CEO And Entrepreneur, Sandra Campos, Gets Candid About Life After DVF, Her New Startup, And Embracing Her Latin Heritage

Photo: Sandra Campos’ Instagram

Women in the C-suite are having quite a moment. As of this year, 37 women are leading Fortune 500 firms – up 12% from last year. Progress, certainly. But what about women of color, primarily Black and Latina women holding these leadership roles? That stat has dropped to 0%? Dismal, sure, even after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement this past summer, with corporations “committing and pledging” to diversifying their workforce and hiring minorities to executive positions. Seems like the enthusiasm and solidarity has died down, hasn’t it? But, the good news is that women-owned businesses, specifically those of color are starting businesses faster than anyone else, according to Fast Company. Women of color account for 89% (1,625) of the new businesses opened daily for the last year. And they are just getting warmed up!

Women-owned businesses generate 1.8 trillion a year. This year, Latina-owned businesses grew more than 87%, as evidenced by statistical data. Women in business are the driving force in our nation’s economy. A testament to this fact is former and the first Latina CEO of Diane Von Furstenberg, Sandra Campos. Under her leadership, the veteran fashion executive has restructured 6 contemporary women’s brands for the Global Brands Group – popular labels such Juicy Couture and the BCBG.  We recently chatted with Sandra Campos to discuss the current state of fashion and her next career venture in the continuously evolving industry.

You’ve recently parted ways with Diane von Furstenberg (DVF). Can you go into detail about the split?

Yes, I left in mid-June, or rather resigned. It was completely amicable. COVID has impacted retail significantly. There has been a plethora of bankruptcies. With DVF, we had a complicated turnaround – which is why I was brought into the company.  COVID presented an opportunity, as a private company, to change their business strategy – and it needed to for a while. Diane was looking at the future – to maintain and leave a legacy; the business model was changing; it didn’t make sense to have a CEO, especially with DVF becoming an IP business and transitioning into a small company by early 2021. We’re still on good terms. I’m a big believer of DVF’s “Women In Charge” mission – if you are around it, you become it. Whatever we can do as women to help other women become more confident is the biggest priority for me.  Since then, I founded a fashion startup called Fashion Launchpad – a digital online continuing education platform for fashion and retail. It’s a Master class-type of micro courses that really touch upon every aspect of the industry and it is all continuing education. Fashion Launchpad will be up and running early 2021.

Photo: Sandra Campos’ Instagram

That’s fantastic for individuals looking to get into the fashion business. Can you walk us through your career trajectory, some of the milestones you’ve had?

I’m first-generation. Both my parents are from Mexico, my mother from Mexico City D.F. and my father from Zacatecas. I was raised 1 of 6 kids in Texas. When I was growing up, for whatever reason, I had a very strong interest in color, prints, sewing and fashion. I was changing my mother’s drapes, making slipcovers. I went to college in Western Texas – Texas Tech University. Not at all a fashion mecca. I was making clothes for friends and sisters and forcing everyone to wear my stuff. I thought I wanted to be a designer, but instead, I went into a pattern-making internship and decided design was not for me.  So I pursued a job in New York City. I had never traveled New York City and I was so naïve. I knew I had to go to the fashion capital of the world. I was making 17,000 year as a salary, so I had to have 3 jobs to live in the city. I was working at a retail store, the buying office, and in sales. It was all fashion-oriented, more business than design. With that, I was always motivated to become a CEO.  I knew I wanted to be a VP young, and hit these different title milestones sooner rather than later. At that time, presidents and CEOs in fashion and retail had come out of sales. My career trajectory was one in product merchandising, being in stores, really understanding the consumer, then in sales, understanding the clients from a retailer’s standpoint: planning, financial analysis. And, eventually I worked my way up to becoming CEO of Diane von Furstenberg, prior to accepting this role, I held executive roles within Donna Karen, Ralph Lauren, and a license of Oscar de la Renta. I also had my own company a couple of times as well. I had corporate and entrepreneurial experience. The entrepreneurial experience more than anything else gave me exposure to all things. When you’re running your own business, you are all things to everyone. I was going out and pitching, doing the press releases. I was customer service, production, and manufacturing. It helped my understanding of business, my corporate roles, and how to build a brand and generate awareness and engagement from the customers.

It can be very gratifying, if you’ve worked in every facet of production and are privy to the ins-and-outs of any given department and what makes it tick.

That’s exactly why I’m launching Fashion Launchpad. It is all about knowledge and understanding your industry, inside-and-out. There used to be some training programs that allowed you the flexibility to be in the warehouse and understand how that operates, on the sales floor of a retail store, then go back into the financial office and be in sales showroom – and get to experience all the different aspects of the business. Not anymore. And if you’re in a silo you don’t know what goes on in other areas and unless there’s a lot of cross-functional partnerships, it’s very hard for somebody to understand the business as a whole and become a well-rounded individual. These courses will be taught by top industry executives – executives who are operating businesses on a day-to-day basis, therefore individuals will be able to really understand – in-depth – what a merchandising life plan is, what an PNO means? All kinds of things people need to comprehend; whether they are starting out in the industry or still in the C-suite level; crucial elements people should possess to be a team player, a better collaborator and the ability to run a profitable business.

As you ascended into your executive roles with various fashion brands, did you ever encounter obstacles because of your Latin background as opposed to your white counterparts in Texas or New York City?

I’ve thought about this topic a lot recently. There’s 2 parts right now that create barriers: 1) One is being woman 2) The other is being a minority.  For me, I saw the impact and bias against women more than I saw the bias against Latinos. That said, I was very unaware, until 5 years ago, I was told that when I joined my sorority, they actually had a conversation on whether or not they wanted a Mexican in their sorority. Now, I didn’t know that at the time.  I became a member of that sorority and became one of their leadership VPs. I love that sorority and I’m so involved with it. You don’t really know what people are thinking and what those racial biases might be – the undertones of that. Really some of it is subconscious as well. As a female, you see a lot more of that because there are a lot of men in my industry – especially in the C-suite and board-level executives. Thankfully, that’s changing. There is focus on building and supporting women to get to the C-suite – which is incredible; there are quite a few organizations and memberships helping women by providing so many resources and tools to succeed. That didn’t exist when I was starting out in the industry. I’ve put aside my own inhibitions of being Latina and decided to move out of Texas, because at the time, it wasn’t diverse enough. I wanted to be part of the diverse melting pot that makes up New York City.

Photo: Sandra Campos’ Instagram

Latino consumer buying power will be reaching 1.7 trillion within the next year. Shouldn’t luxury brands and other mega brands make a concerted effort to reach this huge demographic with this kind of disposable income?

There are so many conversations happening right now about race and racial bias, and not just with Latinos; Latinos start 80% of startup businesses, exactly to your point of representing a huge percentage of consumer spending power. Change needs to start from the top in a couple of different ways. First and foremost: we have to push to have more diverse boards in companies, more diverse leadership. When I say diverse – it’s not just about Latinos, but diversity in general, male and female. Unless you have diverse C-suites and a diverse group of leaders that understand and empathize with consumers’ needs, things won’t change. They have to be able to really walk the walk, instead of saying: Hey! Here’s a segment – a group on a piece of paper we’re targeting. That’s futile. Instead, let’s try: truly understanding this segment by making them part of the corporate community, the board, and executive suite reflecting the group(s) targeted.

As far as Latinos demanding representation in advertising and entertainment with real diversity to reflect their increasing spending power, do you think Latinos from different nationalities lack a united front?

That has definitely something to do with it. We are all so separated in a way. We should be able to figure out a way to come together, because together we are more powerful and a stronger force. That has an impact, sure!

Have you confronted colorism biases within your personal and professional life as a Latina as you’ve paved your way into the C-suite?

Absolutely. It’s not a conversation I’ve had a lot of discussion about. Honestly speaking it’s there. Skin tone has been a topic since I can remember. I’ve never really embraced my Latina heritage until 5, 8 years ago. Only then because of my own kids – seeing my oldest daughter embrace her Latina heritage, feeling more Latina than I did. And I thought: Why is that? I realized it was because I grew up in a situation where I had lighter skin than the Mayans, Mexicans growing up in my area. My last name wasn’t specifically Latino. Campos could be from Spain, European and I felt that it put me in a situation where I could walk away from certain responsibilities of being a Latina. I lightened my hair. People would say I looked Greek, Italian or from Spain. No one ever said you look like a Mexican. I felt I needed to cover that up throughout my career and life to move upwards. I didn’t embrace my Latin heritage. That was an issue I didn’t address. Now, the conversations are so much more prevalent. I see first and second-generations, like my kids, part of Generation Z that are activists and being prideful of their heritage, I look at that and I realize that girls can’t be what they don’t see. So I have a responsibility to share my story and help the next generation not have that level of prejudice I dealt with. 

Sandra Campos is among the many Latina pioneers consistently breaking barriers in their respective industries after achieving many firsts in business, government and heads of households. It the responsibility of the next generation to receive and pass the torch of opportunity, forge ahead and fight for seats at the decision-making tables in every aspect of our lives. We must harness our voices for the collective advancement of Latinas in the United States to impact change and see true representation of multidimensional cultures claiming our over due space in this country.

Amara La Negra’s Star Power Continues to Illuminate: Undeterred by the Pandemic Lockdown, ‘The Love and Hip Hop: Miami’ Personality Pursues Bigger Aspirations

Amara La Negra, Photo: Tag Media Group

Diana Danelys De los Santos, otherwise known as Amara La Negra, ascent into fame didn’t happen overnight. The singer/songwriter/author and TV host has been in the limelight since age 4 as part of “Sábado Gigante’s” el Clan Infantil (children clan), hosted by Don Francisco. “Sábado Gigante” was the holy grail of entertainment for Latino households across the U.S. – a variety show filled wild performances, comedy skits, games, and lots of models. On for 53 years and acknowledged by the Guinness World Record as the longest-running variety show, it shaped Latino television as we know it.  As a teen, if I dared to change the channel – I’d be punished by my parents or encounter a flying chancleta. I remember watching Amara dancing with other little girls – the only Afro-Latina in the group with energy to spare.

I’ve hummed her songs (Ayy and Se Que Soy) and seen her on “Love and Hip Hop: Miami”, but recently watched her on HBO’s “Habla Now” documentary discussing colorism in the Latin community. Out of the 14 celebrities that spoke on Latinidad and their experiences in the U.S., Amara’s words resonated with me: “Colorism and racial issues happen among Latinos as well. We can be very racist amongst Latinos with one aonther. And that’s the truth!” Amara went on to say, “We consistently are trying to see what nationality is better than the other. What race is better? We create this division amongst ourselves. If we don’t see each other as equals we’re never going to be able to grow and feel empowered.”  Quite the statement, calling out the hypocrisy in our own cultures, I was drawn to her candor. And reached out for an interview. We chatted about everything from her experience on reality TV, to reinventing herself during the pandemic, to building generational wealth among Latinos.

You’ve accomplished so much before the age of 30. Singer/Author/Actress/TV Host. That’s Quadruple Threat Status. What are you most passionate about and can’t live without doing?

Yes, I guess I am a quadruple-threat (laughs). Being on stage, that’s it. I love performing. I love getting dressed up. I love my dancers and rehearsing with them. I’m a showgirl. I grew up admiring Tina Turner, Janet Jackson. People that put on a show. I love being in contact, in touch with the audience. Feeling that we have a connection. That’s why I appreciate my fans so much.

“Love and Hip Hop: Miami” is in its 3rd season and you are one of the breakout stars that has gained popularity. Has production resumed and do the producers coerce or suggest that you engage in certain situations that are scripted?

Love and Hip Hop: Miami” isn’t scripted. I would never bad mouth my producers, no matter what my thoughts are, out of respect and gratitude. But I will say some scenarios are not the ones that exist in my day-to-day life. When you’re on a reality TV show, you have to confront certain situations. Me, away from the camera, I don’t have time for these exchanges and I leave. I’m not a fan of the drama. People place artists, celebrities on a pedestal. Thinking it’s impossible for them to get upset. In real life, people have real personalities – no matter how much you admire them, they have good and bad days. Sometimes you might get them on bad day.

Do you find at this point in your career you still have to explain your Afro-Latina heritage to new members on the show or anyone else you encounter?

When it comes to the show, I’ve made my stance known and everybody knows I’m Afro-Latina. I don’t think I’m the most famous Afro-Latina and everyone should know who I am. I don’t see myself that way. Will I continue to answer questions about my ethnicity and background, if people have questions and don’t know? Definitely. As long as it comes from an educational place, not a disrespectful place and they want to learn.

Amara La Negra in Tu Cara Me Suena, Photo: Amara La Negra’s Instagram

You’ve recently been co-hosting “Tú Cara Me Suena” on Univision. What has that experience been like?

I’ve been with Univision with a long time. I basically grew up in Univision. I never thought as an adult I’d see myself hosting with the network. I’m lying. I’m lying. When I was younger that was my dream. When I used to See Lili Estefan on “El Gordo y La Flaca” I said: One day I want to be a host and do what she’s doing. It’s surreal that I’ve been doing it for the last 2 years. I hosted” Premios Juventud,” “Mira Quién Baila” backstage, and “Sal y Pimienta.”I’m doing another awards show in November, legally, I can’t mention it. But it’s big for Latinos. It’s a blessing. Feels good. I’m able to break barriers for others to come. I’m giving young girls and young men that come from the Afro-Latino community, like me, visibility. It wasn’t easy. I’ve been very vocal about it, but I was able to get a spot. And thanks to this spot, I’m able to open doors for others.

Do you feel Afro-Latina celebrities are scrutinized more as opposed to non Afro-Latina celebrities?

It’s really hard. I’m just speaking for myself. I have only but the best intentions. I’ve never wanted to make anyone feel uncomfortable or offend anyone’s culture or religion, etc. A lot of times, people have these really high standards for me because I’ve become one of the most recognizable faces for the Afro-Latino community, not just as an artist, as an activist too. It’s A LOT of pressure because you have to be so careful with what you say, because you may come across as offensive, even if what you say is true to you. I have to think about my career – something I’ve worked so on hard my whole life. A lot of things can be ruined in a second based on my opinions. It’s hard to be real and be yourself, express how you feel, how people view me without jeopardizing my job.

What do you think about cancel culture? Especially if in the past, you’ve made a controversial statement.

People have become very judgmental. It’s very easy to point fingers at everybody else’s mistakes, without pointing fingers at themselves first. I feel we have to give people opportunities, because we’re human. There’s no guidebook to how to live in this world. We learn as we go. In that process, we make mistakes, and we grow. A lot of people make mistakes – that doesn’t mean we should disregard all the hard work they’ve done, their accomplishments, or impact they’ve made for their culture and communities, up until that moment they said something deemed wrong. I don’t think it’s fair.

Photo: Amara La Negra’s Instagram

What are your thoughts on the anti-Black sentiment expressed by certain Dominican communities in Washington Heights, New York?

I’m not 100% informed on the subject, but I heard something. I don’t want to call out Dominicans specifically. Colorism and racism exist all over the world in every single Latin community. The lack of education, the lack of knowledge brings a lot of ignorance to the forefront. The way people react is based off of ignorance. Everyone is trying to find his or her niche. Everyone is trying to find a spot where they belong. It’s also a system that has brainwashed us for hundreds of years – a brainwashed mentality that has been passed down from one generation to the next and so forth, dividing us instead of uniting us. If we united forces, we’d be unstoppable. It’d be crazy. They wouldn’t know how to handle us as a community. Through education, we can press the reset button in our minds and break that cycle for the next generation to come.

Amara La Negra has kept busy during the pandemic, apart from TV hosting, leading on-air radio shows, and partaking in our interview, she’s been buying real estate. The multi-faceted star bought her first home for her mother, Ana Maria Oleaga, last year. Amara said, “She worked so hard for me to become successful. I wanted to give her something in return.” Amara wants to make smart investments as the pandemic has shut down entertainment production across the globe, she, and all of us, have come to realize: you can’t rely solely on just one source of income – a true test in reinvention. She preaches to her fans about generational wealth and leaving future generations with tools and the foundation to becoming successful. She plans on owning 5 properties by the end of 2020; an empowering Latina female artist realizing her potential and leading by example.

Review: ‘Undocumented Lawyer’ – Against All Odds, Protagonist Risks Everything For Immigration Rights – Relentlessly Moving

Lizbeth Mateo, Photo: Emily Topper

We are on the brink of fascism. To sugarcoat and soften the blow of the current state of affairs in this country is a disservice to the truth. We are facing the most important elections of our lives to save our democracy. It’s not alarmist; it’s reality. There is so much at stake: the repealing The Affordable Care Act. Intrusive policies on women’s reproductive rights, and the war on immigrants by the far-right. And at the center of the immigration topic and championing undocumented immigrants like her, is Lizbeth Mateo; the subject of the award-winning documentary, Undocumented Lawyer, by directors Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci and producer Jenna Kelly.

Lizbeth Mateo crossed the border with her family at age 14. They fled cartel violence and poverty from Oaxaca, Mexico to seek a better life: a common thread for many immigrants leaving their homeland behind. But what makes Lizbeth’s story so remarkable is even after 20 years of being in this country, Lizbeth remains undocumented. Undeterred by her circumstances, and living in California, which is a sanctuary state, provided her the opportunity to attend college and law school, and pass the bar exam. Nothing short of exceptional, really. In 2018, she was appointed to a state post as an advisory committee member by senate president, Kevin de leon. The California Student Opportunity and Access Program Project Grant Advisory Committee, (CAL-SOAP) – the committee’s mission is to assist students in underserved communities attend college. This drew criticism in the form of vitriol: death threats to de leon and nasty statements directed to Mateo, calling for her deportation; scrutinizing Mateo and catapulting her into the spotlight. Unfazed by all the attention, Mateo tweeted: “undocumented and unafraid.”

Edith Espinal, Photo: Zach Ingrasci

Dissuaded by efforts to have her deported, as the documentary illustrates, Mateo did more than accomplish the impossible without citizenship or even legal status. She set up a legal practice and hired 4 employees in L.A. to fight for immigration rights. Determined to take on immigration cases that are challenging such as: Edith Espinal’s, a woman avoiding deportation by taking sanctuary in a church in Ohio since 2017. The case has received national attention, including support from former presidential nominee and Massachusetts Senator, Elizabeth Warren urging Congress to help to support a bill to protect asylum seekers. With the critical elections looming, there is hope voters are incentivized to vote Democrat across the ballots, and the attack on asylum seekers cease with a new administration at the helm come January 2021.

Top: Lizbeth Mateo, Bottom: Kate del Castillo

Mateo’s fight for equitable immigration law through activism and advocacy is inspirational and she persists in her quest, in spite of a recent deportation case that has been brought against her. Recently, actress Kate del Castillo and Latinx House, hosted an Instagram Live Q&A with Lizbeth Mateo to bring national awareness and fundraising initiatives to Mateo’s own immigration case and that of her clients. An impassioned Kate del Castillo is an ardent supporter of Mateo and said “she will do everything in her power to keep her in the U.S.” – a great moment of solidarity for viewers to witness and get involved in. To stream Undocumented Lawyer now and donate to Lizbeth’s cause, click here. HBO Latino acquired the documentary and will begin airing it early 2021. Undocumented Lawyer has a 20 minute run time.

Amy Poehler’s Grassroots Biden Funded Event Gave Viewers Much Needed Comedic Relief

From Top Left: Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee, Kamala Harrris, Former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Bottom Left, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph

If you’re like me, you may be experiencing Zoom fatigue.  Whether it’s for your job, activism, or getting together with friends and business associates via virtual chat – the novelty of this communication method seems to be waning for many. And with the pandemic, thriving in many states across the U.S. – Zoom or other virtual conferencing platforms seem likely to stay. Yet, the virtual Grassroots Event hosted by Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph with guest speakers Democratic Vice President nominee, Kamala Harris and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, this week, made me less sour about the medium and restored some of my faith on its benefits.

There were some hiccups, as there always is on Zoom meetings. Someone’s muted; they keep talking, don’t know they are muted, go off to the side, come back and start speaking again and everyone can hear them. In this case, it happened to Amy Poehler: the host. She carried on with her funny animated gestures while Maya Rudolph stepped in. Rudolph attributed to the glitch to a conspiracy plot, while Hillary Clinton blamed the Russians. It was all done in good fun and the mood was light. These two comediennes, who are known to impersonate their guests, knew how to ask pressing questions without the rigidity of typical political discourse and also make us laugh. We found out some interesting facts about the panelists. Hillary likes to nap during quarantine, Kamala has been cooking the same three meals on rotation, Amy has been teaching her kids sign language and Maya has been immersed in playing new games with her children.  The hosts did pose serious questions to Harris and Clinton.

Kamala Harris

They discussed the lack of leadership in the White House, the admission made by Trump on tape, recorded by journalist, Bob Woodward, about how deadly the Coronavirus is, it’s impact, and the near 200,000 Americans left to die because of Trump’s inaction. How Trump projects hostility and can’t take a joke, or make a joke for that matter; a sign, all the speakers agreed is telling of a flawed character.  Kamala Harris spoke about Biden’s plans to address climate change with the devastating fires pummeling the West Coast. Joe Biden’s commitment to unite the country. Both Harris and Clinton couldn’t praise the other enough and Clinton assured conference attendees to watch Kamala Harris emerge as the victor during Kamala Harris and Mike Pence’s debate, scheduled in a few weeks. To learn more about future grassroots events and to get Joe Biden and Kamala elected, click here. Also to learn whether you are registered to vote, click here.

Review: ‘Mr. Soul!’- A Black Cultural Experience To Be Treasured – Hypnotic and Poignant

Photo: Ivan Cury, Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Not long ago, when life had some semblance of normalcy, I had covered the Urbanworld Film Festival in person and was tasked with writing about the festival’s anticipated blockbusters. While waiting for one of these films to begin, I snuck into an adjacent theater to watch the documentary, Mr. Soul! by director and producer, Melissa Haizlip.  I was intrigued by the film’s poster; it read: Before Oprah, Before Arsenio…There was: Mr. Soul! As a longtime fan of late-night talk shows, I was irritated and frustrated at myself for not knowing whom this revolutionary pioneer of Black entertainment and culture was. His name: Ellis Haizlip. The producer and host of the PBS variety show: Soul! changed the national scope and existing perceptions of Blacks in a volatile 1960s backdrop – forever! No surprise it won Urbanworld Film Festival’s Best Documentary category and received a standing ovation the Sundance Film Festival.  So what was so extraordinary about Ellis Haizlip and this entertainment show he launched in 1968?

Ellis Haizlip Surrounded by Members of the J.C. White Choir, Photo: Alex Harsley, Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

Ellis Haizlip was a visionary and determined to shatter contrived media perception of Blacks at the time, as victims subjected to abject poverty or lawless citizens in the United States. Raised in Washington in a middle-class family and setting his sights on New York to form his production company, his aim was to push Black Arts forward, as it was evident to Haizlip that there was a huge void to fill. Blair Underwood, executive produced and narrates Ellis Haizlip’s thoughts in the film so eloquently and powerfully states: “Before we can educate and entertain, we need to share the Black experience.” And that Ellis did. In its inception, Soul! aired only in New York and managed to go national in 1969. The once local program set forth the careers of the most prominent artists in Black history: Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder and his Wonderlove band, Al Green, Cicely Tyson, Sidney Poitier, and Toni Morrison to name a few. Haizlip was fearless in giving a visual platform to outspoken Black poets like The Last Poets – including 6 female poets, such as Sonia Sanchez, and pushed boundaries by interviewing Minister Louis Farrakhan and Kathleen Cleaver (wife of exiled Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver).

Nikki Giovanni and James Baldwin in 1971, Film Still Courtesy of: Shoes in the Bed Productions.

In his quest to unleash artists’ natural talents via the television medium, he often prompted poets and singers to take the stage unfiltered and unencumbered. He employed females on his set and advocated for an interview conducted by renowned poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni and literary legend, James Baldwin in England. The footage of the animated and captivating Baldwin and inquisitive Giovanni is unprecedented – a Black female interviewer engaging in a fiery conservation with one of America’s beloved writers is quite impressionable to see in 1971, shortly after, Soul! aired until 1973, defunded and shut down by nefarious forces, as detailed in the documentary.

(L to R) – AMANDA SEALES; TOP – MELISSA HAIZLIP/BLAIR UNDERWOOD; MIDDLE – STAN LATHAN/NIKKI GIOVANNI; BOTTOM – SONIA SANCHEZ/ROBERT GLASPER/THE LAST POETS/BLACK IVORY – Courtesy of Shoes in the Bed Productions

So where are we now? It’s 2020 and social justice continues to be a pressing urgent issue in the United States as police brutality continues to plague Black Americans, exacerbated by the tragic loss of our Black icons this year. Mr. Soul’s recent Kickback premiere reminded us of the past, present, and future Black Excellence represents and the need to cultivate and preserve its existence. Host and comedienne, Amanda Seales led the conversation with guests, Melissa Haizlip (Ellis Haizlip’s niece & creative engine behind Mr. Soul!) Actor Blair Underwood, acclaimed director, Stan Lathan (former director of Soul!) Activist and poet Felipe Luciano who guest-hosted the popular “Shades of Soul” episode, featuring Tito Puente and his orchestra, Haizlip exposed television audiences to Latin music and multi-cultural Afro-Latino bands. To say the Soul! television show was groundbreaking doesn’t suffice; it was one of a kind until this day. The legacy Ellis Haizlip left behind cemented the foundation for Black culture never before seen on a national scale – fusing poetry, activism, theatre, dance, and music for the world to experience and solidify the richness of Black arts. Mr. Soul! is available in more than 70 virtual cinemas worldwide through September 10th. To buy tickets and learn more about Mr. Soul! click here.

Review: ‘American Street Kid’ – Narrative Meets Documentary Style Portrayal of America’s Homeless Youth – Bitingly Gritty and Honest

Homeless kids in Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

By definition, documentaries are meant to educate, shed light, and “document reality” to inspire and move audiences on any given subject they may know nothing about. American Street Kid, by writer/director Michael Leoni, met these criteria – and then some. He pushed the genre further by injecting himself into the story; weary at first, I thought his inclusion would taint the outcome of the film – turns out I was wrong. Leoni begins the film by asking random people – young and old – their perception of homeless youth. Typical responses: lazy, unmotivated, and labeled as undesirable.  Disheartening to hear as the absence of empathy reflects society’s lack of interest and understanding of how these youths become entrenched in these unfortunate circumstances.

Ish playing guitar, Photo: Jeff Farkash

Director Michael Leoni gives us a glimpse into the lives of these troubled young people by hanging out in the Los Angeles neighborhoods they frequent. Unsettled by and distrusting of Leoni, it took time for the filmmaker to gain the kids’ trust. Once he did, the audience meets incredibly charismatic and endearing characters like Ish, a talented African-American musician who struggles with childhood abandonment and abuse by a pimp father and prostitute mother, Greenz and Nick, likeable guy-next door types with winning personalities, yet drugged-addicted with abusive parents that led them to run away and seek a better life in the streets of Los Angeles. Bublez and Kiki, two of the younger kids, the filmmaker encounters, with so much promise, likely destined for tragedy. Although post-film release, Marquesha “Kiki” Babers has launched a successful career as a poet, touring nationwide and speaking about her experiences in conferences.

Bublez on the streets of Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

For many of these kids, their fates are sealed in death or imprisonment. It’s inevitable. Failed bureaucratic agencies doing the minimum to assist these kids and overworked staff unable to meet the influx of homeless teens in overcrowded facilities, as Leoni experiences when reaching out to them. But, the filmmaker doesn’t solely rely on the mishaps and the negative circumstances these young people endure to tell the story, he incorporates narrative elements to build storylines with these real-life characters – to not just keep you engaged and sympathize with their abysmal situations, but root for them as you’d be inclined for protagonists in any narrative drama or comedy. It’s a refreshing spin. And it works.

Homeless kids on the streets of Los Angeles, Photo: Jeff Farkash

What started as an assignment to produce a 2-minute PSA on America’s homeless youth turned into an 8-year journey for director, Michael Leoni. Compelled to document the struggles and hardship of America’s 1.8 million forgotten homeless youth, after struggling with financial hardship in New York City at the age of 19, became more than a passion project for him. Leoni launched the Spare Some Change nonprofit to engage and empower homeless youth to change their lives and create a stable future. The film earned the Social Impact Award at the Hollywood Film Festival and Excellence Award at the Impact Doc Awards!  The film has a run time of 104 minutes. American Street Kid begins streaming worldwide today on Apple, Amazon Prime, Spectrum, and another popular services. To learn more about more the American Street Kid documentary, click here.

Review: ‘Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado’ – Nostalgic and Magical!

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Walter Mercado, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Growing up in my Latin household, I was guaranteed three things: flavorful rice and beans, the sound of salsa, and exposure to astrological phenomenon, Walter Mercado. I miss and relish all three, but what stuck with me throughout the years is the influence of the latter. I attribute my love of sparkles and all things astrology to the enigmatic Walter Mercado. I can’t remember any other time during my Cuban childhood home, or my extended family’s, where we’d sit in complete silence, listening to Walter Mercado deliver new developments for each sign of the horoscope. We were all captivated by his presence and larger-than-life TV persona. And, come July 8th you will be too, as Netflix begins streaming Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado globally, to entice – existing and new fans – with this wonderful documentary of the iconic clairvoyant.

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Eugenio Derbez, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The documentary begins with a series of Walter Mercado images from the height of his popularity on television, displaying his signature choreographed arm moves to draw the viewer’s attention, and in true Mercado form – he succeeded in commanding it! Millions of Latin families tuned in daily to listen and absorb new astrological insights pertaining to the zodiac. Actor/Comedian, Eugenio Derbez says: “ When I first saw him on TV, I was like, What is this I’m watching? Is it a woman, a man, a sorcerer?” Derbez was hooked! Legions of Walter Mercado fans continue to experience this sentiment. With his grandiose beautiful outfits, soothing voice, and mesmerizing gaze he was unstoppable. Undoubtedly, gender non-confirming Walter Mercado was a pioneer for LGTBQ+ personalities we see today. As the documentary delves deeper into his life, we learn that he refused to adhere to societal rules, and instead, opted to break them.

Mercado, born in 1932, knew he was different from the outset and destined for a different life from that of his siblings and the poor rural area of Ponce, Puerto Rico where he was from. After breathing life into a small bird on the brink of death, young Walter Mercado became the talk of his town and was deemed a mystic figure people sought advice and help from. His mother accepted and encouraged his newfound adulation and set up a designated space in their home for Walter to thrive as fortune consultant. Following his natural gift for entertainment, Mercado enrolled in the University of Ponce and pursued dancing and acting and landed telenovela roles with Telemundo.

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Walter Mercado at home, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

A momentous visit to the set from the head of Telemundo at the time, prompted Mercado to create a promo for the soap opera that would launch his astrological career. For decades, Mercado’s message of peace, love, and prosperity has impacted Latinos and Americans around the world. He’s the most renowned astrological figure nationally and internationally, meeting the likes of prime ministers, former presidents with special guest appearances on American talk shows. The documentary doesn’t just focus on his successes, tragedy befell the icon, which almost left him for dead and the film does a superb job allowing Mercado, and those close to him, tell his story. Mucho Mucho Amor (Mercado’s signature catchphrase) captures the essence of the legend and depicts his ups and downs with authenticity and grace, from the music to the use of tarot cards. Although Mercado left the limelight and remained dormant for a while, his comeback was almost inevitable as a new generation of adoring fans surfaced on social media and beyond.

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Walter Mercado and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Mucho Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado directed by Cristina Costantini and Kareem Tabsch, and produced by Alex Fumero has a run time of 93 minutes and begins streaming on Netflix, July 8th. Don’t miss this spectacular documentary and special appearance by Lin-Manuel Miranda fan-boying Walter Mercado as he meets the iconic psychic in Puerto Rico. To learn more about the film, click here.

Film Independent’s Project Involve 2020 Showcase Raises The Creativity Bar With Thought-Provoking Films

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Jonah Beres as Sam in Balloon, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

We are living in unprecedented times. That’s a given. A global pandemic claiming more than 2 million lives and counting, a monumental Black Lives Matter Movement calling for the dismantlement of systemic racism rooted in American foundations. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos (ultimately for the greater good) there is beauty waiting to be discovered through the magical storytelling lens of filmmakers. Stories about communities underrepresented on the screen that need to be seen. This year, Film Independent unveiled 6 short films from their 27th Project Involve program poised to make a lasting impression on audiences. 4 of these films are laced with bittersweet, funny, and controversial themes expressing emotions validating our universal experiences we share as humans.

Balloon, directed by Jeremy Merrifield, and edited by Bowei Yue, follows 14 year-old Sam (Jonah Beres) in the middle of an active-shooter drill, led by the talented Paul Scheer (Officer Hart). Sam, a quiet teen, is the target of harassment after a video of him crying goes viral after being punched by school bully, Jason (Carson Severson). Jason is dead set on seizing any opportunity to get a rise out of Sam and his other victims. Sam’s friend, Adam (Jaylin Ogle), tries to console Sam and urges him to fight back, while not wanting to be labeled as weak by the other boys. When Sam discovers he has super powers to defend himself from his aggressors, he’s at a crossroads: fight back or continue enduring the brutal torments. The film reveals an all too familiar toxic masculinity in American culture and what’s at stake for children and young adults to survive in school. It’s relevant and timely and worth watching.

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Lara Cengiz as Kati in Bambirak, Photo Courtesy of Film Independent

The film Bambirak by director Zamarin Wahdat, about an 8 year-old Afghan girl (Kati) and her single father (Faruk), adapting to a new country they’ve sought asylum in is poignant and speaks to the collective solid bond fathers and daughters have. The story begins with Kati (Lara Cengiz) hiding in her dad’s delivery truck. Once he discovers her while making deliveries, Faruck (Kailas Mahadevan) becomes desperate to drop Kati at the grandmother’s home, although she’s nowhere to be found. Faruk enlists Kati to be his assistant. Everything seems to go smoothly until a racist turn-of-events challenge the father-daughter duo. Tensions flare, accusations are made, and with minimal dialogue, the father-daughter team accept the trade-off of being in a new country. Wonderfully acted and scripted, Bambirak is a gem of a short film.

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Buck, the narrative short by director Elegance Bratton and co-director Jovan James follows Lynn (Malik Shakur), a young gay black man dealing with his depression in a self-destructive manner that has the potential to lead to tragedy. The film starts off with Lynn’s mother pressing him about his meds. Determined to seek happiness with a visit to his white male lover, Richard (Gabe Peyton), the encounter proves to be disappointing. Lynn realizes there is another gay couple waiting for him to partake in a sexual party. Reluctant and declining to participate, Lynn decides to leave even though he’s taken a hit of Meth, is barely conscious, and is rescued by fellow black gay man whose life is on borrowed time. With the 25 million Americans suffering from depression to date, we don’t see nearly enough films examining and exploring individual experiences with this disease and Buck does a great job of portraying someone who battles mental illness, with empathy, not pity.

 

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Saint from La Gloria film, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

La Gloria a film by Mary Evangelista explores the aftermath of an attempted suicide by a young gay Latina (Gloria). And she how copes with lovesickness and sorrow with the help of her grandmother’s optimism and dream-channeling to achieve hope and peace. While the rest of her family glosses over her suicide attempt and go about their everyday lives. Gloria (Chris Gris) and her grandmother’s bond is authentic and compelling. It offers a sweet glimpse into relationships between younger and older generations. And we are here for it!

Film Independent’s 2020 Project Involve Showcase, a carefully curated program of short films spotlighting some of the program’s most exciting new filmmakers. Project Involve (PI for short) fosters the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry, and is celebrating 27 years of working toward a more inclusive entertainment landscape. The program serves as a valuable incubator for diverse talent and has cultivated the careers of more than 820 filmmakers. Notable alumni include Linda Yvette Chavez & Marvin Lemus (Gentefied); Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians); Jomo Fray (Selah and the Spades); LaToya Morgan (Into the Badlands); Justin Simien (Dear White People); Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Kim Yutani (Director of Programming, Sundance) and many more. To learn more about Film Independent and Project Involve, click here.

Review: ‘Ovid and the Art of Love’ – Resoundingly Mirrors Modern Times

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Corbin Bleu as Ovid, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Esmé von Hoffman’s latest film to hit the streaming platforms, Ovid and the Art of Love, couldn’t have come at a better time amidst a global pandemic and the ensuing chaos the current administration is wittingly encouraging in our nation. Its social and political commentary will resonate with audiences. As millions of Americans affected with the repercussions of the novel coronavirus (over 76K+ deaths domestically, an unemployment surge of 14.7%, a statistic unseen since the Great Depression) continues to wreak havoc in our daily lives.

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John Savage as Augustus, Kimberly Cruchon Brooks as Livia, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Parallels of our stark reality compounded by the film’s theme are spot on. Writer/Director Esmé von Hoffman’s version of the old tale of beloved poet, Ovid, otherwise known as Publius Ovidius Naso, who was exiled by Roman emperor, Augustus in 8 AD, “allegedly” because of his exotic and provocative books of poetry. Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical,” “Dancing with the Stars”) is charming as he breathes life into modern-day Ovid, and finds his purpose in the urban streets of Detroit. He’s summoned by Augustus, the inept and hypocritical emperor, played by the talented John Savage, (“Deer Hunter”) to pursue a career in law but his interests lie elsewhere: poetry. Determined to follow his passion, Ovid attempts to read his poems at open mic clubs, failing at first and ridiculed by patrons, later finds his rhythm in verse and love as he follows a woman he thought would fulfill his life. As Ovid’s poetry career and romantic conquests flourish, the citizens of Rome, A.K.A. Detroit, are in an upheaval; jobs are lacking, health insurance is scarce, and people are protesting inadequate leadership. Ring a bell? It’s 2020 on screen, minus the fancy togas, and elegant headpieces.

 

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Director Esmé von Hoffman, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Ovid and The Art Love is a tale as old as humanity – depicting average citizens standing up to power with truths and freedom of expression to affect change and the dire consequences that result, in this case, Ovid, regarded as the canonical poet of Latin literature, is exiled and sent to Romania, but his beautiful poetry and popularity lives on. In 2017, Ovid’s birthplace of Sulmona formerly Sulmo in Italy, acquitted the poet of any wrongdoing, Florence followed suit.

Check out this wonderful adaptation of Ovid and the Art of Love by director, Esmé von Hoffman, when it’s released on May 19th by Level 33 Entertainment via major streaming and VOD platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Comcast, XFinity, Dish, Sling, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube and many more.

 

 

Film Review: ‘The State of Texas Vs. Melissa’ – A Gripping Doc on the Judicial System’s Exploitation of the Marginalized in America

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Melissa Lucio, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

As the first Hispanic woman facing death row in the state of Texas, Melissa Lucio’s milestone or accomplishment isn’t worthy of recognition, especially for Latinos, yet her story and impending fate is compelling and requires attention. The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a documentary by French-American director, Sabrina Van Tassel (The Silenced Wall) asserts how the laws of injustice favor poor, uneducated people of color. And how their cases are inevitably swept into the vortex of anonymity. Sabrina Van Tassel first encountered Melissa as she was researching for her documentary about women in jail. Van Tassel, an investigative journalist and filmmaker for over 15 years, was reluctant to meet Lucio as her case centered on the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. An abhorrent charge, undoubtedly. What drew Van Tassel to Melissa’s case was the inmate’s demeanor, the facts of the case, and belief that she’s innocent.

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Director, Sabrina Van Tassel, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The director does a fantastic job of letting the images and cast of characters guide the narrative- everyone from Melissa’s family members to defense attorneys and forensic scientists play significant roles in how the documentary unfolds. From the beginning, as Melissa is interrogated for over 7 hours by unrelenting police in Southern Texas, the audience can surmise she was coerced into confessing to the murder. The filmmaker paints a vivid picture of Melissa’s life. We see she comes from a broken home, suffered physical abuse at the hands of relatives and her mother’s ex-boyfriends. The indifference Melissa’s mother shows towards her daughter’s sexual abuse and current situation is quite telling of the lack of parental and emotional support Melissa received. The drug abuse, abject poverty and guardianship of 14 children overwhelmed Lucio. It’s obvious her unresolved trauma led to her downward spiral, but this impossible situation does not make a murderer. Or does it? With no history of violence, as confirmed by family members and psychologists, there wasn’t sufficient evidence she was prone to commit this heinous crime. Melissa Lucio was a negligent mother and child services eventually removed her children from her care, the director glosses over these facts. The audience could have benefitted from learning more about Melissa’s state of mind during the actual death of Mariah.

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Although some details were omitted, the documentary chronicles the turn of events that make Melissa’s story so fascinating. A corrupt DA looking to seek re-election in Texas’  Cameron county; a defense attorney with career aspirations that trumped his client’s best interest and goal of being freed; Melissa’s other daughter, who may have been responsible for her sister’s death. Van Tassel sets the stage for a documentary-style whodunit. And in doing so, we see how easily Lucio was railroaded in a failed judicial system. Sitting on death row for over 13 years, Melissa Lucio is on her last appeal, which if overturned, may go to the Supreme Court.

Making its Tribeca 2020 Film Festival world premiere, The State of Texas vs. Melissa has received well-deserved media attention from virtual festival filmgoers and panelists. Written and Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, produced by Vito Films in co-production with Tahli Films and Andaman Films has a running time of 97 minutes. To learn more about The State of Texas vs. Melissa, click here.