I often wonder about my place this world — where and if I, with all of my weirdness, fit in. Keenly aware of America’s “complicated” history with women and people of color, I have always been a quiet observer as I examine the throughline connecting the present with the past. It’s like assembling a gigantic puzzle with harsh and painful pictures that all fit together, and sometimes I need a break.
Film and television have been my refuge as I’ve navigated the sometimes tricky terrain from childhood to young adulthood and finally, adulthood. It is within fiction where I can escape and find solace from reality that is often relentlessly bleak.
As a black girl growing up in America, I experienced the micro-aggressions as I ventured into traditionally white spaces. There, I was met with kindness, some genuine and some only to my face, but I learned that not all white people are bad. It was reinforced through lessons at school, home and the images I saw on-screen. I was bombarded by portraits of white professionals, saviors, artists and people with varying degrees of success. I saw them as human beings not to be feared or demonized because they were unfamiliar.
Conversely, I was exposed to fictional brown folks of very specific stereotypes. They were the opposite of people I knew. Rather, they were characters conjured up by people who seemingly had little contact with ethnic and religious minorities. They were who we were thought to be rather than who we were. And even though I knew differently, I fell victim to the stereotypes of black personhood as I was conditioned to expect and prepare for the worst.
I viewed black success as the exception. Perfect grammar as an anomaly. Achievement as something radical. The characters I saw shaped my perception even though I am black and I knew better. If what I saw on film and television had such a great impact of how I saw black life, how did it impact the way white America saw me? Not favorably, I’m sure.
The power of film, of television, of art is in its ability to encourage and even challenge viewers to examine themselves and their own beliefs — their own prejudices. As Reza Aslan recently explained, “What changed people’s minds was Will and Grace, was Modern Family, was watching people who were gay on television being, you know, ‘normal,’.” He continued, “Stories have the power to break through the walls that separate us into different ethnicities, different cultures, different nationalities, different races, different religions because they hit us at the human level.” I could not agree more. Representation and how marginalized groups are represented matters.
I was much older when I acknowledged the subconscious impact the lack of representation had on me. I had supportive parents and a mother who stressed I could be anything I wanted to be. Then, there was that beautiful letter from Oprah who affirmed my mother’s faith in my ability to achieve. If Oprah says it, it must be so. I truly believed there was nothing I could not do. I was lucky.
There are many people whose scope of what is possible is narrowed because of lack of access to resources, hope and a dearth of images that limit their dreams. If you never see black women as mathematicians, how can you see yourself as one? If you see brown people succeeding as professional athletes only, how can you dream of being a front office executive? Just as film and television show young, brown people what is possible, it shows Caucasians that black life, dreams and love are not so different from their own. There just aren’t enough of those works.
When I wrote the first draft of “No Lies Told Then” all those years ago, I wanted to tell the story of a woman, “Sandra,” who went through some things. I wasn’t sure what those things were until I started writing and rewriting and rewriting some more. Her story became clearer to me and she became a living being.
Then, I left her alone for awhile so I could write other things. “Sandra” was pushy and refused to remain silent because she had more story to tell. I had to give in and get to know her better.
It’s been years. Some of you have been along for the ride from the beginning and I thank you for that. It’s been a frustrating, exhilarating, challenging journey, but I have always believed everything happens for a reason.
Let’s be real: 2016 was brutal. Absolutely brutal! But, on the heels of #OscarsSoWhite, there were some wonderful films starring people of color. My favorite film of the year, “Moonlight” is poised to receive multiple Oscar nominations. People of color are being cast in starring roles in films big and small, and shining in front of the camera and behind. There are more opportunities than ever for artists to create and distribute their work.
If we’d made “No Lies Told Then” when I first dreamed of it, it likely would have come and gone without much of a whimper. There was/is a belief that if you make films for and about people of color, there will be no one to fill the seats. 2016 proved the rule, not the exception, that people of color and non-people of color will flock to theaters to see good films. #TeamNLTT has given everything to this project and there is no doubt that what we are creating will be one of those films that people will see.
Yet, Hollywood is still reticent to “take a chance” on films created by and starring people of color. Instead of producing films for a criminally underserved audience, they comb the festival circuit for completed works to distributed. Which leaves filmmakers like #TeamNLTT tapping friends, family and fans for dollars. It’s a grind, but we are determined!
As Mr. Aslan said, we have to create and support works that capture the human experience. It is in theaters, music and television that we can begin the break down the walls of fear and build bridges to acceptance and love. #TeamNLTT doesn’t seek to make a film for the sake of accomplishing a goal. We want to make a film beautiful film that embodies part of the African-American experience and fosters a conversation about lies, truth, empowerment and change.
To borrow a phrase by President Obama, “Yes we can!” And we will! Onward!