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The Imperative to Hire Black and POC Filmmakers within the Documentary Community: A Conversation with Brown Girls Doc Mafia Founder Iyabo Boyd

Iyabo Boyd

Alongside the current Black Lives Matter protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others has come renewed acknowledgement that in the documentary and media worlds Black and POC voices and points of view have been historically underrepresented — a lack that has resulted often in skewed, racially biased or simply misinformed coverage. So, as media outlets, mainstream and alternative, cover the protests and their political and social impact, it’s critical that these voices are included behind the camera, in the form of directors, cinematographers, producers, reporters and in decision making roles as executives, funders and programmers. One organization that provides a resource for those companies addressing racial inequity in their hiring and practises is Brown Girls Doc Mafia, a five-year-old organization boasting nearly 4,000 women and non-binary people of color working in the documentary industry. Just yesterday the group’s founder, Iyabo Boyd, posted a Google Doc listing all of its members available for production this summer.

But with the imperative to address systemic racism through diverse hiring practices comes also the need for a deeper conversation about the ways in which Black and POC voices are engaged by these organizations and institutions — the power they’re given, the resources they’re afforded, and the ways in which they are situated within existing racialized power structures. To discuss Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM), these issues, as well as the related subject of White allyship, Filmmaker asked documentary curator and impact producer Denae Peters, who sits on BGDM’s board, to chat with Boyd. Their conversation follows. — Editor

Filmmaker: Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. There are so many waves right now of both energy and hope, but also deep exhaustion. I know part of that can come from having conversations like this one. So we appreciate you doing this.

Boyd: My pleasure. I mean, it’s tough because I’ve been in documentary for a long time, and I’ve had to play this role on many different occasions. I’ve also had the privilege to play this role — the role of someone who has access to both worlds as a person of color and also as a “documentary institution” person. I’ve had the privilege to be able to advocate for our community in those spaces and, yeah, it gets exhausting. In the last year, just for my own health, I’ve taken a step back in terms of being a super-activist. But with COVID-19 and all the protests, I needed to speak up for our communities.

Filmmaker: Could you give an overview of the work that Brown Girls Doc Mafia (BGDM) has been undertaking since its founding in the fall of 2015?

Boyd: We started as kind of an underground group, and it just grew more quickly than we could have ever expected. It’s a thriving space to talk about careers and to discuss hot topics related to things that are happening in the industry. [Members can discuss] challenges they are facing both professionally, creatively, but also racialized or gender-based challenges they’re having in the documentary world. So it became a place for folks to really find community, to find a reprieve from how aggressive and oppressive the doc space can be sometimes and to come out stronger. We also do workshops: camera and editing masterclasses with established folks in the industry. In the last year we have focused on financing, funding and just money as a topic, ensuring that members feel more secure with filmmaking as a sustainable career. And we advocate for members to have visibility and access at film festivals. That’s kind of been our cornerstone activity in the last couple of years. We’ll take large groups of members to Sundance, True False, Tribeca and to other festivals, to create, to take up space, to be visible so that film festival communities can see the difference between when we’re there and when we’re not there. And so that our members can take advantage of the creative and professional environment.

Filmmaker: You have been consistently vocal about the importance of elevating voices and visions of people of color broadly, but women and non-binary people of color more specifically. Can you talk about some of the things that you are seeing regarding the doc industry’s approach thus far as to who gets the opportunity to capture this historic moment? Are there any destructive patterns that you have already seen emerge or that you fear may emerge from this moment?

Boyd: There are a few challenges. What I’ve seen are images of usually White men being hired to go out and shoot for both COVID-19 and the recent protests. And what that does on many levels is continue to underline the misconception of what a “filmmaker” looks like. That [hiring practice] continues to erase the existence and the voices of the hundreds and thousands of women and non-binary people of color who are working in the film industry. You know, if you are a news outlet or media company that wants to quickly go shoot something, you’re gonna say, “Okay, who do we know that’s in my Rolodex who I can trust.” And a lot of these institutions aren’t spending that organic networking time and developing relationships with filmmakers of color. So when situations come up where they need someone quickly, folks of color aren’t being called because of this desire for someone who’s vetted.

One of the many roots of the problem is the lack of professional and personal friendships that White people have with people of color. In film, people work with their friends, so if you don’t have any friends who are people of color, or if you’re not cultivating those professional relationships, you’re not going to be able to snap your fingers and hire someone who is a person of color and who is great for the job.

And the last thing I think is that Black people and folks of color are traumatized right now. COVID-19 has hit the Black community harder than other communities, and, obviously, the murder of George Floyd and many others is affecting the Black community and people of color in an incredibly deep way. Not to say it’s not affecting everyone, but a lot of us are traumatized, and so we might be slower to pick up a camera because it’s happening to us right now, you know? Our first thought might not be, “Oh, wow, this is a great story. I need to go shoot it.” Or, “This will be great to enhance my reel.” Or to pitch something to a network. There’s time needed for folks to get their wits about them, filmmakers included.

Filmmaker: What are the mistakes that can occur when an institution or a film team decides that in order to tell a specific story about people of color, they’re going to bring in one person of color — especially if that person isn’t given the power to make decisions or doesn’t feel safe to share their opinions freely because they are in a spot that wasn’t really meant for them?

Boyd: There are so many layers. For one, that individual does not represent every single individual of a similar background. To choose someone to be a token and then not give them any power is an act of marginalization based in the practice of systemic racial oppression. You’re telling them that their mind, their creative and professional ideas are not really necessary. And that kind of isolation is manipulative and can make them feel like they’re honestly out of their minds. I’ve been in that situation many times in my career. I think really what Brown Girls Doc Mafia is born out of is the feeling of suffering in silence because you don’t want to lose your job. You don’t want to ruffle any feathers. And thinking that you’re the only one suffering.

Looking at BGDM five years after we launched, there are almost 4,000 people in this group. What I hope is that the young people who might be starting their first job in the film industry now don’t have to go through what we went through. I hope they don’t have to be tokenized and isolated because that’s a way of telling us that we don’t matter. We’re just here to be brown and to wave and smile. That is a power dynamic that is insufferable and is not part of the new world that we need to be building together. We need to really dig in our heels and create some change, especially in documentaries. Let’s let some other voices tell the stories. Let’s be better than other industries. Documentary is based off of the practice of anthropology, and oftentimes anthropology comes from racist practices. So why not give the camera and the microphone and the producing roles and the money and the power to the people on the other side. And let’s see what the next 100 years of this documentary practice could look like. It could be revolutionary.

Filmmaker: And I think we’ve already gotten a chance to see how newsrooms across the nation that are predominantly White are portraying the protests, sometimes inaccurately. And there has been at least one accused of not allowing a Black journalist to cover the protests at all, citing personal bias. We’ve seen some extremely insensitive headlines and pieces come out of institutions that we would have expected and hoped for better from. What are some of the things that you think are being lost when majority White newsrooms or majority White film teams attempt to share these types of stories about Black communities, about the grief that Black communities are feeling, the injustices they face, or the ways that they want to see injustice addressed?

Boyd: News and media have portrayed Black people from the very beginning from a biased point of view. From a point of view that has been, frankly, disinterested in the extremely complex, nuanced and deeply human expression and existence of Black people and people of color. And because they are so used to the portrayals that have existed for so long of Black people, in a quickly moving story, it’s easy to rely on [existing] tropes. There’s a discomfort with finding stories that deepen or expand the grief. I think also these outlets fear facing the truth and being shown themselves in a mirror. There’s a fear of confronting themselves about the reasons why these tragedies are happening. It’s this fear of knowing that you’re going to be implicated, that whatever is being said is also making you accountable. “You” meaning all of us — White people specifically, but who’s holding the camera, who’s commissioning the piece, who’s funding that news agency. Systemic racism is at the core of every part of American society. It’s difficult and painful for White people to face that and do the work of holding themselves accountable in an emotional, deep, personal, real way.

Filmmaker: One of the words that has been used quite liberally these days is “ally.” And on one hand, that’s a great thing because it acknowledges the fact that systemic racism and oppression cannot be dismantled by those being oppressed on their own. On the other hand, it’s really easy for anyone to say, “I am an ally, I’ve been at the protests,” but not recognize that there’s so much more work that needs to be done. How do you define meaningful allyship?

Boyd: I wrote a whole piece about this actually on the Brown Girls Doc Mafia website and the FAQ with your wonderful help. Good allyship is, for me, doing the work all the time and on overdrive and in a genuine way. It’s not just reaching out when you need to diversify something, when you need to find a diverse hire or when you’re making something that suddenly feels out of your depth and you need a Brown person to make you look good to your funders or to your board, or who makes you feel better about yourself. For me, it’s an everyday, all-the-time, interest in diversity, equity and inclusion. Friendships, professional relationships and creative engagement. I think folks who want to be allies need to be prepared to go above and beyond because there’s been nothing but the opposite forever. I don’t think it’s out of the question to suggest that White allies should find ways to center Black, Indigenous and people of color in their work, in every single facet, from their leadership to their funders, to how decisions are made and where the power lies. And folks need to be prepared to step back, to relinquish their position or their power — to step to the side to lift someone from a different community up or offer their power or income or influence.

Filmmaker: We’re in for some conversations over the next few months and years that will make people uncomfortable and will require deep vulnerability, both from people of color and from the White gatekeepers within our industry. Are there any explicit or implicit things that you hope those who consider themselves allies will do right now in order to make sure that they are relationship building in a way that can contribute to real change?

Boyd: It’s a lifelong commitment, really, if you want to be an ally. Not thinking about it in a two weeks or two months kind of time span — like, “When will this blow over?” — and more incorporating this into every aspect of your life. We’re not just talking about people at work — it’s about personal change and personal accountability too. I also want to see executive tracks opening up at institutions for people of color — higher level positions that have decision making power, and for there to be more diversity at the top, along with, of course, equal pay and equal responsibility. I want to see institutions hire filmmakers of color and believe that they can handle the kinds of budgets that White filmmakers are often privileged to have.

I hope that institutions and their gatekeepers will question their taste and [consider] how systemic racism has contributed to how they see movies — what a good movie looks like, what a good grant application sounds like, or how it’s written or what it’s about. Consider how people of color are maybe different than the box that you usually put your filmmakers in.

I’ve worked for a lot of institutions that have individual funders who were predominantly White — individuals who have wealth and who funnel their money into usually predominantly White-led institutions, who oftentimes support predominantly White filmmakers. I hope that these funders and institutions ask themselves, “How can I put my money where my mouth is? How can I learn from this moment?” There are organizations that have been around a long time — Firelight Media, the Black Documentary Collective, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers. And there are a lot of newer organizations too, like Brown Girls Doc Mafia, Undocumented Filmmakers Collective, A-DOC— who are looking out for talented professionals and are ready to be your partner. There are a lot of organizations that are really on the ground and have access to the storytellers of our time. I hope that will be one of the biggest takeaways.

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