From UAA to PBS: Producing a better television landscape

by Matt Jardin  |   

Princess Daazhraii Johnson
Princess Johnson earned her master's in teaching and learning from UAA in 2017. Today she serves as creative producer on "Molly of Denali" - the first nationally distributed children's series to feature an Alaska Native lead character. The show will premiere in summer 2019 on PBS KIDS. (Photo courtesy of Princess Johnson)

In this age of "peak TV" where more quality scripted programs are produced and made available on more viewing platforms than ever before, people of color are still underrepresented, accounting for roughly 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue, according to a 2016 University of Southern California study.

But Princess Daazhraii Johnson hopes to change that.

Johnson, who is Neets'aii Gwich'in and a teaching and learning master's graduate, serves as creative producer on the show Molly of Denali, an animated action-adventure comedy premiering in summer 2019 on PBS KIDS, and the first nationally distributed children's series to feature an Alaska Native lead character.

The show follows the exploits of resourceful 10-year-old Molly Mabray in the fictional village of Qyah, Alaska. Each of the planned 38 episodes feature Molly as she helps her mom and dad run the Denali Trading Post and goes on adventures with her dog Suki and her friends Tooey and Trini.

Tantamount to the educational component of Molly of Denali is the fact that the series gives Alaska Native youth the opportunity to see themselves represented positively in the media, which is an appeal that resonated closely to Johnson and the main reason she joined the production.

"I didn't see myself at all growing up. I didn't see any representation of us as Alaska Native people in a positive light," describes Johnson. "That definitely has a negative impact on how Alaska Native youth view themselves. I think we can never underestimate the power of media in that regard. Having more input into how our image is represented in media is huge."

According to Johnson, creating a culturally respectful program works best if the mentality starts early and "above the line" - a media production term referring to roles that influence the creative direction of a project, such as writers, producers and directors. This practice is especially true on Molly of Denali, where a number of key positions above the line are occupied by Alaska Native talent, including many of the scriptwriters and voice actors.

The show also enlists the help of an Alaska Native advisory group in Fairbanks made up of Luke Titus, Dewey Hoffman, Rochelle Adams and Adeline Raboff. In the earliest stages of production, the producers and writers met with the advisory group to listen to and draw from their wisdom and experiences. A lot of them continue to consult on the show, working to ensure the accuracy of everything from the pronunciation of the languages to the appearance of local wildlife.

"They were such wonderful sessions. It was really crucial to understand the true history as told through our eyes," shares Johnson. "From the very beginning they went about things in a good way, engaging with Alaska Native people in a respectful manner, and the fruit of that is a show that feels authentic."

Johnson's position as creative producer on the show seems almost tailor-made for her unique and extensive background in advocacy, filmmaking and education.

Originally an international relations major at George Washington University, Johnson's plan was to affect change by continuing to law school and becoming a tribal lawyer. Instead, after earning her B.A. she ended up getting accepted into the Native American and Indigenous Film Program at the Sundance Institute — an intensive writing and directing fellowship committed to developing and supporting the voices of Native American artists.

After exploring her potential as an actor and filmmaker in New York and Los Angeles, Johnson came back to Alaska to take advantage of the state's then-burgeoning film incentive program. Once again, her career path pivoted back to advocacy as she became the executive director of the Gwich'in Steering Committee where her work focused on the protection of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Johnson's career path would pivot once more.

"While being in D.C. and speaking and engaging, something in me wanted to be as prepared as possible and to delve deeper into these issues," says Johnson. "I was feeling like it was finally time to get my master's."

Her timing was perfect. As Johnson was preparing to go back to school, UAA launched the Center for Research and Alaska Native Education (CRANE) — a graduate program designed to let Alaska Native students direct their efforts on the issues that matter to them. With the freedom provided by CRANE, Johnson studied issues including ecofeminism, ecojustice and ethical consumerism, culminating in her earning her master's degree in education in 2017.

"My life's journey has been surprising and has gone in all these different directions. Shortly after I got my degree, this show came along. Eventually we're going to work on a curriculum that will go along with the series, so to have that background was perfect," she says.

A still from the upcoming PBS KIDS show "Molly of Denali." (©2018 WGBH Educational Foundation)
A still from the upcoming PBS KIDS show "Molly of Denali." (©2018 WGBH Educational Foundation)

As if Molly of Denali didn't give her enough to be excited about — or enough to stay busy — the production is planning on offering additional workshops for voice acting and scriptwriting. She hopes that in time, these workshops can create opportunities for fellow Alaska Natives to secure their own positions.

"It was really important to me when I came on board to make as many opportunities as possible for other Native creatives," explains Johnson. "I benefited a lot from similar programs. I've had a lot of wonderful mentors and people who took the time with me and I think it's really important to create those inroads for other people."

Johnson likens these efforts to a larger shift currently taking place, as more people of color are taking on the writing, producing and directing roles on major Hollywood blockbusters to critical and commercial success.

"There's still a long way to go. Some people still have a mentality where they think it's too much work. But I think right now, Hollywood has their eyes open with the success of Black Panther, Taika Waititi directing Thor and Ava DuVernay directing A Wrinkle in Time. People are getting keen to the idea and my hope is that we continue to see these changes," she describes.

For now, Johnson and the rest of the Molly of Denali crew are doing their best to juggle the stress of producing an animated show while maintaining cultural authenticity and staying on schedule for their summer 2019 debut.

Recently, a test screening of the pilot episode was held at an elementary school in Fairbanks. In attendance were about 20 students in the show's 4- to 8-year-old target audience, as well as a handful of parents and teachers. If the reception at the test screening is any indication, audiences have a lot to look forward to when the show premieres next summer.

"Everyone just loved it. The kids were really captivated and the parents and teachers were just blown away. It's not just going to be kids watching this show. It's going to be parents and grandparents. It's intergenerational, which is true to our communities. I think our audience and the Alaska Native people are going to feel pretty good about seeing such a positive depiction of our people and rural Alaska."

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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