Excerpted from the author’s 2021 honors thesis
Funneling Out: The Ever-Present Constriction on Black Filmmakers in Hollywood
Returning the gaze and rewriting Black representation in HBO’s series Lovecraft Country
Finding Power and Agency
You need executive producers who have the power to say, ‘this film should be made.’ And that’s always been a struggle with Hollywood. Most of the people who greenlight films are white and male. You know? And that should change. We’ve been talking about that change for quite a long time. Still hasn’t really happened, but people keep trying to make it happen, maybe it will at some point.
– Sam Pollard, film editor and director
One of the biggest hurdles facing Black filmmakers is the gatekeeping that emerges between creators and the industry at large. Gatekeeping is the practice of exclusion that highlights who has power and who does not. In 2020, the sociologist Maryann Erigha published a report, titled “Racial Valuation: Cultural Gatekeepers, Race, Risk, and Institutional Expectations of Success and Failure,” that examines how gatekeeping affects projects with Black movie leads. The report, published by the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP), endeavors to remedy inequalities through social thought and understanding what underpins bias. Maryann Erigha focuses on how creatives can fall into the category of “cultural gatekeeper.” She argues that these cultural gatekeepers “make racial valuations, or race-based judgments, about the economic worth of cultural products by linking movies with Black casts or stars to uncertainty, high economic risk, and the expectation of failure” (Erigha). Cultural gatekeepers can play into unconscious biases about marketability that stem more from societal attitudes than recorded data. In fact, the study posits that race has become analogous to economic potential and that the industry perpetuates racial bias through judgement-based predictions on how a film will fare in the market. Erigha examines correspondence between film producers and industry workers to glean how race factors into ideas of what films will succeed and what films will fail. Erigha writes,
Hollywood insiders fashion race either to exacerbate or mitigate economic risk, uncertainty, and unpredictability in cultural markets. Making racial valuations, they use racial characteristics to judge the economic worth and quality of cultural products, particularly to fabricate a racialized failure expectation for Black cultural products and a racialized success expectation for white cultural products, hence projecting that white movies can reverse the failure expectation (Erigha).
Chris Adams, with whom I spoke in September of 2020, is no stranger to the failure expectation. Adams, a music and film producer for Impakt Studios in Chicago, is a self-taught filmmaker, and regularly brings together different talents to greenlight his projects. He draws inspiration from anime, horror, and sci-fi, and has had an interest in filmmaking since seeing Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) in his teenage years. The extensive worldbuilding of Star Wars pushed Adams to create sci-fi stories that he could see himself in. During our interview, he described his experience producing and filming Paradigm Grey (Christopher Adams, 2017), saying,
We have a sci-fi film called Paradigm Grey that we did. And it’s an anthology. And we had a distribution deal on the table and because there was no Black sci-fi fantasy horror anything at the time we did the film, there was no reference point. You know like everything else was pretty much a Boyz N’ the Hood remake or a Tyler Perry rip-off and it’s like we’re not trying to do those. So, what happened was that I ended up producing it myself. By the time we were done we landed in between Black Panther and Get Out. It was a perfect storm. We had the fantasy action future, and horror stuff, and it was all from a Black perspective. It was a nice situation, but what we found in our initial distribution in our meeting with possible distributors, they either wanted to take the film and redo it with an all-white cast, which defeats the whole point, or they wanted to do it and strip us from it, give us one lump sum and we don’t have any rights to it. We weren’t willing to do that early on. The distributor we’re looking at now has pretty much everything we’re looking for and they want to help us make more. It’s crazy that foreign distribution companies see the value in what we’re doing and understand, more than America. Yeah, ownership is everything.
Paradigm Grey premiered in 2017. The announcement of its premiere describes Paradigm Grey as “the start of several volumes of genre-defying feature-length films and television projects, with a focus on spotlighting the African Diaspora in roles you don’t typically see them in.” The producers who suggested that Adams recast Paradigm Grey with an all-white cast justified their request by citing financial reasons, rather than acknowledging the role of race and prejudice. Erigha also notes the ways in which proximity to whiteness or the mainstream is taken as an opportunity for success. One industry employee defends recasting 2014’s Annie with a young Black family by arguing, “I don’t feel [Annie] is a real African American film.” Here, the reading of a film to not feel like an African American film distances it from Blackness and therefore separates it from the failure expectation. In this particular context, the cultural worker’s statement that a film does not really feel African American is taken to be a compliment that implies the movie could become a box office success (Erigha).
This employee, dubbed Elizabeth in the report, emphasized Annie’s ‘universal’ appeal as a source of proof that Blackness would not hinder the film’s performance. The implications of whiteness being linked with box office success furthers the presumption that Black productions will fail.
Owning the Story
For Chris Adams, the only way to avoid the failure expectation and acquire power is to own the story.
I’m more about we need to own our stories, our means of production, our means of distribution. One, I’m tired of seeing other people tell our stories from their perspective, and the power of ownership, it’s very important. So, diversity in the industry — a lot of the production are top tier, but a lot of time we’re only on set as security, and not behind the camera. And then those who finally get behind the camera, try to prevent themselves from losing their position, that they almost run from other Blacks. Because we can’t be sticking together too much, they might think something’s wrong.
In his response about diversity in the industry, three important factors come to light. The first is that Adams uses the collective “we” when referring to Black people, a habit that not only suggests a larger observation on the Black experience but reflects the sense of communal connection that Black people feel with one another. Second, his use of the word “they” when he says, “they might think something is wrong,” shows how he sees whiteness as synonymous with the film industry or vice versa. However, the most important is his belief that Black creators avoid one another in the industry as a form of self-preservation. This anxiety could be explained by the dearth of successful Black producers in the industry. In From Madea to Media Mogul:
Theorizing Tyler Perry, Karen M. Bowdre critiques media coverage over a longstanding argument between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry over who represents the Black community and attributes it to increased competition between Black filmmakers amid dwindling opportunities. She writes, “the media’s tendency to focus almost all attention on one Black director, with other Black directors elided from conversations gives way to a ‘there can only be one’ mentality about Black directors” (Bowder).
Effecting Change in the Future
Sam Pollard was introduced to editing in 1971 at Baruch College in New York City. He was initially a marketing major but started to take film classes at WNET, the public television station for New York City. For three years, he honed his talent under the editor and director Victor Kanefsky. His early influences at the beginning of his career were John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock. “When I got in the business, I had three very important mentors. Victor Kanefsky, St. Clair Bourne, and George Bowers — those are the three who became major influences on me in my own personal career, in my own personal arc,” Pollard said. Victor Kanefsky was an award-winning documentarian and editor. St. Clair Bourne, a New York documentarian, spent his filmmaking career depicting social issues and Black lives. Bourne’s work includes the experience of a Black minister-in-training in Let the Church Say Amen! (1973). George Bowers, a New York film editor, was credited on A League of Their Own (Penny Marshall, 1992), Renaissance Man (Penny Marshall, 1994), and A Preacher’s Wife (Penny Marshall, 1996).
Pollard has been a diligent filmmaker and editor, dedicating his time to stories that he believes in. He worked on the timeless Style Wars (Tony Silver, 1983), a documentary about graffiti in 1980s New York, with Victor Kanefsky for a year. He edited eight films with Spike Lee, two with Ernest R. Dickerson, several with Jim Brown, and many more alongside numerous other filmmakers. His other projects circulate around social justice. His 2020 film, MLK/FBI follows the FBI investigation of Martin Luther King by J. Edgar Hoover. Pollard emphasizes the need for tension in a documentary as a means of storytelling and character. When asked about his thoughts on the industry, Pollard responded:
One on level, particularly in the Hollywood realm, it’s still a white male dominated industry. Even though I’ve been here a long time, there are more people of color making films, but it’s still an uphill battle. You know? In the documentary world there is more elasticity and more people of color involved. But they’re not getting the big projects. Because — it’s like anything. A certain group of people always get the big projects. And it’s our responsibility now to try and make sure that some of these filmmakers are people of color who are independent, who are coming up. They get a chance to get these projects with bigger budgets and better schedules.
Social Media and the Internet Connection
While Pollard and Adams emphasize the need for ownership and the power to greenlight, or approve, productions, other interviewees see hope in the power of the internet. The reverberations that social media has made in the industry has been felt by many Black creators, including Ashley A. Woods, an artist and graphic novelist. Woods began her own graphic novel, “Millennia War,” in her senior year of high school, which she self-published in 2006. The novel is a mix of fantasy and military elements. Missing the typical toolbox to get started, like an agent and a publisher, Woods went around Chicago to pitch the graphic novel to different stores:
I really didn’t know what I was doing, meaning, I wasn’t business savvy. I just learned everything on the go. I just knew: ’I wanna create a comic, this is fun, and I wanna have it in the store. I’ll figure out the distribution and all of that later.’ So, I would enter the store: Hey! Here’s my comic. We would work out a contract where the store would take a dollar or so off the cover price, and the rest of the profit, and it was just one step at a time, just building.
Ashley A. Woods takes inspiration from comics, anime, and videogame franchises like Final Fantasy and Metal Gear Solid. Her first major collaboration was with Stranger Comics in 2015 at the Black Comics Art Festival (BCAF) convention in San Francisco, where she connected with Amandla Stenberg and Sebastian A. Jones. Together they created a graphic novel featuring a black female warrior named Nairobi in 2016. That opportunity led her to bigger projects. In 2018, she was contacted to do some art designs for the HBO show Lovecraft Country (2020 – ). Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy show, developed by Misha Green, a previous writer for Heroes (2006 – 2010) and Sons of Anarchy (2008 – 2014), and produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams. Her work on Lovecraft Country introduced her to the fast-paced nature of television.
The assignment lasted about three months, and the first two months I worked at home, and I didn’t work on set until the third month. The first two months I worked on the creature designs, as well as the wardrobe. During the third month, my last month on the project, on set I worked on more of the wardrobe along with the props for the set. There was one time, where the hours on set are really long, like all day, and there were times we’d work until maybe 2 a.m. At least, that’s when I left, but everyone was still knee deep in filming. They would shoot the scene, and I would be sitting 35 to the side, and Director Yann [Demange], he would — after he finished shooting the scene, he would approach me where I was sitting, and tell me what I needed to update in the sketches, then they’d take those sketches to the art department, and they would consult filming, and I wasn’t around for those conversations, but they’d be right there next to me, just talking and making all these adjustments.
For Woods, the Internet has been an invaluable tool, one that is creating a more inclusive environment in the film and television industry:
At this point, [diversity is] being addressed. The last five years, there’s been a huge growth in diversity. And I feel like, we’re at a point now where, ‘What more could you ask?’ I know there are some people who would argue differently. But at this point I feel like we have our representation and even more we have other artists doing it for themselves. We’re at a point now where we don’t have to depend on the industry to create our opportunities, you know? It’s not that the industry isn’t addressing our concerns, because they are, but even still we have the power as individual artists to create what we want to see. The Internet levelled the playing field in that sense. Especially with COVID. Let’s look at how COVID affected the industry this year. The way distribution is handled now – even major companies are not distributing their projects the same way. They’re actually relying on crowdfunding, the same way as us independents are. In that sense — I do not see [diversity] losing steam. I feel like we’re in a new era now, where it’s not just a fad or a trend, but the way of the culture of the industry now, you know? Audiences, they’re being addressed, the things that they want, are being addressed. We also have the power to create what we want to see.
Chloe Herring, who works in television in Chicago, argues that these changes are not as inclusive as they may seem.
Since this pandemic has hit, you see a lot of people getting studio deals, but, you have to ask yourself who are these people getting these studio deals, and a lot of them are actors, and a lot of them are artists, for example like Lizzo. Lizzo has a deal. Why? She’s not a filmmaker. Is she creative, I’m sure, but is she gonna actually be the person that’s making the content for Netflix happen? No. She’s going to get a filmmaker, who could have been the person to get that deal instead of Lizzo. She’s gonna go get someone who actually knows what they’re doing, but she’s going to get the credit for it. In that way, social media has become a part of that, right? Because it’s like ‘oh, Lizzo has a following, Lizzo is cool, Lizzo has done some cool stuff.’ Like why – why? But people have been able to use social media to start careers in film. Issa Rae, she got a following on social media, and if it weren’t for that, we might not have Insecure (2016 – ). So really, it’s a two-pronged situation. Maybe I feel some type of way because there are maybe 30 really talented filmmakers who could have got that deal, that Lizzo got. Even when they give these kinds of deals to 36 actors … I much rather those deals go to producers. But, YouTube stars are now in the industry because of social media, so that wouldn’t have happened without the Internet.
Finding success on the Internet is not a sure path to success for Black creators. In fact, timing, knowledge, and quick learning seemed to be the necessary tools to capitalize off of the Internet’s meteoric rise. Herring’s thoughts on Lizzo’s deal with Amazon Studios highlights the way the industry places importance on Black musicians and their fanbase but passes over trained directors and producers. Musicians entering the television industry has been a regular practice. The rapper, Common, executive produces The Chi (2018 – ), which depicts the inner workings of a neighborhood in South Side Chicago. Drake is an executive producer on Euphoria (2019 – ), a new teen drama starring Zendaya Coleman on HBO Max. Although Black musicians’ success in Hollywood is inspiring, this trend could reflect the industry placing more trust in a Black musician’s fanbase than in their capability to tell stories.
The cast of Showtime’s The Chi, a coming-of-age dramatic series about life in a South Chicago neighborhood
Still, the cinematographer Donijah Collier updates his reel yearly. His advice for aspiring filmmakers to “[utilize] social media as much as you can, in order for people to see you, as long as you’re visible, they know you’re there, and when it comes to a project they have in mind, they’re going to reach out. Or, they’re going to at least consider you.” Chris Adams praises YouTube, saying,
If I would have had YouTube when I got started — You can literally find out just about anything on anything. There are so many resources. When I got started, I had to go to the library and hope they carried some sci-fi magazines. Or I would use Behind-the-Scenes on Blu-rays, especially with the Criterion Collection when they had in-depth interviews with the creators, but yeah, the Internet is such a mass resource. And then I would say, especially for filmmakers, don’t get caught up in the gear. This phone shoots ten times better than what I started out in the industry with.
Yet the Internet also remains a cautionary tale. New media outlets like TikTok show potential for diversity and inclusion, only to replicate the same inequities that are perpetuated on YouTube and streaming services. While some Black creators welcome new technologies, others view it like they do any other media platform – with a healthy dose of suspicion, especially because opportunity is so difficult to come by. Herring attributed her placement as a Production Assistant on the Chicago PD (2014 – ) set to networking and good luck. She said,
I went to a lot of networking events and – this is a testament to me in some ways because I am very much a go-getter — I don’t really take no for an answer … So, I went to a lot of networking events. I basically told everyone what I was doing. And if they knew anyone. One of my first breakthroughs … I started school officially in August, and I went to this networking event, and I met this woman who worked on the set of Chicago PD, white woman, a little bit older. First, I wouldn’t have known that she worked on the set of PD cause most of the people that were there were independent filmmakers and students who weren’t really in a position to bring me up. But she was. She was kind enough to give me her information.
That contact led Herring to the Assistant Director of Chicago PD.
That was like one of the first breakthroughs that I got, and again, it was very much off of the recommendation of someone else. This industry is so communal. It’s all about who you know. Which is clear like, there are so many white men who are successful in Hollywood and it’s just like, in that way it’s kind of like a boys’ club, and they knew someone who put them on. Whereas there are a lot of talented people of color who haven’t been able to break into the industry because it’s all about who you know. That white woman was really nice [laughs]. I don’t mean to call her white woman, but she is white, and she is a woman, and she was very nice, and I still keep in touch with her actually, which is important. That’s my advice. It’s not specific to this industry. Just keep in touch with people, especially people who have been helpful to you in your career. So, I kept in touch with her. She basically was my in for Chicago PD. I did the work, but she was the one who put me on.
Herring’s summation that “it’s all about who you know” is an astute and overwhelmingly significant description of how the industry works. The Washington Post published an article, “Oscar nominees are more diverse than ever,” which matches Herring’s conclusion about the “boys’ club” in the industry. The Post follows the slate of new diversity requirements for the Oscars. The requirements being, “benchmarks for casting (at least one lead character should be played by an actor from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group; for ensemble casts, at least 30 percent should comprise at least two of the following groups: women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals and people with different cognitive or physical abilities).” In addition, these new guidelines address “the composition of crews (at least two department heads should be from underrepresented groups, with at least one being a person of color)” (Hornaday). These eligibility rules are put in place to combat what The Post describes as an industry “shaped by implicit biases and old boys’ clubs for decades” (Hornaday). With the revelation in 2021 that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a non-profit organization of journalists that run the Golden Globes every year, has had no Black writers for the last 20 years, one must consider if the diversity measures placed on the Oscars will make any significant change (Angelique Jackson).
Near the end of her interview, Herring said,
Even the line producing roles I’ve gotten, have been because I’ve worked with the director … Honestly, if that one white woman hadn’t put me on that one time, I would not be here … You can work so hard and you can show up and do all these things. But, in this industry it really does feel like there has to be one, or two, or three or four, maybe even more than that … there have to be these people who are willing to help you. It’s not even just about my work ethic. If I was, like, the daughter of a Hollywood executive, I wouldn’t necessarily have to work hard if I just knew someone to put me on. I could be a director tomorrow.
Lauren Berry, a cinematographer, colorist, and certified Steadicam operator, hopes to curate Black talent in the Midwest to bypass the limitations for Black artists that Herring recognizes. Berry states:
I’ve met so many people from Los Angeles, from Georgia, from New York, and I think what people don’t realize is that it’s New Mexico that is starting to come up in the film industry. People think films are cool; when you go to film school, it’s not about the money — it’s about the art. But the states that are really poppin’ with the film industry have really good tax incentives. I wouldn’t be opposed to going to other places, I just want to bring back that — what is it — cream of the crop, back to the Midwest. I want that high cotton, coming back here. Because there are so many talents that get overlooked. That’s kind of what happened with Cinespace, that’s where they shoot Chicago Fire, Chicago Med, and PD. They flew a producer in, and I think it was a line producer for one of the shows. She unfortunately had COVID. That show that they had shot had finished, and then all the crew disbanded, they went back to Chicago Med, Fire, other shows that were there, and going to continue work, and then you have this producer who you flew in from L.A., because L.A. at the time when all of this happened, was really where [the virus] was prolific, brought it over here, and my thoughts, the very first thing that came to my mind was, there are so many great producers here why didn’t you just call somebody from home? From, like, the Midwest? You’re always flying in people from L.A. to be the director, the producer, the director of photography … There’s just such good talent here that just hasn’t had a chance to shine.
Like Ashley A. Woods, Berry argues that if there is any benefit to the pandemic, it’s the change to the film and television industry. “You can’t keep flying people in,” she argues.
A universal theme that emerged from the interviews was a concern for the lack of diversity and opportunity for Black creators in front of and behind the camera. Filmmaking is a collaborative process. It takes many people, perspectives, skill sets, and financiers to create a finished product. Sam Pollard describes the relationship between a director and their editor as a marriage. “Sometimes it’s a very good marriage, long term, long lasting. Sometimes it’s a fractious marriage where there’s tension but people still stay together because the tensions help them both be very creative. Sometimes the marriage doesn’t work and they have to break up … Many people I’ve had long relationships with. You know? I love to be challenged. I love to work with people who are also creative.” Filmmaking is nothing without connection and the sharing of ideas. Each interviewee, despite working in different specialties, cited this give and take as a facet of good filmmaking. “It’s a collaboration, you know? Everyone wants to contribute and be a part of the project …. Filmmaking is very much a collaborative art,” Donijah Collier says. Ashley A. Woods mentions the village it took to make the visuals in Lovecraft Country. Chloe Herring stood in freezing cold temperatures to ensure that no passersby wandered onto Chicago PD’s set and ruined a take. Lauren Berry is trying to form a collective powerhouse for creators in the Midwest. Chris Adams brings talent together for Impakt Studios.
Every interviewee recognizes the inherent collaborative nature of filmmaking. Yet Hollywood often privileges one voice, one winner, and one narrative in its structure. The focus on a singular winner, whether it’s an actor, director, or other creative talent, in Hollywood narrows the already razor thin path to success for marginalized creators. The Black creators interviewed for this project have all demonstrated their own method of overcoming obstacles. They’ve come up with creative ways to resist the industry’s constricting structure. Going forward, a conscious effort must be put forth, both to incorporate Black voices behind the scenes and to change how we discuss Black art. It is by these efforts that creators like Donijah Collier, Chloe Herring, Lauren Berry, Ashley A. Woods, Chris Adams, and Sam Pollard can exist collectively and simultaneously within the television and film industry.
Bowdre, Karen M. “Spike and Tyler’s Beef: Blackness, Authenticity, and Discourses of Black Exceptionalism.” From Madea to Media Mogul: Theorizing Tyler Perry. University Press of Mississippi, 18 January 2018.
Christian, Aymar J., and Day, Faithe. “Locating black queer TV: Fans, producers, and networked publics on YouTube.” Transformative Works and Culture, 15 June 2017.
Erigha, Maryann. “Racial Valuation: Cultural Gatekeepers, Race, Risk, and Institutional Expectations of Success and Failure.” Social Problems, spaa006.
Hornaday, Ann. “Oscar nominees are more diverse than ever. And that raises more questions about numbers and nuance.” The Washington Post, 19 March 2021.
Jackson, Angelique. “Hollywood Foreign Press Association Addresses Absence of Black Members during Golden Globes Broadcast.” ProQuest, 1 March 2021.
Tzioumakis, Yannis. “‘Indie Doc’: Documentary Film and American ‘Independent’, ‘Indie’ and ‘Indiewood’ Filmmaking.” Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 10, no. 1, March. 2016, pp. 1– 21.