Oscar Micheaux (above) was a pioneering director of silent films, known as the U.S.’s first Black filmmaker. The Fayetteville Film Festival’s grant award for BIPOC filmmakers is named in his honor.
In response to the George Floyd protests last June, companies and organizations across the country expressed their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, raising doubts in the minds of many about their motivations. Were these entities incentivized by gains in their public opinion or bottom lines? Or would quantifiable change to combat racial inequities take root within their structures? In the case of the Fayetteville Film Fest, the latter is certainly true. Since June, the festival has followed up on its statement of solidarity by overhauling its board and introducing two initiatives aimed at uplifting Arkansas filmmakers of color: the Micheaux Film Fund and the BIPOC Film Lab.
“Certainly the murder of George Floyd in May of this year was a catalyst for not only making a clear and unequivocal statement of solidarity, but taking direct action to do what we could to address issues of inequality. And that starts with ourselves as an organization,” says Executive Director Russell Sharman.
In an effort to allow new voices to be heard, the board agreed to make its bylaws more transparent, instate term limits, and establish a co-Executive Director position that will start in January. Since the festival’s inception 12 years ago, its board has been predominantly white. Sharman believes that inviting three Black industry professionals to the board—namely, Airic Hughes, Raymond House, and Na’Tosha Devon—is a step in the right direction.
Based on conversations he had with local filmmakers of color, Hughes drafted the initial plans for the Micheaux Film Fund and the BIPOC Film Lab. A committee comprised of Hughes, Sharman, House, Kris Washington, Colleen Thurston, and Joanna Bell allocated funding and organized the technical education, business development, and networking opportunities provided by the new initiatives. Filmmaker Neba Evans, a former intern of Hughes’s Visionari Enterprises and current master’s student at the U of A, also helped develop the two programs.
“My goal is to help bring substantive action to the statements standing against black oppression released by the board after the summer’s police brutality protests,” Hughes says. “A major part of our work is to establish a permanent, sustainable infrastructure for success for these often overlooked and underserved communities … I definitely would have benefitted from these programs earlier in my career, but because they did not exist I was motivated to create them.”
The Micheaux Film Fund honors the legacy of Oscar Micheaux, the U.S.’s first Black filmmaker whose silent film Within Our Gates (1920) condemned lynching and widespread discrimination faced by Black Americans. The fund will give up to $4,000 over the course of two annual cycles in support of film projects by filmmakers of color across the state. The deadline to submit to the award’s inaugural cycle is Dec. 31, and grant winners will be announced Feb. 1, 2021.
The BIPOC Film Lab offers networking and training in technical and business fundamentals for emerging filmmakers of color. Because filmmaking is such a collaborative enterprise, these resources and connections are essential. The first workshops will be held in spring and summer 2021. Because of the pandemic, they will likely occur online, but given the availability of virtual access, there will be no cap on the number of participants.
“Money of course is always a need. However, the practical aspects of turning an idea into a finished film project are often barriers for aspiring filmmakers,” Hughes says. “Technical education, access to filmmaking tools, and the ability to connect with other filmmakers to sharpen knowledge and networks are an important dynamic of building this initiative to meet the next creative generation’s needs.”
Sharman believes efforts to address racial inequities in film must go beyond on-screen representation and casting choices. To make changes that will last generations and upend the whitecentric status quo people of color must be represented in all sectors of filmmaking, from writing and direction to set and costume design.
“The truth is, filmmaking is hard for everyone. And making an actual living of it is even harder. But for a BIPOC filmmaker there is the added burden of trying to break into an industry that has, since its inception, created content by and for a white audience without ever adequately acknowledging that implicit, and often explicit, bias,” Sharman says. “From the script to the direction, the cinematography, the editing, the more diversity we have at every step of the production process, the more diversity we’ll have in the kinds of stories we get to see. And that’s better for everyone. As a white male consumer, I’ve seen enough stories that feature characters that look like me to last a lifetime, to last 100 lifetimes.”