How a Scrappy New York Studio Became a Major Platform for Filmmakers of Color
Wavelength founder and CEO Jenifer Westphal told IndieWire about our evolving mission to amplify the creative voices of women and people of color.
As of this afternoon, Juneteenth, which commemorates the official end of slavery in the United States, is recognized as a federal holiday. In honor of this long overdue acknowledgement, we sat down with executive producer Brenda Robinson to talk about one of her newest projects The Empire of Ebony, a film exploring the impact of the first Black media empire; the Johnson Publishing Company, and their publications Ebony and Jet.
Brenda Robinson, an entertainment attorney, producer, and dedicated philanthropist, is one of our beloved partners here at Wavelength. Last year the International Documentary Association appointed Brenda as the President of its Board of Directors, making history as the organization’s first Black president. We’ve had the pleasure of working with her on many projects including Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and Marian Anderson: The Whole World In Her Hands for PBS’ American Masters series.
Your track record in the doc space includes supporting many critically acclaimed films including Academy-Award winner Icarus and United Skates. Why are you so passionate about nonfiction filmmaking?
People use documentaries as a tool to create an extended life for important discussions around critical issues. This is why we still discuss documentaries five and ten years after the fact. A lot of these films have directly impacted legislation and have changed how we view key issues, certainly in the areas of gender equality, social justice, women’s empowerment, sexual harassment, environmental issues and a host of other causes of critical importance. Documentaries create meaningful conversations and as tools for social change, are for many of us our greatest form of activism.
Let’s talk about your recent projects.
So two recent projects come to mind. The first that’s in production now is called Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands being directed by the incredible Rita Coburn. Ms. Anderson is a respected and celebrated historical figure in the Black community because she took risks in order to be seen and heard. She encountered many obstacles too numerous to count and yet she continued pushing for change. Her story absolutely needs to be told now, because it’s a really great example of what it looks like when a woman can accomplish something who has the drive to overcome obstacles along with the power of change that can occur when someone is given a proper platform and respect.
You mentioned working on two new projects, can you expand on the second one?
There’s a more recent project, which is an incredibly important project, and I would say it’s probably going to be one of the most important projects about African-American history and culture that will ever be made. And that movie is called The Empire of Ebony directed by the magnificent Lisa Cortes who truly sets the bar for what filmmaking should be. It traces the creation and the building of Ebony Magazine and Jet Magazine — from the Johnson Publishing Company empire that originated in Chicago.
What makes this story groundbreaking?
This is a story for the ages because it’s capturing 70+ years of Black history and culture and celebrates the enormous impact that Black people have had on American culture. In terms of importance, every single major figure in the Black community, whether in entertainment or the arts, sports, politics, medicine, business, they’ve all been featured on these pages. So much of our history as a community and as a country has been impacted by what was contained in the pages of these publications. If you think back to 1955, I think about Emmett Till who was brutally murdered for something he didn’t do and the impact that this incident had not only on the Black community, but on America more broadly. Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, made the excruciating decision that she wanted his image to be on full display because she wanted the world to see what had been done to her son. John H. Johnson, founder of the Johnson Publishing Company, took a risk. He decided he would publish those pictures unedited, unretouched, in the magazine for all the world to see.
How would you say this risk impacted society?
It sparked a new wave of activism. Fast forward a short time after that, Rosa Parks refuses to give up her seat on the bus. She later shared that when asked to give up her seat, she couldn’t do it – she was thinking about Emmett Till and had had enough. So that decision to publish that picture impacted so many. Many of our leaders cite that moment as a catalyst for them because this image, that Jet Magazine so boldly published, inspired them to keep going on our long journey to justice.
The impact of these publications is unbelievable.
We’ve never had a film about Ebony and Jet magazines until now. This is a big deal. And when you look at the energy that this has created and the support that’s coming in, we’re recognizing with each month of this production just how important this is and the magnitude of what this will be. But none of this would have been possible if not for companies – allies really – like Wavelength stepping forward early on before there was anything tangible to see, just the faith that they knew that this was an important story, that it was in the right hands and that it would mean something to all of us for them to be a part of this.