A few years ago, when filmmaker Roger Ross Williams was considering starting his own production company, he experienced a field of dreams kind of vision: “If you build it, they will come.
The revelation took place far from the Iowa cornfields of the film. “I was actually walking past this big empty office space in Brooklyn,” Williams recalls, “and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a great office space. I should rent it to start my business. I thought renting the office space would force me to fill it. He filled it, first with editing bays, then with staff. One Story Up has become a thriving business and one of the few African-American-owned production companies. The business name does not refer to a physical location, but to an idea.
“I loved the word ‘story’ in the name and elevating ‘up.’ The two things: elevating filmmakers of color and telling stories,” Williams says. as a vehicle to help other artists like me who have felt marginalized and not had a seat at the table, so to speak.”
Not even winning an Oscar, apparently, allowed Williams to sit at this table. In 2010, he became the first African-American director to win an Oscar, for his short documentary Prudence Music. But he says that realization hasn’t sparked a flurry of offers.
“The phone wasn’t ringing, no one was calling me,” he said. “I wasn’t getting any jobs.”
He persevered, however, making several other projects, including a pair of feature documentaries: God loves Uganda in 2013 and Life, Animewhich earned an Oscar nomination in 2017. The following year, Williams teamed up with longtime friend, producer Geoff Martz, to launch One Story Up.
“I trusted him, and he had the experience.” Williams says of Martz. “The first thing we did was the series The Records of Innocence for Netflix. I directed the first three episodes of this, and this was the first use of this office space.
Williams says One Story Up currently has “about 14” projects in various stages of completion, including movies and series. When we spoke he was on the set of Stamped from the starta scripted hybrid documentary for Netflix based on the best-selling book by Ibram X. Kendi.
“I’m in the studio shooting on a green-screen stage, testing with actors,” he says, explaining that it’s part of a busy production schedule. “At the end of next year, basically, I’m releasing three feature films, and it happened like that because the pandemic delayed things. It will be a scripted feature, a documentary feature and a hybrid Covering all the ground there.
His independent scripted feature film, Cassandra, stars Gael García Bernal in the real-life story of Saúl Armendáriz, a gay amateur wrestler from El Paso, Texas, who struggled with flirting as the character of El Exotico. “I shot this last summer in the middle of the pandemic in Mexico City,” Williams says. “It’s such a colorful and fascinating world. It’s a very inspiring film, and Gael is fantastic.
Williams is working on a documentary about late singer Donna Summer, co-directed with Summer’s daughter, Brooklyn Sudano. Among other projects, he produces The Ebony Empirea documentary directed by Lisa Cortés about the pioneering black media company Johnson Publishing, which founded Ebony and Jet magazines. And he’s embarking on a documentary series for Hulu that’s sure to garner huge attention: The 1619 Projectbased on the Pulitzer Prize-winning opus by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for The New York Times.
Williams will direct the first and final episodes of that series, he says, with One Story Up producing alongside Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films, The New York Times and Lionsgate Television. The series takes an unflinching look at the history and legacy of slavery in America and the persistence of systemic racism in public and private institutions.
“It was really important for Nikole Hannah-Jones that The 1619 Project was in the hands of African American creators who continue to experience this The 1619 Project is on point,” Williams says. “And it was important for Ibram X. Kendi, whose book How to be an anti-racist was #1 on the New York Times list of bestsellers throughout the racial reckoning after George Floyd – that it was a production company majority owned by African Americans and a black creator to whom he would entrust his work.
Conservatives attacked The 1619 Project as well as the work of Kendi; Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas checked their name during Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s recent U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
“Ted Cruz holds Kendi’s book anti-racist baby [during the hearing] and I was like, ‘Well, I have to do something right,’ Williams jokes. “Yes [works from] two people I revere—Dr. Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones are One Story Up I’m Doing Something Good projects. It was a sad time for America [to see Sen. Cruz denigrate them], but a proud moment for me in that I can tell these really important stories. And I don’t take it lightly. I don’t take that for granted for a second.
He adds: “This country, in my opinion, is in crisis… We have to discuss and agree to certain things concerning race and certainly slavery. And I hope people will sit and watch The 1619 Project with an open mind and the ability to learn and assimilate facts, because they are facts. There is no fiction, just facts 1619. And there are a lot of great people on this show. And the same with Stamped from the start. These are historical facts. People will want to call this fiction for their own convenience, but it is historical fact.
Opening doors for others made Williams a disruptor in the business. He does not fear the term. Far from there. “Yeah, I’m a disrupter for sure,” he says. “Proudly, proudly.
This applies to his time on the Board of Governors of the Motion Picture Academy. He was elected for the first of two consecutive terms in 2016, representing the Documentary Department.
“I walked into this room the first time and I remember it very clearly,” Williams said of her first Board of Governors meeting. “The only other person of color was (then President of the Academy) Cheryl Boone Isaacs. I remember seeing Tom Hanks sitting at the table and Steven Spielberg. There were a few women, sure, but mostly white men. And I thought, How did I get into this room? I just couldn’t believe it. I thought, OK, well, you can sit there or you can disrupt the Academy. And the way which I could do is within my own branch.
In 2016, under the leadership of Boone Isaacs, the Academy launched its A2020 initiative, “to double the number of women and underrepresented ethnic/racial communities and dramatically increase its international membership by 2020”. Williams took that goal and ran with it.
“I decided to bring in a lot of people of color. You could count one hand the number of Latino members when I joined; two hands, maybe, the number of African American members, and a very small international [contingent],” he says. “And now the documentary branch is a third international. We are the first branch to move from gender non-parity to gender parity. And we have an incredible number of BIPOC members. We still have a lot of work to do, but we are the most diverse branch of the Academy. The Academy recognizes that. They said we were the gold standard, the doc branch, and I am very proud of this job for the past six years. I’m very proud that we’re setting an example for the other branches. And that’s what I mean by being a disrupter. That’s what I want to do. That’s my goal.
His goal with One Story Up is to continue to provide space for BIPOC talent to flourish. Concrete example, master of light, a documentary directed by Rosa Boesten about the extraordinary artist George Anthony Morton. In March, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW.
“Everyone who has worked on this project, Rosa, first-time queer filmmaker, to Ephraim Kirkwood, first-time Black editor, to Francesca Sharper, who is the associate editor, her feature debut, Jurgen Lisse, the DP from Suriname… All these people of color for the first time, and their film wins the Grand Jury Prize,” Williams said. “What does that tell you? That if you give opportunities to people of color, to BIPOC filmmakers, they’ll shine, they’ll win, they’ll create great content and tell great, positive stories about uplifting, positive characters like George. This victory was like a seal of approval for what Geoff and I created at One Story Up.
Another recent stamp of approval came with the Peabody Award nomination for the Netflix docuseries of One Story Up. High on the Hog: How African-American cuisine transformed Americadirected by Williams, Jonathan Clasberry and Yoruba Richen.
In just a few years, the company has gone from start-up to force majeure, supplying content to Netflix, HBO, Hulu and A&E, among others. “One Story Up just exploded, cultivating all this new talent,” Williams says. “We’ve grown so big in the last three years, [we have] a hundred people working for us.
And with that expansion comes a challenge. “We outgrew our location,” Williams says. “So now I’m looking for a new office space.”
This much-quoted maxim from the movie may come in handy once again: “If you build it, they’ll come.”