When Black Women Direct: Queen Latifah Gets Women of Color Behind the Camera

Queen Latifah in sunglasses
Queen Latifah in 2008 (credit: Affiliate Summit on Flickr, CC 2.0)

Minority directors are underrepresented in film at a degree of three to one, while women are underrepresented at a rate of seven to one, according to UCLA’s 2018 Hollywood Diversity Report. There is clearly room for progress here in terms of equality, especially for women who are black or of another minority identity. Rapper, singer, actress, label president, author, real estate developer and entrepreneur Queen Latifah is out to shift the scales; she recently teamed up with Tribeca Studios and Marc Pritchard, Procter and Gamble’s chief brand officer, to launch the Queen Collective (TQC). TQC has a goal of “accelerating gender and racial equality behind the camera.” Two inaugural documentaries backed by TQC premiered in April 2019 at the Tribeca Film Festival, and they are now streaming on HULU.

The Queen Collective’s First Films

“I would be remiss if I did not reach back and help black women get where I am today,” Latifah told The Root. In conjunction with the TV and film production company Latifah co-launched in 1995, Flavor Unit, TQC provided two black women with financing, production support, mentorship and distribution opportunities for their content. The first films are Ballet After Dark, directed by B. Monét, and If There Is Light, directed by Haley Elizabeth Anderson.

Ballet After Dark tells the story of a woman who survives a traumatic experience and goes on to help others do the same through therapeutic dance. If There Is Light chronicles a teenager’s experience as her mother works to move their family out of the shelter system.

“We are often painted as victims and never seen as victors, and I wanted my piece to change that narrative,” Monét said of Ballet After Dark. Jakena Blackmon, the mother in If There Is Light, said, “You never know who you might touch with your story.”

“When you watch these two films, you will be moved to action,” Latifah said. “I felt emotionally moved, inspired, and I felt grateful to have the permission to look into someone else’s life through their films and to appreciate someone else’s position, and it motivated me to want to do more.” At the film festival, she shared she is already starting to see the ripple or “halo” effect of QTC, in the women who now approach her to learn more about directing. And she hopes diverse female directors will practice more equitable hiring throughout the industry, saying, “My hope is that we create more female directors that end up giving jobs to more diverse crews and get their foot in the door and start to get recognized and hired for their work.”

Queen Latifah’s Philanthropy

Queen Latifah has been breaking ground for black women in entertainment for decades, from her first album, All Hail to the Queen, which sold more than a million copies in 1989, to the single “U.N.I.T.Y” that earned her first Grammy in 1995, to Jungle Fever, to Living Single, to Beauty Shop, to Bessie, to Girls Trip, to Star and beyond. She also supports creative pursuits through her philanthropy, by backing groups like the Save The Music Foundation and Jazz House Kids.

Women, girls, youth and teens are some of her main foci, and she has funded the Foundation For the Advancement of Women Now (FFAWN); Girl Up; the Common Ground Foundation, which serves urban youth; School on Wheels; and the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which works to “improve the life and health of kids and families around the world.”

LGBTQ groups for youth and adults, and AIDS/HIV and other health initiatives have also benefited from her giving, including The Trevor Project for gay and questioning teenagers and 46664, Nelson Mandela’s campaign to help raise Global AIDS/HIV awareness. Her donations range from several thousand dollars to more than $100,000.

Latifah credits her mother as a key source of inspiration and support. Sadly, her mother died in 2018 from a heart condition. Latifah is a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.

Childhood cancer is another cause Latifah supports; in 2018, she joined Carnival Cruise Lines in raising funds for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The project and celebration included a grand display of the children’s art and Latifah participating in a lip sync battle with Philadelphia Eagles Super Bowl champion Jake Elliott. This initiative raised $100,000 for St. Jude’s.

Along with Latifah’s Queen Collective, a few other groups that support black women and women of color in film and entertainment include the Black Women Film Network, African-American Women in Cinema, Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network (WEEN), and the New York Women in Film & Television’s Immigrant Stories program.

Latifah on the Power of Black Wealth

While passionate about supporting black talent in entertainment, Latifah also believes in the financial power and sway of communities of color in the U.S.

“[We] have a lot of buying power, and we don’t have to do business with companies that don’t support people of color,” Latifah said while discussing TQC.

The UCLA report provides evidence of her point within the film industry: minorities accounted for the majority of ticket sales for five of the top 10 films in 2016. It also states, based on data such as ratings, ticket sales and social media engagement, “Consistent with the findings of earlier reports in this series, new evidence from 2015-16 suggests that America’s increasingly diverse audiences prefer diverse film and television content.” This finding aligns with the fact that the U.S. will soon become a majority-minority nation.

NYWF Report Stresses Urgency of Addressing Child Care, Housing

The New York Women’s Foundation recently released a new Voices from the Field report that stresses the urgency of creating more affordable housing and childcare opportunities in order to advance gender equality movements.

The New York Women’s Foundation distributed a record $8 million in 2017 for undertakings in line with its mission to create “an equitable and just future for women and families.” A vital part of this 31-year-old foundation’s work is drawing on local expertise to create and disseminate research on the needs and circumstances of women, girls, LGBTQI, and gender-nonconforming people.

In the fall of 2018, the foundation released part of a series called, Voices from the Field, which explores challenges and support strategies for low-income women in NYC during four major developmental periods: ages 0-8, 9-24, 25-59, and 60 and up. The newly released “Blueprint for Investing in Women Age 25 – 59” draws on data and expert interviews across academic, policy, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to identify systemic barriers and potential solutions for these populations.

New York City is home to a diverse group of 2,250,000 female-identifying people. Striking stats from the NYWF research include that in the state of New York, the rate of workforce participation for women with children under six is 81 percent for Black women, 64 percent for Latina women, and 50 percent for White women. A total of 56 percent of Latina household incomes cannot cover basic living costs, along with 47 percent of Black households, 44 percent of Asian households, and 24 percent of White households.

Given that many women of color and immigrant women in poverty are both primary caregivers and breadwinners, stable housing and care for their children emerged as key focus areas. President and CEO of the New York Women’s Foundation Ana Oliveira said the report clarified that “there must be a concerted and coordinated effort by the government, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to use their resources to expand access to affordable housing and reliable child care.”

An anonymous participant in a job training program is quoted in the report, explaining how having to both earn wages for a household and be its primary caregiver can be a catch-22:

“I’m constantly worried about my children because I can’t always arrange good care for them while I’m in training. And once I’m hired, I know I’ll be constantly worried about my job because there are bound to be times when those arrangements will fall through and I’ll have no choice but to stay home to take care of my kids. Women can’t be in two places at once and—when we try to be—everyone loses. Why haven’t people figured that out yet?”

Reasonably-priced child care was found to be the most crucial need for women in NYC, with affordable housing a close second and a clearly interconnected factor in women’s stability. Being able to pay for housing also connects to other obstacles for women, such as domestic abuse; women who cannot afford a place to live struggle to leave violent situations. Similarly, equitable and living wages, quality health care, and inclusion and representation in the public sector are all areas where barriers exist and overlap for women, especially for those of color and of immigrant status.

The NYWF calls on the public, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors to step up their support for these females, pointing out that it can only benefit the metropolis as a whole.

“[The Blueprint Series] is offered with the conviction that there is no better strategy for boosting New York’s overall economic strength than supporting the women who provide the cultural wellspring and the economic and caregiving bedrock for the city,” the foundation states in the publication.

Specifically, it asks the government to back policies including family leave, equal pay, job training, emergency refuge, improved sexual assault and rape prosecution, and to “forthrightly identify, monitor, and combat institutionalized harassment and violence against women of color, immigrant women, and LGBTQI individuals.” Nonprofits and funders are similarly encouraged to serve and empower women economically, civically, and through high-quality health and family services, including those relating to reproductive care.

NYWF emphasizes the need for multifunder efforts and collaborative action to reach these goals and recommends that funders “ensure that all those efforts reflect the explicit input and guidance of those constituencies” served. Participatory and inclusive grantmaking and strategic partnerships are methods the foundation already embraces and practices itself. Examples include its, “Girls Ignite! Grantmaking,” which empowers teenagers to distribute local funds, and its funders collaborative called the New York City Fund for Girls and Young Women of Color, among many of its other undertakings.

The New York Women’s Foundation also recently announced the first recipients of grants from its Fund for The Me Too Movement and Allies and launched the Justice Fund to address the effects of mass incarceration on females. It will certainly be interesting to see what new endeavors and developments 2019 holds for this women’s foundation; in the most recent annual report, Oliveira and Board Co-Chairs Kwanza Butler and Janet Riccio write they are “more resolved than ever to take bold action to create gender, racial and economic justice.”

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