Keith Nixon Jr./Courtesy of Rashad Frett
For years, people of color have struggled to break into Hollywood. One reason? The film industry is built on relationships, and many of those relationships often begin in film school, where the right connections can open important doors. Now, the country’s top film schools are trying to foster those connections for people of color by creating a pipeline to the industry for filmmakers whose work remains underrepresented.
Rashad Frett is one such filmmaker. He’s earning his master’s degree in film at New York University, where one of his professors was Spike Lee. “He pretty much told us we’ve got to just keep pushing and keep putting out the work, and don’t give up,” Frett recalls. As a Caribbean American filmmaker, he says he appreciates the lesson.
“I’mma tell you, the amount of support and guidance that I’ve gotten from N.Y.U., the lessons that I’ve learned as far as storytelling and just, like, the community… it’s just phenomenal, phenomenal.”
While at NYU, Frett has made a short film titled K.I.N.G., about a teen trying to connect with his estranged father. The 40-year-old filmmaker is now making another film for his thesis, about recidivism in the Black and Brown communities. He’s using fellowship money from directors Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese and most recently, Cary Fukunaga.
N.Y.U. film school alum Fukunaga, who directed the upcoming James Bond film No Time To Die, has established an annual $20,000 production grant for underrepresented filmmakers. Frett is the first recipient.
“I think it’s always important to show the next generation that it’s possible,” says Fukunaga. He says his grant recipients must agree to mentor high school students. “They’re a really great example to high school students you know, entry level college students to see like, ‘Hey, here’s somebody who looks like me who’s from a place I’m from or from an economic background that I’m also from… And they’re making it. They’re in a really expensive university, and they’ve somehow figured out how to get financing for that, and they’re pursuing their dreams within the arts.”
Across the country in Southern California, the dean of Chapman University’s Film School, Stephen Galloway, says he’s focused on creating a pipeline of diversity to Hollywood.
As executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter for nearly three decades, Galloway set up mentorship programs for Black and brown high school students in South L.A. and East L.A. “We paired them with top level women executives,” he says. That included Donna Langley, chair of Universal Pictures, Dana Walden, Walt Disney Television chair of entertainment and Jennifer Salke, who heads Amazon Studios.
Galloway says some of those high school students are now working at the biggest film and streaming studios. He created a second mentorship program with Oprah Winfrey. At Chapman University, he plans to expand these efforts.
“Diversity is one of my major goals,” he says. And he began by recruiting more diverse students and by hiring 16 new professors of color, 11 of whom are women. He noted a particular trend he’s noticed since the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement: “The industry is now falling over itself to make some kind of reparations for decades of neglect. Everybody is looking to hire men and women of color who have talent.”
It’s clear that film studios are going through a reckoning, says Syreeta Greene, the director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at the American Film Institute.
“All the various movements from #OscarsSoWhite, the #MeToo movement and whatnot have really called to task the industry in many ways,” she says. “And I think film schools have been positioned to be like, ‘We’re ready to prepare filmmakers. So that can’t be something is used as a reason for not having the voices that we need to have in the industry.”
Greene was hired last November to oversee diversity and inclusion for all of AFI’s programs. This year, nearly half of the institute’s students are filmmakers of color. Like Chapman, AFI also works with high school students, provides mentors, and recruits from historically Black colleges.
In addition to the efforts at Chapman and NYU, the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts is doing much of that same work, in addition to hosting an orientation program specifically for Black students.
“I’m seeing much more socially conscious films, much less of what I saw when I first came here, which was another white male coming-of-age film, to which I said, ‘please, no,'” says Elizabeth Daley, who has been the dean of USC’s film school for the past 30 years. “The students are so bright and they are very committed. But, yes, our Black students have been very demanding and nobody objects to it. We need to do much more.”
Daley says USC has a “first jobs” program for its graduates, created by TV producer and alumnus Aaron Kaplan to help students land their first paid jobs in the entertainment industry. The program draws on generations of the film school’s successful alumni to help pair recent graduates with entry-level jobs. It’s one way the school is creating a pipeline between students of color and the film industry, she says.
“If we have a diverse student body well trained and we send them out, they will take care of the next,” she says. “So that’s my strategy for changing this thing: Put enough people out there.”
Daley cites director and USC alumnus Ryan Coogler as an example: For his films, including Fruitvale Station, CREED, Judas and the Black Messiah and Black Panther, Coogler has made a point of hiring and working with mostly Black casts and production teams.
For his part, Rashad Frett says he hopes to one day turn his 15-minute NYU thesis film Ricky, which he’s about to shoot, into a feature.
“I think there’s a change happening, and it’s getting more and more diverse,” Frett says about the movie industry. “More and more stories out there from all walks of life are getting produced. It’s a beautiful, beautiful time for filmmaking.”