How Leslie Fields-Cruz of Black Public Media (BPM)Is Helping To Make the Entertainment Industry More Diverse and Representative


Many mainstream documentaries tend to focus on the trauma of the Black experience. Although it’s important for these stories to be told, the Black experience is much more diverse and is filled with more joy and laughter than is ever represented on screen. So, although my work doesn’t revolve directly around making popular culture more representative of the US, I’m satisfied knowing that the work I do at Black Public Media supports and amplifies the authentic experiences of Black people.

As a part of my series about leaders helping to make the entertainment industry more diverse and representative, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Leslie Fields-Cruz, Executive Director of Black Public Media (BPM), which supports the development of visionary content creators and distributes stories about the global Black experience to inspire a more equitable and inclusive future.

This June, BPM had four projects premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival: After Sherman, Black Movement Library, Hazing, and Inner Wound Real. In addition to her work at BPM, Fields-Cruz is a Vice President on the Board of Directors at New York Women in Film & Television, which advocates for inclusion in media and supports women at every stage of their careers through professional development programing, networking opportunities, funding, and advocacy.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

While working at the Association of Independent Video Filmmakers (AIVF), I was planning a business trip to visit Cleveland, OH to attend one of the events put on by the Cleveland AIVF Salon. Ruby Lerner, AIVF’s Exec. Director at the time suggested I make a pit stop in Columbus, OH to meet Mable Haddock, the Executive Director of a non-profit called the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC). I had never heard of the company, so was curious about who they were and what they did. Mable and I spoke for maybe an hour, and I asked if she would be willing to sit on a panel for AIVF members on her next trip to New York City. She said yes, and a few months later, Ms. Haddock was sharing information about NBPC and their work to bring documentaries about the Black experience to public media.

Fast forward three years later, I was winding down my freelance work at Creative Capital and looking for a more permanent position. Simon Kilmurray, who was at POV at the time, suggested I apply for this new position at NBPC, which had just moved to New York City. I had applied to NYU’s TV Center and had my fingers crossed for both. A few weeks later, I had two job offers. The pay rate was about the same, but NYU was offering more in benefits. Most people would think that I should have taken the job at NYU, but when I realized I could work at a company led by a Black woman, that supported the creation and distribution of stories about the Black experience, and helped to uplift Black filmmakers, I knew NBPC was where I wanted to be. I started in December 2001, and am currently NBPC — now called Black Public Media’s — third Executive Director.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

While attending the now-defunct Sitthenghi Film Market, in Cape Town, South Africa, I went to a screening of Hip Hop Revolution by South African Filmmaker Weaam Williams. I grew up surrounded by Hip Hop music, so I was intrigued by the musical genre’s impact on South African youth of the apartheid era. After the movie was over, the theater erupted in applause. Even though I only recognized the US artists covered in the film, and there were several South African Hip Hop artists featured, I related to the story because its core theme was art as a tool for resistance– a topic Black communities in the US could directly relate to. I shared my business card with the filmmaker and vowed to myself that I would find a way to bring the film to US audiences. I didn’t know it then, but watching the film is what eventually led to the creation of BPM’s series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

At one point in time, BPM provided a written summary of the feedback to every project that was declined funding. After overseeing my first round of funding, I painstakingly pulled together notes from both the written evaluations and the panel discussions for each project. I plopped my summaries into the declination notices and sent them out. A few days later, I received a scathing call from a producer. I won’t go into the details of what was said, but it prompted me to review the summation of my notes for that particular project. The readers and evaluators were not kind, however, they made some salient points that included ways in which the producer could strengthen and improve the project’s visual and artistic approach. Unfortunately, those points were buried deep in the summary. I called the filmmaker, walked them through the notes to give them better context and to point out the project’s strengths.

I learned that written feedback summaries can be too impersonal, leaving the door open for the artist to take the evaluation out of context. Today, project feedback is sent upon request and can be done over the phone or via a written summary, and producers who receive the written summary can call us for further clarification. I also tell all makers, when they receive a declination notice, it's best to wait 24 hours before calling the program officer.

Ok thank you for all that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our discussion. Can you describe how you are helping to make popular culture more representative of the US population?

Many mainstream documentaries tend to focus on the trauma of the Black experience. Although it’s important for these stories to be told, the Black experience is much more diverse and is filled with more joy and laughter than is ever represented on screen. So, although my work doesn’t revolve directly around making popular culture more representative of the US, I’m satisfied knowing that the work I do at Black Public Media supports and amplifies the authentic experiences of Black people.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted by the work you are doing?

BPM’s work impacts many individuals, which means it’s difficult for me to choose just one. However, a recent Peabody award winner, Melissa Haizlip (Mr. Soul!), is a great example of how Black Public Media (BPM) supports makers indirectly and directly. When Ms. Haizlip was a Film Independent Project Involve Fellow, working to hone her skills as a producer, I negotiated a deal that allowed BPM, along with the other members of the National MultiCultural Alliance, to provide funding for the Project Involve series of short films. The films, including Haizlip’s You’re Dead to Me were featured in the PBS Online Film Festival, now known as the PBS Shorts Film Festival.

As direct supporters of Ms. Haizlip, BPM funded Mr. Soul! at R&D and post-production and provided temporary in-kind office space when she relocated from the West Coast to the East Coast. Mr. Soul! had a very successful festival run, appeared on Independent Lens, is streaming on HBO, has won an NAACP Image Award, and just recently won a Peabody Award. Ms. Haizlip is currently in production on a new project.

As an insider, this might be obvious to you, but I think it’s instructive to articulate this for the public who might not have the same inside knowledge. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important to have diversity represented in Entertainment and its potential effects on our culture?

  1. It’s long overdue. Our world has always been diverse. If the entertainment industry had truly embraced diversity years ago, and represented it authentically in front of as well as behind the camera, American culture would have benefited from it immensely.
  2. The Creative Economy. The arts can and do generate money, so they are another avenue to have diverse representation in our broader economic system.
  3. Culture isn’t stagnant. It must be fed with new and/or unheard voices.

Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do to help address the root of the diversity issues in the entertainment business?

  1. Support organizations, production companies, and content from BIPOC / LGBTQ / People with Disabilities.
  2. Stop thinking the above communities are in a perpetual state of “needing training.” There are plenty of BIPOC/LGBTQ/People with Disabilities who are skilled and accomplished. They don’t need training. They need a job.
  3. Follow our lead and listen to what we have to say.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership comes in many forms because everyone has their own particular style, and organizations deserve certain types of leaders during their lifespan. For example, startups benefit most from either an authoritative leader — decisions are made from the top with clear expectations and outcomes for employees to achieve — or transformational leader — who sells a vision of what the organization can become.

There is also participatory leadership, my favorite style, in which team members are encouraged to contribute and be part of the decision-making process. However, there are pros and cons to all forms of leadership, so in some cases it’s best to go with what works at the moment.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Fundraising can be fun — When I started working in a non-profit I told myself I would never work in fund development. I knew it was important, but it didn’t appear to be enjoyable work. Writing proposal after proposal. Chatting up people at events. I now know that it’s all worth it if you truly believe in the mission of the organization.
  2. Don’t wait to find a mentor — I mentored a few young people and always wished I had thought about finding a mentor when I was first starting out, instead of when I was much older.
  3. Don’t be afraid of uncertainty — There are many more projects I would have started and finished if I wasn’t so concerned about not having figured everything out.
  4. Ask for what you want — Raises, promotions, resources. When I wanted to start the AfroPoP series I was unsure of whether or not BPM’s previous Executive Director, the amazing Jacquie Jones, would go for it. When I told her I thought BPM needed its own series, I was surprised she said let’s go for it. 14 seasons later and the series is still going strong.
  5. Take your vacation time — I think the younger generations have already figured this out, but damn it would have been great if someone had told me in my earlier years the importance of downtime.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would inspire a movement that makes it easy for people to understand the importance of nurturing, educating, and protecting ALL of our young people. To be honest, I don’t understand why we don’t seem to get that now. Our investment in young people is an investment in the future. When you only commit to helping those who can afford to be there, who look a certain way, or who can access the information, you’ve already shortchanged the future.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I only found this quote by Zora Neale Hurston a few weeks ago, but as a woman of color I think it is so fitting for how I’ve dealt with racism, sexism, and other “-isms.”

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

LeBron James — to ask when he will create some documentaries for PBS!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Facebook: @blackpublicmedia

Twitter: @blkpublicmedia
Instagram: @blackpublicmedia

This was very meaningful, thank you so much!



Edward Sylvan, CEO of Sycamore Entertainment Group
Authority Magazine

Specializing in acquiring, producing and distributing films about equality, diversity and other thought provoking subjects