Wu-Tang Forever: What an Inclusive Crew Means, and Why Hiring One Will Change Your Life

I talk to myself. I do it so frequently I’m pretty sure my neighbors think I have a roommate.

I’m not sure when it began, but after I attended the Sundance Filmmaker’s Labs the talking evolved into questions. One of the things I learned while workshopping my 2001 feature Lift was to consistently question myself and my script. And yet—full disclosure—I never asked myself why I hadn’t worked with a female director of photography. It wasn’t until I learned that Ava DuVernay (director of Selma, 13th, A Wrinkle in Time) sought out and hired all female directors for the first season of her Oprah Winfrey Network TV series, Queen Sugar, that I questioned some of my own patterns.

Truth is, we all have our go-tos. They’re familiar, they like us, they know how we prefer to work. They deliver. Producers assume you’ll work with them again, and you do. Booking the DPs I know frees the brain, allowing for concentration on pressing issues. I’ve had the good fortune of working with great DPs who all happened to be men. But the lack of women and people of color in the production of films, TV shows and commercials is also a pressing issue. Ava did it. Why couldn’t I?

DeMane Davis and Ava DuVernay on the set of Queen Sugar

I dove into The International Collective of Female Cinematographers, asked friends for female DPs they worked with, knew and liked. Fellow director Shaz Bennett recommended Tarin Andersen. I watched her work and we chatted (something I vow to do more of, whether I have a job to offer or not) and I asked if she could hire more women in her department, too. With agency and client approval, Tarin was hired. She had great ideas on set, was flexible and attentive. We actually wrapped over an hour early, and that’s with the late addition of a product shot. Why hadn’t I done this before?

Ava was the first person I heard use the phrase “inclusive crew.” In April, I had the opportunity to witness that phrase in person when she offered me the opportunity to direct an episode of the second season of Queen Sugar. Queen Sugar is the story of a black family, centered around two sisters—Nova Bordelon (Rutina Wesley) and Charley Bordelon (Dawn-Lyen Gardner)—and their brother Ralph Angel (Kofi Siriboe), who inherit their father’s sugarcane farm. For the second season, Ava hired all female directors and all female editors.

To be in Louisiana with that crew and cast was magical. I always adore being on set, working together to bring a story to life. But, on top of that, to look around and see women and people of color in positions I never had before? Whew! The DP for my first episode was Peabody Award-winner Kira Kelly, a black woman. Ava invited me back to direct a second episode a few months later. I am honored to have been a part of that production. It changed by life.

A fellow director and friend, Kris Merc, wrote a post on social media recently, inspired by CNN host Van Jones. Kris asked: “Who gets the clout? Who is being groomed, awarded or encouraged? Who gets a camera when they are a kid, who can afford it? Who gets into an art school or program and can financially maintain that? Who gets told that they are great? Which kids are getting the crayons early?” These great questions could change the course of someone’s career and life, and more immediately, enrich your creative endeavor.

I love to walk home from the office. I have the usual streets I take. One day I decided to take a different route home every day. To explore a new neighborhood, a new street, to see graffiti or a local store or a playground I didn’t know about. It was an introduction to new places and people. Doing that has evolved my vision and my work.

Davis directed two episodes of the 2017 season of Queen Sugar. Courtesy of OWN

When I think of “inclusive crew” on a practical level, I think it means including people you normally wouldn’t include in your creative process. Look at your circle. Look who’s in it and who isn’t. I’m not saying you’ve done anything wrong intentionally. I am just suggesting that you—as an artist, a storyteller, a writer, a director, craftsperson—ask yourself why certain people are not included. Why haven’t you widened your circle?

Including new people will only make whatever you’re making better. It will create allies. If you’re a maker/thinker/doer, if you like to experiment with different cameras, mediums and genres, try this experiment: Invite one new person into your process. Include one person who doesn’t look like you or live within a 10-mile radius. The reality is, if you’ve worked with one person four times already, chances are they’ll be around for the sixth. Hire someone different that fifth time. See what that brings to your work. It’s worth it.

It’s never too late to question yourself. Especially in the environment we’re living in now. Discussion brings people together, but that discussion can’t begin if you don’t ask yourself why you’re making the choices you make. Every film is an opportunity. It’s a vision of what the world could be. You’re creating that world. That means you can change the world.

I will admit one more thing. I’ve been eschewing contemporary rap artists for years because I don’t think anyone can compare to Wu-Tang Clan. Instead of buying what’s new, I listen to Wu (and their associates) over and over again. Am I right? Does nothing compare to the Wu? Well, here’s the truth: Not one thing is all things. Am I missing out? Definitely! I need to widen my circle.

Fostering interactions with people outside my circle prevents me from being closed off and stagnant. Including different genders and people from other races and cultures stops me from creating work that only speaks to me. I mean, I talk to myself all the time already. I want to speak to different people. Otherwise, why am I doing this? Why are you? MM

Widen Your Circle With These Resources

Minority Talent Pools:

Film Fatales // filmfatales.org

The Director List // thedirectorlist.com

The International Collective of Female Cinematographers // icfcfilm.com

Streetlights // streetlights.org

Array Rebels // arraynow.com/our-rebels

Hollywood Cinema Production Resources // hollywoodcpr.org

Women in Film // womeninfilm.org/resources

Films by Youth Inside // facebook.com/FYIfilms

Further Reading:

Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media // seejane.org

Center for Asian American Media // caamedia.org

The 3% Movement // 3percentmovement.com

Latino Public Broadcasting // lpbp.org

Black Hollywood Education & Resource Center // bherc.org

Pacific Islanders in Communications // piccom.org

Directors Guild of America: Diversity // dga.org/The-Guild/Diversity.aspx

Vision Maker Media // visionmakermedia.org

Reelblack // reelblack.com/wordpress

Women, Action, & the Media // womenactionmedia.org

Queen Sugar has its midseason premiere on October 3 and 4, 2017, on the Oprah Winfrey Network. DeMane Davis’s upcoming episode airs in November.

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