Reel Sisters of the Diaspora Film Festival and Lecture Series is the first Brooklyn-based festival devoted to women of color filmmakers. Reel Sisters presents 30 films produced, directed and written by women of color across the globe each year. The festival has enriched the city with more than 900 films by women of African, Caribbean, Latino, Asian, Indian, and Native American descent and awarded over $12,000 in scholarships to women filmmakers. The groundbreaking festival has influenced other media organizations to launch initiatives that help Black women gain access to directing jobs in Hollywood and bring independent film projects to life.

This week, HBR had the chance to speak with the founder of Reel Sisters, Carolyn A. Butts, to discuss how Reel Sisters has been generating opportunities for women of color in film for almost two decades.


HBR: What was the inspiration behind creating Reel Sisters?

Carolyn A. Butts: I was inspired because I had a short film with Reg E. Gaines, a poet, called Underground Voices [excerpt]. I tried to push it out there, did some research, and learned that less than 1% of directors were black, and I wondered what could be done to change this statistic.  I decided to implement a way to help get the projects of women, and especially black women seen and picked up by industry leaders. There weren’t many opportunities for women of color, so I started Reel Sisters alongside my founding members Rodney Hurley at LIU, Clairesa Clay, Patrice Bradshaw, and Pearl Bowser.

This year, we have partnered with BET and Centric.  Centric will present the first Centric/Reel Sisters Best Short Award and the Centric/Reel Sisters Best Narrative Film Award.  Each award will come with a “first look” opportunity for Centric, and to be featured on the network and other platforms in the future.  The winners will also receive a licensing option for the rights to air their films on Centric among other promotional benefits.  We will announce the winners at the film festival in October.

This is such an important point for the organization. I’m proud to say that after doing this for the past 19 years, we are truly beginning to see more opportunities for women of color.

HBR: Yes! It seems like the landscape for women of color in Hollywood is certainly starting to change. Every day, we’re reading about women of color being cast in new shows, getting opportunities to direct new series’, etc. Despite this progress, what are some of the challenges that you believe women of color still face in this industry, if any?

Butts: I actually believe we haven’t progressed as much in Hollywood as it is still largely a male — specifically, white male — dominated industry. They’re not even giving equal opportunities to white women, but it’s good that we’re talking about it and finding other [non-conventional] outlets, such as streaming companies, because we tell stories very differently from men. For example, while we can tell action stories, we still have a nurturing [aspect] about us.

HBR: Over the past twenty years, what are some of the challenges that the festival has faced?

Butts: Many people are accustomed to big Hollywood premieres and big theatre houses, so it’s difficult to get a large audience to show up and support an independent film that doesn’t have a lead star or big name director. In the first five years of the festival, since we were the first Brooklyn-based festival of the kind, people came out to support the films and to enjoy networking among their peers in the film community. Distributors also came to the festival to pick up films. Challenges will present themselves in everything that we do; however, there are always benefits that come out of them!

HBR: What are some of the highlights of the festival?

Butts: One of the highlights of the festival are the types of films we showcase that relate to our history and our stories. In 2012, we showcased a film about the Black Wall Street race riots, and some of the people involved are still living. We were honored to have 93 year old Dr. Olivia Hooker speak and connect with the audience while sharing her experience witnessing the demise of so many homes and businesses at that time. We showcase diverse stories that range from documentaries dealing with societal issues to comedies revolving around pop culture. For example we screened Forgiving Chris Brown, and also had a screening and panel surrounding a film that dealt with incest where we had social workers on site just in case the film caused any emotional triggers for audience members.. After that screening, we held a dance workshop, so it was a really healing experience. We are telling stories while serving the community.

This year, we have so many great films and filmmakers lined up for our audience. We will be honoring Cathy Hughes, Founder and Chairperson of Radio One, with the Hattie McDaniel Award, and actress Naturi Naughton with the Trailblazer Award on Friday, October 14, at the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York!

HBR: That’s amazing! We can’t wait to see all that you have lined up for this year’s festival! In accordance with Reel Sister’s goal of showcasing new female voices of color, what advice can you share with young women who are up and coming in this industry?

Butts: Be consistent. Keep working at it. Don’t give up. You have to be consistent and persistent! Be creative! I believe if you persevere, you’ll get whatever you want and get wherever you want with your career and your film. Turn “no” into an opportunity. For example, Reel Sisters is a non-profit so I do a lot of grant writing, and when I’m given a “no”, I always ask them how I could make it a “yes” and use that information to move forward and go after another one.

HBR: Great advice! Is there anything else you’d like to share about the festival or any of your upcoming projects?

Butts: We’re going to have some pre-festival events called Tea & Cinema and they’re free! We always try to offer something free to the public. We also have special workshops; a micro-budgeting workshop, and a workshop focused on woman-owned production companies. (RSVP @, under Schedules & Tickets) We have one-day passes for $20 and you can see as many films as you want!

Reel Sisters & Centric Present Scholarship Awards to Filmmakers from African Voices/Reel Sisters on Vimeo.


OCT. 22-23, 2013, LIU BK

Day Passes – $20

Pre-festival Events

Lecture Series: Women Owned Production Companies