Documentary Oscar Contenders Demand Agency, Opportunity, Solidarity: ‘Be an Antiracist!’

Four filmmakers speak plainly about the need to add more perspectives, even in the diverse documentary community.
Nonfiction Filmmakers Demand Agency, Opportunity, Solidarity
Roger Ross Williams, Bao Nguyen, Dawn Porter, Lisa Cortes, Jim LeBrecht.
Screen grab

Check out the latest Academy Dialogues series, “Documentaries Through Our Own Lens,” in which four Oscar-contending documentarians pull no punches — Lisa Cortés (co-director, Amazon Studios’ “All in: The Fight for Democracy”), James LeBrecht (co-director, Netflix’s “Crip Camp”), Bao Nguyen (ESPN’s “Be Water”), Dawn Porter (Magnolia’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble”) — along with moderator and Academy governor Roger Ross Williams (Emmy-winning “The Apollo”), as they lay out just what inclusion and diversity really means.

It might seem that during the golden age of documentaries, the nonfiction community is among the most diverse in the entertainment industry, with a seeming flood of opportunities to tell their stories. But as Williams pointed out at the start, there are plenty of challenges. “We all know that we have traditionally been defined by other people’s lens,” he said. “The documentary community is seen as progressive and ahead of the game. In the entertainment business the dirty little secret is the documentary community is not that ahead of the game. We have a lot of work to do.”

The first African-American director to win the Academy Award in his category and for directing and producing a film, for 2010 documentary short “Music by Prudence,” Williams finds himself in the enviable position of getting many calls for projects these days. But both he and Porter, while they are happy to make recommendations, wish that there was a longer list of usual suspects, as well as a more rigorous outreach for new talent that the gatekeepers are willing to bank on.

“Look at our films and see who we hire,” said Cortés. “If you don’t know who to hire, we have planted so many seeds, so many breadcrumbs.”

Porter sees a surging appetite for stories about underrepresented people, “a testament to how broad and vast the audience is, they like to see themselves onscreen,” she said. “But who are the creators asked to tell the stories? I don’t see the demand meeting the supply…I don’t see the funds to make those stories happening, I don’t see a wide net being cast. Maybe there’s another voice better suited to take on that project. We need to push the people who greenlight and make films happen to look beyond the narrow group of filmmakers there’s demand for.”

The filmmakers all felt a responsibility to their community that can sometimes be a burden. “There are not that many well-known filmmakers with disabilities,” said LeBrecht. “I feel like I better not screw up. I’m looking forward to the day when many of us are known for our work.”

Porter recognizes the burden of trying to mentor and take care of others, sometimes at the expense of her own work. She calls it “the black tax. You want to be better, you don’t want to mess it up for everyone else. I see people feeling that. It does take a toll.”

LeBrecht agreed: “We’re filmmakers and artists but we are also activists. It would be nice to be an artist more on certain days than an activist for my people.”

Nguyen added: “I don’t want to think about this reckoning as a trend but as a movement.” It took five years for the American son of Vietnamese immigrants to make his second feature, “Be Water,” the story of martial arts icon Bruce Lee. Thanks to support from ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, it was the first time he felt he was able to use an authentic voice as a filmmaker, not worrying about “how to relate to a Western or American or the white audience. Some of that filters our own voice in a way that feels inauthentic..it’s hard to get our films developed; many marginalized filmmakers are not seen for their potential. They have to live up to a higher threshold of success. Let’s not think about the price of representation but the value of representation… I can tell Bruce Lee’s story as an Asian American because of the way I’ve been harassed and discriminated against as an Asian American.”

Concluded Nguyen, “I am not diverse. I am who I am. You feel you are allowed to exist. As we’re reckoning a lot things, that’s what it means to be diverse.”

“Be Water” director Bao Nguyen.Screen grab

LeBrecht gave heartfelt thanks to his co-director Nicole Newnham for making it possible for a man in a wheelchair to make “Crip Camp.” “Nicole wanted me to be the director with her,” he said. “When I was asking questions to someone inside my community, they trusted me, that I would do right by them.”

For LeBrecht, “just getting in the door and being in the room is difficult for a lot of people with disabilities. It’s a civil rights issue in our community, not medical. These people are not sick. This is about being part of society…True inclusion means I get to hold the hand of my co-director going up the [awards] stage like everyone else.”

As America reckons with race, Williams worries that for corporations jumping on the diversity bandwagon, “diversity means assimilation,” he said. “They want a person of color or with a disability in the room to reinforce their own ideology, in the way they have always done things. They’re not really opening the door to our voices and stories.”

Documentarian Dawn Porter.screen grab

Porter is concerned about encouraging people who are not wealthy, from other areas that are not New York City or Los Angeles or San Francisco. “I do try and think hard about economic and geographic diversity and life experience,” she said. “No matter what race you are, if you come from difficult and unique circumstances, you do have a different perspective on issues.”

Cortés has long spoken up about how the industry should not have to legislate inclusion. “We shouldn’t need to have inclusivity riders,” she said. “There shouldn’t be a dictum to have the cast and crew reflective of the world we live in, not centered in whiteness, not centered in one gender. It shouldn’t be the exception — ‘wow we’ve done this!’ — it should be the norm.”

Williams wondered when the gatekeepers who make the decisions “will ever cede their power?” For the moment he’s handing out the Ibram X. Kendi bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist.” He said: “I can’t do all the work. You have to do the work, and have to be antiracist, or the world will leave you behind. And we’re moving forward, nothing is going to stop progress in the documentary community.”

Watch the complete panel on the Academy’s channel on YouTube.

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