Photo: re:imagine/ATL

High school senior Joni Whitlock is on a mission to tell the stories of marginalized people through film

At Towers High School in Decatur, Georgia, senior Joni Whitlock is surrounded by students with stories that need to be told. Here, over 80 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, and the student body is comprised of a 100 percent minority population. The graduation rate is 68.3 percent, with only 11 percent of the students qualifying as college-ready. Test scores are below district and state averages. Despite the faculty’s best efforts, at Towers comparatively few of the students advance to higher education and, in turn, their professional opportunities are often limited.

In this environment, Whitlock has developed a powerful voice—a voice she hopes to use to empower her peers, people who all too often go unrepresented in the mainstream film industry.

The lack of diversity in Hollywood is staggering. Of the highest-grossing 250 films released domestically in 2016, a mere 7 percent of the directors were female, and a 2016 USC study found that only 12.7 percent of feature film directors are members of racial minorities. Of the 407 directors evaluated in the study, only two were black women—Amma Asante, who directed Belle and Ava DuVernay, director of Selma.

For Whitlock, those numbers illustrate both the importance of pursuing a career in filmmaking and the challenges she’ll confront along the way.

Whitlock is a 4.0 student, with the poise and sophistication of someone twice her age. She is soft spoken and articulate, and despite the objections of her family, she knows exactly what she wants to do when she grows up: make movies.

Joni Whitlock is working on a short film about rising teen singer Stan Genius, who says he has "light skin problems." Jodi Cash

Inspired by Lana Del Rey’s breakout music video, “Video Games,” Whitlock began experimenting with filmmaking two years ago as a sophomore in high school.

“I started off just making little short videos, because I love vintage films,” says Whitlock of her early attraction to life behind the camera. “I would make little short vintage films and post them on YouTube just for fun.”

Last year she enrolled in her first film class, offered as an elective at her high school thanks to a partnership with re:imagine/ATL, a local nonprofit that teaches film and media production to teenagers. The program goes beyond introducing media skills; it emphasizes empathy. Re:imagine/ATL students practice thoughtful interviewing and close listening. They create videos, podcasts and other projects that tell the stories of their communities. The program’s mission is to empower a new generation of conscientious storytellers who will give voice to the marginalized.

Re:imagine/ATL was launched in 2014, as Atlanta increasingly became a hub of media production. In the last five years, the film industry has added 85,000 jobs to Georgia’s economy. Atlanta is also one of the most diverse cities in the United States, home to one of the largest wage gaps in the country. Re:imagine/ATL is using the booming new industry to bridge the void between disjointed communities, connecting people of all ethnicities and socioeconomic levels. Ultimately, they hope this will result in media that is representative of all people, rather than a singular demographic with a controlling stake in Hollywood.

Since its inception, over 600 students have participated in re:imagine/ATL, and through the program, they’ve gained internships and work experience at the likes of Adult Swim, Turner, Fear Haus (Moonshine Post-Production), Third Rail Studios, Facebook’s Youth Advisory Board, Sixthman, Adolescent Content and How Stuff Works.

New doorways into the industry began opening for Whitlock through the film course. On a field trip to Turner Broadcasting in neighboring Atlanta, she attracted the attention of Julie Foster-Straw, program director at re:imagine/ATL.

“Joni is very kind and driven,” says Foster-Straw. “She takes direction well and also takes an idea and runs with it.”

Re:imagine/ATL facilitated a PSA film competition at Whitlock’s school, and under her keen direction, her group’s PSA for the Women’s Resource Center to End Domestic Violence, won first place. Last summer she worked as an intern for Adolescent Content, a global media company that employs young people to produce youth-focused advertising and entertainment, and through the internship, she also wrote for Walt Disney World’s Best Day Ever YouTube series. She also earned a No Comment Media fellowship, in which Atlanta teens conceptualize, write, produce, direct and distribute a web series telling stories of other teenagers around the world.

Whitlock is working on a No Comment episode about how Atlanta teen R&B singer Stan Genius feels inhibited by his race. “He said that if he had a darker skin tone and did rap, he would be more successful,” says Whitlock. “Or if he were white and did pop he would be more successful in that too. We really just wanted to dig deeper into what he means when he says he has ‘light skin problems.’”

It’s this dynamic growth of both soft and hard skills—the ability to recognize great stories and the know-how to effectively tell them—that will set Whitlock apart.

“I’m really glad she’s part of the re:imagine/ATL family,” Foster-Straw says. “I really think she’s going to be the next Ava DuVernay.”

And it’s not just Whitlock’s skillset that’s grown—it’s also her perspective.

“We want youth coming out of our program writing and producing shows and videos that represent and honor people from all walks of life,” says Foster-Straw.

That’s a message that Whitlock has clearly received. “I have learned that all different perspectives matter,” she says. “Even if I disagree with an opinion or statement someone says, I still listen. We all come from different backgrounds and we all have stories to tell.”