Viewing Cultural Representation Through a Wider Lens

How real-world casting colors creativity

The creative industry has come a long way when it comes to diversity, but the measure of that progress depends on who you ask. As someone who’s multiracial, I was fortunate to grow up in an area of Los Angeles that was more of a melting pot. And it wasn’t until I went to ArtCenter College of Design to study photography that I really noticed my minority status, as the one of the few African American students in that program and at the school overall.

I started in the creative world pre-social media, so my skin color typically wasn't known until I met with clients. In some ways, I’ve faced more challenges being a female director than in the context of color.

While I've always pushed towards representing diversity in my work, I'm happy it's become mainstream. And not just for celebrating and elevating diverse creatives, but also for casting folks in a way that’s reflective of society.

When I search for subjects to film or photograph, I prioritize authenticity, and have long advocated for real-world casting. I’m always on the lookout for individuals with a striking appearance, regardless of race or gender identity. Sometimes, they happen to find you—whether friends or relatives or someone I came across in a grocery store or church, as was the case for the album artwork of Gabriels' Angels & Queens (part 2 drops on Mar. 1). The shoot captures baptismal scenes featuring lead singer Jacob Lusk and Greta Knox, a pastor from his church. Her unique style is completely authentic; we only painted her nails white to provide more contrast, and the result is so emotional and powerful.

Like many commercial directors, I got my start in music videos. It's an edgier medium than traditional brand advertising, especially when collaborating with the likes of Madonna, Porno for Pyros, Patti Smith and Mazzy Star. The funny thing is, those somewhat controversial projects attracted the attention of agency creative directors and led to advertising work. While pushing the envelope was appreciated in the music realm, brands mostly wished to cast people that fit stereotypical molds, with the exception of creative tailored for Black or Hispanic audiences.

Then, advertisers started listening to consumers. Major brands began featuring families of different ethnicities in their storytelling, and finally, interracial couples (and even non heteronormatives). That's a big win in my book, because we’re reshaping the racial narrative from both sides—behind and in front of the camera.

Having this kind of representation is so valuable for fostering sustained diversity across industries. I think "commercial director" or "photographer" or "production designer" aren’t necessarily careers that youngsters consider. But when they see inspired creative that is also inclusive, it can spark curiosity and lead to unexpected places. In a similar vein, my passion project is photographing the activities of non-profit Compton Jr. Equestrians (CJE), which teaches horseback riding skills and animal care to local at-risk youth. Program participants compete in team events, including jumping and dressage. Seeing diversity in an historically homogenous setting makes for a captivating juxtaposition. Also, CJE is a great cause.

I've always prioritized diverse, unconventional casting, using non-actors in imperfect scenarios, so it’s great to see it becoming more mainstream across the ad industry. At the same time, initiatives to encourage diversity at every stage of the decision-making process, on both the agency and client-side, are continuing to move us forward.

Now, it's time to think beyond the traditional 30-second spot and find new avenues for dynamic storytelling. Black History Month is a wonderful initiative and a mark of progress, but the attention on Black and minority contributions should be considered year-round. 

Here are some recent project examples:

McDonalds - Bishop Takes Fries
One of my favorite campaigns was for McDonald's. It featured young Black girls on a chess team in Chicago who practiced and participated in tournaments held at McDonald's. None of the people featured in this spot are traditional actors, from the chess team and teachers to the restaurant employees. It was a great story, and the brand was able to support and share it in a way that felt natural.

Facebook - Since Before We Could Talk
I always have the camera rolling to capture spontaneous moments, and working with babies, effectively everything is unscripted. This spot was one of a larger campaign featuring a range of people in familiar scenarios.

Big Dawg - Miller Genuine Draft
This is one of my all-time favorite projects. It's so joyful, free and effortless. I love everything about it: the casting, cinematography, music, editing and energy.

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Melodie McDaniel
Melodie McDaniel is a photographer and director at The Directors Bureau, with fluency in fashion, music, fine art and filmmaking.

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