Documentary filmmaker Rita Coburn to speak at SUNY Oswego Tuesday

Apr 17, 2018

Tuesday evening, SUNY Oswego will host a conversation on how the arts and entertainment industry can be more diverse and inclusive, and will feature documentary filmmaker Rita Coburn. The discussion is part of the college's 'Voices of Diversity' speaker series.

Coburn has a long career in television, radio, and film. One of her most recent projects was an award winning documentary she directed and produced on the late Maya Angelou called "Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise". The film was recently nominated for a Peabody Award.

Interview highlights

How did you get involved in this documentary about Maya Angelou? What drew you to that project?

Coburn: I think that there’s a commonality amongst women, and particularly amongst black women, in which we inspire one another and we look for inspiration. I was working with Maya Angelou over the years. But when I started to work for Oprah Radio, she became one of my hosts. So from 2006-2010, I spent three to four days in her home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, or in Harlem, or on the road with her. Per Oprah Winfrey, who did not want her to have to leave her home to do these radio shows. So I would go down, and Maya Angelou’s generosity was, ‘stay with me’.  So this is something you could not refuse, so even though I had been in radio and television ambidextrously for years, this opportunity to be that close to her, to see her life once a month and to hear her stories and help her prepare to interview people and therefore talk more about her life,I began to realize that there needed to be a documentary on her life. And up until that point, I had done a number of documentaries, from mobsters to on the arts, but I realized that it was time to do a documentary. And that’s how it started. That was the germ of the idea for me.

You’ll be speaking at SUNY Oswego on diversity in the arts. It does seem like there’ve been some advances when it comes to minorities in film and television, both in front of the camera and behind the camera. But from your perspective -- you’ve worked in this field for a long time -- have things gotten better over the years, or is there still more that needs to be done to increase diversity and inclusion in the arts?

Coburn: I think it’s both. I believe that it is no question that content about African Americans is having another heyday. It’s not the first, but it is another heyday. What I think we have to be very conscious of, as with the Me Too and Time’s Up movement, is that there’s been a lot of racism and sexism engrained in this industry. And it is engrained in such a way that there is still an uptick that needs to happen in order for there to ever be some parity, and that’s across the board. If we look at the history books right now, there’s a need to really talk about all people in a deeply entrenched way in order to have history be correct. While there appears to be some gains, and there are, you would have to look at the management of stations, the management of production houses,  how things get greenlighted. I think that it’s a wonderful opportunity to talk to students because what they’re going to is they’re going to get into some of those positions, and they’re going to make changes, and they need to really keep their eyes open to forge a parity that will last.

What’s your advice to young people who want to make it in this business?

Coburn: The industry has changed. A lot can be done online now. A lot of information can be found. A lot can be done with a cellphone. The first thing that students have to understand is that their stories are important, and if they have a story to tell -- because there are so many ways to tell it -- they need to begin…to hone the craft of the age-old beginning, middle, end. Learn to chase a story until it begins to tell itself. And once you know that your story’s important, once you begin to chase it and to tell it, then you begin to get those skills honed so that you can be ready for that. And then, there are so many different contests and opportunities online from Tribeca to Sundance to local things, they need to then do their research and begin to put pieces out there and get feedback.

Interview text edited for clarity.