“Breaking Black” is a weekly column focused on emerging black talent.
“Girls Trip” screenwriter Tracy Y. Oliver got a career by getting mad. Before she became the co-star, writer, and producer on fellow Stanford University alum Issa Rae’s web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” she watched the 2009 ensemble rom-com “He’s Just Not That Into You” starring Ginnifer Goodwin, Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Connelly and Scarlett Johansson. The film was set in Baltimore, which has a population that is 64% black and 30% white.
That let to a spec script: “Marriage Is for White People.” She said she wrote it in jest, but it stemmed from a very real response. “It had an all-white cast, which made little sense to me,” she said. “Baltimore is very black, and it felt like an aggressive erasure of people of color. So instead of just being upset about it, I thought, let me write my own ensemble version but will be all people of color.”
Since then, Oliver became the first African American woman to write a feature (with co-writer Kenya Barris) that grossed over $100 million domestic with “Girls Trip.” The film’s critical and commercial success led to a first-look deal with Topic Studios, and a work calendar that includes a serial adaptation of the 1996 dramedy “The First Wives Club,” a “Clueless” remake, and the adaptation of “The Sun Is Also a Star,” which Warner Bros. releases May 17.
Directed by Ry Russo-Young, and starring “Grown-ish‘s” Yara Shahidi and “Riverdale‘s” Charles Melton, “The Sun Is Also a Star” marks Oliver’s first solo feature writing credit, and her second studio release this year, following Universal’s “Little,” which she co-wrote with director Tina Gordon.
Oliver said that while her spec script got Hollywood’s attention, she was dismayed to learn that her message seemed to lose something in translation. “It helped get me a reputation, although what I discovered from all the meetings I took is that if I wanted to advance, at least at the time, I had to write something ‘white’,” Oliver said. “That was really disheartening because one of the reasons I wanted to even do this was because I wanted to see myself and people I knew, reflected on screen.”
That led to the creation of “Awkward Black Girl,” which later became the precursor to HBO’s “Insecure.” “We weren’t making any money from it, because all of the money being made was reinvested back into the show,” Oliver said. “So I had to get a real job to be able to do other things that I hoped in the long run would pan out.”
Eventually, “Marriage Is for White People” made its way to Dan Fogelman (“This Is Us”), with whom Oliver shared a manager at the time. “He read it, thought it was hilarious, and then met with me and said that we should figure out a way to work on something,” she said. “And as soon as ‘Neighbors’ went to series, he made good on that and hired me.”
The short-lived ABC comedy-science fiction series (2012-2014) marked the USC Peter Stark Producing Program graduate’s first big break. “What Dan did for me, honestly, was help me stay on my feet, and validate me as a professional writer while I was still doing ‘Awkward Black Girl’,” she said.
Since then, Oliver has spent a season on the Starz dramedy “Survivor’s Remorse” (2014-2015), where she served as story editor and writer, to her first feature film credit, co-writing “Barbershop: The Next Cut” (2016) with Barris, followed by “Girls Trip,” and “Little.”
Oliver appreciates her success as a writer, which she says is “the most powerful industry currency” in 2019. Even so, she loathes the process that she calls difficult and thankless.
“It’s already such an isolated, torturous undertaking, and when you throw in having to meet the demands of producers and directors, we need therapists afterward to work through all the stuff that’s in our heads,” she said. “People don’t really know what it means to fill up 120 pages with a story that makes sense, and if they did, I think writers would get more respect, especially in the movie space.”
For Oliver, this invisibility translates to a lack of power, control, and income when compared to directors, producers, and stars. “We’ve got to start demanding equity in our projects, because writers are often the only ones that don’t get backend,” she said. Although “Girls Trip” grossed $140 million worldwide, she didn’t participate in the windfall and took only a “small” writer’s fee.
“The deeper I become entrenched in this industry, the more I learn about things that really bother me,” she said. “So that is why, nowadays, if you want me to put myself through what I call hell, I have to produce and/or direct as well.”
When she told Warners that she wanted to be an executive producer on “The Sun Is Also a Star,” she was surprised and delighted to find that there wasn’t pushback. “Because it’s a major studio, having an exec producer credit on the film sends a message to others,” Oliver said. “And after that, I had a moment when I realized that I really have to start asking for what I want, because I think that is a hang up for a lot of women in the industry, especially women of color – demanding our worth. Men do it all the damn time.”
Oliver credits her courage partly to a lifelong love of performance. “There’s an amount of fearlessness you have to have in order to get in front of an audience of people you don’t know, and be totally vulnerable,” she said. “I was always that kid with the nerve.”
She set her sights on New York University’s theater program, but her parents weren’t keen on that. Instead, she attended Stanford with a double major in American studies and drama and created the black theater company Black Stage. “As a black woman drama student, I was getting tired of the ways in which I was getting cast, so I took this class called ‘Actors Who Write, Writers Who Act,’ raised money, and started putting on my own shows,” she said. “And that was the first time that I was forced to write for myself, which was life changing because that was the first time that I realized I didn’t have to rely on someone else’s version of me. I could create something and cast myself in it.”
With producer credits now on her resume, Oliver is now a director on her upcoming serial adaptation of “The First Wives Club;”she also serves as executive producer and showrunner.
Taking a page out of Ava DuVernay’s “Queen Sugar” playbook, Oliver hired an all-woman directing team for the first season, which is set to premiere on BET in the fall. Under her Tracy Yvonne Prods., she plans to continue down this path by providing opportunities for up-and-coming talent of color across all genders.
Meanwhile, she’s cautiously optimistic about being a part of an industry undergoing radical change, creating an environment in which women and people of color are thriving unlike never before.
“The whole diversity and inclusive push that we’re seeing right now, I hope it’s real, although I often have this feeling that next year won’t be like this,” Oliver said. “I can tell you, compared to five years ago, things are definitely different, and we’re all really excited. But I don’t know how it will be next year or the year after.”
On her upcoming slate, she plans to make her feature directorial debut by turning her longstanding love for musical theatre into an original musical. “You are the first person I’ve talked to about it, and it’s not something I’m ready to reveal all the details on,” she said. “But what I will say is that the protagonist is half Nigerian/half black American, and I’m thrilled to be able to work with choreographers and create a whole spectacle on film. Of everything I’m working on, I’m most excited about it. Fingers crossed, but we’re talking about making it this year.”
If that doesn’t happen within her desired timeframe, Oliver is also shopping horror and action scripts that she plans to direct. “Just like I’m fluid in front of and behind the camera, not relegating myself to one specific role, I’m deliberately not restricting myself to any one genre or style,” she said. “There’s this expectation that as a black woman, I can only write, direct, or star in certain kinds of projects, but, like most people, I like a lot of different things, and I shouldn’t be limited in terms of what I can do as a storyteller, especially as a woman of color.”
“The Sun Is Also a Star” opens in theaters May 17.