msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February.
Dawn Porter is an Emmy nominated documentary filmmaker from New York City. Her work includes "Gideon's Army," about public defenders in the deep south, and "Spies of Mississippi," about a spy network that attempted to preserve segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. She recently chatted with msnbc about her journey from a lawyer to a filmmaker, and her upcoming film "Trapped."
"I took a big risk and left my very cushy direct deposit job with health insurance and did something that meant something to me. My work now is truly an expression of who I am."'
Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:
I am a director and producer, primarily of documentary films.
Describe some of the sights and sounds from you childhood in New York City:
My father [David Porter] was one of the few black photographers in New York City in the '70’s. He died when I was 12, but being in that photography scene was really instrumental in shaping my creative life … We used to make super eight films for fun. We had big portraits of big beautiful black women in our house. I’ve had a camera in my hand since I was little.
How far back can your race your family history?
My mother is part of the Robeson family. Ben Robeson, who is the older brother of Paul Robeson, is my mother’s grandfather. We all grew up in New York City. I’m the first generation who doesn’t live in New York City proper.
What flavor are you bringing to the film world?
There’s a lot of me in my work. I feel like there’s not a lot of three-dimensional portrayals of African American life in all of its complexity and beauty out there. I try hard to show the people that I know in my films. Sometimes they are not all good. I’m very much interested in how you get people to see that, particularly black boys with mothers and families, rather than this flat portrayal.
Who are some of your creative inspirations?
I think people are interesting to watch and I love trying to understand subtlety. I really love films like “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” so I guess I’m a big Steve James fan … I don’t like to tell people what to think, I want to show people what I see.
If you had to choose two films to play on repeat:
How do you feel race and gender played out in this years Oscar nominations?
I don’t know how you have a film that the entire country is talking about – a subject that has never been portrayed in that way before – that is nominated for best picture, and you don’t nominate that director for wrangling all those pieces together. I find that inexplicable, except when you look at who those nominations are. Bradford Young, who was the cinematographer in “Selma,” is probably one of the preeminent cinematographers in America working today. And yet, I didn’t see any nominations for him. It’s clear that the people who make up the voting body in the Oscars are not seeing what the rest of us are seeing.
Tell me more about your journey from being a lawyer to filmmaker?
I became a lawyer. I was a geeky kid and was interested in that world, but there was always a little something missing. I practiced law for five years, and then I went to ABC and saw how you put a piece together. Then I went to A&E. What I didn’t’ see was any good images of black people. It was just really bothersome. In fact, the conventional theory was that black people weren’t watching A&E. I got frustrated that I was hearing all of these amazing stories, but I wasn’t seeing them.
What does it take to be a black female filmmaker in 2015?
I do think that for all of us females, it’s just not the same for the boys. I’m a mother … [We] tend to be the drivers. As a mother, there are built-in limitations, and my sense is people really want to know who your team is when you’re a woman. On the other hand, I think the fact that I am female serves me so well in what I do. Being a black person, I see the world through my experience and through the experience of my children, my family, and my husband.
What are you most proud of at this moment?
I took a big risk and left my very cushy direct deposit job with health insurance and did something that meant something to me. My work now is truly an expression of who I am.
What do you say to aspiring filmmakers?
You can do it – trust yourself.
What can we expect from you in the future?
“Trapped" is about the trap laws. Systemically, across the country there have been laws regulating abortion clinics out of existence. It’s a real problem. The stories are so heartbreaking.
If you had a chance to talk to President Obama, what would you say?
I am so proud of the leadership, intelligence, courage, and grace he has shown. I’m proud of him as my president. I felt more secure with him in that job.
If you had to rewrite history ...
I would stop colonialism.
What are your memories of Black History Month as a child and what do you make of it today?
[As a child] We always talked about George Washington Carver and all of the peanuts and Rosa Parks. Today, I experience it through my children.
For more profiles, check out: Filmmaker Stanley Nelson: Hollywood has a racist history