Emmy-nominated writer and director Millicent Shelton ’88 has directed music videos for the likes of R. Kelly and Mary J. Blige, along with episodes of The Flash, 30 Rock, Ballers, Scandal, Black-ish, and several other TV shows. But she doesn’t have a single body of work that’s her favorite.
“I see fault in everything I direct,” Shelton explains. “When I don’t, then I will retire.”
A few do stand out, including American Crime, The Flash, Black-ish, and Men of a Certain Age. One of the highlights of Shelton’s career was being the first African-American woman to earn a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series with 2009’s 30 Rock episode “Apollo, Apollo.” The plot revolved around Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) turning 50 and featured the Muppets and Adam West.
“I’m still bummed that I didn’t win! I honestly don’t think about being one of the few African-American female directors while I’m on-set. I think it would be too depressing. I focus on the job and the craft. I want to be the best director possible — period,” Shelton says. “It was an honor to be nominated but very sobering to realize that I was the first one and it was 2009! One day, I plan to win that damn Emmy.”
“When I returned to Princeton, [Sitney] taught me almost everything I know to this day about film theory,” Shelton says.
Her first job in the film industry was as a wardrobe production assistant on 1989’s Do the Right Thing, written and directed by Spike Lee, who was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.
Working on the film was a transformative experience. Shelton slept on the floor of her sister’s Brooklyn brownstone and worked for nothing until earning a promotion to production assistant (“a very small paycheck, but it at least put food in my mouth,” she says). “I had never been on a film set before or with ‘real’ actors. It was amazing to see Ossie Davis transform into Da Mayor as he walked down the street to the set,” she recalls. “I learned so much — and it was the hottest summer in New York City!”
Afterward, Shelton co-wrote a script with music producer Hurby Azor for hip-hop duo Kid ’n Play. Although it was never completed, the project led to her directing the videos for two Salt-n-Pepa songs, “Expressions” and “Let’s Talk About Sex.” She eventually founded her own production company and directed almost 100 music videos.
Shelton wrote and directed the 1998 comedy feature Ride. However, the script was changed in pre-production without her knowledge, souring her experience on the project and disillusioning her with the film industry. Actor Dean Cain ’88, a friend and classmate, encouraged her to try directing television.
Since then, she’s directed more than 60 TV episodes, spanning drama, comedy, and action. “I think the knowledge of all three has made me a better director,” she says. “I can bring heart to a comedy, momentary lightness to a drama, and both to an action show. It keeps everything fresh for me.”