February 18, 2016

And the Oscar Goes To, Part II: Sitting Down with Fire Escape’s Kanisha Williams

There is something peculiar about the nominees for the Academy Awards this year. This year’s nominees made the awards the epicenter of heated social discourse regarding the Academy’s existence, as well as its ability to both reflect and perpetuate a certain status quo. For some, this peculiarity is a piece of the shifting jigsaw puzzle of our country’s oppressive social dynamic. For others, it is an inconsequential coincidence. But whether by chance or by reason, due to intentionality or incidental complicity, its presence is indisputable. And even when it is ignored, or discussed with the utmost ambiguity and indirectness, we all know what it is.

It’s #OscarsSoWhite (#andMale, while we’re at it).

These issues have reached new heights of popularity, and it is more difficult than ever to reconcile the necessary recognition of the year’s greatest talent with the socially formative nature of the Academy Awards’ white male propensity. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences undoubtedly deserves some culpability for not having shown enough initiative to rectify these consistent shortcomings in representation. However, it seems there is a larger dilemma playing a role here: a more insidious condition in the film industry that manifests itself every February in the prestigious, perpetually problematic Academy Awards.

Because we can only figure out so much about the Academy, our best insights toward the #OscarsSoWhite/Male phenomenon require an exploration of this “larger dilemma,” via the industry itself and the art form behind it. I sat down with second-year Kanisha Williams, a Sociology and Cinema and Media Studies double major and an active filmmaker in the student-run organization Fire Escape Films, and she had plenty to say about both.

Chicago Maroon: Can you tell me about the project you worked on for Fire Escape last quarter?

Kanisha Williams: [It] was a film written by Da’Shawn Mosley (AB'16) called folding. [It] follows a student as he copes with his mother’s suicide through an art project.

CM: What was your role in this project?

KW: I directed folding, which basically meant assigning positions to the crew, casting the film, and organizing when, where, and what we were going to shoot.

CM: Do you think that your identity as a woman and/or a person of color inherently brought something new to forming through your direction (positive or negative)? Or do you not think these really affected your contribution at all?

KW: [I’m] not sure what I would’ve brought to the film with regards to being a woman, unless some kind of “womanly touch” actually exists, but that sounds ridiculous to me. I just did what felt natural to me…. I think that identifying as a black woman has definitely shaped my values and how I view the world generally, so I think in that sense that my identity may have influenced the film, but I don’t think there was anything intentional or specific in my experience with folding that I could point to. I remember thinking it was cool that someone who, admittedly I can only assume, identifies as black wrote the script and that I got to direct it.

CM: Do you think your assignations of gender and race for your characters/actors were intended to make the film more “accessible”? Or do you think these were not conscious and just part of the process of expressing your own vision?

KW: The assignments were definitely just a function of me expressing my vision…. I picked who I thought fit the character and who felt believable in terms of actual performance.

CM: What do you consider to be the biggest issues in equality and representation in the film industry?

KW: I think the film industry is weird because it’s in the business of telling stories. So, they look for shortcuts. They look for who is there, what they can do, what’s easiest to believe them doing. And while I understand the shortcuts, I think they’re incredibly shortsighted and undermine this faith in reality that is predicated in this form of representation… and that’s due to a whole slew of ‘-isms’ hiding in its closet.

CM: What do you think are the biggest obstacles preventing these issues in equality from being resolved?

KW: I think money is a big part of it, really—the money, the stats, just the numbers in general. It’s an industry; it’s looking for shortcuts in how we talk about how we experience “kinds of people” (i.e., manic pixie dream girl, the mystical Negro, the cold career woman) and also in making money.

Indeed, the film industry tends to pigeonhole people of certain non-dominant identities, as if their personal experiences make them “only good enough” for involvement in work concerning these identities.

Take a look at comic book films, arguably the fastest growing popular film genre of the 21st century. Of all the many 21st-century films adapted from Marvel or DC comic books, only two were not directed by white men: the relatively unpopular The Losers (2010) and the even less successful Punisher: War Zone (2008). Furthermore, the only two comic book films slated to not be directed by white men in the coming future are Wonder Woman and Black Panther—films that tie particularly into their directors’ identities.

This disproportionality can’t be reflective of a lack of talent among women or people of color. They receive plenty of Oscars attention too—but usually for films associated with their experiences (especially the Black experience: think Precious, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Selma).

On a softer note, I asked Williams if she was looking forward to watching the 2016 Oscars.

"Yes, I will be watching. I’m very curious to see who will win Best Picture; it’s been such a weird race."

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