Millicent Shelton started her career as a wardrobe production assistant on Spike Lee’s 1989 classic Do the Right Thing. That opportunity served as a springboard to a directing career of her own across music videos, television, and film. Her direction of the 30 Rock episode “Apollo, Apollo” would make her the first Black woman to receive an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series.
With Netflix’s End of the Road (currently streaming), Shelton again works with star and producer Queen Latifah. In the film, Latifah plays Brenda, a recently widowed mother who loses her home in Los Angeles. After deciding to move home to Houston, Brenda travels across the Southwest with her brother (Ludacris) and two children (Mychala Lee, Shaun Dixon). On the journey, they run afoul of a major crime boss thanks to a bag of money that holds the potential to change their lives. The film asks viewers to experience the world through the eyes of this troubled Black family as they hold together in the face of traumatic danger.
Here, in an interview with Awards Daily, Millicent Shelton talks about what drew her to the project and what it’s like to work with Queen Latifah both in front of and behind the camera. She talks about the film’s vivid color palate and the joyous luck in finding four actors who held so much natural chemistry together. Finally, she talks about the importance of inclusivity and the recent conversation around two major television series — HBO’s House of the Dragon and Amazon Studio’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power — who cast Black actors in major roles within the series.
Awards Daily: I’d like to start with recent controversies related to specific audiences rejecting inclusive efforts on such major projects as Rings of Power and House of the Dragon. How do you as a filmmaker react to that in a modern filmmaking environment? Does it make you even more determined to pursue inclusive projects?
Millicent Shelton: It does. I tend to be a little bit of a rebel. I like to push against what people perceive as the norm. So the perception we have had in television and cinematically has been very Caucasian. Not only are white Americans used to that, but so are Black Americans or Asian Americans or Latino Americans. That’s how a lot of body dysmorphia happens to Black girls and Latino girls and Asian girls. They don’t see people like them represented as images of beauty. There’s a movement now to change that.
I honestly think that’s what our country fought for — to have representation and freedom. If we’re going to truly embrace what we say this country is about which is about embracing diversity and about the melting pot, then we should embrace that in front of and behind the camera as well. I honestly believe that we are stronger when we are like that. To me, diversity is not making an all Black film, not that I’m against that. I think diversity is a mix of everybody, and it’s not just different colors. It’s also different religions. It’s different sexual preferences. It’s diversity of all, and that’s what makes us as a country stronger because we get to experience a lot of different people’s perspectives. I think that our creativity is better that way.
In this film, we had a mix of everyone in all key positions. We really functioned that way. I like to say that we were a crew that went through a lot of strenuous situations. We survived it as a team, and we survived it as a family. We were a very diverse family, but we survived it as a family.
AD: So you have a Brazilian production designer and an Asian American cinematographer. The film has a very international visual flair. The roadside motel, in particular, doesn’t look like any I’ve ever seen. In fact, the entire color palate for the film is incredibly vibrant and bursting with deep, vivid colors.
MS: [The motel room] is my Brazilian production designer. It’s interesting because we kept looking for motel rooms, and we could not find them. They’re all too little. So we decided to build it, but we had seen a reference for this one in a motel that doesn’t exist anymore. It had cherubs on the wall, and that was it — Lucio’s [Seixas, production designer] brain started to go. Our whole vision for this film was exaggerated reality. I wanted to push it outside of the realm of just playing on normal. So the idea of making these rooms a little over the top I embraced. We embraced the color too because we wanted extreme colors. That was kind of tough because we were shooting in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and a lot of the buildings there are beige. So, we found a gas station with a lot of color and a motel with a lot of color. Then, we added the neon tubes all around. Some people are freaked out by the color palette in this movie, but as an artist, I think sometimes we should push the boundaries of what people find to be regular.
AD: The film offers this theme of the lack of connectivity, that lack of civilization, where the characters are left to their wits that have been dulled by modern technology. What was it about End of the Road that attracted you as a director?
MS: What originally attracted me was the opportunity to work with Queen Latifah again. We’ve sort of known each other from music videos in New York for a while, worked together on Star, and then the opportunity to work with her again… I just love working with her. Since this movie, we’ve worked together on an episode of Equalizer. She’s a wonderful talent. I read the script because she was attached to it. When I read it, I could relate to this woman who was reeling from the loss. The family was torn apart and found their way back to each other. From adversity, the family actually becomes stronger, and I could relate to that story. I wanted to tell that story, particularly about a Black family but it’s not a story that’s unique to a Black family. However, what they face going through these desolate areas with the racism that happens, both covert and overt, is something that Black people experience in the United States whether anybody wants to admit it or not. That’s something that’s our reality, and I wanted to be able to show that.
AD: As you’ve mentioned, you have worked with Queen Latifah multiple times. What was it like working with her as both an actress and as a producer on this film?
MS: She functions primarily as an actress. She doesn’t throw the weight of the producer title on you. She comes in with a pure heart, and she really is in the state of mind of an actress. When we got into post-production, then she went into producer mode and was really helpful in supporting me through getting this film done. So, it actually worked really well. But as an actress, she shows up prepared, and she’s willing to get feedback. She’s willing to give feedback, which I think is great. I love to get feedback from actors because I really admire what actors bring to the table as they bring a different sensibility than even the writers or the director brings because they live through the spirit of a character. When I hear what their thoughts are about the words and what’s happening to that character, I really take that to heart. I find that it makes all the scenes better.
All the times in the movie where she makes reference to her dead husband, that’s all Latifah. I lost my mother a month before we went into prep on this movie, and so I was reeling from that loss. She said, ‘You know, when you lose somebody, you talk to them. They stay with you.’ And so we talked about it. We picked moments in the film when Brenda would say something to her husband. That’s how those moments came alive. That’s all from the actor having a thought about the spirit of the character.
AD: The film rises on those moments of that core family group. How did you work with those four actors to build that incredible chemistry that really comes across on screen?
MS: The chemistry actually was there naturally. It’s interesting. Queen Latifah actually recommended Ludacris for the role of Reggie. After the first time I talked to him, I was like he’s Reggie. He’s not really Reggie in real life, but when we were talking about it, he understood Reggie. The next person that we cast was Mikayla, who plays the daughter, and she just stood out amongst everybody. She’s a wonderful actress. I just actually got to work with her again on a couple of episodes of Truth Be Told for Apple. We did a lot of chemistry test reads with her and the potentials for the brother, and Shawn read and it was just immediately chemistry. You just saw brother and sister. They went at it. They were ad libbing, and they just went at it. It was just like another brother and sister. Then, we had a cast dinner a few nights before the first day of shooting. It was just those four characters, and we had a really lovely long dinner. We just were all talking about our lives and our dreams and kind of where we came from. They started to bond as a family, and the rest was just magic. They really felt like a real family. They had nicknames for each other and everything.
AD: Last question for you: let’s say you have the keys to the kingdom. You’ve worked in television, you’ve worked in streaming, you’ve worked in film, and you’ve worked in music videos. You’ve done a little bit of everything. If there were no barriers and budget wasn’t a concern, then what would be your dream project?
MS: I have a dream project right now I want to do. I want to do a limited series about Josephine Baker starring Ruth Negga. That’s what I want to do.
End of the Road is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.