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 Tomeka M. Winborne. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project to the world.
My name is Tomeka M. Winborne, and I am a writer/director who passionately loves to create stories that will invoke conversations. My mission as an African American female filmmaker is to bring stories to the screen that embody the experiences and voices of people of color that are absent from television and film. A native of Portsmouth, Virginia, I relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, to take in its booming film industry.
In 2005, I published my first novel, Where My Strength Comes From, which fueled my passion for becoming a filmmaker. Initially, I desired to adapt Where My Strength Comes From into a movie. At the time, my dream felt like an elusive goal. I did not have the funds for film school, but I began to volunteer on film projects in Virginia. I was fortunate to join a writers group at the historic Attucks Theater, in Norfolk, Virginia, led by writer/producer Clyde Santana.
In 2009, I wrote, directed and produced my first short film, Pass Me By. A few years later, I wrote, directed and produced my second short, Too Late. From there I continued to write, produce and direct other short films.
As a filmmaker, I center many of my stories around social issues. My most recent short film, in post-production, is entitled, We're Left Behind. With this film, I hope to inspire people to think about the children who are left behind while being separated from their deported parents. A self-absorbed Hispanic teenage girl celebrates with her family and friends as she prepares for the prom until they receive a call that her mother will not make it home because she has been detained. Gabriella and her younger sister are left behind and uncertain of their future.
I’m honored that Aged Out, a short film that I wrote, produced and directed, was recently screened at the Cineodyssey Film Festival in Charlotte, North Carolina, and will soon be screened at the Bronzelens Film Festival in Atlanta. Aged Out brings awareness to youth aging out of the foster care system.
I am looking to adapt Aged Out as my first feature film, which I’m very excited about. I have created a wide range of movies centered around social issues like HIV and sex trafficking and those with light-hearted subjects, as well.
To delve deeper into the filmmaking industry, I produced a podcast of which I am the host, Tea Talks with Tomeka. I enjoy highlighting the work of women filmmakers.
I feel blessed to be able to carry out my passion of storytelling using various mediums. In addition to making movies and podcasting, I have also produced television segments, commercials, written several novels, worked as a field reporter and have been commissioned to produce documentaries.
I am a founding member and on the leadership committee of the Atlanta chapter of the Alliance of Women Directors. Previously, I served as a board member on the Hampton Roads Chapter of the Virginia Production Alliance. I have volunteered as a film reviewer for Southern Arts and the Mid-Atlantic Film Festival.
Cox Creative Services commissioned me to co-produce a documentary, In Plain Sight: Human Trafficking, which aired on Cox Channel 11 and its affiliate stations. I also served as a field reporter for Cox Media Group.
In 2016, I received the African American Cinematic Series Norfolk Public Library Award.
I am thankful for this journey of filmmaking. Each day I get to combine my creative passion with my entrepreneurial spirit, and I believe wholeheartedly that my gifts make room for me.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
I’m currently in the writing process.
When did this specific journey begin?
I began working on the feature adaptation of Aged Out - which is a working title - toward the end of 2017, by creating the beat sheets and flushing out the character bios. I started writing the story in January of this year, and I will go through several revisions before the script will be finalized.
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?
Thus far, I have worn multiple hats on my projects. I write, direct and produce. I have previously balanced those roles when shooting short films by focusing on the writing process first. After I have a strong draft, I start working on breaking down my script, shot list and the storyboard, prior to casting and crewing up. Then I start working on some of the production tasks. Once I have gotten enough pre-production work done, then I can better balance my directing and producing tasks. Then, I begin casting and crewing up. On the last couple of short films, I have spent more time rehearsing with the actors so that we can work out any kinks before filming. This process allows me to feel less stressed and frees me to be available during the last few days of pre-production. My goal is to hopefully get a producer or co-producer for the Aged Out feature film project so that I can focus on directing.
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?
Having a mentor during the process of creating my first feature film would be extremely helpful, especially after I finish a strong draft of the script. I would also love to have an experienced producer attached to the project that already has the relationships necessary to help attain financing, casting and distribution. Additionally, I would love to be able to spend more time preparing to direct.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
The only major fear or concern I have is raising the money necessary for production and obtaining distribution for the film.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
I’m not quite at the stage where I have had to make many tough decisions. However, I have recently decided to relocate to Los Angeles later this year.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree?
I do agree that when it comes to storytelling, everything’s been done and we’ve seen it all. However, I think, as storytellers, we can add different perspectives. Most importantly, as people of color, there are many stories that have yet to be told from our viewpoint. My film distinguishes itself because it is an original storyline. I’ve only recently heard people talking about creating stories around this topic of youth aging out of foster care. I’ve found that each storyteller takes a different angle in telling this story, which only brings more awareness to the issue.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it's made?
I would love for the film to have domestic and international distribution. If my film had a national theatrical release or were streamed on Netflix, I would be extremely happy. It’s important to me to bring awareness to this subject matter and to hopefully invoke some positive conversations about how best to take care of youth aging out of foster care.
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?
I have definitely been discouraged during my journey as a filmmaker. There was a point when I stopped writing for a few years. After balancing life and refocusing on my goals, it became much easier to continue to push forward past various challenges. One thing that really motivates me is watching interviews showing the backstories of other filmmakers because they often remind me they also had obstacles to overcome before their successes. Their stories encourage me. I try to learn all I can from the filmmakers who have come before me.
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’m truly blessed to have a wonderful support system. Early on, my mom and sister allowed me to live in my deceased aunt’s house that is paid for so that I could focus on learning my craft. I am fortunate to have a friend who, from the beginning, has reviewed and edited my writing and who assists me with marketing. Last year, I decided to move to Atlanta and a friend opened his doors to me so that I could focus on pursuing my filmmaking goals. Most recently, one of my friends heard me on a podcast interview where I stated, “In order to go to the next level in my career, I may have to move to Los Angeles.” After listening to the interview, my friend called me and said, “I know that you are talented enough to make it. You just need the resources. So I’m going to take a job in LA for three months so you don’t have to pay rent during that time and try to find your way.” These are just a few examples of how my family and friends have been so helpful and supportive in my journey. It feels good to know that I have people who believe in my dreams enough to make sacrifices in their lives to help me reach my filmmaking goals. I got teary-eyed writing this because I’m so grateful to my family and friends. Their love and support have contributed to me being where I am today.
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 believe in the power of social media. I am extremely active on several social networks, especially Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. However, when I am in grind-mode while writing or producing a film, I do have to prioritize my time so that I focus more on the film project, leaving me less time for social media. I absolutely believe that social media is a vital part of branding myself as a filmmaker. Social media is a necessary marketing tool, and I wholeheartedly embrace it.
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.?
Yes, I am extremely motivated and inspired by this “black film renaissance.” I’m not sure how long it will last. However, I do feel that there is a shift happening, and as long as consumers continue to support black films, the renaissance could be around for a very long time. Watching Black Panther and following Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Issa Rae, Lena Waithe and many others, I feel so encouraged. We are in a season where doors are opening for black filmmakers, especially black women filmmakers, and it’s beautiful to watch.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
I’m not yet sure that the changes made by the Academy or Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion will lead to something sustainable that will assist up-and-comers like myself and others. I want to believe that some of us will get opportunities, but the challenge is that these programs are not aggressive enough. Some of the diversity programs pick eight to 10 people a year. Unfortunately, the norm still seems to be that you aren’t totally judged on the merit of your art but on who you know that is connected to these systems. I think there will be change, but I’m not sure how many of us will benefit from the changes. I’m fighting for my place, but so are many others.
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?
I’m excited about the online platforms that are competing with the studios because they are creating more of a demand for content. The more content needed, the more likely it is that people like me will have an opportunity to find a home for our work and the opportunity to direct.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I wish that I knew that location matters. Although I can create content anywhere, it’s the relationships in the industry that I believe open the desired doors for opportunities. Knowing what I know now, I would have moved to Los Angeles years ago.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
I love films that have great stories and that are character-driven. I am all about the story.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
I’m a huge Ava DuVernay fan! Every week or two, I search YouTube for Ava’s most recent interviews or speaking engagements. Like Ava, I didn’t go to film school. I am a self-taught filmmaker. I started my filmmaking career later than most. Ava inspires me to keep pushing forward. She strikes me as less infatuated with the celebrity that she now has and is more focused on creating quality content. I especially love that she has created opportunities for so many women directors who are now able to make a living directing.
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?
I personally assume a responsibility for the type of work that I choose to create. However, I don’t think that it’s fair that people of color, particularly black women, should have to take on that responsibility. There will be some filmmakers who want to tell more conscious, thought-provoking stories, but there is also a place for other entertaining content. We need to have a well-rounded amount of films and TV shows by people of color and black women filmmakers. I would like to see good romantic comedies, sci-fi, biopics, animation, thrillers, etc., created by black women. I find it interesting that white filmmakers have the luxury of creating a multitude of films without having any responsibility to their communities and culture. I think if we are given more opportunities to create, we will have enough filmmakers that will speak to our culture.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
At the beginning of my career, I see myself flying from city to city, directing television. Shortly thereafter, I see myself developing and creating television shows and employing others to make these shows happen. Once I have a team moving those shows along, I want to direct feature films. Eventually, I want to invest in other filmmakers’ projects.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
My work is available for viewing at tomekawinborne.com. I do have a short film traveling the festival circuit currently, which is not yet available for viewing online. My most recent project is in post-production and will soon begin its film festival journey. I’m excited about these projects, and I look forward to sharing them soon.
I can be contacted via any of the following methods:
-- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
-- Website: tomekawinborne.
-- Facebook: facebook.com/
-- Instagram: instagram.com/
-- Twitter: twitter.com/
-- LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/
Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
First, I’d like to thank Shadow and Act for creating a space for first-time feature filmmakers to share our stories. If any of your readers are directors, I would love to shadow some of the working directors. I would love to have a mentor to help navigate this industry as a new director. I am committed to paying it forward once I achieve a certain level of success. I am passionate about creating opportunities for others. Please like and follow my movie pages:
For Aged Out, you can follow the film on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AgedOutTheMovie/
Trailer for Aged Out: