Choreographer Jemel McWilliams is now an Emmy nominee thanks to his work on Janelle Monae‘s “Come Alive” performance that opened the 2020 Oscars. The production number featured numerous dancers behind Monae who were dressed as characters from notable films from 2019 that were mostly overlooked in nominations, including Black-led movies like “Dolemite Is My Name,” “Queen & Slim” and “Us.” It was a striking way to open a show that only saw one Black actor nominated. “I have seen progress but I have also desired more and progress with regards to inclusivity,” says McWilliams in an exclusive new interview with Gold Derby, “and this year, I just felt honored that it seemed like they opened that door and they made a bold statement.” Watch the exclusive video interview above.
Very few people knew exactly what Monae would be performing on the Oscars stage leading up to the ceremony, but she and McWilliams preferred it that way, letting the work speak for itself. By having a Black, queer artist open the Oscars, McWilliams points out that it ended up being more fitting than they could have anticipated considering the cultural conversations we would be having in the months to come about Black representation in media. “We had no idea how 2020 was going to turn out in February when we did this but now to see where 2020 has gone, I think this has become probably the best year for something like this to happen and be presented to the world.” McWilliams instructed his dancers to perform “from our heart and our souls” and even while operating as a unit, to still express themselves in their own unique ways. “The theme was ‘Come Alive.’ These characters are coming alive. Characters and different and souls are different, so for me, it was important for everyone to bring their individuality to it.”
Following the Academy Awards performance, McWilliams has kept busy while adjusting to the realities of choreographing under quarantine. His work was on display on John Legend‘s father’s day special as well as the EGOT winner’s song for the “One World: #TogetherAtHome” concert. While McWilliams admits that it is more difficult under the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also allowed him to find new ways of teaching. “It’s been a creative stretch but I love it.”
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