Why MacArthur's Big Boost to Diversity in Documentary Filmmaking Matters

This should be a golden era of documentary production. There is an incredible number of moving stories waiting to be told. Inexpensive digital cameras and computer-based editing systems have dramatically lowered costs. Producers now have access to worldwide distribution through video on demand venues like Amazon, Hulu, and Vimeo.  

Still, this is hardly an egalitarian world. Women are barely starting to reach the top ranks of documentary filmmaking. Of the 13 people who took home the Oscar statuette for Best Feature Length Documentary since 2010, just four were women. People behind the camera also remain predominantly white. 

Firelight Media, a top-tier documentary outfit based in Harlem, wants to change that, and earlier this month it won a coveted MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions. Announcing the $500,000 grant, MacArthur Vice President Elspeth Revere said:

Firelight Media supports the talents and careers of a diverse new generation of documentary filmmakers, many of whom have already gone on to address and draw attention to important social issues.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has long been a leading backer of documentary filmmakers, and we've reported often on their grantmaking, which has been a vital lifeline for those in a field where big paydays are few and far between. 

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Based in Harlem, Firelight Media is dedicated to nurturing filmmakers of color while producing powerful stories that can effect social change. Firelight Media’s award-winning productions have included Freedom Riders, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples' Temple, The Murder of Emmett Till, and Freedom Summer. Soon to be released are The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and The Slave Trade: Creating a New World.

Since 2009, Firelight’s hallmark program, the Producers' Lab, has given fellows one-on-one, long-term mentoring from Firelight's founder, Emmy and Peabody Award winning filmmaker Stanley Nelson, whose relationship with the MacArthur Foundation goes back to his days as one its "genius" grant fellows.

The team is rounded out by producers, writers, editors, and other media pros who coax the lab's fellows into finding their voices while honing their craft. "Our Producers' Lab is a skill-based fellowship. The barrier for producers of color is the lack of professional skill-building opportunities and access to distribution streams," Sonya Childress, Firelight’s Director of Community Engagement, told Inside Philanthropy.

To date, the lab has assisted three dozen filmmakers, 16 who got full funding and releases of their productions.

In addition to buttressing its reserves, Firelight will use the MacArthur Award for an innovation fund to experiment with digital storytelling. If you’re an aspiring documentary filmmaker of color who could use a leg up, now it the time to apply to become a Firelight Producers' Lab Fellow.