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February 24, 2017

Oscar-Nominated Panelists Discuss Future of African Americans in Film Industry

Last week, WNET’s Inclusion & Diversity Council hosted their second speaker series, “African Americans in Film,” at Worldwide Plaza. They welcomed Wynn Thomas, a production designer for Hidden Figures; Lisa Cortes, a producer for Precious; and Sam Pollard, director/producer for The Talk — Race in America to speak about a more inclusive film industry. PBS NewsHour Weekend host Alison Stewart moderated the conversation.

The trio spoke about how they came into their careers — Pollard’s first job was at WNET with Children’s Television Workshop in 1971 — and the challenges of the work they do. “Film is art,” said Pollard. “A good filmmaker brings to screen a story that exhibits nuance, texture and mood…The challenge is how to elevate your craft to art, to make it special.” Thomas remarked, “As a storyteller, I want the audience to feel something.” Cortes spoke about her main driver in her work: passion. “That is the only thing that will keep me going when I feel alone or that nobody wants to hear these stories.”

When asked about using the term “inclusion” versus “diversity” in the arts, Cortes used this fitting analogy: “Diversity is when you get invited to the prom, and inclusion is when you get asked to dance, and then you become the class president. Inclusion is the word I prefer to use.” Added Thomas, “Diversity has the word ‘divide’ as a part of it, while inclusion means bringing people together.”

On how to make the film industry more inclusive, Thomas said, “The simplest solution is to hire. It isn’t an abstract method. It’s something we can all do.” Cortes agreed, adding that crews need to be inter-generational as well. Pollard said he enjoys making documentaries because they “challenge people to get a different perspective on our history. Telling our stories isn’t monolithic. There are many ways.”

Thomas doesn’t believe that #OscarsSoWhite brought about the diversity in films in this year’s Awards season because they were already in the pipeline. “My concern is what’s going to happen next year, two years from now. My hope is that the success of these current films will push to get other diverse stories get made.”

What’s in the pipeline for the panelists in their careers? Cortes looks forward to the theatrical release of Double Play in theaters, as well as Gabourey Sidibe’s directorial debut, The Tale of Four. Pollard’s The Talk — Race in America just premiered nationally on PBS and THIRTEEN. And Thomas? “I’m out of work! I’m looking forward to what comes next, and in the meantime I’m reading a lot of great books.”

[image at top, from L-R: moderator Alison Stewart, Lisa Cortes, Wynn Thomas & Sam Pollard]

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