Our Diverse 100: Meet Jeff Friday, a champion of independent black film
By Amy Kaufman
Jun 02, 2016 | 3:00 AM
As former president of UniWorld Film, Friday is a leading voice in the independent black film world. Under his direction, the company founded the Acapulco Black Film Festival. The festival, which is now under Friday’s own company Film Life, Inc., is now known as the American Black Film Festival, the leading pipeline for black talent in front of and behind the camera. This Q&A is part of a special series examining diversity in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Read more profiles here.
Why don’t you think studios are making more movies for diverse audiences when it’s been proved they do well at the box office?
Studios have convinced themselves — and this is the delusional part — that black culture doesn’t travel. But black culture is the one proven culture that does travel all over the world. If studios would operate like the music industry or the fashion world, they’d see that. I can’t tell you the psychology behind the resistance.
Growing up, was there a person you saw in the industry who looked like you and made you feel like you could make it in Hollywood?
I grew up in Newark, New Jersey, a predominantly African American city, raised by a single mom. She was an ambitious young woman raising three children while still getting her master’s and a doctorate. So after she cooked dinner and had to go out to work, she’d tell me, “I want you to watch ‘Good Times’ and tell me what happened when I get home tonight.” For many years, I thought my mother was just really interested in television. But one day after watching all these shows I asked her: “Why do all the shows featuring African Americans have some element of struggle?” And her response to me was: “Because the people who make these shows don’t understand the diversity of our race.” So my fire, I guess, if you want to call it that — my discomfort with black image — started when I was a kid watching television in the '70s.
What was your reaction to #OscarsSoWhite — the lack of nominees of color and the resulting conversation?
I don’t think this is about racism. I don’t think they sit around and go, “I’m not gonna vote for black guys.” I think they’re 94% white and heavily male, so you get what you get. Shaking up the composition of the membership is a step is the right direction. The academy is not a studio. We’ve got six major studios who make movies, and the Oscars is like the report card. If you send your kids to school all year, get the report card and see they got all Fs — you realize you should have checked in earlier. We don’t check the studios and pay attention to the lack of diversity.
What would being a member of the academy mean to you?
I want to be part of the solution. I think I’ve been part of it for the past 20 years. And I love the Oscars. It’s a celebration of the industry. I like that we dress up and that the bar is so high for excellence.