St. Louis-born film, music and television director Millicent Shelton is turning Hollywood upside down. She’s made history with her directing work. Created some of the most talk-about video clips. And is now in constant demand in television.
Shelton, who began her career in 1989 as a wardrobe production assistant on the Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing, made music videos for artists such as Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Aaliyah, CeCe Peniston and Salt-n-Pepa, creating that latter group’s iconic “Let’s Talk About Sex” video in 1991. After directing more than a hundred music videos, Shelton, a graduate of Princeton University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, made her first feature film — the hip-hop inspired Ride in 1998.
After working hard to break into television directing, she now has racked up not only impressive credits, but an Emmy. In fact, she became the first African-American woman to earn a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series for the episode “Apollo, Apollo” on the series 30 Rock. She’s also put on the director’s cap for episodes of Everybody Hates Chris, The Bernie Mac Show, Girlfriends, Castle, Californication, My Name Is Earl, 90210, Men of a Certain Age, Pan Am, Leverage, Parenthood, Jane By Design, and Cougar Town.
Madame Noire recently caught up with Shelton in between filming. Here’s what she had to say.
Madame Noire: What is the most enjoyable part of what you do?
Millicent Shelton: I like to create. Taking words on a page and bring them to life in living color is an amazing experience.
MN: Do you find there are more women directing in TV?
MS: The Directors Guild Of America just published some statistics based on the 2011-12 TV episodic season. They found that 11 percent of the episodes were directed by Caucasian females and only four percent by minority females. Those percentages are up one percent from last season, so, no, there has not been a significant change in the amount of TV episodes that female directors are working on.
Part of me says that this industry is naturally nepotistic the other part of me thinks that some males find it difficult for a female to be in that type of leadership position.
MN: What have been some of the obstacles you have faced as an African-American female director?
MS: Lack of work. Always hustling for the next job. Which you can say is an obstacle for all directors. I just think that sometimes the hill is a little higher for me to climb. I face it by putting on my hiking boots and forging forward…never looking back.
MN: Do you feel you are opening doors for other women in the industry?
MS: I don’t have a clue. A door may be open on a show that has worked successfully with me and they feel like, “Yeah it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman or an African American. It matters that she’s a good director.” But if the door opens, then it is up to the individual director to succeed on her own merit.
MN: What are some of your latest projects?
MS: Go On with Matthew Perry on NBC and Parenthood on NBC. I am shooting a pilot for BET right now called What Would Dylan Do? Dallas is my next stop.
MN: Advice to young filmmakers?
MS: It’s going to be tough. Learn your craft well. Never give up.
MN: Any tips on juggling career, marriage and motherhood?
MS: It’s the hardest thing in the world. Most of the time I feel so torn between loving what I do and loving my children. The two clash a lot especially since I have been traveling out of town to work fairly frequently during the past two years. My kids are amazing giving souls. They accept that mommy is working and we Skype almost every day.
MN: What’s your favorite downtime activity?
MS: Spending time doing anything or absolutely nothing with my kids.