How One Hollywood Exec is Intent On Creating a Space for Black Stories

Fox Searchlight Vice-President of Production Anikah McLaren, 40, has always been interested in storytelling, and her passion has led her to Hollywood

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue of ESSENCE.

Anikah McLaren, 40, spends her days seeking out the next big blockbuster film as senior vice-president of production at Fox Searchlight. We talked to the movie buff to find out how she is working to bring diversity to the industry, both on and off the screen.

ESSENCE: What's a typical day like for you?
ANIKAH McLAREN: I am one of about six executives here at Fox Searchlight, and we all have a number of projects at some stage in development. We are actively seeking something, whether that's finding a director to be put on a script, getting a writer to adapt a book or giving notes on a project draft that you've received.

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What piqued your interest in film?
I've been into storytelling since I was a kid. Growing up, I remember spending time with my grandmother, who would always watch her soap operas. Both of my parents are English professors, and I was actually an English major in college. In my early twenties, I was working as an editorial assistant at St. Martin's Press when a friend of mine left her job doing book-to-film work at Miramax. I was looking for a new job, and I ended up replacing her. I eventually became a manager of acquisitions there, where I would go to film festivals looking for finished movies. And from there, I just climbed the ladder. I had always loved movies, but I had never thought that you could have a job in it doing something that feels almost like a hobby.

Have you ever had to fight to make your voice heard in your career?
There's this paradox because by virtue of just being there, you feel like you're automatically advocating without saying anything because you're Black and you're female. Sometimes you'll feel like a [Black] director, for example, isn't being considered for something or is framed as difficult, but you're like, "Well, almost every director can be difficult." I will advocate all day long for someone I think is great. [However], I feel that the industry is doing well in terms of diversity. There's this natural growth that's happening because there's a realization that the people who are seeing movies are a very diverse group.

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What advice would you give Black women hoping to break into the industry?
Really prepare yourself to be in situations that are unexpected, [and familiarize yourself with the] storied industry. For me, the stories that stuck out were the portrayals of Black women as maids and mammies. Frankly, that really made me want to change those images.

How are you using your position to bring Black women's perspectives to the forefront?
I'm a mentor for the AFI Conservatory Directing Workshop for Women, which is a really great program that allows women to take classes and create a film. I also make a special effort to reach out to directors or writers who are Black women who I feel might not have been getting traction for one reason or another. They know they have a person within the studio they can talk to.

What do you want to accomplish while you're at Fox?
I'd really like to make an important film that has bold cultural resonance and that a lot of people go to see. I feel like I've spent a lot of time learning and working, and I really love film as a medium for storytelling. I hope one day to make a series of great movies. 

Taylor Lewis is an assistant editor at ESSENCE. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcespedes.

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