One month after Roger Ross Williams became the first African American director to win an Oscar, he was sleeping on his friend’s couch. “It was astonishing me at the time,” said Geoff Martz, Williams’ longtime pal and eventual producing partner. “Here’s this guy who won an Academy Award, and he needs a place to stay. It was hard for him early on. Now, he’s finally getting to do things.”
When Williams won an Oscar for his 2010 short “Music by Prudence,” he received plenty of attention for the wrong reason — the white producer who interrupted his speech on live television — and none for the right ones. More than a decade later, that has finally changed: With One Story Up, the production company he co-founded with Martz in 2016, Williams has become one of the most prolific documentary producers in the country. In the process, he’s helping filmmakers of color gain the kind of immediate career momentum that eluded him for years.
“It’s been important for me to give opportunities to young filmmakers who don’t necessarily have the resume,” Williams said. “And they couldn’t get the resume because they weren’t getting the jobs.”
Williams’ recent credits span a dizzying array of subjects: They range from Netflix’s breakout culinary series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America,” and the streamer’s true crime miniseries “The Innocence Files,” to Hulu’s upcoming “The 1619 Project,” co-produced by Oprah Winfrey. His company is also working with Netflix on “Stamped From the Beginning,” a hybrid documentary/scripted featured based on Ibram X. Kendi’s acclaimed tome “Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas,” and an untitled documentary about attorney Benjamin Crump co-produced by Kenya Barris. Other upcoming projects include “The Empire of Ebony,” which looks at America’s first Black media empire, and another untitled project, from newcomer Matt Kay, on pop group TLC.
“I want to tell the story of Black America and my own experiences as Black person living in America,” Williams said, “but I don’t think that’s all I have to offer it.” Indeed, it was his second feature, “Life, Animated” — which revolves around a white family — that catalyzed his decision to start a production company. (It also scored him his second Oscar nomination.) “It was more important to me to tell stories of outsiders,” Williams said. “People like me who, as a gay man, had been sort of rejected and dealt with being an outcast by telling stories about them.”
Still, Williams’ journey has been steeped in efforts to tell Black stories, and those experiences now inform his efforts to make sure those stories get made. After his first Oscar win, Williams went back to the basics, pitching his feature-length “God Loves Uganda” at the Tribeca Film Institute. That led him to connect with producer Julie Goldman, who would become one of his closest collaborators. “When you talk to Roger, there’s an openness, there’s a curiosity, there’s fun,” Goldman said. “The choices that he’s making are really thoughtful and conscious. These are stories he feels are critical to tell.”
The range of subjects he has tackled as director reflect that dedication: From the Emmy-winning VR work “Traveling While Black” through “The Apollo,” Williams has been developing a modern history of Black America in its own words.
“When I wanted to make documentaries, there weren’t a lot of Black people directing documentaries,” Williams said, citing that film essayist Marlon Riggs and Orlando Bagwell’s PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” as the only major examples. “So I didn’t have many role models.”
He was stunned on the night of his first Oscar nomination when John Singleton came up to him at the ceremony. “He said, ‘I’m so proud to meet you,’” Williams said. “I couldn’t believe it. You’re John Singleton and I’m, like, a nobody documentary filmmaker with my first film. But then I thought about it. John Singleton hadn’t won an Oscar, neither had Spike Lee. All these Black filmmakers had not been acknowledged by the Academy, and by Hollywood. And I realized the weight of that.”
Williams said that he often brings up-and-comers with him when he meets with studio executives. “When I go to pitch something, I always bring young filmmakers so they can kind of demystify the relationship with executives and studio heads,” Williams said. But he added that he wanted to see more diversification among the gatekeepers as well. “The problem is that if you’re an executive, and you’re white, you naturally gravitate toward your own experiences,” he said. “It’s obviously important to have people of color in positions of power.”
Williams is also advocating for new filmmakers with his monthly “One Story Up” series on Topic. Each month, Williams selects one short film to stream exclusively on the platform for a year. The chosen filmmakers receive up to $25,000 to produce a new short. The series launched with Terrance Daye’s “Cherish,” and will next showcase “Mr. Parker” from newcomer Alex Ashe.
Each episode includes a Q&A moderated by Williams, who said that he was inspired to support young filmmakers after watching much of their work on the festival circuit. “They went to film school, but felt sort of lost,” he said. “For me, it was like, ‘I see you and your knowledge. Your work is important. Keep going.’”
Courtesy Everett Collection
Williams’ company only truly gained traction in the industry in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests the conversations they catalyzed about the need to diversify the media landscape. “Everyone was looking for Black content producers, and I was set up, so everyone came to me,” Williams said. With great power came great responsibility. “He wanted to do projects he really loved and not leave money on the table,” said Martz. “He also wanted to have a company that allowed him to do things for people that others did for him — pay it forward, to hire people who needed a chance, who were great and talented but weren’t getting the opportunity.”
As for his own ideas, Williams said he was compelled to explore issues underserved by the documentary medium. That includes “High on the Hog,” the docuseries adapted from Jessica B. Harris’ book, which was recently picked up for a second season. “I went to Netflix, and I said, ‘You have an opportunity here to be the first to do a show that spotlights this incredible talent and this incredible movement in America, rediscovering the contributions of incredible chefs who really defined food in America but didn’t get any recognition, and you can put together an all-Black team to do it,’” he said. “For me, making that show was really about channeling our ancestors.”
He was similarly galvanized by The New York Times’ podcast “The 1619 Project,” which puts the long-term impact of slavery in a historical context. “I was rocked to my soul and moved to tears,” he said. His interest led him to a meeting with Oprah Winfrey, whose Harpo Productions was similarly invested in turning the project into a series. “Even on Zoom, meeting Oprah was incredibly intimidating,” Williams said. “But she was so passionate about it.”
The pair joined forces with journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and pitched the project to several studios, eventually settling with Disney and Hulu. Williams said the project, now in production, provided an opportunity “to create a work that encompasses the total Black experience as it relates to slavery in America.”
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection
With documentary work filling up his schedule, Williams is about to sunset one of his other ongoing projects: diversifying the Academy. For the past five and a half years, he has served on the Board of Governors for the Academy’s documentary branch, and headed up its diversity committee. He recalled how much had changed since he initially got that gig and realized he was one of three Black people on the board. “I realized that I couldn’t take lightly that I have a seat at this table,” he said. “I was elected in order to create change.” Under his watch, the documentary branch reached gender parity and has internationalized faster than other branches. “I look around now and it’s a diverse room,” he said. “It’s been incredibly rewarding.”
Among his many upcoming credits, Williams has one more that stands out as a departure from his recent work. In between various documentary projects, he traveled to Mexico to shoot “Cassandro,” his first scripted feature, which stars Gael Garcia Bernal as an openly gay, cross-dressing Lucha Libre wrestler. Amazon Studios is producing the project, which is now in post-production. “It was incredibly hard, but I’m very excited about it,” Williams said. However, he added: “I realized how much I love documentaries. I’m never going to stop making them.” —Eric Kohn