“You might say I’ve had a few different careers in my life,” says Marcia Smith, the president and co-founder of Firelight Media, a documentary-production company that supports emerging filmmakers of color. In college, she was on a pre-med track before pivoting to media production and then picking up a job as a drug counselor after graduation. By the time she made it back to storytelling, she’d already had a stint in the world of philanthropy (with eight years at the Ford Foundation) on her résumé, too. In 1998, she left Ford to start Firelight with her frequent 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 picked up from her parents, who met while working for the NAACP in the ’40s. At Firelight, that framework means filling in all the unsexy drawbacks of life as an independent filmmaker, from financial support that isn’t pegged to a project to making sure underrepresented artists get the festival exposure they deserve. “Making a life as an independent filmmaker is unsustainable,” she points out, and while she and her company can’t change that, they can make the profession a more hospitable place for struggling creators, particularly filmmakers of color. In the process, the hope is that they’ll also be catalysts for change in the industry at large.
Tell me about a professional failure you’ve encountered.
I applied for a promotion, didn’t get it, and really thought I should have gotten it. What I learned from that is that people will always underestimate you. And you can’t let their underestimation of you lead you to underestimate yourself. In that instance I made a plan to leave. By that point in my life, I thought of it as their loss, not mine. I was in my early 30s before I understood that, really, and it probably took me a good decade.
Do you feel a responsibility to hold the door open for people coming up behind you?
That is very important to me. I do informal mentoring — there are a certain number of women who are younger than I that I have kept up with over the years as they have moved through their careers. And these are people that will still rely on me when they have to navigate something. I try to make myself open to the younger women in my organization and give them leadership opportunities when that’s appropriate. We have a committee that is going to plan our office reopening and redesign it for the hybrid future, and that’s all young women doing it. I just try to make myself available to people who reach out to me.
As someone who comes from the creative side of documentary making, do you feel especially equipped to help younger creators succeed?
The reason we started Firelight in the first place is because making a life as an independent filmmaker is unsustainable. That’s the nature of the work. It affects who goes into the field and who can stay. It affects the kinds of work people are able to take on.
One of the initiatives we have now is a stipend grant program called the Spark Fund for mid-career filmmakers. We’ve seen people come into the field, labor to finish a film that’s great, has a great premiere, wins awards, and then nothing. It doesn’t always mean they can make another one. It doesn’t always mean they can make the one they want to make. They still don’t have a sustainable financial life. And most of the money in the field is arrayed to projects. What’s different about this grant is it’s not tied to a project. It’s tied to their track record and their commitment. So they don’t have to give us a budget. They don’t have to be working on a project, because this is relief money. There are people who have been at this for decades and still have a hard time making a living. And this is just saying to the field, “You need to think about these people differently. You need to fund these people differently.”
What advice do you wish you’d had when you were starting your career?
Your career and your life are acts of creation. You will be making it up as you go along. You have to get comfortable making the decisions that will determine a direction, but that, in all likelihood, there is no straight path set out for you that you’re going to follow.
Have you ever experienced a career pushback that led you to doubt yourself?
Self-doubt is part of the process, especially for women of color, because you’re going to get pushed back on two counts. You’ll never know why you get it. I had one moment when I had a white male colleague look at me and say something to the effect of that he knew I had gotten a promotion based on my identity. And it wasn’t until then that I realized that was salient for him in a way that it wasn’t for me. It hadn’t occurred to me that that 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.” That’s indistinguishable, in his mind, for how he looked at me. It’s always a little bit of a surprise and it’s always disappointing. But it’s not infrequent. I always looked at that person differently, because I peeped his whole card.
Have you ever been offered advice that turned out to be bad?
The universal bad advice is “Wait your turn.” It’s almost always wrong. I’ve gotten it and I think I’ve had to wrestle with internalizing it and whether it was right or not. And whether there were consequences to stepping out and demanding, or being perceived as demanding, anything: a raise, a promotion, a contract. There’s always that to contend with. But I was always pretty comfortable at how I came out. Either I didn’t internalize it for too long or was able to file it away as something that this person thought that I did not have to take in. But you’ve gotta learn how to be crafty in the workplace too. As an employee, you learn a lot about your boss from what they say to you.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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