A Black Lesbian Filmmaker's Reaction to #OscarsSoWhite

Charzette Torrence

This Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will host its 88th Oscar Awards. The Academy describes itself as an organization that recognizes and upholds excellence in the motion picture arts and sciences, inspires imagination, and connects the world through the medium of film. As an African-American writer and content producer, I join a chorus of others in voicing my disappointment in the lack of nominations for black actors.

Unfortunately, this lack of Oscar diversity is not a new problem. In 1996, Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Coalition announced a protest of that year's ceremony ,which had only one African-American nominee out of 166. A People magazine headline read “Hollywood Blackout.” While some years have seen more nominations for African-Americans, Oscar nominations for people of color are still few and far between. I want to change that. Twenty years later, as I look in the mirror, I see a beautiful and proud African-American-lesbian-woman-fine-arts-photographer-turned-aspiring-filmmaker.

In the last several years, I have created, written, and executive produced a new Web series called Jillian's Peak. The drama follows the journey of Jillian Thomas, an African-American woman from Detroit, discovering her true sexual orientation. Jillian faces a myriad of challenges in the areas of love, family, and career, while trying to come to terms with who she is. This LGBTQ drama is based on my life story and told in 8-10 minute increments over a 12-episode first season.

I created Jillian’s Peak because I wanted to see lesbians of color and African descent reflected in a quality Web series. Our stories are extremely underrepresented across the film industry, including on the Web. This year’s lack of Oscar nominations for African-American actors is yet another reminder of why my work is so crucial. I set out to spotlight the real issues involved in our day-to-day experiences, including going to work, the pressures of dealing with family and friends, going to church, and dealing with the full gamut of grown folks’ issues. It is my quest to shine a light on our community, show the depth of our experiences, and depict real stories that are rarely told.

I go to the movies a lot, but I rarely see people like me represented on-screen. Therefore I have rarely seen black Oscar nominees or winners. This has been the case throughout the 88-year history of the Oscars. My great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents — and I —have seen scant moments of diversity depicted in movies for more then a quarter of a century. 

This invisibility has gone on for far too long, and here’s part of the reason: There are two controlling entities that make major decisions in Hollywood about the movies we see, the Oscar voting members and Academy’s Board of Governors. Ninety-four percent of those members are white and male. The film studio senior management is 92 percent white and 83 percent male. These are the people who green- light the movies. 

The University of California, Los Angeles’s Ralph J. Bunche Center for African-American Studies recently released its "2015 Hollywood Diversity Report: Flipping the Script.” It reported on the the top 200 theatrical film releases of 2012 and 2013. Results indicated that 94 percent of film studio executives were white, film studio senior management was 92 percent white and 83 percent male, and studio unit heads were 96 percent white and 61 percent male. “The story and the color was much the same in television. TV network and studio heads were 96% white and 71% male,” USA Today said in its coverage of the report.

“From the earliest days of the industry,” the report states, “white males have dominated the plum positions in front of and behind the camera, thereby marginalizing women and minorities in the creative process by which a nation circulates popular stories about itself.” 

“What’s new,” the report adds, “is that business as usual in the Hollywood industry may soon be unsustainable.”

As part of this year’s #OscarsSoWhite outcry, Jada Pinkett Smith posted a video on Facebook on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, saying:

“Is it time that time that people of color recognize how much power ... influence that we have amassed that we no longer need to be ask to be invited anywhere. … We can no longer beg for the love, acknowledgment, or respect of any group.  Maybe it’s time that we recognize that if we love and respect and acknowledge ourselves in the way in which we are asking others to do, that is the place of true power.” 

Like Jada, I believe we are a dignified race of people and we deserve better. She will not be attending or watching the Oscars. I will skip the Oscars telecast as well. We are tried of waiting. Jada’s stance set off a chain reaction among other black members of the film industry who spoke out and said that they will not show up either. 

To her credit, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is African-American) is taking action. "The Academy is going to lead and not wait for the industry to catch up," she said. Isaacs has announced that “beginning later this year, each new member’s voting status will last 10 years,and will be renewed if that new member has been active in motion pictures during that decade. In addition, members will receive lifetime voting rights after three 10-year terms; or if they have won or been nominated for an Academy Award.” 

"These new measures regarding governance and voting will have an immediate impact and begin the process of significantly changing our membership composition,” Isaacs concluded.

As I continue to produce Jillian’s Peak, I often wonder, even in the face of these upcoming reforms, Are the studios going to hinder my project because it's LGBT, African-American, and about women’s lives? Will they change ingrained notions that only one race and one sex can be profitable and dominant in the industry? Can I get a fair chance to pitch my script to executives at HBO like Lena Dunham or from Showtime, ABC, Netflix or Amazon?

There is a vital need for diverse content on film, and I am holding one of the keys to producing content that changes the world. Will the top decision makers in the industry see me as that change agent or see only my color, and never give me a chance? Will I or my cast ever become voting members of the Academy?

In reacting to the Oscar controversy, President Obama said, “When everybody's story is told, then that makes for better art, it makes for better entertainment, it makes everybody feel part of one American family. …  I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue. Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair shot?."

I couldn’t agree with the president more. Eighty-eight years is a long time. I want that “fair shot” so Jillian's Peak can be on the big screen or on TV. I just want a chance. Instead of no chance. 

Charzette Torrence
Charzette Torrence is the executive producer, creator, and cowriter of Jillian's Peak, a new premium scripted digital series featuring the stories of African American lesbians.

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