Tribeca: Queen Latifah on How Short-Film Initiative is Working to Improve Representation

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"This resonated with people which tells me there are so many women out there who are waiting for an opportunity and are waiting for something like this," she said as she debuted her Queen Collective Shorts inaugural docs.

Speaking at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, Queen Latifah opened up about how she's managed and navigated her dynamic career, and how her latest endeavor, The Queen Collective Shorts, is working to uplift women filmmakers, and accelerate gender and racial equality behind the camera.

Bessie and Mudbound director Dee Rees hosted the hourlong discussion, which was followed by the premiere of the collective's inaugural short docs. During the panel, the rapper, actress, label president, author and entrepreneur discussed the origins of her film production collective, where she hopes it will go in the future and how it fits into her life's work. 

"For us, giving people the opportunity who may not otherwise receive one is what we've been doing from day one," Latifah told the audience about the collective and its role in her work with Flavor Unit Entertainment. "[These people] can be so creative —they've got more creativity in their pinky than people who have master's degrees and doctorates, and when you see that kind of talent you can't walk away from it." 

Developed in partnership with Flavor Unit, a TV and film production company Latifah started in 1995 with producer and manager Shakim Compere, and Procter & Gamble, the women-focused collective selected, financed, produced and distributed two documentary proposals as part of its inaugural class.

Latifah personally mentored both of the winning directors, Haley Anderson and Brittany Fennell. Anderson directed If There Is Light, a look at one family's move out of the shelter system, while Fennell helmed the dance-focused doc, Ballet After Dark, which follows a black Baltimore woman who survived abuse and now is using ballet as therapy. Both short docs are streaming on Hulu.

The idea for the partnership came after sitting on a summit panel for women with Proctor & Gamble's chief brand officer Marc S. Pritchard, Latifah said. It was there she realized that something had to be done "to really represent women and girls honestly, truthfully, naturally" in both advertising and behind the camera.

"This was such an unforgettable experience because as women of color we're…getting support from other editors, directors, Tribeca staff," Fennell told the panel audience. "I don't think women of color always have a seat at the table and I think this program is so different because it arranges opportunities for people to do that."

Looking forward, Latifah said she'd like to see the number of produced projects jump from two to five and for the work to create a "halo effect." She admitted she's already started to see the rippling impact of the collective's work. After the initiative was announced and she returned to the set of Fox's Star, Latifah said she'd found women stepping "out of the dark shadows" to express interest in directing and ask whether the Queen Collective would be supporting the production of more films.

"This resonated with people which tells me there are so many women out there who are waiting for an opportunity and are waiting for something like this — someone who understands what they're trying to accomplish," Latifah said.

During the panel, the actress and musician also talked about how she's navigated having a successful, long and diverse career. The entertainer first pointed to her mother, Rita Owens, as a guiding light who reinforced that she shouldn't put all her eggs in one basket and that she should always have something to fall back on.

That played a significant role in how she branched out beyond music into acting and beyond. She also acknowledged Spike Lee, who gave her an early acting role and Will Smith, whose successful music-to-television crossover inspired her to do Living Single.

The rapper and producer also noted that having the right people in your life can be incredibly crucial to a strong, continuously successful career. Avoiding having "a bunch of yous" in your life, and identifying people "who are moving in the same direction as you," is key to staying focused and progressing in her career, Latifah said.

Being unafraid to use one experience as a stepping stone to another, as well as refusing to say, "yes" to things you aren't proud or passionate about — even if they pay well — are other keys to her career success, the actress and musician said. Latifah said she had turned down several lucrative opportunities because they simply didn't feel right or were pushing her in a direction "that wasn't me." But she was able to use opportunities to open up doors. For instance, Latifah revealed she took her Oscar-nominated role in Chicago partly to try and warm people up to the idea that she could do a jazz album. 

"The truth is you won't be able to stay in your place," Latifah said about those like her who wanted to venture out beyond their primary medium. "You won't be able to stay in your place because your mind will keep pulling you and telling you to do something else."