Life Through Her Lens

blog Sep 28, 2022

            Consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble’s commitment to challenging the imbalance of minority representation in the movie world is fueled by two convictions: Not only is it the right thing to do; in terms of business, it’s simply the smart thing to do.

            “We know that telling stories that are more diverse, more cultural, is actually good for business growth,” says Grace Janes, who heads the P&G Studios initiative that is making waves and winning awards—most recently, a Gold Effie Award celebrating the best in U.S. marketing in the category of Positive Change: Social Good—Diversity, Equity and Inclusion category.

            The honor went to P&G’s Widen the Screen initiative, a content creation, talent development and partnership platform that is opening up new doors to Black filmmakers, and especially women.  Through a creative partnership with music and movie icon Queen Latifah, the Queen Collective gives women filmmakers of color a platform to share important stories from their unique perspective.

             “We have a proven strategy for business growth,” says Janes. “Gender-equal advertising performs up to 20% better when it comes to generating equity, trust and sales growth, so really getting more female directors into the creative ecosystem is good for business growth.”

            Six new films have been released this year as part of the Queen Collective with Latifah. And as Janes walks WayMaker Journal through some of them, she provides a personal example of just how important it is for viewers to be able to see themselves represented on the screen.

            In Bone Black, Imani Dennison documents the nontraditional birthing methods practiced in parts of the South through the work of doula Charnise Littles. “I really resonated with her story because I’m a mother of three children,” says Janes, noting the “really deplorable” statistics relating to Black maternal health that highlight “so many inequalities in health care that we face versus our white peers and non-Black peers.”

            Luchina Fisher’s Team Dream, which follows two older Chicago women swimmers overcoming age and race barriers to train for the National Senior Games, took Janes back to her days running track in high school and college. “I know what it means to be a competitive sportsman and I just really identify with the story she’s telling.”

            Found by Contessa Gayles follows scores of young Black girls aged nine to 15 who take part in a Camp Founder Girls week in San Antonio.  It resonates with Janes for whom “some of my best memories growing up are going to camp and all of those adventures . . . a coming-of-age story.”

            There is even a connection for Janes in this year’s scripted project, Gaps (Jenn Shaw, director), which follows self-conscious 12-year-old Sydney Bailey as she struggles with self-esteem because of her gapped front teeth. The story reminds Janes of childhood when her brother affectionately called her a buck-tooth beaver because of the gap she had in her teeth. “I was self-conscious about this, and I got braces and fixed it and now people are like, ‘Oh my gosh, your mouth’s amazing.’ Little do they know I had this huge gap.

            “As one individual I can really see myself in all of these multitude of stories.”

 

 

‘Authentic stories’

            Janes brings more than a decade’s brand management experience with P&G to her studio role. A Columbia University graduate with an MBA from Harvard Business School, she joined the company as an assistant brand manager after five years with General Mills. Her P&G responsibilities included beauty, hair care and family care products.

            The Queen Latifah partnership goes back a long way. She was the face of the company’s Covergirl line in 2006, forging an enduring friendship with Marc Prichard, P&G’s chief brand officer. They were concerned that Black representation in the advertising and entertainment worlds was so low: less than 6% of those behind the camera. Meanwhile, two out of three Black people don’t feel they see themselves or their culture reflected accurately on the screen.

            The pair’s ongoing discussions about how to make a difference led to the launch of the Queen Collective in 2018. It’s a three-way initiative between Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment production company, P&G and Tribeca Studios that has so far released 14 films—eight of them this year.

            Filmmakers are chosen to “tell their authentic stories in their own voice” and are given free rein, Janes explains. “We’re not telling them what to talk about. We want to make sure that we're truly giving an accurate portrayal of the nuances of Black life through our Black female filmmakers.”

            Janes identifies deeply with the mission. A first-generation Black American, her father was born in Barbados and her mother in Guyana. “They both had to work to get to this country,” she says. “We got here, and you don't take anything for granted.”

            The Queen Collective releases are now part of P&G’s broader Widen the Screen initiative launched last year, championing greater inclusion and diversity. “Without true and accurate portrayals of who we are, or without proper representation from our own authentic voice, ignorance persists,” she says.

 

‘Expansive content’

            Widen the Screen was created “because we realized that sustained action and investment are necessary to address the systemic bias and inequality in advertising in media.” She describes Widen the Screen as “an expansive content creation, talent development and partnership platform that celebrates creativity and enables Black creators to share the full richness of the Black experience.”

            She quotes the Widen the Screen vision statement: “Only when we widen the screen to widen our view can we all broaden the spectrum of images we see, the voices we hear, the stories we tell and the people we understand fully.”

            P&G brands My Black is Beautiful and Olay have been sponsors of the Queen Collective from the start, with others joining the program as they see its “proven success of partnering and the business growth that they’re seeing, to win with multicultural consumers.”

            Prospective filmmakers are introduced to P&G brands that support the Widen the Screen mission and given the opportunity to pitch projects they feel might fit well. The aim is to come up with “a perfect partnership of stories that these Black female filmmakers want to tell and some of the ambitions that our brands are hoping to share with the world,” says Janes.

            As part of the Widen the Screen initiative, P&G teamed with Tribeca Studios and Saturday morning, a collective of Black creative executives, to debut 8:46 Films at the 2021 Tribeca Festival—four films celebrating the Black experience that each run for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the time in which George Floyd’s life was taken. The program aired on BET and CBS.

            One of Jane’s goals is to see the P&G-backed movies shown more widely. “We need to make sure that we are really cascading and distributing this messaging broadly, so that people see the full vastness of Black life,” she says, “the fullness, the richness, the joy, the happiness, the sadness—all aspects of Black life. It’s incredibly important that it’s broadcast on more than just one network or two networks.”

From an interview with Louis Carr

 

Having Their Say

Queen Collective filmmakers share their experiences of being part of the project.

“Queen Collective is putting their money where their mouth is. We got mentorship. We got exposure. Our films went to Tribeca and different platforms that you don't hear of documentary short-films going to.”

— B.Monét, Ballet After Dark (2019)

 

“I think without P&G's help I wouldn't be on the journey that I'm on now. It kind of changes peoples lives, honestly. I know it changed mine and altered it in a very good way. They are taking real chances on people and that's not something that happens very often. If it weren't for the Queen Collective, I don't think I would have been where I am today, or as well prepared. I love the kind of bravery that the program has.”

 —  Haley Elizabeth Anderson, If There Is Light (2019)

 

“I think the biggest thing that the Queen Collective does, is that is prioritizes stories from marginalized film makers. You’re making these films with a cohort of other women of color and we’ve all faced the same kinds of challenges.  I love that I’ve been able to continue working on issues that really align with my values and really kind of came out of what I did for the Queen Collective.”

— Samantha Knowles, Tangled Roots (2020)

 

“Access and money are real barriers in this industry. It's really amazing to be 26 and receive a budget to do a short documentary. Being able to premiere at Tribeca Film Festival, which is a top-tier festival, does mean a lot going forward in my career.”

— Cai Thomas, Change the Name (2021)