Three aspiring filmmakers couldn’t contain their enthusiasm when Queen Latifah entered Tribeca Studios in lower Manhattan on Wednesday to mark the kickoff of talent development initiative The Queen Collective. When Latifah greeted the trio, they jumped from their seats to give her hugs.
Queen Collective is Latifah’s effort to open doors for new talent in the film industry by hand-picking two documentary projects from young women of color to champion. In its second year, Latifah, along with partners Procter & Gamble and Tribeca Studios, received double the number of submissions over the first year, which yielded about 60 initial treatments. The three winners, picked by Latifah and her partners, receive mentorship, education, funding, distribution, media opportunities and other forms of support as they develop and eventually premiere their documentaries at the annual Tribeca Film Festival in April.
The goal? To give opportunities to those who wouldn’t necessarily have a shot without someone like Latifah behind them.
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The kickoff event began with a breakfast buffet in the brick-walled, loft-like space. Queen Collective’s winning filmmakers — Sam Knowles, Nadine Natour and Ugonna Okpalaoka — mingled with industry professionals before heading to their seats for a roundtable discussion with Latifah, Tribeca Studios’ VP of production Nina Chaudry and Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer at Procter & Gamble. The group chatted about the two documentaries, “Tangled Roots” by Knoweles and “Gloves Off” by Natour and Okpalaoka.
The idea for Queen Collective was born as Pritchard sat with Latifah on a panel at the 2017 Women in the World Summit in New York City. The two discussed the disparity between men and women in advertising, the objectification of female actors in front of the camera and the low levels of female representation in filmmaking and television positions.
After the summit, Latifah and Pritchard agreed that it was time to take proactive steps to change culture on their own. Latifah and her longtime producing partner Shakim Compere came up with the idea for Queen Collective and went back to Pritchard to get him on board. “Basically it was the idea of bringing together a collective of women and giving an opportunity for female filmmakers to create a project from A to Z,” said Latifah.
Soon after, Tribeca Studios joined the initiative. With the help of Pritchard, Procter & Gamble decided to provide financial support to Queen Collective.
Jane Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, and Latifah said they believe efforts to address the need for more diversity in storytelling in film, TV and advertising will have an impact on the entertainment industry as a whole.
“People should not be denied their opportunity to reach their maximum potential,” Latifah said. “I don’t know what everybody’s so afraid of. To be honest with you, it would only enhance our business and entertainment. It enhances all of our worlds to see interesting stories and to see things as they really could be. The status quo is boring.”
Knowles’ “Tangled Roots” will focus on hair discrimination in America, which she first recognized at a young age when she read in her school’s handbook that male students were not allowed to have cornrows or dreadlocks. She later discovered that there are questionable restrictions on hairstyles in the U.S. Army and in many workplaces. Fortunately, Knoweles said the conversation is “having a moment” as lawmakers including Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is backing federal legislation to ban what some see as hair discrimination.
“It’s just such great timing and the support is kind of amazing because it’s allowing me to make this film at the right time and at the right moment. I hope it’s gonna really open a lot of eyes as well,” said Knowles.
“Gloves Off,” by co-directors Natour and Okpalaoka, follows Tiara Brown, who is a Washington, D.C., cop by day and boxer by night. As a black police officer, her story will tackle the issue of police brutality in African American communities and what it is like to be a woman working in a traditionally male-dominated profession.
Over lunch, Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, who later gave a directing mentor session, chatted with Natour and Okpalaoka about topics such as the importance of introducing children to documentary filmmaking and the lack of black-owned production companies. In a conversation with Variety, Williams said he didn’t grow up with role models, but now has “a seat at the table” on the Board of Governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and institutions like the Tribeca Film Institute.
“I didn’t have role models growing up. When I decided to go into the [documentary] space, there were not a lot of people that looked like me in the room,” said Williams. “And because I was fortunate enough to win an Oscar with my first film, I’m able to build something that can open doors for young people and people of color, people who look like me. Women. People who traditionally have not had the same opportunities that get provided for white men.”
With Latifah’s mentoring and learning from a slew of industry professionals, last year’s winners have advanced their careers since their documentaries, “Ballet After Dark” and “If There is Light,” premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last year, traveled on the festival circuit, and were distributed through Hulu. B. Monet, the filmmaker behind “Ballet After Dark,” told Variety that she is working on her first feature film after a producer saw her short and reached out to her.
“I think [Queen Collective] really exposed us in a way that most programs don’t,” she said.
Monet now has her own mentees, building a community of young filmmakers.
Community building for future generations is something that is important to Rosenthal. The responsibility to encourage more diversity in the industry, she said, lies on people like herself, Latifah and Pritchard, who are on the ground looking and providing opportunities for emerging, diverse filmmakers.
“It’s our responsibility to bring the next generation up, to support and mentor other women so that there are more women in film,” said Rosenthal. “Because we can all say ‘We want change and we want it right now.’ Guess what, it doesn’t just happen like that.”
Perhaps the good news is that a 2019 study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative reflected what Rosenthal referred to as a “banner year” for women in film. According to the study, 10.6% of films were directed by women, which was up 5 percent from 2018. Having said that, less than 1 percent were directed by women of color. Twelve female directors worked on the year’s 100 top-grossing films, while just four of those were women of color.
What do Rosenthal and Latifah suggest to young filmmakers, especially of color? That they can’t take no for an answer.
“No is not an option and I would also say to try to connect to as many people as you can. Be as clear as you can about what your ideas are. Learn as much as you possibly can until that moment comes, when that opportunity comes. There’s still so much time to learn more and seek as much information as you can,” said Latifah. “Think economically in terms of your ideas. How can you make it happen on a shoestring budget? How can you make it happen for $20 million? If you had your biggest dream, what would it be?”
Pictured: Queen Latifah, Sam Knoweles, Ugonna Okpalaoka and Nadine Natour