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Director Yoruba Richen: 'Not enough of us telling our stories'

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker from New York City who chatted with msnbc about the need for more black female film directors.
Yoruba Richen, director of \"The New Black\"
Yoruba Richen, director of \"The New Black\"

msnbc is celebrating black history by profiling game-changing black musicians and film directors throughout February. 

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker from New York City. She was a Guggenheim Fellow for her debut film "The New Black" which addresses the marriage equality movement within the black community. Richen recently chatted with msnbc about her journey to becoming a director and the need for more black female film directors. 

"I’m really interested in melding how films that are educational or political, are also beautiful and entertaining."'

Describe who you are and what you do in one breath:

I’m a documentary filmmaker and I tell stories around social issues.

Describe some of the sights and sounds from your childhood and how they have influenced your films?

I grew up in Harlem in the '80s and I went to school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. That journey [on my bus commute] of seeing these starkly different neighborhoods informed the kind of work that I do: Telling stories that aren't often told or have been misrepresented in the media.

What was home like?

My mom [Aishah Rahman] was a playwright, so I grew up with some of my earliest memories of her typing on the typewriter. She was very interested in the mixture of art and politics. We also traveled … she had a belief that she wanted to show me that the world was bigger than just the United States. And that we, people of color, are the majority in the world, not the minority.

At what point did you identify that you wanted be a documentary filmmaker?

I majored in theatre and political science in college. I studied an Urban Planning degree at UC Berkeley, and I realized I didn’t want to be an urban planner and missed being creative. That’s when I started working with a friend of mine and we worked on a video project, and I was hooked. The film was about welfare reform and the changes in 1996, and how it was going to affect this black community in San Francisco.

How did “The New Black” change the conversation about marriage equality and race?

I think it was one of the first pieces that looked at the diversity around the black community [in regard to marriage equality]. I started a conversation that we have been having in our houses but not openly. It put it out in the open.

Do you think the film received the attention it deserved?

You always want more attention as a filmmaker. We are pleased to say we have played in over 70 film festivals. It aired nationwide on PBS to almost one million viewers. 

How do you think your flavor is different than what you see in other filmmakers?

There is an amazing group of filmmakers, and amazing filmmakers of color, in particular, who I admire. However, there’s still not enough of us telling our own stories, especially as black women. So that’s something I can bring. Aesthetically, I’m really interested in melding how films that are educational or political, are also beautiful and entertaining. The other thing is, I really believe in mentoring and working with other filmmakers of color too. It’s so important for us to be supportive of each other.

What is it going to take to solve that problem of not enough black female directors nominated and not enough black female directors at all?

It’s going to take us to talk about it. People also conflate stories about people of color or marginalized communities with us telling those stories. That has a real difference. There has to be some real pointed strategies around increasing the number of filmmakers of color. We have to be trusted in a way that some other filmmakers are trusted in getting commissioned work and commercial documentary work.

What does it take to make it as a filmmaker?

It takes a lot of hustle. I teach at CUNY Graduate School, where I’m the director of the documentary program. That’s one of the ways I support myself. I do public speaking as well. I take commissioned work when I get it.

What can we expect from you in 2015?

One project takes a deeper dive into the civil rights movement and profiles black female entertainers and their role in the movement in front of the camera and behind the camera, and how their work and image evolved over time and changed how black women were portrayed and perceived.

The other project is a smaller series of videos around the “full spectrum reproductive rights” movement of practioners who are not separating abortion birth and adoptions—all part of decisions women make in their life … no date yet [for the release of these projects].

What were some of your favorite documentaries of the year?

"The Trials of Muhummand Ali" (Bill Siegel) / “The Newburgh Sting” (David Heilbroner, Kate Davis) /  “Through a Lens Darkly” (Allen Harris) / “Little White Lie” (Lacey Schwartz, James Adolphus)

Did you feel that Ava Duvernay was snubbed an Oscar nomination?

I do think it was a snub. But, I do believe she’s the first black female director whose film was nominated for an Oscar, so that’s already been history making.

If you had to choose two films to play on repeat … forever (only one can be yours):

All that Jazz” by Bob Fosse

The Landlord” by Hal Ashby

If you had a chance to speak to President Obama, what would you say?

President Obama, you’ve done some amazing work in the face of so much opposition. The historic nature of getting health care passed will go down in history. And you have disappointed a lot of us in not taking down the corporate hand that rules the economy.

If you had to rewrite history:

Some basic things, like slavery.

What were your memories of Black History Month as a child in school? What do you make of it today?

I don’t remember Black History Month in school. I feel like in my household, all of the time was black history month. It’s a great time to refocus our energy. There’s a lot of great programming around it [now], it’s a real treat. Shukree Tilghman has a great film, “More Than a Month,” that takes a fun look at Black History Month and if we still need it.

Follow Yoruba on Twitter @redrubes14

For more profiles, check out Lyric R. Cabral: Filmmaker exposes FBI counter-terrorism strategy