As scrutiny continues over diversity in film and opportunities for African Americans in Hollywood, some black actors and producers are looking to another avenue where they see growth — the Web.
Success stories like Issa Rae, whose "Awkward Black Girl" Internet comedy series was so successful she received a development deal with HBO, have opened the door for others who may have found more traditional avenues in Hollywood closed. So as the American Black Film Festival opened in New York this week for its 19th year, it has turned its focus to the Web.
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"Degrassi" star Andrea Lewis is among those finding more exposure on the Internet. Used to being the only black person on set, when Lewis was not getting the roles she wanted, she decided not going to wait.
"Instead of wondering where the next opportunity can come, I said, 'I am going to come up with it and do it myself,'" Lewis said.
She took to the Web with her comedy series "Black Actress," sharing the narrative of black women trying to make it in the industry. The 10- to 20-minute episodes include the storyline of a young women going on auditions, woven in with real-life interviews from actresses such as Tatyana Ali and "Powers'" Naturi Naughton. They discuss the lack of significant roles offered, and the struggle to live creatively.
Lewis said she created "Black Actress" after she was introduced as the "urban one" by a cast member.
"I was seen as the black one on the set, not as a peer or another actor who is trying to work," she said. "It was an uncomfortable experience for me and also for the others who were there."
Now Lewis is writing, producing and acting on her own terms. She is working on three other Web series and a feature film with Jungle Wild Productions.
For her, the Internet offers "creative freedom and there is no gatekeeper on what you can put out with your team."
Her show is featured as a part of the festival's "2015 Web Originals" panel. Other events at ABFF, which runs until Sunday, include the New York premiere of "Dope" and a conversation with ABFF ambassador and "Empire" star Taraji P. Henson.
Jeff Friday, co-founder of the ABFF, said using the Internet and social media is an easy way for young actors and producers to get themselves out there and create content.
"You've got to try to take your own destiny in your own hands and there is no excuse now," he said.
Rae, the creator and star of "Awkward Black Girl" and the HBO-ordered pilot "Insecure," is joining Andrea Lewis and the creators of website BlackandSexy.tv, Numa Perrier and Dennis Dortch, for the panel "How to Create and Monetize a Successful Web Series."
Rae said events like these are important at ABFF because "a lot of people don't know how to get started and how to make money."
Rae's success comes after creating multiple web series and producing other projects with her company, Color Creative.
"I got into this industry initially as a fan and to be able to use my platform to support other up-and-coming artists that I am a fan of. That's an ideal situation for me," she said.
When she created her first Web series in 2007, her main concern was creating more roles for black women and creating content for the type of humor she enjoyed.
"I never thought that anyone would really pay to see my work online," Rae said.
BuzzFeed actress and comedian Quinta Brunson, known as Quinta B., started with posting funny self-made videos on Vine and Instagram. Now she is making videos for a major media company on topics such as the perks of being short, the struggle to gain weight and the best free bread at restaurants.
She said she is able to express herself as a writer and comedian that she would not be able to do anywhere else.
"The thing I like the most about BuzzFeed is I do the kind of video where it's just me being a person," Brunson said, "especially as a black women, I appreciate the freedom to decide who I'll be rather than being told who I will be."
Friday said with ABFF's focus on writing courses and producer panels, they are trying to create a close-knit African-American film and television community, so that successful black artists can share their secrets and make those coming up feel like they can make it.
"Ultimately we just want the people who are working in Hollywood to be more reflective of our audience," Friday said.
By using the Internet and Web series, "once you have an audience Hollywood will come knocking." Friday said.
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