RED PILL Director Tonya Pinkins Interview –Black Lives Matter
RED PILL is a political thriller focusing on the upcoming presidential election. The film production first began in 2019, but the themes of “the weaponization of Whiteness and White supremacy” seem made for this political moment in 2020.
As a writer/director Pinkins finds the importance of giving the space for the voice of Black women in the entertainment industry. Pinkins explains how the film was inspired by Get Out and Midsommar, both paid homage to in Red Pill.
Here, actress, director, and writer Tonya Pinkins (TP) discusses her new film Red Pill, her experience in the entertainment industry and her thoughts on the Black Lives Matter Movement with Picture This Post (PTP).
(PTP) Please tell our readers about your personal and professional background.
(TP) I grew up in Chicago. No one in my family is in the arts. I had a mentor/molester who pushed me into a career in the arts. My mother struggled with mental illness and had a hard time keeping a job, so when I began working as an actor, I accepted any job I was given because a job was a gift. It took me a long time to learn that I could say no to a job.
My first love was always writing. I had an experience in fourth grade that was traumatic and stopped me from writing for a long time. I’ve always been trying to get back to writing.
Directing was the bridge to return to my love of storytelling. I also found that I was now being offered roles that were as one of the props that eat. For example, I was Madam Secretary on Madam Secretary and I wasn’t even a recurring character. I had very few lines and was in the background mostly.
I have too much creativity to spend the rest of my life doing that. Although it pays better than McDonald’s or Uber.
Can you talk about your experience as a Black woman in the entertainment industry?
I would say that the story that tells the difference between how I, as a Black actor, was treated differently is that when I was on All My Children. The White actors Susan Lucci, Cameron Mathison were doing other tv/films outside of the soap.
Let me backtrack, when I was on As the World Turns with Julianne Moore, Marisa Tomei, and Steven Weber, the producer made me turn down numerous Cosby’s, Law and Orders, and Miami Vices and I was working less than four days a month. When I got to All My Children, they tried to do the same thing but all the other producers for Jelly’s Last Jam and some tv/film arranged their schedules so they only used me on my days off. So finally, ABC required that for any job I did outside of the soap, including a $1200 theater showcase, I had to return $10,000.00 of salary. I know they weren’t doing that to Lucci and Cameron.
Caroline or Change and Martha in Fear the Walking Dead were the most fulfilling roles I have had in theater and television respectively. After each of them, I had little desire to do anything less. Both roles challenged me to express the fullness of my potential. Once I expanded into that, trying to stuff myself into a smaller container just wasn’t a viable option.
Could you give our readers an insight into your work process for the film?
I often feel I am a channel. I am downloading a message. Red Pill began with a visit to a friend’s country house. I told her that her house was where a horror movie would happen. I started to make a story about a malevolent space because my friend said I could shoot in her house. Then we had a conversation about politics and in a typical progressive fashion, she was dismissive of the other side. And after our talk about how she felt the conservatives were so stupid and unorganized etc. I found myself saying ‘It appears that way because you don’t see their Hitler who has a vision for a thousand-year reign.” I find progressives to be quite delusional. Progressives have a lot of theory and talk and education and insufficient and ineffective action. Thus, one of the tag lines for RED PILL is a riff on The Help “You is kind, you is smart, you is important. You is Dead”
When I went home all these metaphors about Red v Blue kept popping into my head like Rock-em Sock-em Robots. I started with a deck. I knew it had to be visual. And then I pitched the log line to various people for a few weeks. Once I had a log line that several people hummed to, I wrote the script. This was August 2019.
(Editor’s note: a deck is a presentation/storyboard to present the premise of the film. In a way, a more visual and concise version of a script. A log line is a hook. It serves as a quick summary of a film that catches people’s attention).
Red Pill becomes more prescient every day. It reminds me of Jerzy Skolimowski’s film Moonlighting which was released simultaneously to Poland declaring martial law. I also realized that had we released pre-pandemic the film could be light fantasy. In the present moment, it is about the clear and present danger and I have changed some of the scores to reflect the urgency the story now has in light of current events.
I was reading Steven King’s essays and he talks a lot about how horror allows you to say things you cannot say in polite company. And then Yuval Harari talks about how the “lie” has been a unifying force for society and communities forever. So, when I wanted to make Red Pill, I thought I could wrap what I think in a dystopian future and say everything I wanted to say and entertain cause it’s only a movie.
But now the world has caught up with my storytelling and the movie can stand as a historical current and dystopian future. The challenge of the genre for Red Pill is that so much of what I wrote in 2019 that was the “lie” or fiction part of the story has either come true or seems so highly probable that I almost feel like I need to write a feel-good movie instead of a horror because we are living a horror. And we are specifically living the horror of my film.
It’s so close to home now that some folks will find it personally terrifying, some will dismiss it, some will laugh at the irony of it. Kamala Harris’ nomination will hopefully shed light on the factual trope of folks ignoring the Black woman. “Black women know the truth, live the truth, we the truth.”
What is the meaning behind the title Red Pill?
Red Pill means something different depending on the community you come from. In the film, a character says that a red pill is someone who infiltrates a group and destroys it from the inside out. That is a common far-right strategy. There is also the red pill competing, conquering, controlling men and the red pill, docile, submissive, silent women.
But from the Matrix perspective, you take the red pill to wake up to reality no matter how harsh. It is easy for me to tackle racism. It’s the water in my fishbowl. What is challenging for some who have read or seen Red Pill is that it holds a mirror up to White people and progressives and they don’t like what they see. It makes them want to attack me personally or attack the storytelling. Red Pill is a reflection of how I see America. White people are not accustomed to being others or seeing themselves through anyone else’s eyes. Hollywood doesn’t green light stories where white people are “otherized.” My film may be the first time many White people see themselves through the eyes of a Black woman. I realized that when I go into predominantly White rooms, I don’t listen to the words coming out of folk’s mouths. I have learned that White people say what is expected so I am looking at facial gestures and body language. Red Pill has that eye.
I believe Black people will sit down, figure Red Pill out pretty quickly and go along for the horrifying ironic laugh ride. Some White people will reject and hate it outright in the same way some hated Caroline or Change because they did not want to go on that ride. But if White people can be open and think of Red Pill as an excursion into an exotic and unknown world: the honest point of view of Black women, they can have an exhilarating experience.
There is a lot of practical magic in Red Pill. It is my greatest desire that it is a key that unlocks our humanity and turns off the irrational attachment to the caste system which harms us all.
Is there a reason why you chose to focus on the theme of the “weaponization of Whiteness and White Supremacy” for the film?
I focused on these issues because they have been the greatest obstacles to my life and most BIPOC people. This movie is a mirror of the American culture BIPOC people live and see every day and that White people have the privilege of being oblivious. If it weren’t for all the videos, White people would still deny the Karens and Kens and killing going on every day.
I heard an interview from someone who said slaves were family. White people treat their animals better than they treated their slaves. White people have been denied the truth of their history. But they say ignorance of the law is no excuse and ignorance of history is not one either.
The invention of Whiteness is killing White people. As Byron Katie says, “argue with reality and you lose but only 100% of the time.” White superiority and non-White inferiority fly in the face of the reality of exceptionalism in all communities. If the folks clinging to Whiteness let it go, they will be open to an abundance of riches that have been filtered through the narrow thimble of “whiteness.”
What changes do you hope to see as a result of the Black Lives Matter Movement?
Kimberly Latrice Jones said “Black people want equality. We don’t want revenge” and Hannah Nicole Jones said, “Black people fight for everybody.” So, when Black people get equality and equity, we will work for everyone in the world to have equity and equality.
The entertainment business is about capitalism. Capitalism elevates property over people. Capitalism could sell anything it chooses to sell false degrading images of Blacks, Latinos, and Indigenous people to perpetuate the false narrative of White exceptionalism and superiority.
The film industry perpetuated racism from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation which created myths of violence by Blacks on Whites – which were factually false. The film industry can fund films and storytellers that tell a real, truthful, uplifting story about the contributions every culture has made to the world. The film industry can market and sell stories that uplift all the people of the world and which model ways of working together as a global community which is the only way the species will survive the apocalypse of global warming.
As an actress and director, what do you feel is your personal role in the Black Lives Matter Movement?
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore said, “We only have one thing to change, and that is everything.” The non-hierarchical structure of The Movement for Black Lives which is the umbrella for hundreds of other organizations makes it much harder for the police or FBI or CIA to kill off the leaders. Yet, six Ferguson protesters died under mysterious circumstances. There was the lynching of the Palmdale organizer, Robert Fuller, and the murder of the Florida organizer, Oluwatoyin Salau. And please don’t say Salau was killed by a Black man as if Black people cannot betray their own. William O’Neal served Fred Hampton up for a Chicago Police assassination.
I support BLM financially and with my voice. It is the movement of the new world. My time is past. The young people get to build their world.