Every artistic industry is plagued with inequality, intricate power structures explicitly designed to withhold power from people who deserve it. Nepotism is rampant within artistic fields, functioning as a power vacuum and a source of overcrowding.
But despite these newly constructed, increasingly complicated ways of limiting new talent, up and coming creatives will find exciting ways of charting new paths, new spaces to invite deserving creators to imagine. Rather than the stereotypical progression from private education to formal training to an impressive first venture, there are still breakthroughs, people who transcend external limits to build sustainable modes of making a career.
1) Barbara Stanwyck
This classic film star was raised by her sister, a showgirl, before breaking into Broadway, and later films, as a dancer. In this sense, the reimagination of Ruby Stevens into Barbara Stanwyck served as an immediate means of survival, (which no doubt contributed to the fiery edge which shades all her roles.) But really it is the style by which Stanwyck maintained her stardom that was startlingly unique for the time. Actors were traditionally signed to a single film studio, bolstered by executives that would specify their style of acting and type of character and curate their filmographies accordingly. Instead of following this track, Stanwyck signed non-exclusive contracts with a few of the major studios, effectively operating as a freelance artist.
In today’s less overtly rigorous film-making landscape its hard to understand how unique this was, actors typically could only reshape their careers from within the confines of the studio system. At the height of her career she was the best paid woman in America. Stanwyck’s insistence on her creative self-direction is uniquely inspiring for freelancers who feel limited in their ability to usefully direct their creative impulses.
2) John Singleton
At 24 years old, John Singleton became the youngest ever person to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for crafting his debut feature film Boyz n the Hood. A cinematic Bildungsroman, wrestling with the heartfelt, spiky intimacy between 3 best friends living in South Central LA. The film was ground-breaking for Singleton (who had briefly considered pursuing computer science before studying film at USC,) but it also boosted the careers of many actors who would revolutionise their corner of the industry. Cuba Gooding Jr. was given his first lead role after working steadily in Hollywood for several big budget comedies, while Regina King was given space to shine in her few scenes. Now an Academy award winning actress, King still cites Boyz n the Hood as her first big break.
Singleton early unprecedented success didn’t determine the course of his future. He reimagined the role a decorated filmmaker like himself could enact, dabbling in blockbuster action films towards the end of his career.
3) Jordan Peele
Jordan Peele’s roots were in improvisational comedy, he started by performing in the infamous Second City Chicago, sharpening his comic sensibilities. He was at the forefront of the absurd, snarky sketch comedy wave that swept the late noughties and early 2010s, joining the cast of Mad TV before creating the sketch TV show Key & Peele.
Now he has pivoted to weaving complex horror stories, one of the only remaining directors to weld blockbuster scale with nuanced themes and mysterious imagery. His pivot from comedy to horror belies the skills necessary to succeed at both, the sense of timing and pacing that ensures something can be scary and funny. As a creative his decision to so successfully shift modes serves to inspire other filmmakers.