SPOTLIGHT STORIES: BLACK WOMEN IN ANIMATION
Interview conducted by Tracey Miller-Zarneke
As part of the Women in Animation Virtual Summit at Annecy that took place in June 2020, a powerful panel addressed the state of the animation industry as experienced by Black women. Led by moderator Jamal Joseph (Professor of Film, Columbia University; Producer/Director/Writer/Activist), this panel is anchored in personal stories and experiences as shared by Jade Branion (Writer), Camille Eden (Vice President of Animation Recruitment and Talent Development, Nickelodeon Animation Studio), Misan Sagay (Screenwriter, Netflix) and Karen Rupert Toliver (Executive Vice President of Creative, Sony Pictures Animation)
The discussion addressed being colorblind versus color affirmative, the importance of finding voice on both the executive and creative side, and the overarching power of animation to make an impact, given the freedom of imagination to create more ideal and more representational worlds.
[NOTE: This panel discussion has been condensed and edited for clarity, with approval of all participants.]
JJ: I am very happy and honored to moderate this conversation between some dynamic women of color in animation. This fits in, especially at this moment that we are experiencing in the United States and globally, of the overall theme of the summit, which is “Reimagining the Future.” If there was ever a time to reimagine, we are in it. As a young activist, I was first a member of the NAACP Youth Council and then at age 15, I joined the Black Panther Party. When we talked about people who were marginalized, people who were oppressed, we know what that meant for people of color and in particular, Black folks. And then I was made to understand by sisters in the movement, that within that, Black women were doubly oppressed, because they are women and because they are Black. So this is a powerful moment to have this conversation.
The goal of Women in Animation is to see parity in the field of animation that would be 50-50 – fifty percent men, fifty percent women. And we know the face of animation is like the face of the film industry and the television industry in general, that is mainly the face and the positioning of white men. And of that goal of fifty percent women, within that again we’re talking about an oppressed history that means that women of color in animation, even of that fifty percent, are a lower number.
Our dynamic panelists who have experience, who have personal history, professionally and personally, can really speak to reimagining the future, especially through the lens of women of color in animation. I want to start the conversation with the audience getting to know who you are, and if you can talk about your journey a little bit in the field of animation, in film, television, and animation in particular.
MS: I’m writing my first animation film. Up until now I’ve written drama, or live action. So it’s very interesting and exciting to be writing something in animation and being able to broaden the palette of what an event animation film can look like and what it can be about.
Actually, I started off my career as a doctor, I was a physician and I worked as a doctor for a long time and then I started writing. And I was very lucky: the first thing I wrote was made, and I then continued to work, and so I gradually transitioned from medicine to writing full time. As not just as a woman of color, but an African, it’s been an interesting journey, looking at how when I started, the world felt very closed. I know it seems odd to say, “oh, the first thing you wrote was made” AND that the world was closed: it then took me quite a long time to do anything else. And so my journey has been not just the journey to write, it’s the journey to convince people that your voice and the things you want to write about are relevant and interesting and that there’s an audience, even if the audience is absolutely crying out for it. You still have to have that conversation over and over again. So my journey has been, in some ways, not as difficult as some people. I wrote a film “Belle”, which then did very well, but once again, as a writer of color you keep having to have the same conversation. But I found it very exciting moving into animation because of the freedom it gives you as a writer, because it’s all imagination and it’s incredibly thrilling to have something that is set in Africa and in which people of color, most specifically young women of color, are featured prominently. It’s something I never saw really as a child, and I find it that very exciting that this is something that we’re going to see.
JB: I agree with what you said, Misan. I never really saw, when I was growing up, TV shows or animated movies with someone that looked like me in them, so it was never this thing that I honestly dreamt that I could do. And I feel like my journey to get to this point was pretty long. I went to film school and studied film theory, and I was interested in writing but was a little too intimidated to really pursue it. I ended up falling into writing and producing promos for the Oprah Winfrey Network and Freeform, and I did that for about ten years. I really loved crafting these little 30-second, 60-second stories, but I was starting to feel like “but I want to be the person telling the story, I don’t want to tell a story from something that was already made.” I was still sort of running from writing—it was like I knew that’s what I was supposed to be doing but I just couldn’t make myself do it. So I decided to travel the world, and I did that for about a year and a half. And when I had done that, I finally was like “OK Jade, you can’t keep running from this thing you’ve been running from for so many years.” So I moved back to LA a few years ago and I started to seriously pursue screenwriting. And it was very hard. When I started pursuing it, I was 34 and everyone, all the assistants are usually in their 20s, so I was a lot older. It was a very humbling experience. I made a lot less money, which was very difficult, but I knew I had to make the sacrifice, and I know now that I am meant to be a writer; it’s my purpose, I love telling stories.
CE: It’s interesting because I got into animation a little bit on accident. I’m from the Bay Area, and I’m a first generation American. My mom comes from Honduras, which is a third-world county. So when I found the love of art very young, my mother didn’t look at art as a career for a woman who came from this country who had nothing—coming to America, the belief is to become a doctor, become a lawyer. She supported me, and when I was in film school at San Francisco State, I found animation, and in film you can bring the art and the film together. When I got out of school, the opportunities were very scarce. You didn’t see a lot of people in animation; there were barely any Black people in animation. Someone I went to film school with, another Black artist, very talented woman Bridget Goodman had a job at a visual effects company, and she told me about an opening. I applied for a year before I got a job, and the first job I got was actually in the security department, but I took that job just to get a foot in the door. It was another Black voice inside that actually helped open another door for me and get into the studio. At that time I was in production, and from there I had to literally pitch myself to producers to take a chance on me in production. So for the first part of my career, I was on the production side and learned quite a lot and then at one point, decided I wasn’t going to produce; but I loved animation, I loved film, I wanted to keep going and I decided to move from the production side to recruitment which I knew nothing about, but again, another person saw the potential. I’ve been doing recruiting since 2005 and in the work I’ve done–before that in production to the recruiting phase—all those years, the number of people of color was very low and then female artists/production/producers, you never saw someone who looked like you. I decided I need to do something about that, and I need to look for those artists, reach out to those artists, and find out where these people are because they’re out there but we just don’t see enough of them. So I made that a mission of mine to continue for inclusive hiring, even before we were talking about inclusion as a word, because there is so much untapped talent out there.
JJ: Let’s talk more about when we have a mix of people on the creative and also on the executive side, which is so important to open those doors up for the artist. And that’s a perfect lead in for Karen.
KT: I grew up in Dallas. I went to a private school. I was the only Black kid in that school for many years. My journey just growing up was embracing my identity as a Black woman, as much as trying to find my place, what I wanted to do in my career. It was challenging, but I was used to being the only Black person in a room. I came to Hollywood wanting to really make a statement with Black films. And when I found myself at a small production company working on a movie called “Murder on the Soul Train,” it was kind of the low in my career. I was like “alright, I think you should clarify your vision a little bit in terms of what kinds of movies you want to make.” Not to put my age into it, but I was looking at Spike Lee and Robert Townshend and I realized there was a way I could contribute, so at that moment I had to shift my goals and be a little bit clearer. What I then wanted to do was make seminal movies in the industry, and at that time, those movies were broad. I stumbled into Disney Feature Animation. I had never thought about animation but I knew how powerful those movies were on us, and I got enamored by it. But there was a problem in terms of representation. The reason I chose to be on the studio side was I liked the power of being able to help make movies. I’d rather not be worried about whether or not I was going to make a movie; I wanted to make movies and really, with the amount of movies I could really touch, I could hone my craft and I could bring people in. I found my journey evolving. Before “The Princess and the Frog” at Disney there were no female, no Black stories. I remember writing a memo to my boss and realizing what an uphill battle that was, and how hard that was to be the only person in the room that even thought that that was important. Cut to today, when the discussion has evolved quite a bit…we still have a lot of challenges with that, but I felt grateful to be in a role where I could actually have an impact.
JJ: That’s so powerful, it brings up a thought of the difference between being colorblind and color-affirmative. Similar conversations people are having now, about the difference between being not racist as opposed to anti-racist for those projects. And we talk about specific projects and that difference, that a revelation to people might be “well, this character can be any color” which is great, and so they think about non-traditional casting, or non-traditional story-telling in that way, and that’s a bit different saying, “this is an African child in the lead.” I’ve written a film that I hope to direct next year that Tonya Lewis Lee is producing and Nikki Silver, where a lead character is a 14 year-old Black girl fighting to get her dad out of prison, and enlists the support of a white journalist, but clearly it’s her story. And so that difference, we might be in a moment that makes that a little bit easier. But I want to go back for a second, because everybody talked about a time when you didn’t see yourselves in what was out there in film and in animation, or not enough of yourselves. I know my wife has this collection of Betty Boop lunch pails, it’s a really cool thing and she’s colored every Betty Boop in, so that Betty Boop is Black, Brown, she’s like the four women in the Nina Simone song, there’s not a white Betty Boop among the collection. My daughter played with that, made sure that our daughter had Black dolls. Our sons…all our children are grown and out of college, but when they were little, they watched a lot of cartoons, but they weren’t seeing people that looked like them, that imaging. Talk about that importance, if you look at how many Black households that were watching when cartoons on Saturday mornings were the big thing, and then afterschool, and now there are 24-hour networks, where you can see it. But knowing that, knowing how many Black children were watching cartoons or would go to the movies to see animated films, what do you think that disconnect was that “hey, maybe people who represent a large number of our consumer base, our audience base, want to see more of themselves?”
KT: Most certainly, I know how it affected me not seeing myself as a child and how to this day, I still have to unwind those wounds. I think its incredibly important and that’s why two years ago when I had a chance to produce “Hair Love,” it was such a cathartic personal experience to put those images on screen and be in a room of creators that all looked like me, and we could share those images. I think that it’s incredibly important that we get more out. We’re just beginning to see and be able to talk about it and let everybody in the industry understand how important those things are, and how them missing is really detrimental to us moving forward.
MS: It very much is detrimental. I often say that films are really the photograph album of humanity. It’s like looking at the family photo album and you’re not there, and you’re saying, “Where am I? Where am I?” And it’s not just not being there, it’s feeling completely erased from the narrative as though one doesn’t matter, that one doesn’t exist. I think we minimize the depth of the wound that is for a child and growing up because we’ve experienced it as normal. Maybe we don’t cry out our pain enough because I remember all of the movies one saw, all of the fairy tales–it’s not that you weren’t allowed a happy ending, it’s that you weren’t you weren’t allowed to be there. It’s pretty drastic.
JJ: That’s a powerful point because what you see in animation are the animated characters being happy, having a happy ending, saving the world, or doing something heroic and you don’t see you doing those things–who are you as a child? Where is the affirmation of your being, your humanity, your purpose?
CE: I wanted to add that my daughter, the very first film that we took her to when she was two years old, was “The Princess and the Frog.” I remember thinking, first of all, “this child is two, will she make it through this movie?” We sat her down, the movie started and I’m checking her all the time. And two years old, she shushed me because she was so into that story, she saw this Black image on the screen. I was looking at that and I just had this moment, sitting there watching her: that was her first moment in being able to see a Black princess. That’s what she was able to grow up with. I was thinking, I never had that experience, and for her to be able to do that…a little while later a show came on “The Proud Family” and there was “Bebe’s Kids,” but they were so few and far between that when you saw it, you were hungry for more. I can’t even imagine the fight to get those shows on the air. But that was a really powerful moment for me, just the realization of what she was able to see at two. But still, from “The Princess and the Frog” until now–where’s the next one, and where’s the next one?
JB: It just makes you feel so invisible, when you don’t see yourself or your experience on screen. It can make you feel alone or lonely…no one else has been through this or experienced this. You can get very uplifted when you can see yourself on screen.
KT: One quick thing about “The Princes and the Frog”—I was at Disney and developed the first draft of the project and then left. It was based on a book and the protagonist was not Black. And then I left, and then they made the protagonist Black. People think maybe I had something to do with making her Black and l look back and go no, it didn’t even occur to me to make her Black because she was turning into a frog and 80 percent of the time she wasn’t there. I look back and the lesson for me is I was so worried about making a story that was important that it didn’t even occur to me. That’s indicative that we have to tell so many stories so that there’s not any one pressure on any particular story, just like white people make all sorts of stories. Having her on there for 20 percent of the screen time as a Black woman was still super impactful, so that was a lesson for me.
MS: I also feel that the bigger picture is that we’re all joined by these films we watch as children; they join people, they are the stories that are the underpinning of who we are. If we are excluded from that, it means that the majority population is growing up not believing that we exist, not believing we’re there. It may seem like a bit of a stretch, but somebody who’s never seen that, through their entire childhood–what is the jump from that, to simply calling the police because you’ve walked by? They don’t see you, they haven’t seen you –you can’t suddenly jump in. There is a bigger picture to this erasure I think, I don’t want to get political, but there is a bigger picture that if people don’t see you as a part of the story of life, of humanity, your presence is always jarring.
CE: And it’s very hard for children: how do you see yourself when you’re not there? Representation is everything.
JB: You don’t see yourself. It’s like you can’t be what you can’t see. I think that’s also one of the reasons why it took me so long to even be confident that I could pursue screenwriting. I remember when Justin Simien came out with “Dear White People” I was like “this Black man wrote and directed this?” and then Lena Waithe came out and we’re both from the same city. Those two moments started to make me think maybe I could do this, but I had to see them doing it.
JJ: I want to linger in childhood just for a second, your childhood. I want to ask a question and then I want to volunteer a story. The question is “when did you first realize you were a Black girl?”
In the first grade, there was a girl who sat next to me, a white girl, and I would walk her home from school and carry her books because in the movies I had saw that was what you did. One day, we said “boy, this is fun, and won’t this be fun if you’re still carrying my books when we grow up and get married?” And I gave her a little kiss on the cheek. The next day, she said “you can’t walk me home from school anymore.” And I said “why?” And she said, “Well, my mother said that if we got married we would have Black babies and brown babies and that’s a sin.” I was six years old and I remember coming home and looking in the mirror at my brown skin, realizing that there was a difference, and in fact, that there might be something sinful about me. That’s my first, me realizing it. I was raised by grandparents whose parents were slaves, so they talked about slavery. There were names like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman mentioned in the house, they had been in Garvey’s movement. But the loss of innocence the moment where I looked in the mirror and go “there’s something different about me, and something that is making me not cool to walk this girl home from school anymore” hit me then.
So when did you realize you were a Black girl?
CE: Mine was pretty powerful because I remember a carnival came to our city, and I was standing in front of this booth, one of those fun games, with my sister; she was three years older, I was maybe six, maybe five, holding her hand, and we were standing there looking up at the booth, with all these prizes and the toys, and a white woman behind the booth, leaned over and she told me and my sister “you can’t stand here.” We thought we were blocking something. She said, “You can’t stand here because you two are hurting my business.” My older sister, who’s ten years older, she had a big old afro, I remember her coming up, and she took her earrings off…she took those earrings off and she went up to that woman and she said “Excuse me, what did you say?” and the woman said, “You n-words need to move.” And at that point, I didn’t know what that word meant, I didn’t know what was going on, and my sister just went at her…my sister beat the mess out of her, it was so violent, and we all got thrown out. To this day, I have hated carnivals; I have never been to a carnival. But that was when I learned that I was a little Black girl, and to this day I can remember it. It’s usually a pretty traumatic experience when you realize.
KT: I don’t understand how I could have been older than you guys hearing it. But I was sent to a sleep-away camp in east Texas and I was nine-ish I think. I was the only Black girl of course, and I got just railed by some strange white person with the n-word for the first time, and was like “get me out of this unsafe place,” calling my parents. They wanted to keep me there and stick it out, but they sent me home. So I don’t like sleep-away camps. Or carnivals.
MS: I had always the opposite experience. I was born in Nigeria where everyone was Black, it never occurred to me that is wasn’t a good thing. It really didn’t. I never thought about it. My parents spoke about our history, my father was an historian. I never knew it was bad in anyone’s eyes. It never occurred to me. I lived in a country were every doctor was Black, Santa was Black. When I was six we moved to Cambridge in England and I remember people saying whether…in England, we don’t tend to use that world, people would say Blacky and I did not know it was me. It took a while for me to understand that the hostility was aimed at me, and when that happened, I think I must have been about eight; you know the first time you feel that barrage of hostility, incomprehensible hostility, and you don’t know what it’s about, when you feel that hate, it’s interesting people always say racism is people fear us, it isn’t. The first thing you feel usually is that hate, you’re saying “what have we ever done to warrant that much hate that can manifest itself to a child? There was a politician called Enoch Powell who was making very, very incendiary speeches, and just after that, you’d be walking in the street and it became quite unpleasant. But it took me a long time, because I didn’t know, I didn’t identify myself as Black because I lived where everyone was Black.
JJ: It’s interesting, but what I’m hearing from everybody is that it took a hateful moment and somebody else to point it out to you, that you were different and that it was a bad thing.
JB: Yeah, for me, I had a little bit of a different experience as well. When I was a kid, a lot of people would ask, “what are you?” and so I was always sort of explaining that I was Black and getting this reaction that nobody believed me. And so I feel like I spent most of my life trying to prove that, and then one day I just stopped because I’m Black and I know I’m Black. But I also remember my mom and I had gone to Memphis and we were in a store, we were the only Black people in there, and I noticed everyone was staring at us. I remember looking at my clothes, looking around like “is there something on me, was there a stain, what was going on?” I was like “Mom, why are all these white people staring at us?” And she was like “because we’re Black and they don’t want us in here.”
JJ: Wow. So what can animation do? It may seem obvious, but I want people to hear from you, what animation can do, especially for children, in terms of affirming who they are. It talks to a broader audience, Black and brown kids, but also white kids and Asian kids and First Nation kids. What can animation do, and what should it be doing?
KT: I think it needs to be telling more stories, representative of more people. And we need to bring filmmakers in because artists write about what they know, so if you only have artist and filmmakers that are of a certain, similar background, then that’s all you’re going to get. So the things that we’re doing in terms of just bringing new filmmakers in, I think we need create a platform where we can tell diverse stories and support that.
MS: And not have the fairy stories. All of the stories, as I said, that underpin our childhood, are stories that don’t include us. I think a child who’s seen a more diverse picture of life is much more likely to be somebody who is not racist, or somebody who actually, that’s how they see the world. They don’t see harmony as my absence. They don’t see peace as my absence. They don’t see happy childhood as my absence. I don’t think you can go forward having programmed children up until the age of six or seven to say that I don’t exist and then expect later that they conceive of a world in which they are comfortable. I think it has an outsized influence and I think that’s why it’s very important that we begin to tell those stories, and I understand that in something like “The Princess and the Frog”—it was wonderful that she was there, but she was a frog for most of the film. I think we need to just tell stories that are things that we are interested in, and things that are connected with our life experience. And if we do it well, I think everyone will watch because people love childhood stories.
KT: And I think a lot of the stories that have been told are assimilation stories so it’s like putting ourselves in their world, it’s like they’re the sidekicks. The other painful thing about my childhood was that my close friends were white. When I was in their environment and helping them find boyfriends and all that, all good. But I remember going to Six Flags with my friend and I met a boy, a Black boy, and I wanted to see him again and wanted my friend to go with me, but she was going to be uncomfortable being with all Black people. And that just blew my mind and changed my life forever. I was like “as long as I’m assimilating into your world, everything’s cool, but if you come into my world, and see my experience, then you’re not comfortable with that.” And I think that speaks a little bit to what is going on now, in terms of white people starting to see pain, and see different experiences, and I think these stories have to really pull them into our experience in a way that may not be comfortable, or it may be confusing to them. I think a lot of conversations recently have been a surprise, and I think that’s because we have not had these honest conversations in such a wide forum before, and I think that’s what storytelling can also help us do, at a very young age.
JJ: And when we say that, I think it’s not about telling these stories to be fair, it’s telling these stories to be human. So that people are experiencing not only our humanity, but their own humanity. It’s not just like “we made three white animated films now, let’s make three Black ones,” This is a deeper thing because we got to this place where we’re at, that’s especially coming to light with George Floyd and Breona Taylor being murdered while she was sleeping in her own home, and Ahmaud Arbery jogging. We got to these because there is embedded, systemic racism that says we are not human. Slavery–we know the economics of it, but the marketing of it was that good Christian white people, as the person who’s standing in the slave market, the white man in the suit who owned that business, and the Africans who were behind him: “I know that the good book says that slavery might be a sin, but you know me, you see me in church every Sunday morning, I read the good book and I’m telling you it’s not a sin because these Africans that you see behind you are not human. So owning an African slave is no more of a sin than it is owning a mule, or a horse, or a cow. In fact, God wants you to proper and this is the way you can prosper.” And that’s deeply embedded in what we’re seeing, the de-humanization. Not about being fair but being human, and the kind of education that can come from that. And yet it’s also maybe not our duty in that way. I have a friend, a dear friend, a good actor, who has a show, and he says “what can I say to white people, because I’m from there, I live in New York now and I’m an actor, but what can I say to white people?” And I said, “My dear brother, I can’t tell you how to talk to white people. The best advice that I can get is ‘don’t be an intermediary, have them come talk to Black people. Better yet, spend some real time so they can understand. And these things become reinforcements.’”
Building on what we talked about, when you were in a writers room, or a production meeting, when in that context did you realize that you were a Black woman?
JB: I think I’ve always been the only Black woman in a space, in a job interview. I remember going to a job interview and I walked in, and the two white women, their faces fell when they saw me, and I can only assume it was because they were shocked that I was Black. My whole career, up until I switched into screenwriting, I’ve been the youngest producer/writer, the only woman, and the only Black person. And then when I moved into TV, my first writers room was all Black except for one white person, and I know that that’s very rare, most rooms are white, they’re predominantly white.
MS: When I started screenwriting…what you do a lot of time is you go and pitch, and really, up until the last few years, I would never pitch to somebody who looked like me. So if you’re pitching your story, something that’s important to you, as a screenwriter you pitch your story and you want to tell your story. But in fact, as a Black screenwriter, that’s not what you do. You spend the first half hour almost justifying your story, justifying yourself being there, before you can get to pitching your story. And that was exhausting. I remember with “Belle” which was really a story of a young mixed race figure who lived in 18th century England, that I would pitch the story, and because I had based it around a Jane Austen-esque story, people would say “I don’t understand this is a Black story.” That would be always the response. It was either if I was making this story, why not make it about the uncle, who’s William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield, a very big figure in English legal history. It was almost like “if you want to tell this story, why would you tell it from the point of view of the Black girl of the house?” It’s like “so you want to tell it from the point of view of the chair.” And then, because it was a softer story in many ways, either they would say, “can’t people beat her?” The amount of energy they would put into trying to make it sort of violent, having that sort of vibe… which it wasn’t, she was a beloved child in the house. The big moment for me was when somebody said, “You know, Misan, when this film is made, it feels like it is something it would be shown on Sunday night in England”—in England, that means sort of soft, happy, gentle—“and you’re not really Sunday night people.” Again, this issue of your presence not being comfortable, and so if you were going to do this, there would be no place for it, because there wasn’t any place for that kind of film, and that was when I suddenly thought, this is…every once in a while, I think we all have that moment where you go “I’m exhausted.” I had one of those moments. I didn’t feel I was Black, I just felt, as we say in England, absolutely “just knackered,” exhausted, and I couldn’t wait to get out of the meeting.
JJ: Indeed, right on. My colleague, Lynn Nottage who teaches at Columbia University and who is an amazing playwright and screenwriter, talks about first responders being the people first on the scene who save lives and give medical treatment, but that we as artists are the second responders, we get a chance frame the moment and give people points of view of how they might feel and what they might do, even if it is just leaning back and just really thinking for a moment. How has it changed since you’ve gotten yourself into the room, since you got through some cracked doors or maybe kicked some doors open? What was it then as opposed to now?
For me, the really refreshing thing was, in the film I was telling you about where the lead is a 14 year-old Black girl, it was really great for me to be in a meeting to defend why it wasn’t a white savior movie, why it wasn’t the white journalist’s story, even though we have a script and she’s in every scene and she’s feisty, she fights for her dad and she fights against her mom and fights this guy to do the right thing. It was great to be in that position to have to say that when, many years, you would come with ideas and they would say, “well, if the music teacher was Black…” I’d written a script, true story of a music teacher born and raised in Harlem, fantastic pianist, classical pianist and teacher, and a boy that he mentored who was a semi-homeless street kid who became this wonderful classic musician who tragically lost his life at 17, being some place he shouldn’t have been. He wasn’t a bad kid, but he was a kid who played music all day and hung out in the streets at night because he had no place to live. You don’t know how many times I heard, “we can make this, but could the music teacher be white?” Now I’m looking forward to taking that story out again, knowing that it is who he is.
So how was it then, and from your presence, how is it now?
KT: I think things are starting to change. Maybe three or four years ago, things started to feel like authenticity was really important just in general, and that people were more open to that, they were more aware of white savior stories being not just the only story you could tell. There started to be a consciousness of that that I’m encouraged by, because certainly before, being the one in the room, it was different. It was like “Is this stereotypical of this Black sidekick character?” or whatever. The conversation has started to move on, and in this moment, there has been lighter fluid on being aware of privilege, of shadows and things that are missing. I think we’ve all felt like while this door, this crack seems to be open, let’s run hard through that and take them at their word and prove and show to them that when these stories do get out, they’re going to be well-received, and we need more, and it’s going to be great. Again, to me, the more stories you can tell, the better so that you don’t scrutinize any particular one, you just to embrace them like you do any other mainstream project. I feel encouraged, and by the length of my career, I feel more empowered, I feel more able to be vocal in a room that I wasn’t before, where I’d be afraid to be fired, where there was a sense of assimilation. I don’t want to look back anymore, and I don’t think I need to. We talked about getting more people in the room so you’re not just looking around by yourself, but you can actually look into other people’s eyes and have them understand what you’re trying to achieve.
CE: I would completely agree with Karen in that previously, I was the only one in the room for such a long time, and it took a long time to get to the role that I am at now, with hard work and just believing in myself, taking that fear and channeling it into action. I’m now in a position where the door, it got kicked open, and so now I’m going to help more people get in the room, get a seat at the table. My job is to find the best talent regardless of what your background is, of what you look like. I want to use my ability, and my skills, my knowledge, and my position to be able to bring more people to the table and in the room.
JB: It’s so important that you’re doing that, Camille, and we need more executives, people in high positions who can open the door, and but who can also continue to open all of the doors, because it’s hard—I’ve been a writer’s assistant for two years and I got to co-write an episode for “The CHI,” but I still find it hard to get more doors to open so that I can keep moving up.
CE: I think, for executives as a whole, it’s understanding why it’s important to have other voices at the table, or in the room, or in these bigger decisions because the world is not one color, the world is not one type of person. When you look at the makeup of this world, the majority of people are something else. And so these are stories that need to be told, that want to be told, and again, in companies, it’s important to really understand why you need different voices at the table—it’s good for business and it’s good for people.
MS: I had the absolute joy of going into a Studio and, the first time in life, pitching to a Black woman executive. It was truly one of the most joyful experiences of my life because I haven’t understood until then how much it is that you go in and you know you’re going to have this fight first. Walking in there, finding, pitching to a Black woman executive, it was literally as though I’d been walking in lead boots and somebody had taken them off, and I could just fly. I mean I really, it was a magical experience, not just because it was successful, because the experience of it was so different. I walked out and it was the oddest thing ever—I felt like “this is what it feels like to be white.”
KT: 100 percent. I think about that a lot: the golf clubs, the country clubs, the commonality as soon as they meet each other it’s like “let’s go get a cigar.” I meet with a Black person and it’s like shorthand, and on the other side as well—I’m working with a filmmaker right now from Kenya, we’ve only known each other for five months but there’s an immediate connection. I support all of my filmmakers and all of my artists, but there is something where just knowing that there’s some sort of similarity there kind of helps it be more comfortable.
JJ: Absolutely. I want to talk about advice to people—young artists, people who want to be writers and directors in animation, producers, executives, but for this moment, we have a chance to talk and to scream at studios and white producers and financiers and all of that, what needs to happen now? How do we get more women in animation, and how do we get more women of color in animation and film? What do they need to hear from you in this moment?
JB: They need to hire us! I mean it’s that simple. It may seem like a daunting task to them, but there’s so much talent–hire us! Hire us into your writers rooms, hire Black showrunners, hire Black directors, Black animators, and not just Black people—but like indigenous people, they’re the most invisible and underrepresented people in the world. I recently found out about my Choctaw ancestry, so I’m writing a pilot that’s starring an indigenous woman, and I believe when it gets made, there have to be indigenous people in the room because we have to hear their voices and their stories and their perspective. I live my life a as Black woman, I don’t live as an indigenous woman, so as much as I am trying to tell this story, there are things that I might get wrong, there are things that they’re going to know that I’m just not going to know.
CE: I think hiring is definitely part of bringing people into the room and you know, a lot of times I’ve heard the expression, “I’m going to take a chance on this person,” and it’s like, you don’t need to take a chance, you just need to hire them and give that person the opportunity. And let them prove themselves. Hire them just as you would a white person in that role.
KT: I think the retention is one thing. Maybe the relationship may be different with a writer, but an artist in animation comes in and comes under a roof and becomes part of the family. We really need to look at what are the cues that that person is going to feel comfortable staying there. We’ve talked about that a lot with Women in Animation, that there’s a lot of bias and imbalance when a women comes in a room, in an all male room, that makes it not comfortable for them to be themselves. We need to unpeel that. But I think the same for people of color. If you’re the only one, the chances of you wanting to stay are really limited, especially as an artist, because our artist community is not necessarily even as vocal as a writer. There’s a whole different dynamic there, and I think we’ve got to do a lot more, and that’s about bias training. We’ve been talking about uncomfortable conversations to have with people of non-color so that they understand where we are coming from more. If a white friend thinks they have a Black friend and they can’t be safe to ask questions, and the Black person doesn’t feel safe checking them on stuff, then that’s not a relationship that’s real. We should look at that because if you can’t have those conversations, then you’re not going to create a safe place for people of color to come in.
CE: I totally agree with Karen. I am completely 100 percent behind that because again going back, we do need to hire, but we can do all the hiring in the world, if someone comes into your organization–a brown person, a person of color, a person with a disability, a non-binary and they don’t feel welcome, they’re going to turn around and leave. Understanding needs to happen. It’s not that all of these people are going to come and take the jobs away from white people, there’s enough room at the table for other voices to have a seat and have a say. And so there needs to be learning and understanding about inclusive work places, and that comes from the top, drumming that message.
JJ: How important is mentorship?
JB: It’s so important. It’s vital. For me, from the writer perspective, I’ll have a lot of people who say they want to read my script and give me notes, which is great so I can make it stronger. But I also need people who are going to sit with me tell me “this scene doesn’t work because of this, and this structure is a little off because of this, and when your script is ready, I will share it with someone, I will help you find a manager, I will help you find a job. The mentorship, there are levels to it, I think.
JJ: Advice you’d give to young women and young women of color who want to work in animation?
CE: Don’t give up. Keep going. And the thing I think that this generation has more than when I was coming through, there are so many resources out there now, so many organizations that support people of color, Black female talent; with a click of a button, you can do a search and find these groups, and they put together events and networking opportunities. Build your support around some of these groups and you can find mentors, you can find sponsors, you can find people who will hopefully help bring you in, give you the opportunity to meet, network, meet with recruiters. Or if you’re writing, there are so many focus groups. Take advantage of the virtual community and seek out others who are interested in what you are doing.
MS: I think the other thing that’s important to be done is that it isn’t just expanding the number of stories, the variety of stories that are told; it’s when you have these stories, you make sure that people of color, relevant people, that you go looking for them. That you don’t say “I’m trying to make a story about this but we can just get the same old people to write it because it’s more comfortable and I know them.” Black writers have something that they bring that is specific to the story, and you have to go looking. In a way, that’s what happened with my Netflix animation movie that was relevant; who I am is relevant to that story. I went through a period in which people would say, invariably a white male writer, “I’ve been hired to write a story about a Black woman who was a doctor. Could you give me some pointers?” I’d go, “they didn’t interview me for that story!” and so what they would want is to literally cannibalize and appropriate mine in order to keep the system going. So I think if you want to know what to do first of all, it’s to make sure that you understand that if we are not the story room that your telling, we’re not there, we’re creating a generation of people who don’t think that we ought to be there. We’re not a prop to a situation where you want to tell the story, where you want everything but my presence. I think it’s important that, not just speaking amongst ourselves but to the wider audience, that you have to positively go and look and not just say “I’ll just do it and then get them to use Black people as research.” I think that’s very important. Hire Black people.
KT: Your voice and your point of view is the most important thing. I am sure there have been artists that have come through and have been trying to just sort of adopt a style that’s the way a studio has been doing it before, but it’s hopeful that there’s a lot more storytelling being told and you don’t have to try to fit into a box. And even if you don’t have an animation background, you really can have mentorship through the process, you didn’t have to study animation necessarily to have a place in this process.
JJ: In terms of finding voice, if people are not feeding their creative spirit, with life experience and with other art, it will be derivative. If they think, “I’m going to make the next whatever the great film was,” I know you as an executive are not looking for the next whatever, but the first whatever your voice is. I asked everyone to think about a piece of art that you would recommend. I know at Columbia we talk to our students who are there for film and television about going to art galleries and listening to music and going to plays and listening to great speeches. It could be another animated film, it could be television, it could be a book, it could be poetry. What is a piece of art you could recommend to aspiring artists?
CE: Jamal, you mentioned earlier, and I would say Nina Simone all the way. Also, to back up Nina, I would say Billie Holliday. I don’t know, I see things visually, and when I hear that music, I can…sometimes you hear it and you see it and it can be in colors, and sometimes I can even imagine those songs animated in my mind. Nina Simone and Billie Holliday.
JJ: Nina Simone…people, you could leave today start with “Four Women” by Nina Simone and “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holliday and realize, and think “this could have been written and performed like yesterday, not however many years ago they were. It was prophetic, those songs.
CE: So strong still, so powerful.
KT: I thought about Octavia Butler and “Fledgling”–it’s a place that I have gone back to, she’s a favorite author. Even Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” or something where you’re taking the Black experience into genres that have not yet been seen before. I really encourage that kind of exploration, where we’re going into new genres but taking ourselves in them.
JB: I would recommend “Spiderman: Into the [Spider] Verse” and I’d also recommend the “Broken Earth” series by N. K. Jemisin, she’s a Black sci-fi writer. Amazing, and I’ve never seen anything like it before.
MS: I love childhood stories, when I was growing up, there weren’t that many written. I read Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Little Princess” long before I read anything about a young Black person. Also “Aké” by Wole Soyinka, which is a story of his childhood in Nigeria–it is just beautiful. Another is just a particular favorite of mine is “Colored People” by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. which tells of his childhood in West Virginia. Those are the sort of stories that I hope one day will come to the screen because they expand the vision of what it is to be Black on screen.
JJ: I’m going to close with “Autobiography of Malcolm X”–if you’ve read it, read it again, especially at this time. Anything James Baldwin, please read and look at his interviews. And Toni Morrison, and I’d like to close with a quote from her masterwork, “Beloved,” and look how relevant this is:
And O my people…they do not love your neck…So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up.
JJ: Thank you Karen, Jade, Camille, and Misan for a wonderful, wonderful conversation. We want to say peace, love and, as we used to say in the movement, power to the people.