Like many Black girls growing up, Teaunna Gray would turn on the television only to find scene after scene of people who looked nothing like her. She’d open up books and read stories about people with lives unlike her own. As a small child, she’d receive baby doll toys with blonde hair that failed to represent her.
Gray identified a gap in entertainment early on. Studies on diversity in Hollywood share the stats and data showing us that two out of 10 lead actors in film are people of colour and as of 2017, only 9 per cent of Black folks make up top film roles. When it comes to behind the scenes, only 13 per cent of film directors are people of colour. So now, at 27, the Afro-Indigenous director, and photographer is on a mission to provide the representation lacking — to carve our space in the industry and bring diverse storytelling and positive representation to the forefront. Her aim is to bring the stories of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour (BIPOC) on-screen and make sure their full stories are told accurately and authentically.
From curating art shows to filming a documentary
Born to a Jamaican and Cuban father and a Mi’kmaq and Mvskoke mother, Gray was the younger half of a twin set. She and identical sister Teshaunna Gray were raised by a single teen mom in Toronto.
It didn’t take her long to absorb stereotypes and narratives about who she should be. Early on, she developed a passion and drive to beat statistics. Gray wanted to create the best representation she could for the Black community. She earned a degree from Guelph-Humber in 2012 and attended Ryerson University for film.
Born with a creative bone, Gray got her start curating art shows featuring series on Black female sexuality — she began with painting abstract vaginas and started collaborating with other artists. “I had an intense yearning to help the community around me,” explains Gray.
After graduating, Gray began curating art shows and drove proceeds towards womens’ shelters and organizations against sex trafficking through bidding and selling art. Proceeds also went towards underrepresented and underprivileged girls.
Her next step was to extend the work to visual storytelling — amplifying and sharing Black voices. Her first passion project was directing a music video called “Red Mind” for a Toronto-based queer artist. After, she began collecting the Black female perspectives, from ages seven to 40, for her first indie documentary Black Girl Magic. “I directed and wrote it as a love letter to Black women and girls,” says Gray.
Paving the way for positive representation
In addition to improving BIPOC representation on screen, Gray highlights the importance of BIPOC being behind the camera — so the full story be told. “[So] you don’t have a one-sided, unfair perspective being shared,” Gray explains this necessary effort to also avoid tokenism and stereotypical representation.
“Don’t try to attempt to air out our dirty laundry. It’s very hurtful — misses the whys behind certain dark aspects. Misses the context,” says Gray. “Representation needs to happen at the highest level of storytelling… writers, creators, producers, directors. It’s not enough to be casting BIPOC people.”
Positive representation matters — on-screen and in the real world. “It’s important we see ourselves in all industries — it’ll empower us for sure,” states Gray.
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This is going to take extra work for people in positions of power in the entertainment industry
From hiring diverse people for the right positions to putting in the research, processes from project to project need to be critically analyzed, changed and updated. It’s about going beyond who you know — and broadening those horizons. “Where can I find BIPOC people who make these roles — [it’s] researching BIPOC producers, cinematographers — amplifying the voices of BIPOC. It’s clear research [that] needs to be done to do that,” says Gray — who encourages folks to click on the lists of BIPOC you see on social media.
“Access those resources that share BIPOC creators and their various roles,” emphasizes Gray, who is a big fan of Blackwomenfilm.ca.
Of course, even Gray can do better — and she wants to do so. In efforts to counter ableism, Gray does her part to advocate for the deaf community. “It’s important to me to include the deaf perspective in my film. I want to do my part in advocating for that community — using my hearing privilege to support and empower the deaf community.”
She’s also doing the work to include more voices in her crew — making a conscious effort to extend her platform. “Allyship is a commitment — it’s not a one action word. It’s a commitment to the uplifting and empowering and advocacy of BIPOC voices. It’s a lifelong commitment,” says Gray.
Related: Am I an ally? How to educate yourself and take action against racial injustice.