The Barriers Women of Color Face as Filmmakers
“Talent is universal, but opportunity is not.” I recall the words of then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton at the Female Heads of State and Foreign Ministers Luncheon in 2009. Though they apply to just about every underrepresented group, it rings especially true at this point in my life as I, an African-American woman, work to bring my first feature film to life.
As a child, the signs of an overactive imagination were visible early on. I was obsessed with television, earning the nickname “Walking TV Guide” for my ability to memorize and recall on demand, the entire television lineup. My fascination with television didn’t begin or end with knowing what was on, I was curious about the entire cities and countries that were shrunken and hidden inside the bulge in back of every television set. How did the populations of Port Charles and Genoa City get there? Did people volunteer for some sort of experiment? If so, why weren’t there more people who looked like me? I spent many hours pondering the latter question, determined to get to the bottom of this great mystery.
There were times when I thought perhaps there was a lack of talent. I seemingly understood the concept of acting, but storytelling was something I couldn’t wrap my head around. Why were some stories deemed worthy of being told and others not so much? Why were some people given a voice, and others denied?
As a way of enriching my cultural life, my mother frequently took me to gospel musicals in Detroit. As I watched the actors lose themselves in their characters, and heard their voices threaten to take the roof off the Fox Theatre through the sheer power of their gift, I knew there was no lack of talent. That led me to explore the possibility that there was a lack of material. The notion was quickly dispelled as some of the greatest to ever to put pen to paper, Angelou, Morrison, Baldwin, and others, share my skin color. I decided then, the culprit was the lack of opportunity.
When people ask me why I write, my response is often, “To give voice to the voiceless.” The irony of this statement never occurred to me until now; I am one of the voiceless, one of many fighting for an opportunity to simply tell a story.
No one has ever said the journey would be easy and maybe this is Darwinism of a different kind. Many screenwriters of color hear the words “too urban,” “not urban enough,” “not relatable,” “too dark,” “I don’t get it,” “not for us” and on and on and on, each rejection of the script somehow a rejection of the writer; negativity imbuing their being with the disease known as self-doubt. Positive affirmations of “I am good enough,” optimism and belief fading away with every “no.” Until they no longer believe.
Many give up just as they’re on the precipice of something amazing, success within reach but the journey is too difficult, filled with steep valleys and not enough peaks. It can bring a person to their knees, the dream they had since childhood, worked their entire life to achieve, never close enough to grasp. That is true for any screenwriter not already connected to someone who knows someone who knows something. However, when you are a screenwriter of color, the valley is steeper, the canyon wider, the peaks fewer and with no safety harness wrapped around one’s waist or cushion below to soften the fall, it is easy to break apart from the daunting challenge. It is so much safer to simply give up.
But those who persevere, who hit the ground and spring right back up; those who drown out the noise; who meet each explanation of “why not” with a passionate defense of “why,” bring beautiful works to life. Films such as I Will Follow, Pariah, Belle and others that may never have seen the light of day had these brilliant women not demanded to have their voices heard. Through their hard work and standing on the foundation others laid before them, they have opened doors, proving there is an audience for films by women of color.
As my script, No Lies Told Then takes its own journey, I often reflect on the women before me, and I am constantly inspired by their successes. What if they had given up? Other undiscovered writers and directors may never have been able to draw upon their strength for courage and inspiration. Little girls may have never dared to dream of becoming a writer or director, because she was denied the privilege of seeing people who look like her succeeding in the field that lights her soul.
Today, when I discuss talent and opportunity, I think of the struggle that still exists. The misguided belief that women of color don’t have stories to tell or our stories aren’t what people want to see, rages on. The closed doors. The endless excuses. For every success story, there is often a “but it only worked because. . .” achievements shrugged off as anomalies. How many Dee Rees’, Ava DuVernays and Amma Asantes will remain voiceless because the lack of opportunity, not lack of talent, has rendered them so? If talent is indeed universal and opportunity is not, if old formulas are wearing thin with a weary audience, why not open the door to undiscovered voices screaming to be heard?
Torri R. Oats, a Harlem based writer, has written, directed, and produced two off-off Broadway plays. She has contributed to Madame Noire and The Atlanta Post. If there is a credo which defines her work it is to give voice to the voiceless. She aims to continue to write pieces that portray positive images of underrepresented groups, have a social impact and challenge authority and conventional wisdom. Currently, she is working on her first feature film, No Lies Told Then.