—Why is it so —easy—
to overlook black women's art?
An interview with Leslie Harris
by Sarah Gregory
Does society support the suppression of black women's art. Or are black women fighting on so many fronts that their art has taken a back seat.
What state do you find the film industry in now compared to 25 years ago?
Good question. Overall I feel that there are more opportunities to tell black women’s stories: TV (and streaming) are better, though feature film is not. You just have to look at the Oscars and the Golden Globes for evidence.
In the 70s Cicely Tyson was nominated, Diana Ross who won for Lady Sings the Blues, and Halle Berry who won an Oscar in 2002 of course for Monster’s Ball, but that has been it.
So where and what has happened?
It’s not about being validated by the Oscars. It’s about recognition. And it’s evidence that little has changed.
So the feature arena still needs work to have a black woman lead and to own it. There are feature films with black women leads but the reason used for not getting behind them is that they won’t sell.. I tend to write feature films and I should have that right to do a movie. I shouldn’t have to say there is no space for me in the feature film arena and just give up.
Would you make your name with one movie and cooperate, then move on to what you want to make once you have made a name for yourself, in the industry?
What has changed?
In the last ten years my experience of film-making has improved.
But it’s important to remember that working on film isn’t just a passion, it’s a career. For fifteen years us women who were out there didn’t get paid and had no pension. You know really when you think about it that is discrimination.
But now women are speaking up, people are speaking out we have had the #metoo movement. More women are becoming Directors, it’s not just black women talking about the unfairness of pay.
When Just Another Girl on the IRT came out, it broke the mould - it was distributed to twenty countries. We went to the Sundance Festival, to Tokyo. So I felt like some good did happen back then it wasn’t all bad, so I am not bitter about all that has happened.
Interestingly that said, someone wrote an article a few years ago and they were listing films about teen pregnancy - Juno was on there but it didn’t mention Just Another Girl on the IRT at all.
What changes would you like to see in the Industry?
I would like to see more people of colour. And not just at the junior level either. I want them to be the Executives, those actually making decisions about which films are going to be made. I would like to see more black films in the feature film arena and tell more stories about black women. When small independent movies like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri do really well, I want to know where are our independent film telling stories about black women? And I understand there are streaming platforms and black superheroes are more visible, but I don’t feel like having more diversity on streaming platforms should let the mainstream industry off the hook.
I have several scripts to address that which I would love to get made. I did try to via the crowdfunding route but I didn’t make my goal on Kickstarter. Kickstarter was tough. You need a big team to help you just with that. I don’t have a big social media presence. I know that white film makers do crowdfunding, but they also get funding.
Ultimately I want to see more black women’s stories in feature film and I don’t mind talking about it, because I think that is what makes change.
How can we as a community of women bypass the system and make the change happen?
I feel that’s exactly what we need to do. Finance is important. If we can get more financial support from the black community and other communities too that will help us work around the system.
When I made Just Another Girl on the IRT I got a grant, but nowadays most of those funds have dried up. A lot of white independent films get investment, and that’s what we need to do better. If we believe in something then we need to put our dollars behind it,
And of course when everyone helps, things get done. My film was shot in seventeen days and so many people were part of it: they were long days but we didn’t have the luxury of not getting the planned scenes shot. When we arrived in Brooklyn it was dark and we didn’t have enough lights for the scene. But a commercial was being shot on Brooklyn Bridge at the same time, so once they had wrapped up they turned their lights around and shone them on our set.
Black Panther was great but look at the producers – they were mainly white men. We need more black producers. They are out there but they are not getting the recognition they deserve.
I feel optimistic that film is changing. But we don’t want this to be a flash in the pan and we don’t want to go back. The young people are going to make change happen.
We were talking to Leslie Harris ahead of the Cinema Rediscovered screening of Just Another Girl on the I.R.T at BFI Southbank.
Leslie Harris is a strong-willed black director who made the film that she wanted to make and never compromised on her story.
Her film Just Another Girl on the IRT that won acclaim and mass appeal at the Sundance Festival twenty-five years ago gripped the audience while taking them on an emotional rollercoaster.
Harris was a non-conformist and challenger. She refused to include a white saviour and make the lead black male lead a drug dealer in her film, which would have secured her funding.
Leslie was passionate and determined to stay true to her aim of breaking black stereotypes both in front and behind the camera. She fought a war on many fronts, refusing to rise to the accusations that she was taking a space carved for a black male directors
Leslie’s critically acclaimed film was an instant classic, won awards and international distribution. Unlike her fellow directors the Coen brothers and Tarantino who rode the wave of their success she has been unable to fund the many scripts that she has written since.