Yoruba Richen, class of 1994

Yoruba Richen, class of 1994

Yoruba Richen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has been featured on PBS, MSNBC, FX, New York Times Op Doc, Frontline, The Atlantic and Field of Vision. Her film, How it Feels To Be Free, executive produced by Alicia Keys, premiered on PBS’s American Masters in January of 2021. Her other recent films include, The New York Times Presents: The Killing of Breonna Taylor which won an NAACP Image Award and is currently streaming on Hulu, and The Sit In: Harry Belafonte Hosts the Tonight Show which is streaming on Peacock.

In this interview, Yoruba Richen, documentary filmmaker and Brown University class of 1994, discusses her time at Brown University and describes the trajectory of her career.

Richen begins by describing her childhood in Harlem and her early education at The Town School in New York’s Upper East Side. She details her experiences with the dichotomy of where she lived and learned and shares the ways her mother, Aishah Rahman, gave her a deeper education about black history. She goes on to talk about her high school education at The Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts where she focused on theatre.

Richen recalls applying to Brown and liking it for the size of the student population, the academic rigor, and its distance from New York. She remembers her mother moving her into her first-year dormitory and appreciating her introduction to the school through the Third World Transition Program. She also describes participating in a protest on campus following the beating of Rodney King and the LA riots as well as the takeover of University Hall for need-blind admissions. Additionally, Richen talks about her mother joining Brown’s playwriting department faculty and navigating campus life with her mother so nearby.

Richen continues the interview by speaking about her career path after Brown, trying to do theatre professionally in San Francisco, working temp jobs. She also discusses working for The Lawyers Guild and Bella Abzug’s Women’s Environment and Development Organization as she considered pursuing law. She explains that her experiences in her graduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, allowed her to discover documentary filmmaking. She talks about working for the ABC News investigative journalism department, pursuing fellowships, and making documentaries that later aired on PBS. Richen closes by explaining why and how she founded the documentary program at the Newmark School of Journalism at the City University of New York. 

Recorded on Apr 20, 2021


Interviewed by Amanda Knox, Pembroke Center Assistant Archivist