March 12, 2012
When you think about women in Hollywood you probably get an image in your head of a woman in a long flowing evening gown, draped in jewelry and posed on a red carpet. This is because the majority of women in the entertainment industry have a place on the red carpet, but not many seek a place among the shot-callers of Hollywood. According to an annual report by the Center for the Study of Women in Film and Television at San Diego State University, women comprised 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2011. 18%. That’s it. In an industry that is all about creativity and conveying emotion, you would think there would be more women running the show. So, what is it about Hollywood that compels so many women to transform, inspire and shine on screen, but so few to do the same from behind the camera?
To get a little insight into this I spoke with Hollywood veteran Troy Byer Bailey. As an African-American woman, the success that Troy has enjoyed as a director, writer, and producer is extremely rare. Throughout her career she has worked with everyone from Francis Ford Coppola, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry to Prince. Troy got her start at 4-years-old as a child actress on Sesame Street. That’s right; she was part of the original cast that chilled with Big Bird. She then went on to secure roles on other huge productions like Dynasty and The Cosby Show. Her success as an actress was growing, but she made the switch to being a content creator and wrote her first screenplay, B*A*P*S*, which ended up being the first starring role for Halle Berry. While Byer didn’t give up acting completely, she did begin to focus on other talents, like writing and directing. She wrote and directed Love Don’t Cost A Thing, Let’s Talk About Sex and wrote for the TV series Soul Food. Some may wonder why Troy would choose to leave the limelight and move behind the scenes, but Troy says “Acting wasn’t going the way I wanted. I had other interests. I wanted to transform.”
This from a woman who managed to transform time and again for millions to see, on the set of classic films like The Five Heartbeats (a personal favorite) as Baby Doll, Eddie Cane Jr.’s faithful wife, and in huge blockbusters like John Q. But Troy had caught the writing and directing bug. She says her love for directing started as early as on the set of Sesame Street, “I especially loved sitting on the cameraman's chair and learning how to shoot the various scenes.” But why don’t more little girls dream of growing up and directing movies? According to the same study by San Diego State, the number of women working behind the scenes on the top 250 domestic grossing films increased by only 2 percentage points from 2010 to 2011. Although the numbers seem to reflect a boy’s club atmosphere that may shut out an African-American woman, Troy says that she never encountered any discrimination. “I haven’t had any trouble getting stuff out there. Do your own thing. If people like it they will accept it. Those lines are getting blurred and dissolving in the sand.”
While choosing to take a more authoritative role in the creative process made Troy an anomaly, it didn’t make things easy. She says that the version of B*A*P*S* she wrote didn’t end up on screen. Influences from director Robert Townsend altered Troy’s original vision, making it more of a “buffoonish” comedy rather than the empowering message that Troy had intended. “The Black American Princess is me… It’s you,” she explains, “There is a lot of value in comedic relief, but what is more important: success or authentic representations?” Troy’s struggle to have her genuine portrayals of women translate on screen has become her mission. She is now interested in telling only remarkable and diverse stories, like Girls of Summer, a film she has in the works about the first African American female basketball league and Ex Free, a film based on a book she wrote about recovering from heartbreak. Hopefully, with the recent success of other female writers and directors like Kathryn Bigelow (Hurt Locker) and Melissa Rosenberg (Twilight), female writers and directors like Troy will enjoy more creative freedom. More female directors means that more of our stories will be told.
After literally growing up in the Hollywood limelight (Whoopi Goldberg was her babysitter and Alvin Ailey her next door neighbor) and moving on to writing and directing, Troy has seen it all. So what does she have to say to other women thinking about making moves behind the scenes in entertainment? “Have a plan. My downfall was I was constantly waiting for someone else to validate my existence as an actress. It took me a long time to realize that I am the only one who can validate my existence, and if I wanted to exist then I would have to create.”
Troy’s plan is definitely one to model a career after. She now writes books and screenplays in addition to being a public speaker and radio personality. She says that directing is still her favorite part of the business, “I love working with actors, creating a color palette for the film, working with set and costume designers, the director of photography and overall the collaborative process of directing. It's fun being a part of a team committed to creating a specific vision.”
It’s wonderful to hear of anyone in Hollywood--male or female--striving to create diverse and unique material. Because of her mission alone I consider Troy a success. She, on the other hand, has other ideas, “I never want to feel like I've made it, I've arrived, [and] this is it. I love Steve Jobs' quote; ‘Stay Hungry! Stay Foolish!’ That being said, I am proud to live as a Starving Fool!”