Dayton filmmaker Leah Byrd is trying to break down racial and gender boundaries in a new web series called Hot & Bothered. The characters in her series are among the most underrepresented in television: black women and members of the LGBTQ community.
A 2016 report by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that less than 40% of all regularly recurring characters on TV shows are black, and that only 25% of LGBTQ characters are people of color. Leah Byrd’s series Hot & Bothered has both.
Leah's early fascination with YouTube showed her that people could be filmmakers without support from a major film studio.
“When I was in sixth grade I did a whole speech in my English class explaining in detail how you can become a partner with the website YouTube because I was that into it.”
And she still is. Leah’s now 22, she’s graduated from film school at Wright State, and thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, she’s recently finished the first season of her web series Hot & Bothered. She wrote, directed, and stars in each episode. Leah’s releasing the show online not only because it’s what she grew up with, but because she knows her demographic.
“The internet is a more accessible space for people of color, especially queer people of color’s content. I’m in those spaces, I know there’s an audience there online for it and you don’t really see it that often on television -- especially movies. There’s hardly anybody like me that has been able to make it to that ‘old money playhouse.’”
Hot & Bothered revolves around her character, “Liz” a twenty-something biracial lesbian living in Dayton, and “Stan,” Liz’s white, straight friend. At the end of the first episode, Liz starts to make a dating app for lesbians called Scissr -- which the show revolves around.
“That’s more of the narrative," she says. "It’s about this friendship between these two friends that have different levels of privilege, different points of view, and different experiences living in Dayton and how this app sort of challenges their friendship.”
Leah lives with those different privileges, points of view, and experiences every day. Like her character, she too is a biracial lesbian. So, she’s implemented much of her life into the show -- including one scene from the first episode Leah used as one of the preview scenes for the show’s Kickstarter.
“It’s the dinner scene where my character is on a date with seemingly somebody they’ve been talking to for quite some time and they ask her to be their girlfriend," says Leah. "She’s like, ‘Oh no, my family is not okay with it…” yadda yadda'. And my character’s like, ‘Oh, they’re homophobic, I get it…’ blah, blah, blah'. And then it turns out, she’s like, 'Oh, no! It’s not because she’s homophobic, No, oh my God. She coaches softball, He favorite character on ‘Rugrats’ is Phil and Lil’s mom. [Laughs] It’s because you’re black!' And I remember, that was one of my first skit ideas when I wanted to make a web series was that.”
Between the racism and homophobia Leah’s encountered in her life, Hot & Bothered could have had dark and dramatic scenes -- even that dinner scene could have been heavy -- but she chose to frame it with humor to reach people who may have different viewpoints.
“I hope that it’s just planting seeds in a way. I don’t expect it to just flat out change someone’s ideological beliefs. [laughs] But I hope that it brings an idea to someone’s mind from a perspective , ‘Oh, I didn’t think of it that way. Maybe I should reevaluate this idea.'”
It’s also not just experiences from Leah’s life that she’s put in the show -- the character of Stan is loosely based off of her real-life friend Steve, who says seeing someone portray him isn’t weird at all.
“It made me feel [laughs] actually pretty thrilled," says Steve. "It was really fun to have a storyline built with my influence.”
He’s helped Leah out with her film projects in the past, and, while he was considered for the role of Stan at the beginning, he decided against it because of the time commitment. But he did help her out with the writing process by giving her complete freedom over Stan.
“I just basically gave Leah the green light to just say anything she wanted to. The things that were bothering her, I didn’t want her to hold back at all.”
Leah used to edit other people’s videos to enter into competitions, make short videos with friends, and marvel at comedy shows on television hoping to do that someday -- and now she is.
“It’s just crazy because I know if 17-year-old Leah could see what happened to my thesis project. Oh, it’s making me almost want to tear up. Now I’m getting choked up. [laughs]”
The first season of Hot & Bothered will premiere at The Neon on February 8th.