Her #OscarsSoWhite campaign changed how Hollywood deals with race - now she's taking on HBO
When April Reign joined Twitter back in 2010, she was met with the familiar frustration of a taken username. But instead of tacking random numbers onto the end, she opted for a simple play on words: @ReignOfApril.
“I decided I was royalty,” she said.
Reign has lived up to her commanding name. Since she cheekily tweeted “#OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair” in response to an all-white slate of Academy Award acting nominees in 2015, Reign, 47, has been at the epicenter of the online conversation about representation in Hollywood. Her viral hashtag transformed the way we talk about entertainment, and she’s now using another to try to take down the “Game of Thrones” creators’ next TV show - all from her home office in Ellicott City, Maryland.
“If you had told me five years ago that I would be doing some of the things that I’m doing now, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said. “I was just an avid moviegoer like anyone else.”
Though she wouldn’t call herself an activist or a social media maven - “ ‘Maven’ makes me sound old” - Reign reflects each role. She’s gained more than 90,000 Twitter followers since sending the catalytic tweet and is pulled into so many discussions that she restricted her notifications to direct messages only.
“More followers, more problems,” she joked. “Biggie said that, I believe.”
As she sat down at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., on a recent afternoon, sharply dressed in a burgundy jumpsuit and black blazer, her eyes remained glued to her phone until it was set aside in favor of a menu. Notifications continued to light up the screen.
Nowadays, Reign’s mentions are often tied to her #NoConfederate campaign. She started the hashtag with four others - Jamie Broadnax, Shanelle Little, Rebecca Theodore-Vachon and Lauren Warren - in response to the planned HBO series, an alternate history in which the South successfully seceded and slavery remains legal. Production on “Confederate” is at least a year away, set to begin after the final season of showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss’s “Game of Thrones,” but the social media backlash was instant.
“They were unprepared for why people would be upset that enslavement of black people is a concept that they plan to bring to TV,” she said.
The five Twitter friends coordinated the campaign via direct messages and, two days after HBO’s news release, announced their goal to get #NoConfederate to trend during “Game of Thrones” that Sunday night. It did, nationally and internationally. The network was quick to respond with a statement expressing a “hope that people will reserve judgment until there is something to see.”
The wait-and-see approach does not appeal to Reign, who gets paid to consult on issues of race and inclusion. She often advises networks and studios on the hired talent and structure of developing projects as they, in her words, “attempt to avoid the Kendall Jenner Pepsi pitfalls,” referring to the recent ad ridiculed for its racial tone-deafness.
Reign spoke just hours before torch-wielding white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia’s campus in Charlottesville.
“That’s our current history,” she said. “That’s what we’re talking about. Where is the ‘alternate’ coming from if what we see every day is so painful?”
The issue is personal, too. Reign worries for her children, a 17-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter who live with her and her husband in Ellicott City.
“I cringe every time he grabs his keys and walks out the door,” she said of her son.
Family comes first for Reign, who was born in Newark, then moved around a lot because her father worked as a physician assistant in the military. She attended college and law school at the University of Texas at Austin.
Following a brief stint as an aspiring zoologist - she discovered she was “allergic to every single animal Noah brought on the ark” - she aimed to be a child psychologist.
“It just seemed like all of my friends told me their problems,” Reign said. “Whatever that personality trait is, I was the person they’d come to.”
Her career aspirations changed, but this trait hasn’t.
In 2013, Andrew Shade, a friend of Reign’s from Twitter, needed help with the website he’d just founded, Broadway Black, spotlighting black artists in theater. Reign’s job in campaign finance lacked creativity, she said, so she began to write for the site to feed her passionfor the arts and help ease Shade’s workload. She eventually left law and became Broadway Black’s managing editor, a position she held until this past June.
“I’m more of a hothead, and so April was my balance,” said Shade, 30. “She was able to express what it is that I wanted to say in a way that people could receive it.”
Though Reign refers to her work in products liability and corporate defense law as “regular attorney stuff,” she acknowledges that it strengthened her ability to make persuasive arguments concisely.
In April, she tweeted: “Who’s been opening movies? Janelle Monae. Daniel Kaluuya. You know who hasn’t? Matt Damon. ScarJo. Your move, Hollywood. #OscarsSoWhite.”
And earlier this month: “#NoConfederate isn’t about us not ‘liking’ something. It’s about objecting to the commodification of Black pain for others’ enjoyment.”
“She’s always been that way, though,” Shade said. “It’s just that #OscarsSoWhite has gained her more visibility.”
#OscarsSoWhite went viral in 2015 with no intention on her part. That year and the next, which also saw only white actors nominated, Twitter users rallied behind the hashtag, sharing statistics and furious reactions. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts eventually set new diversity standards for two of its major film awards, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced a goal last year to double the number of “diverse members” by 2020.
“It tells me the more I continue to talk about these issues, the more change will come,” Reign said.
Her DVR is filled with episodes of “Blackish,” “Power” and “Queen Sugar,” three shows that might not have been on TV even a decade ago. Her favorite movie of 2017 is “Get Out,” which made Jordan Peele the first African-American writer-director to pass $100 million domestically with a debut film. She watched it for the fourth time recently.
“Every single time, there’s a different double entendre I missed, a different nuance,” she said. “I enjoy finding those Easter eggs.”
Reign was glad to see films such as “Fences” and “Moonlight” bring in nominations for black actors earlier this year, but she found the tweets and headlines declaring the end of #OscarsSoWhite frustrating. Some people didn’t understand the underpinnings of the campaign, which is about the communities that are still marginalized, she said.Whitewashing in casting persisted in 2016, she noted, with the likes of “Doctor Strange” and “The Great Wall.”
“The statistics say that diverse movies sell,” Reign said, her voice rising. “The more people from marginalized communities you put in a film, the broader your audience is going to be. So why wouldn’t you do that?”
Reign turns to Twitter to vent her frustrations. While some decry its level of discourse, she insists that the platform is what you make it - and even said so to its chief executive, Jack Dorsey, when she met him earlier this year.
“There’s no reason why you can’t find your tribe,” Reign said.
Reign actively seeks what she considers to be safe spaces online, which for her have become communities of black women, such as her #NoConfederate co-organizers. The team’s next project is curating 30-second videos from the public for a larger film that they’ll share with HBO.
In addition, Reign has been approached to write a book, which she joked will be done by 2047. And she’s co-hosting a podcast about the entertainment industry with Matthew A. Cherry, 35, an up-and-coming filmmaker.
“I’m not a member of the academy yet,” Cherry said, “but I know if I’m ever able to become a member in the next few years, it will be a direct result of April’s activism.”
Reign said she’s been thanked at least a half-dozen times by now-academy members for helping them get to that point or for inspiring conversations at academy meetings.
“Things like that are incredibly energizing and motivating,” she said. “That tells me things are happening on the inside while I continue to agitate from the outside.”