Producer Caralene Robinson on Why We Need More Transgender Films

"King Ester" is the story of a trans woman seeking to escape New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina
“King Ester” is the story of a trans woman seeking to escape New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. Image courtesy of @regisaurusnyc.

Caralene Robinson is a polymath. A former marketing executive who’s worked with iconic brands such as VH1, The Coca-Cola Company, and Virgin Mobile, Robinson recently left the C-suite to pursue entrepreneurial filmmaking. An accomplished writer, director, and producer (check out her IMDB page, friends), she now has several award-winning projects in distribution. While her accomplishments are impressive, what makes Robinson such a force is her commitment to producing beautifully nuanced work that fearlessly weaves issues concerning race, gender, socioeconomic disparities, and LGBTQ+ representation into deeply resonant and memorable experiences.

AWT caught up with Robinson to talk about her recent work on the transgender web series “King Ester” and get her take on why it’s a wonderful time to be a woman right now.

Caralene E.
Filmmaker Caralene Robinson. Image courtesy of @thatssopiotr.
LJ Scott as "Damien" and Dejayé Joseph as "Ester"
LJ Scott as “Damien” and Dejayé Joseph as “Ester”. Image courtesy of @regisaurusnyc.

Tell us a little bit about your background. When and how did you get into the film industry?

Caralene Robinson: In college, I decided to pursue marketing because I knew I really liked commercials. It all clicked in my first real job when I got the opportunity to work with an agency to shoot my first commercial. Francis Lawrence was my first director. I walked on set and immediately fell in love with just everything.

In 2011 my agency colleague Deborah Riley Draper decided to take the leap and make a documentary based on an interview she heard on NPR. She asked me to be Executive Producer. The project was “Versailles ’73: American Runway Revolution,” which was recently optioned and is hopefully being turned into a feature narrative.

When I left my job, I felt a need to find my own voice. I wrote “The Bill” in one week and I took a chance and made it. I didn’t know what I would get. But 15 festivals and getting on Amazon Prime later. I guess I got something right!

What are some of the challenges you faced when transitioning from the corporate world into the creative field?

Caralene Robinson: There are a lot of things I’ve just never done before. I didn’t go to film school. Every day I wake up and have to figure out how to accomplish something. Your actions and the participation of others become so much more meaningful as an entrepreneur. I often find myself simultaneously overjoyed by the support of individuals I didn’t expect, and disappointed by the lack of support from people I expected to get behind me.

 
“I’ve been writing since I was eight, which is one of the truest forms of self-expression. I need to tap into my vulnerability and a more emotional place.”
 

You’re a triple threat: a producer, director, and writer. What do you enjoy about each of those roles?

Caralene Robinson: Producing utilizes many of the skills I’ve already developed in my career. This includes strategy, project management, and coordination. This is the part that comes easiest to me.

My goal now is to actualize the underdeveloped side of my spirit. This means becoming a better creative through writing and directing. It does not come naturally to me. But I’ve been writing since I was eight, which is one of the truest forms of self-expression. I need to tap into my vulnerability and a more emotional place.

With directing, it’s exciting to see how the ideas in my head emerge in this visual medium.

How did you get involved with “King Ester,” the story of a trans woman seeking to escape New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina?

Caralene Robinson: I met and connected with “King Ester” Writer and Director Dui Jarrod over the course of two film festivals last summer. We discovered we had a lot in common in terms of our desire to tell nuanced, complex stories.

He gave me the script for “King Ester.” It was an uncomfortable and disturbing read and I realized this story needed to be told. I also realized that merely creating my own content was not enough for me. I had to facilitate the development of other stories that start a conversation and change the narrative in today’s world.

What’s the story behind the recognized need for trans-piloted media?

Caralene Robinson: Of all the letters of LGBTQ, the T seems to be the least evolved.

I don’t presume to speak for anyone, but you have no idea how difficult it is to be trans in America today. There were 27 reported murders in 2017, and as of June 1, there have been 12. There are significantly higher rates of suicide, poverty, and abuse among the trans community. Some resort to sex work to survive and fund transitions. The stories become even more tragic when put through a racial or socioeconomic filter. There are more limited legal rights, for example. I could go on and on about this. To reduce the confusion about the lived experiences of the trans community, you have to tell the stories. Stories will go a long way in furthering the dialogue, allowing trans men and women to live their best lives, and exist with grace. Activists such as Janet Mock, Angelica Ross, and Tiq Milan are fighting this fight on a daily basis.

Dejayé Joseph as Ester and Dane Edidi as Patra in "King Ester".
Dejayé Joseph as Ester and Dane Edidi as Patra in “King Ester”. Image courtesy of @regisaurusnyc.

Who is your favorite character and why?

Caralene Robinson: In “King Ester,” my favorite character is, well, Ester. Can you imagine being trans in the South in 2005? Although this is the story of a trans woman, there are universal aspects to her journey: To feel like you don’t fit in. To feel like the world around you doesn’t accept or understand you. To be diminished or devalued because of your choices and presentation. The want and desire of someone to be loved unconditionally just as you are. When you watch “King Ester,” you will see this is a relatable story for everyone. The Hurricane is a metaphor for her existence. You don’t know what’s coming and that it’s not clear if she’ll make it out on the other side.

Were any of the scenes based on you or your team’s experience? Or, who do you work with to develop scripts together?

Caralene Robinson: Dui wrote the script based on observing the challenges of being trans in today’s society. He’s also a Hurricane Katrina survivor. He made a conscious decision to rise above his own cisgender male privilege to tell this story.

During the production, we had trans representation in front of and behind the lens. I applaud him for all of this and for attempting to ensure authenticity at every step.

Storytelling stems from experience. Whether characters are a composite of many people or a representation of us, I believe to effectively develop a script you have to be dialed into the world around you. An incident in an elevator, a radio interview or even a good conversation can turn into a full-fledged story.

 
“We want to reduce the mystique around the trans experience and start a conversation. We want to create greater awareness of what it means to be trans in today’s society. We want to reduce the confusion around choice and existence, reduce judgment and allow people to live their best lives.”
 

What do you want to see come out of this?

Caralene Robinson: Collectively, we want to reduce the mystique around the trans experience and start a conversation. We want to create greater awareness of what it means to be trans in today’s society. We want to reduce the confusion around choice and existence, reduce judgment and allow people to live their best lives. Shows like Ryan Murphy’s Pose are doing an amazing job, but there’s so much more that needs to happen.

What work are you most proud of?

Caralene Robinson: This question actually reveals a weakness. My challenge is my inability to actually take the time to appreciate my accomplishments. We as women have to do better with this. I’m very cautious and when something good happens I usually just move onto the next thing.

But I would say there are two things I’m most proud of. First, when someone tells me that a story I’ve been involved in has made an impact in his or her life. Second, when someone indicates that my actions are inspiring because I don’t often see it that way. That’s always nice to hear.

What values and principles guide your approach when working?

Caralene Robinson: The other day my business partner called me a “quiet assassin.” I like it this way. I’d rather be known for my work than as some kind of personality. I believe if you continue to give and support, it will come back to you. Say thank you and treat everyone with respect, because you never know where they’re going to end up. Always seek to do the right thing, even if the other party has different intentions. As an entrepreneur, develop a problem-solving mentality. Be very careful whom you engage with. Make sure you have people around you who celebrate your dreams and are unconditional in their support.

What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

Caralene Robinson: I’ve lived most of my life as an extreme empath and a people pleaser. It would disappoint me when I felt like someone wasn’t happy. The best piece of professional advice that I ever received was, “Everyone’s not going to like you, and that’s OK. But just make sure everyone respects you.”

Janet Hubert in "King Ester"
Janet Hubert (Fresh Prince of Bel Air) as Mignon and Dejayé Joseph as Ester in “King Ester”. Image courtesy of @regisaurusnyc.