Intersection - Talking Gentrification & Underrepresentation in Atlanta
Created in a diverse, all-women writers’ room, “Intersection” is a short digital story confronting a very contested issue with dark comedy: the gentrification crisis in Atlanta.
“Why are people always moving into our neighborhoods? Turning it into what they want,” says O.G., one of the main characters played by Dējá Dee. “They don’t give a damn about what is already here.”
It takes less than a 5-minute drive around any of Atlanta’s neighborhoods to notice the city is growing–and gentrifying–fast. From those HGTV-inspired house flippers who are jumping into the opportunity to make real estate investing moves–even when it means going to neighborhoods they would never have considered before–to the deep-pocket developers finding gold mines in poor urban areas and historic communities around the city.
The Emmy-nominated short series is the story of a tight-knit community having to coexist with new opportunistic faces moving into their historically black neighborhood in Atlanta.
The Idea Was Planted
Meg Messmer, a white woman from a small town in Michigan, was no stranger to the transaction. “I have been a gentrifier my entire adulthood,” says Messmer during a Zoom interview from her also-home Sweden, proudly wearing a red shirt with big bold letters that reads, “Atlanta Influences Everything.”
Looking for opportunities to get the most out of her money and grow an investment for her family, Messmer was actively part of the gentrification crisis. “I started to become more aware of gentrification and its effects when I lived in LA,” says Messmer. “I saw communities being displaced, and I wondered, ‘Where were they going to go?’.”
Meet Meg Messmer
As Messmer fittingly introduces herself, she is a “badass working mama, actor, producer, and creator” who is drawn to mission-based projects that raise awareness. For over 20 years, Messmer has been in the business in front and behind the camera working alongside other renowned talents in the industry. When not found in the soccer field cheering for her kids, Messmer is creating, coaching other creators, or looking for opportunities to partner with diverse talent to make magic happen.
“I didn’t come into this business on a mission to put more females in front and behind the camera,” says Messmer. “But in my own experience in this business, there has never been a position of power that I have held, where I haven’t felt some form of sexual harassment being a female.” Learning about the disparity in opportunities for women, particularly underrepresented women, in the industry enrages Messmer. “It pisses me off, and my Italian temper starts to get going,” she says. “That’s when I ask myself, ‘What can I do about that?’.”
Driven by her frustration, Messmer, joined by an all-women team, produced “LAMB,” a short film that exposes the stories of talented women in Hollywood who are assaulted by men that are abusing their power. The story is inspired by Messmer’s own experiences working as an assistant in the industry.
Aside from sexual propositions as an actress, Messmer also encountered a lack of diversity in role opportunities. “A lot of the roles that I would see to submit were prostitutes,” she remembers. “So, ok, I played a few, but then I got tired of it.” That is when she started creating opportunities and roles for herself, which translated into producing and giving opportunities to other women as well.
“Intersection” is a project where Messmer has her hands everywhere. As showrunner, writer, director, and actress in the short series, a big part of her is felt throughout the Emmy-nominated short.
“This is my artistic way to move a needle possibly forward with this conversation,” says Messmer.
From an Idea, to Paper
After living in New York and Los Angeles, Messmer and her family moved to Atlanta in 2016–into a historically Black neighborhood. It was then that she felt compelled to not just continue to be part of the problem that was pushing communities out of their homes and neighborhoods, but instead, be a voice to bring awareness to the crisis. A storyteller at heart, Messmer didn’t hesitate to find allies.
“I didn't know what it would be, but I knew it existed in my head,” says Messmer. Determined to tell the story of gentrification she was seeing firsthand in the midst of Atlanta’s palpable racial tension, Messmer reached out to other friends in the industry.
After pitching the idea to a handful of writers, she was still on her own, and it wasn’t until she found the perfect accomplices that her vision came to life.
Atlanta-based actor and writer Jennica Hill, and the Atlanta-based actor, writer, producer, and podcaster Muretta Moss jumped on the idea with Messmer. However, as three white women trying to tell a story of race, gender, and class, they knew that it was imperative to diversify their team in order to tell an accurate and educated story. “We knew it wasn’t our story to tell,” says Messmer.
Finding a diverse team was not an easy task.
Women and Diversity in the Film Industry
"Tell stories that help close the gaps between people’s perceived differences and connect them through their universal humanity."
It’s not news that women have been underrepresented in the film and television industry for many years. Despite efforts, numbers still fall short for women in front and behind the camera.
In January 2020, USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released Inclusion in the Director’s Chair, an analysis of gender and race/ethnicity demographics in the role of director across 1,300 top films from 2007 to 2019.
The study reported that despite white males and white females making up each 30% of the U.S. population between 2007 and 2019, white males made up 82.5% of film directors, while white females made up only 3.9%.On top of this, underrepresented females based on race and ethnicity were 20% of the U.S. population, but only made up less than 1% of film directors.
During the 13-year period between 2007 and 2019, the study reports that there were only 13 total underrepresented female directors at major distributors. These included Disney, WB, Paramount, SONY, FOX and Universal. During the same period, zero underrepresented female directors worked on top films from Lionsgate, STX, or other distributors.
For every 92 white male directors over the 13-years period, there was only one underrepresented female director at major distributors.
Quality of work is not the issue; in fact, reports show that underrepresented female directors earn the highest average and midpoint scores of any group. Yet, they receive the least work opportunities.
When it comes to recognizing and rewarding the efforts of women, the numbers fall incredibly short. A study by USC Annenberg analyzed four major awards: Golden Globes, DGA Awards, Academy Awards and Critics’ Choice Awards. The numbers show that only 5.1% of best director nominees from 2008 to 2020 were female. 94.9% were male.
Martha M. Lauzen, Ph.D. did another study with The Celluloid Ceiling analyzing other roles in the industry, including executive producers, writers, producers and editors. She tracked women’s employment on top-grossing films for the last 22 years.
“In 2019, the percentages of behind-the-scenes women working on the top 100 and 250 grossing films increased, reaching recent historic highs,” but the numbers still fell dramatically lower than men’s.
Of the top 250 films of 2019, women comprised 13% of all directors, 19% of all writers, 21% of all executive producers, 27% of producers, 23% of editors, and 5% of cinematographers. These numbers are still low, considering the American male and female population are nearly even.
Representation is still a crisis in the film and television industry.
The Diverse Dream Team of Underrepresented Talent
Messmer’s efforts to find a diverse team were well worth it, and after shooting a sizzle reel with the help of many talented filmmakers, the troupe made up of talented powerhouses came together to make history. The crowdfunded dark comedy short series secured a diverse all-women writers’ room, and a cast and crew of over 80% female and BIPOC.
Messmer’s fire was ignited by the spark of other talented creators who felt as passionate about telling the story of gentrification in Atlanta. Her go-getter energy was equally matched by an experienced, determined and talented group of women. It was the dream team.
One of the first writers to come on board, Jennica Hill is an actress, writer, and improviser whose work in Atlanta’s film HOLDEN ON has made an impact bringing awareness about mental health and teen suicide. As a filmmaker, her goal is to “tell stories that help close the gaps between people’s perceived differences and connect them through their universal humanity,” as noted on the “Intersection” website.
Georgia Tech and Georgia State University graduate Muretta Moss is a proud Atlantan with a remarkable career as an actress, comedian, producer, and writer. With upbringings in exemplary comedy and improv hubs like Second City, iO West, Upright Citizens Brigade, and Village Theater, Moss flourishes as a humorist and brings tremendous value to the dark comedy tackling such complicated topics.
Intersection’s early sizzle reel was a magnet to Jacinte Blankenship’s force As an Atlanta-based actress who arrived to the city in the late 1990’s to pursue a degree at Clark University, Blankenship majored in Mathematics, but has found a home in performing arts. Some of her latest work includes The Domestics, The Founder, and The Black Widow, but one of the greatest career highlights has come from her Emmy Nomination in 2022 for Outstanding Actress in a Short Form Comedy or Drama Series for her work in “Intersection”.
From the moment Messmer was introduced to Karen Ceesay, she knew Ceesay needed to be part of the project. A Philly transplant, Spelman College graduate, and Atlanta-based actress, writer and producer Ceesay brought her immense experience and talents to the table. Some of her recent work in front of the screen includes Stranger Things, The Walking Dead, and Rings, but her work as an active member of the Atlanta Film & Television community behind the cameras has been broad and impactful.
Writing Emmy-worthy Conversation Starters
Writing “Intersection” was a long process, as Messmer and the other writers wanted to gather as much information as possible to inspire their characters, storyline, and message. For two years, the multi-hyphenated creator and her allies researched the topic, studied books, and read any story on the news that mirrored the crisis they were about to portray on the screen.
The characters were carefully crafted, oftentimes based on the writers themselves and their real-life experiences. All characters were inspired by true stories of gentrification.
As time went by, the pandemic hit, the Black Lives Matter protests took momentum after the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and they realized that the narrative needed to change as well. The writers went back to the drawing board several times.
“We wanted to create Emmy-worthy content that people would see and be able to relate to,” says Messmer. “Gentrification is racism steaming from so many years, and privilege, and so many things rolled into one, but still feels like we don’t know how to combat it. I want more people to have the challenging conversations that need to be had around it.”
Nothing Like Atlanta
Despite having lived in other metropolitan cities, Messmer talks about the uniqueness she has found in Atlanta.
“Atlanta is a very special place to tell this story,” says Messmer, catching her breath after listing all the factors that add up and make the city an important platform to talk about gentrification.
“Atlanta is the birthplace of Civil Rights and the birthplace of the modern day KKK,” she explains. “The tension is palpable. It is fresh and an open wound…Also, in terms of income inequality, Atlanta has been at the top of the list for many years.”
Messmer’s intent is not only to tell the story, but to help uplift the stories of community members within the city. She believes that Atlanta is not just a hub for Los Angeles and New York to come shoot their films and go. Atlanta has so many stories to tell of its own, and she’s made it her focus to uplift local creators and local voices to do so.
“The Atlanta community has been good to me. And I want to be conscious of my effect, whether inadvertent or not. I hope I can be of service by telling a small slice of its story,” shares Messmer. “I hope that the conversation keeps on going.”