Lisa Cunningham had a sense of what it would look like, but when she saw it for the first time, she was overcome. The Atlanta video and commercial director/producer — part of Netflix’s national campaign for the new Tales of the City — is among gay residents from six cities who appear on billboards for the limited series.
The new Tales of the City continues the stories of residents past and present at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco, where Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) reigns, counsels and connects the disparate souls who’ve found refuge there. The original six-episode miniseries, which aired in 1993, was based on the novels and characters of Armistead Maupin.
Netflix hired queer photographer Soraya Zaman to interview and shoot gay people in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York City and San Francisco for its campaign. Cunningham was one of nine Atlantans involved, and now her life-size image is high off the ground and alongside series regulars Ellen Page (Shawna Hawkins), Charlie Barnett (Ben Marshall) and Murray Bartlett (Michael “Mouse” Tolliver). You can see the billboards on Centennial Olympic Park Drive (north of Marietta Street) and on East Paces Ferry Road (east of North Fulton Street).
Netflix was seeking Atlantans who were “disrupters, game-changers and community activists,” Cunningham says, and reached out to interview and photograph her in the spring. Netflix reps spoke to her specifically about what Pride and coming out meant to her.
“It was beautiful to be able to tell her how I fit into the LGBT community from an Atlanta perspective and what it was like growing up in an LGBT space,” she says. “We also talked about the history of the city. Martin Luther King Jr. is from the city, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the spirit that lived in him still lives today. One of his right hands was Bayard Rustin, who helped him organize the March on Washington. Bayard was a gay man. Atlanta has always been the city that is too busy to hate, and I am part of that. That is why we have such a strong LGBT community. We were one of the only cities that didn’t have riots.”
Cunningham has worked in the industry for more than 25 years. As a student at the University of Georgia, she spent summers visiting the sets of music videos. The first one was life-changing. “I felt like I had found home,” she recalls. Since then, she’s produced nearly 500 music videos, working with TLC, Kris Kross, Xscape and other artists. She directed Atlanta rapper Gucci Mane’s first video, So Icey, and has had her hand in commercials, including one for McDonald’s “McWrap” with actor Mike Epps.
In 2010, she became a producer at Radiant3, a creative full-service production company and, in 2014, founded Atlanta Film Partners. She produces and directs with Radiant3; her goal for Atlanta Film Partners is “to reach back into the community as well as connect creatives with resources and opportunities.” She also offers training. Recent projects include gigs with the History Channel, producing a segment on the legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. for the 50th anniversary of his assassination; the Fulton County Board of Health, for a Stop ATL HIV campaign video; and brands such as W Hotels, where she oversaw a “Pursuit of Pride” branding piece. She’s also made charity work a priority, primarily with re:imagine/ATL and the Black Women’s Health Imperative, where she spearheaded a series of videos.
Much has changed in the industry since the early 1990s and her time on music video sets. “The difference between the two worlds is that back then, from a technology standpoint, we didn’t have access to the cameras and other things. When we produced, when we were part of a production, that was an amazing [accomplishment], and everyone respected that process. No one had a friend who had a camera in their pocket. It was technology that made people not revere the process. The good part, though, is that more people have access to be able to produce. You don’t have to wait.”
The way the industry sees Atlanta has changed too. “When my buddies would come in from Los Angeles, they would say ‘Why don’t you just move here? Why are you staying in this wasteland of Atlanta?’ Now the shoe is on the other foot. Every day we get calls from people trying to make connections. It is wonderful, and we will not let any legislation deter us.” That statement refers to Georgia’s so-called Heartbeat Bill, which makes abortions beginning at six weeks’ gestation a crime and has stirred calls for studios to stop filming here.
Cunningham’s passion is making people happy. She loves to give her clients an “aha” moment. “Through being a content creator you can make people laugh, cry or even get angry. My goal is to bring all of those emotions out of you and perhaps to influence people to see the world a little bit differently than they did before.”
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms last year chose Cunningham for the city’s inaugural LGBTQ Advisory Board, and Cunningham cochairs the board’s arts, culture and entertainment committee. One of her goals is unifying the area’s LGBT filmmakers. “I am on the soapbox about bringing people together and developing our own content for this market,” she says.
Cunningham remembers the original Tales of the City and is happy to be associated with the new version. “For me, community is finding the humanity in all of us, which makes me think of Tales of the City. Community is where our heart is and where respect lives. My favorite takeaway is that community and family are where you find them. I think that speaks to the queer community more than anything. Oftentimes, people in the queer community are ostracized by their families — and they have to go into the community to find their own family.”