Culture / Film

Yara Shahidi on storytelling, shifting the culture, and receiving the ‘Face of the Future Award’ at the 50th annual Max Mara WIF Awards

Yara Shahidi on storytelling, shifting the culture, and receiving the ‘Face of the Future Award’ at the 50th annual Max Mara WIF Awards

Unsettling what she calls the “overrepresentation of man” has long been a pivotal focus of Jamaican philosopher and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter. Combining insights from theories in history, literature and science, Wynter explores race, the legacy of colonialism, and representations of humanness. While a student at Harvard University, Yara Shahidi – already a household name for her acting roles in grown-ish and blacki-sh – realised Wynter was the perfect person to base her thesis around. “My studies were very separate from my career. Partially because if you’re a Harvard student, they want you to be a Harvard student, first and foremost,” Shaidi Shahidi says. “Quite honestly, they couldn’t care less what else you’re doing in your free time.”

It was a professor who pointed Shahidi in the right direction. “They helped me find ways to anchor what I was doing in media with what I was studying with Black political thought; with studies of colonialism and past liberation movements. I wouldn’t have found such a beautiful bridge otherwise.” Shahidi chose to write about Wynter not only because she helped to combine her two worlds, but to imagine the ways in which they could change. “Wynter writes a lot about the overrepresentation of a certain way of being, and I couldn’t think of a better industry in which we have the ability to reimagine how we are being represented. It’s quite honestly our task – and the task of every film, every movie, and every project that comes out. As much as, on the one hand, it can be dismaying when change isn’t made, there’s no artform with more potential to shift the culture.”

At 23, Shahidi has already made a sizeable dent in this area. In July 2020, she founded her own production company, 7th Sun Productions, alongside her mother, Keri (they’re an Aquarius and a Leo, so “were besties before this”) and signed a deal with ABC Studios to produce shows. The business is not only centred around finding new talent and telling diverse stories, but it’s helped anchor Shahidi in what it was she fellwhy she fell in love with in the industry in the first place: “I didn’t necessarily care where I was in proximity to the camera, I was always just obsessed with the idea of storytelling.” Even if you sign onto a project early as an actor, it’s the last piece of the puzzle and an idea that oftentimes existed years before your name was even mentioned. “To be a producer, and to help build teams, has allowed us to align on what makes us excited about this industry. We get to be the ones bringing voices in and we get to be the ones setting up different types of writers’ rooms and telling different people’s stories.” The ones Shahidi is most excited about? “At its most basic: complicated women. Women being complicated.” 

We’re speaking in a quiet area at the bar of the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood for a cocktail reception ahead of the 50th annual Max Mara WIF (formerly Women in Film) Awards the next evening. Shahidi, who has just walked the red carpet, is being honoured with 2023’s Max Mara Face of the Future Award, joining a prestigious list of previous recipients, including Zoë Saldana, Gemma Chan, Katie Holmes, Elizabeth Banks, and Emily Blunt. Amid a sea of champagne and gowns, Shahidi is happy to be talking about her studies, something “no one asks about once you graduate.” The subject of her thesis not only directly correlates to the heart of WIF, but ties in with why Max Mara, who have sponsored the organisation for the past 20 years, chose to honour her in the first place.

“The thing that strikes me the most about Shahidi Yara is the fact that she’s very young and very determined on the business side of her work, but also on the social side. She advocates for what she believes in, but it’s not about talking slogans. It’s about digging beneath the surface, studying history and contextualiszing issues in a very articulated way,” says Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti, Max Mara founder Achille Maramotti’s granddaughter and current Global Brand Ambassador. 


"It's quite honestly our task, and the task of every film, every movie, and every project that comes out. As much as, on the one hand, it can be dismaying when change isn't made, there's no artform with more potential to shift the culture."


WIF came to be when, in 1973, Sue Cameron, then a journalist at The Hollywood Reporter, was given confidential industry numbers she knew would be akin to detonating a bomb in Hollywood: that year, barely one per cent of TV scripts were written by women. Upon the article’s publication, Cameron and Tichi Wilkerson, THR’s publisher and editor, were flooded with calls. They quickly realised there would be no lasting, significant change without some kind of ongoing event. Because it’s Hollywood, ideally an awards ceremony, and even better, one that has a celebrity name attached to it. Cameron called her longtime friend, actress Lily Tomlin, asked her if she’d be the first recipient of such award, and held the event in a friend’s living room. Working with Max Mara has been a very long, ongoing relationship. “We really bonded over a set of the same values concerning women empowerment, education, talent, promotion, and equality, which are a very strong part of our brand DNA,” explains Maramotti.

50 years on and a lot has changed: this year, women made history. Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, became the highest-grossing comedy film in history and Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour became the highest-grossing concert film in history Half of the TV shows written were by women, and a record six female directors competed for the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival. Barbie, directed by Greta Gerwig, became the highest-grossing comedy film in history and Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour became the highest-grossing concert film in history. Shahidi recognises how much the work WIF has done over the years has directly impacted this shift and, on a personal note, her life and career.  “My 20 years in television and film were only made enjoyable by the fact that I was walking into a space where I did see women in every department and could feel the progress made in every space. It’s rare to be in a room with the people who made your career possible.” 

But there is still a long way to go. As was the focus of Shahidi’s studies and WIF’s ongoing work, there is still both an overrepresentation of man, and of a certain kind of story. It’s something Shahidi feels confident is shifting, as is demonstrated through Celine Song and Greta Lee’s bond while speaking about Song’s directorial debut, Past Lives; in the viral video of Barbie and May December’s women-led casts embracing outside of an industry event; and through Rachel Sennott and Emma Seligman making Bottoms. We’re in an age of collaboration alliance.


"You can dive in and be super specific and granular and centre your story in a certain culture and still have it apply to many people."


“Historically, to be a woman in this industry is so cutthroat. Even if it isn’t how you were built, you’re seen as being in competition with the people around you. But now we’re in this age of collaboration, wherein we understand its power, and all know that, as women, we not only can exist together, but need to exist together.” Some of the year’s most successful projects, like Beef—, which Shahidi loved—, proved too that marginalised communities need not try to conform in order to be relatable. “This new wave of media is so unabashedly specific, and they’re still garnering an audience. Because really, you never lose sight of what’s human and what is a human experience. You can dive in and be super specific and granular and centre your story in a certain culture and still have it apply to many people.”

The next night, Jane Fonda is two metres in front of me waxing lyrical about America Ferrera to a quiet, attentive room. Ferrera, two metres to my right, is crying. The longtime actress and activist is being honoured with a humanitarian award and Fonda is listing off all of the many ways she’s used her platform to profile marginalised voices and push for change throughout her career. (For those not across her work, she’s essentially delivering that moving and poignant Barbie speech in real life, always). It makes me well up, too. It feels unique to be in a space where everyone is united in the same cause, and for everything to do with ‘celebrity’ to be stripped away. In an industry usually consumed by glitz and glamour, the focus isn’t on how famous one is, but on the work one does to elevate their community. The thing that bonds everyone together is being storytellers, and wanting to tell ones that matter.

After Max Mara’s Maramotti lists off her many accolades, Shahidi takes to the stage and delivers the eloquent speech you’d expect from a Harvard graduate, as her proud father films every moment on his phone. “So many artists, particularly those of us who live within the margins and intersections of being a woman… what we all know is that regardless of the form that our art takes, our participation in this industry is also contingent on accepting this other responsibility of showing up as our full selves and making space for others to show up as their full selves. To be an artist is to collaborate in the audacious undertaking of creating visibility, opportunity, and community where it may not exist in our everyday lives. In other words, I’d like to think that to be an artist is to co-create a world in which art can exist.” The room erupts in applause and Shahidi breaks into smile. I’d like to think Wynter would be doing the same.   

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