she chooses. She creates content and that employs other people, and you’ll see those images on the screen. That’s where I see that as the great opportunity. It’s sort of an opportunity that we need to capitalize on more and more and we are capitalizing on it.
Soul of a Nation begins airing on ABC on Thursday, Feb. 3 at 8 p.m. EST.