The separation of screen and viewer—a separation rooted in unfamiliarity toward characters I’ve seen on screen for as long as I can remember, of plots and writing styles that are intended for a “general audience” that I don’t belong to. To be a part of the screen, to reach out and mix what’s being shown to you with your own experience, is often a rarity for those beyond the Eurocentric norm. The world of television and cinema is a universe I compartmentalized as wholly different from my own reality, and when comparisons were struck between the two, it became harder to find emotional value in either.
This isn’t a new concept, and it's no secret that representation in Hollywood has a long way to go. Awards shows and trailers of actors are still filled with the industry's long legacy of whiteness and wealthy connections. The frequently sidelined and stereotypical roles reserved for minorities, if any roles are reserved at all, trace back to a lack of marginalized individuals in the writers’ rooms and producers’ rooms. With years of little to no change, increasing demands for representation are now found in nearly all magazines and news outlets that discuss film and television. These demands are valid—a product of continued frustration at an industry that seems to always take one step forward and two steps back.
Yet what these calls to action tend to ignore is the true importance of that one step forward. Just last week, history was made at the 2022 Oscars when Ariana DeBose won Best Supporting Actress for her role in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, making it the first time an openly queer woman of color has won an Academy Award. Her voice and role brought crucial Afro Latina recognition to the big screen. While complacency in these moments of success won’t generate necessary systemic change, the steps and experiences imparted by those who have broken down walls and barriers are things that deserve their own focus and celebration. For the past few weeks, a member of Penn’s Cinema & Media Studies program sought to do just that.
Street sat down with Paola Camacho (C ‘24), a co–organizer of the "Flipping the Script: Diversity in Hollywood" speaker series on campus. She’s extremely candid about not always feeling a real "in" with the film industry despite yearning for a place in it. “I didn’t have any access to the industry … and my parents [didn’t] know anything [since] they immigrated from Colombia. I’m an immigrant myself,” says Paola, who moved to the U.S. at age two.
Paola envisioned that arriving at a place like Penn would be a turning point for her career ambitions, and it was. She emphasizes her love for her fellow majors, her professors, and the Cinema & Media Studies Department overall. But in some ways, Penn wasn’t the instant click she thought it would be. “There was an overwhelming sense of a culture that I just [didn’t] belong to, whether that’s by wealth or background,” Paola says.
The "Flipping the Script" speaker series was Paola’s way of utilizing the resources that she did have: professionals in the industry in similar circumstances. There’s no resignation in Paola’s voice as she talks about the event; on the contrary, there’s fiery determination in her descriptions of her sources of inspiration for the series.
“I’m reacting to that feeling, that really deep, pure, raw feeling [of doubt and] deciding to do something about it. There are people of color, people of different marginalized backgrounds, and LGBTQ+ people in the industry working, [so] I know it’s possible,” Paola explains. “I wanted to know how they surpass this feeling.”
What Paola is referring to is something that many workers in film and television have also been outspoken about. For instance, a 2016 New York Times article pulled and compiled quotes from the experiences of 27 professionals who have been shunned by the industry due to their backgrounds. The article starts with examples of exclusion that are unfortunately common for minorities in the industry, such as America Ferrera being told that she couldn’t hope for better acting roles than the chubby Latina sidekick. Yet it also chooses to focus on the triumphs that these creatives have experienced, ending with optimism for the future of Hollywood. That optimism is essential: It gives hope to aspiring readers that things can and are changing. "Flipping the Script"’s compilation of speakers and talks achieves the same.
Paola goes into detail on how she was able to organize this series in the first place with her friend, Lauren Davidson (C ‘23), via a snowball effect of connections ranging from Nicola Gentili, the associate director of the Penn Cinema & Media Studies office and program, to the Ghetto Film School, to various members of the Penn alumni network. But there were challenges faced in planning, particularly when it came to Penn and external groups they reached out to for collaboration. Despite being very supportive of Paola and Lauren's efforts and promoting the events to all their members, the student groups weren't prepared to assist them in the way they needed—specifically with finding the speakers they were looking for. “We as women of color are going to student groups and asking for help … finding creatives or creative executives [in marginalized or underrepresented groups], and it genuinely came down to them not knowing any,” Paola says. This inability to help is what prompted and reaffirmed Paola's efforts to expand the series and find more individuals that she could learn from and hear speak—more individuals that came from similar backgrounds as her and still cemented themselves in the industry.
Paola and Lauren’s hard work paid off. I remember attending the Making Documentaries talk on March 16 where documentarian Bedatri Datta Choudhury aimed to ask and answer two questions: How do we manage the production of a documentary effectively enough to tell the stories that we want to tell, and how do we distribute that documentary to a wider audience that wants to listen to those stories? Choudhury’s personality and approach to her craft is uniquely influenced by her background. She emphasizes the importance of intersectionality in film during her talk, especially in documentaries where multiple perspectives exist for any given situation. “My takeaway was that who I am and the way I think and what I have to say is not only valid but necessary … in the industry,” Paola asserts.
As a voracious consumer of media, especially of film and television that speaks to me, bridging the gap between consumer and producer is extremely valued. As Paola succinctly puts it, “When we’re talking about storytelling and … feeling authentically represented, a lot of that is rooted in the behind–the–scenes and who is telling those stories,” she says. “There’s definitely a change going on … I’m falling in the footsteps of great, powerful people that are activating this change, and it will probably be upon me to continue that change.”
"Flipping the Script: Diversity in Hollywood" celebrates abundance, underdogs, and the hard–working players fighting uphill battles. It reminds us that it’s high time to stop forgetting that massive change in such an industry not only has the potential to occur, but is currently moving and transforming lives.