The message was clear at Saturday’s American Society of Cinematographers meeting about “changing the face of the industry” to include more minorities and women in cinematography in Hollywood. Engage in collective action from the top down and bottom up, and, if necessary, shame producers and executives into changing their stereotypical hiring practices.
“I’m not interested in legislating change — I’m interested in shifting the culture,” said Bradford Young, only the second Oscar-nominated black cinematographer in the history of the Academy Awards (“Arrival”). “We have to make the cinema we want.”
Young, who has successfully navigated between indies (“Where Is Kyra?”), franchises (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”), and streaming (Ava DuVernay’s upcoming “Central Park Five” series on Netflix), advised minority cinematographers and camera operators to make choices that allow them the freedom to express ethnicity through their craft. “First and foremost it’s not about making vertical moves but about making horizontal moves,” he told IndieWire. “Cinematographers should connect to projects where they can see themselves and the community that they identify with in the film.”
Young stressed that his career has been “a reflection of that push back against the sort of pervasive white supremacist culture in our art form. I’ve had the opportunity to work on projects that didn’t seem to have a clear bridge between the community that I identify with and the material on screen. But I still brought my community to the project as a prerequisite. My career is about my cultural acumen, more so than my technical acumen.
“We’re in a time where we can be unapologetic about who we are. So if we’re black, queer, trans, Chicano, European-American, Southeast Asian, we should know that what we can bring to the table is important. And it is something that should be embedded in the films that we make.”
In terms of Young’s challenging “Star Wars” experience, in which directors Chris Miller and Phil Lord were replaced last summer by Ron Howard, necessitating reshoots by the cinematographer, he described it as a moment of clarity. “To me, it did not seem like a natural fit so I had to figure that out,” Young said. “I felt like it was an interesting opportunity to express myself in a particular way. I wanted ‘Star Wars’ to feel like ‘Arrival.’ I’m interested in planting my imprint. I’m part of a [black] community and I have to answer to that. I didn’t disrespect myself or the community.”
Another highlight of the Netflix-sponsored event, organized by the ASC Vision Committee, was a keynote by USC’s Dr. Stacy Smith (founder of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative). In addition to engaging with companies to change hiring practices for cinematographers, she encouraged the bottom up approach of hiring more women and ethnic diversity within the ranks behind the camera. “We need a new paradigm to ensure qualified and available talent from all backgrounds,” she said. “There will be better product as a result of diversity and inclusion.”
HBO’s Natasha Foster-Owens (West Coast director of production) touted the fact they have rotating cinematographers who are women and women of color on “Insecure” and “Camping.” Also, the HBO Access program offers fellowships in writing and directing to filmmakers from diverse backgrounds.
Cinematographer John Simmons, ASC Vision Committee co-chair, added that studio mandates and tax incentives for minority hiring are positive steps, but more needs to be done individually to diversify camera crews. “We need to ensure that cinematographers reflect the world we live in,” he said. “Diversity is being asked to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”