Photo Courtesy of Erica Hart, featuring Erica Hart

Ideally, entertainment both roves and reflects. Viewers should be able to rove through fantastical lands and simultaneously see themselves reflected on-screen. In recent times, Hollywood trailblazers have made sure the industry amps up the latter and rightfully makes representation a priority, both in front of and behind the camera. 

This Black History Month, we’re honored to highlight eight creatives who are shaping the business for the better from behind the scenes. These prolific talents are changemakers, leading by example as they strive to create an industry that truly reflects the world we live in.

ERICA A. HART, CSA

Casting Professional/ Producer

Erica Hart has been casting for over ten years. The NYU graduate launched into the business with a high-profile bang, starting out in the network and studio space. She worked her way up to casting coordinator in the NYC office of ABC Primetime Casting, and since then has put her Midas touch on nearly every genre, including commercials for major brands like Maybelline, Gillette and Hasbro, working on series like “Ray Donovan,”The Bold Type,” “Defending Jacob” and “Godfather of Harlem,” as well as collaborating with The National Black Theatre.

“My favorite part of being a casting director is working with actors, of course,” Erica shares with Casting Networks®. She strives to make auditioners “feel comfortable and confident so they can do their best work.” The powerhouse puts her passion where her mouth is, often donating her time to lead workshops on audition preparation for actors. 

Erica also makes it a priority to discuss representation in the business. “I always tell people that it’s important to have diversity in front of the camera, but you must also have it behind the camera,” she says. “Without that, there is no authenticity. Everywhere on set should look like the world we live in. Actors, directors, writers, casting directors, costume designers, makeup artists, gaffers, electricians… the list goes on and on. But remember, it’s not enough just to have one.”

Most recently, Erica landed the gig of casting director for HBO MAX’s “Untitled Michael Che Project.” She was also nominated for an Artios Award for her work on “The Surrogate,” a film she both cast and produced.

BLITZ BAZAWULE

Filmmaker

While the world shut down, Blitz Bazawule’s career lived its best life. The talent helmed Beyoncé’s “Black is King for Disney+, flaunting his unique skills to Queen Bey fans around the globe (her fans are earth’s population, let’s be real). Before Bey, Blitz conjured up attention with “The Burial of Kojo,” a microbudget film set in Ghana, which was distributed by Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY on Netflix. The major platform gave Blitz the audience his work beckons for, and cemented his status as a sought-after director. 

As of late, the filmmaker’s debut novel “The Scent of Burnt Flowers” was acquired by Ballantine Books of Penguin Random House, and will debut in 2022. Never fear — he’s still got lots of film projects cookin’ as well, like directing the highly anticipated musical adaption of “The Color Purple for Warner Bros. under producers Steven Speilberg, Quincy Jones, Oprah Winfrey and Alice Walker, herself. 

DAWN PORTER 

Filmmaker

Award-winning filmmaker Dawn Porter weaves her strong advocacy for mental health and social justice into everything she does. The storyteller has had quite the year, directing and producing two critically acclaimed documentaries, including a multi-part docuseries for Apple TV+ alongside Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry, which is on the docket for 2021.

Dawn’s recent documentaries glow with acclaim. She directed and produced “The Way I See It,” which dives into the Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama presidencies from the lens of official White House photographer Pete Souza. Laura Dern also notably served as a producer. Dawn’s “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” the story of the congressman and civil rights icon, also connected with viewers and is currently Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.

“One of the things I adore about being a documentary filmmaker is that I get to work through my own questions and emotions in my work,” she told 3CR.

DATARI TURNER

Producer/ Executive Producer/ Writer

Datari Turner is one of the busiest independent producers in Tinseltown. He has produced close to 30 feature films, including Netflix’s “Uncorked.” Datari is also behind the hit TV franchise “Growing Up Hip-Hop,” which mirrors many experiences from his upbringing. He recently teamed up with friend and actor Jamie Foxx to form a production company, and the pair inked an impressive overall deal with Sony Pictures Entertainment.

“I love stories, but at the same I want to make an impact,” Turner told the LA Times. “It’s very simple; things are never going to change until we have Black people in positions to greenlight movies.” He added, “The only way to change things is to change them at the root, and we’re creating a pipeline of people of color to be able to rise up the ranks.”

Datari does just that, honorably dedicating his time to creating change. Over the years, he has taught young filmmakers at entertainment hubs like Sundance and USC. He has also served on the board of Blackhouse Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at amplifying Black creatives and executives in the industry. 

DEBRA MARTIN CHASE

Producer/ President and CEO of Martin Chase Productions

Debra Martin Chase has been improving the entertainment landscape for over forty years. Her groundbreaking accomplishments include being the first Black woman to produce a film that grossed over $100 million (“Courage Under Fire in 1996) and sign a deal with a major studio. 

You’ll find the president and  CEO of Martin Chase Productions making headlines once again this year. Her “Equalizer reboot, led by the incomparable Queen Latifah, debuted after the Super Bowl on CBS with over 20 million viewers. The weekend after, her beloved made-for-TV “Cinderella twirled onto Disney+, reminding the world that she’s been bringing her prowess to the business for some time. 

Now, she’s busier than ever, recently telling The Hollywood Reporter: “I probably have about 20 projects in the works, film and TV, right now. And listen, I can remember castings and having my pick of the African American actors—because, sadly, nobody was working. That is definitely not the case now, and I’m thrilled.”

DENIESE DAVIS

Producer/ Reform Media Group

Deniese Davis is on a mission to change how marginalized stories are told. Fresh off her time at ColorCreative, which she founded alongside Issa Rae to create more visibility for women and minority writers, she scribes a powerful new chapter.

This month, the Insecure producer announced on her Instagram that she was launching Reform Media Group “to further pursue my own producing aspirations that I’ve been working towards pretty much since the day I graduated high school.” 

In addition to various projects in the works, Deniese is currently on the board of Black Public Media, which develops, produces, funds and distributes media content about the African American and global Black experience. She is also a founding member of AFI’s Alumni Council for the Lawrence Herbert Alumni Center. During her time at AFI, Deniese was awarded the prestigious Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer Scholarship.

CHERYL DUNYE

Director/ Writer/ Producer

Cheryl Dunye’s work is never over the top, but her voice is clear, and certainly always heard. “I’m more about the smaller moments. I’m not trying to say anything loud,” the filmmaker told Q Voice News. “I’m looking at the simple narratives of who we are and what unites us and more universal themes.”

Cheryl earned acclaim from the get-go, breaking onto the scene in 1996 with her first feature, “The Watermelon Woman.” She wrote, directed and starred in the movie, which made history as the first film written by a Black lesbian exploring Black lesbianism onscreen.

Since that big first, the talent has screened at top-tier film festivals, worked alongside luminaries like Oprah, and racked up an impressive array of television directing credits, including TNT’s “Claws,” Netflix’s “Dear White People,” CBS’ “All Rise” and HBO’s “Lovecraft Country.” For the latter, Cheryl has found herself nominated for a 2021 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Directing in a Drama.

In 2019, Cheryl launched a production company called Jingletown Films to provide a platform for storytellers and filmmakers that are people of color and/or queer. “I love being a filmmaker and being able to tell the stories that need to be seen and heard,” she wrote on her Instagram. As of late, Cheryl has directed the first two episodes of OWN’s “Delilah” and is developing “The Gilda Stories” by Jewelle Gomez for the screen.

TILANE JONES

President of ARRAY

Tilane Jones not only advocates, but actively creates solutions. The producer, who’s been in Hollywood for over a decade, was named president of Ava DuVernay’s film collective ARRAY in 2019. With 29 films under its belt, ARRAY is dedicated to amplifying people of color and female-identifying artists around the world. This month, Tilane helped usher in the non-profit ARRAY CREW, a premier platform that aims to support film and TV professionals from underrepresented populations by connecting them with hiring managers.

“We really wanted to take the excuse away from those folks who say that they don’t hire diverse crews because they don’t know any,” Jones told Deadline. This is merely one of the worthwhile initiatives Tilane and her team is working on. This year, she also received the highly regarded Slamdance Founders Award for her ability to nurture filmmakers. 

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Robert Peterpaul is a writer and actor who can be seen in James Franco’s film “King Cobra,” T-Mobile ad campaigns, and Amazon Prime’s “New Dogs, Old Tricks.” Other career highlights include working on NBC’s “Access Hollywood” and “America’s Got Talent,” BUILD Series, writing for HuffPost, and his family’s nonprofit, the Thomas Peterpaul Foundation, which aims to end pediatric cancer. Robert currently serves as the weekend editor for HOLA! USA and writes for publications like Backstage. He’s studied at the Barrow Group, Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, UCB and earned a B.A. from Marist College (go, Red Foxes!). Robert thanks you for reading and hopes you’ll follow your bliss! www.robertpeterpaul.com