Roger Ross Williams

Source: Peter Ross

Roger Ross Williams

Roger Ross Williams, guest of honour at this year’s edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest, has warned of “a dire time for documentaries in the United States”.

The director of features including God Loves Uganda, Life, Animated and Stamped From The Beginning as well as Apple TV+ documentary mini-series The Super Models, said: “Buyers right now are looking for celebrity and true-crime [documentaries]… Important social-issue documentaries are just not selling.”

Williams added the “racial reckoning” following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, which sparked an interest in “Black content that delved into the crisis we were facing in America around race”, was now over.

“[Buyers] aren’t interested in content like that anymore,” Williams said. “The moment is up.” 

Williams was talking at this month’s Sheffield DocFest where he selected five social activist documentaries: The Battle For Laikipia which he executive produced; Stone MountainDaughters which Netflix has acquired; Sugarcane; and Union (about the fight to establish a union at Amazon).

“It’s important for me to spotlight these films – and these filmmakers who’ve spent many years pouring their blood, sweat and tears into this work. I want audiences to see and enjoy them… each of them tells an important story and sparks a conversation.”

Although some of these titles have been picked up by major players, Williams argued that “the streamers need to be educated to realise there its an audience for these films and that people are craving them.”

Stamped From The Beginning, which explores the history of racist tropes and imagery in American culture, started streaming on Netflix in November 2023 following the film’s world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival. Williams, however, believes such themes aren’t being followed up on more widely.

“It is still open season on Black bodies in America,” he said. “There is still an enormous amount of police violence. We are still reckoning with the legacy of slavery and racism is rampant, even worse [than before Floyd’s murder]. But no one wants have that conversation [because of] the short attention span of the powers that be and the short attention span of the public as well.”

Positive trend

One positive trend – for which Williams can take some credit – is the increasingly international profile of the documentary feature category at the Oscars. Williams spent several years as a governor of the documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (Ampas).

In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, he said, “I was given the opportunity to double the number of women and diverse voices in the Academy. I set out to make the documentary branch the first branch to reach gender parity and I set out to make the documentary branch the most diverse branch in the Academy.”

Since taking up the role in 2016, Williams was able to invite many members from around the world to join.

“That transformed the branch into what it is today. Now, it sets the tone for the rest of the Academy and what they aspire to. The Academy is an international organisation. That’s not reflected in the membership of many of the branches but it is in the documentary branch – and it has transformed the nominees.”

Williams has his own production company, One Story Up, which he launched with Geoff Martz in 2018 and which has produced films and series including Master Of Light, Stamped From The Beginning, The Battle For Laikipia and Netflix series High On The Hog

“It’s about nurturing young and upcoming filmmakers from diverse backgrounds. That is why I set up the company because the opportunities I didn’t have I wanted to give to others.”

Williams said he had met “some incredibly talented” Black British filmmakers this week in Sheffield with whom he hopes to work in the future.

Career in film

During his DocFest masterclass, Williams recounted his own struggles to get projects off the ground, even after winning the documentary short Oscar in 2010 for his film Music By Prudence – making him the first African American to win the category. 

“People couldn’t relate to me and the stories I wanted to tell. There weren’t commissioning editors and executives that looked like me and I just didn’t get the phone calls,” Williams recounted.

Through perseverance, he was eventually able to make his debut feature doc, God Loves Uganda, which explored the role of the US evangelical movement in creating and promoting Uganda’s homophobic laws. Much of the financing for the film was raised at Sheffield MeetMarket.

After God Loves Uganda, Williams’s next feature was 2016’s Life, Animated (sold by Dogwoof), which told the story of an autistic boy who learned to communicate through Disney cartoons and went on to receive an Oscar nomination. 

One characteristic Williams believes all his work shares is that it takes the point of view of the “outsiders and underdogs”. 

“I am someone who shouldn’t have succeeded, who shouldn’t have made it in the world,” said Williams. “For me, every documentary I make is personal. It’s my own personal struggle.”