Color Theory: A deeper look at race in Atlanta's Film Industry
“It’s like a black mecca. Like Black Hollywood,” says Amber L.N. Bournett, one half of the Atlanta-based art film duo, House of June.
You have Hollywood and you have Black Hollywood in Atlanta.” We—Bournett, myself, and the duo’s other half, Ebony Blanding—have been speaking for more than an hour. The quirky Candler Park cafe we’re in will be closing soon, and both women are coming off a full shift at their day jobs. But Blanding and Bournett have plenty stories to tell about being minority filmmakers in Atlanta. Their work has been featured at the Sundance Film Festival, and their short film The Grey Area was featured in the Atlanta Film Festival’s 2015 New Mavericks series.
Since the city’s rise to prominence in the nation’s film industry, Atlanta has been given many nicknames. Hollywood of the South. Country-fried Y’allywood. The clunky A-T-L-wood. But in conjunction with (or in contrast to) all of these, is Black Hollywood: a mecca for minorities looking to break into film and television production.
Building Black Hollywood
In 2008, Governor Sonny Perdue signed Georgia’s tax incentive into law, granting any film or television project that spends $500,000 or more on productions in Georgia a 20 percent tax break, with an additional 10 percent break for projects that put the state’s logo at the end of their credits. Though the incentive is often credited with Atlanta’s production industry taking off, insiders know a strong film community existed here long before the tax breaks went into effect.
Makeup artist Patrice Coleman came to Atlanta to attend Spelman College and has been in the industry for nearly 40 years. She’s a member of the relatively small community of professionals who have been in Atlanta since before the boom. “The thing that stood out to me about Atlanta from the very beginning was that Atlanta was very supportive of black entrepreneurship,” Coleman says. “There was a strong academic community, which included a good number of universities and prestigious HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities].”
Coleman says the state’s affordability, climate, and history contributed to a well-balanced quality of life for industry folks. “We’ve always had a pretty solid film community. Even though a lot of people think it didn't happen until they got here, which is funny to me,” she says. “It's kind of like Columbus discovering America. We really were doing okay before.”
In a YouTube video of former Mayor Maynard H. Jackson Jr. establishing the Atlanta Commission on Arts and Entertainment in 1992, the mayor acknowledges the city’s rising film industry. “We have a great, great potential here,” he booms. “The background is that Georgia has a thriving $300 million film and television industry, and we’re well on our way to becoming the third largest entertainment center in the United States.” Fast forward 20 years, and Georgia has indeed become the third most sought-after place for film and television production in the world.
Production supervisor and Great Fortune Films founder Latisha Fortune (The Blind Side, The End Again) and Bobbcat Films EVP Angi Bones (The Negotiator, The Antoine Fisher Story, House of Payne) remember pre-incentive Atlanta as a place of greater opportunity where people could break into the industry on the ground floor. “When I came to Atlanta in 2005, Atlanta embraced me,” Fortune says. “New York was already established, and it was very difficult to get into the circulation, whereas in Atlanta, there was an opportunity basically for everyone.”
Bones came to Atlanta from Los Angeles in 2002 when she was an extras casting director and DGA assistant director. She noticed immediately that there were maybe five films in production but only four DGA ADs in town, so she sought to fill the empty space. It worked. But Bones’ decision to move to Atlanta full-time was influenced largely by the heavy minority presence on sets here. She had never seen so many people of color working on one set at one time back in L.A.
“Living in Los Angeles, I may have worked with maybe one black teamster and maybe one Hispanic teamster. But when I came here, there were black teamsters, there were black female teamsters, there were black-owned production companies, black directors, black producers,” Bones says. “It was just a hub of people of color that were doing things.”
"It was just a hub of people of color that were doing things."
For those born and raised in Atlanta, people of color doing big things isn’t out of the ordinary. They grew up knowing they were in the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King Jr.’s childhood home was less than two miles from the capitol. Location scout Jen Farris, who was born and raised in Southwest Atlanta, recalls the inspiration that comes with having black leaders who were respected across color lines and across the globe. “It's unusual, from what other people tell me. It's not unusual for me,” she says. “But to an African American little girl, that's almost like seeing a female presidential candidate, so you look up to that. As a child, that has a big influence on your dream list.”
Atlanta’s can-do spirit and history of black entrepreneurship are what drew Bobbcat Films CEO and president Roger Bobb to the city. Bobb initially came here at acclaimed casting director Reuben Cannon’s request, to help direct Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman. After years at Tyler Perry Studios, where he produced I Can Do Bad All By Myself, For Colored Girls, and over 200 episodes of House of Payne—the longest-running black sitcom in history—Bobb branched out on his own. Bobbcat Films conceives projects in-house and develops content others create. Like Tyler Perry, Bobb’s projects are deliberately for and about African Americans.
“You have a lot of African Americans who are [here] in other areas of business, who own their own businesses,” Bobb says. “Just that whole attitude of progressiveness is what convinced me to start my own company.”
When Color Matters, Or Doesn’t
“The movie industry… I can’t say that it sees color,” says Angi Bones. Alfeo Dixon, a DP whose resume includes The Yard and The Walking Dead, among many others, agrees. Apart from a comfort factor, there’s not much difference between being on a predominantly white set and an ethnically diverse set in Atlanta—or anywhere else—when it comes time for work to be done. “What’s the difference between going to a black surgeon versus a white surgeon?” Dixon asks.
Does it matter who does the work if it’s done well? Blanding and Bournett say no, but also yes, because a “good job” is not a set standard. The pair argues that when it comes to something like lighting, color does matter. African Americans are less likely to be lit well because they historically haven’t had significant roles on screen.
“You would be in the shadow. There would be no light reflecting off you significantly,” Bournett says, gesturing to me. “And that makes you focus on the other person in the screen, who was more than likely the main character, who was more than likely a white person.”
But with a black person doing the lighting, there’s a different, more level approach, they say. “I know for a fact, that when Amber frames you, she cares about your pigmentation. I know for a fact that she cares about your profile, your nose, your lips, how your hair moves. She understands the movement,” Blanding says of her partner. “We don't want you to be ashy. We don't want you to be greasy and oily either. We want you to have a glow.” Talk of greasy and oily characters reminds Blanding of Virgil Tibbs, Howard Rollins’ character in In the Heat of the Night, who admittedly looked oily throughout the series.
“It's small things like that that aren't necessarily that small when they're all composed together. But I think it's very relative to who is the head of that department,” Blanding says. “I think that's kind of like common sense. If you don't have representation in any field, you're not going to see yourself in the best light.” Adds Bournett, “It all comes to if they care about you or not. It all comes to if they care about your character.”
Hair and makeup are two things minority talent has had to work around for decades. On multiple occasions, actresses have shown relief upon getting Patrice Coleman as their makeup artist. Coleman says people of color would bring their own foundation or style their own hair for fear that the person assigned to the job wouldn’t be prepared to make up dark skin or coif kinkier hair textures. “I think it's just a question because we're not the majority of the population. A lot of times, other artists just don't really feel required to have the experience to do different types of hair or makeup,” she says. “Maybe it's just a lack of exposure or...we just weren't high on the priority list.”
That said, long-term Atlantans in the industry report a marked difference between this city and, say, Los Angeles, where there is far less access to projects that include other people of color. Veteran line producer and UPM James Tripp-Haith (Moesha, Zoe Ever After) recalls one instance in L.A. when a studio executive called him in for a meeting just because he didn’t know black line producers existed. “I went in there looking for a job. He said, 'I ain't got no job. [My staff] just wanted to prove me wrong, because I'm a manager of a major network and two other cable networks, and I don't know any black line producers.' Obviously, because there's none working for this major network,” Tripp-Haith says. “I went on and told him about the projects that he had in his pipeline, because I did my research about who he was and his network and their programming. He didn't hire me, but I bet you he remembers who I am.”
Ultimately, the ability to do the job and do it well trumps a person’s background or experience. But if a solid skill set is all that’s required, and if minorities are just as capable of building a skill set as their majority counterparts, why is diversity still an issue? Opportunity, Tripp-Haith says, as though I’d asked why the sky is blue or why grass is green. “It’s like a Good Ol’ Boy network,” he says of L.A.
"I need to see people who look like me on set."
Alfeo Dixon says he was once fired from a job in Los Angeles simply because the showrunner didn’t know him. On a different project he worked, a new and unfamiliar hire didn’t perform well, costing the project time and money. “I think people are more comfortable working with people that they know, and me, coming from L.A., I even have that mentality myself,” admits Bones. “Once you have a team, that's your set team.”
Indeed, wherever you go, there’s a tendency to hire from within; and sometimes who gets hired is simply a matter of who is already on top. It just so happens that in an industry that struggles with diversity from the top down, white men tend to know and hire other white men. Dixon believes change will only come when minorities with hiring power put their feet down and say, “I need to see people who look like me on set.”
Dixon points out that if there’s a diversified presence above the line, the crew isn’t likely to reflect that diversity. “Unless they’re instructed to diversify their crew, it’s not gonna happen,” he says. “It might subconsciously happen on small parts, but it needs to happen on a greater scale.” Dixon cautions against the scapegoating that can result from “diversity hires,” but say those may not be the only answer.
One night in January of last year, Maynard H. Jackson III had the idea to make a documentary about his father’s legacy. “It was kind of a light bulb moment,” he recalls. “I almost shook [my wife] out of her sleep.”
“I’m glad you didn’t do that,” his wife and veteran producer, Wendy Eley Jackson, says with a laugh.
Maynard H. Jackson Jr., Atlanta’s first black mayor, served from 1974 to 1982 and again from 1990 to 1994. Well-regarded among the city’s most prominent Civil Rights leaders and most progressive politicians, Jackson fought for the arts and what’s now referred to as diversity inclusion in government contracts. So when the Jackson family started working on their documentary, MAYNARD, it only made sense to see how the film industry was doing with diversity. As it turns out, no one was really checking those numbers.
The Georgia Department of Economic Development releases annual film industry statistics, including the number of projects filmed here, the number of jobs the industry is responsible for, and how much money it has spent in the state. For fiscal year 2016, the industry’s economic impact charted at over $7 billion. But until this past legislative session, no one had looked into the racial and ethnic demographics of those who work on Atlanta’s film sets.
On the very last day of this year’s legislative session, the House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored by Representative “Able” Mable Thomas to launch the Study Committee of Georgia Minority Participation in the Film and Television Production Industry, tasked with finding ways to increase participation in film and television among minorities. Observers say that despite the many success stories and Atlanta’s clear lead in diversity over other cities, there’s still a large disparity between the racial makeup of the city (over 54 percent African American, according to the last census) and the racial makeup of your average film set. “When I get out to these studios, I don’t see people who look like me,” Rep. Thomas told the Atlanta Business Chronicle. “Even those working in the industry say they haven’t been able to advance.”
The younger Maynard notes that America’s sordid racial history has influenced every sphere of work, from educational opportunity to voting rights to film production. “You have to make allowance for the imbalance that was in place. America was built on the backs of slaves,” Maynard says. Wendy adds that it’s only been 51 years since the Voting Rights Act was signed, and that many black people can only count one or two generations of college graduates in their families.
The Jacksons propose adding a diversity clause to the tax incentive in order to encourage productions to actively seek minority talent on screen and behind the scenes. “It starts from the government, moves its way into corporate, then what we’re saying is, let’s take it from corporate, and let’s move into the entertainment field overall,” Wendy says. “We know that companies like Sony and Fox, they care about diversity because they have chief diversity officers, right? They already care about these things, but when you’re talking about production, that’s just not at the top of their minds. By doing diversity inclusion, that only enhances their mandate and their commitment to do what they’re already doing.”
And by diversity, Wendy is not referring exclusively to African Americans or women. She means Latinos, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community, and anyone else who is capable of working on a set but is less likely to receive a seat at the table by industry standards. Because sometimes a seat at the table comes with a price tag. “There’s something on a set that everyone can do, right? I think no matter where you go, balance and inclusion should be at the top of the list in consideration for work,” she says. “The doors need to remain open, and sometimes the only way to make them open is to offer an incentive.”
The future of Atlanta’s film and television industry—for people of color, women, and others—is bright. But industry insiders cite two key necessities to keep it that way: 1) the tax incentive must stay; 2) locals must be trained in skills that can be used in production and post-production.
Without the incentive, these folks are certain that film and television production in Atlanta will regress. “I think it would be horrible if it went away,” says Roger Bobb. “I think literally we would go back to where we were 15 years ago, where we only had very minimal production happening. Because crew members, they go where the work is.”
Of course, no one is saying the industry would dissolve entirely if the incentive was abolished. But many believe the current studio-heavy environment would shift to one helmed by independent filmmakers pursuing less traditional means of production and distribution, with no studio deals required. “I think what we’d see without the incentive is more people doing it guerrilla-style and taking to the different platforms to be able to get their content out,” Wendy Jackson says.
James Tripp-Haith says his future work will involve giving back. “One of my passions right now is I want to open up a training facility where I can train people how to build a set, how to be the script supervisor, how to be the electrician or the grip,” he says. “And that'll be my greatest accomplishment: saying I was able to train people, I was able to reach back. Because someone did it for me as a young guy in Pittsburgh.”
In Georgia now, Patrice Coleman sees more people taking advantage of less traditional means of distribution, such as online and independent channels, as well as an increase in large studio projects. She also sees more projects by and about minorities in the city’s future. “It’s obvious that we are making more of a mark and becoming more visible and people are seeing us more,” she says, “so I think there will be more work for us overall. People are starting to hopefully develop more relationships across cultures and hopefully the situation will get better. Hopefully there’ll be more positive and realistic images of black people in particular. But we’ll have to support that and go out and see those movies and shows that are positive.”
Back at the Candler Park cafe, the staff is preparing to shutter for the day, but Blanding and Bournett could go on all night. Though Blanding sees a bright future for the industry in Atlanta, she believes we’re still a city in progress. “Atlanta is a robust city, but it's still very much a Southern city that sleeps,” she says. “So there's a lot of growth that we have to do.” But the duo does believe that growth can and will happen.
“It has to,” says Bournett.