Closed doors and reins of power are two of Nisha Ganatra’s recent fascinations. In last year’s Late Night, she cast her eye on the world of late night television, who gets to participate in its production, and how they’re able to participate. In this year’s The High Note, she focuses on the music biz, where careers are either made or retired at the discretion of white men running the industry using the levers of racism, sexism and ageism.
The High Note follows producer aspirant Maggie (Dakota Johnson) through her days working as the assistant to Grace Davis (Tracee Ellis Ross, recreating some of her mother Diana Ross’ footsteps). Maggie has dreams, Grace has woes, and somewhere in the middle they collide with one another, Maggie’s dreams being partly comprising her unexamined entitlement and Grace’s woes being the same felt by black women over the age of 40 in the music industry. Harmonizing matters of race against matters of comedy isn’t easy, but Ganatra makes it work.
When Paste talked with her about the movie, she explained just how she pulled that off.
Paste Magazine: This movie portrays white presence in black spaces, which is something that really stuck out to me, especially about an hour in with that confrontation between Grace and Maggie. With everything that happens in the movie up to that point, do you feel like that ultimate confrontation where race is addressed wasn’t enough? Did you ever at any point think, “This needs to be punctuated more?”
Nisha Ganatra: It’s such a tricky line to negotiate because if you do it too much, then people get less receptive to the message, and if you don’t do it at all, then you have really let down everybody and not addressed something that needs to be said. And especially in a comedy, to have a scene like that, you kind of get one in this kind of movie and still get to call yourself a comedy.
Tonally, I didn’t think there had to be another big confrontation moment like that. But it is woven through. There are little lines here and there, there are looks, even just the presence of Ice Cube … it was something we were very aware of. I know even when Flora [Greeson] wrote the script, she was like, “I do not want to make a white savior movie.” We were very conscious of it, but one of the things that really helped bring, for me, a more interesting layer was casting Ice Cube as the manager. Initially, I think the script just said he was sort of an older Jewish Jimmy Iovine type, and I read it, and I thought, “You know, if that manager is black…” I had just worked with Don Cheadle on Black Monday, and I was thinking about him. I thought that if this character is a dark-skinned Black man telling Tracee Ellis Ross to “play it safe,” and “don’t rock the boat,” it says everything about race, but it doesn’t need to be said, right? Having the manager and the artist both be black in a white record label world was a more subtle way to point at race. What he’s saying when he says, “get the money, play it safe,” you get the undertones of what they’re really talking about, like, “We’re not inside the industry. We’re guests at this label.” It’s a feeling, and I don’t think white artists go through that feeling.
Paste: White artists just assume, I think, that they belong.
Ganatra: Well, that’s the privilege, right? That privilege of just feeling and knowing, “This is for me, and this is mine.” I don’t think Grace or Jack feel that way ever in any situation, and I certainly can relate to that. [laughs] So that was important to make sure that feeling of “Will I be allowed to express myself, and what am I risking, and is it worth that risk?” translates, because I think having all the people in that label room be a white man guiding her career is historically correct. When she says, “In the history of music, only five women over the age of 40 have had a number one hit”—that is a true statistic, and that really blew us away. If you dare to turn 41, your voice is suddenly too old. What happened? It doesn’t seem right for singing. You’re a recording artist, and we’re listening to your songs on the radio. What does it matter how old you are?
It was just such a stunning statistic that even when I was developing Maggie’s character with Flora more, too, we found this statistic that only three women in the history of the Grammys have been nominated for Producer of the Year. So picking this industry where women are definitely the minority, and then the sex and ageism of the music industry, but hiding it in a comedy—that was really fun for me. My favorite studio films are those big ones that take on an issue and say something about the world that you’re really being entertained by and led through a fun movie first and foremost. I think of Erin Brockovich, and how I watched that movie, and it was so artistically, beautifully done, but it also has Julia Roberts, this big movie star. It was just funny, and said something, and at the end I was like, “I’m going to take on the man, and maybe I’ll go to law school.” And then when I watched Working Girl, I was like, “I’m going to be a business woman!” And then I watched Broadcast News, and I was like, “I’m going to work in journalism!” [laughs]
Paste: I generally feel that if we want to effect real systemic change, whether in the music industry or movie industry, getting people other than white cisgender heterosexual men behind the camera is really the best way of doing that. I imagine that having the opportunity to direct a movie like this, which could have been directed very easily by that white figure that we’re talking about, feels like a big deal.
Ganatra: Yeah! I mean, I think Paul Feig was supposed to direct this movie.
Ganatra: I think so! I know he was originally attached to Late Night, and then also this one. So maybe I’m following around Paul Feig and picking up whatever he puts down. [laughs] But it’s interesting. We talked so much on set—Tracee, Dakota, Cube, Kelvin—all the time about making sure this isn’t about these black characters helping this white girl achieve her dream, and that nothing took on the vibe of her being the key to them unlocking their potential. We were just like, “No, no, no, no, no. Nobody wants to do that.”
Paste: I was going to ask if the cast had opportunities to talk about the baked-in issues of racism and sexism and ageism when the cameras weren’t rolling. How do you as a filmmaker approach the balance of those issues with comedy? That feels like a very difficult balance to maintain.
Ganatra: It’s a balance I maintain in my daily life. The key was bringing everybody in on it and not making it the thing that wasn’t talked about, because we all were thinking it. So I made it something we were all discussing, something we were all adding our points of view to. It was really important that Maggie wasn’t the key to David unlocking his potential, that David was a incredible musician in his own right, but he just didn’t have access to the producing talent that [Maggie] brought to him, or that Grace, in the end, liked that Maggie reminded her of a fan, of somebody who loved her voice from day one. It wasn’t this big “I need you” moment. She doesn’t need her at all. She just wanted to support a young woman who was in the position she was once in. That was tricky, because you can’t take race out of things but you also can focus on, for that moment, not an older black woman helping a younger white woman, but a woman who paid her dues and broke into a very hard industry making the road a little bit easier for the next generation instead of harder.
That, to me, is interesting to talk about: What do we choose to do and how do we negotiate that space where we’ve been told there’s only room at the table for one woman? If you’re told that and you buy into that, then of course you’re going to hold that door closed, because you busted your ass to get there. But what I love about this movie is it takes that down and says, “There was always space for more than one of us.” That myth that I bought into didn’t help anybody, except for the guys who were already in charge. It helped them maintain their space. It’s a theme I was also exploring in Late Night.
But it’s tricky. To me, the height of comedy is, like, those Mike Nichols movies, where he’s saying something big about the world, but he’s being entertaining, and funny and hopeful. For me, the highest art of that tone of comedy is when you’re taking on politics or race, really big issues, and doing it in an entertaining way. That’s what I think movies can do better than any other art form.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.