Newark NJ native, Lisa Durden, is an award-winning director/producer, content creator, and multi-hyphenate media maker. She recently earned her Masters In Fine Arts Degree, in Social Documentary film, from New York’s School Of Visual Arts. Ms. Durden took the leap and launched, Lisa Durden Unlimited Productions, a Multi-Media Company, specializing in developing content for linear television, film, digital and live audiences, with a focus on telling compelling stories about underserved communities, featuring big, entertaining, characters!
Dive in below to get better acquainted with the multi-media producer.
Fancy: Welcome, Lisa! You have quite the portfolio. Let’s start with this question. Did you launch Lisa Durden Unlimited Productions before or after you received your Master’s degree?
Lisa: I launched Lisa Durden Unlimited before I graduated from film school with my Masters in Fine Arts in Social Documentary Film from the School of Visual Arts in New York. I officially launched my production company in 2010 and I graduated with my Master’s in May 2021. Some people find it strange to go back to school after having launched a career in their chosen field. For me, it was about being cemented in my craft. I also wanted to get my MFA because I plan on teaching on a college level again as an Adjunct Professor. I want to contribute to the next generation of content creators. A lot of working professionals in this industry teach on the college level. For instance, Spike Lee teaches film at NYU. I would like to teach both because I want to help shape future media minds and as a career, I am battled-tested, committed, in the field, – there can be no greater teacher than experience.
Fancy: What sparked your interest in film production?
Lisa: That’s a great question. And I am about to spill all this strong, hot Lipton Tea about my unplanned road to film production. Ok, so, when I was a little girl, I decided I wanted to be a newscaster like my idol, Sue Simmons. I know y’all young folks are scratching your heads like, Sue who? Sue started her career as a broadcast journalist in the 1970s and eventually became the first African-American woman to co-anchor a nightly New York news broadcast. I watched her every single night because she was only one of a tiny few Black women’s faces in TV news. I absolutely loved her! So when I graduated from high school in 1982, I attended Seton Hall University and majored in Communications. I even joined the radio station WSOU 89.5FM as a newscaster and engineer. Unfortunately, back then, there was no TV station at the university, so I figured radio was the next best thing on the road to my broadcast television career. Well, in my senior year a shift happened! The Oprah Winfrey Show premiered nationally and I was hooked!! I was like, Sue Simmons who?? LOL. Watching Oprah be herself, seemed different than the stiff, generic, unbiased posture of newscasters and that attracted me, because deep down, I knew I was a straight, no chaser kinda girl, with a huge personality. But unfortunately, when I graduated, I had no idea how to get a job as a talk show host. Even when I went to career day, there were no broadcast networks in attendance.
When I told my mother that after graduation my mother wasn’t having it. So, I got a job at Kellogg’s Sales Company. After having experienced close to ten years of corporate racism and sexism, I left corporate America and decided to chase my dream of becoming a talk show host. And then I realized, the power and accessibility of public access television which served as my springboard to national media. With some bumps in the road, I was “discovered” by a producer named Al Clark at Cablevision in Newark, NJ, who loved my talent and gave me a job as the host of their magazine show titled, “Brick City.” While that opportunity still wasn’t the magic bullet to propel me into superstardom, it was however what brought me to a career in film. The defining moment was the last straw- a racist incident that I observed. One day while reading the teleprompter, introducing a segment that I produced featuring an organization called “Renaissance Golf,” the name “Urban Golf” scrolls up. So I stopped reading and told Al Clark, “There is an error, the name is not ‘Urban Golf,’ so please make the correction.” He said, “What does it matter? What’s the difference??” I WAS HEATED! I said, “Names matter! You can’t just rename an organization all nilly-willy, so please…correct it.” Well, he did. But while he was making the changes in the control room, he was literally banging his fist on the desk. That was the defining moment when I realized, the only way for Black people to control the narrative is to tell our own stories!! And that’s exactly what I did! That’s what set me on the path to becoming an award-winning filmmaker. I began producing documentaries, then scripted films, commercials, and reality series and never looked back! Sip that tea! Yaaassss!!
Fancy: Sounds like you are on-screen just as much as you are behind the scenes. Was that difficult for you initially, or were you never camera shy?
Lisa: Actually, I am not on screen nearly as much as I would like. Being behind the camera is what I do out of necessity to give my community a voice, being in front of the camera is what feeds my soul! My two years as a weekly contributor on My9 Networks ‘Chasing News,’ hundreds of appearances on various major media outlets like The Dr. Oz Show as a TV Personality, Political Analyst, Pop Culture Commentator and Subject Matter Expert, are all very exciting pit stops along the way to my lifelong dream of hosting a national talk show, similar to formats like Don Lemon and Joy Reid. So to answer your question, more specifically, yes and no. Was being on camera difficult for me initially? No, I was never camera shy. The camera has always loved me from birth. But yes, at the beginning of my television career, when I’d get booked to debate or do commentary, it made me nervous. My mother was a storyteller, so I come by it honestly. It’s in my blood. As I have honed my craft, I’ve learned to know and understand my audience at any given time.
Fancy: What advice would you give to those of us who are camera shy?
Lisa: The best advice I can give anyone who is in front of the camera, especially if it’s live is don’t preempt yourself. Meaning, don’t edit what you’re saying in your head while you’re talking, because the camera doesn’t like that. It will show. Be prepared about the points you want to be made. Be concise but passionate. Be flexible! Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready. And most importantly, be authentic! That’s the best recipe for on-camera success.
Fancy: What inspires your productions?
Lisa: For some strange reason, I am drawn to all things social justice. Most of the projects I’ve produced either as a freelance producer or through my production company have had a social justice angle. That was not my plan; it just happened. My big brother always teased me about how I used to fight for everyone’s rights saying that I was the one who always stood up for the underdog. He would recall how I always spoke up for the kids who were being bullied, even if it meant me catching a beat down for it.
So I am inspired by the untold or under-told stories of the voiceless and underserved communities. Most of the productions that I have had the pleasure of working on as a freelance producer and the projects that I have developed and am developing through my production company, focus on Black and brown communities, with a particular emphasis on stories about Black women and girls. I’m also inspired to tell stories about the differently-abled and the LGBTQiA+ communities as well. Actually, all of these communities intersect.
But be real clear, I do love to also be entertained. So no, I am not above directing or producing content that’s strictly for entertainment. I don’t think that everything we watch has to teach us something or solve a problem. Recently, I accepted a position as Associate Producer of a show titled, ‘Neighborhood Wars’ on A&E Networks. It’s literally about neighbors who are battling over everything from parking spaces to stolen nativity scenes. Working on this show is funny and fun.
Fancy: What has been your biggest challenge as a business owner and how did you overcome it?
Lisa: My biggest challenge as a business owner is infrastructure and the only way to overcome is to raise funds for these amazing projects so they can be highlighted to the world. The reason why Black, women-owned businesses struggle to thrive is that we lack financial support. I have many more ideas and concepts than Lisa Durden Unlimited Productions has the ability to produce. So I am always applying for funding, taking on freelance production gigs to earn money to invest in my business, and pitching my projects to networks in the hopes of selling my shows. The work continues!
Fancy” Let’s talk about The Ultimate Soul Food Cook Off, which is in development. Please tell us more about it and what cities you all visited??
Lisa: Currently, I’m in the process of pitching The Ultimate Soul Food Cook Off, my part travel show, part reality sitcom, and part cooking competition, set on an authentic soul food tour. Recently, I pitched it and was selected as one of four Realscreen Everywoman Studios 2021 Propelle Finalists; a content accelerator program for women-owned production companies. Although I didn’t win, that opportunity has sparked interest in the project, and I will be taking meetings with cable networks and streaming giants.
Fancy: Switching gears, as we are learning more about the dangers and surveillance activists of today are being faced with, are you ever concerned for your safety?
Lisa: No, I am never concerned for my safety. Yes, my voice is my activism and that comes with Lisa Durden fans and foes, but I don’t walk around looking over my shoulder. Has my life been threatened by some fools with keyboard courage, because they didn’t like something I’ve said during a television appearance? Sadly…YES. However, I don’t think about things like that day-to-day. I simply live my life. Of course, I am always familiar with my surroundings as I move through the world, but no, my safety is not top of mind for me, any more than it has been simply being a Black woman.
Fancy: What can the community do to support those who have boots on the ground?
Lisa: The community can support those who have boots on the ground by being present, staying plugged in.
Fancy: You also have your new podcast, Stop Brutalizing Black Bodies. What type of topics do you discuss?
Lisa: I’m the Host/Producer of my new video podcast, Stop Brutalizing Black Bodies, it’s a platform created to amplify Black voices unapologetically!! Each week, I feature a panel of guests whom I call, #DopeAFContributors. The topics we discuss are all centered around matters of race and gender at the intersection of politics. The idea came to me in 2020 during the racial unrest, following the murders of George Floyd and Breana Taylor. There was a cry for “us” to do something, so I decided to do what I do best..use my voice as my activism! We’re gearing up for the new season, with new episodes this year. You can watch it and a lot of my other amazing content on my YouTube channel.
Fancy: So what can we expect from you in 2022?
Lisa: I consider myself a multi-hyphenate media maker, so the diverse content y’all can expect from me in 2022 are more television appearances, more podcast episodes, more think pieces and op-eds, and more production projects like ‘Blind Divas,’ my short documentary in pre-production, which was the winner of the Lightbeam TV Pitch Competition at the 22nd African American Women In Cinema International Film Festival. Seeking funding to complete principal photography on my feature documentary titled; ‘My Brother: The Ethiopian Orthodox Priest,’ is also a priority this year.
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