“If ever there was a time to reimagine the future then we are in it,” said Jamal Joseph, kicking off the 2020 Women in Animation World Virtual Summit by addressing this year’s overriding theme.
The Columbia professor, activist and former Black Panther member moderated Wednesday’s first panel, Black Women in Animation: Looking to the Future.
Taking place on the third day of Annecy’s online festival and running in the festival’s Carte Blanche section, the panel examined the personal experiences of four women working in the industry.
British-Nigerian screenwriter Misan Sagay – best known for the 2013 film ”Belle” and now working on her first animated feature for Netflix – said that the lack of diversity in popular film and TV series of her childhood left her feeling “erased from the narrative.”
She added: “Think about all the fairy tales that you’re not in. It’s not as though you were not allowed a happy ending – you weren’t even allowed to be there.”
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Sagay argued that diverse storytelling leads to a healthier society – with audiences raised on content that reflects a diverse range of characters less likely to be racist.
“They don’t see harmony or peace as my absence, which is why it’s important to tell those stories early on,” she added.
Fellow panelist Karen Rupert Toliver – a former Disney exec who now works as executive VP of creative at Sony Pictures Animation – told the panel that she grew up being the only Black child in her class at her private school and summer camp.
She observes that it was harder for her white friends to assimilate into her world than the other way around, and she grew up seeing this experience reflected on screen, where Black characters were generally cast as the sidekick.
Toliver urged the industry to be bolder and have more faith that audiences can identify and empathize with non-white leads.
Following the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent discourse that has followed around systemic racism, it is essential, she added, to start pulling white audiences into different experiences.
“It speaks to what is going on now. White people are starting to see pain and learn about different experiences -and we have to pull them into our experience in a way that might not be comfortable or confusing for them.,” she said.
The panel also went onto address the paucity of Black females in the animation industry.
Jade Branion, a promo producer-turned-scriptwriter (credits include an episode of Showtime’s coming of age drama, “The Chi”) observed that, with the exception of one writer’s room, she’s always been the only Black woman in the room.
Her industry call for action is simple: “Hire us! There’s so much talent – hire Black showrunners, animators and directors,” she urged.
The panel agreed that more Black women were needed at executive level too, to help kick down doors, nurture careers and retain Black female staff.
Camille Eden – vice president of Animation Recruitment and Talent Development at Nickelodeon Animation Studio – recalled being given her first break by a Black female VFX artist, where she landed a role in the security department of an animation company.
“It took me a long time to get to the role that I’m at now and it took a lot of hard work and believing in myself. The door got kicked open for me and now I‘m going to help get more people in the room – there are stories that need to be told, that want to be told – and it’s good for business,” she said.
Misan likens the experience to walking into a meeting at Warner Bros recently and pitching to a Black female executive to “having lead boots taken off and being told I could fly.”
The writer explained that during pitches she usually spends the first half hour trying to justify why a certain character needs to be of a specific racial origin.
“Which is why walking in there pitching to a Black woman was such a magical experience – there was no fight, it was so different that when I walked out the room I thought to myself ‘This must be what it’s like to be white.’”