For many years, I had been a spectator of the big screen, watching from the sidelines and measuring whether there was any progress in diversity. Not finding it, I delayed my entry into the industry for years, and it profoundly affected my course after I got there.
As an actress who studied the craft professionally, I did not want to jump into an industry where I didn’t see enough people who looked like me in roles considered Oscar-worthy. I wanted to see something beyond slavery and civil rights—movies depicting the diversity of black lives. I wanted to see espionage, action, sci-fi, drama, and epic blockbusters with people of color in leading and supporting roles. Most importantly, I wanted to see more mature actors in those roles.
In 2009, when I was still living in New York City, a friend nudged me to at least try to break into the industry, since I was unemployed after working in the corporate arena for more than a decade. After months of industry research, I started auditioning and eventually signed with an agent. She kept sending me to auditions for infomercials and commercials, but refused to send me to a Tyler Perry audition because I didn't have a theatrical demo.
I hadn’t planned to be a film producer or a director, but out of frustration and necessity, I wrote my first two screenplays for the sole purpose of being cast in them. Later, I sold my house in New York and moved to Raleigh. Two years later, my first feature film, Walk Through the Valley, was in preproduction. It’s a crime-suspense courtroom melodrama centered around intimacy and deception, written to exemplify the lives of women and men who have loved—and those who pretend to love. It also focuses on masked intentions in human relationships.
Eirnavie Entertainment was born out of the need for more diversity in the U.S. film industry. It was a huge risk to become a low-budget independent film producer whose focus was to cast mature actors. I spoke with cast and crew members individually about this type of production and its risks. They felt that the script was strong, so they agreed to do the production. The men and women in the crew were between ages twenty-one and sixty, a nice range. There was a mixture of white, black and Hispanic people. I gave them preproduction updates frequently, and was under the impression we had a synergistic bond.
It was not until the first day of production that I began to perceive a lack of communication. I honestly could not pinpoint why. Few came to me with questions, but since everyone had the storyboards two months before production, I was curious, but not concerned. Several individuals repeatedly challenged my authority on set. Others took charge of roles unassigned to them without my knowledge—even shooting scenes and transferring data from the cameras to a hard drive for editing.
When I found out about the data transferring, my heart dropped, but it was too risky to interrupt the process. In postproduction I discovered that every key scene that tied the plot together was missing, and there were also audio issues. Not having these scenes almost forced me to shelve the film, but because I had the audio, I was able to keep the integrity of the script by using other footage in place of what was missing.
Seventeen months of postproduction to fix these problems affected my budget so severely that I could not submit the film to enough film festivals and pursue distribution effectively. I was living below the poverty level for more than a year and was temporarily sleeping in my car due to uninhabitable living conditions in the new apartment I had to move into.
I struggled not to entertain the notion that this experience had anything to do with my race, gender, or age, but I kept returning to the fact that, typically, producers and directors are not disrespected on set, especially when they show skills, strong leadership, and organization. Because I place myself in the same category as any other producer, I have to wonder if the difference is that I’m black, female, and mature. If it is, then I must try even harder to make viable contributions that support my mission.
There is a lack of mature actors and people of color in movies, on camera and behind the scenes, but we often only recognize these issues in Hollywood. Since more independent films than Hollywood films are produced every year, we, as independent producers, can shape the future of Hollywood by increasing diversity in our movies. If we don’t, #OscarsSoWhite boycotts and changing Academy voters will have little effect.
I believe the future looks bright, but it will take time. Right now, we should write more screenplays that focus on diversity in casting, with budgets that create the quality we all look for in movies—and treat their creators with respect. Then we should support these movies at the box office so that Hollywood can see it’s worth emulating.