Taj Paxton is one of the few women of color who is also an openly queer film executive. She is a writer, producer and filmmaker whose feminism can be traced back to her mother. Raised on the idea that women should travel, explore themselves and be free, Paxton got her start managing Madonna’s protégé Meshell Ndegegocello in the ’90s. Currently the head of Logo Documentary Films, a board member for Outfest, a mentor for Women in Film and a member of Georgetown University’s Alumni Entertainment and Media Alliance (GEMA), Paxton puts stories often unheard at the forefront.
Ms. caught up with Paxton to ask her a few questions about what inspires her, why diverse stories matter and what advice she can offer to the next generation of feminist filmmakers.
How does feminism play a role in your career and making films?
There was a moment in my career where a friend asked me to make a list of 100 of my favorite films and to begin to look for the patterns in them as a way to determine what matters most to me. What I saw when I made that list is I am drawn to what feels most like real life, complex people who sometimes do the right thing and something they don’t. I also realized that many of those stories centered around women’s lives whether it’s Diahann Carroll’s single working Mom looking for a love that lasts in Claudine, a completely unsung gem from 1974, or La Femme Nikita and her nihilistic fight or Tilda Swinton’s character in the Italian film I Am Love and the fateful choice she makes. I am drawn to stories about women and it’s important to not apologize for that.
Who are some influencers that inspire you as a filmmaker?
I’m inspired by the work of Mira Nair. She masterfully draws you into worlds with a sensuality that permeates all of her work and I find it magnetic. I’m also a fan of 1970s cinema and inspired by Sydney Pollack and Sydney Lumet, the range of their work from romance to thriller to comedy to political dramas. They made unforgettable films regardless of the genre.
Do you notice a difference on set with the number of women versus men?
I look forward to one day being on a set where I’m not counting the number of women because that will mean there’s too many to count.
As head of Logo Documentary Films, how important is it for you to showcase not only LGBTQ and feminist content, but also an intersectional representation with people of color?
Public Enemy has a song called “Fight the Power”, which is in Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing, and one of the lines in the song is about Elvis, and the line says “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.” There are heroes in this world that look like lots of different people. They are Indian American. They are trans. They’re trans women of every background. They are cis gender men of various cultural backgrounds. They are black women of various sizes and sexual orientations.
The thrust for my work is that I just want the chance to tell as many stories about as many kinds of people as we can. I feel very fortunate to work at a network that has the same goal. It’s highly important to me and to the network. There can’t be only one representation of what being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender looks like; it’s why there is no shortage of compelling films available now.
Would you say that creating films in media can be a powerful tool in culture? What would you say was a key moment in realizing the influence of the work you produce?
The experiences I’ve had in the last 2 years have made me realize the power of a story. We screened Out of Iraq on the floor of the United Nations. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power gave the opening remarks. After our first airings of Rick Goldsmith’s film Mind/Game, I received messages from people saying how they’ve been silently struggling with anxiety or clinical depression and Chamique’s courage was giving them courage. Or, the email we received after airing GEN SILENT. It was from a woman whose partner was in a nursing home. She said that she felt scared her partner was being mistreated because she was gay and that she wanted to show the film to the nurses so they would understand and hopefully not mistreat her. The film was the voice she didn’t have. That’s powerful.
You put out your short film, A Fat Girl’s Guide to Yoga, in 2007. What do you have to say about some of the recent representation of women of all body sizes in the media and the backlash it still receives?
I have this to say, I remember I loved watching The Sopranos and I don’t remember one article about James Gandolfini needing to lose some weight. We talked about his brilliance as an actor, how he interpreted the role and how iconic it was. Whereas you could name me a leading woman in a dramatic role or a comedic role and I could probably point you to a moment where we’ve talked about her size. Why aren’t we interested more in other parts of women and not just their bodies?
Where are all the articles about how Frances Mcdormand interpreted her role in Olive Kitteridge? Where are the articles about Kerry Washington’s approach to her character—she’s beautiful, no question, but how much are we going to talk about her beauty? Let’s talk about her training. We’re talking about Alicia Keys and her makeup and not wearing it—talk about her musical inspirations. She’s only saying that she would like the freedom to choose when and how she wears her skin, and that is her right and every woman’s right. And if I don’t have it on, don’t tell me I’m not dressed or ready. I’m ready.
Lastly, what is some advice you can give to the young women trying to become filmmakers?
Give up the need to fit in. Being a filmmaker or an artist of any sort, your asset is your point of view and all the other things that make you YOU – even if they fall outside of the realms of what’s normal, better yet, especially if they fall outside of what’s normal. There’s this meme I love—it says, “You’re you. That’s your super power.”
I think that, being an artist or creative person, it comes naturally sometimes for people and then you’re put into this world where that way of thinking is not necessarily natural. Then it makes you feel so odd. But at the end of the day, it is an artist’s job to stand out. It’s the way that you make the most impact. I don’t think that it’s the goal, but it’s the way that you express yourself by being fully you.