How Growing Up Gay and Illegitimate in a Religious Community Made Me the Filmmaker I Am

Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams on making movies about outsiders, and his plans to transform the industry from within.

I grew up in Easton, Pennsylvania. My mother was a cleaning lady who worked for an all-male fraternity house at Lafayette College. I would go to work with her as a little boy and hang out with the guys whose disgusting dorm rooms she had to clean up. She was a single mother struggling to keep a roof over our heads. My father had left because my mother had had an affair with one of the deacons of our church, and I was the illegitimate child of that affair. It was an open secret – everyone knew except me. It was only when I was a teenager that I finally found out who my real father actually was, a man whose family ran the African-American religious community in my town.

I knew I was gay from as far back as I can remember, but the church was non-affirming and everyone in the community was homophobic, so I kept it a secret. I was often accused of being a sissy because I couldn’t play sports. I always felt like an outsider.

I got through by creating my own little fantasy world, imagining I lived in Paris, just to create my own sense of self. That’s how I first developed my storytelling muscles. And because of that, every film that I make is about people who feel worthless and alienated from the world, and about how they overcome that and make people realize what they have to offer the world.

My first film, Music by Prudence, was about a girl with no arms or legs from Zimbabwe who was shunned by her community because they believed disability was a form of witchcraft. She was abandoned, lived like an animal, eating off the ground, and thought she was not human. When she was rescued by a school, they cleaned her up, put her in a wheelchair and discovered she had an incredible singing voice and was a gifted musician. When I heard about her, I went to Zimbabwe and made a film about her which ended up winning an Oscar.

God Loves Uganda, my first feature, was about my feelings of alienation from the church. I wanted to go into the belly of the beast – Uganda, because of its anti-homosexuality bill – and confront the people who hated me for my sexuality so much that they wanted to see me dead. It was confronting my family and my background growing up, but taking it to an extreme.

My new film, Life, Animated, is about Owen Suskind, who people look past and are uncomfortable with because he’s autistic and doesn’t have the same social norms. Owen always feels like a sidekick, and the film is about making him a hero who speaks for his community.

For myself, I’ve embraced my role as an outsider, I’ve taken all the challenges I’ve had in my life and I’ve used them in my art. I’ve used that sense of powerlessness to inform the types of stories I want to tell.

When I was growing up, I was terrified of people. I lived in fear of people finding out I was gay, of people seeing through me, and it made me deeply insecure. Although I’ve gotten to a point in my career where some people would consider me very successful, I still don’t see myself that way. It’s still a struggle. After I won the Oscar, not one agent called me. No one called me to offer me big jobs on films. No one said, “I want to fund your next film.” There’s still moments I feel like I’m in this battle against a system that doesn’t see me. The gatekeepers, the studio executives, the agents, they all want to fund projects and push things forward for people who look like they do and who they can relate to. They can’t relate to me.

The efforts the Academy’s making – including inviting an unprecedented number of women and minorities – are great, but we’re just at the beginning of this process. It’s going to take a long time. The current leadership have been entrenched in Hollywood for a long time and are happy with the status quo, and so you’ve got to change the leadership.

I want to change things from within, so I’m running for Governor of the documentary division of the Academy in order to give a voice to people like me. The Academy needs to take the lead in helping to diversify the community, not from the top down, but from the ground up. We need to focus on educational programs and community outreach to encourage people from diverse backgrounds, people of color, to get into the industry. When I got into documentary filmmaking, there were few or no role models. We need to provide people with role models.

Roger Ross Williams’ first film, Music by Prudence, won the 2010 Academy Award for documentary short subject. He is the first African-American director to win an Academy Award. Williams next directed the feature documentary God Loves Uganda, which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival. His latest film, Life, Animated, won the U.S. Documentary Directing Prize at Sundance 2016 and is currently on release through The Orchard. (Picture by Marc Yankus.)