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Sanaa Lathan Talks Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion" and Voodoo-Themed Thriller "Vipaka"

by Vanessa Martinez
September 9, 2011 2:06 AM
15 Comments
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In a recent interview with BET, Sanaa Lathan discussed Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, and the upcoming thriller Vipaka, co-starring Anthony Mackie, Forest Whitaker and Mike Epps.

About Contagion:

"Steven Soderbergh knew what he was doing when he made our characters Black. He’s such a smart guy and he’s aware of film history. We had a conversation on set and he said, "I wasn’t interested in this being another 'white man save the world movie." So Steven knew that he wanted Laurence really early on. I love him for that. Laurence and Matt Damon were two of the first actors cast in the movie. It was an enjoyable experience working with people who really get it."

On Vipaka:

"We just finished it in New Orleans and I play Anthony Mackie’s wife. It’s kind of like a love triangle between my character, Anthony’s and Mike Epps’ character, who plays his brother. Mike Epps is doing a really dark, complicated edgy role. People are gonna be so blown away by him in this movie. Forest Whitaker plays a mysterious person who comes into all of our lives and makes us reveal secrets we have from each other and ourselves. So it’s like a horror film but it’s also a psychological thriller. I had a blast working with Anthony, Mike and Forest — that was a treat for me."

"There’s no voodoo or witchcraft. No, it’s more like one of those horror ghost stories of the grudge movie ilk. There’s definitely some freaky s--- in it. It will keep people on the edge of their seats. You’ll be jumping and screaming, but it’s also really deep and really layered. I’m not interested in doing a straight horror film. I’m excited because there are good moments in Vipaka that I don’t think people have seen Black people do on screen lately."

Very interesting, especially Mike Epps' role. I don't recall seeing him in anything other than comedies.

Contagion hits theaters this Friday, September 9th (see Tambay's review here). Vipaka is currently in post-production and should be released sometime next year.

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15 Comments

  • misha | September 12, 2011 4:32 AMReply

    @BondGirl, I am not speculating...my comments are based on history. But speaking of (ridiculous) speculation....

    "If Halle didn’t do Monster’s Ball, producers wouldn’t even consider Nicole Beharie for Shame."

    LOL! Oh really? I'm sorry but that's simply ridiculous. The simlarity between the films begins and ends with the interracial sex aspect. I HIGHLY doubt McQueen and co. were motivated to cast Nicole based on Halle's role in Monster's Ball.

    What is a safe black actress? One with lighter skin, European features. It is no coincidence that almost all of the successful black actresses in (white) hollywood can be described as such...unless of course they're playing a maid or some other stereotypical role.

  • BondGirl | September 11, 2011 11:19 AMReply

    @Misha: " The only thing it’s going to spawn is more white savior/magical negro films. Columbiana is the exception to the rule in that Zoe is the “new Halle.” A black actress who’s “safe” enough to appeal to white audiences. Thus, like Halle, Zoe’s “success” will only prove beneficial for Zoe."

    Interesting how you feel The Help spawns negative films , but feel Colombiana doesn't spawn positive films...are you a conspiracy theorist? And you know this for a fact because...??? As you know, I require supporting arguments w/ facts, not speculation. Otherwise, it's just an opinion. Homeless people on the street have that.

    What is a safe black actress? One who demands to be taken seriously by blacks and whites? One who is revered by white men? So if Halle & Zoe were only able to get parts in Spike Lee movies then she would be less "safe"?

    Halle & Zoe are making things better for other black actresses, but ultimately they have to create their lives. If Halle didn't do Monster's Ball, producers wouldn't even consider Nicole Beharie for Shame.

  • misha | September 10, 2011 12:19 PMReply

    @BondGirl, Please save the history lesson and condescending tone. Neither is needed. :) Fact is, Columbiana and The Help aren't going to usher in leading roles for other black actresses. Surely, an "insider" like yourself is aware of this. As I said, The Help is more of the same. The only thing it's going to spawn is more white savior/magical negro films. Columbiana is the exception to the rule in that Zoe is the "new Halle." A black actress who's "safe" enough to appeal to white audiences. Thus, like Halle, Zoe's "success" will only prove beneficial for Zoe.

  • BondGirl | September 10, 2011 9:16 AMReply

    @Misha: I'm sure that years ago some small minded folks said the same thing about black lawyers, doctors, politicians, and Oscar winners. As blacks, it's about laying bricks. I love Will Smith's analogy his father taught him regarding laying bricks as a foundation for bigger things. Are we going to have 5 films in 2011 with black female leads? No. But we have 4 this year. Which only proves we can have 6 next year. That was the point I made, it's historic to have 2 films be #1 & #2 and have black female leads. If you can't appreciate that, then ask your grandmother about what films she saw in 1915 with black female leads.

    The problem with blacks are they're too ungrateful for the path that pioneers are making. I appreciate the path Hattie McDaniel, Whoopi Goldberg, Diana Ross, Halle Berry, Mo'Nique, Cicely Tyson, Lena Horne and others made so I can witness white people paying money for Colombiana.

    You're obviously not in the industry if you think 25 Mil isn't MAJOR for 2 weeks. Eff the critics, the public (white, black & Spanish) is going to see it. It will gross 100 Mil with or without you.

  • misha | September 10, 2011 3:05 AMReply

    Err sorry, but I don't think The Help and Columbiana are proof that black actresses in lead roles are on the rise. The Help is just more of the same. I'm not shocked it's doing well at the box office, especially with all the promotion. And Columbiana is an action film that's made 22-25 mil is two weeks, panned by critics and received mixed reviews from moviegoers. I'll need to see MUCH more proof before making such a declaration.

  • misha | September 10, 2011 2:52 AMReply

    Leave it to AccidentalVisitor to make this about black actors vs. black actresses. By the way, what you're saying is irrelevant, I believe. I can't think of one black actress (outside of Queen Latifah perhaps) who has the star power to give a young black actor a career boost. That's the difference between blacks actresses and black actors like Jackson, Fishburne, Denzel. Will etc. While they have some influence being well-known actors/leading men, black actresses are normally relegated to the girlfriend/wife roles and thus have no real infuence. They are usually cast AFTER the actors (black or white) and are not the stars of the film. Heck, these days, black actresses only have about a 50% chance of being cast opposite a black actor, particularly in a big-budget romantic comedy/drama. Lack of opportunities for black actors? Pfft. Try being a black actress.

  • Mecca | September 10, 2011 2:49 AMReply

    I'm gonna chime in here. First off, "Black woman" are not the ONLY women who experience racism, discrimination, or prejudice in the industry. I believe it is all women regardless of skin color and social class.

    If you take a look at Hollywood it is ruled by mostly men! Every single film that makes it's way to a theater near you has a male lead (white or black). And in these films women are "secondary" they are always at home, cooking, cleaning, with the kids, playing the slut, flake etc. w/ one or two liners supporting their husbands (lead male actors) .

    But a lot of you make some very great points here when pointing out the issues that Black women face in Hollywood.

    -Always playing the the BFF, girlfriend type, wife and the sexual object/fantasy w/ no character profile, backstory or development.

  • tambay | September 9, 2011 11:33 AMReply

    Potential SPOILERS below:

    The problem is that his character (Fishburne's) does NOT save the world... in reference to Sanaa's quote about Soderbergh not wanting this to be another "white man saves the world movie" as a reason for his casting Fishburne as the CDC Deputy Director.

    As I said in my review, Fishburne does have a plump role in this an an authoritative figure, and he chews up a lot of screen time. BUT it's one of his assistants - a white woman - who comes up with the vaccine that kills the virus - a vaccine she actually tests on herself first, potentially sacrificing herself in the process... if the vaccine didn't work and she died.

    In the end, Fishburne's character faces some ethical charges for having told his wife (Sanaa) about the seriousness of the virus (info she then passes on to a friend, though he tells her not to do so), when he wasn't supposed to. He doesn't "save the world."

    But as Accidental notes, women "problem solvers" are front-and-center here - still all white women. Sanaa Lathan's character really has very little to do here. She actually ends up being more or a liability.

  • Kia | September 9, 2011 7:05 AMReply

    Thanks for posting the clip. I can attest... I'm one who believes in putting up.

  • BondGirl | September 9, 2011 6:42 AMReply

    Sure we can debate ad nauseum about the film itself, but I was specifically referring to your comment that "It seems that it doesn’t matter who or what color the male director is black women are seen as having no importance other than being someone’s sexual object or wife."

    Neither of the 2 films that are topping box office sales (and I believe breaking records as well) can be dismissed as sexually objectifying women or casting them as just a prop.

    To anyone in the industry who has a criticism of any film, black or otherwise, I would tell them to defer to Viola's suggestions in her interview:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MrqjCQngKJ4&feature=share

    In a nutshell: Put up or shut up.

  • AccidentalVisitor | September 9, 2011 6:21 AMReply

    Good find, Vanessa.

    I read Sanaa's comments regarding “Contagion” and I got a chuckle out of it as I recalled a recent conversation with a friend about the film. My friend was surprised Sanaa was part of the cast. She wasn’t attacking her acting ability, she was just referring to her “lower” status in the industry compared to many of the other cast members. My response was the best thing that happened to Sanaa on this front was the casting of Laurence Fishburne. Sure Sanaa still had to beat out other actresses, perhaps even someone like Kerry Washington, but the casting of Fishburne meant that there was probably like an 80% to 85% chance that the role of his wife would go to a black actress in the first place. This goes back to a point I once made that black actors like Fishburne, Denzel, Will, Samuel L Jackson, etc. help give career boosts to black actresses or at least help give them some early breaks in major films. By playing the girlfriends, wives, daughters of these men, even if the roles aren’t all that big, they get a foot in the door or, even better, a seat at the table. No, it isn’t a lock that, in the case of the girlfriend/wife part, a black actress will get the nod whenever established black actors are cast, but the odds are still in their favor.

    However outside of a Queen Latifah flick, black actors don’t tend to get a similar boost when it is the black actress who is the established star who gets cast first. If Sanaa was higher up the Hollywood star food chain and was picked to play a starring role in a film like this in which she had a husband, what are the chances a black actor would have gotten chosen for the role? I’m not trying to get into an argument if those black actresses have any responsibility regarding this (or even if they should give a fuck), nor am I interested in debating interracial relationships on screen. My concern is this PARTICULAR lack of an opportunity for black actors (especially young ones) which has never been touched upon in any article I’ve read over the years regarding the obstacles of black performers working in Hollywood. So when Sanaa states that Soderbergh knew what he was doing by making their characters black, I’m thinking its more likely Soderbergh cast Fishburne and by almost default that led to an opening for a black actress to step through. Although she does appear to be a bit young to play his wife. I guess you can’t always stick Angela Bassett alongside Laurence in a film.

    And speaking of Fishburne his casting nonetheless shocked me as well, especially considering all I’ve heard about his part being one of the biggest in “Contagion”. Yes, he is a respected actor of both stage and screen (with Tony and Oscar nominations to show for it), but the type of films he has been appearing in post-Matrix suggested to me that prestigious (for lack of a better word) films were something of the past for him. Most of his fellow main cast members are A-list movie types, Laurence these days seems more like a TV guy or someone you call when you need a heavy-hitter in an HBO feature. I could imagine about a hundred white actors who could have gotten this role instead of Laurence based on their current status. One review of the film made a point of giving Soderbergh credit for making three of the four of the main problem solvers as female (this is not including Sanaa’s character). I thought to myself that casting Fishburne was just as big a deal because roles for black actors and actresses seem to be even shorter on supply these days. Props to Soderbergh.

  • Kia | September 9, 2011 4:38 AMReply

    BondGirl,

    Yes--Colombiana proves that a black woman can lead a film, however will that scenario be accepted outside the action genre--we shall see. I can't piggyback on the Help--not my type of movie. Plus Viola is sharing the headline with three other actresses. I'm talking about a film where the only lead is a black woman and not some helpless, down and out victim, not some woman struggling to do whatever. Just be fiercely leading the story. So Colombiana stands alone as far as I'm concerned.

  • BondGirl | September 9, 2011 4:28 AMReply

    Kia, agreed! Which is why it's very interesting that the #1 & #2 movies in the country right now contain black female leads. With Colombiana making 25 Mil, it has clobbered a lot of white films in only 2 weeks. Mind you it lost significant revenue from the hurricane, but bc of the worldwide appeal, it easily could make 100Mil by October. I would love to see Zoe knock Angelina's Salt out of the water. It would ensure Colombiana 2 for sure.

    I have said for the past year that I can feel black actresses on the rise in lead roles independent of a male counterpart, albeit at the Special Olympics speed, but nonetheless. All hope is not lost.

  • Kia | September 9, 2011 3:52 AMReply

    Here's my point: In both films... Sanaa is playing the "wife", the secondary character. To me that's the problem. It seems that it doesn't matter who or what color the male director is, black women are seen as having no importance other than being someone's sexual object or wife.

  • BondGirl | September 9, 2011 1:58 AMReply

    @Accidental Visitor: "This goes back to a point I once made that black actors like Fishburne, Denzel, Will, Samuel L Jackson, etc. help give career boosts to black actresses or at least help give them some early breaks in major films."

    Will & Denzel sure, but Jackson & Fishburne? No. Most roles they perform are single men. Are there any more? From what I've seen, most casting breakdowns have black actors and no actresses. Young black actors have a much easier time getting at least auditions for roles than females because they are allowed to play off of other white characters whereas black actresses haven't been. Anthony Mackie comes to mind. But I'm no cinephile, so if you have supporting facts please share. I would so love what you stated to be true.

    To piggyback regarding Soderbergh, he is one of those directors that seems to be open to including black actors in a lot of his films, like the Ocean's Eleven franchise to Out of Sight to Solaris. If the rumors are real, he's retiring in a few years though.

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