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How a 3-year-old Rihanna meme led to a real-life heist movie with an all-black creative dream team

That Rihanna/Lupita heist meme spent three years on Tumblr. Now it’s becoming a Netflix movie.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Rihanna, Lupita Nyong’o, Ava DuVernay, and Issa Rae: Apparently it takes a meme to round up a Hollywood dream team like this.

As reported earlier this week by Entertainment Weekly, all four women have signed up to helm a heist movie that began its life as a viral Tumblr post. That meme spread to Twitter, where it caught the attention of its subjects, Rihanna and Nyong’o, and Hollywood at large.

Now, after a “dramatic” negotiation at the Cannes Film Festival, it’s becoming an actual Netflix movie, with production slated to begin in 2018.

If this all seems sudden, that’s understandable — you may have only recently heard about the meme. But it’s been brewing on the internet for a long time — three years, in fact. On July 5, 2014, Tumblr user elizabitchtaylor, a.k.a. Roxy, made a photo post taken from the sidelines of the designer Miu Miu’s March fashion show. The photo shows a fur-and-leather-clad Rihanna sitting next to a preppy-chic Nyong’o.

“They look like they’re in a heist movie with Rihanna as the tough-as-nails leader/master thief and Lupita as the genius computer hacker,” Roxy wrote.


Nearly three years later, Roxy’s Tumblr post has almost half a million notes and reblogs, and has inspired all kinds of running commentary and fan art:


In April 2017, a Twitter user, @1800SADGAL, moved the meme to that platform, where it once again instantly went viral.

And since Twitter is the platform where celebrities and their fans tend to hobnob, you can guess what happened next.

The tweet caught the attention of Lupita Nyong’o...

...who volleyed it over to Rihanna, who of course responded in style:

A fan of the pair then took the suggestion even further, lobbying Ava DuVernay, who was totally on board:

All that was left was for Issa Rae to hop on the Twitter train, also prompted by a fan:

The trend of internet fun going mainstream has been happening for a while

While this Twitter-to-film development is exciting because of all the star power attached, it’s not the first of its kind. We’ve already had TV shows based on Twitter feeds, like $#*! My Dad Says. We’ve had movies based on true internet stories, like Lion. We’ve had movies inspired by major internet trends, like the fan demand for a Deadpool movie that ultimately led to the 2016 blockbuster. We’ve even had viral internet fan casting, like a meme that saw Donald Glover being cast as Spider-Man, ultimately leading to his finally playing the part, albeit in a different movie than fans originally wanted him in. We’ve also had movies based on basically every internet meme imaginable.

So in the never-ending grab for content, it only makes sense that networks and studios are eager to cash in on a viral meme. This is just a higher-profile, more intense example of many trends we’ve already seen.

What does seem to be new, however, is the quick pace at which this all came together, and the immediacy with which a bunch of high-profile people got on board — not to mention the public, vocal enthusiasm for a project centered on a creative team of black women. It took years for the internet’s demand for Deadpool to convince studio executives to pull the trigger, even with the crusading of star Ryan Reynolds, whose leaked studio test footage became the linchpin of the internet effort to make a full-length film. It took even longer for Glover to get his shot at playing Spidey.

But the turnaround time between the Tumblr meme hitting Twitter and all four of its creative stars expressing interest in it was a mere five days; the Netflix negotiation — in which the company, according to EW, made an “aggressive” bid against other studios to turn the project into a movie deal — came down just under a month later. Few details are known outside of the EW write-up regarding how studios actually started putting the deal together, but it appears interest at Cannes was intense.

It’s also worth noting that Twitter as a platform played a significant part in the project’s short turnaround time; after all, the meme originated on Tumblr three years ago, and even though it went twice as viral on Tumblr, it flew completely under Hollywood’s radar until it showed up on a social platform Hollywood execs actually use.

On her Tumblr, Roxy indicated that she might be involved in the production to some degree, but couldn’t give any details: “Hey everyone, just a quick shout to let you know that I still can’t answer any questions about the Rihanna/Lupita movie project. Just know that I’m very happy and excited to see the idea coming to fruition.”

Rae also told Vanity Fair that the original meme creators would be given some form of credit for the idea.

Unsurprisingly, DuVernay’s framing of the project sums it up best:

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