The film industry in Chicago is riding a wonderful wave right now as production companies set their sights on the largest city in the Midwest region. What started out as a small outpost, settled by founder Jean Baptiste DuSable, has grown to multiple neighborhoods, communities, ethnicities and a merging of cultures. The combination of beauty, grit and grim takes on a personality of the city that can draw in some of the best filmmakers in the business.
With a competitive tax break incentive put in place since the Richard M. Daley administration and Illinois state legislators, filming in 2013 Chicago has generated $358 million in revenue. Production companies working on television shows from “Chicago Fire”, “Chicago PD”, and “Empire” have ongoing production work for home base film professionals. Major feature films have also called the third largest city home for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” ($24 million), Batman’ “Dark Knight” ($40 million) and “Public Enemies” generating $46.7 million. In addition to the new prospects of the George Lucas Museum here—it is sure to draw even more production power.
Most recently, we witnessed history made with the first African American actress, Viola Davis winning an Emmy for Lead Actress on a Dramatic Series, “How to Get Away with Murder,” which premiered on ABC for its phenomenal first season. In her acceptance speech she elegantly said, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be Black.’
The lack of opportunities for Black talent in Hollywood has always been a deep area of concern. But with the power behind the cam- era and behind the script, the diversity of talent has opened up lanes for more work for people of color. We thank the genius of creator and writer, Shonda Rhimes for producing a continual line-up of hit series, on a major television network beginning with ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy”, to “Scandal” and her new baby, “How to Get Away with Murder.” Her shows, present an African American actor either in a leading or co-starring role manifesting a diverse viewing audience.
The success of ‘Shondaland’ on ABC Networks, has proved what many of us have known all along—Black Hollywood does matter. Academy Award director, Lee Daniels stepped into the primetime network lane bringing Fox TV his pilot, “Empire.” The network picked up the show, which is filmed on location in Chicago at the Cinespace Film Studios. After the first show aired, it surpassed “How to Get Away with Murder” and maintained number one in ratings on Wednesday nights with a predominately all Black cast. Each week, viewers tune in to street hustler-turned record company mogul Lucious Lyon (Terrence Howard) and his ex-wife, Cookie Lyon (Taraji P. Henson) hold down the family ‘empire’ in New York City while dealing with family conflicts and flashbacks of his sordid past. However, to the Chicago viewing audience, we recognized familiar neighborhood stomping grounds and to film industry insiders more opportunities for African Americans working on location.
It’s one thing to make the magic in front of the camera but there’s a great deal of preparation and execution behind the camera. It’s what creates sustainable employment for the local economy. The opportunity to work on these film productions are not as easy as some would think. It’s a combination of skill, talent, experience and relationships.
Shows such as “Empire” have reached into the Chicago talent pool of actors, wardrobe, production assistants, camera operators, hair and makeup stylists, location managers, extras, and craft services with steady work. It has also allowed more people of color to earn a steady paycheck doing what some have had to relocate to Los Angeles or Atlanta to do—a chance to work in the film industry.
Since he was in his early teens, “Empire” camera operator Joe ‘Jody’ Williams can recall his fascination with working with a camera. “My grandfather used to shoot home movies of our family with the super 8 camera. He would project them at his home all the time. I would help him set up the projector. I remember that experience as being a fulfilling one—just seeing images of my family, myself as a baby. On the weekends we would set it up, watching, laughing and listening to my grandparents with their running dialogue over the pictures,” Williams said. He grew up in Cleveland and he went on to attend Ohio University where he earned his Bachelors and Masters degree in film.
After relocating to Chicago where he eventually connected with other Black filmmakers creating indie films and documentaries including Barbara Allen’s “The Paper Trail” he eventually struck up a working relationship with production manager, Richard Lederer. Lederer reached out to him to work on the pilot for “Empire.” “I can’t recall the first job where we actually met. However, I’ve worked on a lot production jobs here with him so he gave me a call over a year ago to come interview with the Director of Photography.” Unfortunately, Williams was on assignment working out of town on another film project but when the series was picked up by Fox, he reached out for the opportunity to be a part of the production crew.
Chicago native, David Leonard has worked between the film and the music industry over the last 15 years. For the last 5 years, he worked consistently on film production projects from a propane engineer, to production assistant and working his way up to his current position, Assistant Location Manager for “Empire”. “I am one of two assistant location managers. One of the main responsibilities of an Assistant Location Manager is scouting out locations. My role as assistant location manager is to be a liaison between the production company and the communities where we film. We negotiate deals to make sure that we’re providing a safe and efficient production. Also, I make sure that we’re not being too intrusive to the community.
Leonard, a graduate of Columbia College is pleased that he didn’t have to relocate from his hometown. He understands why so many film crews are filming in his backyard. “The architecture in Chicago is amazing! We have that great mixture of being a big city with a Down South ‘kind of a feel’. There’s a lot of productions that come through here so I’m always impressed with the following factors – Chicago is clean, the people here are nice and friendly and you have hard working production crews,” he explained.
“We manage everything on set in particular issues as they arise relating to the location or neighboring businesses,” he said.
Veteran hairstylist, Telona Wilson began her entry in the film and television industry as an intern on the Jerry Springer Show as a make up artist. Her passion for becoming a hairstylist started as a young girl growing up on the South Side of Chicago.” I knew that I was born to do hair since I was 12. I had the job in the neighborhood of braiding everyone’s hair. Once I graduated from high school I knew that I wanted to become a hairstylist,” Wilson said.
Currently her job is the primary hairstylist for the character of Anika Calhoun aka ‘Boo Kitty’ (Grace Gealey) on the set of “Empire.” Wilson first film job was on the set of “Barber Shop 2” in 2003, which she credits to an insider with whom she had shared her dream of working in the film industry, who in turn, mentioned her to a production type looking for a Black hairstylist. She said, “It’s definitely different from working in a salon. When you are working in television and film, you have to be dedicated and punctual. So if you have the dream to pursue this, know that it’s not easy – it’s long hours. It requires you to be away from your family but the crew becomes your second family.” Wilson is grateful to fellow hairstylist and department head, Melissa ‘Missy’ Forney for the opportunity to interview for the position and giving her chance to be a part of the “Empire” production crew.
As the rookie on the production staff is Production Office Assistant, Asia Smith, pursued her interest in the film industry by submitting applications as an extra on “Chicago Fire.” While working for Walgreens, she made a connection with a film worker with whom she shared her interest in working full-time in the business. Working as an extra casting assistant on the first season of “Empire”, earned her a promotion working with the Production coordinators for Season 2. “Thank God, I got this job because I needed it. In hindsight, you don’t necessarily know what God has for you sometimes. You may know what you want but when you really look back – you find out this is truly what you desire,” Smith said. “What I wanted is what I now have – to be able to be involved and have an opportunity to learn. I’m really grateful to be in this position.” In short, she’s living her dream.
Most importantly, the show has provided opportunities for African Americans to be a part of the magic behind-the-scenes when other companies lack diversity. The common denominator for industry professionals getting their foot in the door, is to know an insider who is connected and has relationships with decision makers.
In an industry where we recently, witnessed actor and co-creator of HBO’s Project Greenlight, Matt Damon explain to an African American filmmaker that diversity starts with the talent in front of the camera not the production—more shows like “Empire” is proving the opposite.
Jody Williams has experienced the importance of diversity on film sets. He comments, “I’ve worked with Spike on multiple things. He’s a conscious filmmaker who I know will go out of his way to have people of color and women on his set – behind the scenes. I’ve worked with Tyler Perry as well and he employs a lot people in Atlanta both white and Black. Lee Daniels is doing something that I haven’t seen done like this before. He has the power and he’s not afraid to use it to help people get a fair shot.”
Season 2 of “Empire” premieres on Fox September 23 8pm (CST) or 9pm (EST).