Black screen leaders reflect on the year since George Floyd’s death

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Part one of Playback's Q&A with the Black Screen Office's Joan Jenkinson, BIPOC TV & Film's Kadon Douglas and Reelworld Film Festival founder Tonya Williams looks back on a year of reactive action.

It’s been a year since Black Lives Matter came to the fore. A year filled with protests, pledges and, let’s not forget, the pandemic.

Playback checks in with three very different but equally frank Black screen industry leaders in this two-part interview as they reflect on the change they’ve seen, the work that still needs to be done, and their hopes for the future.

This conversation includes Joan Jenkinson, executive director of the recently formed Black Screen Office; Kadon Douglas, BIPOC TV & Film’s first executive director; and Tonya Williams, Reelworld Film Festival and Reelworld Screen Institute executive director and founder.

Playback: It’s been a year since the death of George Floyd sparked worldwide calls for an end to systemic racism. And then COVID-19. Statistically speaking, the Black population in Canada was disproportionately affected by the global health crisis, facing greater unemployment and lower wages. If 2020 was the year of reactive action in response to glaring disparities, what do you hope 2021 will be remembered for?

Joan Jenkinson: I would say that I’m hoping to see a lot of the same in 2021, because we’re in the midst of a massive civil rights movement. It’s rocked the world and I think it should continue to rock the world because there’s so much to be done. When we start to become silent is when we see less action. We have to keep speaking and keep showing up, so that there’ll be accountability over the long term. We need to keep the momentum going.

Kadon Douglas: Yeah, I agree, in terms of that is what’s needed right now. It’s to keep that momentum going. I saw last year people talk about allyship fatigue and so on. And, that was very disappointing to know, but just knowing that this is a continued fight, it’s not going to end now there’s even more work to do. The first thing was recognizing that there is a problem, well there are several problems. We still have Black people dying at the hands of authority figures. That’s still happening… The oppression is still going on. We still have all of the disparities taking place. So we just need to keep the momentum and keep the pressure going.

What we need to do, as Joan said, is continue to speak in the truth, breaking the silence in terms of some of the things that are happening industry side and also to speak of the various intersectionalities. I see a lot of times there are Black people, and LGBTQ2S+. Well, there are Black people who are LGBTQ2S+, and who are in different economic classes. There are also Black people who have disabilities. We need to recognize that it is not a single-issue battle that we’re fighting.

Tonya Williams: I just hope that the reactive response is not short lived. Yes, this last year was explosive, and everyone promises to make the necessary changes, but I’m more interested in seeing where we are in five years…The audiences and governments and broadcasters, they change leadership and can have short memories. I really hope we see the change we have been championing for decades. Let’s not just have more talk, let’s wait and see what they actually do.

“… we need to be a part of the ongoing conversation and we need to be at the table, being consulted at every level.” – Joan Jenkinson, executive director, Black Screen Office

KD: For 2021, I want to move from tokenization to very intentional inclusion efforts. It’s not just about bringing in one or two or a few of us at very junior positions. It’s about really opening up the doors to access.

TW: Will we see someone running CBC who is Black? Will we see someone running Telefilm, not just working there but running it? I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that kind of change yet. But that’s when I’ll get excited.

JJ: For things like that to happen, people have to give up real power… I was thinking where is this phrase about reaction? And then I remembered it was Newton [who said] every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. And that’s my concern moving forward, which is why we need to keep pressing because the tendency is for everything to go back.

KD: For complacency. I believe that it has already started, in some way.

PB: In terms of the Canadian screen industry, what would each of you say has been the most important reaction you’ve seen come out last year?

JJ: I’m really surprised at how quickly the leaders of the industry came on board to face the issues head on. We don’t know how far that will go, but I was really quite surprised by the intensity of the reactions and that many of the leaders were not hiding behind excuses. At the beginning you could see the mortification that people felt knowing that they are complicit in a system of this most vile abuse of other people and traumatizing of generations of people.

But that mortification started to turn into some action, which I was glad to see, and particularly at Telefilm and CMF, they’re looking to changing the way they do everything through the lens of inclusion and equity and diversity. And once those get written in a guideline, it’s hard to take them out. So I find that really encouraging, and hopefully there’ll be a way of ensuring that that’s sustained.

TW: I think if we didn’t have social media, if we did not have those platforms where everyone has access, I don’t think we would have seen the kind of reaction. There was nothing that happened last year that we’ve not seen happen many, many times before. But I think once one person started saying something on social media, I think it embarrassed people. I think their reaction came out of the fact that they didn’t want to look like they were the only people not doing anything or not saying anything, whereas before… we didn’t have these kinds of social platforms that people could be outed on in a way. So my nervousness is a lot of this is about saving face for a lot of these companies, because it’s not like they couldn’t have been doing this for the last 20 years or 25 years or 30 years.

When I started Reelworld 20 years ago, I explained exactly the same things that we’re talking about now, but they couldn’t see the value in it at all. They didn’t understand why… they needed to support that kind of cause. Now it’s all they are thinking about. Sometimes change just happens by embarrassing people into it. And that’s fine if that happens, but I don’t know if you can “policy” people into not being racist anymore.

PB: In the past year, thousands of companies have responded, including in the screen industry, by committing billions of dollars to racial-equity initiatives. Can this potential be tapped in a way that delivers meaningful, systemic change?

KD: What I’ve been seeing in a lot of these commitments and new initiatives that are coming out, they’re really raised by questioning in terms of what is the goal here. We really need to define and separate parity, equality and equity in terms of what we’re actually doing. And some of the efforts I’ve seen where they’re applying percentages to, where it’s kind of ridiculous because the percentage will include a large group of marginalized people and then white men, you know? And I don’t think they’re really doing the work of looking at who is really impacted by these inequities that we’ve put in place. So if we’re seeing, for example, 5% of overall budgets have gone to BIPOC stories and creatives… then the corrective measure would be OK, this time we’re going to do 95% to correct it then. And not then a 50/50 split between all marginalized groups.

TW: I really think part of the issue is that we’re also trying to put all the underrepresented voices, as Kadon was just saying, under one basket. No, that’s going to be impossible. Using the term BIPOC, I think it has its place, but we can’t come up with BIPOC solutions because they are not BIPOC problems. There are Black issues. There are Indigenous challenges and barriers. There are Asian challenges and issues and South Asian and Latinx and all kinds of different separate issues. And I think right now we’re in a phase where everyone’s trying to come up with a one-size-fits-all issue. That’s part of what I consider systemic racism.

“When you’re a Black person and you’re running an organization, there’s so much pressure that if you should make the smallest mistake, that everything will be gone.” – Tonya Williams, founder and executive director of Reelworld Film Festival

JJ: I think in addition to that is that we need to be a part of the ongoing conversation and we need to be at the table, being consulted at every level, be involved in the design of programs and initiatives and funding mechanisms. We need to be able to control our own IP, which we haven’t been able to do. We’ve had to give it away because we don’t have enough experience or whatever is deemed to be the bar. Our companies are underdeveloped and under-financed, our young people don’t have the same access to education. There are so many different points of inequity as Kadon and Tonya have been talking about, but the solutions can’t happen without us.

KD: No, and thanks for bringing that up, Joan, because I was going to say in response to Tonya, these types of programs come to fruition because they’re not done in consultation with us. And I want to call that out as a very colonial mindset that’s used there in terms of prescribing solutions to us without our input.

TW: It’s good to remember the changes that have actually happened in Canada for Black, Indigenous, people of colour have happened because people like Joan and Kadon and myself, we’ve sacrificed, and we created the initiatives that made those changes. There was no one else out there. We had to invest not only sometimes our own money, but our own time, at the sacrifice of our own careers to make those happen. It wasn’t like someone asked us to sit on a board or become part of an existing initiative. These initiatives didn’t exist at all. People have benefited from what we’ve been doing. We’ve been training people and putting them out there because no one else was. And now they want to come up with all sorts of new initiatives, sometimes without consultation.

PB: Each of you occupy a unique space in the screen industry; can you speak as to what you share in common with each other, and what is unique about you and your approach to addressing racial inequity?

JJ: I think what we have in common is that we are very proactive in advocating for underrepresented groups and we’re developing programs to support career development all throughout the industry, above the line, below the line working in solidarity. But there’s a reason for all of us to exist because there’s so much work to be done.

We’re coming at it from different perspectives. We see different needs. We’re part of different communities. And I think it’s important for all of us to exist, sometimes to work together, sometimes to work separately because there’s so much work to be done. And I’ve heard so many times now ‘why [don't] you people all get together.’ And I’m just saying that infuriates me because we’re all different people. Like we don’t tell white groups that there should only be one. I think the industry needs to respect what it is that we bring to the table and that our time is valuable also.

TW: We’re just different people. We all have different approaches. If you were to ask each one of us how we found our success, it would be completely different.

I find it annoying when people suggest that all the Black organizations should get together and agree on one thing – on the same thing. I’m often shocked to hear that – no one asks white organizations to get together and agree on one thing, why should Black people or other racialized groups have to? No one goes to Rogers, Bell Media, Corus and CBC and asks them to all join together and have one broadcaster. Our industry is built on free market and competition and for anyone to be successful they need to have the space to do that – to try new and different things and that also means the freedom to fail without irreparable consequences. We want to allow people to leave how to survive in the industry not only in Canada but they will have to compete internationally.

One of the things that you’re always hearing from organizers, especially from funders is how come you can’t all get together? I really think that just makes their lives easier. It certainly doesn’t make our lives easier. We need freedom, just like any other organization. I was thinking about when you were first talking, Joan, is that we also need the freedom to fail. When you’re a Black person and you’re running an organization, there’s so much pressure that if you should make the smallest mistake, that everything will be gone. That is what I call white privilege. You can fail and fail and fail and fail and fail, and somehow you have these options available to you.

JJ: I think that’s where I’m starting to see the fatigue in the industry that wants to help. Because the work that we do costs money and we need the whole system to participate in coughing up that money to make this work happen. Everyone is saying it’s important work. I fear that they’re going to stop saying it’s important work because they don’t want to pay for it.

A condensed version of this story appears in Playback‘s Spring/Summer 2021 issue

Pictured (L-R): Joan Jenkinson, Kadon Douglas, Tonya Williams