The stars and director Lexi Alexander discuss the Bad Boys spinoff and the men who resist when women are in charge
LOS ANGELES – In the Bad Boys spinoff, L.A.’s Finest, Gabrielle Union and Jessica Alba play detectives who break the rules and call the shots. This is their female-driven buddy cop series, and yet the two stars still had to deal with men on set putting up resistance.
“You guys want to do this and I want to do this,” says Union, putting on a flustered performance during an interview with NOW, mimicking a male director who refused to comply on set. When that director, whom Union doesn’t identify, questioned who made the decisions, the actor had a snappy reply.
“Oh, you mean the executive producers? You want to call them? Because we’re right here.”
According to Union and Alba, whom I’m speaking with at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills in mid-April, that was among the few moments when they had to “flex” their rank.
The unfortunate thing is that they had to flex at all.
L.A.’s Finest began with Union. She wanted to revisit her Bad Boys 2 character, Syd Burnett, and give the former DEA agent the opportunity to be more than a damsel in distress. Union immediately reached out to Alba, who jumped at the opportunity to team up on the show as executive producer and play Syd’s partner on the LAPD, Nancy McKenna.
The two women spearheaded their own show, but such is the state of the industry that they still have to deal with employees who dismiss their decisions.
“We had one director that was really rude to women, demeaned us a lot and disregarded pretty much everything we said,” Alba recalls, being respectfully coy about details. “And we just said no. We just said, ‘We’re not doing that and you’re not explaining this in a way that makes sense… And then he would, like, explode.”
Alba agrees that women in charge are questioned pretty much all the time. But she also points out that this particular experience is a very isolated situation on their set, with a director whom she describes as “born from a different era.”
In this case, the two women had to call down their showrunners Brandon Margolis and Brandon Sonnier, just so the stubborn director could have two men explain how the show’s power dynamic works.
“Apparently he has a great track record,” Alba explains. “And a lot of people really like to work with him. But then, that’s where that quality of life question comes in. We’d rather take someone who is respectful and kind than someone who’s just a raging asshole.”
Union and Alba’s resistance to general assholery is exactly why Oscar-nominated director Lexi Alexander has nothing but effusive praise for her experience on L.A.’s Finest.
“I had these two women who not only were the lead actors, but they were producers,” says Alexander, who helmed a late-season episode. “And for me, it was heaven.”
Alexander is the Palestinian-German director (and martial arts expert) behind 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, which makes her the first female to helm a Marvel title. She’s directed episodes for shows like Arrow, Supergirl, How To Get Away With Murder and, most recently, L.A.’s Finest.
Courtesy Lexi Alexander.
Lexi Alexander directing on the set of a superhero series.
Alexander is also very vocal about the toxic masculinity and gender biases she’s faced in Hollywood. She’s become a Twitter personality in her own right for all the bullshit she calls out while advocating for marginalized voices in the industry.
I met with Alexander for lunch in West Hollywood, prior to the interview with Union and Alba. I immediately expressed my gratitude to her for getting me away from Beverly Hills, which is where I’m usually trapped on any work trip to Los Angeles.
Beverly Hills has a suffocating air about it. Most people there are well-heeled (or present themselves as such), highly manicured, Insta-ready and have a way about them that can make you (or at least me) shrink. Just stepping out for lunch or down to the hotel lobby, I always want to crawl out of my own skin.
“On most shows, I feel like I’m in Beverly Hills and I don’t belong,” says Alexander. “Everybody else has the power. Whereas I walked on to L.A.’s Finest, and found that the majority of people in power were my kind of people.”
She’s not just referring to Alba and Union (who are exceptionally welcoming, BTW) but also the diverse team they built. The key creatives on L.A.’s Finest include the showrunners Margolis, Sonnier and Pam Veasey and producing director Anton Cropper. When you add Union and Alba into the mix, you have a team that is half women, and only one person among them (Margolis) is not a POC.
“This was a much better experience because there was more of us,” says Alexander, who explains that having such a diverse team backing her made her feel more protected from the bullshit a WOC director would typically face.
“For Lexi, it was like, ‘Do you, boo,’” says Union, who witnessed some of the bullshit Alexander regularly decries.
Union describes how crews would resist certain shots that Alexander wanted to set up, claiming they couldn’t be done. And then Alexander would immediately get behind the camera and lighting and show them exactly how it could be done.
“And so you’d think they would have learned from that,” says Union, who goes on to describe how they didn’t. “Maybe trust her. And just do what the hell she just asked, as opposed to everything she’s trying to do, she’s got to not only fight for, but explain and show you how to do it.”
A scene from LA’s Finest.
“That’s just life as a woman,” Alba adds. “And in all fairness, on our show in particular, the people that did want to do the more interesting stuff did get some pushback. Because everyone’s like, ‘Are we going to run out of light? ‘Are we going to run out of time?’ And that’s just the nature of television. And you do have to push. You have to fight for your cool shots. Not every shot can be the most. But you have to fight for those moments.”
Shots that are “the most” is a Bad Boys pedigree. The 1995 original was Transformers director Michael Bay’s debut feature, showing off the slow-mo, low-angle heroic shots that would become his trademark. Also, explosions.
Full disclosure: Bad Boys was my favourite movie as a pubescent young teen. Bay’s debut was the first popular buddy cop movie to feature two Black leads, as opposed to the chocolate-and-vanilla pairings like, say, Lethal Weapon. The movie plucked Will Smith and Martin Lawrence from the sitcoms I watched as a child, let them guide its swagger, and basked in both their banter and action hero poses. (So yeah, I’m thrilled about the upcoming sequel, Bad Boys For Life.)
But growing older, and generally more aware, I feel the need to apologize for Bad Boys, particularly for the way it can be titillating when photographing women. To be fair, this is also the movie that has Will Smith running through Miami with his shirt open, his sweat glistening in slow-motion.
“Everyone is being objectified,” says Alba, though she agrees that the men get to show off “extra machismo” when framed in an erotic gaze.
The way men and women are shot is a topic Lexi Alexander recently kicked some knowledge about. In an extensive interview about equitable cinematography with CinemaVitas’s Mary Jo Watts, Alexander illustrates how old school habits persist to diminish or objectify women onscreen, whether it’s keeping them out of focus or lighting them to meet impossible beauty standards. She also reveals lighting tactics that don’t give people of colour a fair shake onscreen.
Union explains how those lighting and cinematography tricks are things an actor wouldn’t even be aware of while on set, and would perhaps only realize when seeing the final product.
“You’re at home live tweeting,” says Union. “And you’re like, ‘AHHHH, I’m in darkness!’”
Union says working on L.A.’s Finest has helped teach her about such angles, what a hero shot can look like for women and how certain setups can work against people like her.
“Even though what I’m saying [in a scene] is supposed to be putting someone in their place, they’re in hero light and in hero shots,” says Union. “And even though I’m the hero in this scene, I’m somehow being positioned as the villain. And that’s on purpose. Someone made a conscious choice for that. Now we know. Now we can make corrections in real time. But some of this we’re learning on the fly.
“When people are hipping us to game, we are learning game in real time. So we try and apply it to the next episode.”
L.A.’s Finest premieres on Spectrum in the U.S. on May 13th and on Bravo in Canada (date TBA).