By Janna M. Hall | CEO, Leap Innovative Group
The severe lack of diversity on both the big screen and behind the scenes is Hollywood’s worst kept secret. From the ideation and development phases to casting, production, and marketing, black and brown faces disappear amongst the sea of predominantly white males deemed exclusively fit for the job. In January 2015, Public Speaker and Activist April Reign spearheaded the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag and movement calling attention to the overwhelmingly white list of nominees for the 87th Academy Awards. Though disappointing, unfortunately, it wasn’t surprising; the lack of diversity displayed in the roundup of voting Academy members actually mirrored the lack of diversity displayed in the list of nominees. And though we’ve since seen an uptick in nominations and awards for projects by and starring people of color, there’s still work to be done.
The solution isn’t as simple as calling attention to inequities and pushing to get more people of color on stage holding awards. No, the solution is complex, and involves having Black and Brown men and women represented at every table and in every room in the industry. It involves encouraging young men and women to pursue careers in the film and TV industries, seeking more than just the positions that involve having your name in lights. Perhaps the largest misconception of the film industry is that the people with the power, money, and influence are the ones whose names and faces remain plastered across billboards. Sure, that leads to having a platform and influence, but in order to shift industries, provide opportunity, and become true change agents, we need representation on the business side of the industry.
Leslie Fields-Cruz, Executive Director of Black Public Media (BPM), has been with the organization since 2001, working to support and fund the production and development of works by and about people of color. She understands first-hand how imperative it is to have people of color in key behind-the-scenes roles, which is where the real “magic” happens.
“It’s in those back rooms that the decisions are made as to which projects will be made and released,” she explains. “We need representation across the board when it comes to financing, funding, and decisions around distribution. There needs to be more of us—not just black people, but people of color in general, because we bring varying perspectives.”
Fields-Cruz also explained that when it comes to dispelling stereotypes about people of color in this country and beyond, it’s not enough to simply have Black actors serve as the face of films; we need people of color making the key editorial decisions. In fact, Black Public Media enacts guidelines in order to ensure there’s a person of African descent in those key decision-making roles.
“Because our focus is on Black content, we look in terms of the strength of the story: Does the filmmaker have adequate access to the subjects and subject matter? Is it well-researched? Who’s behind the camera, and who’s making key editorial decisions? Our guidelines are in place to make sure folks of African descent are helping shape the story, so they’re either the producers, writers, directors, or editors.”
These types of practices not only provide access and opportunity for people of color, but they also allow the stories we see to be as dynamic and complex as the subjects themselves. Black people aren’t monolithic, and with diversity as a cornerstone of BPM, the masses can witness how multi-dimensional we are.
“I had a conversation with one of our partners for our AfroPop series,” recalls Fields-Cruz, “and they questioned why we were bringing in another Haitian story. I clapped back and said, ‘Why not? I don’t dictate to you how many Irish stories to produce; why is there a limit on Haitian stories? In fact, there aren’t enough.’”
Because of her position, access, and seat at the table, Fields-Cruz is able to remain a champion for diversity and fight for projects that would otherwise not receive the green light. Again, access is everything, and we’ll only see change when we’re in a position to be the change.
The past few years have shown us that mainstream success is possible when we have people of color as writers, producers, editors, and actors. Shows like HBO’s Insecure, FX’s Atlanta, OWN’s Queen Sugar, to name a few, offer robust views of the complexities and intricacies of Black life in America. They’re devoid of portrayals that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and instead help educate the masses on what we’ve known all along: a story with a Black protagonist could be anyone’s story, regardless of race.
“Our goal is to normalize inclusivity,” Fields-Cruz asserts. “We have to continue showing African Americans’ diverse Black experiences.”
So how do we push toward this goal, and get more young people of color aspiring to hold positions like Leslie’s? Her answer: Exposure.
“It’s not because people don’t want to step into these roles,” she explains. “At one point in time, Black kids wanted to be a basketball star because that’s who they saw as having money and power. But over the course of my lifetime, I learned that there were other jobs, positions, and opportunities that could still be connected to basketball and entertainment. So let’s show younger generations that they don’t have to be the star of the show; they could be Marketing Director. They could be the Brand Manager who helps a celebrity’s brand be a positive one. So it’s about exposure to all the opportunities in the entertainment industry so that people can better recognize what they want to do, what they’re good at, and what they can build a career off of.”
As exposure and access to these predominantly white spaces increases, people of color have the opportunity and even responsibility to reach back as we climb. Social capital plays a great role in mobility in any field, and the entertainment industry is no different. It’s often about “who you know,” not always “what you know.” So provide internships to students. Educate youth on alternate career choices. Utilize direct connections to open doors. As more people of color begin to occupy these spaces, they’re also granted the opportunity to showcase the skill sets and talent that would otherwise lie dormant. Fields-Cruz uses her platform to do this, and believes that we’ll one day live in a world where we’re not left behind and out of key decision-making roles, but instead valued, appreciated, and even sought after for our unique skill set.
“It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his dream was that we look at the content of our character, not the color of our skin,” she says. “I don’t know if that’ll happen in 20 years, but I hope that one day they’ll begin to look at the content of our skill set and the work that we do. We’ve got so much to offer this industry.”