NEW YORK, July 29, (Agencies): Jessica Williams says it’s a great time to be an actress of color, and applauds Netflix for leading the way in promoting diversity.
Williams, who cut her teeth as a correspondent on “The Daily Show,” takes on her first starring role in the streaming network’s original film, “The Incredible Jessica James.”
The actress feels Netflix helped shape stories about people of color, citing original programming like “Master of None” and “Orange is the New Black” that are able to “showcase people of color in an amazing way.”
While inclusion continues to improve, especially on Netflix, Williams says the struggle for racial equality is far from over.
“I think it’s a difficult time in some ways to be a person of color, and I think the same for actors of color, but I also think it’s a great a time. Because I think now … there’s so much more room, I think, for us to be seen, and there’s room for us to create our own stories,” Williams said.
Williams feels great pride that she’s part of movement toward greater diversity on screen, calling it something that makes her heart warm and sing. She said she remains mindful of the actresses who paved the way.
“It’s like so many black actresses that came before me and my generation. They came before and they did not necessarily have this opportunity that I feel like I have now, and so I’m really grateful for that, and I really do think it’s a really great time to be an actress that is black, in a way,” she said.
But that doesn’t make shifting gears from a comedy news show to a feature film an easy choice. Williams certainly felt some trepidation with the move.
“I was really nervous because this movie does have comedy in it. It also has a lot of heart, and some sweet moments. So I was worried whether I would be able to portray that or not. But I had a lot of fun doing it, and I found out that I could,” she said.
Written and directed by Jim Strouse — who previously directed Williams in his 2015 film, “People Places Things” — the story was written with Williams in mind. Her desire was to correctly depict the “life of a modern, young black woman,” and took it a step further by also taking on the role as an executive producer.
“Just in case I had things to say creatively,” Williams said.
Strouse called Williams a comedy ninja and the right actress to portray the ever-changing nature of romantic relationships.
“I remember when a relationship goes astray or whatever, you break up, you don’t talk and in like maybe months down the road you have coffee,” he said. “Now it’s like, you ghost and maybe a couple months down the road you start liking each other’s photos again. It’s a weird time.” He called the dynamic interesting, then with a knowing smile said, “I don’t know if it’s healthy.”
As for her previous gig, Williams has the distinction of being the youngest correspondent hired for “The Daily Show.” Now she’s hoping to join the list of the show’s alumni who have moved on to bigger and better things.
“To be mentioned among people like Samantha Bee or Hassan Minaj and Steve Carrell and Steve Colbert is insane,” she said. “It’s, it’s very surreal and I think — I packed up everything to move and be on the ‘Daily Show’ and I was nervous because I was 22. I was, umm, I had a lot of big shoes to fill working with Jon Stewart. I felt like in the beginning I had a lot to prove, and it’s really an honor to be among those people.”
If you’re going to build an animated film around a concept that’s dumb, flat, goofy, and obvious, and maybe a tad corrupt in its cartoon-to-toy-box opportunism, then you could probably do worse than the idea behind “The Emoji Movie.” On the one hand, it has the feeling of scraping — as in, we’ve had Trolls, Smurfs, and LEGO, now here come the funny-faced “expressive” ideograms on your smartphone. What’s next: “Automated Siri Voice When You’re Put On Hold: The Movie”?
Yet let’s come out and admit that the notion of a digitally animated feature that brings emojis to life does have its hokey-irresistible side. It goes right back to the feeling you had the first time you ever used an emoji — not ironically, but because you saw that it was tapping your inner child in a way that was kind of cool, especially when you realized that yes, you do have your favorites (personally, I lean on Sun With Face, Cowboy Hat Face, and Spaghetti). Any cynicism I might have had about “The Emoji Movie” was knocked away months ago by the film’s very funny trailer, which featured Steven Wright as the morosely indifferent, slightly constipated voice of Mel Meh. That trailer suggested that a seemingly obvious movie might be throwing you curveballs.
The bad news is that “The Emoji Movie” really is meh. There have been worse ideas, but in this case
The main character, it turns out, is the son of Mel Meh — a junior grouch-face named Gene (voiced by T.J. Miller), who is getting ready to make his debut in the bustling workplace of emojis. They all live in Textopolis, a city that’s embedded in the phone belonging to Alex (Jake T. Austin), a high-school freshman who keeps texting Addie (Tati Gabrielle), the girl he’s got a crush on. Each day, every emoji — Crying Face, Heart Eyes, Slice of Pizza — takes his or her place in a vast wall of cubes, which resembles a giant version of the tic-tac-toe board on “Hollywood Squares.” When one of them gets chosen for a text, his or her image is scanned, and all they have to do is sit there and be there adorable symbolic selves.
But Gene can’t do that. On his first day, he messes up, looking not so much like a Meh as like a Picasso who’s been in a bar fight. He gets branded a malfunction, and Smiler (Maya Rudolph), the corporate boss with a heart as cold as her grin is big, wants to see him literally deleted. Gene’s problem is that he isn’t a Meh. He’s got every face — every feeling — inside him. He’s like a Divergent who excels in every possible way, which in the one-emotion-per-icon world of Textopolis marks him as an unclassifiable noncomformist freak.
That sounds like a pretty good storyline, but the trouble with “The Emoji Movie” begins with Gene. He’s supposed to be a pinwheel of faces and emotions (you could almost imagine him as a digital version of the Genie in “Aladdin”), but as conceived by director Tony Leondis, and voiced by the comedian T.J. Miller (in an oddly unvaried performance), he’s the opposite of Meh — he should have been called Blandly Enthusiastic.
The character isn’t an emoji chameleon, he’s a borderline bore, and he’s surrounded by johnny-one-note emojis who scarcely manage to eke out one good joke per identity. The notion of casting the elegant Patrick Stewart as Poop is funny on the surface, but his every line is another lame pun.
It’s obvious within 20 minutes that “The Emoji Movie” is going to be a knockoff of “Inside Out,” with the world of Alex’s phone as the film’s intricate and looming geographical “brain” (the apps are like candy-colored skyscrapers), and each emoji presented as a primal emotion. “Inside Out” showed that you could work comic miracles with characters like Anger or Sadness — not by varying them all that much, but simply by lending detail and passion (and great laugh lines) to who they were.
“The Emoji Movie,” though, is more than a bit lazy. It’s all on the surface, all movement and hectic situational overkill. Gene teams up with Hi-5 (James Corden), a once-popular emoji who’s been relegated to Alex’s back burner, and the two set off on one of those Generic Animated Journeys — in this case, to find the Cloud, where they think they’ll escape. They team up with a scruffy punk hacker named Jailbreak (Anna Faris), who’s really a Princess emoji running from her real self (another idea the movie does nothing with), and they navigate a series of apps, like Spotify, that begin to feel uncomfortably like product placement — mostly because the film never figures out anything fun to do with them. (Even the Twitter bird makes an appearance…but there’s no Twitter joke! Which makes you want to tweet your disappointment.)
It may sound like I’m being awfully hard on “The Emoji Movie,” since it’s friendly and “benign.” If you take young children, it will prove a perfectly okay pacifier. Yet the hook of the movie, to the extent that it has one, really is for adults. We’re the ones (and not just teenagers) who communicate, more and more, using these pop hieroglyphs, and the film should have made them into wildly popping characters — the kind you want to buy in a toy store not just because they’re cute but because they express something elemental. The emojis in “The Emoji Movie” said more before they opened their mouths.