Black Film Creators Are Breaking Through a White-Dominated Industry

Photo from New Vision Film Instagram Page

By Brenika Banks, with reporting help from Radwa Gomaa | May 29, 2022

Deon Gibson started writing stories at a very young age in the Bahamas. He had no idea writing stories would evolve into a career in the film industry. He does not have any traditional film-school training. He had no industry connections and no one to help guide him in creating films. He learned all his filmmaking skills through trial and error, as well as finding affordable film workshops.

Gibson, 46, is finally breaking into an industry where a new wave of Black film creators, like Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”), are paving the way for more Black stories to be on the big screen although the film industry remains predominantly white. What changes are being made for Black creators in the motion picture industry, or does it remain stagnant?

Gibson is a strong believer in not compromising his interpretation of Black excellence for anyone, including white donors who help fund films for his company, New Vision Film. “I have no problem working with investors as long as they know this [film] is a Black story; you’re not changing the narrative,” Gibson said. Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been directing more films personally in tune with their reality and through their own form of storytelling these past few years.

Even with the success of Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae, it is still difficult for BIPOC, especially Black people, to thrive in the film industry. Jayda Imanlihen is the founder and executive director of Black Girl Film School, whose mission is to increase the number of Black women working in and leading the industry by creating opportunities for young Black women to learn behind the camera. “We support them through mentorships and on-set experiences to hone their professional skills,” Imanlihen explained. “Beyond that, we partner with industry organizations to hire them and get them their first jobs.”

The UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report for 2021 shows that minority film directors went up from 14.4% in 2019 to 25.4% in 2020. This same report found women directors increased from 15.1% in 2019 to 20.5% in 2020. Some notable Black women directors who have emerged since 2019 are Nia DaCosta (“Candyman”) and Melina Matsoukas (“Queen & Slim”).

Imanlihen said she hopes more Black women directors on-screen will lead to more accurate representation. She applauds Issa Rae for making a commitment to hiring Black crew and Black department heads. “I think it’s looking at where the hiring practices are, and you can really kind of see trends and things that emerge when considering what the current data says,” she said.

According to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in a 2020 report on inequality in 13,000 popular films from 2007 to 2019, only 6.3% of 112 directors across 2019 movies were African Americans. A dominating challenge that remains for Black filmmakers who are trying to break into Hollywood is the industry’s lack of faith in selling Black stories. Bridgett Davis, a screenwriter and author who teaches at Baruch College, believes Black people are fighting against society’s stereotypes of themselves.

“I could speak for all people of color and more specifically for Black folks to be able to really show our full humanity is still hard,” Davis said. She has seen progress in the relationship between Black filmmakers and the industry over the past 20 years, yet Davis criticizes industry gatekeepers for their slow progress in incorporating more Black professionals. “We should have a variety of roles for Black and Brown actors to play,” she said. “We should have a variety of stories being told by people who come, and it’s not where it should be.”

Davis credits herself and other Black film creators who were on the front lines 20 years before what’s referred to as “the Black Renaissance in ’90s Film & TV.” This era created opportunities for creators like Jordan Peele to take full advantage and inspire future talents like Marquis Terrell, a 22-year-old screenwriter and a freelance writer who has no fear when it comes to entering the white-dominated industry.

“I love a challenge and I’m not scared,” Terrell declared. “If you have fear, you’re not going to be able to do anything. You’re going to keep holding yourself back.” He is very aware of the movement of Black creators in film who are changing the narrative in Hollywood. Nonetheless, representation in the film industry requires more work to properly reflect Black stories and recognition.

Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem, the same building that was once the Lincoln Theater. In the 1940s and 1950s, this theater provided a place for Black films to shine. Photo by Brenika Banks.

According to a UCLA Newsroom article, people of color make up 40.3% of the U.S. population and Latino and Black adults consumed online content at higher levels than other groups. For the first time since the report launched in 2014, people of color were represented in the lead actor and total cast categories at levels proportionate to their presence in the American populace — 39.7% and 42%, respectively.

Terrell is taking advantage of online content by working with an independent production team called Timeout Entertainment. A few of his Facebook posts caught the team’s attention, and they emailed him. He is eager to flaunt his screenwriting passion and thrilled to receive money from his writing. “I’m just getting paid to do what I love to do and that’s the dream,” he commented.

Imanlihen and her Black Girl Film School are doing all they can to address the stagnation of Black women in film, placing students in positions to thrive as Black creators. According to Imanlihen, her school has placed one student in Stanford University’s master of fine arts film program and another student at New York University in its high school film workshop on a full scholarship.

Through his New Vision Film company, Gibson will release his fourth film, “The Pages of My Heart,” in the summer of 2022.