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Uzo Aduba Had Only Worked With a Black Director Once Before Making ‘Mrs. America’

In working with Amma Asante and screenwriter Tanya Barfield to portray Shirley Chisholm, Aduba says she wants to correct history's erasure of women of color.

Uzo Aduba

FX Network

“Women need to bet on themselves,” says Uzo Aduba. The “Orange is the New Black” Emmy-winner is taking the fire and ferocity she exhibited in the Netflix prison series and applying something similar to her role as iconic Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm on FX on Hulu’s new show, “Mrs. America.”

The third episode of the show, looking at the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1970s and the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, examines Chisholm’s role in the movement as she entered into a brutal campaign for the presidency. As the series showcases, women failing to bet on themselves results in a number of conflicts — many that we’re seeing play out on the political and public stage well into 2020.

Describing Chisholm as a “trailblazer for all women” during a recent conference call with press promoting “Mrs. America,” Aduba drew not just from the politician’s own life story, speeches, and documentary footage — she also drew from her family history and life as a black woman. “My whole life my mom would say, ‘I never knew there was anything wrong with being black until I moved to America,” she said. Aduba’s mother, growing up in Nigeria, was used to having her world filled with people who looked like her, and as Aduba explains it, it wasn’t until she arrived in America — during Chisholm’s rise — that she felt limited in any way.

And it is those limitations that continue on, not strictly relegated to politics but to entertainment as well. When asked by IndieWire about working with black director Amma Asante, who helms two episodes of the series, Aduba said that “Amma may be the second woman of color I’ve ever worked with [as director] in film or television.”

Aduba also acknowledged Tanya Barfield, screenwriter of the first episode that  Aduba,and Asante worked on together. The emphasis on black women to shape the episode is something Aduba says she’s had limited experience with, seeing more in theater but even then “I don’t mean I’ve had 900 experiences in theater like that…it’s also rare in theater.” But it was nice, Aduba says, “to come to work and not be the only one [person of color on-set].”

For Aduba, the ability to bounce ideas off Asante, specifically, was appealing. “When we’re sitting down and talking about this idea of not knowing anything wrong with being black and telling that story to her about my mom. I didn’t ever have to wonder about whether she was drawing a comparison to some other type of experience that she could relate to,” Aduba says. This isn’t to say that only a person of color can relate to a person of color, says Aduba. “But what I knew was she, herself, knew inside of her own being what that experience felt like.” Aduba explains that there was a “shorthand” between actress and director from the minute they met that continued throughout filming.

Uzo Aduba

Aduba further explains that producers Stacey Sher and Coco Francini made a point of having “a truly intersectional environment” on the “Mrs. America” set, making sure to include people of different races, genders, sexual orientation and ability. (Requests for comment with regards to the inclusion of people with disabilities on the set weren’t answered in time for publication.)

Aduba, who has been twice nominated for Golden Globe and is the winner of two Primetime Emmys, dominates as Shirley Chisholm, translating her story into one of a woman labeled “unelectable” for a variety of reasons, both racist and otherwise. Aduba says it’s fascinating to watch history tend to repeat itself, especially in an era where we consider ourselves more progressive. A key element within “Mrs. America” is the nature of tokenism, wherein a minority enters a work situation and becomes representative of an entire group. “I remember reading the script and chuckling out loud,” says Aduba. “I’ve never heard that said out loud in television, but I’ve heard it said.” With regards to the series’ portrayal of white feminism, even from allies of Chisholm’s, Aduba says it’s representative of the flaws of humanity. “These women, they were not perfect. They were flawed. They were human beings, doing the best they could, but flawed.”

If anything, Aduba hopes playing Chisholm on the series will help future generations fill in the blind spots history textbooks have left out, particularly with regards to the impact of minority women. “There’s a strange tradition to write out some pretty remarkable figures in this country’s history who don’t satisfy the traditional standard of how we’ve accounted for history — namely people of color and women,” she says. She believes that, with our current political race and the series, Chisholm will “hold the space I believe she deserves.”

“Mrs. America” streams on FX on Hulu starting April 15.

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