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Despite progress, black directors still struggle to break through

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Sep 25, 2020 - 10:05 AM

NEW YORK — Black directors including Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) and Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) have enjoyed huge success in recent years — but for many African-American filmmakers, Hollywood remains far from welcoming.

Charlie Buhler, who is mixed race, set out to make an action film set against the backdrop of a pandemic, long before the coronavirus.

Unable to secure the funding she needed, Buhler had to direct parts of “Before the Fire” on her grandmother’s farm in South Dakota.

“I knew that no one was going to give me the opportunity to do the movie that I wanted to make,” said Buhler. “It’s hard enough for women to direct action movies, but especially women of color.”

Her film was selected at the Harlem International Film Festival, which was held online earlier this month.

Buhler’s struggle comes despite signs of progress for African-American filmmakers, the most visible being Coogler’s $1.3-billion grossing, Oscar-nominated “Black Panther.”

“Things have changed because there’s a lot more (minority) filmmakers, a lot more demand, a lot of quality,” said Cheryl Hill, a black movie producer and former Disney executive. “We can’t speak for 2020 but 2018 and 2019 were good years. I’m hopeful.”

Reasons for optimism include the growth of streaming giants such as Netflix — whose massive and diverse range of productions have opened up new horizons for minorities — as well as cheaper equipment lowering costs for newcomers.

“When I was starting out they were literally saying there’s no market” for black stars, said Hill. “That’s been proven ridiculous.”

‘Another white person’ 

But there is a long way to go.

“I wasn’t getting anywhere while seeing my white male peers rising in the ranks because people were just giving them a shot with no experience,” said Buhler, now 32.

White male executives typically hand coveted internships and assistant roles to people they know, she said.

“The film industry has long been an industry based on apprenticeships,” agreed Jonathan Tazewell, whose film “Gotta Get Down To It” was also selected by the festival, known for promoting diverse talent.

“It’s really about lifting up somebody that you know. And if that is only happening from one white person to another white person then it’s not changing the face of the film industry at all.”

Statistics show this is particularly true of behind-the-camera careers.

Last year, 15.7 percent of actors in US movies were black — slightly above the African-American share of the overall population (13.4 percent) — according to University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

But only 6.3 percent of directors were black. And a staggering 93 percent of all producers were white men.

In a bid to address this, Hollywood’s motion picture academy this month unveiled strict new eligibility rules to boost diversity among best picture Oscars nominees and the wider movie industry.

From 2024, behind-the-scenes senior leadership, technical crew members and marketing teams must include historically disadvantaged groups. Offering internships and training to underrepresented workers will also help films qualify.

‘Ignored’ 

Since its launch 15 years ago, the Harlem festival’s mission has been to “highlight the kind of films that otherwise might be ignored or not seen,” said programming director Nasri Zacharia.

For Tazewell, it is now up to the major festivals to follow suit, and adopt similar measures to those of the Oscars.

“Affirmative action has gotten a bad rap because there’s this assumption that the people who are hired or celebrated don’t deserve it — and that’s just not the case,” said Buhler.

“There’s been a level of affirmative action for the white community for centuries.”

The young director also expressed hope that the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the nation could help provoke positive changes within the industry.

“After the #MeToo movement I felt a real shift in male-female interactions for the better,” said Buhler. “And I’m hoping this is similar to that.”

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