Columbia native pens new “Barbershop” film, talks racism in Hollywood
Tracy Oliver’s Twitter bio says it all: “I write and produce stuff I want to see.”
The 30-year-old screenwriter has deep roots in Columbia, where she grew up as the daughter of two medical professionals.
It was here that she attended Spring Valley High School and spent Sundays in the pews of St. John’s Baptist Church, just off of Beltline Boulevard.
Now Oliver is making her big screen debut as a co-writer of “Barbershop: The Next Cut,” and she’s making the words from her pen count.
“We did create something that hopefully will resonate in communities and make people feel empowered and inspired in some way,” Oliver said in an interview with Cola Daily.
The third installment of the “Barbershop” franchise follows up with Calvin, played by rapper and actor Ice Cube, at his barbershop on the Southside of Chicago about 10 years after the last film. Calvin’s son now is a teenager and his business has a feminine touch with some female hairstylists added to the mix.
But Calvin’s neighborhood is taking a turn for the worse, and it’s up to him and the crew to save the community. Oliver and co-writer Kenya Burris, co-creator of the popular TV series “Blackish,” used the film as a vehicle to talk about issues within the black community that have garnered national attention recently including police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.
A scene in the new film in which the barbers are discussing whether racism had ended with the election of President Barack Obama was written to make the audience aware of black opinion on the matter.
“A lot of people say, ‘You have a black president then we’re done; there’s no more progress that needs to be done in the black community.’ That’s just not true,” Oliver said. “No one ever talks about the fact that just because we have a black president, we still have a lot of things to do in the community. I felt like it needed to be said on film.”
Oliver has been outspoken about her views on black representation in film.
Recently she wrote an unapologetic essay in Cosmopolitan on her experience in pitching scripts with black female lead characters to white Hollywood executives.
“I was constantly being told, ‘Can you make this character white? Can you not do black characters so much? Maybe you’ll be more successful. It will be easier to sell something if you don’t write about who you are,’ ” Oliver recalled.
“That was really stressful,” she said, “And thank God I didn’t listen to that.”
Her hit Youtube web series, “The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl,” which she wrote straight out of film school at the University of Southern California in 2011, peaked the interest of critics for its take on African American women who can identify with being more nerdy and less sassy.
Oliver said the launch of shows like “Empire,” “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder” are amplifying a myriad of black voices on television and on the big screen and paving the way for more black writers, directors and producers to push for better representation.
“Even when I graduated from film school; we were still kind of in a very non-colorful landscape for film and television,” Oliver said. “That was scary, but that was the climate that I was in.”
Columbia inspires Oliver in Hollywood
The first-floor auditorium of the Nickelodeon Theatre in downtown Columbia was packed Sunday afternoon for the advanced screening of the new “Barbershop” film. Friends, family, church members — even Mayor Steve Benjamin and his wife — came to support Oliver and listen to her speak about Columbia’s influence on her work.
“I saw the original barbershop in Columbia while I was at Spring Valley,” she remembered. “I loved it. I thought it was fun and it was original. The thing about black people is that hair is always a big deal, so it was something that we could all relate to.”
Growing up, Oliver and her sister Meghan were actively engaged in the arts. Dancing, writing plays and performing music were a central part life for them both.
Oliver likes to think the arts were a spiritual calling.
“I was never great at math or science, and I think that was God’s way of telling me to not go into medicine because I might kill people,” she laughed. “Instead, He made me really good at artistic stuff.”
At Spring Valley High School, English teachers Stan Whittle and Doris Honore inspired Oliver, and she appreciated that they were impressed with her writing skills.
“Tracey was just exceptionally bright and creative, and I was always thought she would go into some creative venture,” Whittle said.
Now retired, Whittle remembers Oliver’s desire to learn in his Advanced Placement English Literature Class. But he was surprised to learn that he was a big influence on her.
“It’s gratifying to know, having been an educator, that you have done what you were (striving) to do — making sure kids understand their own self importance and have an impact on the world,” Whittle said.
Though she now lives in Los Angeles, Oliver said Columbia and Spring Valley provided her the diverse experiences that have shaped her interaction with people.
Oliver says her hometown’s diversity prepared her well
“For me, Columbia has always been diverse in the sense that I’ve always grown up with both black and white people,” she said. “So it gave me a cultural perspective where I knew how to write and talk with everyone.”
Oliver took those lessons and applied them to her studies at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in American Studies. While there, she started an African American cinema society called Black Stage to put on plays and bring black artists to campus.
In USC’s graduate film program, she focused on learning the business of making movies.
Several moments in the new “Barbershop” show that Oliver has stayed in tune with what’s been happening in Columbia and around the state of South Carolina. The Charleston shootings are featured in the film, and Oliver said she was in the city protesting with her sister and mother when the Confederate flag was taken off the statehouse grounds.
When a violent incident between a school resource officer and a student at Spring Valley High School was seen nationwide via social media, Oliver couldn’t believe it was her alma mater making national headlines. “I was blown away by that,” she said.
But she finds that social media is becoming the driving force to place black issues on the front line from which artists like herself can draw inspiration.
“Had it not it been for social media, Trayvon (Martin’s) death probably wouldn’t have gotten that much national attention or any attention at all,” she said. “Because of social media black voices are just being magnified and being heard.”
Proving that her pen — and her bold ideas — are mighty, Oliver’s next projects will feature more of the stories she wants to tell.
A romantic comedy loosely based on the relationship between Grammy-winning singer John Legend and his wife, model and TV personality Chrissy Teigen, is in the works for the ABC network.
Oliver also is teaming up with ballet dancer Misty Copeland to write a one-hour drama about a group of young dancers competing for a spot in a national ballet company.
“Black filmmakers are kind of documentarians in a sense,” Oliver said. “We kind of capture what’s going on in the moment.”
“Barbershop: The Next Cut,” opens in theaters on Friday, April 15.