Lena Waithe’s Rising Voices Fights Racial Disparities in Filmmaking as DEI Efforts Shatter Across the US: ‘The Onus Is on Us’

The initiative from Hillman Grad, Indeed and 271 Films seeks to inspire change in Hollywood while giving diverse creatives a fair shot

(L-R) Chris Hyams, Rishi Rajani, Lena Waithe, LaFawn Davis and Misty Gaither attend the Indeed Rising Voices Premiere at Spring Studios on June 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for 2023 Tribeca Festival)
(L-R) Chris Hyams, Rishi Rajani, Lena Waithe, LaFawn Davis and Misty Gaither attend the Indeed Rising Voices Premiere at Spring Studios on June 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for 2023 Tribeca Festival)

As Rising Voices closes out its fourth season, the diversity initiative seeks to smash racial disparities in filmmaking by providing diverse creatives with the resources and mentorship needed to be successful in the entertainment industry. Meanwhile, attacks against DEI-driven efforts remain steady across the country.

“The onus is on folks like us to create programs, because we also know what we need to break in and to stay in,” Lena Waithe told TheWrap. “I think anyone that sees it as a threat — I try not to even focus attention on that, because the threat is just inclusivity. The threat is stories being told that ordinarily wouldn’t be. So anyone who has an issue with that, I don’t really have much brain space for that. My mission is to make sure people that feel invisible, or don’t feel heard, get to feel seen and get to feel like their voices are being listened to. And I think this is the way to do it, is to really make the space to find the funds, because that’s the only way you can really make sure everybody gets a fair shot.”

Rising Voices — a joint effort between Waithe’s Hillman Grad production company, job search website Indeed and film production company 271 Films — seeks to present Hollywood with its next generation of diverse storytellers. During the program, Rising Voice’s team of filmmaker mentors work with a group of 10 creatives who are given $100,000 to create a short film. The filmmakers are also paid $5,000 for writing their original script and $5,000 for directing.

While Hollywood has been a tough industry to break into across demographics, creatives of color face additional roadblocks, including structural racism, access to funding and finding a network of sponsors who can get them in boardrooms with studio executives.

“Programs like Rising Voices are crucial for filmmakers of color, because they tackle systemic barriers in the film industry,” Rising Voices Season 3 participant Miguel Angel Caballero said. Since graduating from the program, Caballero’s short film “The Ballad of Tita and the Machines” won an Imagen Award for Best Short Film in 2023. “[Rising Voices’] motto is, ‘Talent is universal, opportunity is not.’ Rising Voices provides not only opportunities, mentorship, and resources, but also champions filmmakers and our stories that Hollywood has often overlooked.”

Caballero continued, “[‘The Ballad of Tita and The Machines’] premiered at the Tribeca Festival, had a special screening at TIFF, has screened in over 20 film festivals and has garnered 10 awards to date. These milestones are not just moments of recognition, but stepping stones that continue to propel my career forward and support me in my journey to tell impactful stories.”

Cofounder of 271 Films and Rising Voices mentor Constanza Castro said the success of Rising Voices participants is rooted in the initiative’s rigorous curriculum and its community-oriented foundation. That sets filmmakers up with the tools they need to take on future obstacles and helps carve out a less bumpy path for BIPOC creatives, according to Castro.

“Filmmakers that have gone through the program have truly changed in big jumps,” Castro said. She founded 271 Flims with her sister and fellow Rising Voices mentor Doménica. “Doménica and I are filmmakers. It’s taken us many, many years to get to where we’re at, and I think the challenge is always to make it faster and easier.”

“There shouldn’t be so many barriers,” she continued. “When you have a film set in a studio system world, so it’s like, ‘OK, you’re no longer doing it alone. You are accountable in a big way, you’re not calling all the shots, we’re challenging you to make decisions, and you’re doing it quickly.’ And I think what has come next for every person that has gone through the program has been proof that there’s something unique here that’s happening. And it’s not just … There’s a lot of mentorship programs, very different ones. But here, we’re building community.”

Doménica Castro, Constanza Castro, Rishi Rajani and Lena Waithe (Getty Images)
Doménica Castro, Constanza Castro, Rishi Rajani and Lena Waithe (Getty Images)

That Rising Voices community started off with 800 filmmakers signing up and more than 650 jobs being created in the process. To date, the program boasts creating more than 2,000 jobs over the course of its existence. Over the first three seasons, 140 of the participants’ films have gone on to earn festival selections and awards. As the program grows, Rising Voices Season 4 saw a 40% jump in applications.

“I think it’s a testament to all the wonderful filmmakers and the success they’ve had in the industry,” Rishi Rajani, Rising Voices mentor and Hillman Grad president of production and development, said of the initiative’s success. “I think when you are applying to something you’re like, ‘OK, how have people from this program done, and coming out of it, is it the right program to apply to?’ I think we’ve been able to prove over the last several years that it’s a resounding ‘yes.’”

Despite some unexpected challenges — like the COVID-19 pandemic and the months-long WGA/SAG-AFTRA strike — Rising Voices has remained devoted to its goal to help end race and gender disparities in the entertainment business. Even as more anti-DEI legislation continues to sprout and industries across the country pull back on promises to center diversity, equity and inclusion, the Rising Voices team said the program is here to stay.

“As soon as news came out about [DEI bans in] schools, we were kind of like, ‘This is concerning,’ Constanza and I talked [about how] it’s going to impact a lot of jobs,” Doménica Castro explained. “So many [businesses] are going to be like, ‘Great, don’t have to do that anymore. We’ll put that money somewhere else.’ [Some DEI efforts seem] so easily replaceable because they weren’t ever foundational. They were Band-Aids to a problem. It came from, ‘Everyone’s doing it. We must do it too.’ It didn’t come from, ‘Let’s do it because it matters.’ This program, I can tell you, from everybody involved, it comes because it matters. It exists because it matters and it’s continued because it matters.”

According to USC Anneberg’s study “Inclusion in the Director’s Chair: Analysis of Director Gender and Race/Ethnicity Across the 1,600 Top Films From 2007 to 2022,” in 2022, one in five (20.7%) of the top 100 films were directed by a person from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group. That was a 6.6% drop from the year before. The statistics show Hollywood still has work to do in order to cement equitable change. Indeed’s LaFawn Davis, the company’s senior vice president of Environmental, Social and Governance, said that no matter how the political climate changes, Rising Voices will keep moving forward.

(L-R) Chris Hyams, Misty Gaither and LaFawn Davis attend the Indeed Rising Voices Premiere at Spring Studios on June 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for 2023 Tribeca Festival)
(L-R) Chris Hyams, Misty Gaither and LaFawn Davis attend the Indeed Rising Voices Premiere at Spring Studios on June 12, 2023 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Coppola/Getty Images for 2023 Tribeca Festival)

“Because this program did not start from a performative place, we’re going to stay the course,” Davis said. “Even though the winds might change in the direction of DEI being this negative connotation, or people saying ‘anti-woke’ and things of that nature, we are going to stay the course. We’re still investing in this program because we believe it’s important, in order for these voices to be heard, and the stories to be heard, for people to see themselves in the stories being told as well.”

Davis continued, “It also shines a light on the industry as a whole. This isn’t just about having more diversity in front of the camera, this isn’t just about having the director, as I mentioned — it’s also about expanding it to lots of different jobs. Some people just need a chance and opportunity to get into the field. And we also need more people in positions to be able to greenlight films. It’s not just one or two things that actually makes this more of a diverse experience. This is about the entire industry that we want to shift and change.”

Indeed’s CEO Chris Hyams shared his desire to make the program even more inclusive as it pushes Hollywood to change the industry’s framework.

“Our goal when we started this was not that Indeed would get credit for all this stuff and we would suddenly have this big program, be the only ones doing it,” Hyams explained. “The goal was to inspire the industry to take notice, and to change the way the industry operates.”

“We use the term ‘BIPOC,’ but I’ll say that we have not yet had an Indigenous filmmaker as a part of this program,” Hyams added, noting that they’re looking to expand the ways in which Rising Voices is diverse. “That’s something that we’re hoping to actually do additional outreach for in Season 5. We haven’t really targeted, we’ve just opened [the program] up. We’ve had an amazing set of folks who have applied, but that’s one area we would like to see some more [of], especially having seen what has happened in in the industry over the last couple of years with [shows] like ‘Reservation Dogs’ from Sterlin Harjo, and Lily Gladstone getting nominated for an Oscar. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for us to continue to expand that way.”

Indeed will debut 10 shorts from Rising Voices Season 4 at the 2024 Tribeca Festival in New York on June 10. This season’s participants included Winter Dunn, Mercedes Arturo, Kelly Yu, Anndi Jinelle Liggett, Wes Goodrich, Jean Liu, Kelly Luu & Kevin Luu, Manuel Del Valle, Omar Kamara and Robin Takao D’Oench.

Check out the impact Rising Voices has worked to make in the industry over the years in a video from Indeed below:

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