Everything, Everything, directed by Stella Meghie and based on author Nicola Yoon’s best-selling novel, is a story about a girl named Maddy, played by Amandla Stenberg. Maddy’s world is comprised of her overly protective mother (Anika Noni Rose) and her nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera). She has spent her entire 18-year-old life confined to her house because of her mother’s fears about Maddy’s rare and potentially fatal disease. After Maddy falls in love with the literal boy next door, she risks losing her family, her health, and her previously sheltered life by embarking on an adventure outside her home.
After Rookie associate editor Diamond Sharp and I watched the New York City premiere of Everything, Everything, we chatted about how rare it was to see a sublime movie about a “carefree black girl” written, directed by, and starring women and non-binary people of color that wasn’t about race. As we discussed the scarcity of diverse depictions of black women’s stories in the media, I wondered how the success of this film—Warner Brothers’ first young adult story directed by a woman of color—will help shift our culture, compel more Hollywood studios to hire diverse teams, and inspire a new generation of storytellers. I marveled at the possibility of others taking what I learned from it: that joy, vulnerability, love, light, and freedom are my birthright, despite racist messages from society and media that tell us otherwise.
I recently met up with Stella, Nicola, Amandla, and Anika for a vibrant conversation about representation, the perils of respectability politics, the healing power of working with people who “get it,” and humor as a form of community care.
On representation and being the heroines of our own stories:
JAMIA WILSON: Let’s start this conversation by talking about representation. I’m interested in whether that played a role in your decisions to create this story, and to bring it out into the world.
NICOLA YOON: Maddy looks the way she does in the book because my daughter looks like that. She looks like she is half Korean American and half African American. It’s important to see yourself in stories. I want her to see herself in a book because I didn’t when I was younger. The first [example] I ever saw was Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. There was such a dearth, and I didn’t want her to experience that. These things aren’t just political stories. They are personal stories. Everyone deserves to see themselves as a hero of a story. They don’t all have to be issue stories. They can be joyful stories and just love stories. I always say, “I never wake up thinking about the struggle, I wake up thinking about coffee and blueberry pancakes for my kid.” We live in a diverse world, and it’s our job to tell the truth. The truth is it’s diverse, and it’s more beautiful because of it. It’s really important to me, and that is why my books are like that.
STELLA MEGHIE: Of course, representation matters. I started out as a writer, writing stories about women like me, and families like mine. I hadn’t even expected to even become a director. With my first script, I really couldn’t picture someone else doing it. I had a meeting with a producer who suggested five men in my place to direct it, and I thought, I’d rather put it in a drawer. When I imagined someone bringing it to life as a director, I thought it has to be through the eyes of a black woman to tell the story of these black women. When I read Nicola’s book and the script, I was like, “Please let me do this so that I can tell it from our point of view, and from the black female gaze.”
[Laughter and murmurings of affirmation from the group]
It’s important to have leading actresses like Amandla as the face of a movie, and it is equally important to have the writer there to represent, and the director to keep the pieces together on our behalf.
AMANDLA STENBERG: Ya’ll know I’m all about representation. When I first got this script, I read the log-line first in the email and saw that it was a teen romance film. At first, I thought pass because I assumed that this was a script that was meant for a white actress. And I would end up auditioning and they wouldn’t give it to me because they wanted someone white to begin with.
But then, I looked at it and fully read the log-line and saw it was written by Nicola Yoon, who was a black woman with a biracial daughter. And she was making the story for her daughter…I had to pause and think, OK, hold up! Wait, what actually is this?
I learned that Stella was directing it, and the idea of working with a black female director on a project based on a book written by a black woman with a character I was supposed to play. I wasn’t taking a role that was supposed to be written for someone white and trying to make it diverse, but this was written for a black girl. I hadn’t seen this before in a project that wasn’t about race. I usually get roles written for black women that are stories about black women being black. This was a story about a black girl existing. I would have been so thrilled as a 13-year-old or a 14-year-old to have known that I could just exist, and be whimsical, and listen to the internet, and have a crush on this boy—and drive around listening to Mac DeMarco [who Amandla covers on the Everything, Everything soundtrack!!!].
ANIKA NONI ROSE: It was a full From Here to Eternity moment which is never what we get to do! First of all, you’re not laying your hair down on that sand.
ANIKA: That’s beautiful that their romance included water, something that we’re [black women] supposed to be afraid of.
AMANDLA: I remember a conversation with Stella before we shot. I said, “So the studio wants my hair to be natural? They don’t want me to wear a weave? They don’t want it to be straight?” And she was like, “No!” I said, “Really?” I couldn’t believe it.
On protagonists who represent the complexities of who we are:
ANIKA: It was a thrilling thing for me to read this story and the sort of enchanted forest feeling of it, and realize that it was for us. I kept thinking, not heavily…but I know that the feeling was there that we were going to end up talking about the fact that she was sick and he’s white. “You might die, and he’s white.” [Laughter] And I was so thankful that it never became a part the narrative. We could just have lives happening. I was so glad to play a woman [Maddy’s mother Pauline], who, yes, is Type-A, and there are a lot of Type-A black women in the media right now, but she’s very accomplished…
AMANDLA: She’s rich! [Giggles]
STELLA: She’s got money!
JAMIA: I thought she was the next Clair Huxtable.
ANIKA: Exactly, but a little less warm and fuzzy. But also, to see that she’s damaged. [Pauline] is allowed to be wounded. And that wound has nothing to do with what society has done to her, or what her parents went through, but something immediate—the loss of family, and the depth of grief—and what we don’t talk about actively in the movie but it really is a part of it—how we as a culture deal with, or don’t deal with grief and loss. It’s an amazing conversation. We, as women, push forward.
We move forward because we have to. My character moves forward because her life is now, right here, her child. That’s where all of her light and energy and life is going. She’s living through her child and for her child, and so many of us do that. There’s something beautiful, amazing and powerful about that, and there’s also something sad and worrisome and scary about it. Because ultimately it is not fair. It’s an amazing thing to give a child, for them to know that they are your everything. But there’s an unfairness because it puts a tremendous amount of burden on them at the very same time. Often it is the burden of womanhood.
What an amazing thing to play this mother who is so many things. When I think of her, I think of a beautifully crafted vase, and you pick it up and you hear all of the broken pieces inside. So, to do this, with my character’s black girl child, and her Latina nurse who also has her own life and amazing mind…Nicola wrote this. Stella shepherded it. I was like, what are we saying, what kind of gift is this? They said “Amandla” and I said, “Yeah!”
That was a deciding factor for me because, you know, mothers on screen are a dime a dozen. Half the time you don’t even know who the hell they are, what their name is on TV or what their name is in real life.
STELLA: They kind of have those scenes where they come in. Come out. Goodbye.
ANIKA: Yes! The mother. But this is a woman who is so much more. We get to have real conversations with each other. Not that stilted conversation between parents and their child where somebody’s talking at somebody and responding in the least amount of words possible.
AMANDLA: It’s a nuanced mother-daughter relationship. It’s not the traditional black mother you see. Well, it is because we’re black. But…
AMANDLA: But we’re allowed to look at all the other parts of it. We’re not just being shown one facet of a mother-daughter relationship in a black family. You’re seeing the love, the pain, the relentless protection…
NICOLA: The connection. The friendship.
AMANDLA: Yes! The connection, friendship, and the sisterhood. It’s special to me. Me and my mom are really close friends. You don’t usually see that represented with black families.
ANIKA: “I’m not your friend, I’m your mama!”
AMANDLA: “I’m your mama!”
JAMIA: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!”
AMANDLA: Right! Not all relationships are like that in black families.