New head of ASU film school has background in film, TV, theater
The newly named Sidney Poitier New American Film School is getting a new director – Dianah Wynter, who has a background in film, theater and television.
Wynter, who is currently a professor and chair of the Department of Cinema and Television Arts at California State University, Northridge, will take over as director of the film school at Arizona State University on July 1.
The Sidney Poitier New American Film School, with nearly 700 students, is one of five schools in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU. In January, the school was named for Poitier, an actor known for breaking racial barriers, in a move that signified ASU’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
Wynter said she wanted to become part of the ASU community because of its mission.
“It was the sense of mission that was presented to me — creating young filmmakers and media-makers dedicated to equity and inclusivity, and democratizing their pathway to accomplish this,” she said.
“As a mandate of a film school, it’s surprising, but for a whole university, it’s inspiring.”
Steven Tepper, dean and director of the Herberger Institute, said he’s thrilled that Wynter has agreed to lead the Sidney Poitier New American Film School.
“Her decades of experience as a director, combined with her knowledge of the industry both as it is and as it needs to be, make her the perfect person for this critical new position in the Herberger Institute,” Tepper said.
Joanna Poitier, wife of Sidney Poitier, said the family is happy.
“We are so pleased with the selection of Ms. Wynter to lead in building the foundation for the Sidney Poitier New American Film School and we welcome her voice and knowledge in overseeing curriculum and pathways for promising youth to creatively and effectively tell their stories,” she said.
“Sidney is especially proud of the fact that they hired a woman, not to mention a woman of color, as he has been surrounded by strong women his entire life and is the father of six talented and outspoken daughters.”
Poitier won an Oscar for his role in the 1963 film “Lilies of the Field,” which was set and filmed in Arizona. He also was the first Black actor nominated for a best actor Academy Award for the 1958 movie “The Defiant Ones.”
Later in his career, Poitier became a director, a discipline that intrigued Wynter when she was a child.
“My mother was an avid Broadway theatergoer and would take us to see plays and operas when we were children,” Wynter said.
“I would always read the Playbills and I was fascinated with the person who was the director. It seemed like it was the most important creative part, and I decided when I was around 12 that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Wynter loves the creativity of directing — as well as the stress.
“Being very creative on a large scale is exhilarating, doing something creative with a large group of people all working toward the same goal,” she said.
“And it’s that experience, at scale, that defines the Poitier film school. Our goal goes beyond opening night. The goal is social change.”
After earning her master’s degree in theater at the Yale School of Drama, Wynter planned to direct sitcom television while continuing her theater career. Her first directing job turned out to be a TV movie, “Daddy’s Girl,” an after-school special for which she earned an Emmy nomination.
“Suddenly I was on the path of a single-camera director with my first movie in the children’s category,” said Wynter, who directed Nickelodeon shows for a few years.
In the early 2000s, while directing a play written by a Yale classmate, Wynter learned how much she enjoyed teaching.
“As a television director, it was a challenging time, and it still is for persons of color or women who direct, particularly women of color,” said Wynter, who decided to try academia and accepted a teaching job at Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles.
“I think I was a bit of a unicorn,” she said.
“I was someone who had directed multicamera episodics and I had a master’s degree.”
She also earned a master’s degree in film directing from the American Film Institute.
Wynter was in the interview process at ASU before the name of the film school was announced. Asked how she incorporates diversity in the classroom, she described analyzing the cinematography of “The Defiant Ones” in class.
“It won the Academy Award for its black-and-white cinematography, and it gave me an opportunity to discuss race within the context of aesthetics,” she said. The movie is about two convicts, played by Poitier and Tony Curtis, who are on the run while still chained together.
“I emphasized the challenges the cinematographer faced with all those night scenes and two actors with starkly contrasting skin tones, one very dark and one pale, and how he balanced the light.”
Later in the interview process, she was asked if she knew the school was to be named for Poitier when she gave the example.
“I did not. I was just pulling an example from my syllabus,” she said. “It felt like a rather spiritual phenomenon that I did.”
Peter Murrieta, a television producer and writer, is a professor of practice in the film school.
"Having had the chance to meet and talk with Professor Wynter about how inspired she is by the work we are doing, it only makes me and my colleagues that much more excited about working with her,” he said.
“It's the same way I felt when I joined the faculty two years ago. I think she'll find that the passion of our students and the great possibilities of our new programs make this one of the most exciting places for any of us to be in our careers."
As a scholar, Wynter wrote an article for “Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies” about one of her favorite movies, “Black Panther.” The paper, “Combat, Couture, and Caribbeana: Cultural Process in Coogler’s Black Panther,” also was an homage to her aunt, Sylvia Wynter, a prominent scholar of Pan-African studies.
“When we spoke about ‘Black Panther,’ she was so passionate about its importance to world culture,” she said. “She had done a study decades ago on combat, dance and culture and so I thought I would build an argument based on her earlier work.”
Among her other favorite movies are “Dial M for Murder,” released in 1954, and “Rosewood,” from 1997.
“I love Hitchcock’s 'Dial M for Murder,' because it is a thriller that’s free of postmodern cynicism. It’s a portrait of toxic narcissism that also has a moral center,” she said.
“John Singleton’s historical epic ‘Rosewood’ is an unsung masterpiece that speaks to the times we’re living in now, but it came 20 years too soon, when America was not ready.”
Wynter said that the 1980s and 1990s were a heady time for inclusivity in film and television.
“It was a true renaissance,” she said.
“We’re about due for another renaissance, and I would like the students of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School to be at its forefront.”
Top image: Dianah Wynter will become the director of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at ASU on July 1. She's shown here in the lobby of the historic Herald Examiner Building in Los Angeles, site of the new ASU California Center. Photo by D'Andre Michael.