The Oscars Are Not As White, but Emerging Black Filmmakers Still Face Barriers

Honestly, can the filmmaking industry please catch up to 2018?

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Black female filmmaker Karen Chapman makes a frame gesture with her hands.

(Photo: Jalani Morgan Photography)

Remember when Natalie Portman presented the award for best director at the Golden Globes and called out the category for its “all-male nominees”? Well, the Academy Awards deserve a similar intro. In its 86-year history, just five women have been nominated for best director, including this year’s Greta Gerwig for Lady Bird. Of those five, only one woman has won—in 2010, Kathryn Bigelow took home the Oscar for The Hurt Locker. But there’s another side to this story: Guess how many Black women have received a best director nod? Zero.

This year, with Academy Award nominations going to Dee Rees’s Mudbound and Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Ava DuVernay at the helm of Disney’s A Wrinkle in Time and the record-breaker that is Black Panther, it seems Hollywood is finally making some serious strides toward improving Black representation both on screen and behind the camera. The Oscars, and Hollywood in general, are definitely not as white as they used to be—but Toronto filmmakers point out that barriers still exist, particularly for Black women.

The impact of those barriers were clearly demonstrated in a 2018 study that examined 1,100 popular films over a ten-year period (2007 to 2017). The study notes that out of the 1,223 directors involved with those films, only 43 of them were women, and of that 43, only four were Black. With such dismal numbers, it doesn’t come as a big surprise that there has yet to be a Black female nominee for best directing at the Academy Awards. (That’s right, not winner. Nominee.)

These facts aren’t a huge surprise for Karen Chapman, a Black filmmaker based in Toronto, who says that the Oscars are losing out by not recognizing diverse talent.

“The Black women directors that I know are powerful storytellers. They hold their craft to a high regard and strive for truth, mastery and creating worlds filled with possibilities,” she says. “I’m not sure if the folks who created the Oscars could have even imagined us.”

Chapman’s latest film, Lessons Injustice, is a documentary that uses a father-son car trip as a way to explore the history of injustice and abuse of judicial power toward the Black community. While driving, the father—who is also a lawyer—explains the harsh realities that his son will have to endure as a young Black man. This year the film is featured at the Toronto Black Film Festival, which runs from February 14 to 19.

Chapman says that while the industry is on the right track towards racial and gender equality in the industry, there is still a long way to go.

Representation really is everything

Chapman made her first film when she was 16—and was hooked. “I loved all forms of storytelling, and I loved cinema most of all. I could disappear in a film and suspend my disbelief,” she says.

Even at a young age, Chapman noticed the gender imbalance and glaring lack of diversity in the filmmaking industry, which made her feel like she couldn’t fulfill her dreams. “I only knew of the big names out of Hollywood and they did not look like me,” she says. “And so it felt like an outlandish aspiration. Like, how can a little girl decide she wants to be a firefighter if she only ever heard the term fireman?”

With such a lack of female Black filmmakers at the time, she didn’t have a lot of women to look up to in the industry. But she didn’t let that hold her back. During an internship with the National Film Board of Canada, Chapman found inspiration in the work of Canadian filmmaker Jennifer Hodge de Silva, whose work focuses mainly social issues. One of Hodge de Silva’s notable films include Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community, which focuses on residents of the Jane and Finch community in Toronto as they talk about the racial tension and crime in the area. “I had never seen families that looked and spoke like mine on screen before,” Chapman says. “I was amazed and inspired.”

Similarly, Toronto Black Film Festival founder Fabienne Colas says that the recent emergence of more successful Black filmmakers like DuVernay and Rees is paving the way for other women of colour because they’re examples of what is possible. “What I like about Ava is, she’s not just Black but she’s a woman as well, and it’s 10 times tougher for a Black person to break out in the film industry—but especially for a Black woman,” she says. “People are looking at her and saying ‘Oh my god, if she can make it, I can make it too.'”

Toronto Black Film Festival founder Fabienne Colas sits on a bench.

(Photo: Toronto Black Film Festival Press Kit)

Barriers still remain

It’s tough to achieve representation—especially without proper funding. Typically filmmakers send in an application to public grant donors such as the Ontario Council for the Arts, the Canadian Council for the Arts and the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC) for funding for their films. The application will then get approved or denied—and Chapman has had her share of denials.

In the past, Chapman says she’s been turned down because her stories were not “Canadian” enough. Though the organizations didn’t specifically outline what was un-Canadian about her films, Chapman suspects the lack of white lead actors contributed to her rejections. “I would apply for funding and I’d hear, ‘Well, how is your story a Canadian story?’” she says.“My films took place in Canada. It surprised me because I grew up watching stories with all-white actors and I could see myself in their stories, so why couldn’t they see themselves in mine?”

In order to avoid rejection, Colas says Black filmmakers often won’t bother to apply for funding at all.

“When you are Black or a person of colour or you’re an immigrant, you feel like you’re an underdog sometimes and it’s easy to slide into thinking, ‘Well you know what, I’m the underdog there, there’s no chance for me to get funds anyways, so why bother?'” Colas says. “I see it especially at the Toronto Black Film Festival. We see beautiful films, lots of great projects out there, and then they have zero funding.”

According to Colas, efforts need to be made to motivate emerging Black filmmakers to apply for more grants, so their films have every possible opportunity to thrive.

“We need to help raise more awareness. Let [visible minorities] know that hey, the first step starts with you. You should apply for all grants you possibly can, go to industry networking events, submit your films to lots of festivals, be all over social media, speak up whenever you have an opportunity,” she says.

The future is bright

A lot has happened since #OscarsSoWhite started trending in response to the 2015 Oscars’s jarring lack of representation. Time’s Up is pushing for equal pay and equal opportunity in the workforce, and celebs are speaking out about the need for greater diversity in Hollywood. Likewise, the Toronto Black Film Festival seems to be experiencing a slow cultural shift, says Colas, as she has noticed that more and more projects from filmmakers of colour are being submitted to the festival each year. She is confident that the number of projects will only continue to increase.

Chapman is also optimistic, saying DuVernay and Rees are the first of what will soon be many women of colour behind the camera.

“There is a ripple effect. In the next five to 10 years, you will see more Black female filmmakers because women of colour are being empowered,” she says. “The rug has been ripped out and it’s been shaken out. It’s a new day, and it’s exciting.”

Related:

Toronto Black Film Festival’s Fabienne Colas: “We Need Diversity”
How Jessica Chastain Helped Octavia Spencer Earn Five Times More
You Need to Read this Ontario MP’s Love Letter to Black Women
Why Being a Black Woman Is My Greatest Power

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