No Lies Told Then: Fully Realized Female Characters of Color and their Importance to Hollywood Equality and Diversity

Written by Torri Oats

Torri R. Oats

Torri R. Oats

In the 80s when I was a girl no older than ten, my dad attempted to joke with me by saying, “You’re just a little feminist.” At the time, I wanted no part of the label so I responded with a curt, “No, I’m just an equality seeker.” I thought the word was too narrow, and to be honest, I felt a deeper connection to the civil rights movement. I had first-hand experience with racism; my frame of reference was personal. Sexism was subtle with little comments here and there about how I threw a football or suggesting a return to the kitchen, which I chalked up to ignorance or an attempt at a cheap laugh. Civil rights and feminism were, to me, parallel movements and I couldn’t grasp the intersection between race and gender. I did wonder, however, why statements I made about being able to do anything a boy can do, were met with his dismissive words. It wasn’t strictly an attack on my abilities, it went to the very heart of expectations that were set; I was a girl and because of that I was somehow inferior.

My impression of a feminist was shaped by the images I saw. I can easily recall pictures of bras burning in barrels, women marching side by side, videos of the free-spirited ladies of Woodstock, and yes, the occasional film. There was little exploration in school, home, or the media of feminism and its accomplishments. I saw anger, aggressive self-expression, I heard chanting in footage, but I didn’t have a sense of context or goals, so the word “feminist” seemed to be a lot of what I was not. I could never fully appreciate the movement or the freedoms it brought me, because, in part, it was treated as a footnote in history and I was born in a post-suffrage, post Roe v. Wade environment; viewing snippets of history through the lens of the present left me feeling disconnected. I thought being a feminist meant I had to be hard around the edges, distrustful of men, strong enough to stoically handle all of life’s obstacles. There wasn’t space to be sweet and vulnerable or even room to fail.

It wasn’t until I was older that I awakened to how I had been conditioned by the media, my parents, and my education to think of, and see, my gender a certain way. Moving images and spoken words shaped my perception of women and the fight for gender equality without me knowing it until years later. In a way, the civil rights movement was still going on, so I was keenly aware of the carefully labeled boxes that people of color are put inside on the screen: mammy, Jezebel, crackhead, angry, magical, etc. and how those boxes fed negative stereotypes. Somehow, the broader problem of how women as a whole were portrayed escaped me. It is easy to pretend a movie is just a movie, but for so many, including me, the images we see onscreen have a profound, lasting effect.

Women's Electoral Movement Protest, International Women's Day, 1979. (Sydney, Australia)

Women’s Electoral Movement Protest, International Women’s Day, 1979. (Sydney, Australia)

I look back at the movies I loved growing up and so often it felt like something was missing, but I couldn’t identify what it was. I loved The Age of Innocence but I wanted to know more about Countess Olenska and May Archer. We saw the story of Michael Clayton but equally fascinating was Karen Crowder and little was told about her. We watched the journey of Django, but Broomhilda Von Shaft’s name alone demanded her own story. There were a few films that sated my hunger like Set It Off, which featured badass women of color and Waiting to Exhale, a movie that seemed to define sisterhood; they spoke to me. Many films were an education in missed opportunities or rare exceptions; to the “boys club,” the one constant was the lack of opportunity.

When I began searching for my voice as a screenwriter, I knew I wanted to give life to characters of color to help fill the void, but not much else. As I experimented with different genres during my quest, I was unaware of how deeply my father’s words impacted me, or how they would later become words I embrace as I indeed became a feminist. The worlds of my gender finally intersected with my race, providing clarity and a sense of direction.

Photo of African-American women protestors - Civil Rights March, Washington, DC, 1963

Photo of African-American women protestors – Civil Rights March, Washington, DC, 1963

My personal quest to find my voice began with my screenplay, No Lies Told Then and a single character: Sandra. I had written a series of one-act plays which featured a monologue from an energetic five-year-old girl who loved to sing and dance. Long after the piece was finished, I thought of her randomly and wondered what became of her. I decided to create a world, which became No Lies Told Then, to allow her space to tell her story. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t quite get a handle on the story she wanted to tell and what should have been a cohesive script was a series of poorly written vignettes. Years passed and she continued to haunt me. It wasn’t until I decided to dust off an early draft and focus solely on her story that memories of those early days of being labeled a “feminist” and its influence grew undeniable. With each successive draft it became clearer that Sandra’s journey was more than scattered memories; it was everything I’ve yearned to see.

Spanning more than 20 years, beginning in the early 1990s, No Lies Told Then is the story of an author who, in the eyes of others, has it all: a successful career, fierce intelligence, enviable beauty and complete independence. Yet, when she looks in the mirror, the reflection she sees is that of a woman who is lost, worn down by the weight of the expectations of others and far from the person she dreamed of becoming. At a personal and professional crossroad, a chance encounter with a past lover propels her on a journey of self-discovery as she reconnects with the courageous girl she was and the dreams she had. Realizing her life is hers alone, she must decide whether to let go of the baggage that’s tearing her apart or watch as life continues to pass her by. It is the story of our imperfect lives, the choices we make and the belief that it’s never too late to change the trajectory of your life.

My challenge, as I wrote No Lies Told Then was to not only tell a transcendent story, but to create a character who was a fully realized human being. I wanted to make the protagonist, Sandra, so real that a little girl of color could look at her and think, “That could be me,” and a woman of any age would understand that the decisions she made in her youth out of necessity or based on what she knew at the time, do not have to define her future.

All of those things were in my mind as I worked to give this character layers and tell her story in a way that could speak to our collective experience as we do the best we can to live this life we’re given. Certainly, there are things that are specific to the African-American experience and the community of Harlem, where I live, but frequently absent in films starring people of color are the ups and downs of love, the despair that comes from failure, the weight of expectations, resilience, and so much more. Trials and tribulations are unique only to the human experience and should be treated as such. Sandra’s story like so many others deserves to be told and seen.

Row of Harlem Brownstones, 119th Street, Harlem, 2015

Row of Harlem Brownstones, 119th Street, Harlem, 2015

We cannot continue to make films that are simply regurgitations of what we saw last year and the year before. It’s old. It’s tired. If we are to change the status quo, we have to support films by women, for women. For me, if it means working outside the system and donning the hat of producer to tell the stories left untold by studios to give life to the women unseen, I welcome the challenge and will rise to it. No Lies Told Then is a manifestation of that belief.

I wrote the script and will produce it, but would’ve given up long ago if it hadn’t been for the wonderful people I’ve worked with and met along the way. A diverse group of professionals, some of whom will work with us during production, have laid the groundwork and created various assets that will be released throughout the production process. Maura Anderson, an experienced line producer created our budget. Amanda Laws, a talented editor worked miracles with the mood reel. Fudge Animation, an extraordinary, UK-based company we found on Wooshii.com created a short animated storyboard, a companion piece to the feature film, on a shoestring budget. Matthew Polis, a gifted sound designer, did the sound work on the animatic. Lina Kisonyte, a wonderful artist we hired on Fivvr.com created a number of graphic art pieces. Natasha J. Benjamin, a creative digital media expert helped craft our social media strategy. Violet Kadzura, a brilliant PR and social media guru who found us on CloudPeeeps.com is building our audience and seeking opportunities to spread the word about the film. Lastly, we have a talented director, whose name we cannot yet reveal, but whose NYU Graduate Film School education and dedication to visual storytelling make him the perfect match for this project.

Ralph Ellison Invisible Man Stone Marker by Elizabeth Catlett, Riverside Park

Ralph Ellison Invisible Man Stone Marker by Elizabeth Catlett, Riverside Park

Currently, we are in the community building and fundraising phase. We are seeking funding for production through our sponsor, Fractured Atlas, a New York-based not-for-profit and each contribution is fully tax deductible. If you would like to make a financial contribution to help bring Sandra’s story to life, please visit our website. You can follow the film’s progress on Twitter  and Facebook. You can visit Torri’s profile here.

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