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NBCU Academy announces recipients of inaugural ‘Original Voices’ Fellowship to support diverse filmmakers

NBCU Academy and NBC News Studios together named seven groundbreaking filmmakers for the first inaugural Original Voices fellowship early last week. From a diverse range of backgrounds, each documentarian will receive $45,000 in grants and a one-year fellowship to support their feature-length nonfiction films in all stages of production, including access to archival research, individually tailored yearlong mentorship, story and edit consultations, distribution strategy discussions, marketing and publicity guidance, production resources, and exposure to NBC News Studios’ executives and journalists.

This year’s inaugural cohort represents a diverse group of filmmakers telling diverse and inclusive stories. In an age where authentic representation and visibility in media for minority groups matters more than ever, this push by NBCU Academy and NBC New Studios to support diverse filmmakers and bring their stories to the mainstream media is incredibly important. Projects from this first cohort include coming-of-age stories that transcend borders, tales of bravery and courage in the face of institutional corruption, accounts of nascent parenthood and belonging, and films that explore Blackness, Latinx identity, immigration, gender, disability, and more.  

“We are so excited to work with seven incredibly gifted, original voices who are committed to highlighting some of the most important social issues of our time,” said Yvette Miley, Senior Vice President, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for NBCUniversal News Group. “The lived-experiences of these fellows provide a unique foundation for powerful storytelling.”

Meet the Original Voices fellowship recipients and their projects 

Original Voices Fellowship, Hummingbirds

A still from Hummingbirds. (Image Source)

Hummingbirds, Directed by Silvia Castaños, Estefania Contreras, Miguel Drake McLaughlin, Diane Ng, Ana Rodriguez-Falco, Jillian Schlesinger, Produced by Leslie Benavides, Miguel Drake McLaughlin, Ana Rodriguez-Falco, Jillian Schlesinger 

In a collaborative coming-of-age film, inseparable best friends Silvia and Beba emerge at night to escape the cruel summer heat of their Texas border town, wandering empty streets in search of inspiration, adventure, and a sense of belonging. When forces beyond their control threaten their shared dreams and they are faced with an uncertain future, they take a stand and hold onto what they can—the moment and each other.

I Didn’t See You There, Directed by Reid Davenport, Produced by Keith Wilson 

Spurred by the spectacle of a circus tent that goes up outside his Oakland apartment, a disabled filmmaker launches into an unflinching meditation on freakdom, (in)visibility, and the pursuit of individual agency. Shot entirely from his literal physical perspective, both from his wheelchair and his two feet, the filmmaker’s gaze and thoughts oscillate between how he is seen, his distant family, and whether his films have fallen into the legacy of the Freak Show.

Original Voices Fellowship

Bloodthicker director, Zac Manuel. (Image Source)

Bloodthicker, Directed by Zac Manuel, Produced by Chris Haney

A coming-of-age documentary about three childhood friends navigating adulthood while living in the shadows of their famous fathers. Filmed over 4 years, the film is an intimate portrait of how three young musicians come to define themselves in the presence and absence of their fathers.

La Flaca, Directed by Jessica Chermayeff and Ana Veselic, Produced by Alba Jaramillo 

A teenager’s flight from Honduras through Central America suddenly snaps into focus when she gives birth on US soil — launching an epic coming-of-age tale of assimilation in America.

Untitled, Directed by Sura Malluoh, Produced by Laura Poitras and Yoni Golijov, Cinematography by Jason D’Souza

Two friends uncover a conflict that divides their already embattled community. Told from all sides, with unprecedented access to courtrooms, anonymous sources and community leaders, this observational film unfolds in real time.

Original Voices Fellowship

A still from Original Voices Fellowship project, MIJA. (Image source)

MIJA, Directed by Isabel Castro, produced by Tabs Breese and Yesenia Tlahuel

Doris Muñoz is an ambitious music manager whose undocumented family depends on her ability to discover aspiring pop stars. Mija dives into the world of a young woman and a community of first-generation musicians that are hustling harder than anyone because “making it” isn’t just a dream—it’s a necessity.

Untitled, Directed by Michael Premo, Produced by Rachel Falcone 

The Original Voices fellows were selected by a distinguished jury of three independent, critically acclaimed documentary filmmakers: Dawn Porter, Nanfu Wang and Cristina Costantini. Jeanelle Augustin is Manager, Film Fellowships and Artist Development overseeing the curation and design of the Original Voices fellowship. 

“These independent filmmakers embody creativity, integrity and inclusivity — core qualities that make for a great storyteller,” said Molly O’Brien, Head of Documentary, NBC News Studios. “NBC News Studios, along with the jury, are proud to support the fellows and help bring their directorial vision to life.” 

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NBCU Academy is a new, innovative, multiplatform journalism training and development program launched by NBCUniversal News Group. The initiative provides four-year university and community college students scholarships, education, on-campus training, online programming, funding for accredited journalism programs and access to world-class journalists from NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC and Telemundo. Currently, NBCU Academy is partnered with 17 academic universities, community colleges and institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic-Serving Institutions and colleges with significant Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, Black, Indigenous and tribal populations – reaching students from underrepresented groups including those from diverse racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, economic, and geographic backgrounds.

NBC News Studios is a division of NBC News that specializes in documentary storytelling. Working with Studios offers producers and filmmakers access to everything our legacy news organization has to offer: eight decades of TV and radio archive; a global network of journalists; and rich trove of stories. Our team has decades of experience in the TV and documentary worlds and has been honored with multiple Emmy, Peabody and DuPont awards. Our recent collaboration with Focus Features, Dawn Porter’s The Way I See It, was the highest rated non-news program in MSNBC’s 25-year history and the winner of the best documentary feature at the New York Film Critics Online awards.

“In the Heights” colorism controversy and why accurate representation is important

Recently, the newly released film adaption of Lin Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical–In the Heights–has received some controversy regarding the film’s casting choices and lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx actors, with critics citing colorism as the root cause of the inaccurate representation of the historic NYC neighborhood.

In the Heights, colorism controversy

In the Heights faces blacklash regarding colorism controversy. (Image Source)

Set in the New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, the film’s themes celebrate diversity and identity. However, audiences were quick to notice the lack of dark-skinned Latinos in lead roles. Instead, all of the main Latinx characters are portrayed by light-skinned or white-passing actors. Viewers took to social media to voice their feelings and bring attention to the longstanding issue of colorism in Hollywood. 

In the Heights follows the lives of various Latinx characters living in Washington Heights, weaving their stories together in a celebration of Latin pride and Latinx stories. However, the film adaptation notably lacks dark-skinned Afro-Latinx main characters, creating an inaccurate portrayal of the NYC neighborhood. Described as a “melting pot” by In the Heights actress Melissa Barrera, Washington Heights, the film fails to portray an accurate “mosaic of this community.” 

While the film maintains a high rating on critic site, Rotten Tomatoes, and has favored well with general audiences, the issue of colorism remains a valid criticism and an important conversation to be had. 

Commenting on the controversy, actress Melissa Barrera said that “the audition process, which was a long audition process, there were a lot of Afro-Latinos there. A lot of darker skinned people. And I think they were looking for just the right people for the roles. For the person that embodied each character in the fullest extent,” clarifying, “Because the cast ended up being us, and because Washington Heights is a melting pot of Black and Latinx people, Jon and Lin wanted the dancers and the big numbers to feel very truthful to what the community looks like.”

It is true that there were dark-skinned performers in the group numbers as background dancers, but this only further highlights the key issue: there were none in lead roles. To dark-skinned Afro-Latinx viewers this sends the message that their lives and their stories are not important. It tells them that they are only “background” characters in the lives of light-skinned and white people. The film’s only dark-skinned character is Benny, played by non-Latino actor Corey Hawkins. In the musical, Benny pursues a romance with Nina, though he is viewed as an outsider by Nina’s father because he is not Latino. Being the only dark-skinned character in the main cast, this sends another message to audiences, that dark-skinned people are “outsiders” or don’t belong in Latino communities, which could not be farther from the truth. 

In our current socio-political climate, where race issues are at the forefront, this significant lack of dark-skinned Afto-Latinx actors in a film about a historically diversey neighborhood cannot be ignored. Movements like Black Lives Matter have made it clear that there is still so much work to be done regarding the treatment of Black lives in our society. The lack of visibility of Black lives and Black stories in our media is just one of many symptoms of systemic racism. Just as systemic racism prevents Black individuals from accessing resources, education, and employment due to long standing biases ingrained in our culture, Hollywood, too, is affected. 

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As Melissa Barrera pointed out in her statement, the audition process included many Afro-Latinx actors auditioning for lead roles. However, not a single one made it to the big screen. Why? Some may say it was down to talent, but there are many, many talented dark-skinned actors in Hollywood, so one has to wonder why they were not given the same opportunity to star in the film as light-skinned and white Latinx actors. 

In the Heights creator and American actor, singer, songwriter, rapper, producer, and playwright, Lin Manuel Miranda. (Image Source)

In a Twitter statement addressing the colorism controversy, Lin Manuel Miranda expressed his deep apology for the lack of dark-skinned Afro-Latinx representation in the film. 

“I started writing In the Heights because I didn’t feel seen,” he says. “And over the past 20 years all I wanted was for us — ALL of us — to feel seen. I’m seeing the discussion around Afro-Latino representation in our film this weekend, and it is clear that many in our dark-skinned Afro-Latino community don’t feel sufficiently represented within it, particularly among the leading roles. I can hear the hurt and frustration over colorism, of feeling unseen in the feedback. I hear that, without sufficient dark-skinned Afro-Latino representation, the world feels extractive of the community we wanted so much to represent with pride and joy.”

“In trying to paint a mosaic of this community, we fell short. I’m truly sorry. I’m learning from the feedback, I thank you for raising it, and I’m listening. I’m trying to hold space for both the incredible pride in the movie we made and be accountable for our shortcomings. Thank you for your honest feedback. I promise to do better in my future projects, and I’m dedicated to the learning and evolving we all have to do to make sure we are honoring our diverse and vibrant community.”