Growing up in New York City afforded me the opportunity to see all kinds of movies, so from a very young age I understood their power. I would see arthouse movies with my friends, action flicks with my Dad, and weepy dramas with my Mom. These films were a bedrock of my childhood and I was transformed by them. I saw very few films that starred people that looked like me, but that didn't bother me at the time. I connected on a human and emotional level with the stories I loved.
But it wasn't ideal and I vowed to myself that I would make work that showed the complexities in all people. I chose to focus my career on telling stories about people who are underrepresented. I have found success at doing that in the the documentary space: my web series Black Folk Don't, for example looks at stereotypes in the black community. And my feature documentary, (A)sexual tells the stories of people who have no sexual attraction. But as I transitioned to tell stories in the fiction space, things have been a bit more difficult.
Fiction feature films are still dominated by images of white men. I know this isn't news to folks who read pieces like this but I believe it's a bigger problem than people really understand. Basically, this stems from white folks having a general lack of understanding of black culture.
Now don't skip to the bottom to write your scathing comment just yet. Hear me out.
As a black person in American society, I have a PhD in white culture. Because of this, I can watch movies where there is not one Black person present - let alone one Black woman - and easily insert myself into the narrative. It's not ideal, but I can do it. Black people from the mountains of Colorado to the streets of New York can write dissertations on white culture but most white people ...not so much. This imbalance has brought us to right now, to a film industry that lacks diversity to such an alarming degree.
Let me give you a more visual example. You know those 1,000-piece puzzles that families spread out on their dinner tables and spend an entire weekend putting together? In cinema, white men are portrayed like that. They are multifaceted and allowed to put many of their pieces on display. Whereas women of color (heck, all women) are those kiddie puzzles toddlers put together during a commercial break for Dora the Explorer. They get to have two, maybe three pieces on screen and that's about it.
This is what inspired Lauren Domino and I to write our teen comedy, Paper Chase, which we recently completed a successful crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter. We've spent our entire childhoods (and let's admit it, our adulthoods) loving teen movies with entirely white casts. Despite that, we're still able to see ourselves. Why? Because all people are complex and we, too, relate to being awkward or misunderstood or smart. It is time to show black girls as movie leads who are just as dynamic. We want to create images where black women are seen as 1,000-piece puzzles worth taking a long time to put together.
I'm an optimist. I do think things are getting better. But I'm not going to sugarcoat it. We have a ways to go and progress is tied to us having a better understanding of one another. This lack of diversity on the Silver Screen affects our culture's ability to empathize with one another and empathy, as Derrick Bell mentions, "foreshadows reform". Cinema allows people to walk in one another's shoes and invariably, leads to empathy. People of color have been walking in white people's shoes for decades and now white people need to do the same.