Moonlight Editor Joi McMillon On Making Movies & History

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty.
The Oscars are nearly upon us again. To say the energy around Hollywood’s prom feels different this year would be an understatement. After coming under intense scrutiny for their blatant lack of diversity, the Academy Awards made some changes to their membership that appear to be paying off. A record number of six black actors have been nominated for awards this year, and 2017 marks the first year that a black actor is nominated in all four acting categories.

However, when we talk about diversity in Hollywood — something we’ve been doing a lot of lately — we’re often only talking about who we can see in front of the camera. Luckily, we have Joi McMillon to inspire us to tackle diversity on the back end as well. This year, McMillon made history when she became the first black woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for editing in acknowledgment of her work on Moonlight.

I was lucky enough to speak with McMillon about editing — a job that I consider to be an advanced STEM field within the film industry as I still can’t figure out the basics of Photoshop — and what the job has been like for her leading up to this moment.

Like too many girls who stumble upon STEM, McMillon initially had no interest in editing. In fact, she wanted to do what I’m doing now: write about people with cooler jobs. As a high school yearbook kid, McMillon was on track to be a journalist until her Junior Achievement group went on a career day tour to Universal Studios. It was there that McMillon met an editor who was working on Animal Planet. “That was my first time being exposed to what an editor does. After that career day, I actually went home and started looking up film schools because I had changed my mind.” In fact, McMillon didn’t even learn how to use editing software until she went to Florida State University’s film school.

McMillon’s experience at FSU gave her very little indication of what it might be like to work in the film industry. Sure, she would find Los Angeles to be just as sunny as Tallahassee, but the array of different cultures she experienced as a film student was an anomaly in her new field. “When I moved to LA and actually got into a cutting room, that’s where I realised the lack of diversity [in my profession].”

So how does she navigate it on a daily basis? McMillon grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, so being the only black girl in a room was something she was familiar with. In fact, she was the only black person on yearbook in high school. It’s an unfortunate, but not uncommon, situation for many people of colour who aren’t from homogenous working and middle-class backgrounds. At some point, you get used to being the “only” on any given day.
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"When I was giving an opinion in the cutting room, I realized it was me in a room with five or six other white men."

Joi McMillon
But as she progressed in her career — an extensive one that includes over three dozen television and film credits — McMillon, was able to find a silver lining in working with other women in editorial. For her first feature film, she apprenticed under Terilyn A. Shropshire on Don Cheadle’s Talk To Me. Nancy Richardson and Maysie Hoy were also editorial heavy-hitters that McMillon was able to learn from as she navigated an otherwise male-dominated industry. She recalled a particularly telling memory about what being that only woman is like with a laugh.

“I remember I worked on a feature that was written by a female and the subject matter was very female-oriented. But when I was giving an opinion in the cutting room I realised it was me in a room with like five or six other white men. As I was like ‘Oh.’ As I was giving a note about something I realised what the room was like. It was so interesting. In creating this movie that’s so female-specific, THIS is what’s in the cutting room right now. It didn’t really dawn on me until that moment where I looked around and it was the producer, the director, the editor, and then there was me giving a note. It was like a lightbulb going on moment.”

It is these circumstances that make McMillon’s Oscar nomination so meaningful. Stories about women and people of colour are not told exclusively with the bodies of people who look like them on screen. When all of those minds are white and male, what does inclusivity look like? The decisions that are made in writing rooms, cutting rooms and the director’s chair have an even bigger impact on how diversity comes through. McMillon was quick to remind me that sometimes there is only so much that editors can do to avoid the pitfalls of stereotypes and tropes. “If a character has been written a certain way, or an actor has been directed a certain way, we only have a certain amount of capability of changing or evolving something.” That McMillon is the first Black woman to be acknowledged by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences as a film editor is a push to never forget that visibility does not mean the battle is won.

Although on a personal level, McMillon’s Oscar nomination is a mixed bag of good emotions. “It was like pure happiness, but also pure relief. Because for me, I just didn’t want to let anyone down. I know no one was putting any high expectations on me or anything like that. But when family and friends were talking about it I could see the glint in their eye and they were so excited about it. And I was like, ‘I don’t want to disappoint anybody.’ So it was definitely an unforgettable moment.” The moment in question involved McMillon’s sister texting her the good news about her friends and Moonlight colleagues who had also been nominated. (In case you didn’t know, McMillon, director and writer Barry Jenkins, co-editor Nat Sanders, cinematographer James Laxton, and Adele Romanski all attended film school together and are good friends.) The moment also involved McMillon’s sister’s phone freezing before she could scream “Joi, you got nominated for an Oscar!!!” Sometimes the editing in life happens for us.

So what’s next for McMillon? She said that she still needed to wrap up another movie called The Glass Castle, and then hopefully a break. I laughed with her at the simplicity of her statement. But I couldn’t help but think about the irony of a Black woman behind the scenes having to make history before she can take a vacation.

Hollywood is governed by outdated myths. Myth 1: Non-white actors don’t generate box office returns. But researchers at the University of North Carolina and McGill University found that films featuring Black actors earned roughly 60% more than films with no Black actors. Diverse films perform better. Still, actors and actresses of color remain persistently underrepresented in all strata of entertainment, from studio and network chiefs (which are roughly 94% white), to leads in film and on TV (where they remain outnumbered by roughly 2 to 1).

Beyond The Hashtag is R29’s take on the persistence of racism in Hollywood, from financing and directing to casting and moviegoing. Let's look at the signs of hope for a change.
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