It’s a perfect, sunny September day on the roof of The Standard, High Line hotel in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and Beyoncé’s “Blow” is blaring over the portable speaker. A team of stylists, assistants and photo directors go about their business as if Queen Bey is just background music. But not Gabourey Sidibe, who is singing every lyric and ad lib while subtly executing choreography in between the camera’s clicks. She’s a fan. The two of us enthusiastically philosophise about what it means that we just so happen to be at the same hotel, and possibly just rode up in the same elevator, where Beyoncé was infamously caught in the middle of a fight between her husband Jay-Z and her sister Solange in 2014.
Sidibe and I are only half-joking when we agree we need to take a moment to “soak up the energy” of this place, and not just because Beyoncé was here. Overlooking the rest of New York from the rooftop of one of the city's swankiest spots would make anyone feel empowered. This scene — Sidibe, wind blowing in her hair and freely vibing to sounds of the most powerful woman, a black woman, in music — perfectly illustrates a truth that she shares with me later: “Being a black woman is pretty lit right now.”
Her statement is bold. It contradicts everything we know about how racism and sexism work in this country. But ever since Sidibe earned an Oscar nomination for her star turn in Lee Daniels’ 2009 movie Precious, she has been riding a wave of #BlackGirlMagic that has transformed her into a prime example of a black woman unapologetically taking up space. Not only has her star been steadily rising (a regular role on Fox’s Empire, a regular role on The Big C), she’s spent her entire career clapping back against body shaming and racial profiling, winning fans over in the process. Now, she’s making her directorial debut with The Tale of Four, a short film produced by Refinery29’s SHATTERBOX Anthology, an initiative dedicated to increasing the number of women filmmakers and empowering them to tell their stories.
“It’s so important for people like me to get behind the camera,” Sidibe says with the energy of a woman out to change the world. “I know that we’re called minorities but there’s no fucking way there are less of us than there are of them. We’re called minorities because we matter minorly. The way we matter is minor to the way they matter... Atlanta and Insecure, those are my favourite shows. We out here winning all the Emmys. Don’t say we don’t exist. We’re not a fad. We’re not going anywhere and we are snatching the gold right out of your hand.”
The Tale of Four marks a full circle moment for Sidibe, whose new film is a return to her indie roots. And although she just spent the past half-hour rattling off all the ways that being a black woman these days is better than ever, she knows that that is not the full picture of our status in America as a whole. The reality of our daily lives, protecting our hearts and each other from violence, defending our looks, and pushing back on oppressive politics, is what her movie is about.
Sidibe explains her inspiration was Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” a song that traces four archetypes of American black women from slavery to 1966, the year Simone wrote it. “It is pretty short,” she says,“but in it you hear about not just the four women, but the people around them.” There’s the slave woman strong enough to endure unthinkable pain; the biracial woman born out of interracial rape; the sex worker; and the woman bitter about inheriting the legacy of slavery. Sidibe was in her 20s when she first heard the song. She was struck with a vision of what the movie version could look like — a series of interrelated, contemporary vignettes, all drawing from common experience.
A decade later, the resulting short film follows the lives of four black women over the course of one day: Teenaged Saffronia (Meagan Kimberly Smith) is raised by a single mother and struggles with her identity and the painful legacy of colourism as the result of her mysterious paternity. Sarah (Ledisi Young) is a survivor of domestic abuse, struggling with her own mental health while raising her niece and nephew for their incarcerated mother. Peaches (Aisha Hinds) is seeking vengeance over the murder of her son at the hands of police. Sweet Thing (Dana Gourrier) is trying to fix her mess of a love life — and if you’ve ever dealt with a fuckboy, you can relate.
These are themes that Sidibe knows well. “My mum always told me that she never wanted to have a daughter,” Sidibe says reflecting on her own childhood. “I know this sounds harsh and fucked up, but what it set up for me as a child was that being a black woman was not going to be easy. That’s what my mum told me. She said she never wanted to have a daughter because girls have a really hard life. Those were the first lessons I got about being a black woman. Today, as an adult, I would really like to erase that narrative from my life.”
Sidibe didn’t just erase the narrative. She has turned it on its fucking head. Her journey from actress to director is no small feat for someone with the identities that Sidibe carries: black, female and plus-size. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manhattan, Sidibe attended community college and worked as a phone sex operator before she got her big break in Precious. Her father was a Senegalese immigrant who drove a cab and moved his second wife and newborn son into their house under the ruse that the woman was his “cousin.” Her mother, Alice Tan Ridley, was an aspiring singer who performed underground on the New York City subways, looking for exposure.
At 24, Sidibe landed her first serious acting gig, which led to an Academy Award nod. That did not come without controversy or scepticism. Following Sidibe’s nomination, a certain famed radio host went on air and claimed it was an anomaly; that her new Hollywood peers were only “pretending” she was one of them, and that because of her body, she’d never be in another movie again. Not only was his comment cruel, it was dead wrong. Over the next 10 years, her career would explode. (And he, for the record, would disappear to the land of old white men — satellite radio.)
A handful of groundbreaking series is where we’ve seen her really shine as an actor. She evolved from immature high schooler to aspiring fashion designer in Showtime’s The Big C. Then came her turn as a fearless, smartass witch in Ryan Murphy’s twisted world on American Horror Story: Coven. She has a recurring role on Difficult People. And Sidibe is perhaps most recognisable as Becky — the loyal and ambitious record label A&R — on Empire, which is now in its fourth season on FOX. To say that her career is going well would be kind of an understatement. She also released her memoir This Is Just My Face: Try Not To Stare over the summer.
Her success is largely due to her incredible ability to hustle but it’s also symbolic of a huge cultural shift happening in Hollywood. Shonda “Powerhouse” Rhimes and visionary director Ava DuVernay, both of whom Sidibe told me she looks up to, are giants. Issa Rae is single-handedly driving the narrative of black millennial dating as the star and creative force behind HBO’s Insecure. And after spending decades on screen, black actresses like Tracee Ellis Ross, Viola Davis and Kerry Washington have been dominating primetime. But Sidibe’s story still feels exceptional. She didn’t think she would end up with the same recognition as her Hollywood idols or colleagues, despite the fact that two psychics told her so. Now, Sidibe’s ambitions include excelling both in front of and behind the camera.
“I think being a black woman today is such a huge joy,” she gushes. “I’m so proud of myself and I have so many beautiful black women friends who I’m so proud of and who are so joyous.” What Sidibe also has done is lift those around her right up alongside her. The cast and crew for The Tale of Four was mostly black thanks to the film’s writers, Kia Perry and Ayanna McMichael. (Perry met Sidibe a decade ago while working on Precious; she was the production assistant responsible for, among other things, getting Sidibe to and from the set every day.)
“I think my favourite thing about shooting this is that we had a crew of maybe 40 to 50 people and everyone said this was the blackest set they’ve ever been on,” Sidibe tells me later that night, at a private screening and cocktail party at the Maysles Documentary Center in Harlem. “They had never been on any set with this many black people, and in these positions. It’s something I’m so proud of.” This would explain the wild, impassioned cheering that erupted after the credits rolled; everyone who touched the project understood the significance of a team of black creatives coming together to tell these stories at this moment in time.
"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," Sidibe explained to Refinery29 earlier this year. "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."
If Sidibe sounds boldly self-assured in her life, it’s not spread out evenly across the playing field. She finds walking into a boardroom and asking for a TV show way less daunting and risky than approaching a guy she’s interested in dating. Sidibe trusts that the crystals she collects and wears to enrich her life have wisdom beyond her own, just because they’ve existed on this planet for millions of years before she did. She does not always trust that her ideas are great and that people around her are being genuine with her.
Weeks later, I will come across a photo from the shoot that day where Sidibe is standing tall, arms outstretched, as if she's ready to take in the entire skyline with one fell swoop. It's a power pose of sorts, and she's the queen of the city in that moment. It’s beautiful. And it reminds me of something she said to me. What feels like an unlimited supply of confidence — a topic that she is kind of tired of being asked about, for the record — is not actually the reality for Sidibe. “Confidence is not something you can pay to get one time and you’re good,” she told me. “Confidence is like makeup. You have to put it on every day for it to be useful.We all put it on. People ask me about my confidence all the time and it’s mine. I figured out my way to get it. I can’t tell you how to get yours.”