Jameela Jamil, Negin Salmasi and Cleopatra Coleman talk representation and diversity at FFFest
The lively panel was moderated by Vulture critic Emily Yoshida and also included casting director Sarah Finn, writer/director Ry-Russo Young and producer Negin Salmasi
By Ryan Aliapoulios
Though the debate about the importance of representation and diversity in film and television has always been around, and it has become even more prominent in recent years. Beyond the more obvious questions about equal opportunities for those who work in these industries, there are also abstract questions about what seeing a projection of yourself on the big screen does for you in your private life. More pointedly, what social effect does it have when misunderstood or marginalized identities are normalized by positive, diverse representations in our media?
While these questions may seem abstruse on the surface, they were brought to life in a lively discussion at the Female Filmmakers Festival in Los Angeles on October 13th. The panel was presented by Glossier and included a wide array of talented women from all sectors of the film industry.
Among them were actress Jameela Jamil, star of NBC’s breakout comedy ‘The Good Place;’ writer, director and producer Janet Mock of FX’s ‘Pose;’ Australian-born actress Cleopatra Coleman of Showtime’s ‘White Famous’ and Fox’s ‘The Last Man on Earth;’ pre-eminent casting director Sarah Finn of ‘Black Panther;’ Ry-Russo Young, the indie filmmaker behind ‘Nobody Walks from 2012 and producer Negin Salmasi, VP of Creative Development at See-Saw Films. Rounding out the panel and serving as moderator was Emily Yoshida, film critic for Vulture and New York Magazine.
On general questions of representation, Jamil said she was grateful for all the recent cultural shifts concerning women in film. “I’m in a very rare situation,” she said. “[The Good Place is] one of the only shows to have 50-50 male and female directors. The writers room is 50-50 and its very multicultural. And I have to say that’s the first time in 10 years in this industry that I’ve seen anything like this.”
More specifically, she noted that recent political agitation has helped the shift significantly. “After #metoo and #timesup,” she said, “there’s been a real sense of community that I’ve never felt before. There’s an attitude of, “If I don’t get [this job], I want to make sure another woman does.’ And we need to keep that going because divided we are conquered but we’re stronger together.”
From her perspective, Finn agreed that things had changed considerably. “For the past 100 films [I’ve worked on] up until last year,” she said, “I had only ever worked with one female director. Now, I’m happy to say I’m working with two amazing women on two tentpole films for Marvel. It’s an exciting time, from where I sit. We’re witnessing a sea change.”
While Mock agreed that the industry had made some strides, she was not without her own reservations about empty representation. “The biggest headlines [Pose had] initially was we were the first series to cast five trans women to play trans women.” While the crowd was quick to applaud, she continued: “I love the applause but I think the show could’ve been trash if behind the scenes there were no other trans women, trans folk, gender-non-conforming folk, people of color. Not only writing the scripts but also directing.”
Salmasi also commented on the subtle differences between representation and diversity—and how those concepts could be cheapened in certain cases. “Diversity feels like a sprinkle on top,” she said, “whereas representation feels much more real and intentional. It’s not only behind the camera or in front of the camera, it’s also about the decision-makers.” She also noted that the directionality of these structural changes was often trickier than it seemed. “Diversity is not only bottom-up, it’s also top-down. And it can sometimes also just be tokenism.”
She also mentioned that people tend to hire people like them—in other words, women tended to hire other women. On the other side, men also tend to hire other men—and because men hold more gatekeeping positions in the film industry than women do, being welcomed into the inner circle was a challenge.
For her part, Russo-Young added that filmmaking is a very intimate process. “It wasn’t until my fourth feature that I got my first episodic directing job,” she said. “It was a relationship-based hire. It’s a relationship-based business and people hire people that they’re comfortable with. It’s a very expensive industry so people want people they can trust. For anybody who is [considered an ‘other,’] it becomes a question of ‘who can I trust?’”
Beyond the thorny questions of behind-the-scenes power and access, the discussion also let to thought-provoking questions about unexamined parts of the industry. “On my first-ever TV show, I had a hairdresser talk to another hairdresser about me as if I wasn’t even there,” Coleman said—and Mock was quick to develop her point even further. “I’ve sat in so many hair and make-up trailers and you don’t see a lot of black and brown folk who are unionized to do [those jobs],” she said. “You have talent sitting these chairs at their most vulnerable. And you don’t have anyone in that trailer who looks like you to deal with your hair texture and your skin color.”
Despite all the adversity described, there were also occasional bursts of humor. On a discussion of female writers, Yoshida floated her own provocative idea. “I know in theory everybody is equal,” she said, “but I think women are better at writing. [We] grow up watching film, watching TV and [we] have to empathize with so many characters who don’t look like [us].” Jamil developed a similar idea of her own. “We really need female writers because men just seem to find it very difficult to write for women,” she said to laughter from the crowd. “They write ‘Predator’ and find it easy to get in the mindset of an alien from outer fucking space but they can’t write for a woman.”
In a wide-ranging discussion questioning how to close the gender gap in film and television, Salmasi said the responsibility for creating a balanced creative world should be a shared one. “I feel like there’s not a push for men to write nuanced female characters,” she said. “The screen is a reflection of our world and what we want our world to become. If we want men to operate [a certain way] when interacting with women, let’s write male characters that are that way. This is maybe radical, but I think it’s really important for women to write male characters and for men to be pushed to write better female characters.”