Hungry Eyes Media President on the female gaze, being your own boss and the cancellation of Shoot the Messenger.
Jennifer Holness and her husband and business partner, Sudz Sutherland, are what many would consider a power couple in the Canadian film and TV industry, but Holness is not quick to embrace the label. “I love that phrase. I don’t think we perceive ourselves as a power couple though … How we work as a couple is that we’re able to really see each other and we’re really able to accept each other’s talents and we’re able to support that,” she says, sitting inside a dressing room at the Toronto Screenwriting Conference. Holness’ writing and analytical talents are complemented by Sutherland’s creative drive and directorship. Holness is also president of Hungry Eyes Media, a media company she founded with Sutherland out of university over 20 years ago. The company has produced award-winning screen works such as Love, Sex and Eating the Bones, Guns and Home Again, and its latest – now cancelled – TV crime drama series, “Shoot the Messenger”. The latter aired last fall on CBC and follows the life of an intrepid newspaper reporter who investigates the gang-related murder of a Somali man amidst a criminally corrupted political office in Toronto. It is loosely inspired by the crack cocaine video scandal surrounding the late former Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, four summers ago.
Make no mistake about Holness and Sutherland’s success. Their hustle is real. They started out having to break down barriers to pursue their dreams. “In our situation, Sudz and mine, nobody gave us anything. We didn’t know anybody. We made it all happen, and that was a time when people of colour and Black people were nowhere in the industry,” explains Holness. Even now, navigating the media business is hard work, juggling rigorous writing deadlines, meetings, speaking events and the politics of the boardroom. But at the end of the day when she comes home to her three daughters, Holness finds her purpose again. And with that renewed strength, she is ready to go out the next day and fight the good fight with her partner in life.
The female gaze, that’s what you’re speaking about today. The female narrative in a male dominant industry and world. As a female writer, how do you think your voice has influenced your characters and the plots in your stories?
This is really interesting. I think that maybe three years ago, I would have said something like, ‘Yeah, being a female writer, I’ve really influenced my female characters.’ And I have, because for one thing, I’ve always pushed to have female characters in our movies and in our shows that matter.
When we did Home Again for example, I really wanted to tell Marva’s story as a mother who had been separated from her kids and got deported. Those things have been incredibly important to me, and I’ve really tried to get that right.
But the ironic thing is that I think that I’m just learning. I think that right now in 2017, in the last few years, we’ve gotten permission, we’ve started to understand that our voice as women has been so filtered through a male-dominated culture that we have been spinning out a lot of the same things the males have because we’ve not really been allowed to have that voice to impact culture at all.
And I’d like it to be a Black woman. It’s actually difficult for white women to understand the plight of Black women. [Look] at feminism for example, I know this because when I look at feminism, there’s not a lot of space for discourse for Black women who have been feminists from early days, from before slavery, who have been breadwinners, who have had to pay the rent and take care of the kids and do all of it. Our voice has, somehow in this feminist discourse, been on the outside. But as a Black woman, what I have come to realize is that our voices have been so shaped by this male culture, this male-dominated culture, that it’s like being a Black person where so much of what we have or see that’s impacted on us is from this dominant culture.
And I can understand a lot more as a Black person because I’ve always been, to be honest, Black first, because when someone sees me, they see me as a Black woman. So I think that my voice in my writing has been stronger around being Black or Black characters or Black story situations more so than women because my oppression as a Black person, as a Black woman has been greater to me than my oppression as a woman and I’ve only now come to understand how intertwined those two things are. I’m only discovering my voice as a woman as separate from my voice as a Black person and so I want to develop those two voices now in this next phase of my career and see when I develop those voices together where that takes me.
I think that there’s a table of 20 people and maybe two women have kind of kotched up to the table.
We’re starting to see more women create their own stories and direct them. Do you think that the woman has found her place at the table now?
I think that there’s a table of 20 people and maybe two women have kind of kotched up to the table. I think it’s happening. I think that it’s changing, but we can name all the women who are doing this and we can’t name all the men. There’s a lot more that has to happen and it’s so interesting because one or two women break in and then we’re like, ‘Oh …’ No we are not there. We’re just starting. The two women out of the 20? I don’t even think they’re at the table. I think they’re approaching the table. I want to see that table full of women and men of diverse cultures. That’s what I want to see and that’s exciting to me. And I think that we’re at a time where these things are more possible now.
We do have Donald Trump as a president and that’s terrifying because I think it’s a throwback to when you talk about making America great again in the ’50s, you’re talking about a period of the 1950s, we’re talking about when patriarchy dominated [and] crafted such an image of women that it’s so disturbing. Women in perfectly coiffed hair, perfectly coiffed clothing with the Black maid taking care of their children while they make sure that their husbands’ lives are in perfection, and then they come home and watch a sports game and not be bothered. That is what to me the Trump presidency stands for and it’s terrifying.
We have to be careful. We can’t think that we’re winning because there are a lot of guys like him that want to bring the narrative to what it used to be.
Do you think Canada reflects that same narrative?
Absolutely. I think Canada, in some ways, is more racist than America because I think that in Canada, look at the media industry. Show me any Black person with any power whatsoever. I can show you the media industry in America and they have more of them – there are some people who have power who are of colour. What it is, is that we’re just nicer to people. We don’t tell them you don’t belong. What we do is that we hire our friends. We bring in the people we like.
So what I’m trying to say is that we all come to the table with a different point of view. And I’ll tell you, what’s really interesting is that that point of view might not understand my story the same way that you might understand my story as another Black woman. But what happens is that unless I, as a Black person, as a Black woman, craft a story that falls in line with how the dominant culture perceives me or this story, then they [will] tune out. That’s why Black stories, for example, have always been diminished.
As a Black woman in the film business, what’s your best advice to other Black women, and women of colour, who are trying to follow in your footsteps?
My advice is write every day. Every young person that wants to break into the industry, they have to have, in my mind, an original piece whether it be a feature film or a TV concept based on a show that’s very popular right now that they can mimic the voices. Have that.
Every year, pilots come out and they actually post all the pilots online. Find that site. Read all the pilots, you know. Find an agent. Learn who the people and the structure are through the work. Learn what that is and learn what you have to do to break your way through. You have to know what you need to have to attract an agent, and then you have to get an agent and then you’re going to get into rooms and learn to write within rooms. Learn to write other people’s stuff and you write your own stuff at night.
You have to put in the extra time. In those early days, especially. Listen, you’re trying to get your career off the ground. Nobody owes you anything. You have to make it happen.
You always wonder, as a diverse creator, why is it that you don’t get the same opportunities as others.
I was disappointed to hear that “Shoot the Messenger” got cancelled. What impact do you hope it will have on Canadian television in the future?
Yeah, I too was really disappointed . . . We were really sad about that. Because I think that with us, as creators of colour, there’s almost no one that you could point to, in that writing, producing, creative force . . . I think in some ways – maybe I’m wrong here – that the value for diverse work is not as high.
When you don’t have a second season, people say then, ‘Well I guess the show wasn’t as good,’ as opposed to, ‘Maybe the show was good, but they haven’t found the footing and CBC’s going to help them find that.’ So, the legacy is questionable. I think it’s going to be what people have to say about it.
You always wonder, as a diverse creator, why is it that you don’t get the same opportunities as others. I obviously appreciate the opportunity in the first place, but the opportunities are so few and far in between for diverse creators. Now there’s a bit more of a push towards it and that’s a great thing, but it’s like, with people like Sudz and myself and other racialized groups, you’re supposed to give us more support in some ways because it is actually tougher for us to break in. There’s no doubt about it. Otherwise, why is it that there are almost no executives of colour in decision-making positions? Like why?
People might say, ‘Why are you asking for more than others are getting?’ And I say, ‘No, we’re actually asking for the same opportunity,’ because, again, if you look at the scenarios that I’m aware of, we were asking for the exact same chance that the others got. We did not get that same chance.
And I think last, but not least, I don’t think we show up. I think the diverse audience that I’m trying to make material for, I don’t think we show up for that. I think that when we make this work, we don’t even pay attention, we don’t make a point of watching. I think the Asian community has come out for “Kim’s Convenience” but I don’t think the Black community came out for our show.
That was the part of our philosophy – that we all have voices and let’s bring all those voices to the table.
What do you think needs to happen to mitigate those challenges as a Canadian production company to gain more support for your projects?
I think that the gatekeepers need to change. I think that they need to have diverse people from racialized communities in decision-making positions. What really happens is they just regurgitate the things for the people over and over again and they just make the same decisions just in different places and spaces. I strongly believe it’s a gatekeeper issue and just swapping out white women for white men is not going to change it.
What was your inspiration behind “Shoot the Messenger”?
We were really attracted to this racial profiling story and the racial profiling story involved both the police and journalists. So that was the core of what attracted us to it. But then we didn’t end up doing that racial profiling story specifically because again it was a situation where as Black creators, people kind of look to you to always do the ‘Black story’. We had done Guns, and Sudz had written and directed Doomstown and it was again in that same vein of the Black story and racial profiling and so we thought, we’ll do the racial profiling season, but we wanted to come out with something that you couldn’t pinpoint and say [was] the Black show.
With “Shoot the Messenger”, when the whole Rob Ford thing was unfolding, we thought it was a great way to intersect what we believe in very strongly, which is stories that reach across various communities. The Rob Ford situation with drugs was sort of this very powerful mayor intersecting in the lives of these young Somali kids, so for me, I felt that was the best story possibility coming out of our city because I do feel like our lives are intertwined. This is why I am so frustrated because I do feel like the lives of the rich and the poor, the Black and the white and the brown, the Asians, they do intersect and we rarely see them intersect in a significant way.
So that was the part of our philosophy – that we all have voices and let’s bring all those voices to the table. I wanted to tell a story without telling the Rob Ford story and so we thought if we took out the drugs and we made it a sex scandal, we could actually really tell that story in our own way. So that was sort of the inspiration for it.
I watched so much stuff growing up where they depicted us totally wrong and I don’t want to do that.
What was the reception like from the Somali community?
Before the show was released, there was this sense that it was very negative. There was the sense that we were going to make this show and it was about showing all these Somali people involved in crime and all this kind of stuff. And so before the show even aired, the Somali community already put together a campaign against the show.
The ironic thing is, once the show did air … I even had a woman randomly reach out to me and I was so surprised and she basically said, ‘I’m going to give this show a shot. I know there’s a lot of negativity around it,’ and then she emailed again to say, ‘I watched the whole show. It was so on point. You did a great job,’ and then she wished us well and wished for us to get a second season.
One of the young people who started the campaign against the show had done an interview with a roundtable and it was with these young Somali males predominantly, and the guys came out and said, ‘Yeah, you know I actually liked the show … we felt it was real.’ So I felt very proud because we did, by the end of it, as people were able to see this show, change that narrative.
What I liked about “Shoot the Messenger” was the way that you utilized your environment. Like it was shot in Toronto and you would make references to the Dixon neighbourhood, and you’d show clips of Canadian money on the ground. How important is it to recognize Canadian culture in this way?
I think it’s tremendously important. Look, I grew up in Toronto. I was not born in this country. I am an immigrant and I love this country and I love my friends, my neighbours, and I want to show what our lives are in a real way. I watched so much stuff growing up where they depicted us totally wrong and I don’t want to do that. I want to do a better job at it and so it’s really important for me to get it right, to get the neighbourhoods right, to get the people right. And it’s the same with Sudz. We really put a lot of energy [in] and I think when people feel like there’s something wrong, I want to sit down with them and I want to talk with them and I want to have a discourse because we really are trying and it’s not to say that you might make mistakes or miss something, but I want that discourse and I want people to feel like we did that right.
Photos courtesy of Hungry Eyes Media