Girls Trip Celebrates The Layers Of Black Sisterhood Like You’ve Never Seen Before

In a candid conversation, the film’s co-writer Tracy Oliver talks about the importance of showing the multiplicity of black women on the big screen.

July 28, 2017
<i>Girls Trip</i> Celebrates The Layers Of Black Sisterhood Like You’ve Never Seen Before Universal Pictures

Girls Trip is a side-splitting ode to the beauty and bonds between black women. Led by a stellar cast of all-star queens, the film authentically portrayed the real-life nuances of black sisterhood. The genuine interactions between the four friends were palpable and no matter their ups and downs, the narrative unfurled with an emphasis on lightheartedness, compassion, and love.

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In addition to making sure that Girls Trip was insanely comical, screenwriters Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver (Barbershop: The Next Cut and College-ish) made sure to challenge the ways in which black women are typically allowed to celebrate sexuality in film. During its opening weekend, it raked in a total of $30.4 million at box offices nationwide, proving yet again that black women can absolutely execute an entertaining and massively successful movie, despite the doubts from the film industry.

This week, The FADER caught up with Oliver to talk about the need for black women in writers rooms, Hollywood’s hesitance to show cast black women in mainstream comedies, and the infamous grapefruit scene.

When you first went into the writers room, what did you and Kenya Barris know about what you wanted to show in terms of the multiplicity of black women?

I heard that Will Packer and Malcolm Lee had set up a movie at Universal and they wanted to do something fun about black women and set it at Essence Fest. At least four or five people emailed me separately and said, "You need to be writing this movie." Because they all know that I'm crazy, I like to party, and I'm black woman. [Laughs] At the time, Kenya and I were coming off of Barbershop together and we'd worked on that with Malcolm so it made sense for us to partner again. Kenya came up with a take that Will and Malcolm responded to, and the studio as well and that's why they hired us. We wanted to make sure that we did a love story between black women. We knew we wanted to have men as eye candy in the movie, but I was adamant that I wanted it to be about sisterhood and black female friendships. I wanted it to be about a love story between these women who'd been friends for 15-20 years and seen each other through ups and downs. We knew that was the core and the heart of it and to also make sure that it was fun and entertaining. We wanted it to be a balance with a lot of ridiculous jokes, like the grapefruit moment. The studio, Malcolm, and Will wanted to make sure that it was going to be rated R.

What was reason behind that making sure it was a film for mostly adults?

We didn’t want to hold back. We hadn't seen it before. With black women, and me and my friends in particular, we do a lot of the same things when we go on vacation and the drinks are pouring but you don't really get a chance to see that on screen. All of us were tired of the red tape around what you could and could not do with black women. It's all of these respectability politics that white female characters don't have to adhere to, but prior to Girls Trip you couldn't curse and say "dick.” But, when you hang out with other black women, that's how we speak. We're not all super religious and conservative. We can have college degrees and also get sloppy drunk on the weekends. We didn't see that balance in film so we wanted to create a movie that shows black women how we actually are, and we set it at the biggest black festival in the U.S. which is Essence Fest.

In the writers room, what was the process in terms of how you discussed how'd you write in those sexual scenes?

We went in saying, "If you we're going to do this. Let's go hard or go home." We weren't really timid about it. It was like, we're going to put all of this in here and got lucky that there was no pushback whatsoever. We did this knowing that there would be backlash from people online because it was something that people hadn't seen before but we proceeded anyway.

The grapefruit scene was symbolic of black women reclaiming this notion that we do have fun in our sex lives. We do pass that information along to our friends. In other films, sometimes it feels like scripts are written with emphasis on sex in a way that overly sexualizes black women. What type of impact did you want that scene to have not on the men, but the women who were watching?

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Many of the scenes, including the grapefruit scene, was done in a way that didn't overly sexualize the women. When you think about the movie, there's no nudity on the women. And there's not gratuitous sex scenes. Even Jada's encounter with Kofi Siriboe is off-screen. We still felt like if we're going to push certain buttons and do certain jokes, it has to be tasteful and funny more than anything else. It was like, here's this woman really committing to this joke and this grapefruit in a way that is so over the top that you have to laugh. Our goal for the whole movie was, these jokes are designed to be laughed at so if we don't get that then we haven't succeeded. We don't want to throw nudity in it for the sake of being edgy so there's actually no nudity in it in terms of the women. The homeless white man who has his penis on the window, we were going for laughs there too. Everything that we did was tailored for making the funniest movie possible.

Let's talk about the dance battle. We've seen women get cheated on in films before and when they confront the situation, things often goes left. That was a serious moment that had a comedic element. What went into the decision to contrast something so serious with something so blatantly comical and bizarre like a dance-off?

I love a good dance battle and this one was just for laughs. We knew we were going to have them in the club and it was like, why not have these "older women" beefing with these younger hot girls in this dance battle. There's a lot going on in the subtext but we wanted to balance the comedy with the drama. It was a nod to Set it Off and them being sorority sisters and having this choreography ready.

<i>Girls Trip</i> Celebrates The Layers Of Black Sisterhood Like You’ve Never Seen Before Universal Pictures
“I know we need our headscarves and we don’t go to bed without wrapping our hair. I know that after a night of debauchery, somebody might be praying.”

How does this speak to how the film industry and the women in the audience, specifically black women, can reimagine us and the multiplicity that we possess in all kinds of situations?

It's been incredibly helpful because I've been saying to people that a show or a movie like this needs to happen. A lot of people couldn't see it. A lot of them couldn't imagine it but that comes from not really having black friends in their circle. Sometimes when you're pitching you have a hard time imagining a group of black friends, getting wasted, and carrying on this way. You just don't see it. But, I see it because I know my friends and I know myself but it was hard for other people to see. The big question was, Would this kind of movie make money? Are people going to show up for this? Are black people and non-black people going to show up? We answered that with a resounding yes but it was hard to prove that because prior to Girls Trip there wasn't another model that proved that. Bridesmaids was a mostly white cast because you have [an] added layer when you're talking about race. We believed in it and we all thought this was a hit. Everyone needed to just sit back and watch but it was hard to convince people when you don't have the facts to back it up.

Before Girls Trip, what things took place or opened up the space for this film?

Bridesmaids was the closest example to women behaving badly that worked out. The reason why I point to Bridesmaids is that movie was so successful and at the time that it was released, it was a big deal because it was the first of its kind. We had that a successful model and prior to that, the only one that had four black women and played in theaters was Waiting to Exhale and that was forever ago and that wasn't a comedy. Stella’s Got Her Groove back as well, but all of those examples were not in the last 10 years.

Why do you think Hollywood is so hesitant to embrace black woman comedians?

It's purely financial and ignorance. People think if you have black women in lead roles, men aren't going to come and non-black people aren't going to come. It's harder in general for women to get movies off the ground. So when you add black women to it, we're the hardest group to get a movie made for because we're fighting the race and gender battle. It's unfortunate because time and time again we prove them wrong — Hidden Figures and what Shonda Rhimes has been able to accomplish on television are examples of that. What she's done has largely been because of black women and our support of her content. We're a big audience group and we came out in droves for Girls Trip, and we watch Scandal, and How to Get Away With Murder and all of these other black shows in huge numbers. We're really a reliable audience group, but we're also very overlooked when it's time to make content.

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When they came in the room and said a prayer, I got emotional. There’s always that one friend who is about to lead prayer in any situation. It resonated in a real way.

For sure, those are the nuances of blackness that require a black woman on the team. I know we need our headscarves and we don't go to bed without wrapping our hair. I know that after a night of debauchery, somebody might be praying. There's the nuances of being a black woman that people don't see, but it was important to add that authenticity because you feel like you know these women. They're not just characters that someone knows nothing about writing.

In the past, you talked about how you felt like the mainstream films that you were writing early on felt flat and lacked nuance. It felt good to be in a theatre full of black women and have them connect with all the vibrancy that you put into the script. How did you want black women to see themselves or feel when they saw this?

I sat in random showings in L.A. just to watch the audience and see their reactions. I cried twice and I've seen this movie but it was because people really got the humor. I saw a lot of groups of all kinds of women going to see it together. It was heartwarming because the film is a celebration of black women, black beauty. It was a tribute to black women, setting at Essence Fest, and the women and their differences. While writing, I wanted them all to be very different. I got so many messages from people that I haven't talked to in a long time saying things like, "That movie reminded me of us. We should get together."

Regardless of gender or race of the audience, the film is an empowering message, to bet on yourself and not to let anyone take your power. People of all colors can relate to it. I maintain that it ultimately works because of the ending and all of them come full circle in the end in some way.

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Girls Trip Celebrates The Layers Of Black Sisterhood Like You’ve Never Seen Before