Chatting about alternate endings to Don't Look Up with Heather McTeer Toney (@HeatherMcTeer)
Date: Mar 29 2022, Twitter Spaces
Host: Heather McTeer Toney, Vice president of community engagement at the Environmental Defense Fund
Outline of the chat:
We were both invited by Netflix to write alternate endings to the Oscar-nominated film Don't Look Up. Describe the inspiration behind your ending.
Kudos to Netflix for realizing the power of inclusive and happy endings! What does "survival" mean as a climate activist?
(All discussion paraphrased unless it's in direct quotes)
***SPOILER ALERT BELOW***
Heather McTeer Toney: The Oscars were last weekend, Don't Look Up — the star-studded comet/climate change satire movie — was nominated for four awards but didn’t win. The filmmakers explicitly said their inspiration was the lack of action on climate change, but apparently Netflix wasn't 100% satisfied with the ending so they asked YOU AND ME OF ALL PEOPLE, LOL (along with 12 other climate leaders) to write new endings.
It was definitely an interesting exercise. The only rule Netflix gave us was that everyone had to live. And we had to start at the riot scene in the middle of the film. What was the inspiration for your ending, Eric?
Eric Holthaus: I think Don't Look Up was a pretty great movie. But yeah, it's arguably not helpful to watch the film devolve into apathy towards the end.
I modeled my story after the Paris Agreement, which was a real-life success story where small island states came together and demanded a bolder solution and won. So in my ending, the front-line climate countries of the world came together and built a rocket ship in Uganda.
What was the inspiration behind your ending, Heather?
HMT: I watched the movie and I did not see myself. That’s so descriptive of today. Black and brown people are so often left out in discussion of climate solutions.
So I wrote from the perspective of Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, who is pretty much the only person of color in the whole film, and he’s being ignored. I wrote about his mother, Dr. Tanika Oglethorpe Greene – and I very specifically chose a traditional African American name for her so you're aware of who she is. She’s watching her son being ignored, and in a room with a group of other women gathered around a metal statue of Harriet Tubman. This is like all the Marvel superheroes assembled, and just really tired of people ignoring them.
In my story, there is this organization of diverse communities from around the world, and they had long known about a comet coming, so they were prepared. The same way that Indigenous communities see the planet, and see themselves in nature. They know the answers to our problems but no one has listened to them.
The story here is we just need y’all to let us do what we do. To deploy our resources, trusting us to move society forward.
EH: It seems that what's most missing from the climate movement, and from society in general, is that we should be listening to each other more.
HMT: Communities move at the speed of trust. There’s a lot of trust we have to repair. There’s some hard conversations that we have to have. There's a lot of work to be done before we come to that reality that no one is left out. That everyone has a role.
So there’s no room for inaction. Kudos to Netflix for saying “fix it” and demanding better endings.
When we collaborate, when we respect community voices, it opens the door to solutions you may not have thought of. At this moment in planetary history, the people who have been in power for too long have to have the willingness to let a more diverse range of people be the engine behind creative solutions.
EH: Yes, change can happen much more quickly than people think. Here in St. Paul, we have an African American mayor who has pledged to rebuild a historically Black neighborhood — Rondo — and do it in a climate-forward way. He got there by listening to community voices.
What does it mean for you, personally, to be asked to change the ending?
HMT: Often people of color are not seen in the climate movement. That’s the reason I got involved in climate work.
When I watched this movie, and I watched it progress to the ending it did, I felt a little anger.
My presence in North America is steeped in survival. My people survived. The blood of resiliency is running through my veins. We have no right to give up.
EH: For me, I felt sadness at the ending. It’s interesting that I got the feeling the directors wanted me to feel, and you felt the opposite.
HMT: There's this scene in Gone With The Wind where Atlanta has burned up. And the main white woman is just sitting there sobbing in this burning house, while the slave sort of slaps her back to reality and says, "Wake up, we need to survive."
There’s not room for this hopelessness.
People who have lived through past traumatic transformations have survived. What gives us any right or authority to give up on this moment? We can figure this out.
That’s the angst I have. We don’t have time for the tears and hopelessness. We’re going to survive.
Now I'm from the South, and I've been here talking with folks in New Orleans since Katrina. We saw dead bodies floating. In the 15 years since Katrina, do you think those people didn’t teach their children how to swim?
There's this spirit of, "We’re gonna work together, and we’re gonna figure this out." Everybody could learn a lot from New Orleans. Come hell or high water quite literally we’re going to meet in that community. And when we get there it’s going to be a party.
“Operation HARRIET” by Heather McTeer Toney, JD
Dr. Tenika Oglethorpe Greene watches her son, Teddy, leave the Bojo Mambo’s riots. She turns to face multicultural leaders. Once again, they’ve come to gather at the ancient Kauri wood table. A metal statue of Harriet Tubman sits in the center.
Mother Matis of the Amazon tribes: “Another global crisis. Again we’re ignored? This cannot continue.”
Dr. Greene presses a button on the statue. “No, it cannot, it is time.”
A flurry of activity begins as HARRIET springs into action.
Kate stumbles in blindfolded. “Where am I?”
Dr. Greene: “You are at HARRIET HQ — The Habitat Adaptation Reset for Reclamation, Inclusion and Environmental Transformation. Our purpose is to reset and reclaim our society for everyone. Long ago, we knew about the comet and prepared.”
Kate watches as monitors reveal a plan decades in the making. HARRIET diverts the comet but fragments hit. Communities of those least likely to survive, stand. The world is shocked but safe.
Dr. Greene: “The world did not pay attention to people who look like us... Until now. Trust HARRIET to move society forward.”
Kendrick’s Lamar’s “Alright” plays.
Watching this unfold, someone in Wakanda whispers, “I’m glad we sent the sisters that small gift of Vibranium.”
“Don’t Look Up, Look Around Us” by Eric Holthaus
Led by Kate Dibiasky, the populist uprising that began at the Bojo Mambo’s restaurant spreads around the world. Very quickly, people begin to realize: No one is going to save us. We’ve got to do this ourselves. The team of Kate, Randall and Teddy begins connecting local mutual aid organizations in hundreds of cities in an attempt to steer the panic into an organized response. Within days, leaders from the Marshall Islands, India, Bolivia, Ukraine, Jamaica, Uganda and Latvia form a World Comet Council to plan a space mission designed to divert the comet. Randall leaves the White House and goes on a worldwide media campaign. Teddy coordinates the technical capability of every country on Earth — including cooks, social workers, teachers. Kate works the phones. Everyone, everywhere, no matter their ability, has a role to help save the planet. While the get-rich-quick scheme at BASH continues unabated — doomed to failure — a launch site on the equator in rural Uganda is quickly erected, with supplies streaming in from all over the world. The comet is diverted successfully, humanity survives. But the biggest victory is the unification of humanity in a shared, common purpose: Solidarity in our time of need.