Carolyn A. Butts is the publisher/founder of African Voices, a leading non-profit arts magazine devoted to presenting fine art and literature by artists of color. African Voices was founded in 1992 and will celebrate its 25th Anniversary this year. Not only has she served as the assistant press secretary to former New York State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, but she was also a press aide to former Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger.
Carolyn was featured in Ms. Magazine’s October/November 2001 “Women to Watch” column for her outstanding achievements. An unsung heroine, she is the founder the Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series, an annual Brooklyn-based festival that highlights opportunities for women of color in the film industry.
She spoke with Sheen Magazine to discuss African Voices, what inspired her to create the platform, and how she believes the festival will continue to grow and impact the lives of women of color.
20 years ago, you founded the Reel sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival & Lecture Series what inspired you to create this platform?
I wanted to create a space where women of color could come together to share their stories and network in the film industry.We have a wealth of talented women filmmakers who are writing, directing and producing roles for our actresses but they are doing it outside of Hollywood. Reel Sisters gives our filmmakers a chance to connect with audiences that appreciate their work. 20 years ago, our unique mission to focus on supporting women of color behind the camera filled a void and inspired several other film festivals and organizations to do the same.We are very proud to have been on the forefront in a movement that is now in full bloom. There can never be enough outlets for women to showcase our stories.
What is your mission/purpose with both Reel Sisters & the African Voices?
The mission for our magazine and the festival is the same — to serve as an outlet for artists of color to share their art, literature and film with the Diaspora. It is a blessing to have published over 2700 writers in the last 25 years and witness their careers evolve. Some have gone on to publish novels and anthologies or have their plays produced.
How was the climate compared to now? Has there been real progress in terms of diversity and representation for women of color?
There is a greater awareness about the need for diversity in the film industry and a recent study reports the television industry has improved slightly by providing opportunities for women of color to direct and produce shows but overall mainstream film and television outlets still have a long way to go.
We must ban together to support film festivals and organizations like Reel Sisters to transform the industry.
One of the amazing examples happened at the top of 2017 with Hidden Figures. Families, sororities and fraternities came out in droves to ensure this exceptional Hollywood film about Black women’s role in NASA was a box office success. What if we mobilized in the same way to purchase tickets to film festivals and organizations that showcase our films? It would be revolutionary because now we are creating cash flow for our filmmakers and the organizations that struggle to create platforms for our stories to be told.
If we use today’s technology and the film festival circuit to create an industry centered on our storytellers, we will begin seeing industry change on a wider scale.
It is happening. Ava Duvernay’s partnership with Oprah’s OWN to produce Queen Sugar, Shonda Rhimes recently inked a deal to produce shows for Netflix and Issa Rae’s hit show Insecure on HBO are examples of women leading the way to empower women directors and writers.
Where do you see the festival 20 years from now?
My vision is to have Reel Sisters travel the festival and have women from around the world to connect with each other.We’re also working on providing distribution and income to filmmakers via streaming opportunities. Netflix and other streaming services are giving filmmakers greater access to not having to depend on Hollywood as the only model for creating a successful career in film and television.
I can see Reel Sisters having our films accessible to an international audience online so people the festival lives throughout the year and can be enjoyed in people’s living rooms.
Can you share some of the highlights of the festival over the years?
Last year, Reel Sisters was perfect. We honored Cathy Hughes (TV One) and actress Naturi Naughton (Power) and we had a powerful celebration at the Schomburg Center. Meli’sa Morgan was performing and at one point during the ceremony the audience was swept up with joy. Everyone just got up and started dancing. It was magical. I will carry this memory to my grave because it represents how movements start.
One person jumps up and gives permission for everyone to stand and be free. Our music, our culture and stories are healing and empowering.
Reel Sisters will be held from October 21st through October 22, 2017 at AMC’s Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn, NY. Editor, Chris Gore lists Reel Sisters under the categories of Best Black Film Festivals and Best Film Festivals for Women in the Ultimate Film Festival Guide.
You can find tickets and more information at their website, www.reelsisters.org
Reel Sisters will be held from October 21-22, 2017 at AMC’s Magic Johnson Theater in Harlem and Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Brooklyn, NY. Editor Chris Gore lists Reel Sisters under the categories of Best Black Film Festivals and Best Film Festivals for Women in the Ultimate Film Festival Guide. You can find tickets and more information at their website,www.reelsisters.org.
FEATURED IMAGE: (CREDIT by ReelSisters)