Gabourey Sidibe Gets Real With R29: "I've Always Felt Like An Oil Stain"

Photo: Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX/Shutterstock.
“Y’all know you’re really white, right?” Gabourey Sidibe asks, looking out at the crowd of people who have turned up for the world premiere of her short film. A wave of self-conscious laughter rolls through the audience. It’s a breezy Sunday afternoon, the final day of the Nantucket Film Festival; Sidibe’s directorial debut, The Tale of Four, produced by Refinery29's Shatterbox Anthology, has just played in front of a packed house.
Domestic abuse, race-based violence, fatal encounters with the police: These are just a few of the themes that rise up in the 20-minute movie, which will become available for streaming later this year. But Sidibe, who is officially a triple threat — critically acclaimed actress, newly-minted author, and now director — is far from afraid to delve into tough topics. In fact, she told us and the festival audience, it’s the responsibility of artists to do just that by shining a flashlight on stories that are too dangerous to keep hidden in the dark. We spoke to her about why putting the realities of everyday black life center screen must be part of the solution to an egregious problem we cannot afford to ignore.
Refinery29: Your film goes deep in such a short period of time, and engages with narratives of trauma and violence, as they are perpetrated on black communities. What was the intention in centering those themes in the film?
Gabourey Sidibe: "I haven’t been on Twitter, or looking at the news for 20 minutes or so. Every time that I’m away from my phone, I’m so afraid that when I log on there will be another hashtag, another victim, another officer who goes free. I’m terrified. I’m outraged. And I don’t know what to do about it.
"As I do with most things I’m afraid of, I talk about them, make them audible, hoping that addressing the fear will alleviate it. That’s what the film is about: addressing it, saying it out loud, and hoping that through sharing my fear and my outrage that it will cause more outrage and more fear. Because the problem’s not going to anywhere if we ignore it. We have to address it in order to move forward. I’m just hoping not only to move forward, but to show people we are human: that you can’t just kill me and walk away, because I’m human. I’m not a mosquito. I’m not a fly. I’m a human person the same way you are a human person. And that’s really what I’m wanting to get across."

"I’ve always felt like an oil stain that they needed to clean up and not a citizen that they felt obligated to protect."

Gabourey Sidibe
We see so many headlines and hashtags that center of violence against black men and men of color. But there is less coverage of Black women who have fatal encounters with police officers. What do you think it behind that?
"When we were shooting, there was the woman who was shot in front of her five-year-old, fatally; and her five-year-old was shot, too. Just a few days ago, there was a woman who was killed, who was pregnant, in front of her four children. I don’t know if it’s equal or unequal to the black men we’re losing. But certainly I have the same amount of outrage. It’s so hurtful when it happens in front of their children: [I think about] Philando Castile’s daughter and his fiance in the back of the police car in handcuffs; when you’re in a police car, there are no handles. You can’t get out. But they have this woman handcuffs, after seeing her fiancé shot dead. And the baby — the baby — says: Don’t take off your handcuffs. This isn’t safe, mom. I don’t want them to shoot you, too."
It is so hard to see this violence play out, again and again, and then still have people insist that it doesn’t represent America. How do you respond to that line of thought?
"America is the greatest country in the world — as told by Americans. There’s an Adam Sandler film, Billy Madison, where he has to go back to every grade, and if every class there’s a kid who is the worst, from this family the O’Doyles, and the kids are always like, ‘O’Doyle’s RULE!’ We — America — is like the O’Doyle’s. We are constantly saying that America is great. Where’s the actual scale and proof. We’re great at what, specifically? We’re just really great at saying we’re great. We’re like you’re jock older brother who swears we’re the greatest but we’re honestly peaking in high school.
"You can say America is great as long as you’re white. Because for you, yes: You are correct. America is wonderful to you. But my Black ass, because I am a Black woman, born of a Black woman, born of a Black woman, who was born of a slave — I don’t know at which point in history America really had my back. I don’t want to argue with anyone, or with ‘Make America Great Again.’ I just want you to show me the facts. Because I’ve always been afraid of the police. I’ve never had the chance to see police as helpers. It’s not my fault. It’s where I was raised. I’m from Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. I’ve always felt like an oil stain that they needed to clean up and not a citizen that they felt obligated to protect."

"You can say America is great as long as you’re white. Because for you, yes: You are correct. America is wonderful to you."

Gabourey Sidibe
Transitioning back to the film: You stepped behind the lens for this film, for the first time, and really shaped this whole world of the film as a director. What were the biggest differences you recognized?
"As an actor, I just have one character to worry about: just me. But as a director, as someone behind the camera, I am worried about every single character, and I am also worried about all of the furniture, and the setting. I am as worried about the nail polish on someone’s finger as I am about the actor wearing the nail polish as I am the color of the bedsheets and the frame. I feel like there’s a huge canvas in front of me, and like I have all of the colors, even colors that my human eye cannot fathom. But I have them at my disposal and I can do anything. Now that I know that this exists, I feel almost robbed of it, being on the other side of the camera — I’m bored with that."
Another theme in this film is the idea of resisting labels — words like crazy and angry, or insecure or just not good enough. Those are labels of control because they are the things that people are telling you you’re supposed to be.
"In the case of your movie, when you get to know someone beyond that label you start to see beyond that.
"People want to label you so that they know where you live in their head and their space in relation to themselves. We’re more than what people think we are. We’re more than what we think we are. We’re more than a label. I know there’s a huge movement to be genderless, but I love the idea of playing beyond…even if I don’t tell you what my labels are, you’ve given me ten. Like, for example, the charachter Jon, who plays Sweet Thing’s lover: He’s married. But when his wife calls, I wanted to show that he’s in love with his wife, that she makes him laugh, even after he just made love to this other woman for the second time today. He’s not in a loveless marriage. He loves his wife. But he also loves part of Sweet Thing. It’s possible to love someone and hurt someone at the same time. That is the reality that we live in. If you think about how much your parents love you, but also how much they’ve hurt you… If you are capable of love you’re just as capable of hurting.
"We have this tendency to flatten people — you have to create characters that have these dimensions, because that’s what’s real.
"Through filmmaking I want to challenge people — I want to see people are they are, to create characters who are polarizing, within one self and one character. Because those people are real."
Check out the trailer for The Tale Of Four, which will debut on Refinery29 later this year, below.
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