Interviews

Published on February 27th, 2018 | by Darren Paltrowitz

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Keesha Boyd & “Black Panther” Illustrator Phillip Boutte Jr. On Comcast’s Black History Month

The largest broadcasting and cable television company in the world, Comcast has well over 150,000 employees. While Comcast is generally thought of as a service provider to millions, the company does often create its own content. One such example is its digital short film titled Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind The Mask, as created for its Black History Month campaign.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Keesha Boyd, Executive Director of Multicultural Consumer Services at Comcast, and Phillip Boutte Jr. on behalf of The Hype Magazine. Notably, Mr. Boutte worked recently as a costume illustrator on Black Panther, A Wrinkle In Time, and Justice League. Beyond being able to watch Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind The Mask online, customers of Xfinity can find the company’s Black History Month collection by saying “Black Film and TV” into their voice remote.

How did Comcast’s Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind The Mask concept come into fruition?

Keesha Boyd: The goal was to not only honor the past but to also highlight an aspect of culture that is essentially “history in the making” and would be timely and relevant. With all of the buzz about the sci-fi, fantasy and futurism space brewing last year over the anticipation of the Black Panther film, we knew we wanted to do something special to add to the conversation in a meaningful and perhaps untold way. That led us to start looking behind the lens, behind the comic books, behind the films to find the talented African American creators and thought leaders who were “behind the mask” making our heroes “super.”

What does this campaign mean for Comcast? Why is it important?

Keesha Boyd: This campaign is incredibly important to us because it gives us a chance to reflect back to the communities that we serve, a positive and inspiring narrative of contributions made by this community to this very popular genre of entertainment. Diverse representation is a powerful and meaningful thing. We hope this campaign gives everyone the opportunity to learn something new and essentially inspire the next generation of creatives to contribute to this space in ways they may not have considered before.

How did you decide on the talent you wanted to feature in the short film? How can people view the film?

Keesha Boyd: Ultimately, we knew we wanted to showcase experienced creators in this space as well as emerging creators. With that in mind, as we did our research, we came across these incredible people, with amazing stories and profound insights. We wanted to include as many different sides of the business as possible so the end result includes writers, illustrators, a voiceover artist, a costume designer, a scholar, a showrunner and an actor…all with unique stories to tell. Everyone can view the film at www.xfinity.com/discovermore.

Phillip, how do you feel about being featured on Comcast’s Groundbreakers: Heroes Behind The Mask series?

Phillip Boutte Jr.: It was a true honor to be featured in the Behind The Mask series among so many talented creatives that I admire! It was also a no-brainer for me to say yes to being a part of the campaign. I am a HUGE proponent of diversifying not only the visuals that we see on-screen, but also the creatives that we employ BEHIND the camera. That is where it starts to matter most because we are need of people behind the scenes to tell their stories. It offers fresh perspectives, allows us all to learn that much more about each other, and strengthens our understanding of our humanity. It was to my great delight that Comcast is so supportive of both these ideals and strives to be a driving force of change. I couldn’t say no!

Tell me about the experience of working on Black Panther and A Wrinkle In Time. I would imagine that you were excited to be part of such innovative productions…

Phillip Boutte Jr.: Working on both these projects in the same year was nothing short of life-changing. Before I go into detail about them, it is important to know my story. I was an actor from the age of three until around 16 or 17. I grew up in this industry and have always LOVED film. When I started to transition from a child actor into a teen, I was heartbroken to consistently find that the roles offered to young black men were, at best, EXTREMELY STEREOTYPICAL. It was always a gang member, a kid that had lost his way, or a kid that didn’t have an entire family unit as I had grown up with. I wanted to see characters represented that were more like myself so I decided to follow my second favorite love, which was drawing characters and superheroes.

As an adult, I kept my mind focused on what I remembered growing up and I noticed something. I loved films like Never Ending Story, The Goonies, Willow, and Dark Crystal. I loved films that allowed you to go on an adventure. But what I noticed is that there were no films where a child of color was the lead protagonist and got to go on a fantastical adventure. Where were those films? Why weren’t they being made? Why are the films focused on people of color so grounded in reality? Enter Ava Duvernay and A Wrinkle In Time. God bless her, her vision, and her grit to get this movie made! For me, it was a HUGE deal to be invited to be on her team. It was a full circle moment for me and I could not believe it was happening.

Ava found me on Twitter. I did an illustration of her for the Oscar’s Governors Ball. Costume Designer Jeffrey Kurland’s design concept that year was to make the event look like the famous Brown Derby Restaurant, which features tons of black and white illustrations of celebrities on the walls. I put together a team of nine costume illustrators and each of did about 25 illustrations of directors, producers, writers, actors, production/costume designers, composers, cinematographers, etc. I decided that I wanted to draw Ava. She inspired me and I knew she would not be attending the event because in true Ava form, she was throwing a huge benefit in Flint, Michigan for the water crisis. My illustration was a tribute to her activism and a way that I could ensure that even if she was not there, she would be there in spirit!

Once the event was over, I posted the illustration on Twitter. Ava saw it, liked it, and followed m — and that was enough for me and my wife to fly to the moon. But then it got better. I got a called from Producer Jim Whitaker at Disney. He told me that he was producing a film called A Wrinkle In Time, that Ava Duvernay liked my work, and wanted me to come in to interview for a job. WHAT?!?! Needless to say, I printed out my illustration, framed it, ran to meet her and she hired me that day. What a blessing!

After about two months working on Wrinkle, I got hired by costume designer Ruth Carter to being work on Black Panther. I could not believe that I was moving from one visionary project to another. Black Panther was special to me because I used to read the comic book as a kid. I really understand the themes of the book and was excited about the visual tones and directions we could take with the characters. My thought was this, “Wakanda is Timbuktu.” It is basically what Timbuktu would have become without European influence and destruction. What would it look like if Africa was able to keep most of the profit from its resources? What would it look like if they had access to complex textiles and fabrics? How would they mix their cultural influences with contemporary fashion? Needless to say, I was VERY excited and so excited to be learning from Ruth because she has an extensive knowledge of African culture.

In short, I could not have been luckier, or more proud, to have worked on BOTH of these projects because of where I came from. My daughter Alina is seven years old. She will NEVER have to have the same fight that I had. She can look on the TV and see Ava and Ryan Coogler directing huge films. She can go on an adventure with Storm Reid. She can touch the stars, and maybe even get help from one that looks just like Oprah! She can pretend to be Leticia Wright’s Shuri, smart as a whip, funny and fun. She can be Lupita or Danai, strong and fierce warriors. And I get to be a proud father to know that I had a very small part in helping both these films to change the way in which she can experience the world.

Do you have any advice for someone trying to become a costume illustrator/conceptualist?

Phillip Boutte Jr.: What I always tell students or anyone trying to break into my field is that they must love to draw. They must study and draw daily. Costume figure Ddrawing, nude figure drawing, and drawing to understand what you see, not what you think you know. The biggest part of my job that decides whether you will sink or swim, besides having talent, is how you get along with people. You are working directly for the costume designer. You are collaborating with another creative and as a creative yourself, the ability to flow and vibe with another artist is a skill all in itself.

I have been successful, not for my ability to be hired, but my ability to be RE-hired. You must be as much of a people person as you are a talented artist. The two go hand and hand. You must also love history and research. Immerse yourself in costume and fashion. Learn about the construction of garments. Really surround yourself with the material. Go to the library. Get out, go to fabric stores, and touch the materials. The more you learn, the better your illustrations will be and the better you will be at collaborating with the costume designer. Once you have these skills, you are ready to join the Costume Designers Guild, Local 892, like I did almost 11 years ago.

Finally, Phillip, any last words for the kids?

Phillip Boutte Jr.: Be focused and know that nothing you want will come to you without working, HARD. No matter what, the energy you put out will ALWAYS be returned to you. If you set yourself towards your goal and work at it a little each day, you WILL be successful. If you don’t have work, make your own. Don’t sit around and wait for people to call, you call them. The film industry can seem daunting to get into, but the easiest way to get in is to surround yourself with like-minded individuals that want to make art, just like you. Join with them. Support each other, and make art. And while you are at it, make sure you make art that tells stories across a diverse spectrum.


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About the Author

Darren Paltrowitz is a New York resident with over 20 years of entertainment industry experience. He began working around the music business as a teenager, interning for the manager of his then-favorite band Superdrag. Since then, he has worked with a wide array of artists including OK Go, They Might Be Giants, Mike Viola, Tracy Bonham, Loudness, Rachael Yamagata, and Amanda Palmer. Darren's writing has appeared in dozens of outlets including the New York Daily News, Inquisitr, The Daily Meal, The Hype Magazine, All Music Guide, Guitar World, TheStreet.com, Businessweek, Chicago Tribune, L.A. Times, and the Jewish Journal. Beyond being "Editor At Large" for The Hype Magazine, Darren is also the host of the bi-weekly "Paltrocast With Darren Paltrowitz" podcast, as co-produced with V13 (formerly PureGrainAudio.com). He has also co-authored two published books, 2018's "Pocket Change: Your Happy Money" (Book Web Publishing) and 2019's "Good Advice From Professional Wrestling" (6623 Press), with a second podcast set for a June 2020 launch.


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