Leola Calzolai-Stewart ’97 made her film directorial debut last month with “The American Diplomat,” the latest episode of PBS’s American Experience, running through March.
“The American Diplomat” examines the lives and legacies of three Black ambassadors during the Cold War. Calzolai-Stewart knows these jobs well, as a spouse of a Black diplomat, and her background served as an inspiration for the film.
“We would often arrive at posts overseas and be one of the few Black foreign service families there,” she said. “You start to wonder why and want to learn more about why that’s so.”
Calzolai-Stewart has a background in international relations — studying the subject as an undergraduate at UC Davis and then in graduate school at The Fletcher School at Tufts University. When she lived in South Africa, she decided to pursue film more seriously and attended Tshwane University of Technology.
Working as a film editor in the Washington, D.C., area, she met her current partners at Flowstate Films, a production company they founded in 2015. Around that time, they began work on “The American Diplomat.”
The Foreign Service has an elitist reputation, though people of color served as diplomats as far back as Reconstruction. Frederick Douglass, for example, was a diplomat. Still, as the film states, the Foreign Service would be one of the last federal agencies to desegregate.
Through archival footage, in-depth oral histories and interviews with family members, colleagues and diplomats, the film profiles three influential men who challenged racial barriers and changed American diplomacy — Edward Dudley, Terence Todman and Carl Rowan.
“These are just three of many stories. It’s incredible the amount of unknown history, particularly when it comes to Black diplomats,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “I think diplomacy, in and of itself, is a job that not many people understand or know about, and so you can imagine the stories of underrepresented communities within that job are even further in the background.”
Calzolai-Stewart said she’s still deciding on her next project and has an interest in spotlighting women in the Foreign Service. These stories are important, she added, as improvements have been made just recently in diplomacy, including creating an Office of Diversity and Inclusion at the State Department in 2021.
“Representation has definitely improved, but I think everyone would say there’s still a ways to go,” she said. “I feel very hopeful that real change in the Department of State is on the horizon.”