Ignore anyone who tells you to wait your turn

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Firelight Media

“You could say I’ve had a number of different careers in my life,” says Marcia Smith, president and co-founder of Firelight Media, a documentary production company that supports emerging filmmakers of color. In college, she was on a premedical path before turning to media production and then landing a job as an addiction counselor after graduation. By the time she returned to storytelling, she had already had a stint in the world of philanthropy (with eight years at the Ford Foundation) on her CV as well. In 1998, she left Ford to launch Firelight with her regular collaborator Stanley Nelson, an initiative designed to give early-career filmmakers the tools they need to succeed.

It’s an eclectic mix, but the one constant throughout Smith’s career has been an affinity for social justice that she says she inherited from her parents, who met while working for the NAACP in 1940s. At Firelight, that setting means bridging all the unattractive drawbacks of life as an independent filmmaker, from financial support that is not tied to a project to ensuring that underrepresented artists get the visibility they want. deserve in the festival. “Making a living as an independent filmmaker is not sustainable,” she stresses, and while she and her company can’t change that, they can make the profession a more welcoming place for struggling creators, especially filmmakers of color. In the process, the hope is that they will also be catalysts for change in the industry as a whole.

Tell me about a professional failure you encountered.
I applied for a promotion, didn’t get it and really thought I should have got it. What I learned from this is that people will always underestimate you. And you cannot allow their underestimation to cause you to underestimate you. In this case, I made a plan to leave. At this point in my life, I thought of it as their loss, not mine. I was in my early thirties before I figured this out, really, and it probably took me a good decade.

Do you feel responsible for keeping the door open for people coming up behind you?
It is very important for me. I do informal mentoring – there are a number of women younger than me that I have followed over the years throughout their careers. And these are people who always rely on me when they have to navigate something. I try to open up to young women in my organization and give them leadership opportunities when appropriate. We have a committee that is going to plan to reopen our office and redesign it for the hybrid future, and all the young women are doing it. I’m just trying to make myself available to people who contact me.

As someone coming from the creative side of documentary making, do you feel uniquely equipped to help young creators succeed?
The reason we started Firelight in the first place is because making a living as an independent filmmaker isn’t sustainable. This is the nature of the job. It affects who goes on the pitch and who can stay. It affects the types of work that people are able to do.

One of the initiatives we have now is a scholarship program called Spark Fund for mid-career filmmakers. We’ve seen people come into the field, work to finish a movie that’s great, has a great premiere, wins awards, and then nothing. It doesn’t always mean they can do another one. It doesn’t always mean that they can do whatever they want to do. They still do not have a sustainable financial life. And most of the money on the ground is spent on projects. What is different with this grant is that it is not tied to a project. It has to do with their background and their commitment. So they don’t have to give us a budget. They don’t need to work on a project because it’s relief money. There are people who have been doing this for decades and still find it difficult to make a living. And that just tells the field, “You have to think of these people differently. You have to fund these people differently.

What advice would you have liked to have had at the start of your career?
Your career and your life are acts of creation. You will catch up with him as you go. You need to be comfortable making the decisions that will set a direction, but in all likelihood there is no straight path for you that you are going to follow.

Have you ever experienced a career setback that made you doubt yourself?
Self-doubt is part of the process, especially for women of color, as you are going to be repelled in two ways. You will never know why you are getting it. I had a moment where a white male coworker looked at me and said something to me that he knew I got promoted because of my identity. And it wasn’t until then that I realized that it was important to him in a way that wasn’t important to me. I hadn’t thought it was important to him. I was like, “Oh, I see. You don’t see me as a real colleague, you see me as the black woman. It’s indistinguishable, in his mind, from the way he was looking at me. It’s always a little surprising and it’s always disappointing. But it is not uncommon. I always looked at this person differently, because I looked at their whole card.

Have you ever been given advice that turned out to be bad?
The universal bad advice is “wait your turn”. This is almost always wrong. I understood it and I think I had to struggle to internalize it and find out if it was right or not. What if there were consequences to going out and demanding, or being seen as demanding, anything: a raise, a promotion, a contract. There is always that to fight. But I’ve always been pretty comfortable with the way I got out. Either I didn’t internalize it for too long, or I was able to categorize it as something that person thought I didn’t need to consider. But you also need to learn to be astute in the workplace. As an employee, you learn a lot about your boss from what they tell you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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