Hollywood Get Ready! I’m a’Comin!
We live in one of the most extraordinary times in America. We experienced the election of a Black man as president. We saw the nomination by a major political party of a woman for the office of presidency. Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the first Black woman president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Alfonso Cuarón is first Mexican director to win an Oscars for Best Director for Gravity (2013).
All of those firsts required talent, acutely honed skills, vision, ambition, and facing and navigating a system, a fortress really, that was built to keep anyone who is not an able-bodied white straight man out. For example, over the past three years, of the 56 documentary directors nominated for an Oscar, 77 percent on the Oscar shortlist were men and 23 percent are women. Breaking down the percentages to include both race and gender shows an obvious favoritism towards white male directors. Throughout those three years, from 2014 to 2016, 71 percent of those shortlisted were white men and 18 percent were white women. In fact, in 2015, all 17 of the directors shortlisted for the category were white.
The difficulty of my effort to get my film, Black Women in Medicine, shortlisted for Oscar-nominated documentaries is compounded by the fact that not only am I a Black woman, I am also disabled. When you think about what the average film director has to go through to even contemplate the possibility of becoming Oscar-eligible, the road is excruciatingly long and complicated.
First you have to make a film, which I’ve done. Then you have to fulfill Academy-eligibility requirements, which I fulfilled. Both of these processes are very expensive.
So what happens after I’ve completed the bare-minimum requirements, (which are anything but bare or minimum)? Reality sets in. And the reality is that no wheelchair-bound person has ever received an Oscar nomination or win for their film.
From personal experience, one of the possible the reasons a wheelchair using director or writer hasn’t been nominated is because the typical, historical model of filmmaking is not one that’s easy for people with disabilities to navigate. When one compounds the challenges facing women directors and minority directors with issues of physical and attitudinal accessibility, one can see how many structural barriers stand in someone’s path. Actors may not trust our judgment, producers may think we are an unreliable investment, the crew may feel like they doubt our physical or mental ability to do the actual work. The same stereotypes and stigma facing people with disabilities in the public workplace are amplified in demanding settings like a movie set. Yet the data shows us the opposite is true. However, until someone takes a chance on us, the discrimination faced by people with disabilities won’t be remedied. It’s exhausting being disabled.
One of the main reasons a person in a wheelchair has not been nominated is because gatekeepers, financiers, and producers consider us a liability on set. When I was raising money for my first feature documentary, Deadliest Disease in America, a philanthropist told me, “I’m going to give you some money, but the condition you’re in in that wheelchair… you probably won’t live long enough to finish that film.” “Wow,” I thought. “So much for support.” By the way, I didn’t die and I finished the film.
When I could walk with leg braces, a producer on the set of Rage in Harlem said to me, “You’re a liability. You can stay in the office, but I don’t want you on set.” My response to him was, “The grip forty feet in the air with a tool belt is a greater liability than I will ever be.” To prove my point, it just so happened that the following day, the grips broke someone’s chimney.
The point I’m trying to make by recounting these demeaning and condescending encounters is that on the journey to make a film that is Oscar-quality, you need a tremendous amount of support. Someone like me does not even register within the filmmaking community as capable or worthy of getting that support. Yet here I am, maneuvering my way through a hodgepodge of the usual and extraordinary blockades to become Oscar-eligible.
I’m trekking unfamiliar terrain now. Nowhere in the history of the Academy Awards within my category is there a face like mine. What keeps me cautiously optimistic are the efforts, albeit small, in regards to changing the voting structure of the Academy by diversifying the make up of voters. As with what I am doing Black Women in Medicine to radically reshape the medical industry, it is now time to see tremendous change within an industry that creates images that influence our belief systems.
How wonderful would it be to see a Black woman in a wheelchair roll across the stage and receive an Oscar for her documentary? Not because she is Black, a woman, and in a wheelchair, but because her work was so extraordinary that it had to be acknowledged. One the largest marginalized communities consisting of 56 million Americans with disabilities would have someone who is actually disabled–not an actor who faked it and is being rewarded for their “bravery”– to hopefully begin the path of many more like us to be recognized for their talent.
Despite all the stigmas and stereotypes associated with being in wheelchair, I still rise. Black Women in Medicine is an amazing documentary that highlights exceptional Black female doctors who have succeeded against all odds. So get ready Hollywood. I’m coming for that Oscar.