Following recent protests for social justice and the ensuing conversations in our industry, we ask our colleagues to share their experiences and suggestions for the future.
"As Indigenous people, we are very aware of the power that telling our stories has in shaping our world."
"We have come into a period of time when barriers to diversity and access are tumbling everyday. Dig in, get passionate, don’t let this opportunity pass you by."
"Creating an understanding that you can have a seat at the table, regardless of who you are, is not easy, but it is work that must be done, and done now."
"I was instilled with a want to prove I could succeed, to prove I could make a path irregardless of the system, to prove I could do this without compromising myself in the process."
July 25th, 2020
How can we increase diversity and equal access in our profession?
Jane Bucknell is a New Zealand based production designer. Her work includes films, TV music videos and commercials. She recently designed the TV show "Head High" and represented her country in the ImagineNative festival in Toronto.
I am a production designer who is also an indigenous woman, I am Maaori, my Iwi (tribes) are Ngaapuhi, Ngaati Wai, Ngaati Hau, and Ngaati Puukenga. I also have Fijian, English and Scottish ancestry.
I am writing from within a cultural context of the ongoing occupation of our stolen Indigenous lands and resources by our colonisers here in Aotearoa, (New Zealand).
I feel I cannot contribute to a conversation around “how we can increase diversity and equity in access within our profession” - without first talking to the reason why we even have to ask the question in the first place. To me the question shows a recognition of an imbalance of power that advances through racist policies, structures and institutional practices in our filmmaking environments, resulting in the lack of diversity and equity.
Asking ourselves and our colleagues these questions is an important way to increase diversity and equal access as it will help to move us to acknowledge these power imbalances and ultimately lead to the dismantling of dominant constructions and discourse that reproduce the idea that the desired audience and required economic and cultural capital is predominantly white.
In my mahi (work) as a Maaori production designer I am constantly analysing Maaori representation on screen and in my own ways actively resist the problematic enduring stereotypes of Maaori in film as Other that has been used by our colonisers to silence and marginalise our world view and therefore our value in this industry.
I seek to validate our experiences and complex cultural diversity in my work wherever possible by asking the question “how am I as a film maker able to help centre Maaori identity and culture based on the notion of cultural fluidity and change, where our identity is neither fixed in the past or the present.”
As Indigenous people, we are very aware of the power that telling our stories has in shaping our world.
Recently many indigenous filmmakers globally are wanting to tell stories about the effects of colonisation.
This can pose many difficulties for the indigenous filmmakers in securing funding, because of hegemonic constructions within the screen industry, even though there is a known audience for these films, such as the many communities of Indigenous peoples around the globe who share in experiences of oppression and ongoing colonisation.
Non-BIPOC filmmakers have a responsibility to create and/or free up space and resource for BIPOC to make themselves visible, to give expression to their diverse realities and invent themselves in ways that are sustainable and that counter persistent dominant ideologies.
Some important questions we should ask ourselves as production designers and HODs are
: do I even see when there is lack of diversity in my crew?
: is my crew a reflection of inclusivity and diversity?
: are my crew members being paid fairly, especially if they belong to a marginalised group of people?
: by accepting this job am I benefiting from the appropriation or exploitation of a culture I don’t belong to? and am I willing to suggest to the producers that someone from that culture be hired for the job and I decline the work?
: could I mentor someone who is from a marginalised culture and help to create a pathway to future employment for them?
: do I welcome or even initiate dialogue within my crew around inclusivity and diversity and equity?
: am I aware of the individual needs or beliefs of my BIPOC crew members, or do I need to create a safe space for them to let me know how I might support them better in the workplace?
: how can we create specific training programmes for BIPOC in order to increase equity and diversity in our industry?
Jamie Lapsley is a British production designer whose career encompasses award-winning TV shows such as "Bodyguard", "Fearless", "Murdered for being Different", and films "Skeletons", "Shell" and "Tommy's Honor". She has designed commercials for a broad range of clients, including Lego, Google, HP, Sainsbury and Kodak.
The film and television industry does face a challenge in changing its profile - it is by its nature a closed system that has been traditionally hard to break into. Knowing the right person, having the resources to relocate, study, support yourself whilst trying to make your way in, is a barrier to access, as well as the incredibly informal hiring practices.
As designers we all tend to hire people we think we’ll like, people who will compliment our skillset, plug the gaps in our own workflow. A candidate's qualifications and experience are part of this, but it’s often a gut instinct - can I weather the tumult of a production with this person? And the pool of talent we pull from is, by and large, white middle class.
Access at entry level needs to open up. Working with universities, colleges, schools - letting young people of all backgrounds see the viability of having a career beyond the established professions - and also recognising there are art department roles that have equivalencies with non-industry practitioners, such as drafting, graphic designers, co-ordinators, accountants. Can we offer access at a more experienced level and perhaps increase chances of diversifying the workplace at a level beyond entry grades?
As a transgender head of department I’ve become aware of the power that level of visibility has. If being who I am, in the role I have, lets others see that they may have a place within the industry, that their voice is a valid one and they can ask for a seat at that table, then there’s more than one positive result of my own acceptance of who I am. If we can look to amplify the voices of others who aren’t the established norm, hopefully we can raise the sights of those who, to date, haven’t been able to see themselves in our workplace.
Creating an understanding that you can have a seat at the table, regardless of who you are, is not easy, but it is work that must be done, and done now.
Arv Greywal’s credits include "Lars and the Real Girl", "Jennifer’s Body", "16 Blocks", "Antiviral" and David Cronenberg’s "Cosmopolis". Recently, his work has included limited television series such as "Genius: Picasso", "Waco" and "Alias Grace". He is currently working on "The Boys".
Isn’t it absurd that we actually have to ask this question in 2020; but here we are, and we require an answer.
Let’s take a moment though, to understand why this question is being asked; why now?
In the case of most people, it’s because the police brutally murdered George Floyd, in broad daylight, on a crowded street, in plain sight, with the hubris of seeming impunity. That day we collectively saw the arc of morality bend away from justice.
In order to move forward and make the disappointments, the whitewashing, the glass ceiling, the dismissals, the tacit complicity, the betrayals, the name calling, the racial slurs, the systemic racism, the attacks and the murders, a thing of the past, we definitely have to come up with answers.
We are at a galvanizing moment in time that needs our focus. If we resolve to do the right thing at this point, we can get further along the road to equality and diversity for everyone. There will be road blocks and set backs and reprisals; of course, when have there not been forces of opposition to understanding, common sense or common decency. That’s just a given.
As the young man, who my daughters and I marched along with, eloquently explained to the large and diverse set of protestors: We aren’t saying that all lives don’t matter, but today we’re saying, black lives matter, because for 400 years we’ve been treated as animals, as sub-human, we’ve been lynched, systematically oppressed, and impoverished, and now we’re being killed by people who are supposed to protect us.
As Kimberly Jones, the young woman I saw on TV, put so succinctly: “...they are lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”
BLACK LIVES MATTER
So let’s not answer our question in a vacuum. We must continue our journey with this foremost in mind; it is painfully apparent that this watershed moment in our lives has power and drive behind it. We are rightly asking questions that cannot be ignored. Ignoring the sins that shape our society is an act of complicity and it always has been. If you can’t see them still, plainly, staring you in the face, then you must step aside, because the rest of us have to come through this.
Start here: We all belong to a guild or a union. Ask the leadership what they’re willing to do to create a more inclusive and diverse workforce. Don’t accept the hastily issued, boilerplate releases to the membership. We’ve already seen too many of these, replete with all the expected platitudes. I would much rather see the uncompromising honesty that the IATSE leadership put out. I’m citing a quote from a Deadline article: “We have not always lived up to our own values and ideals of unionism, through our action, inaction, apathy, and at times ambivalence,” IATSE president Matt Loeb and the union’s entire executive board said today. “For too long, we have turned a blind eye to the need for our workspaces to represent all members of our society, and for all workers to have an equal opportunity to enter the entertainment industry. We can do better. We must do better. We will do better.” This is meaningful and powerful.
More from the same article: “On June 18, Actors’ Equity, which represents more than 51,000 theatrical actors and stage managers across the country, acknowledged its “historic culpability in perpetuating inequity.” And on that same day, the 4,300-member Stage Directors and Choreographers Society conceded its “own responsibility” for the lack of Broadway jobs for its members of color.” Back to the IATSE leadership: “Please know we are listening to you as you rightly demand equality, inclusion, diversity, fairness, opportunity and respect.”
The willingness to understand and help is commendable, but now it’s up to us to ask the tough questions and to not let these organizations forget or diminish this readiness. How does the leadership and the executive board reflect the community at large? How many people of colour are within the leadership or on the board? If it’s not representative, what steps will you take to make it so? What empirical measures will you take to make the membership more diverse and inclusive? How will you plainly show us the goals that you’ve set out and the results that you are achieving? Be bold, ask them.
On a personal level: We as production designers and art directors are in charge of who comes onto our shows to become a part of the art department. In 2003, when I was art directing, I heard that the 2 or 3 other art directors and I (all males) in Toronto were running boys’ clubs; that is, not interested in hiring female set designers. That stung! It wasn’t true, but it wasn’t false either. I never distinguished between male and female set designers and hired whoever was available, but nor did I ever specifically see the gender disparity that existed in my department. At the time, it could have been said, that it was difficult to hire women because there weren’t that many of them in the Guild. However, the reason there weren’t that many women in the Guild was because women weren’t being hired in the first place. My eyes were opened from that point on and still are today. In most of my art departments since, we have specifically sought out and strived for gender parity. We now achieve it with fair regularity, along with the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members. I believe this to be true of most art departments. If this isn’t the case in your art department, recognize it and fix it.
Similarly, one of the issues of access for people of colour is that we just aren’t represented in equitable numbers in the talent pools of our various guilds and unions. So understandably, hiring Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC - damned if that doesn’t sound like a slur still) members is difficult until there is greater representation. It will get easier when the unions and guilds and we personally, step up and do our part with recruitment, but in the meanwhile, do some homework. My city, Toronto, is composed of 51.5% visible minorities. My goal, when I work in this city, is to make my art department representative. I’m unable do this just yet, but I will get there. I can, however, hire the visible minorities available to me, still mostly in junior positions, and with sincerity, without condescension, mentor them, train them and give them meaningful work.
On a production level: As stated, Toronto is composed of 51.5% visible minorities. That’s not what I see on productions I’ve worked on here. It’s getting better, but the composition of most film crews in my city is still not representative of the complexion of its citizens. It’s worse around the boardroom table at a production meeting. We had one producer, last year, at the end of the meeting reminding the director to be more ethnically diverse as he was casting the smaller roles in a particular scene. He said, without irony, ‘the studio doesn’t want to see just a bunch of old white guys sitting around a table.” I slammed my hands down on the table, in mock anger, and then pointed to the set decorator, woman; the Stunt co-ordinator, Asian; myself, Indian; then white guy, white guy, white guy,whiteguywhiteguywhiteguy..... times a dozen or so. It seemed funny to point out the irony, but it’s not funny and it’s not ironic, it’s the sad truth. We have to call these things out. When a female director or a director of colour is referred to as “just a diversity hire,” that has to be called out in no uncertain terms. It might lose you a couple of work friends, or you might get labelled as “difficult” or you may just unknowingly lose a gig in the future, but you’ve got to let it be known that these things are unacceptable. More often than not you’ll find that people are willing to listen and that more than ever, people are willing to change.
The studios and streamers are certainly receptive and willing to help. Take hold of this opportunity and through your production or your guild or your members’ committee, open up a dialogue about inclusivity and representation with your parent company. One example of this willingness: NBCUniversal News Group Chairman Cesar Conde Sets Goal Of 50% Diverse Workforce. I was made aware of both this and the article cited above by Sheila R. Brown.
On a grassroots level: No single paragraph can do justice to what Ms. Brown has achieved in Chicago. She is a dynamo. She was put in charge of a foundation called CineCares, which provides access to education and job training programs at Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. Cinespace is a stage rental company started by an immigrant to Toronto, the late Nick Mirkopoulos. His brother and nephews now run the company in Toronto and Chicago, respectively. In Chicago, the stages that Mirkopoulos and his nephews built are in the heart of a neighbourhood where the average household income is $23,000. The family decided to engage the neighbourhood and brought Ms. Brown in to create a program that would give the Black and Lantinx youth of the area access and a pathway into the film industry.
She started recruiting young people in 2017 and until Covid -19 hit, she had put four separate cohorts through the training cycle - 24 weeks for 12 hours a day at minimum wage plus overtime. After hoping for a 30% success rate, she achieved a success rate of 92% of the 46 young adults completing their training in the film business; an astounding accomplishment. Over 60% of the youth work full seasons on the shows that film in Chicago, while the others day-play in film, theatre and commercials.
After training, the recruits were set up as apprentices with various departments of the TV shows they were on, and paid full union wages. NBCUniversal picked up their fees for their training, and CineCares paid their union initiation fees. They now make in a few weeks what their entire household previously made in a year. This could not have happened without the co-operation and partnership of (Dick) Wolf Entertainment, NBCUniversal and IATSE and the smarts of Sheila R. Brown. There was the expected blowback from the union members, but it quickly dissipated once they felt the positive impact of the new recruits and realized that the new members weren’t a threat to their jobs but an addition to the workforce which would only help bring more work to the city.
We have to learn from Ms. Brown and emulate her success story. What I’m relaying here is merely a fraction of her larger story. Look her up, invite her to speak to your guild or union; learn how to fast-track people of colour into our industry.
The future: Reel Start is a program started by Evan Goldberg (director, writer, producer) and Adrienne Slover (an educator in Toronto). From their website, “Reel Start gives deserving students in underrepresented communities the opportunity to learn that film can drive powerful social change.” It’s not some “let’s find the next Spike Lee” program, it introduces young people to the industry and lets them know that they can have a place in it without having to go to film school or a college or university. It gives them hands-on experience that helps them realize that this is a real job that they can do and make a good living at. Find programs like these and volunteer. Lend a hand, support these local initiatives so that the kids in these communities can see themselves working in our industry.
We have come into a period of time when barriers to diversity and access are tumbling everyday. Dig in, get passionate, don’t let this opportunity pass you by.
Production designer Akin McKenzie has been steeped in the streets of New York since the winter of 2003, having traveled from Los Angeles where he received a BA at UCLA’s school of Film and Television. He has designed, among others, Todd Solondz’ “Wiener Dog" and Paul Dano’s “Wildlife". Other recent works include Terence Nance’ HBO series “Random Acts of Flyness” and Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries "When They See Us". He is currently working on cinematographer Rachel Morrison’s feature film debut “Flint Strong".
I graduated film school in 2001, bright eyed, and ambitious, naive enough to expect to be ushered into an industry that would view a film school diploma from UCLA as proof enough of a youngster brimming with potential. Naive enough to think a few avant-garde films in my backpack was all the ammo I needed. Not averse to working up through the trenches, but confident that my path to professional creative expression would be pointed and short. My pants were tight, a fisherman’s cap tilted to one side, my shirts were tattered, (but good tattered like the old soft Screen Stars branded shirts). I had fought to get out of my hometown, fought to see a bigger picture, fought to keep my identity intact while navigating worlds where diversity was non-existent, fought through high school into junior college, fought against the college counselor who said UCLA was unattainable, fought through the program, and now, in my mind, I had succeeded.
In High School my only black teacher was our vice principal Mr. Coleman. I spent a lot of time in the vice principal's office for a myriad of reasons. We looked forward to this time together even if often the reason behind the visit wasn’t the most pleasant. He wanted me to go to college. He circled the wagons a bit when I ditched too much. First period had to compete with the breakfast spot a few blocks away and their amazing huevos rancheros. I did well on tests and didn't understand why I needed to spend so much time in class when there was a whole world worth exploring. And yet he honored me, awarding me a stipend for higher education. He saw himself in me and wouldn’t allow me to get stuck in a micro vision of the world like many of my friends. He needed me to succeed as much for him as for me. He knew what it meant to navigate a world outside of one's community. He is the only high school teacher whose name I remember.
In junior college I had no professors of color. Even Spanish was taught by a white person. When I did get into UCLA film school I had a white man tell me that I should be grateful for Affirmative Action, which unfortunately no longer existed as “liberal” California had abolished it through proposition 209 in 1996. He may have been ignorant to this fact, but still happy to discredit the accomplishments of a person of color irregardless. At UCLA the only black professor I studied under taught African American History. In the film program my advisor was Kayo Hatta, the only person of color teaching in the program at the time. I was lucky to have her, I was lucky to share with her, we believed in each other. She also struggled in her path, choosing to tell stories of minority cultures, getting applauded for the work she was able to make, but unable to find financing for the projects she had in the cue because the content was not of the majority preference. I thought Kayo would be in my life indefinitely. She drowned in 2005. I knew she had drowned but in writing this I discovered that she drowned in my hometown, a small sub-city in north county San Diego. I did not know she drowned there.
If not for Mr. Coleman I would not have made it to UCLA. Even after he was no longer a presence in my life I was instilled with a want to prove I could succeed, to prove I could make a path irregardless of the system, to prove I could do this without compromising myself in the process. Without Kayo Hatta I would not have left UCLA with enough confidence to carry me through the years of top Ramen and canned beans to come. I do not discount the many welcoming white faces that also rooted for my success, but it was Kayo and Colman that knew what it felt like, knew what it was like to feel like the other.
A High School honors English teacher recounted a story to our class once upon a time. She also worked as a drama teacher. One night she was working late, most of the campus had emptied, she was alone in theatre room. She turned around and there was a “big black man” in the room with her. She was scared she said. It turned out “it was just Mr. Coleman the new vice principal who had dropped by to introduce himself.” There was no purpose to her story other than to imply that her fear of black people is valid. This was the same teacher that checked the syllabus of my friend and I the first day of class, the only two people of color in the class, she pointed out that this was an honors class and she just wanted to make sure we were in the right place. I hated this teacher. This is among many reasons why Coleman and Kayo could see me in ways that others could not. This meant that we had a shorthand that I did not share with others.
When you walk into a space as the only person of color, the unspoken truth is that you don't belong there. That the reason you're there is a fluke or an anomaly, a breaking of a rule. When that white man told me I should be thankful for affirmative action he was acknowledging that rule. He was implying that we don't belong there. He had applied and been denied which he thought undermined the rule, white supremacy; that those spaces were for him not me. There is no individual bouncing people of color at the door, there is no individual who can shoulder the blame, but rather a system; Systematic white supremacy.
After college I worked as a PA. I worked as an assistant. I worked in craft service. I worked on music videos where the talent where the only people of color. Crews were all white men for the most part with the exception of a smattering of women on the production end and of one freelance production coordinator I met at NBC. This was an exclusive club. There may have been more diverse crews out there but I was not exposed to them. I did not see a path. I left... I moved to New York and it was a few years before I would return to the industry with a new path carved.
I went back to UCLA recently to review masters' thesis presentations in design. There was one black man in the class. He reminded me of me. After the presentation we went up to his work space. He had worked all night the night before and was exhausted. He shared his different projects with me. They were great. We talked. He felt alone, he felt like nobody understood him, he felt like an other, he felt like he didn’t belong. I knew those feelings. We shared. He visited me on the set of a studio project I was on. Our director was black. Our cinematographer was black. He brought his designs. Our set designers brought their portfolios in. We all took time out of our day to see his work. To spend time with him. To show him that he is not alone. That the club is not exclusive. That he does belong.
This is why we need people of color every step of the way. In our schools, in our colleges, in our unions, in our agencies, in our studios, on our crews, on our films, every step of the way. I am here because I found two. Two is not enough.
There is much we can do to make change. Demanding diversity paramount amongst them. If you take a look inside what do you see? I encourage all of my white colleagues to take a look at themselves. Imagine your friends, those you love the most, is that a diverse group? Then ask yourself do you actually value diversity?