'Smallfoot' Is A Lesson In Not Rewriting History To Make It Better, According To Star Yara Shahidi
"I'm going to sit criss-cross applesauce," Yara Shahidi tells me with a giddy smile. She kicks up her feet and crosses them in her director's chair, leaning back and relaxing now that all the cameras have turned off. I've just told her that I'm only recording the sound of our interview so she doesn't have to play things up for the camera like she's been doing all day long while promoting her new animated musical movie Smallfoot, so she visibly brightens. Now that she no longer has to perform on camera, she's showing me the reality of herself underneath all this glitzy Hollywood movie magic.
But Shahidi has never had trouble getting real in an industry that can be, more often than not, fake. The black, Iranian-American teen has made a name for herself not only through her extensive acting career but also through her social activism. The intersectional feminist constantly uses her celebrity platform to raise her voice about many issues near and dear to her heart like rallying her fellow youths in fighting against institutional racism and sexism — and with the likes of Oprah and Michelle Obama endorsing her, she's doing a pretty great job so far. So it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that her latest project, Smallfoot (in theaters Sept. 28), is about to inspire a whole new generation of young people.
"The message [of the film] was pretty obvious from the get go and I loved the idea that they weren't shying away from it," Shahidi tells me of when she discovered how meaningful Smallfoot truly is. "What I love about it is that it's for all ages and the message is pretty obvious while still being packaged in such a fun and light movie."
On its surface, the film may seem like a fun, fantastical romp about a civilization of Yetis learning that the "myth" about Smallfoots (aka humans) is actually true. But underneath the wacky Looney Tunes-like physical gags, catchy songs that will leave you humming long after the credits roll and hilarious moments you'll be quoting over and over again, there is a much deeper message that hits you about a third of the way through the film. Sure, this is an animated film about abominable snowmen, but it's also an inspiring lesson about not putting blind trust in people in positions of power, not erasing history, and striving for honesty and integrity no matter how hard it might be.
Without spoiling the major beats of the film, every single character in Smallfoot learns one of these important lessons over the course of the movie. But the Yeti village is the most rocked when the discovery of the Smallfoot upends everything the Yetis believed to be true about their history and the rest of the world... especially since the real story was intentionally kept from them.
Shahidi compares the Smallfoot story to what's happening in our country right now. "What we see right now goes back to erasure and that concept where we see an erasing of the truth, more so a very transparent omission of the truth or redefining of it from people in power," she says. "We see how dangerous that is because there is a literal rewriting of what's happening."
The young actor and activist says she sees it every day in both big and small ways, like Colin Kaepernick's peaceful protest of kneeling during the national anthem to call attention to police brutality and racial injustice, only to then be incorrectly judged by the right to be a protest of the flag or military. "When we're viewing the works of activists, when we're reviewing the works of people who are really trying to do the groundwork to make sure that the world is a more inclusive space, a more loving space, a space in which we are valued equally, even their acts are being redefined because of this new truth that is being perpetuated, that what they're doing is not for equity," explains Shahidi.
So like Smallfoot's main character Migo (voiced by Channing Tatum), Shahidi won't back down when it comes to raising her voice and championing the truth, and she hopes others will too. "That's why I feel like this movie is perfect for right now because we're in a moment in which truth is important because it gives context," she says. Instead of ignoring the bad parts of history, Shahidi explains that everyone should come together, face it all head on so the country can learn and grow from it.
"How are you expected to really relate to one another or understand one another if you're erasing a large part of how we became humans and how we came to where we are right now?" she adds.
As a self-proclaimed "history nerd," Shahidi fell in love with the Smallfoot songs and story. "Both the world of the Smallfoot and the Bigfoot represent a world of isolationism in which we don't look at the idea that there could be a life bigger than our own in both a literal and a figurative sense and the dangers of that, the danger of erasing our history for better or for worse," she says. "Our history, and it isn't something that's super pretty, it isn't something that makes people really happy but it's important to acknowledge, good, bad or indifferent."
Of course, Shahidi realizes that not all movies, especially animated musicals, need to have "a crazy huge sociopolitical message." But she believes that it's "really important when you have the attention of families, especially young people, to be able to see these messages because it makes it more digestible."
"We're not talking policies, we're not sitting down and saying let's talk House Bill 2," she adds with a laugh. "We're talking about this mythical magical world and at the same time realizing that it's a comparison to our world."
So when young people see Smallfoot, Shahidi hopes it inspires them all in different ways. "I hope that it starts a conversation about honesty," she says. "I hope it starts a conversation about caring for one another and not judging a book by its cover."
Being a part of the extremely socially conscious cast (along with Zendaya, Gina Rodriguez, Common and LeBron James) "reaffirmed" a lot of Shahidi's passions. But most importantly, it was playing her own Smallfoot character of Brenda, the assistant to a morally-bankrupt TV personality (voiced by James Corden), that Shahidi loved most. "I love Brenda because she is that voice of so fervently standing for integrity," she says. "I even love the idea that she's so willing to walk away. There's a moment where she's literally driving away and that personal power that she holds as a young woman is really cool to see reflected on the big screen."
To help bring more of those characters to life onscreen, Shahidi is turning her attentions from in front of the camera to behind-the-scenes for future projects as a producer, director and writer. "What we're all acknowledging is that for industries to change at face value, they must change inherently in their structure," she says. "In order to feel real inclusivity, it means that the people creating projects must reflect what we're attempting so it's more than just surface level, checking all the boxes. I'm looking forward to being in production and being able to do that on a more systematic level."
If her actions and attitude are any indication, then Shahidi is destined for great things behind the camera as well as in front of it.