Effie Brown: On inclusivity and cutting straight to the heart of the matter

Dionne reports on a Sundance Film Festival: London event where the producer of Rocket Science and Dear White People discussed finding your own truth.

8 July 2016
By Dionne Farrell
Dionne spent two years working in factual programming on a variety of projects, before joining the BFI as a trainee Script Editor.
When talking about the BFI NET.WORK’s event at Sundance with Effie Brown, I can’t not mention the commonly misunderstood word, diversity. [If you haven’t seen that clip from Project Greenlight, where have you been?] Diversity is a very touchy subject: it shouldn’t be, but it is. So writing this has been a process of reining myself in. I wanted to call out mansplainers everywhere and put them in their place, but I’ve never been trolled and I’m not ready for Twitter beef (Don’t @ me!). I then came very close to getting out a pulpit and delivering a sermon, preaching to the masses that “My voice matters!” but so many others have already spoken, from far greater platforms, using more eloquent words than I ever could. Also, I couldn’t get my hands on a pulpit, so this will have to do. 
 
As a “person of colour” working in TV and Film, the question of diversity has become a part of my daily existence. You cannot separate us: diversity is basically my new BFF. She’s there through thick and thin, we hang out every day, and I love her. But she’s making my old bestie (let’s call him inequality) jealous. Inequality’s mad that diversity’s getting all the attention. Inequality liked things the way they were. My new bestie is trying to elevate me. Old bestie wants to keep me down. 
 
To me, it feels like this is where we’re at with the diversity debate (but guys, it shouldn’t even *Chandler emphasis* be a debate). Didn’t that article in The Sun just have you like
 
The industry’s efforts to diversify have, among other things, been confused with tokenism and labelled anti-white (is black privilege a thing now?). Sadly, the controversy is distracting us from the very urgent need to make this industry representative. To talk about diversity in terms of black and white is misleading, and reduces the scope of what needs to be done across the industry. Let’s not get it twisted, race is important, but it’s not the only thing we mean by diversity. We’re not talking enough about women. We’re not talking enough about disability. We’re not talking enough about socio-economic status (to name just a few).  
 
So what a blessing it is to have Effie Brown championing the cause. She is an exuberant, honest and refreshing force of nature who left me feeling truly empowered about my place within this industry. You know the hands raised-to-the-air-in-praise emoji?  Well, that is how I felt hearing Effie speak. Not only has she got an amazing name (sounds like a sultry blues singer, no?) she gave out great advice. One of the most illuminating things for me was to hear how she speaks about diversity. Instead of using that word, she spoke of inclusivity, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. We want this industry to be one big, all-embracing and inviting hug. Inclusivity is my new BFF. 
 
Labelled the “diversity row producer” in the Evening Standard, Effie is so much more. In our first session with her, she spoke of her motivations for getting into film: quite simply, she wanted to change the world. Growing up and being ‘raised by TV’ from 3-7pm, she wasn’t seeing any element of herself in shows like Charlie’s Angels and Three’s Company (where non-white characters were absent), or Benson and Gimme a Break!, which perpetuated a stereotype of black subservience. Effie wanted to do what films like Alien (1979) did for her, films which put the ‘other’ front and centre, and helped her to recognise her worth. So over the course of a career spanning more than twenty years, she has committed to giving a voice to the other by working on the likes of But I’m a Cheerleader (1999), Jane Campion’s In the Cut (2003), Rocket Science (2007), and Justin Simien’s feature debut, Dear White People (2014). 
 
A young girl looks into her camera
Dear White People (2014)
 
The Q&A session didn’t give me time to rest my praising emoji arms, as we got a little U, C, and P (up, close and personal). Yes, things got deep as we covered everything from being your own hype man, the challenges of maintaining a career, the value of DBAD (don’t be a dick) and replying to emails. 
 
No one talks enough about how to stay afloat in this industry and keep progressing, but having a network of people who want to work with you, and who you want to work with is a good start. The conversation then turned inevitably to Project Greenlight and the importance of speaking your truth. I don’t know about you, but if any famous actor disputed what I had to say on anything, even my own name I would just evaporate (them: you’re called  Tomothy now. Me: Yes, OK). I would literally no longer exist. So to see Effie speak with such eloquence and composure on that show was sublime. A question asked in response to this was about finding your voice in an intimidating situation, and Effie said it comes down to knowing your truth. Be clear about your intentions, pick your battles, and honour the responsibility of the role you are given. Responsibility was another key word of the day for me. Effie has dealt with the responsibility of being a woman and being black throughout her career. It shouldn’t fall to her, but thanks to people like Effie, people like me have a chance. But we all have a responsibility to make this industry inclusive, and we’ve got to start embracing that.  
 
I’ll end with one last thing from Effie, told to her by a very wise mentor at the beginning of her career. “The greatest lie they tell us is that there’s room for only one of us. There is plenty of room for all of us.” This industry can no longer go unchecked. Just look at the facts. Don’t look at the flick of the wrist (although that is 100% still a banger), look at the statistics.  
 
We need to strive to tell stories of and by the other until they are other no more.