When Tina Gordon Chism studied drama at the Duke Ellington School for the Performing Arts for a year, her dream was to be an actress. But once she started going to auditions, reality set in.
“I saw the scarcity of roles that really equaled my training. African American roles at the time, and even now, we struggle with quality roles, meaningful storylines, even sophistication in how our image is presented,” says Chism.
She also realized that the people who held the power didn’t have a clue about her world.
“I remember being at an audition and seeing the men on the other side of the table auditioning me who did not look like me and it was that instant I knew I was not going to be satisfied in front of the camera and so I just started working on writing the kinds of roles I wanted to play,” says Chism.
“The Cosby Show “ was her inspiration. As a first-year English major at the University of Virginia, Chism wrote a television script of an episode and mailed it to NBC studios.
“I suppose today it would never work. But back then, someone from the writing department called me and said: ‘You know, you have to go through the proper channels to do this. Who are you?’ And I said, ‘Oh, I’m from Virginia. I’m a freshman. I’m in school and I just want to write for “The Cosby Show.””
They invited her to come up to New York during her spring break to observe a taping of the legendary sit-com. Chism took them up on their offer and by the end of her first day on the set she had landed an internship with the show.
Chism referenced her experience at “TheCosby Show” in making her directorial debut for the new movie Peeples, a comedy she wrote about meeting the in-laws. The film opens May 10 and stars Kerry Washington, David Alan Grier and Craig Robinson.
“Bill Cosby is a master of showing a sophistication of our culture and just being funny at the same time,” says Chism. “When I decided that I was going to direct “Peeples” I wanted to make sure we had beautiful Geoffrey Holder art on the walls and that the house would be presented in a way that you would feel the sophistication of the family but then we would deliver on the jokes so that you had that balance.”
“Peeples” features Washington as Grace, an uptight lawyer who is in love with Robinson’s character, Wade, a happy-go-lucky children’s entertainer. But the laughs come during a family reunion and Grace’s perfect upper-crust family turns out to be not so perfect after all.
“In writing it I just wanted to show a family that could balance being very successful on one side and being very human on the other side,” says Chism.
Though this is her directorial debut, Chism is no newbie to the world of film.
After leaving “The Cosby Show”, she moved to Atlanta and worked as a journalist for the Atlanta Tribune, a black newspaper. During that time she wrote a script and entered it into the HBO Urban World Film Competition. Chism didn’t win the top prize, but her script placed in the top three and she got the opportunity to meet with executives at Fox. They had a script about a young Black boy who couldn’t read and learned to develop at a white school. They wanted to add something about the world of marching bands to it and wanted to know if Chism could do anything with it.
Chism took the script, changed the setting to a historically black college where the student is mentored and grows into manhood. The finished product was 2002’s “Drumline” and starred Nick Cannon and Zoe Saldana.
But it was her experience on the film “ATL” (2006), which featured rapper T.I. and Lauren London that convinced her that she should try her hand at directing.
“ATL was the beginning of me realizing I wanted to direct because the script, even though I think the movie is fine and fun, it was not as exactly as I had written it,” says Chism. “In “Drumline”, the director really captured what was intended on the script and it came out on film. ATL, it was the director’s vision and that is as it should be. But I realized I had a very distinct vision for what I wanted that movie to be myself.”
And so before she signed on to do “Peeples”, Chism got Lions Gate to agree that she could also direct the movie, which she says was inspired by several real-life events. First, she shared the story of a gay neighbor who wanted to get married but was afraid to come out to his family. Then Chism thought about her own experience of going to meet the family of a guy she dated.
“I could see what was really going on in their family, but they all lied to each other about what was really going on,” says Chism. “They were as perfect as the Peeples’ family are on the outside.”
But just like the film, everything is not what it seems. In every movie she’s written, Chism says, “there’s a shadow story that I’m trying to tell.”
She admits that she has to balance a studio’s goal for having a hit movie with her own messages that she’s trying to convey. In “Drumline”, for example, she notes that the studio wanted a movie about marching bands with hip music and dancing. Chism’s underlying goal was to make a movie about black male mentorship in which the main character learns about discipline, responsibility and working with others.
And so with the movie Peeples, she uses a comedy about an affluent black family to get across the universal message of acceptance and unconditional love.
“This is a family so worried about being perfect that they all keep secrets from each other,” says Chism. “I wanted to make it relatable and grounded back into real problems, real truths in our community.”
For example, the character Simon Peeples, Chism points out, is based on a young cousin who is academically gifted in math but hides his talents in favor of the cool factor.
“He’s just brilliant with codes and numbers. But when I ask him, ‘what can I do to help you be what you want to be?’ He would tell me, ‘Listen to my demo tape. I want to be a rapper.’ So I lose my mind and I’m just like ‘Can’t you see that you’re gifted in math,’ but because of societal pressures saying this is cool, this is what black manhood is, this is what you should be, he cannot see being at MIT. So Simon Peeples was created because I see Simon Peeples all around our black youth and I wanted to make a comment on that guy.”
But for black women in Hollywood it’s often a battle to get their stories out. Sure, a few black women have made inroads in Hollywood including Shonda Rhimes, Mara Brock Akil, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava Duvernay, who last year became the first black female to win Best Director at the Sundance Film Festival.
“You have to believe that through hard work that you can break these doors down. I’m very reticent to announce defeat. I just can’t do it,” says Chism. “So you have to be strong-willed and confident. But it’s tough.”
But working on “Peeples” was especially refreshing because she worked with Tyler Perry Productions on the film. Perry opened up his studios and welcomed her, says Chism.
“Most of the times you go to a studio and a studio lot is as big as a football field and you are very hard-pressed to see another person who looks like you when you walk into a meeting or as you walk across that studio lot. But at the same time, I look at it as an honor and I look at it as I’m going to get this story told because I can see that I’m the only one that’s made it in this door right now to do it,” says Chism. “But it’s lonely.”
Nevertheless, Chism says her goal is to continue to keep telling the stories that are missing from the mainstream popular culture.
“I could care less about awards or anything like that,” says Chism. “I just want to create characters and images that mirror back our community.”