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Documentarian Yoruba Richen on Making Space for Women and People of Color

By Mariam Sharia

Yoruba Richen is a lot of things. She is a writer, a director, a producer, an investigative journalist, and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a gay female African-American, three factors which could have — which, 25 years ago certainly would have — disqualified her from those occupations.

But at Bumble’s SXSW Empowering Connections event, Richen tells us times are changing. In fact, we are witnessing a watershed moment in mainstream media. On one side lies the old, the establishment, the white male gatekeepers and the Harvey Weinsteins. On the other stand Jordan Peele, Black Panther, shows like Atlanta, Black-ish, Insecure. For the first time in history the voiceless can speak. This, Richen reminds us, is remarkable.

Yet the reason it is remarkable is because the past has been so very dismal. And lest we forget, the present still sorta is.

To further that point, the filmmaker drops some sobering numbers: According to the latest report from the USC Inclusion Initiative, 4.3 percent of the top 1100 films released between 2007 and 20017 were directed by women— a ratio of 22 male directors to every female. Of those female directors, four were black women, three were Asian, and one was Latina. Similarly, a mere 7 percent of all television shows during this ten-year period were created by people of color.

So what do we do? We reframe the narrative. Just as Richen did in her 2013 documentary The New Black.

Her film investigated the ways in which the African-American community — demonized in the mainstream media as viciously homophobic — grappled with the gay rights issue just as gay marriage was beginning to become the law of the land. She cites an erroneous CNN poll that went viral in 2008, which recklessly pitted the black community against the LGBT one. As a gay, black female, it broke Richen’s heart.

She realized the way the mainstream media portrayed the black community needed to change. She knew black freedom was a blueprint for expanding marriage rights rather than a separate (or worse, contradictory) issue. She needed the world to see it too. 

This is what Richen urges the rest of us to do. Those traditionally left out of mainstream media now have the ability to become what she calls ‘citizen journalists.’ iPhones, social media, and streaming services can spread stories with unprecedented ease and speed. We are responsible for helping one another, for sharing the types of diverse stories which we’ve already seen elevate the art of media, portray our nation in a more accurate and interesting way, and still remain hella profitable for the powers that be (cash, after all, is forever king). 

Richen wants us to learn from what happened in 2008. We must not let ourselves be divided, conquered, or forgotten. We must dovetail the individual fights of all those who have been stepped on and left voiceless into one solid, un-ignorable mass. The documentarian cites the words of poet Audre Lorde to drive her point home: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.”

“We don’t have to wait for the gatekeepers to give us permission,” announces Richen. She is living proof of this. “If we are tired of not seeing ourselves reflected on the screen, now more than ever we can do something. We can take the reigns and we can make something that reflects our lives. We can reframe the narrative.”