Photographer Carell Augustus Envisions a More Diverse Hollywood

What if Black actors and actresses commanded some of the iconic moments in movies?

That was the premise for photographer Carell Augustus’ book “Black Hollywood: Reimagining Iconic Movie Moments.”

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His tome will be celebrated Thursday night at Sartoria Studio in New York. Although the calls for greater diversity in Hollywood studios and films remain, Augustus is well aware that some people don’t have a grasp for the significance of that need.

To try to change that, the Los Angeles-based talent said he is willing to have conversations about his own “outside-looking-in” upbringing in the ’80s and ’90s and how he never saw a Black girl being crowned as a prom queen in films from that era. Augustus said, “When you see yourself, or a version of yourself, in these movies it cracks open a tiny window in the back of your brain, that those possibilities can be yours as well. That just makes you want to explore and continually walk through life and see things that are available to you. But that isn’t everyone‘s experience.”

The seeds for the project were planted after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. While walking up Runyon Canyon, his music could be heard from people’s homes and cars, as well as in grocery stores and other businesses. Augustus said, “[Regardless of] however you felt about him as an artist, I thought, ‘Wow, what a way to leave a legacy that you were here.’”

That made the photographer want to do something impactful that would reach a lot of people on a lot of different levels. His first image for the book was taken in 2010. It was of “True Blood” actress Aisha Hinds saluting in front of a billboard-size American flag as Gen. George S. Patton. She is one of 70 or so subjects in the book, Augustus said, “Nobody asked me, ‘Why?’” adding that they each arrived fully understanding the history of the character that they had been asked to portray.

Dule Hill
Dule Hill updates an iconic scene from the 1952 film “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Asked what the project says about the current state of Hollywood, Augustus said, “These people are longing for these roles. It’s about dollar and cents in Hollywood — the green, the money and all of that. If the foundation [for diversity] had been set properly, it wouldn’t even be a question.”

The recent Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor Oscars wins by Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” are signs of progress, the photographer said. “That is so inspiring for people who look like them, and look like me. As far as minorities go, it says, ‘Now you have a seat at the table.’”

Making the point that many children of varying backgrounds don’t see racial distinctions — “they just see entertainment” — Augustus said that many people have told him how their children want to look through his book and talk about some of the images. (Shemar Moore and Rochelle Aytes are two of their favorites.)

As “a shy kid growing up in Columbia, South Carolina,” he picked up a camera because people loved to be photographed. A perfectly lit image of a “young, beautiful” Janet Jackson was another incentive and working on his high school yearbook fueled further interest. After serving in the U.S. Army, he studied photography at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California, and later ventured into commercial work, including “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

After meeting Viola Davis on the set of “How to Get Away with Murder,” he photographed her 2016 wedding — the only professional to do so. Capturing images of guests like Oprah Winfrey was his “way of being able to establish” himself in front of such high-profile notables. A wedding day image of Davis and her mother Mae Alice in the actress’ 2022 book “Finding Me” was taken by Augustus. As for the favorites in his own book, Augustus singled out Simbi Kali recreating Janet Leigh’s screaming shower scene from “Psycho.” Augustus said of the latter, “My makeup artist asked, ‘Do you want me to put a wig on her?’ I said, ‘Absolutely not. This loans itself to the idea so let’s lean into it.’“

Simbi Kali
Simbi Kali recreated Janet Leigh’s screaming shower scene from the 1960 thriller “Psycho.”

Aytes’ reimagining of Fay Wray in the original “King Kong” feature, an airborne Corbin Bleu reenacting a take from the 1996 flick “Mission: Impossible,” Vanessa Williams’ reimagining of Elizabeth Taylor’s 1960 “Cleopatra” role and Kelsey Scott impersonating Charlie Chaplin are other favorites.

“As a photographer, these ideas run around in your head for dear life. It was fascinating to see your imagination literally walking in your direction,” Augustus said.

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