‘I Often Worry That My Time in the Industry Is Limited’: Black Artists Reflect on Diversity in Their Fields

Soon after I started looking into why the black film boom of the early 1990s — an era that gave us the first African-American directors to become household names, Spike Lee and John Singleton — went bust, I saw clear parallels with Hollywood today.

In an article I published last week, featuring a discussion among six black directors who experienced the ’90s boom, I hoped to make those parallels clear for readers: Are the recent advances of a new generation of black filmmakers, built on the success of movies like “Moonlight,” “Get Out” and “Black Panther,” vulnerable to the same dynamics that curtailed the last one?

Readers had a lot to say on Twitter in response. And many were people of color with a personal stake in the answer.

“Everyone attempting a career in the film industry (or outside of it) should read this article,” tweeted the Los Angeles-based filmmaker Nijla Mu’min, who has directed for the TV series “Queen Sugar” and won a special jury prize at Sundance for her 2018 debut feature, “Jinn.” “Some things have changed, but it’s still a struggle for many.”

Many African-American readers who work in the film and television industry said the experiences described by the directors in my article, including feeling blindsided when initial enthusiasm for their work proved to be little more than lip service, mirrored their own struggles — and fears.

“Folks are super glamoured by the ‘success’ stories of the few allowed entry into the machine, while not cognizant of the range of degradation and sacrifice therein,” Ja’Tovia Gary, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker, tweeted.

The British Blacklist, a self-described hub for “British black creative talent,” suggested on Twitter that the issues outlined in the article were not limited to the United States.

“This happens to Black British creatives A LOT,” the organization tweeted, stressing the importance for black artists to “keep momentum.” “Only when 3 or more projects of your vision get through the gate can you exhale… Slightly.”

In my article, the filmmakers were optimistic that the recent black film wave will be more sustainable than the one in the ’90s, thanks to factors such as the advent of social media and the proliferation of powerful new streaming platforms. Many readers agreed.

“I’m encouraged by how hopeful all of these directors are about the future of black cinema, especially given their past experiences,” crystalcwaters, a New York-based cinematographer, tweeted.

But some were more skeptical. Jonathan Isaac Jackson, a producer, writer and director, worried that technology alone couldn’t mitigate “white privilege.”

“Technology makes it easier for us to distribute, but everything is trendy, and technology moves really fast,” he tweeted.

It wasn’t just filmmakers who saw themselves in the stories shared by the six directors. Namina Forna, a young adult novelist from Sierra Leone, was one of a number of readers in publishing who weighed in.

“As a black writer, I often worry that my time in the industry is limited,” she wrote. “What if all this is just temporary — publishing and Hollywood cashing in on diversity like it’s a trend.”

Jessica Woodbury, a blogger and contributor to the website Book Riot, shared a similar concern. “Reading this I couldn’t help but think that publishing, which suffers from the diversity-as-trend problem, should read this carefully and avoid making the same mistakes,” she tweeted.

Considering a question at the center of the article — are diversity movements in overwhelmingly white fields inherently unsustainable? — Victor LaValle, who won the Whiting Award, given to emerging writers, and wrote “The Ecstatic” and “Big Machine,” was one of many with whom the directors’ confident outlook resonated.

“I appreciated that they seemed more optimistic about the present possibilities,” he tweeted. “I hope they’re right, for all our sakes.”

What do you think about the state of diversity in the arts? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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Reggie Ugwu is a pop culture reporter covering a range of subjects, including film, television, music and internet culture. Before joining The Times in 2017, he was a reporter for BuzzFeed News and Billboard magazine. @uugwuu

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