Black women filmmakers find greater opportunity in Atlanta

Emerging producers and directors feel freedom to experiment and take chances.
"Scheme Queens," a funky, femme take on "Ocean's Eleven" in which four girlfriends outfox a Jamaican villain to score a stash of jewels, was written and directed by Cas Sigers of Atlanta.  
(Courtesy of Nina Holiday Entertainment / Donna Pernell)

Credit: DONNAPERMELL.COM

Credit: DONNAPERMELL.COM

"Scheme Queens," a funky, femme take on "Ocean's Eleven" in which four girlfriends outfox a Jamaican villain to score a stash of jewels, was written and directed by Cas Sigers of Atlanta. (Courtesy of Nina Holiday Entertainment / Donna Pernell)

Cas Sigers was pitching her novel as a possible movie in a Hollywood meeting when the executives started intoning about a “general market” classification.

Uh-oh, she thought, that is industry code for “white.”

“Why? I wondered. Because the main character doesn’t ‘sound Black?’ Because she’s an educated woman?” Sigers asks. “She’s me. I based her on me. I thought, ‘(Expletive) this! This would never happen in Atlanta.”

Back in the Peach State, the shortsightedness of #OscarsSoWhite has never really ruled the day. Diversity is not just an interesting, high-minded ideal to shoot for, she says. It has become a default setting, even in the corner offices, and sisterhood — in every sense of that word — is powerful.

So another Great Migration is underway, this time of starry-eyed Black women who are making movies, documentaries, cartoons, television series, videos, shorts, reality shows and other forms of entertainment. They constitute their own pipeline to BET, and they are filling their mantels with NAACP Image Awards. If they can dream it, they can screen it.

Cas Sigers is part of the vanguard of Black women filmmakers who are putting their own stamp on Georgia's entertainment industry. 
(Courtesy of Nina Holiday Entertainment / Donna Pernell)

Credit: Donna Permell

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Credit: Donna Permell

“I left New York for Atlanta six years ago, kicking and screaming because this is a smaller market,” says Robyn Watson, president of Women in Film & Television/Atlanta, the second largest and oldest organization of its kind. “Now I’m so glad I did. It has been worth it because it’s not just Black women, it’s women of all colors and sexual orientations and ages — true diversity, in other words. We’re behind the camera, in the crew and sitting at the tables where decisions are made in strategy and production. Black women feel they can be their authentic selves here, and they love that.”

Her organization is composed of 40% African Americans at different stages in their careers, she says. Similar professional groups have sprung up to accommodate this boom, and they also look notably different in complexion and hair texture from their bicoastal counterparts. Of the roughly 200 members of the local chapter of the Producers Guild of America (PGA), 54% are women, says president Suzan Satterfield.

“When we have the Women in Production Summit, a little over half the women who come are Black, and I believe that reflects the membership of most of our local organizations,” says Satterfield, a writer and producer whose projects often involve themes of inclusion. “Once, a very successful L.A. producer was our guest speaker at a PGA meeting. Black producers made up about half the attendees. She walked in, looked at us and announced that this was a far more diverse group than she’d seen at any PGA meetings in L.A., and how excited she was to see it … It’s my favorite thing about our community.”

Georgia’s film industry, which spent $4.4 billion in the state in 2022 as a result of several tax incentives that went into effect in 2008, is still evolving. But minorities — and women — have been known to thrive in less established, frontier-like environments where they are free to develop their own rules, before some pinstriped power broker can leap up to slam the door.

“Hollywood is a very structured place where everything is stuck in this business-as-usual mode, where we’ve always done it a certain way,” says Sigers. Her first movie, “A Cross to Bear” (2012), starred Storm Reid, who was unknown at the time.

“Atlanta is more permeable and flexible, where we all know each other, and so much is done by word of mouth alone. It’s getting harder, but you can still call up a random studio and get a meeting — and get a project made, from start to finish. That’s unheard of in other places, and it makes it easier for Black women.”

Across the board, leaders are working to develop a hive of originators and creators and not just providers of scenic locations and secondary casts. The result? Greater thematic variety for Black stories that do not fit the traditional molds.

“Hollywood had 100 years of casting us as nothing but slaves and housekeepers, and that won’t change overnight, but we’re trying,” says Sigers, a cofounder of Reel Divas, an initiative to promote Black writers, producers and directors and increase awareness of Atlanta as a production hub. “We want to see people who look like us on screen, and we want to tell our stories to each other. And we want to hire our friends for everything.”

Members of Reel Divas gathered for a group photo in 2019. 
Courtesy of Donna Permell

Credit: Donna Permell

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Credit: Donna Permell

So she and her colleagues are gleefully playing with genres. Filmed in Florence, Italy, “Unthinkably Good Things” stars Karen Pittman and was the first movie for Hallmark’s Mahogany label, which launched in 2022. Sigers has also made a highly stylized, all-women heist movie, “Scheme Queens,” that pays homage to one of her influences, Guy Ritchie, with the camera lingering lovingly on jewels and one brief, tasteful moment of twerking that debuted on BET HER last New Year’s Eve and airs again at 11 p.m. Saturday, March 11.

“I wanted to make a Black, female ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ — why not?” she says. At the moment, she is pitching a sci-fi project, and her thriller, “A Mother’s Intuition,” is scheduled to air on the Lifetime Network May 5.

Producer Autumn Bailey-Ford sums it up: “We’ve probably had enough slave movies for the time being.”

Teethed on Turner Classic Movies, Bailey-Ford is still in her 30s and already has more than 30 films to her name. (“People say I’m the female Will Packer,” she says, referring to the Atlanta-based impresario behind Kevin Hart’s comedies and other films, “but I’m just Autumn.”)

Currently wrapping up a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she scours book sales and other media looking for movie material, and if it involves “Black Girl Magic,” all the better. After buying the book “I’m Not Dying with You Tonight,” she tracked down Atlanta author Kimberly Jones and wound up representing her in a blockbuster entertainment deal before her video, “How Can We Win,” about fighting racism, went viral on the late-night talk shows during the George Floyd aftermath.

“Autumn championed my work long before the world became familiar with me,” Jones says. “She has an eye that way and has long been a valued nurturer of the Atlanta film community. I exclusively create projects that celebrate Black women, and I always involve them in every aspect of production, as my mentors have taught me to do.”

That, they say, is the secret to their success: These women stick together and raise each other up whenever possible. They strive to bring a decidedly spiritual dimension to an industry usually perceived as cutthroat. You will hear more allusions to Jesus here than in Bel Air.

“We’re one industry family that asks the question: How can I help you grow?” Bailey-Ford says. “Me blessing someone else is God blessing me. That’s why I enjoy working with first-time writers and giving internships to HBCU students. Some people have urged me to move to L.A., but there is too much talent right here, right now, too many people of color making their way. If I can help a struggling, first-time writer land a deal for $30 million, why wouldn’t I do that? God blesses me, so I, in turn, try to bless others.”

Ty Johnston-Chavis studied social work at Florida A&M University, but she hung out there with Will Packer and Rob Hardy, who sparked her interest in show business. Today, the self-described “veteran and pioneer” runs T.Y. Entertainment and is working with Tubi.

“I realized early on that what was missing was the link between the content creators and the gatekeepers and distributors,” she says.

So she founded The Atlanta Pitch Summit to get them all together every November, working in conjunction with executives from BET, Lifetime, FOX, Harpo Films, MGM, Nickelodeon and other companies. Bailey-Ford has “discovered” artists at these events.

“What it’s like is speed dating but with a script in hand,” Johnston-Chavis says. “We have so many untapped creators with great ideas. This goes beyond just networking. It’s the kind of stuff that changes lives. ”This work is even more than just a calling, she says; it’s an active ministry.

“I originally wanted to do social work, and even though that’s not technically what I do now, it has elements that are similar,” she says. “I see talents and skills. I see women like reality star London “Deelishis” Charles, who most people think is just eye candy, and I see someone who can lead a thriller. Some people see things that others miss — that’s where the ministry comes in. Sometimes you just need the right person in production, to see your talents.”

Sometimes it just takes a sister.

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