On Creativity, Practicality, & Minorities in Media

 

 

My obsession with the Oscars began when I was seven years old. I don’t know what spurred me to watch. My parents had, at best, a casual interest in award shows.  I remember watching artists tearfully accept heavy golden men on the stage; I followed up their breathless thank yous with my own speeches for imaginary awards. Then, in the ‘90s, there was not much representation to be had for a young African American girl with a love of the movies. But the Black nominees and winners I did see filled me up with joy. Seeing them, undoubtedly, is what sowed the first seeds in my mind to eventually pursue a creative career in film.

So you can imagine how I felt watching last month’s Academy Awards, where minority filmmakers shined in categories throughout the broadcast. Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler — both African American women — earned awards in Best Costume Design and Makeup and Best Production Design, respectively. Spike Lee received his first Academy Award for writing BlackKklansman. Regina King and Mahershala Ali triumphed in the Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor categories, respectively. Filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, both Asian American, claimed the Best Documentary prize for Free Solo. Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi’s film, Period, End of Sentence, claimed Best Documentary Short. Roma was represented in the Best Actress category by Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio; she’s only the second woman of Indigenous descent to earn a nomination in that category. And of course, the Best Picture category included Black Panther, a cultural and technical phenomenon. It was a triumphant year for minority creatives at the Oscars. And this representation is crucial; it’s visibility that drives minority creatives to be able to plant their feet and say, “I belong.” But this year’s ceremony is the exception, not the rule. Looking across all categories in the Academy’s 91-year history, awards granted to non-white winners make up a paltry 4.5% (Wikipedia, IndieWire, Hollywood Reporter, Oscars.org).

Looking across all categories in the Academy’s 91-year history, awards granted to non-white winners make up a paltry 4.5%.

The film and television industries have talked a great deal about pushing for greater diversity and inclusion in a field that has traditionally favored individuals from privileged backgrounds — namely, those who are white, male, and affluent.  In UCLA’s 2019 Hollywood Diversity Report, which surveyed film and television in the 2016-2017 period, white film directors outnumbered creatives of color 3 to 1. Screenwriters of color are underrepresented 5 to 1. The story repeats itself for television: the inequity between white creators and creators of color is 4 to 1 for broadcast and 3 to 1 for cable programs, respectively. For below-the-line positions, such as editors, cinematographers, and set designers, the imbalance is even more extreme. A 2019 USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study found, over a survey of 300 of the top-grossing films between 2016 and 2018, underrepresented cinematographers made up only 15% — all men. People of color made up only 5.7% of editors and 5.9% of production designers. This inequality is certainly not confined to the entertainment industry, but the struggle to address it is among the most visible by society at large. It’s a layered issue, one which speaks to the nation’s larger unaddressed inequality of opportunity, privilege, class, and race. 

For any position in the film and television industries, it is notoriously difficult for minorities to break in. Stories from minority directors, screenwriters, and producers are routinely declined by old guard gatekeepers in favor of narratives centering white characters and white stories, often under the guise of box office concern (which has been disproven again and again). For craft fields, such as sound, editing, cinematography, and set design, the entry point is complicated further by industry bias of minority craftspeople as well as a pre-industry lack of awareness of what positions are available and how to get started. If you’re looking at the credits for a film or television program and you see the titles like Music Supervisor or Foley Artist or Gaffer, it might spark curiosity about what those jobs actually entail. What do they do? And how did those people get that job? What skills do you need? Whether you’re familiar with an occupation or not, it’s difficult to pursue something that you are unsure of being attainable. It’s the reason why I didn’t know that filmmaking was a “real job,” a pursuable occupation, until my senior year of college. 

Why do creative careers always seem the most nebulous in terms of attainment? And as a minority, why is the ladder even harder to climb?

Creative careers in media are celebrated in their most visible manifestations — the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, the Emmys — but oftentimes they aren’t as celebrated in the learning pipeline. We’re quick to wag the finger of practicality in the faces of those who dare to dream. For many young creatives starting out and for adult creatives pivoting to a full-time pursuit a career in film and television, their aspirations are met with a collective societal shudder. Arts programs are often the first to be eliminated in public school systems. We tell our children and young adults not to “waste their time” with arts and creativity, to focus on getting a “real job.”

So for creatives, our pursuits must be proven profitable to be “worth it.” Otherwise we are deemed failures. For people of color across this nation, the burden of proof is even greater.

Society lumps the interests of creative adults under the connotatively unglamorous label “hobbies” — which tacitly suggests that such creative pursuits are only meaningful if they are profitable. Society expects people to be practical, and practicality implies a contribution to economic productivity. Creative pursuits are only deemed valuable in terms of their earning power. So for creatives, our pursuits must be proven profitable to be “worth it.” Otherwise we are deemed failures.

For people of color across this nation, the burden of proof is even greater. 

In addition to fighting to master the craft itself, we must also, in many cases, contend with historic and generational anxiety over non-conventional careers.

When I decided to take a turn from my biology education in undergrad to pursue graduate education and a career in media, my parents were supportive, but concerned. They had, of course, put another daughter through music school a few years prior, but just because they had supported a creative pursuit before did not make them feel any more at ease about my decision to pursue one as well. It’s not that they didn’t believe in me or believe that I would not pursue this with the same aplomb as I had my undergraduate education. It was an anxiety over what I might be leaving behind. I had spent four years toiling over — and earning — my Bachelor’s degree in biology from Cornell University. And now, here I was, presumably, leaving a stable career path in a STEM field to pursue a path with no sure economic security. My parents worried that their child may not be able to support herself financially — and that’s a very valid concern.

When my parents were growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, they were raised in a family model where decisions were based on economic practicality. Their parents worked two or three jobs to make sure that their families were fed, mortgages were paid, and their children were taken care of. Getting a “good paying job” was considered the marker of success. Passion pursuits were considered extracurricular. As such, my parents — who have creative passions of their own — were never able to pursue the opportunities that I have the opportunity to pursue today. And so now, with my creative aspirations, they must fight every inclination they have to give me a time limit on my dreams or to tell me that the pursuit is futile because so few like me have become “success stories.”

The definition of what success looks like is very different to family members who may be unacquainted with the field at large.

Additionally, there is no logical promotional ladder in many of these positions, no one-way pathway to success — making their viability as a career path all the more tenuous for nervous familial support systems. The definition of what success looks like is very different to family members who may be unacquainted with the field at large.

My story is not singular; it is the story of many minority adults fighting to be in a non-conventional career field. I would be lying if I claimed that I did not feel guilty sometimes. I worry that I have somehow shown that I do not appreciate my parents’ sacrifices by not reaching my peak yet, that I have not achieved a traditionally, quantifiable measurement of success. But I am also fortunate to have extremely supportive parents and family members. And that pushes me to keep creating and keep working.

My mother told me the other day that it is a hard balance as a parent, the pull between supporting my dreams and pushing me towards something traditionally safer, but that it’s necessary for her to believe if we expect to see more minorities excel in the industry. It’s why she and my father supported my decision to go to film school — which in itself can be yet another barrier. Film school or art school or design school is cost-prohibitive for some, and an undergraduate education in one of these fields is often viewed as minimizing the investment on a very expensive four year degree — circling back to again, the chain of practicality on our every pursuit — this time being education. For creatives of color, another burden of proof. We must be the best in the room, work twice as hard, prove in that moment that our pursuit is worth it. While I was in film school, I knew that I needed to squeeze every drop I could out of a very expensive Master’s degree program. To me, it was worth it. I appreciated the learning environment, the opportunity to develop my skills in an intensive educational setting. But practically speaking? It was still a very expensive choice. It was, in fact, probably very impractical. And although I have no regrets on my education, I now understand my parents’ practical concerns.

How can we expect to encourage minority artists if we deflate their dreams with the omens of practicality? How does the industry reconcile taking credit for minority perspectives and creativity without supporting a system that encourages their inclusion? Industry leaders must take more steps to eliminate financial privilege barriers that hinder not only participation in even the most entry-level of creative positions, but also in the access pipeline which alerts young creatives of color that such possibilities exist. Minority creatives are out there; we are everywhere. But the opportunities are not. We are still very much unseen, the diversity of our stories unheard. Underrepresentation is but a symptom of a societal close-mindedness that has historically undervalued the creative contributions of minorities and yet leans heavily on their influence. We must reframe society’s value of art in society and culture at large. And part of that reframing requires us, as minority creatives, to continue to create and share our voices in spite of so-called practicality. Because practicality would have us surrender. We cannot do so.

Underrepresentation is but a symptom of a societal close-mindedness that has historically undervalued the creative contributions of minorities and yet leans heavily on their influence.

The Oscar is a very visible, prestigious marker of achievement; it is not, however, the only measurement for creative success. Of course a creative wants her craft to be able to be her livelihood. But “striking it rich” or earning an Oscar are not an inevitability, nor should the pursuit of recognition be the sole aspirational driving force. There is passion involved, there is the expansion of community, there is joy — gains that cannot necessarily be quantified in our achievement-based and fiscally driven society. This is not to say that money should be eliminated from the equation. Creative work is the manifestation of skill, and creatives should be compensated for the sum of their accumulated knowledge and efforts. Society must learn to value creative knowledge as much as it values knowledge in other fields. And it must broaden the expanse of other humanities skills to creative fields as well. There are fields not considered “artistic” that have creative and artistic applications. Most of all, we need to place greater value on what creative perspectives minorities bring to the table.

So how do we do this? We must both hold institutions accountable for inclusion efforts; they cannot be all talk. They must ensure that money does not preclude access to creative futures nor serve as a marker of those who possess creativity. We must open our own doors as well. Look to industry leaders of color who are using their influence to increase the diversity of stories we see on screen about minorities. We must keep encouraging all creatives of color, young and old, that their pursuit is valid, and open up pathways to aspirational progression if they seek it. We should encourage the office worker who sketches in her lunch hour; she may be the next great animator. Do not count out the young man who loves sewing and style; his visions may bring to life a futuristic world or revive the stitches from an old one. Tell the youth who loves music that she could pursue composing or seek a position as a music supervisor. Tell the teenager who loves languages and fantasy to look into creative paths for linguistics; he may be the next imagineer of an epic fantasy universe. And, yes, have faith in the college biology senior who loves the movies; tell her not to be afraid. Tell her that it’s not too late for her to use her passion for storytelling and discovery to craft new worlds. These aspirations are real. They can, in fact, lead to real jobs with real value to society — and to personal fulfillment. Minority creatives deserve to have the space and opportunity to pursue careers aligned with their talents for whatever reason they choose — without the burden of practicality looming overhead.

2 thoughts on “On Creativity, Practicality, & Minorities in Media

  1. Michelle Johnson Morse says:

    Hi Shannon: Just wanted to compliment you on your thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. As a movie and TV lover who’s watched the credits, as you’ve said, I’ve wondered about what the various titles of those involved in producing them actually do and how one becomes a gaffer, sound editor, cinematographer, etc. As a journalism major (more than 30 years ago) and a person who still loves the written word, I have great appreciation for the writers who tell stories from a minority POV and/or include minority characters in stories from a majority POV. As we know and have seen, more diverse stories create a richer experience for whoever’s watching. With media being the huge influence that it is, I hope, as you do, that society can offer greater support and create a larger space for present and future minority creatives. Best of luck to you as your pursue your dreams and I look forward to seeing your name in the credits in the future.

    Like

    1. Shannon Lawrence says:

      Hi Michelle — thanks for your comment! I hope that we continue to push forward and get a richer landscape of stories out there. And I hope that more people of color have the opportunity to pursue their creative passions as well with the support of creative industries!

      Like

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