Guest Essay: Seeing Myself in Mary Tyler Moore

Guest Essay: Seeing Myself in Mary Tyler Moore

When Lena Waithe called and asked if I wanted to direct a film about Mary Tyler Moore, I said, “Absolutely.” But I quickly added that I knew nothing about Mary and had never seen any of her work: “Maybe I’m the wrong person?”

“But you’ll do a deep dive; you’ll be thorough,” Lena replied, “and your usual objective and sensitive self?”

“Always.”

And that was true. We were thorough, objective and always empathetic. But I was afraid to wonder aloud how a Black man goes about making his feature directorial debut about one of the most influential women in Hollywood television history — a white woman at that— without messing it up and while being a credit to his people. Lena Waithe and Debra Martin Chase are Black, brilliant and prolific filmmakers, women who stuck their necks out for me. They are my people. And Mary Tyler Moore was theirs.

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Courtesy of Elle Quintana/James Adolphus

Where does one start such a massive endeavor? At the beginning of Mary’s career, and the 158 episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show, or with the first of the 168 episodes of her namesake sitcom?

Ultimately, I embarked on my journey with Mary Tyler Moore immersed in her 1995 autobiography, After All. Mary remained, until her death in 2017, a measured woman who — as the song goes — could turn the world on with her smile. She wasn’t known for expressing vulnerability in public. Yet she felt safe enough within the pages of her autobiography to pull back the veil and reveal her guarded self. It was as if Mary was telling her admirers that if you really wanted to know her, you’d first have to get comfortable with the woman who felt more like a failed dancer than she did a hugely successful actress. You will have to get to know a woman who lost her only child. You may have to accept that your hero is more a mirror of yourself than she is an impervious icon who should be placed on a pedestal.

That resonated deep within me. On those pages was a person I was immediately connected to. She was human. And although I wasn’t yet a fan of Mary’s body of work, since I had yet to watch a single frame, I found loving Mary Tyler Moore easy.

Ben Selkow, the film’s producer and my business partner at Good Trouble Studios, would introduce me to Mariah Rehmet, the brilliant editor who cut Being Mary Tyler Moore. When Mariah and I first sat down together, I explained that I wanted Mary to have the first and the last word in the film and that, as far as the point of view was concerned, the documentary should be led by Mary’s voice. I stressed that the documentary should never shy away from showing her pain, nor should it hide her traumas or shame her for her shortcomings. Mary was, after all, human and in need of the same loving protection as the rest of us. Mariah agreed, and we set about figuring out the puzzle.

But “how” was a mystery, given that Mary had passed away years before her loving husband, Dr. S. Robert Levine, had contacted Lena about making the film. And outside the plethora of content Mary Tyler Moore created, there was a real dearth of home movies or behind-the-scenes footage of the actress. There were ample stills from her appearances on film and television, but we knew we needed more content to work with than that to tell Mary’s story well, and I was still searching for my way in.

Mariah and I started watching. Everything.

First, we began with interviews Mary had sat for over the years. Given that the discovery process in documentary film is predictably challenging, it was quite the find a couple of months in when we discovered the David Susskind interview. Susskind was a prominent talk show host widely recognized for his innovative and intellectual programming. Still, my introduction to him was from the shameful interview he conducted in 1966 with Mary (more on this later) when she was fresh off the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show. It’s that interview that opens the film.

Throughout the filmmaking, I gleaned insights into what it means and feels like to walk through the world as a woman by leaning into the lived experiences of our editor, Mariah, and associate editor, Allea Ortega. They are not only notable filmmakers; they were a godsend. Lena Waithe and Debra Martin Chase never held back, and like many Black men before me, I, too, could stand on their shoulders.

But through Susskind, I had my way in. I was able to answer the question of how a Black man goes about making a film about Mary Tyler Moore, because I understood exactly what Mary was experiencing while holding her ground as Susskind effortlessly exuded the kind of patronizing misogyny that is part and parcel with American patriarchy. “Don’t you think working mothers, whatever their jobs, sort of shortchange their children emotionally?” the journalist asked Mary. Even with 60 years’ worth of hindsight, that line of questioning still exists today.

As a Black man who understands racism, it is unfortunately easy for me to comprehend the profound impact of American patriarchy on women. Both systems of oppression have shaped this country’s history. Empathizing with the struggles faced by women, particularly women of color — and in the case of our film, with Mary Tyler Moore — I shuddered while watching the Susskind interview because I, too, in a different way have an intimate relationship with the compounding effects of gender and racial discrimination. With that interview, I was able to start the film at the intersection of patriarchy and racism that Susskind perpetuated while interviewing Mary. That moment displayed the harmful stereotypes and limits to opportunities for women to thrive and lead. Being Mary Tyler Moore never needed to explicitly acknowledge this intersectionality, but it allowed me a way in by opening on a shared experience and subtly advocating for dismantling these oppressive systems.

The Susskind opening can now serve as an elegant depiction of the run-of-the-mill confrontations that Mary, and generations of people who do not identify as white and/or male, have endured at the business end of American patriarchy.

The rest of the film didn’t fall neatly into place, but we always kept our compass. Mary provided that within the pages of her autobiography.

With the film out in the world, I hope audiences, whether they are already fans of Mary’s or were introduced to her through the documentary, see themselves in her story, just as I did.

This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.