Creating Change from Within
“I want to be a champion of the outsider,” says documentary filmmaker Roger Ross Williams (WSUC ’87), whose wide-ranging projects are united by this ingrained impulse. His latest release, Life, Animated, tells the story of an autistic boy who draws strength from the sidekicks, rather than the heroes, of animated Disney films, while God Loves Uganda (2013) explores the roots of homophobia in Ugandan society.
“I relate to that. I’m a black, gay man who grew up in the church and comes from a family of ministers who are not accepting of homosexuality. As a child I had to keep it a secret; I didn’t identify with my family and lived in my own little fantasy world,” he says.
For the short film Music by Prudence—about a disabled Zimbabwean singer—he became the first African American to win an Oscar for writing or producing a documentary, in 2010. “It says a lot about Hollywood. It’s a great honor, but at the same time it shouldn’t be this way,” he says.
Now, as a newly elected governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Documentary Branch, he is determined to create change from within. Through the academy’s education and outreach programs—and a variety of mentoring programs in Africa—he is helping others like him. As Williams explains, “It’s easy to say #OscarsSoWhite, but we need to build a community of filmmakers from the ground up.”