“The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” — Viola Davis, during her acceptance speech at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards in 2015.
“The average film enthusiast probably couldn’t name five working black women filmmakers without a Google search.” – Me (Tambay Obenson), said a number of times on social media.
Hollywood’s story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative. In recent years, discouraging statistics about the lack of diversity and inclusion in the film and television industries have inundated us, and thanks to a convergence of some critical factors, many have come to consider this specific moment in time a renaissance of sorts – from a racial, gender and gender identity standpoint. Some of those critical factors include new and essential research made widely available, public outrage (especially expressed on social media) and prominent industry personnel who are more willing to critique an establishment that’s long worked against the under-represented and marginalized (whether consciously or not). It is out of that environment, in tandem with the campaigning by a handful of powerful allies on the inside who are just as frustrated with the lack of accountability in their industry, that this #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak project arises. It seeks to contribute to the conversations during this unique time in our industry when, more than ever before, systemic change seems genuinely possible.
Filmmakers (specifically writers and directors) are of significant influence on the creation of this country’s main export across the globe, broadly defined as media. In it, what is acceptable in accordance with social norms or expectations is taught; we learn who gets to be the hero, who gets to have a voice, to occupy specific spaces and be an active participant in the world of stories built around them; and thus, we also learn who is without those privileges. These lessons, as seen and replicated throughout all media, have ripple effects on the lives of real people around the world. And so it is vital that the aforementioned creative influence of the filmmaker represents the full breadth of experiences that comprise this melting pot that we call the United States of America – especially in the age of Trumpism.
Recent advancements and proposed initiatives aside, it’s been well-documented that the film and TV industries have long failed to embrace a need and demand for more diverse points of view. Black women filmmakers, marginalized by institutional racism and sexism, are often ignored. Still woefully under-represented, they have long struggled and continue to fight to gain a foothold in the film industry. Not only is the issue of black women directors one of both race and gender discrimination, the broader cultural relevance of initiatives like #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak lies in the fact that when only a tiny percentage of an entire group of people tell the collective stories of said group. With white men directing 80-90 percent of our media, many stories are sadly left untold, much to the social and cultural detriment of a nation and, quite frankly, the world. Further, it is very likely that when black women direct, the numbers and varied depictions of black women on screen is positively affected, as well.
But this isn’t just an American problem. You’ll find similar statistics with regards to black women filmmakers around the world, including across Europe, South America and even Africa, where the same kinds of conversations occur, which #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak recognizes. For example, Brigitte Rollet, organizer of a conference for Francophone women in African cinema a few years ago, discusses challenges that African women filmmakers face in Africa today (courtesy of the African Women in Cinema blog): “Cinema continues to be thought of as a male activity. The fact that there are many women filmmakers does not negate this perception, and African women filmmakers are not visible. There are individual trajectories, and there are developments, but not national cinema policies. In countries where there is a genuine political will to develop a cinema culture, there are more women than in those where this interest does not exist. It is a question of economics. Cinema is a costly art, and producers are even more hesitant to finance a high-budget film directed by a woman. They are only willing to help those who have proven themselves. If one is not able to prove one’s ability, it is difficult to justify receiving this kind of funding. This is a situation that African women filmmakers share with numerous women filmmakers in the West.”
A familiar vicious circle indeed, which, as she notes, is practically universal, including right here in the USA, a significant player in the so-called West.
A key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, I surveyed 33 black women filmmakers from around the world who are currently at some stage of development on their first feature films. The questions cover both the personal and the professional. How did I select these 33 filmmakers? They each responded to a call I published online earlier this year for black women filmmakers developing their first features. I initially received over 80 replies, which was unexpected, but the number was very quickly whittled down to the 33 who decided to complete my detailed survey. And I very much appreciate them for taking the time to do that.
Ultimately, what I hope the reader takes from this exercise is a new awareness and admiration as you discover relatively unknown black women filmmakers, toiling away in relative obscurity, with opportunities that seem few and far between or that just haven’t yet come. You’ll read about their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors, their thoughts on a variety of topical matters, including what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Documenting their journeys, trials and triumphs, I also hope to direct industry attention to these up-and-comers, many of them in need of some form of assistance that would help get them over a challenging hurdle or two.
Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month, starting Wednesday, July 11.
The filmmakers to be featured (listed in alphabetical order by last name) are:
— Sade Adeniran (London, England)
— Clare Anyiam-Osigwe (London, England)
— Thembi Banks (Los Angeles, California)
— Sherita Bolden (Atlanta, Georgia)
— Asha Boston (Brooklyn, New York)
— Cathleen Campbell (New York, New York)
— Lydia Darly (New York, New York)
— April Dobbins (Miami, Florida)
— Tasha Edinbyrd (Dallas, Texas)
— Ema Edosio (Lagos, Nigeria)
— Iquo B. Essien (Brooklyn, New York)
— Charneice Fox (Washington, D.C.)
— Daphne Gabriel (Los Angeles, California)
— Tai Grace (London, England)
— Silvano Griffith-Francis (London, England)
— Tamika R. Guishard (Queens, New York)
— Bettina Horton (Atlanta, Georgia)
— Martine Jean (Los Angeles, California)
— Davina Lee (Gros-Islet, Saint Lucia)
— Seckeita Lewis (Dallas, Texas)
— Zamo Mkhwanazi (Johannesburg, South Africa)
— Sheila Nortley (London, England)
— Torri R. Oats (New York, New York)
— Numa Perrier (Los Angeles, California)
— Celia C. Peters (Columbus, Ohio)
— Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward (New York, New York)
— Venise Stephenson (Brooklyn, New York)
— Nia Symone (Los Angeles, California)
— Victoria Thomas (Edinburgh, Scotland)
— Aundreya Thompson (Toronto, Ontario, Canada)
— Dionne Walker (London, England)
— Tomeka M. Winborne (Atlanta, Georgia)
— Tanya Wright (Los Angeles, California)