A Strong Film is a Diverse Film: Hire Smart, Hire Wide, Make a Stand

There it is again—that dirty D-word.

Diversity gets a lot of lip service. With so many headlines, talks, and festival panels on the issue, why are today’s projects still leaving much to be desired when it comes to diversity? The issue is more complex than people realize. It’s not enough to simply throw a character of a different color in front of the camera and yell “action.” This change will not be easy—we all have to be active contributors to the movement and practice what we preach. And that means anybody who is in the position to hire someone. Chances are, that’s you. After all, different kinds of people solve problems in different ways, so diversity can, inherently, be an asset to a team. So how do you hire the broadest range of talents and perspectives possible? Who has an experience that can be lent to your production that no one else has? Who can you hire who would otherwise not have this opportunity?

Producer and actress Yvonne Huff Lee appears this fall in John Carroll Lynch’s feature Lucky, opposite the late Harry Dean Stanton. Photograph courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Step One: Change Your Thinking Before You Start a Movie

Repeat after me: Diversity is not a checklist! Wanting to incorporate “diversity” in your project doesn’t mean it will be executed in the right way. In order to pursue diversity at work, you have to pursue it at home. Take a step back and examine your life. If we are truthful with ourselves, we know that our community only represents a small portion of the world at large. Do you know people who are transgender? Do you know people who have cerebral palsy? Are you surrounded by a group of diverse religions and beliefs? As moviemakers, it is our responsibility to be curious about others and incorporate their stories into our work. Learn how they live their lives and incorporate this new vision into approaching your work, at every level.

Step Two: Be Intentional About Screenplay Choices

As moviemakers, it is vital that the work we create is an accurate representation of the world and the experiences of its people. For many reasons, you should be gravitating toward narratives that haven’t previously been explored. Who has made a contribution to society that has been previously overlooked? How can we use casting or story to break the mold and challenge people to think differently? If you didn’t write your film’s script, work with the writers to delve deep into their visions. Does the portrayal of certain characters feed into negative stereotypes? Can this character be portrayed by a different race, gender, age or sexual orientation than the clichéd choice?

Make it a priority to include the subjects of the story within the development process. Do you have a transgender character in the script? Include a transgender writer or advisor on set. If that community isn’t in your wheelhouse, you may have to start sooner and have more meetings in order to include them.

Lee on the set of Lucky

Step Three: Pick The Right Producing Partners

Not all money is good money. You might feel like you’d do just about anything to get your film off the ground, but take a step back and examine whom you’re getting into bed with. Make sure you both stand for the same things and have the same vision for the project. I’m a firm believer that in order to have a successful and diverse production, the people writing the checks have to be as diverse as the people in front of the camera.

The money behind the film should come from people who are invested in creating a true representation of our reality. Find partners who are going to keep their minds open and be accepting of new ideas. Whether it is an original storyline, a daring casting choice, or some extra time taken to select the right mix of crew, your partners need to be supportive of your mission. Have these conversations early in the courting process. It’s not easy to say no. But if you don’t have a partner who is on board with your mission, find another partner.

You’d be surprised how long it takes to truly commit to diversity. Make sure you have enough time to really do right by your films—do the research and find the right people. Read as many articles as you can get your hands on, be part of as many conversations as you can, be open to suggestions on how to improve. It takes courage to make a change—you have to be a little bit of a revolutionary and an activist. (Then again, you’re an independent moviemaker, aren’t you?) It won’t be easy, but together we can create an industry where diversity in film isn’t newsworthy, it’s normal. Are you up for the challenge? MM

Yvonne Huff Lee is a producer, actor, and philanthropist whose company, The Lagralane Group, has breathed life into films such as Icarus, Served Like a Girl, and Unrest. She appears in Lucky, which opened in theaters September 29, 2017, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. Featured image illustration by Courtney Menard.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s 2018 Complete Guide to Making Movies, on newsstands now.

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