Black Women Filmmakers Speak is a series curated by Shadow and Act that spotlights women visionaries in film and their inspiring body of work. For the full introduction to this series and an overview of the filmmakers featured, head here.
Hollywood's story has long been a white, heterosexual male-dominated narrative, and a key goal for #BlackWomenFilmmakersSpeak is to celebrate up-and-coming black women filmmakers who are taking the simple, seemingly radical step of telling their stories. Working across all genres, these filmmakers all share a love of cinema and an appreciation for the power it wields, engaging what the status quo might see as a kind of new cinema language to not only entertain but also enlighten.
For the series, 33 black women filmmakers from around the world completed a survey Shadow And Act issued in response to a call made earlier this year aiming to highlight black women filmmakers at some stage of development on their first feature films. We then packaged each reply into individual features highlighting these filmmakers and their feature film projects, their fears and hopes as first-time feature directors and their thoughts on a variety of topical matters. That includes what some are calling a new renaissance in black cinema today, the disruption of content production and distribution by streaming behemoths like Netflix and Amazon and more. Their survey profiles will be published daily (one per day) on Shadow and Act over the next month.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
If you're just joining us, you can catch up on these previous profiles:
The series continues today with Atlanta, Georgia-based Sherita Bolden. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
My name is Sherita Bolden. I was born and raised in Decatur, Georgia, and my passion for film and all that can be accomplished by capturing a story with a camera has led me to this very moment.
When I was younger, I would watch certain movies and find myself utterly captivated by the stories that were being told. I wanted to explore the art of storytelling and how this medium of art could wrap me up in such a passionate state. I wanted to be a part of that creative energy.
I have over five years of experience working on major motion picture movies and television shows shot here in Atlanta. My first major industry job was at Tyler Perry Studios starting out as a production assistant for a majority of the content produced there. That studio was a training ground for me. Even today, I’m thankful for all the lessons, the bonds and the camaraderie I received there. From there, my film career flourished as I worked for other major companies. I say often that I thought I would have to go to LA to be a part of Hollywood, but Hollywood came to me.
My current project is a feature film called Haven. It follows the emotional journey of the protagonist, Haven, as she makes a critical life or death decision. She is recently diagnosed with cancer while pregnant and is forced to consider if she will terminate her baby to endure the treatments.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
We are currently in post-production.
When did this specific journey begin?
It started a couple of years ago. I was actually doing research on cancer to write a screenplay about my father who passed in 2012. However, in the midst of researching, I came across a website dedicated to women who had cancer while pregnant. I was blown away; you typically don’t think about pregnant women getting cancer. Not only do they have to be concerned about their lives, now they have to fight for two. I read countless articles from women who survived, as well as accounts from families of women who died in the process. At the end of the day, I knew I had to tell this story because these women, no matter the decision made, are heroes, and I liked the idea of a woman becoming her own hero.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? Are you also the writer? Producer? Editor? DP? Production Designer? Maybe even the star? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
I am wearing all the hats. I'm the writer, director, as well as one of the producers. I’m the production designer, costume designer, crafts services and locations coordinator. My producing partner, Aleshia Cowser, helps share the load, but it's still too much for two people to do. The benefit of wearing multiple hats is that it creates the foundation of being a well-rounded filmmaker. You gain a greater respect for everyone's job, making you a leader on set. Strong leadership qualities are important when trying to bring forth a vision.
As you work on your first feature, what would be of most help to you right now? What do you need at this moment to get over a hurdle, or to move you forward onto whatever your next step is? And how are you working to get what you need?
MONEY!!! Money, however, can translate into resources. We are looking to do a Seed&Spark campaign to help out with post-production and marketing. We hope that if we show our audience that the film is already in the can, it would encourage them to join the movement to get it out there. Also, I could use more production support. A great line producer and production coordinator would be very instrumental for me. I wish that I could only focus on directing. I should be developing a shot list, thinking of compositions, setting the tone and look of the film. I've found this project difficult to complete when so much of the logistics need my attention. I often fight with myself, wanting to go all-in creatively as a director, while also trying to stay within the budget and schedule as a producer. It's hard to balance.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I think my biggest fear is making the right decisions as a director. I want my vision for the movie to translate on the screen. I want to tell a great story. Filmmaking takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and, as a filmmaker, I want my work to be received well.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
Choosing a DP was a hard decision as this person is responsible for the look of your film. I knew I wanted someone that understood my vibe and my vision and that would already know what I want before I even expressed it. We hired Ivan Mbakap, an amazing DP with a great eye. Ivan and I worked well together. We could be honest and transparent about the look for Haven. If I didn’t like something, he would immediately find a solution. The flow was great, and we ended up with a great product.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
One of the toughest challenges I've faced, thus far, is handling and staying encouraged in the midst of rejection. Pursuing my dream is teaching me to remain steadfast and to continue believing in myself even in times when it feels like the dream is out of reach.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
I have always been told that if you give three different people one script, each movie will be interpreted differently. While I believe that nothing is new under the sun, the presentation of a concept can send an entirely different message to a varied audience. Though there are similar stories out there, my film, Haven, presents an authentic voice that can only be told through my lens.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it's made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it's made?
If I had to reach for the stars, I would want what most filmmakers desire: to take my work to Sundance and receive major buzz, becoming a new breakout director. If that doesn't happen, I'm going the grassroots route, finding my audience or my tribe. I'm prepared to take my film from city to city, encouraging people to come and watch it. After screening as much as possible, I'll then release it on VOD for the world to stream and use that money to make the next film.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Every project probably hits a bump in the road where everything seems to go completely wrong. It's easy to want to quit, but I believe that's the moment when the biggest miracles happen. In hindsight, the things that go wrong actually work for the betterment of the project by forcing you to find another solution. Often, that solution is better than what you previously planned. I know this now, but it's still not easy to accept the curveballs that are thrown my way. My faith has definitely kept me grounded. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I take time to pray and recenter my focus. I remind myself that I will make this project no matter what.
Do you have a support system? What does that system look like, and how much of a role does it play in your life as you strive for greatness (whatever "greatness" is to you)?
I have a big support system. My tribe of people is almost always supportive of whatever project I decide to do. However, they're not hesitant to give corrective criticism. I think back to a time where I was trying to go to Cannes for a filmmaking program. The fee was $4,000, and I didn't have that money, especially by the time they requested it. I started a crowdfunding effort and raised the money in five days. That showed me the power of my support system.
How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process? Do you think it's necessary? Do you embrace it?
I can't deny the importance of social media today in promoting a brand or project. These platforms offer free marketing and a great way to target your audience. However, I have also seen directors and actors without a social media account rise to the top of the Hollywood industry, such as Ryan Coogler. I believe it's important to be goal-oriented as far as your audience and social media can be that avenue when used correctly. An artist should find a happy medium where they're not posting a damaging amount, creating this illusion about themselves while their art suffers. The art will speak for itself; anything else is a distraction.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a "black film renaissance" (in the USA specifically)? Do you buy it? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther, or the success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
This "black film renaissance" is an inspiration to me, especially at this time in my life. We are now finding diversity even in the African American community. I'm excited to see these stories told on the big screen because their presence confirms there is a place for me. I don't feel like it's just a phase. The doors that are being opened cannot be shut. Our stories matter, and seeing them confronted in the industry only proves what we've known all along; our films sell.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourselves? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
Although I see more programs and initiatives opening up for the community of black filmmakers, I do think many of the "opportunities" are done only to appease us, and to keep the protest down. Nevertheless, now is a great time for filmmakers like me to take advantage of these opportunities. I do feel like it will lead to something that will be sustained. We are not asking for handouts; we are asking for a chance to get our foot in the door. Women like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees and Issa Rae, once they became established, they dominated the industry, blazing the trail for women like me to follow.
Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Apple and others like them, are all now competing with the big studios and TV networks. Thoughts on the emergence of these "new media" platforms, and how (if at all) this new reality factors into the business, creative, career choices you make, or plans you have for yourself? Are you targeting any specifically?
These platforms open up the playing field for new filmmakers. As I establish myself as a filmmaker, I no longer have to go the traditional distribution route to sell my films. I can self-distribute, eliminating the middleman. I'm not sure how this looks for the major studios, yet I can imagine they are quickly adjusting to meet this demand. Which means they will look for more content, providing more opportunities for indie films to find a home.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I would have told my 16-year-old self to shoot more. Read and write more. I would have prepared better so I could've had a full scholarship to some film school, and I would have made a movie while in college. Other than that, I think I've jumped at the opportunities in front of me. The lessons I've learned came when I needed them. I think I can handle today what I wouldn’t have been able to back then.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
A film is great to me when the dialogue is relatable, and I can feel connected to the story or message. The tone and texture of a film also contribute to an overall great story. Fleshed-out characters and realistic plots. Great scores that are tailor-made for the film. Those are the stories that leave a lasting impact on me the most.
What films or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Spike Lee was my first inspiration. I think because he was one of the first to make such a big splash during his time as an indie artist. Ava DuVernay, of course, probably for the same reasons that everyone loves her. I began following Ryan Coogler after first seeing Fruitvale Station. I love the rawness of Mississippi Damned by Tina Mabry; that was a beautiful film with such authenticity. I also love Tanya Hamilton's film Night Catches Us. Hamilton had The Roots produce the score, helping that '70s period come alive. These films reflect the stories I plan to tell. They give me ideas and concepts to study so that I, too, could create my masterpiece.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you "give back," or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
In any profession we choose, I believe we are responsible for the culture. As a filmmaker, I automatically hold a larger platform. Being responsible doesn't mean I have to tell perfect stories with perfect characters; rather, it's being conscious of what I put on the screen. If that means I have to turn down certain offers, then that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make. While in Cannes, I socialized with filmmakers from South Africa who felt that the main representation of black culture came from reality shows. After our conversation, the thought that rang in my head was, "our stories travel." If we want to be viewed in a brighter light, we must produce quality work and be genuine. That's what the culture is missing.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
My ideal career would be receiving recognition for my work: the awards, the red carpet events and written articles about my films. I would love to produce big-budget movies with all-star casts. But if those things never come to pass, I will be happy simply being paid to be a full-time filmmaker with the freedom to continually create movies without the need to rely on part-time work and other creative ways to acquire income.
Where can your work be seen, and how can you be contacted?
Currently, I am constructing a webpage for my past short films. However, I can produce my work upon request.