A Latina Construction Worker Takes Her Advocacy to the Big Screen

The film tells the story of a black female carpenter in the eighth term of her apprenticeship and starting her first day at a new job site in central Portland.

If you ask Portland filmmaker Dawn Jones Redstone, there is only one cinematic forebearer to her short Sista in the Brotherhood: Flashdance.

"There aren't really any tradeswomen films, unless you count Flashdance," says Jones Redstone, "definitely none made by actual tradeswomen." So she made one.

She knows the field from experience. Jones Redstone was a journey-level carpenter who hung up her tool belt and left one male-dominated field for another—film.

Originally from Texas, Jones Redstone came to Portland on a carpentry apprenticeship after college. Often the only Latina woman on a construction site, she observed the way traditionally male settings can feel hostile to female workers. During her nine years working with Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., which trains women for work in the skilled trades, Jones Redstone cultivated her filmmaking abilities on the side. She took the leap into full-time directing in 2013, when she founded Hearts and Sparks Productions. Finally, her two professional lives converged when Roberta Hunte, an assistant professor of gender and sexuality studies at Portland State University, signed on to co-produce Sista in the Brotherhood, a film based on Jones Redstone's experiences in the construction field.

"I'm interested in lifting the voices that are least heard," says Jones Redstone. "Not every story I tell will be about tradeswomen, but it is part of my mission to put more women and people of color in front of and behind the camera. For too long, men have been telling these stories."

Sista, which was co-written with Kjerstin Johnson (co-founder of Bitch Media), follows Sidony O'Neal as Laneice Johnson, a black female carpenter in the eighth term of her apprenticeship and starting her first day at a new job site in central Portland. It won Best Short Film at the 39th Portland International Film Festival, and has since earned a Spirit Award at the Reel Sisters Festival in New York and a Women of Vision Award for Jones Redstone from the Daily Journal of Commerce.

"There's a crossover between the two skill sets [filmmaking and carpentry]," says Jones Redstone. "It's also been a weird kind of therapy, to write this and be inspired by actual moments in my life, and to direct these actors to be those jerks."

In the film, Johnson is met with dismissive frostiness by her supervisors and assigned menial tasks, while the white foreman's inexperienced nephew shows up late and gets bigger responsibilities. Close-ups of Johnson's hands show her carefully aligning the boards with the same precision she does with a Skilsaw, allowing both Jones Redstone and O'Neal to demonstrate their technical skills. When she refuses help from a co-worker who offers to lift a few boards for her, the man erupts, insulted that she isn't grateful for his paternal gesture.

Sista shows audiences the side eye and the smarmy chuckles from the protagonist's perspective, conveying how those subtle moments can compound and drive women away from the building trades. "A national construction company is actually considering making it required viewing for new hires," says Jones Redstone.

"You'll hear Johnson called 'Quota' in the film, because on many federally funded sites, like the Sellwood Bridge project [where Sista was filmed], contracts require a certain number of non-white individuals," Jones Redstone explains.

For her own team, Jones Redstone hired an all-female crew with 50 percent women of color. After a successful Kickstarter campaign armed her team with $13,000 to make Sista, Jones Redstone could afford total creative control. "Because we held the purse strings, I didn't experience extra challenges from being a woman in the film industry," says Jones Redstone, who is now working on a "tradeswoman thriller," a Sista-ish web series she's developing with Kjerstin Johnson, and a mini documentary about Living Cully, the group of nonprofits that bought the Sugar Shack strip club. As much as she wants to keep telling these stories, Jones Redstone looks forward most to seeing the demographics of her own crew reflected in the actual construction industry and beyond.

Dawn Jones Redstone will appear at the 43rd Northwest Filmmakers' Festival's "Equity in Filmmaking" panel at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium, 1219 SW Park Ave., 503-221-1156, nwfilm.org, on Nov. 10.

Willamette Week

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.