GAME CHANGERS: SANDRA EVERS-MANLY
As a small child Sandra Evers-Manly loved to watch television and movies like any kid does, but unlike most other kids she was struck by some of what she saw —or rather, who she didn’t see. In all of her beloved programing Sandra didn’t see anyone who looked like her, anyone with coco skin and thick curly hair—anyone black. This affected so much that she wrote a poem about her feelings to express her self:
Why is it Mama,
That there’s no one on TV
that looks like me?
Why is it Mama,
that they know it’s one
I really see?
Is it that they don’t want
to see me?…
“I would always ask my mother, ‘Why don’t you see us on TV? My mother finally said, ‘Change it.’ And Ever-Manly—who hails from a family legacy of change and whose cousin was slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers—set out to do just that.
“While a lot of people came to Hollywood to be actors and actresses, I really came to try to bring about change for more of our images in front of and behind the scenes,” Evers-Manly states.
In 1991, Evers-Manly —a top executive at a Fortune 500 company—founded the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center (BHERC) and in the more than two decades since, the nonprofit public benefit group has been dedicated to advocating, educating, researching, developing, and preserving the history and future of blacks in film and TV while also supporting the early work of student filmmakers that have gone on to become blockbuster directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees) and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler.
“When I see the Gina’s and Ryan’s of the world as well as the number of individuals who are working in the industry, of whom started out with internships that the BHERC advocated for—you know you are doing the right thing. I just think, there’s definitely a higher power that has guided myself, as well as the team of folks at BHERC who make everything happen.”
So far, the organization has provided more than $4 million in scholarships as well as helping supply film equipment. Ironically, it was with their very first project that BHERC helped their first student to make film history.
“There was a student at the American Film Institute,” Evers-Manly recalls. “His name was David Massey, and David came to me and said, ‘I need some help. I’m trying to raise funds to complete my thesis project and I don’t have a support system’, like others who have family members or connections in the industry.
“So we worked with David and raised about $40,000 to complete his project. I allowed him to use my home and got a lot of family and friends to become involved with the project. As a result he submitted his film to the Academy. That project, Last Breeze of Summer, was nominated, making him the first African-American to be nominated in the short films category.
“It was during that time that time that I said, ‘Okay, There is a calling. There is a need for this because we have to make sure our students and independent filmmakers have a forum.’ That’s how BHERC started.”
Along with supporting young artists and professionals in the industry monetarily, BHERC hosts four annual film festivals that spotlight the work of black filmmakers. Their longest running showcase, “Sistas Are Doin’ It For Themselves Film Festival” is gearing up for it’s 25th annual celebration of black women filmmakers this March as a part of Woman’s History Month. The event, which has gained a reputation for being one of the most inspiring events in the black entertainment community, features shorts films and documentaries from emerging black women writers and directors, as well as a panel discussion following the screening.
“We actually started “Sistas Doin’ it For Themselves” before we actually started the organization,” notes Evers-Manly. “We felt there was a need to begin to provide a forum for black women filmmakers to tell their stories. Twenty-five years ago black women were just not as visible as they should be so we decided to give them a platform to show off their incredible art in their own way. While we’ve seen breakthroughs today, there is still much more work to be done.”
Past “Sista” filmmakers and participants have included Gina Prince- Bythewood, Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), Yvette Freeman (ER), Dianne Houston (the first black female to be nominated for and Academy Award in the Short Film category) and the Oscar-nominated Dee Rees (Mudbound) to name a few.
The film festivals— which she sees as filling a need—allow BHERC to share with the world what she knows is the bedrock of success: the talent of black artists.
“I think for black filmmakers, talent still most important,” Evers-Manly states. “We want to challenge filmmakers. We are willing to give you funding but we want stories that are going to help educate, uplift or empower our viewers.”
For Sandra Evers-Manly, what still matters most is the stories that are being told.
“We’ve got to find ways to allow people express themselves through the arts, and film in my opinion is one of the most powerful mediums of art there is. The goal is to make sure that black artists are in an industry that is welcoming…an industry that they don’t have to fight to tell their stories, and honestly, I don’t think we are there yet. We need organizations to keep fighting because we need to make sure we have the diversity, the depth of our images, and our stories told. There’s still a lot more work to do out there.”
For more information on the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, visit bherc.org