Communicator of the Month
Loni Ding: Stereotype Shatterer
“When you talk about the history of people of color in this country, there’s always the possibility that you could fall into victim history, telling lament after lament. I think it’s necessary to present what those things are, whether hardships or obstacles. But it’s an incomplete story until you get to what they did about it. You have to get to the resistance, the strategies of survival.”
— Loni Ding
Born to parents who emigrated to San Francisco from China, Isadora Quanehia Ding Welsh, known as Loni Ding, was an Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker and activist responsible for more than 250 programs for broadcast, including the groundbreaking PBS documentaries “Ancestors in the Americas,” “The Color of Honor” and “Nisei Soldier: Standard Bearer for an Exiled People.”
“Ancestors in the Americas” covered the experiences of Asians in the New World from the 1400s to 1800s, while “Nisei Soldier” and “The Color of Honor” looked at issues faced by Japanese World War I soldiers. The latter two films were considered so influential and moving that they were submitted to Congress in 1987 and 1988 during hearings on reparations to Japanese Americans.
Ding was also a strong advocate for increased funding for independent and minority productions in public broadcasting. Not only did she testify before Congress in 1984 and 1987 on this issue, but she also created the Independent Television Service to fund and distribute films for public television.
Ding earned both her master’s degree and doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley. She became a professor of sociology, Asian-American history, media analysis and media production at the same school.
She died in 2010 at age 78.
Jamaa Fanaka: Rights Rebel
“I exposed the Achilles’ heel of Hollywood.”
— Jamaa Fanaka
Jamaa Fanaka was part of a small group of African-American filmmakers, dubbed the L.A. Rebellion, who studied at the UCLA Film School in the late 1970s and helped create a new “Black Cinema.”
Born in 1942, Fanaka made his mark in the film industry with what would become 1979’s most successful independent film, “Penitentiary.” Critics say the film represents a pivotal point between blaxploitation films and the beginning of independent African-American filmmaking.
Fanaka was a strong advocate for equal opportunity in filmmaking, and spoke out against discriminatory practices in the industry, including bringing several lawsuits claiming widespread discrimination against women and ethnic minorities.
Fanaka died in 2012. At the time of his death he was working on his eighth film, a documentary about hip-hop culture.
Kathleen Collins: Intellectual Image-Maker
“I have a sense of going my own way, and I don’t really think much about whether it’s going against the grain.”
— Kathleen Collins
Born in 1942, Kathleen Collins was the first African-American woman to write, direct and produce a full-length feature film. Her work is described as postmodern and experimental, and she is credited with helping to change black womanist film, a form of feminism focused especially on the conditions and concerns of black women.
In her films, Collins explored the impact of male dominance, finding meaning and purpose in life, and the plight of the African-American middle class. Collins refused to portray African-Americans in traditional roles of resigned victims, and instead addressed issues related to the impact of racism and sexism. In addition to film, Collins wrote and produced theatrical plays, including “In the Midnight Hour” and “The Brothers.”
Collins married Alfred Prettyman in 1987. One week after marrying, Collins discovered that she had cancer. She died a year later in 1988, leaving behind her images of female characters who embraced independence and self-expression.
Oscar Micheaux: Race Relator
“It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.”
Born in 1884, Oscar Micheaux was the first African American to produce a feature-length film with “The Homesteader” in 1920. He wrote, produced and directed more than 40 feature-length films between 1919 and 1948.
Recognizing that there were no opportunities for African Americans to create films, Micheaux established his own movie production company in 1919. He used his films to rebut racism and took on controversial topics such as sexuality, racial crime, corruption and intra-racial discrimination. He also confronted the dominant mainstream discrimination of his day, as his film “Within Our Gates” was a direct response to the racism depicted in the film “Birth of a Nation.”
Before making films, Micheaux wrote seven novels, one of which was a national bestseller, and started his own publishing company to produce and distribute his work. He turned to the new industry of filmmaking to make his stories come to life. He died in 1951.
Joan Root: Wildlife Warrior
“Some people just see a few animals in a bit of bush, but I’ve developed this place into a sort of Masai Mara, preserving the environment through animals that would be together in the wild.”
— Joan Root
Born in Kenya in 1936 to British settlers, Joan Root is celebrated as a pioneering wildlife documentary filmmaker and conservationist.
While working as a safari guide, Root met her husband, Alan, with whom she would film some of her greatest work. The detailed focus her films placed on her subjects called attention to the fact that no wildlife is insignificant or inconsequential, whether it be plant, animal or insect.
Her most celebrated film, “The Year of the Wildebeest,” covered the mass migration of these animals through Tanzania. The Roots earned an Oscar nomination for their 1978 film “Mysterious Castles of Clay,” a study of African giant termite mounds.
In the 1980s, Root’s focus shifted away from filmmaking and toward conservation as she fought to defend the natural habitat around Naivasha, Kenya. Protecting the lakeshore from poachers, Root made enemies within local African communities in the process, which led to multiple threats and acts of violence on her home. Root was killed in her home in 2006.