Anyone that’s been working inside Hollywood’s inner circle for the past two decades has either worked with or heard about producer Tracey Bing. Besides praising her solid business acumen —the product of a first-rate education received at Yale University and Harvard Business School—it was her superlative taste level and her ability to maneuver the creative and business side that really made the bees in the beehive buzz. And oh yes, Bing is an African American woman and in the entertainment industry which is [sadly] run by White males who have historically cared very little about telling our stories or helping to groom qualified executives to sit at the proverbial table, her success is another example of yes you can, damn it!
The minute that Ms. Bing strolled into the lobby of the dimly lit NOMAD Hotel in New York for our meeting, I felt a jolt, an instant connection a camaraderie. I was so comforted by her presence that I confessed that although I knew her name and her reputation, it wasn’t until that moment that I knew she was a sister, a woman of color and a warrior, because to thrive, like she has done in this industry, simply means she possesses the same fire and skill set of the Dora Milaje (Black Panther’s mighty women warriors), feel me?
As the producer of Netflix’s newest romantic comedy “Nappily Ever After,” starring Sanaa Lathan and directed by Saudi Arabia’s first female director, Haifaa al-Mansour, she’s stepped into the public relations campaign to talk about the film and I’m so glad that her very intelligent and persistent publicist reached out. “Nappily Ever After,” the movie is based on the novel by the same name, written by author Trisha R. Thomas and published by Penguin Random House in 2001. The screenplay was written by Tina Gordon Chism, Lisa Loomer, Adam Brooks, and Gina Prince-Bythewood. Along with actress Sanaa Lathan in the lead, Violet, the comedy also stars Ernie Hudson, Lyriq Bent, Lynn Whitfield, Ricky Whittle, and Camille Guaty. Bing produced “Nappily Ever After” together with Marc Platt (“La La Land”).
The plot is simple: A young, Black woman, Violet (Sanaa Lathan), has a seemingly perfect life and has perfect long straight hair, despite the effort it takes to maintain.
“Nappily Ever After” is a story that sits with a lot of woman of color, whose personal battles over hair and how to present to a world where our [hair] texture isn’t considered beautiful, began early and for generations, an understanding of self-worth. Like the main character in the book, the sting of the hot comb and that aroma of burning hair and grease is as much a part of my DNA as, well, my very own biological signature.
During the summer, social media went on high alert when Sanaa Lathan showed images of her very bald head. The shudder of looking at the stunning woman sans her crown produced a mixed back of reactions, but I suspect that’s just what the marketing team wanted. They wanted the folks to chat, or rather twitter and Instagram their feelings about their own hair. Did she look good, bald? Would I look good, bald? It’s not a debate that will ever stop and that’s one of the tremendous things about the book, and now the movie –the topic and therefore the franchise is evergreen.
A quick review of Bing’s career is important, because it will give you a glimpse of what her extensive experience brings to each project. From 2003-2006, Bing was VP, production and acquisitions at Warner Independent Pictures (WIP), where she helped launch the division and was instrumental in devising the strategy for the company. While at WIP, Bing was responsible for acquiring and reformatting “March of the Penguins,” which won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary. She also worked on many other WIP releases including George Clooney’s “Good Night, And Good Luck,” “The Painted Veil,” “Paradise Now,” and “Before Sunset.” While she was there, WIP became the first film company ever to get Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary nominations in the same year for “Good Night, And Good Luck,” “Paradise Now,” and “March of the Penguins” and I lean back into that word-strategy a key component to working smart, a Bing signature.
Prior to WIP, Bing was director of acquisitions/co-productions at Paramount Classics where she spearheaded the division’s activities acquiring films such as “Bloody Sunday,” “Mostly Martha,” and “Man on the Train” and since leaving WIP for another adventure, she opened her consulting business acquiring eOne Features (“Molly’s Game,” “Spotlight,” “Eye in the Sky”), K5 International (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” “Land of Mine”), Warner Bros., Fox International, PBS, and Liberty Media/Wananchi Group as client.
Now as an independent producer, Bing executively produced and packaged “Southside With You”; and executively produced the upcoming sci-fi thriller “Prospect,” which premiered at SXSW this year. She is also executively producing “Alex,” based on the novel by renowned French crime writer Pierre LeMaitre, written by David Birke (“Elle”), which will be directed by Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”). Also on her development slate is the remakes of “II A Deja Tes Yeux,” “Unfinished Song aka Song for Marion,” and “El Futbol O Yo.”
Here is an edited hour conversation with Netflix’s “Nappily Ever After” producer Tracey Bing.
Los Angeles Sentinel: It’s taken a moment for the movie version of Trisha R. Thomas ‘s book “Nappily Ever After” to get to the big screen. Where did you step into the project?
Tracey Bing: Yes, you are right. It did take a moment. In 2005, when I was VP production and acquisitions at Warner Independent Pictures, an executive from Marc Platt Productions at Universal submitted the project to me. At that time, Halle Berry was attached to the project as both an actress and producer. I really connected with the material. As a little girl, I was never happy with my hair and having been influenced by European notions of beauty that proliferated society through advertising and images that were prevalent (and one blond-haired Barbie), I begged my mom to straighten my hair. My hair was never the same.
LAS: I don’t think the smell of burning hair or the damage to my ears, from the hot comb, will ever be forgotten. Sorry, I had a flashback, please continue.
TB: (Laughing)Exactly, that’s why so many people connected to the story. It’s an issue that’s continued throughout my life. Unfortunately, we didn’t end up making the film at WIP, but the story always stayed with me. And now and again, I would ask what happened with the project and whether it was made.
Five years later, I was asked to put together a slate of African American films for eOne and “Nappily Ever After” was the first film I thought of. But after several years spent getting the rights out of turnaround and developing the script, eOne’s business had changed and I had to find a new home for the project. I took the film to Netflix and they said yes. The rest is history. They’ve been exceptional partners all the way through.
LAS:You “had me at Netflix.” How did you choose the lead actress and the director, Haifaa Al-Mansour?
TB: My goal is always to work with a diverse team, both in front of and behind the camera. This is important and finding the right combination takes time. For example, two years ago when we started discussing who could play Violet, we needed someone with experience and courage. The character goes through an intense emotional rollercoaster ride. You have to really ask, who can or would lay themselves bare? We immediately thought of Sanaa. Having a producing partner like Marc Platt is an invaluable asset, but …
LAS: But? I hear a drum roll! But …
TB: (laughing)… but convincing an actress to shave her hair off on camera was not an easy proposition. I will not tell a lie. It took time. In terms of directors, we wanted someone fresh. Someone able to give the film a unique point of view.
Here’s the thing, I am a Black woman and I felt strongly that a woman and preferably a woman of color, should direct the film, though we met with all types of candidates. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a female director to do a romantic comedy, because they feel like they are being pigeonholed. I asked Rena Ronson at UTA for suggestions and she asked if I had ever met Haifaa Al-Mansour. I had not but I was a huge fan of her film “Wadjda.” She [Haifaa] had just shot [the film] “Mary Shelley.” The moment we met, it was clear that she had a distinctive point of view and we knew Sanaa and another cast (and crew) would respond to her. Plus, she has really curly hair and understands some of the issues our lead character endures through her own experiences in Saudi Arabia.
LAS: I noticed a few names attached to the actual screenplay including one of my favorites, Gina Prince-Bythewood. Care to elaborate on this process?
TB: The script has been in development since 2001. Over the years there have been about 6 writers. When we started working from a 2007 draft, we needed some updating because hair issues have evolved. Some people think working from a book is easier than an original idea. In truth, it’s always challenging to adapt a book—to remain as faithful as possible while making the story cinematic. And you, of course, don’t want to disappoint audience members who have read the book.
LAS: And then came Netflix. Some filmmakers dream of traditional theatrical distribution, but digital streaming, access to the world is a smart move. What’s your experience been like?
TB: Oh boy! You are right about filmmakers and their love of a release in cinemas but since I previously brought Netflix a film called “Southside with You,” which was a project they were interested in financing— although they didn’t end up doing it, we made a strong connection. Later when we were looking for a home for “Nappily,” I said, ‘Why don’t you take a look at this other project’?
And you are right, the distribution landscape has vastly changed, with major players in the so-called urban space like Screen Gems and Lionsgate diminishing their appetite for these films, and other companies like Relativity and Broad Green no longer with us. We needed to adapt our approach.
Plus, we have always seen this story as a universal one that all women can relate to. And Netflix meant that our film would reach a global audience, a variety of cultures, as opposed to a traditional theatrical approach where this film would barely play in other territories.
LAS: Again–you had me a “Netflix,” but being the savvy producer that you are (audible coughing ‘my new best friend’ ) how did you appease the filmmaker’s desire for a theatrical run?
TB: (Laughing) Well, “Nappily Ever After” started playing on Netflix on September 21st and it will also be screened at theaters, to begin, in New York and Los Angeles.
To learn more about “Nappily Ever After” go to https://www.netflix.com/ now playing on Netflix.