Sara Finney-Johnson, Mara Brock Akil, Gina Prince Bythewood and Felicia D. Henderson teamed up to created the “Four Sisters” scholarship to support film students doing projects that portray the African-American experience.
When Dehanza Rogers first heard of the Four Sisters Endowed Scholarship, she wondered at the meaning of the name.
“I mean what sisters are we talking about?” she remembers thinking to herself. “It could have meant any number of things.”
Then a first-year MFA student at the UCLA School of Theater Film and Television, the 2014 graduate applied for the scholarship to help fund her thesis film years late.
But when she saw the names behind the scholarship, she knew what sistas they were actually talking about: Sara Finney-Johnson, Mara Brock Akil, Gina Prince Bythewood and Felicia D. Henderson. From Being Mary Jane and Moesha to Love & Basketball and Soul Food: The Series, these four women have created some of the most important talking points in Black television and film lexicon.
Indeed, for decades, they have consistently been telling stories of the Black experience, navigating an industry that is notorious as much for its lack of diversity in storytelling as its storytellers. Each had her share of pushback and difficulties. And it was from these experiences that the idea —- to endow a scholarship towards filmmakers wanting to create African-American themed projects — was born. And the four friends agreed to endow it in a place that molds future industry influencers: film school.
“We all say that if we don't support creative voices of the under-represented, who will?” says Henderson, the creator and executive producer of Soul Food: The Series. She remembers being one of a handful of Black screenwriting students when she was getting her MFA from UCLA. Prince-Bythewood, who most recently wrote and directed 2014’s Beyond the Lights, also remembered her own struggle as an African American directing student at UCLA in the early 90’s.
“Often, it is money that makes the difference in whether or not ...you finish your thesis projects so you can graduate,” Henderson adds. “We felt an obligation to fill that gap.”
In the decade since it was founded with an initial endowment of $50,000, the scholarship has been given to up to 40 students, 75 percent of whom are women, Henderson says. It supports students in the screenwriting, directing, producing, and animation programs who have the creative goal of making African American themed projects.
With the #OscarsoWhite conversation no longer at the forefront amidst a busy news cycle, the problems of inclusion in Hollywood still remain — a fact confirmed in the 2015 Hollywood Diversity Report released in late February. The report, conducted by the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies at UCLA, concluded that “at every level, in every arena, women and minorities are under-represented in the industry.”
Black film students are aware of these figures even before they graduate. They are often one of a few students of color in their classes, and, according to 2014 graduate Rogers, that can sometimes leave you having to justify your choices to classmates who think they know better—the same classmates who will end up being key decision-makers after graduation.
But Felischa Marye, a 2014 MFA graduate and scholarship recipient, says there is something about getting that scholarship, that gives a boost of confidence necessary to navigate the insidious homogeneity of Hollywood. You can't help but feel confident knowing you have a stamp of approval from the four women, who according to Henderson, enjoy a raucous debate over who gets the scholarship.
“These are women who I admire and for them to pick me, let's say, I had more swagger in my step.” Marye says about receiving the award she says. It was enough for her to go pitch one of her projects to HBO.
And although we are seeing more diversity in television, Henderson says the work isn't over.
“It's about opportunity. There's not really a shortage of talented black women. We're out there — and there are many talented, young ones coming up behind us. Thankfully, most of us have hearts for mentoring and pulling up the next generation behind us, so wherever we are, you will see writers who are brilliant, who happen to look like us.”
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