Marta Cunningham: I Am Not Your Negress
I know what I am supposed to say. I am supposed to say that I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given, but I am going to take a chance and tell you my truth.
As a filmmaker and director of diverse content, I find myself in challenging positions quite often. In interviews when I meet with producers, writers and creators of shows who saw the heinous murder of George Floyd and then felt compelled to be on the right side of history, hiring a Black woman was one way they thought they could appease their consciences. The problem with that for me is that I am not a cardboard cut-out. I am a sentient being with feelings, thoughts, needs and ideas. These ideas often conflict with majority culture, and its frequently one-dimensional concepts of Black culture, especially of Black women. But now, when I speak up, usually as the only above-the-line Black woman in the room, I find my opinion being first confronted in a hostile manner, then discounted and finally dismissed. Simply not valid. Even when the subject is about — wait for it — a Black woman character.
Majority culture is used to the lens it has created for us, but the lens is not by us or for us. Therefore it is not real. This has happened in every room I have ever been in. Whether it be documentary or television. Why are my thirty years in this business not validated by the very same people who want me to be in the room? "Authenticity" is a word that is thrown around a lot in our industry but rarely valued. My everyday experience and ideas are actually feared at times.
Here's how I get dismissed: my opinions are often called "challenging," "confrontational," "confusing," "passionate," "emotional," "difficult," and, my least favorite, "soulful." These words are the contemporary racial code. They mean not "our kind of people." This is not a perspective that has equal value. When I hear these same dismissals, in the same words, day in and day out, it is not only demeaning but exhausting. The most recent example was in a Zoom call with a fellow EPS: "The rest of the (all white) producers don't agree with your musical choices." This was for a party scene with over fifty Black cast members. They dismissed my perspective as a "taste thing" or "not the right audience," or we want to appeal to a "more of a broad(ish) audience." The music they chose was music that has been in a million-and-one white-produced shows made about us — the '60s and the '70s. Another era from the past. A past that has been sanitized and whitewashed. A past that belongs exactly there — in the past. We are invited in and told our perspective is valued and necessary, but our presence is essentially performative. We are expected to bring our Black skin but not our Black ideas or feelings to the experience of making content. It feels like someone has handed me a mic, but when I start speaking it gets turned off.
My experience, even as an EP or co-EP, over and over, is that they don't want us to be involved in making the crucial editing and final post decisions. What we shoot can be edited away and watered down until it is unrecognizable. Some scenes that I have shot, when I see them in post, can even be read as actively racist. It is heartbreaking.
Public conversations about changing the industry that I have witnessed usually include the only Black face in a high position promoting an undefined "Black excellence." As a creative artist, this has no value for me. It is not even something I believe in. It is a PR weapon, and it feeds the myth of the Magical Negro. I am an artist. I am not in any way, shape or form taking on a colonizer's idea of what I need to overcome to reach the promised land. I do not need to bleed in order to show that I am alive. I need equity. That is what we were promised, and it is what I believe in. I do not need to be in pain or to suffer in order to show my beauty and strength.
It saddens me to say this, almost two years following the killing of George Floyd, but overt and covert racism are very much alive and well in Hollywood. Don't be fooled by the pageantry. A single Diversity and Inclusion executive for an entire network is not enough to change the game. It's not even close. Hiring one Black woman as your SVP of Development is not enough either. We cannot fight to be heard when we are isolated and alone.
So I have an ask. Can we actually be heard? When Black women tell you our professional opinions, can you listen to us? Even if you don't understand. Even if what we say scares you. Listen. Support us. We are your directors. We might be coming into a world that was not made for us, but we are used to making our way in difficult circumstances. Look at our history. We have a lot to offer.
The percentage of Black women directing television is so small, it's depressing when you read the stats. 5.2% (DGA records for TV hiring breakdown of 2019-2020). If you are serious about changing the narrative, then there needs to be more of us: we need to be empowered, and we need to be seen. You can support Black women in every way: as creators, show runners, producers, and directors. Two trailblazers, Issa Rae's Insecure and Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar, paved the way for all of us.
The Academy has the opportunity to give us a genuine voice and platform, but it is not our job as Black women to figure out the mess this country has created for us. It is your responsibility to create equity for us. Trust us. You hired us for a reason. I hope it wasn't just to tick a box.
Marta Cunningham is an actor and filmmaker.
Discover more "In My Opinion" articles.
The statements and viewpoints expressed in the article above are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions or viewpoints of the Television Academy, the Television Academy Foundation, or their members, officers, directors, employees, or sponsors.