Diversifying Film: Spotlight on Reel Sisters

By Rebecca Gross
Woman standing in front of Brooklyn Bridge

Carolyn Butts, founder of the Reel Sisters film festival, standing in front of the Brooklyn Bridge. Photo © 2016 Sheila Prevost, African Voices/Reel Sisters Archives 

Of the top 700 films over the past seven years, a grand total of three were directed by African-American women. Twenty years ago, the statistics were even worse. At that time, author and filmmaker Carolyn Butts was having trouble finding a distributor for her short film Underground Voices. But her frustration took the shape of action rather than discouragement. “Who needs Hollywood?” she remembers thinking. “Let’s create a place where women can come and gather and celebrate their own films.”

And so she did, founding Reel Sisters of the Diaspora in 1997. Based in Brooklyn, the annual film festival and lecture series showcases films produced, directed, and written by women of color. Since its establishment, the festival has screened more than 500 films, hosted 800 audience members a year, and received three NEA grants. In honor of Women’s History Month, we recently spoke with Butts about the festival, and the role of women and minorities in Hollywood.

NEA: I was looking over the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report, and as you know, the statistics are pretty depressing.

BUTTS: It's still the "old boys club" where they smoke with the men, and they hire their friends, who are white male. They're not open. But it's a new era. We have a lot of young people. What is great is that now we have the Internet, so we do have another place to showcase our films. We have Netflix. Hopefully those outlets will put extra pressure on Hollywood to really diversify, to open their doors for women, create more opportunities for people of color to become directors and producers, and to greenlight films that reflect America.

NEA: Obviously the issue of diversity was brought to the foreground recently with the Oscars. What do you think we need to do to maintain that momentum, and transform the many conversations the Oscars generated into actual progress?  

BUTTS: I don't know. Because of the history of this country, I think that you almost have to do a real boycott. You need to maybe target a big Hollywood film and say, "We're going to sit this one out just to show that our money counts; our voices count." I think that will be the only real way with these Hollywood executives will say, "Wait a minute. There's a dip in our box office. These people are serious. They want to be included on the screen." It would send a message and have impact, other than just having a conversation.

The other way is what I said previously: that we create a film festival or a way of distributing films by different outlets like Netflix. There are a couple out there where filmmakers can go and try to create audience alternatives to Hollywood, online. If those venues of distributing films begin to become really successful, Hollywood would take notice. If you go online, you get some really great independent films. It's excellent—a whole new world. It may not be the Hollywood, big-budget movie, but these films really speak to their audience.

NEA: Let's talk more specifically about Reel Sisters, and how you are hoping to change the filmmaking community and the landscape.

BUTTS: Since we started, there have been other festivals that have cropped up with the angle of recognizing women, and created specifically for women. For instance, CentricTV became our sponsor two years ago. We [helped rebrand] their BET channel—it's specifically for women of color. So that's an impact: acknowledge that this is an audience that deserves quality content, smart and hip. I think that has been an influence on the industry. We can see it reflected in that movement.

NEA: What do you think the impact has been on filmmakers?

BUTTS: They feel that they have a direct connection with the audience, and have a dialogue with the audience when they come to our festival. Also, the networking that goes on at Reel Sisters is vital. It's a community. They will meet other filmmakers at Reel Sisters and then go on and maybe make another film together, or find a sound person or a camera person at Reel Sisters. That's our role: bringing people together to empower themselves in what they're doing.

NEA: And on audiences?

BUTTS: It's powerful. I think films are more powerful than politics. You can really get to someone with a good story. I think just being able to touch people directly, emotionally, and have a dialogue it—I think that's the vitality of what Reel Sisters does. It's bringing people together to have a conversation about who we are as Americans.

NEA: Independent films are frequently spoken of as a Hollywood “alternative.” What would film look like if we didn’t have these alternatives?

BUTTS: There would be no balance. I think there would also be less creativity, because independent films take license. They're not just rehashing the same stories; they find a new way to tell a story. If there was Hollywood and no alternative, we'd be in danger. We would lose so much as an artistic community, as a storytelling community, because those films are what really inspire us to do what we're meant to do. Some people come to the festival and feel the power of one particular film. Then two or three years later, they decide to become a filmmaker. We get a lot of educators and people from different walks of life. Sometimes something is sparked at Reel Sisters. I can see growth, and then it takes them in a different direction.

NEA: You mentioned that film is oftentimes more powerful than politics. What do you think makes it so powerful?

BUTTS: I think it's because it's visual. It's not someone preaching to you. If you have a really good film, it's well-written, it means you feel like you're in that character, and you're experiencing that character's pain, anger, joy. That can really move a person to see another person's perspective. A film can do that: put you inside of the other person's mind. I don't think politics can really do that—connect with you on that visual level where you understand what's going on in the mind of a character. In politics, you can get into that "us versus them," Republicans versus Democrats. You can take out the human component. They’re too worked up and the human component is gone.

NEA: What advice would you give a young filmmaker of color who's trying to make her way in the world?

BUTTS: I would tell them to find mentors. There are filmmakers in the business that can steer them in the right place. The other advice is to find places like the National Black Programming Consortium. There are organizations that have resources. They have classes and access to grants and workshops that could help them improve their craft, and also to make connections with people who can put their films together. Because they're going to need an editor, they're going to need the cameraman—there's a whole crew. That's what's beautiful about filmmaking. It's a team art. You can't do that alone. You're with a team of maybe seven, eight people on the street shooting a scene, and you have to communicate together. So we tell them to find their tribe, find their group of people, and mentors that can help them realize their vision.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BUTTS: Hollywood should look at these festivals. They're saying that they don't know where to find competent people with excellent films—we have them all the time. So that's an invitation out there. They can come to Reel Sisters. Tell Hollywood to come to us if they don't know where to find great films with women of color.