My Struggle Being a Black Woman Filmmaker Outside White Hollywood
The media focus on the Academy overlooks emerging filmmakers of color who are scraping by in order to get their movies made.
Illustration by Jessica Saesue
Over the last few weeks, I've seen blog after blog about the #OscarSoWhite debate. It's become a trending topic, seemingly divorced from the protest origins of its founder, April Reign. Every day a new headline pops up about what some white filmmaker, actress, or celebrity said about the lack of "diversity" across the industry. The answers range from genuine concern or misguided solidarity to outright disregard. In Julie Delpy's comments about the flack that women get in Hollywood, which she claimed was worse than what African-Americans receive, she forgot that women could also be African-American, while Joel and Ethan Coen seemed not to understand why people of color should be in movies in the first place. Somehow, this is supposed to mean something; something is supposed to change. In response to the backlash, the Academy has enacted measures to increase the number of women and people of color members by 2020. But it's 2016.
We forget that at the center of these large, online debates are actual people like me—black women, Latina women, Asian women—who are struggling, striving, and making movies. For us, it's not about Oscars—it's about getting funding for our next film. It's about finding a way to survive while pursuing our film careers.
In 2013, after graduating from CalArts with a dual MFA degree in film directing and creative writing, I had the chance to report on the LA premiere of Ryan Coogler's film Fruitvale Station, at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I'd known the Creed director since I was ten years old, when we met at a summer camp at Mosswood Park in Oakland. We'd maintained a friendship throughout high school and college, and I felt, because of our shared history, a personal connection to his film. As I stood on the red carpet with my audio recorder, I was filled with a mixture of hope and anticipation. I knew that his was the beginning of a promising career, but as I reflect on his rise into mainstream recognition, I wonder if this could also happen for a young black woman, or a woman of color.
Of course, one could argue that Ava DuVernay is Coogler's equivalent, but the 43-year-old Selma director worked many years as a publicist and as an independent documentary filmmaker before being recognized by the larger filmmaking community, or rather, before she forced them to recognize her. In many ways, I try to follow her example. Deep down, I'm a Bay Area guerrilla filmmaker, self-sufficient and independent in my ability to get films made and produced. I raise money, assemble crews, cast actors, secure locations, and find time to breathe. Of course putting in the work only gets you so far. I apply to screenwriting contests and I win, then that same script is rejected by a film company. I email people I meet at film events, and I get no response. At one time, these rejections affected me emotionally. Now they just make me want this more.
When I graduated from CalArts, I lived in Los Angeles, sometimes eking by on $100 a week, driving past movie studios and wondering when I'd be let in. I thought my graduate thesis film, a fantasy/drama about a black girl who witnesses her friends drown and is then summoned by black mermaids, would be my way into these environments, but it wasn't. While shooting that film in New Orleans, I worked with a crew of many white men. From the way they questioned how I would direct a pivotal scene in which several black mermaids swim into the frame, I could tell many had never seen a black woman in my position, directing a story like this.
But I kept writing, taping notecards on a wall for a script I planned to submit to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Months later, I received an email invitation to their screenwriters intensive for my script Noor, an epic love story set in Brooklyn about a black woman who develops an intense connection to an Arab man after her brother is murdered by a police officer outside of his bodega. This opportunity opened many doors for me, and I was embraced by an independent filmmaking network including women of color like myself, though we still seemed to face similar barriers when it came to getting our films funded.
My story, and others like it, have become obscured by the "big" story of the Oscars, and why it's unfair that Sylvester Stallone was the only person from Creed, a black movie, to be nominated, or the online feud between the original Aunt Viv, Janet Hubert, and Jada Pinkett Smith about whether black filmmakers and actors should boycott the Oscars entirely. And while these concerns are valid and urgent, they don't address the root issues of why only a few films made by women and filmmakers of color are deemed worthy of consideration each year, or why films about contemporary black life are continually ignored in Oscar conversations.
The mainstream Oscar debate has in many ways become a top-down spectacle, in which people with power and influence make comments about what's right, or what's fair, and frankly, I don't really care because I need to raise $99,000 for my first feature film. My colleagues are working full-time jobs as teachers, then coming home at night to revise their scripts to shoot this summer. My black female colleagues are clocking in audition after audition to secure roles in films where black women are underwritten and barely visible. My peers are devoting their lives to the love of cinema, and none of them are worried about the Oscars. One day, perhaps they will, but right now, we are trying to make our movies and build our careers.
One of the biggest barriers that emerging filmmakers face, and especially women and filmmakers of color, is limited access to funding and resources to make their films, to continue making their films, or to make larger, big-budget films. And when I say films, I mean films in which their black, Latina, or women characters are human, flawed, and complex, ones that many studios don't make or that we're told are hard to "sell." While we regale in stories of overnight success and underdogs, there are many more who have the scripts, the talent, and the vision, but simply don't have the money. It's just a fact. The system is intentionally set up for this, so when you find investors and producers who will champion you, it's like getting married and having a honeymoon.
So instead of boycotting an event and wasting time writing blogs about why it's unfair, invest in us, the working filmmakers of color. For every blog and celebrity statement about the misfortune of the Academy, there's a filmmaker striving against all odds to make his or her movie or get into a writing room on a TV show. There's a woman writing a character we've never seen. There's the sounds of exciting, groundbreaking voices that will be silenced if we don't pay attention.
Nijla is a writer and filmmaker from the East Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter.