26 Apr A Seat at the Table
As I sit at a round dinner table during a production meeting (for a feature film I was asked to coordinate) I couldn’t help but recall a quote I read in a Rolling Stone’s article describing the film industry as being a “straight white boys’ club”. Seven of us sit at the table, a production manager, assistant director, 2nd assistant director, a cinematographer, and our 2 co-directors. Six older white males and me, a 26 year old Black female. Compared to them I’m a kid and I’m sure many who encountered us wondered how I ended up involved with this project. I sometimes wondered that myself. I knew that moments like this were rare, so in true millennial fashion I had to upload a video to all my social media sites #ASeatAtTheTable.
But before I go more into this, lets shed some light on why this was such a big deal. Not only to me but all Black women who find themselves in similar situations.
In a study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, it was said that Hollywood doesn’t have a diversity problem, but more an inclusion problem. According to the Associated Press, the study claims that , “a whitewashed Hollywood has created an epidemic of invisibility for women, minorities, and LGBT people”. Surveying 109 major studio films (from 2014) and 305 scripted T.V. and digital series (spanning 31 networks and streaming services) the study found some troubling numbers when it came to off screen talent. 87% of directors were white, with only 3.4% (in film) and 15.2% (in broadcast television) being females. Out of 109 total directors only two were black women – Ava Duvernay (Selma) and Amma Asante (Belle). I can only imagine what those numbers look like when considering Black producers, Black writers, and Black male directors. Slightly better but still very poor in the grand scheme of things. In a speech given by Spike Lee at the 2015 Governors Awards he said, “It’s easier to be President of the United States as a Black Person than be the head of the studio or head of a network.” Click here to see the full speech.
As the only minority (and 1 of 2 females on the production team) I knew that I had something to prove. I knew I couldn’t fuck up. Some days flowed smoothly while others were stressful and challenging. At first there was some push back from certain crew members. I found myself having to ask for things to be done multiple times and people questioning certain decisions I made. Things that my white male counter parts did not have to deal with. Despite these minor obstacles, I had the full support of my production team, who made sure to put a stop to that kind of behavior. Grateful as I was, I still shouldn’t need validation from anyone in order for people to respect my title or to respect me. It’s frustrating and belittling.
I remember being on location in a theater. I asked one of the theater managers if we could use some chairs or move into another area for lunch. She basically told me that I was lucky she even allowed my cast and crew to use the lobby as holding. We were only allowed to use their restrooms, but as a courtesy she was letting us use the lobby. So now cast and crew would have nowhere to sit and eat lunch. I informed some people on my production team and they were less than pleased. One of them found her and asked for some chairs. When he asked, she was more than happy to accommodate us and had no problem providing the chairs. Two other people (who had over heard her response to me) and myself were shocked at how her attitude changed. She was then directed to me so I could let her know exactly how many chairs I needed and where. I’m sure she hated having to listen to me as much as I hated having to go through other channels to get what I needed.
A week later the weather was pretty nice out, so we decided to have lunch outside at one of our locations. I ordered some chairs and tables to be delivered. When dealing with vendors I usually communicate via phone or e-mail. I meet very few vendors in person so they never actually get to see who they’re dealing with. When the woman came to drop off the tables and chairs, she was shocked (in a good way ), that I was the coordinator. How do I know, because she was a slightly older black woman with locs. She was happy to see another brown face in a position of authority, especially one so young. We had a moment of recognition, recognizing how rare of an occurrence this was. We automatically made a connection. She was once a coordinator (now a production manager, one of the main and well known ones in that area) and was able to give me some great advice. Much of it helped me get through the remainder of my shoot. It was also refreshing to have a very diverse cast. It was great to see.
I’m sure these minor obstacles are just a small glimpse of what others go through. The industry has made small progress with people like Ava DuVernay (Academy Nominated Director), Shonda Rhimes (Award winning writer and Producer), Issa Rae (Creator of HBO’s Insecure), Channig Dungey (first African American President of a major broadcast TV Network – ABC), and Kimberly Steward (2nd Black female producer nominated for an Oscar), making power moves in the industry. When asked why actress Kerry Washington chose to attend, instead of boycott, the 2016 Oscars she responded, “..I really want to be part of the conversation to make sure there’s institutional change…so that we can be as inclusive as possible…we need all those voices at the table.” That night at the production meeting I was one of those voices, and it felt great.