A New Chapter Begins for Celebrated Filmmaker Yoruba Richen at Newmark J-School

  • By Newmark J-School Staff

Yoruba Richen, an award-winning film director, screenwriter, and producer, has been appointed as an Associate Professor at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York. This Fall, she will be stepping into the new position while continuing her role as the leader of the school’s documentary program, which she founded. The appointment is effective as of August 25, 2023.

“Yoruba Richen is a critical voice in the nonfiction documentary film industry,” said Dean Graciela Mochkofsky. “We are honored to have her at the helm of this program, inspiring our graduate students, and the rest of her colleagues, with her passion and deep expertise. She is an extraordinary teacher, mentor and leader.”

Richen was born and raised in Harlem, New York City. A 1994 graduate from Brown University and recipient of a Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowship, Richen has spent decades examining race, power, the experiences of Black and LGBTQ+ communities, and civil rights. She has a master’s degree in city planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and is a member of the Documentary Academy Branch, the Directors Guild of America, and the Writers Guild of America.

She is known for her critically acclaimed and Emmy-nominated films which include “The Green Book: Guide to Freedom,” “The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show,” and “How It Feels to Be Free.” Her most recent film, “The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks,” co-directed with Johanna Hamilton for NBC’s Peacock, won a 2023 Peabody Award.

Richen’s films have also premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Festival, and aired on HBO, Hulu, Netflix, FX, PBS, Frontline, and more.

In this Q&A, Richen reflects on her beginnings at Newmark J-School, priorities in her new role, and the future of the school’s documentary program. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Tell us about your journey at Newmark J-School and the origins of the documentary program. How did it all begin?

Richen: When I started with Newmark J-School, it was the Fall of 2009. I came in teaching broadcast news and then international reporting, but after a couple of years, I started teaching a documentary film class. While I was working on my second film, “The New Black,” the students basically came to me and were like, ‘We want to learn documentary films!’ This was at the beginning of the streaming revolution around 2012 and so the program started out of that first documentary class. The program officially became a specialization at Newmark J-School in 2019. 

Now that you’re stepping into this position, what are you most excited about? 

Richen: It feels really great to be in this position, and I’m so excited to continue to work with the great students who come to Newmark J-School, and be able to teach at that nexus between the rigor of journalism and the art of documentary filmmaking. That’s the sweet spot for me. Students who come here are really excited about the documentary skills they’re learning and their capstone project — a short film that comes out over their course of study. I’m also excited to continue to work with other departments and see where there’s potential collaboration in terms of helping students get their work seen and building their skills.

How do you envision the program evolving to keep up with developments in the film industry?

Richen: After being in the industry for more than 20 years, you can see the growth in broadcast and streaming documentaries. It’s really quite exciting, and it obviously has to do with the technological advancements in video — from being able to access a film not only on the big screen or a computer but watching it on your phone. Technology marches on and that will continue to evolve the field. We want our students to be able to meet those demands and the challenges, and develop the necessary storytelling skills. The school has also kept up with the trends in technology — cameras, drones, and other technological advancements that shape film.  

Thinking about the future of the program and job readiness for students, what’s a priority for you in this role?

Richen: The industry is in flux because of the economy and post-COVID pandemic recalibration. It’s important to teach students how to weather these moments and vicissitudes of the business by offering professional development and connecting students with people in the field — filmmakers, producers, cinematographers, editors, and funders. We can do that. I bring in great filmmakers who screen their films and talk about their process. That exposure is really important, and it’s a great way to connect students with people in the industry, so they can get internships and jobs through those connections.

As an accomplished filmmaker yourself, what do you believe sets Newmark J-School’s documentary program apart from others?

Richen: Our professors really care and work with students on a one-on-one level, and I think that’s amazing, and the students prize that as well. Real relationships develop between the students and the professors as they work together to get films developed, produced, and finished. I just had a talk with a student who graduated a couple of years ago. She asked me questions about the industry and advice on a new film she’s working on. Relationships like that are continued, which I think is really special.

Learn more about Newmark J-School’s documentary program