While the School of Cinematic Arts prides itself on having a diverse student body, it does not take students of color like myself long to notice how the school reflects the systemic racism deeply ingrained in the film industry.
The excitement of getting accepted to the world’s top film school is quickly hindered the moment we walk into SCA, knowing that we have to fight to make our voices heard.
During the first semester, SCA requires its graduate production students to take a “Cinematic Ethics” course with a required diversity and inclusion lab as part of its initiative to “change the industry.” While the diversity lab does address a few important issues, it falls short in a big way: It often serves as a platform for white students to debate whether or not it is OK for them to capitalize on the pain of minorities by telling stories that are not theirs in order to climb the ranks of the industry.
In short, SCA profits millions of dollars from a class that, frankly, ought to be a workshop for its predominantly white faculty rather than its students.
The main issue that frustrates production students of color, myself included, is that the staff and faculty do not accurately reflect the diversity of the student body — which is not even that diverse to begin with.
I can count the professors of color that have taught me during my three years at SCA on one hand — and that’s coming from a student who actively sought out professors of color.
On the first day of our graduate orientation, we were introduced to the program by the dean, who remarked that “the person next to [us] will be the one who hires and fires [us]” – an accurate representation of how SCA hires its predominantly white faculty by exclusively hiring their friends and collaborators.
Every section of all intermediate and advanced courses across all disciplines is exclusively taught by white faculty.
As graduate students, we are also required to complete an advanced project in order to graduate — this is known throughout SCA as our calling card to the industry. Each semester, only three projects pitched by student directors are selected from the entire graduate program, for documentary and fiction each. The selection process for both documentary and fiction is determined by the faculty teaching the courses, all 14 of whom happen to be white.
Getting chosen to direct one of these projects at one of the world’s most selective film schools is extremely competitive. Even if we decide to independently fund and direct our own advanced project, we still have to apply and get selected by an all-white faculty.
Having taken the advanced production documentary class twice — as a director and as a producer — I can tell you that the faculty have much to offer to their students. They are extremely supportive, accomplished and very sensitive to our experiences and stories. However, not having a single documentary professor of color in such an esteemed film school is extremely problematic; it limits our opportunities to work with professionals who would be able to empathize with our experiences on a more profound level.
While some of our white peers often complain that a spot is “reserved” every semester for a “diverse student” to direct, the fact of the matter is that not a single semester has gone by without a white director selection since the birth of the program. Diversity at SCA often feels like a brush with one shade: It boxes all students of color into one category, forcing them to compete for that “one spot” in order to meet an unspoken quota.
Even when we get selected, our hard work is often discredited as a diversity selection — a salient reflection of the industry’s entitlement to only tell white stories. Moreover, when we are faced with direct instances of racism, our point of contact — SCA interim Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion Evan Hughes — is white.
Despite good intentions, our white faculty cannot understand our stories, our perspectives or our experiences. From the scripts we have to rewrite to the microaggressions we begrudgingly laugh off, students of color navigate the program differently than white students. Before I even enroll in any class at SCA, I often have to do my research on whether the professor teaching the class has political views that perceive me as lesser.
Bringing up these issues is often seen as a threat to the white entitlement to tell stories, run universities and monopolize industries. By not offering a diverse range of professors, SCA perpetuates an environment of inequality and further encourages the white supremacy that already runs rampant in Hollywood.
For a healthier and more inclusive option, SCA’s administration must hire faculty and staff members that are not their friends and collaborators — a small but significant step toward fixing the deeply rooted systemic racism that SCA can no longer ignore.
Until then, SCA isn’t the change — it’s a big part of the problem.
Class of 2020