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Filmmaker on “Getting Stuff Done” in Industry as a Woman of Color

Writer/director Christine Swanson talked about her successes and setbacks as a woman of color inside the film industry at a screening of her latest film, the Miki Howard biopic Love Under New Management, on Tuesday, November 16.

The screening was part of Emerson College’s Women in Film/Media Summit and was co-sponsored by the co-curricular organization Women in Motion, as well as EBONI and Flawless Brown. Visual and Media Arts Professor Cristina Kotz Cornejo, primary organizer of the Summit, moderated the event in the Bright Family Screening Room and opened with questions about how Swanson got into the business.

“It was in my freshman year at college,” Swanson said, “and this was shortly after Do the Right Thing—Spike Lee came to give a talk at my school. After seeing him and hearing him talk about his work, I thought to myself, ‘You can do this for a living?’ I eventually switched my major from finance—I don’t know what I was thinking—to what was at the time communication in theater. I never looked back.”

Love Under New Management is a feature-length television biopic on TV One that focuses on the life and tribulations of R&B singer Miki Howard (Mad Men’s Teyonah Parris), a contemporary of Chaka Khan and Whitney Houston.

Swanson has developed, written, and/or directed projects for HBO Films, Magnolia Pictures, and other film and TV studios, and was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Direction in a Television Motion Picture for For the Love of Ruth. She has signed on to direct Buffalo Soldier Girl, the true story of a woman who, disguised as a man, enlists and fights as an African American Post-Civil War-era “buffalo solider.”

Swanson talked about the slight sense of alienation she felt as a woman of color at the University of Notre Dame, a college in which the demographics are majority male, majority white, and majority Catholic, “all of which I was not,” she said.

She said she “fell in love” with film theory and feminist theory at Notre Dame, and chose New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts for graduate school, because that’s where Spike Lee went.

“You’re looking at an inner-city kid from Detroit,” Swanson said. “There was an entire world that I have not really experienced, but I still made it a mission to go and be the best that I could be with the stories that I tell, even if I do or do not have personal experiences with them.”

Swanson gave advice on breaking into the business and getting projects made.

“Always figure out how to set yourself apart,” Swanson said. “You simply have to be more creative. Make outstanding shorts. Find something that you can mine and create differently than when you were a student. When asking for money, go to the people in your personal network first; you’d be amazed how many would be willing to help you out if you connect to them on an emotional level. Spike Lee’s grandmother funded his first feature film.” 

She also reflected on the cinematic shift from film to television, adding that “most of the jobs I’m getting now are for television. I left, the world was still film; when I came back, it was television. There’s a part of me that’s fighting to remain an indie filmmaker.”

Elaborating upon the production aspect of the work, she spoke about how the entire Miki Howard biopic was shot in fifteen days. “It should have at least been twenty-one, but everything was done in fifteen. Looking back, I really wish I had more rehearsal time with my actors and prep time with crew, but we made it work by spending hours of our own time, uncompensated, going over the details and making sure we were more or less together on the same page.” 

The Evening with Christine Swanson gave insight, not only into the processes of the film and television industry, but also into the realities of the industry as a woman of color writer-director.

“The industry is this sort of mirror of culture,” Swanson said. “Eventually your generation will take over and be far more inclusive for one another and the generation afterward than the one that’s currently in charge of it all.

“For now, as it should continue to be, you just have to be stronger, better, faster. You won’t be remembered for being a woman; you’ll be remembered for getting stuff done.”