• Film

Marta Cunningham: “I want to nurture the community”

It was a desire to protect her community that led Marta Cunningham from being an actor to becoming a director. Her compassion for the young trans girl Latisha King and her family after she was gunned down by a classmate in 2011, made Cunningham venture into a new career path. The result: Her debut feature Valentine Road was selected to compete in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and premiered on HBO in October of 2013. It was nominated for two News and Documentary Emmy Awards.


Since then, she has proven herself as a multitalented storyteller and has become a prolific television director with shows such as Insecure, Transparent, Dear White People, and Modern Love on her list of accomplishments.

Today, she wants to expand her community. She recently started her own production company, Queen B Pictures, where she will produce not only her own content but also executively produce content by women filmmakers who are marginalized and have stories to tell. It is a solely owned company, which Marta Cunningham is proud of having created. We spoke to her over the phone in Los Angeles about her goal of helping marginalized voices be heard and supporting them the best she can.

You were part of a panel at the International Women’s Month Five-Star DAYTIME SALON at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills. What made you want to participate in this event?

I would like to be part of anything that pushes women in this industry in a positive way through education and information about the industry and I want to be part of the discussions of how we can further ourselves up the ladder.

Why is it important to have events like this?

We need to see ourselves succeeding. That is something that men get without asking for it. They are constantly seeing themselves as succeeding in life and that is not something we get to see in the same way. So I always want to make sure that people who are marginalized in some way know that we exist and we are succeeding: Look at us. We can do this. So don’t give up.

And why is it important for you to support it?

I could sense from the questions after our panel that there is such a disconnect following the pandemic. It will be felt for years to come and I find that that it hits the women, the women of color, and the queer community so much harder. Because when you are already in a marginalized place, the last thing you need is to be separated from your community or your dream. My one goal is to create a community, which is also the idea behind my own production company Queen B Pictures, which will support marginalized communities. I want to be part of anything that is part of moving us forward. I am here to say, ‘Don’t give up!’

Why did you start the company?

It is important for women like myself, who have a leg in, that we use that to help others, who want to sell their stories. I put all my energy into it.

You are very accomplished and you have a lot of experience in the business. Did you learn anything from the event and from your fellow women?

I always learn from being around someone like my mentor and teacher Mary Lou Belli, who is just like my Yoda, and is so phenomenal and full of life and positivity and never ever wavers. It is so refreshing to be around people, who know your talent and know that you are capable and when they see that you succeed, they tell you: ‘I told you so.’ It is a rare person, who does that. So many people in our industry are jealous and want what you have, and it is sad to go through life that way. Mary Lou is an example of the opposite.

You are very accomplished. What are the main challenges for you now at this point in your career?

Now I am doing my own thing and I hope that a year from now, you will have something where you can tell that that is my talent. The challenge is being a working mother and traveling for the work that I do and taking the gigs that I do take and then still maintaining time and energy for my own film and television work. It is also a challenge to find the right people to work with. So now it is really about being very selective in the people that I bring into this new company.

You were an actor before you were a director. What was the transition like for you? What was the first step?

The first step is education. I knew that the programs were going to help me. I applied to the NBC and the ABC workshops several times. Then I became part of the Warner Bros. Directors’ Workshop and it was not until Rebecca Windsor came in from Warner Bros and said she would give me a shot, because the others looked at my documentary film and did not listen when I said: ‘I am a storyteller.‘ So the lesson is: Don’t listen to what people say, because you know what you are capable of and they don’t.

Your first film was a documentary called Valentine Road and it was in competition at Sundance in 2013. It was about the Lalisha King story – a young trans girl shot by a schoolmate. What made you want to start your career making this film? 

I was personally upset. I had two small children at the time. All I kept thinking as a queer woman of color was: ‘What if this was my child? What would I feel about all the shaming in the media? What if my child grows up to be queer, trans, gender fluid, or non-binary and was finally in a position where they felt free enough to express themselves and then was murdered and nobody cared. How would I feel?’

That is when I went out with my camera as the pushing force. What kind of society do we live in when a child is gunned down in a middle school and nobody cares? That was not okay with me. Then I started looking at Brandon, who shot her and he was clearly a white supremacist; but I thought let’s take a look at our judicial system through the lens of this child being tried as an adult – because usually, that is the case with black kids.

You directed episodes of Modern Love, Dear White People, Insecure and Transparent. Which jobs stand out?

It is definitely Modern Love. We were one of the first shows to go into production after the pandemic and it was great getting into working with actors. At the same time challenging to make sure we created a safe space for the actors, who were supposed to be close and in love.

It was also special because I actually got to co-write an episode, which I also directed called “A Life Plan for Two, Followed by One” starring Isaac Powell and Dominique Fishback. It is a beautiful tale about what happens when you fall in love with your best friend since childhood. I was writing it in real-time and the producers and I were changing it as we went along. It was fantastic and I loved it. That is what filmmaking is about.


You are a filmmaker of diverse content. How challenging is it to get this content made available for the audiences?

I think it is very challenging, but if you have the right people behind you, it gets a little easier. Once HBO said yes to my film Valentine Road, I had great people behind me like Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller as a young filmmaker. For me, it is about how I can stay true to the work that got me my first break. I know what it takes to make great content and the time and effort to get it to the right level.

Following #MeToo and the reaction to George Floyd’s killing one should think that there have been major changes in Hollywood. How do you see it? Are sexism and racism still an issue in Hollywood?

Any ism is reflective of our society. So if it is still a part of our society, it is going to be part of the industry.

You have a voice. You are in a pretty good position to be heard. Do you feel that you are being listened to?

Yes. I do actually and that is major to feel that you are being listened to. It is a very special place and I honor it and I am grateful for the people before me, who laid the groundwork for me to have it. Including my own ancestors. I feel very grateful to my great-grandmother, whose parents were enslaved Africans. I met my great-grandmother. I spent time with her. To know that that is how close I am to being owned – in my own family tree – that is how close I am. To have what I have now as a black queer woman, I feel blessed every day. I don’t take that level of being seen and heard lightly. I really, really feel blessed and empowered by the foundation that they laid for me.

That also includes black women like Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay, who laid the foundation for us in the business and who were both my mentors and said yes to me when I was first starting out. Insecure is historic. Transparent is historic. I am so proud to have been part of those shows. They laid the groundwork for us black women to be seen as individuals in the world. I am so proud of that. It changed my life.