How Films School Fail Women of Colour

and how they can do better.

One of the first results you get when you google my name is an article from my alma mater detailing a hiccup in my third year of university. It was about the time where a script I had written was taken without my explicit consent, with the plan to be produced by second year students. 

Safe to say, it was a personal nightmare. The script was near and dear to my heart and it absolutely shattered me to see it ripped from my hands. Not only that, they took the liberty of changing key details in the plot. A script about a Filipino daughter and her quintessential nagging Filipino mom, there were tidbits of Tagalog spoken and Filipino culture scattered throughout the script. It was near impossible to ignore it. Or so I thought, because to add insult to injury, ethnicities for casting were changed from Filipino to Spanish-speaking ethnicities because the professors saw that it would be “easier to cast” (because Filipino actors don’t exist right?) 

I experienced all of this from a faculty of white professors who couldn’t care less about how I felt. I bargained, begged and – I won’t lie! – subtweeted for about a month. I offered the free labour of sitting down with administration and walking them through cultural sensitivity and how to do better with their students of colour in the future. I spoke to an intellectual property professor on campus. I attempted to rally other students behind me. Instead, I was met with tepid responses at best and silence at worst from administration. At one point, an instructor told me I was actively ruining the learning environment by making a fuss. 

I knew that film school would be an uphill battle, but I didn’t expect it to be so blatantly against me.

My experience isn’t an isolated one. It also doesn’t exist within the vacuum of film school. Institutions chew up women of colour and spit them out to the “real world”. If not they’ll just give up. If they persist, they’re still met with a myriad of closed doors. Statistics don’t lie. In a survey of the top 300 films between 2016-2018 only 1.6% of producers were women of colour. Only four women of color have directed across the 300 top films in comparison to 55 men of color, a ratio of 13.7 to 1. The ratio of white men editing to under-represented women was 58.8 to 1. The list goes on and on.

Women of colour within this space are constantly minimized and ignored on both a micro and macro level. I’ve witnessed professors dismiss culturally driven stories, drop racial slurs under the guise of “it’s just the film’s title!” and, in a bizarre scenario that happened over the course of my entire undergrad: confuse two people of the same race. 

My experience doesn’t even cover what Black women go through within post-secondary education and the anti-Blackness that is prevalent throughout the coursework itself. Suffice to say, it is a bizarre experience to see a professor call ‘Moonlight’ the film of the decade yet consistently beat down on the Black women in the program. 

By second year, the women of colour in my program just knew how the system worked. My peers and I always knew that films that we pitched based on our experiences would be scrutinized because of its lack of relatability to a white audience. We walked into every pitch session and critique day already beaten down. We wore armour everyday just to go to lectures. School was less of a learning environment and more of a minefield where we guessed what kind of racist, sexist comment we’d get today. 

So where do schools go from here? How do they do better? 

I wish I knew. I’m only a year fresh off graduation and I’m still struggling with the answer. I also don’t appreciate articles that list the problem but don’t offer any solutions. It feels more like an autopsy rather than a diagnosis.

The big problem is how these issues are systemic and ingrained within the institutions. When you realize higher education is made to be a barrier to class, you start to see how they protect the rich and gate-keep the traditionally poor and/or disenfranchised. When a system is built like that, it tends to work against those trying to climb out of intergenerational poverty. That happens to Black, Indingeous and women of colour. 

 Contrary to what schools believe, it’s not going to be an inclusion survey, or a diversity team or even a woman of colour leading a faculty that’ll solve this. To me, these are all band-aid solutions with buzzwords white people just discovered. I even struggle with the idea of accepting more women of colour into these spaces, if all it means is putting them through a system of abuse. 

The only thing that’s clear to me is that film schools are missing a fundamental lack of empathy and understanding. Our lives are not the same as our more privileged, white peers. They do not understand buying a fancy new camera isn’t a choice when our immigrant parents need half of rent. They do not understand what it means to see a coursework with only white filmmakers reflected. They do not understand the vulnerability needed to write scripts in our native language and culture. They do not understand that not only do our white peers start the race closer to the finish line compared to us, but they are encouraged to be in the race over us. 

We come to learn and yet we’re faced with shame and hardship at every turn in a place that is supposed to foster growth and learning for us. 

Black, Indigenous and women of colour need institutions to listen to us. They need to honour our devotion to the craft and give us a fighting chance. We deserve it. 

Special thanks Janie Felix Lewis, Shadora Chambers, Jean Kim and Sydney Rae Chin for their personal anecdotes and insights on this piece. 

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