Producers of The Simpsons, the longest-running scripted show on TV in the U.S., recently declared that they would stop using white actors to voice characters of colour. It is a climate of change in the entertainment business following the protests against the death of George Floyd in the US. Much before the protests brought matters of race and colour to the forefront of socio-political discussions in the US, veteran television actor Janet Hubert had always been aware of the lack of diverse characters and content in popular entertainment channels, books and products for children.
Last week, she signed an agreement with Thiruvananthapuram-based Toonz Media Group for a new animation project, JG and the BC Kids, which has characters from diverse backgrounds. “It is about a smart young woman with super powers who travels around the world nurturing children from multi-cultural communities,” says Janet during a Skype interview with MetroPlus.
Her determination and creative pursuit to create such a bunch of characters began 27 years ago when her son, Elijah Rock, was born. “The moment I knew I was having a son, I knew I was in trouble because of the way the world views black men, because of the way the world views black people. And my heart felt sick because I knew it would be way difficult for him than anyone else although he was good in academics and loved maths, science and dinosaurs,” she says.
Janet adds that she was careful to give him “things that were non-generic and non-racist.”
“We did not do Santa Claus because as a black mother, I could not have a white guy coming down the chimney and giving my kid gifts and taking the credit for my hard-earned money,” she says with a laugh.
Even while shopping for him, she was appalled to find nothing that would appeal to her son, something that he could identify with. “At that age, it is very difficult, they are not little kids, they are not big kids either. My son was my inspiration, and my frustration as a black mother was also my inspiration,” she points out.
Recalling a time when her son was bullied and teased in class because of his identity, she says she felt helpless and isolated because there was nothing she could do to help her son. “We hold their hand, help them cross the road and then when they reach a certain age, we throw them into a bus. And we say to them ‘now you are a big boy, you are in that big bus with a lot of kids you don’t even know’. That is when the bullying starts. That is when they can be uplifted or broken.”
However, a friend of hers gave her a CD of ‘Rock and Roll Dinosaur’ and “truly inspired me to create JG and the BC kids” says Janet.
Level playing field
Indefatigable in her mission to create characters, content, apparel and accessories that children from multi-cultural backgrounds could identify with, Janet tried to even the playground by creating JG.
To popularise the characters, she went all out and frequented malls and popular outlets dressed as the character and telling her stories. “It was all about being a famous mom with a son. Mothers loved the stories and the products I had designed but I could not hold on for too long,” rues Janet.
Several years later, while convalescing after a cornea replacement surgery, her friend motivated her to reprise JG and the BC kids. “I thought perhaps it was ahead of its time when I created it first. But now, the climate is right for such a series. With the success of films like Black Panther, you would think that this is a good time to do this but it was not easy to find a producer who would work with me,” she says.
And that is when she happened to meet Toonz CEO P Jayakumar at Kidscreen Summit 2019 in Miami. They met, discussed and before long, reached an agreement to animate JG and the BC kids, which is meant for children between the ages of five and nine.
Janet Granite, a.k.a. JG, is a super intelligent and athletic scientist and inventor who travels the world to find special kids. JG motivates the children to be confident about who they are, no matter what they look like or what their interests are. A group of talking dinosaurs with their own superpowers helps her as she works with these kids and fights off the evil Dr. Zandor who wants to control Earth. JG & the BC Kids encourages kids to embrace differences, to find their own strengths, and to be confident and courageous in life, according to a statement from Toonz.
“We have an all-women, all-black team writing the series and have come up with amazing addition to the cast,” says Janet.
Actor, writer, producer and director Ericka Nicole Malone (Executive Producer) and Philip Robinson are co-producing JG and the BC Kids along with Toonz.
“JG is strong and super-smart. She proves that you can be both. It is past time to bring street-smart kids and book-smart kids together to create ‘life smart’ kids and do it in a fun, exciting way,” says Janet.