It’s no secret that Black actors and filmmakers experienced racism in Hollywood. But you may be unfamiliar with how they overcame these obstacles, which ultimately led to securing leading roles and getting their films on the big screen.
On Thursday, September 24, the March on Washington Film Festival (MOWFF) traveled back in time to discuss Blacks’ evolving roles and status in the film industry.
The panel titled, “Black Hollywood Then and Now,” was hosted by Variety’s film and media reporter Angelique Jackson, featuring actor Hill Harper, filmmakers Yoruba Richen and Roger Ross Williams.
The conversation began with a question about Black people’s most significant challenges in the present-day film industry.
“One of the biggest issues is the ability to tell diverse stories in whatever form of entertainment, whether it’s through music, film, or television,” said Harper. “For years and years and years, the entertainment industry has sold a lot of Black trauma, and that’s one thing. But we are so much more.”
Harper goes on to explain the importance of having more Black filmmakers, more diverse writers, and more diverse people in the room and leadership positions.
“Having diverse folks with diverse stories can help create much more diversity in terms of the storytelling and what we get to see,” he said.
Richen added: “It’s one thing to hire Black people, but if we are working for these production companies that are White-led with White executives, there can often be a lens that you have to fight against or you have to challenge. It’s not just hiring; it’s the lens that has to change.”
Next, Jackson asked the panelists to share their thoughts on the Academy Award’s new inclusion rules to qualify for Best Picture and how this will influence and change storytelling.
“The Academy was forced into this from #OscarsSoWhite and social media, really Black Twitter started this,” said Williams.
“The Academy had to change. We’re dealing with systemic racism, so it’s going to take some time, but new initiatives are a start.”
Another topic addressed during the event was the responsibility of Black actors when choosing a role.
“That’s individual to the artist,” said Harper.
“Over the course of my career, there were roles that would come up that I would choose not to play because I didn’t feel…usually it was about the project, not the role. We want to play different kinds of roles, but it’s ultimately about the message of the movie. For me, I try to do projects that represent us in the best light possible that celebrates our spirit. It’s a journey. Every actor has to make their own decision about where they will go.”
The event concluded with a discussion on the work and legacy of director Oscar Micheaux and the impact he made on each panelist. To stream the recorded live discussion or view the full schedule of events for the March on Washington Film Festival visit https://www.marchonwashingtonfilmfestival.org/schedule.