Q&A: Producers of ‘Roxanne Roxanne’ on the Battle That is Making Black Films in Hollywood

By Ayana Byrd Mar 27, 2018

Mimi Valdés is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine who became chief creative officer for Pharrell Williams’ i am OTHER company. There, she created the concept for the 24-hour “Happy” music video and produced the Oscar-nominated film "Hidden Figures." Nina Yang Bongiovi is a producer and the business partner of Forest Whitaker in their company Significant Productions. She is also the woman who discovered Ryan Coogler, offering the then-grad student the chance to direct his first film, 2013’s "Fruitvale Station." Her next film is the highly anticipated "Sorry to Bother You," starring Lakeith Stanfield and Tessa Thompson.

Together, Valdés and Bongiovi were producers on 2015’s "Dope," the Black nerd coming-of-age film that was a Sundance darling and made nearly $18 million worldwide. With all of these accolades—and also, all of these millions of dollars in box office receipts behind them—the notion of Valdés and Bongiovi coming together to produce "Roxanne Roxanne," a biopic on the female rap pioneer Roxanne Shante, seems like one that Hollywood would be fighting to get in line behind.

But Hollywood is a peculiar place. So instead of the red carpet, these women were met with resistance when it was time to find a distributor for "Roxanne Roxanne." This is despite the fact that it debuted to critical acclaim at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, with lead actress Chanté Adams winning the Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Performance.

What it took for them to get the biopic released—the film was acquired by Netflix for worldwide rights for an undisclosed number after a bidding war and debuted on the streaming channel last Friday (March 23)—says as much about Hollywood’s refusal to tell Black stories as it says about the tenacity of these two producers. "Roxanne Roxanne" opens with a rap battle. In this interview, edited and condensed for clarity, Valdés and Bongiovi talk about their own fight to get this movie onto screens.

Your first time working together was on "Dope." What led you to decide to keep working together?

Bongiovi: It can be a lonely process for a producer. Sometimes you feel like you’re fighting the fight on your own because of the competitive nature of our work. And maybe producers are extremely competitive with each other, or non-collaborative, or trying to one-up each other. To find a friend in the process who shares the same vision, that has your back, that started with Mimi when we were on "Dope." [After it wrapped], we were having conversations on what other stories we could tell. I think each of our mandates are very complementary. For Forest and me, our goal was always to  support and champion filmmakers of color and to break out their careers. And the same thing for newer talent in front of the camera. And Mimi’s been doing that her whole life, in her publishing world.

So three years after "Dope," there is "Roxanne Roxanne." Roxanne Shante told The New York Times that the night she met you at a club you were both “waving [your] hands in the air” and she thought, These must be some really strong drinks.

Valdés: That actually happened at the New York premiere party for "Dope." Prior to that, there was a project Nina had with a female protagonist, set in ’80s New York. But the project fell apart, so I said, "You know what? I think Roxanne Shante would be a really good story."

The first moment I heard her record [1984’s “Roxanne’s Revenge”] I was mesmerized. We were the same age when the song came out, 14, and we’re both from the projects, so I’ve always been intrigued by her story. In 2001, I wrote the forward for the book "Hip Hop Divas" for Vibe magazine. And I talked about how instrumental Roxanne Shante was to the genre as the first solo female artist. And for female hip hop fans, this was the first time we had proof that not only did women have a rightful place in hip hop, but they could hold their own and even be, in some cases, better than the guys.

So I said to Nina, "Why don’t you take a look at her?" [Sometime later], we’re at the "Dope" premiere, upstairs at the party. I see Roxanne Shante on stage talking and I turn to Nina and say “It’s a sign!” We waved at her and then ran downstairs and [after introducing ourselves] I said, "We want to do your movie!" She looked at us dumbfounded like, Okay. And literally the next day we had breakfast together.

Bongiovi: She told us so many stories and we were in tears. We couldn’t believe what she has gone through.

Valdés: That was the summer of 2015 and we did a deal with her. Nina contacted the director Michael Larnell and asked him, "What do you think of Roxanne Shante?" And he said he loved her.

Were you concerned there could be pushback from critics for choosing a man to direct this story?

Bongiovi: "Cronies," his first film, was his thesis film at NYU grad school and when I saw it, I was so impressed by his creativity and knew he had talent. And then after meeting with him, I could tell he also is a gentle soul. It didn’t cross my mind that we needed a woman director—we needed the best director to handle this story, do it right and make it authentic.

Valdés: I also think that sometimes the best people to tell the story are the quote-unquote outsiders. Like, he’s the “wrong” gender. He’s from St. Louis, not New York. So he’s going to see and think about things that maybe someone like myself, who is a quote-unquote hip hop expert born and raised in New York, is not considering. And I appreciate having that kind of insight on a project like this.

The film premiered at Sundance in 2017 before the #MeToo movement. But now it’s coming out to a global audience in the midst of #MeToo and women coming forward and telling their stories of mistreatment—which is very much what this story is. Do you think it’s going to be received differently now? 

Bongiovi: Only a little over a year ago [at Sundance], people were asking us, "Who’s going to watch this film? Who wants to watch a film with a young Black girl as the lead?" And in the 14 months since we were told that, so many things have happened. Not only #MeToo, but there is the "Black Panther" effect. And there was "Hidden Figures," "Get Out," all these movies that keep proving there is an audience, that we’re hungry for authentic stories told by filmmakers and producers of color.

Valdés: Also, her story is something that women, regardless of their circumstances, [can understand]. "Roxanne Roxanne" is a cautionary tale, but it’s also a female empowerment story that shows how if you stay true to your voice and who you are, you can triumph.

What are you working on together next?

Valdés: Nina and I are in the early stages of a non-profit that we started called Metta Collective. We say our mission statement is providing storytellers with access, knowledge and love.

Bongiovi: We curated 16 emerging filmmakers and held a dinner with them in August 2017. And there were African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans. It was just so beautiful to see that room and they all looked at each other like, Wow, this is the greatest thing. 

We plan to do an event every quarter. Mimi and I want to create workshops that are case studies from our films to teach them the process and what we’ve gone through when it came to sales, distribution—and rights, because so many storytellers and filmmakers of color sign their rights away to unscrupulous people. And on another level, one of our goals is to have more people of color in the production crew.

Valdés: Costume designers, production designers, line producers, catering, craft services—just everything.

Bongiovi: We want to provide a destination for all of these people to come if they have questions. We want to protect them.

Valdés: And to teach them these things that we know because we’ve been through certain experiences. Again, with "Roxanne Roxanne" at Sundance, there was a full 24 hours where we were like, Are we gonna sell this film? Hollywood still does not respect films with predominantly people of color as the cast. They just don’t.

What did you tell yourself during those 24 hours—and what did you tell distributors?

Valdés: It was a very hard 24 hours. You have a sales agent and they come back [after meeting with distributors] and tell you the challenges. I was super depressed, because I felt I had let Nina down. She had raised the money for this movie and I thought, Oh my God, the investors aren’t going to make their money back. That means we’re never going to be able to get investors to give us money to make more movies! I was so panicked. And then at some point, anger started to creep in, like, You know what? Fuck this. You suddenly become a soldier.

Bongiovi: We put on our fighting gloves. Hearing [feedback] from potential buyers was heartbreaking and hurtful, because it’s an ongoing thing. Every time we talk about a film starring people of color, made by a filmmaker of color, it’s the same thing. Oh, Black films don’t travel. We don’t know who your audience is.

And they’re all lies. It’s a lie that’s perpetuated by giving you the lowest possible amount of money, and then they make all the money. So we were not going to let that happen. If we had made a shitty film, that’s one thing. We knew our film was great. We were critically acclaimed. Every review that was coming out was saying, "Man, this is tremendous." In so many different ways.

At one point, we were in a meeting and both of us were ready to kill people. And I thought, If this team here, this team of Mimi, Pharrell, Forest and Nina can’t do it, we have no hope for any of these filmmakers. We have to be the beacon of light to show that they are worth something and their films are worth something, their creations are worth something. And it became that type of emotional battle.

Valdés: Nina and I have celebrity [production] partners. No one mortgaged their house to do this film. We didn’t have those kinds of pressures. So we were in the best possible position to fight and to not take a lowball offer, which is what happens to so many filmmakers of color who get into Sundance and these other festivals. They end up selling their films for a dollar.

Bongiovi: They’re told that’s the way it is and that’s how much you’re worth.

Valdés: We knew we weren’t selling this movie for two pennies, because that sends the wrong message to the industry. If we do that, we have just messed it up for everybody else. And we can’t do that.  

Bongiovi: [Last week, when the movie debuted on Netflix] The New York Times published an article that says "Roxanne Shante finally gets her revenge." I feel like Mimi and Nina also finally got our revenge.