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 Brooklyn, New York-based Asha Boston. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
Born prematurely, at one pound and two ounces, I’ve learned a thing or two about fighting for the things you want in life– including life itself. A passionate journalist and documentarian from Brooklyn, New York, my work resume includes companies like AMC, BET, VIBE, Madame Noire and most recently Lifetime and Bravo as a freelance associate producer.
I’m the president and founder of The Dinner Table Doc, a 501c3nonprofitt which seeks to provide safe spaces for young women of color (especially black girls) to share their truth through workshops and live events. I’m also the CEO of Passion Fruit Vineyard Productions where I oversee all pre-, post- and current production services for my first feature film, A Time Before Kale.
A Time Before Kale is the fascinating chronicle of my quest to undercover the history of the black community in Bedford-Stuyvesant while grappling with the vast changes taking place due to gentrification.
My project’s site is atimebeforekale.com.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
I’m currently finishing up the pre-production process and preparing to galvanize core members of my production crew.
When did this specific journey begin?
My journey with A Time Before Kale began in the spring of 2015. It was a rough time in my life; in the span of about two weeks I lost my grandmother, left my first full-time position to fulfill my dream of going to film school, got rejected from film school, and in addition to being rejected, I felt extremely lonely because the Brooklyn I knew prior to college was not the home I met when I returned.
On May 26, 2015, I stumbled upon one of my favorite photography books, A Time Before Crack by Jamel Shabazz. After placing a pile of clothes into the dryer, I sat with the book and was pleasantly surprised to reunite with a message that Jamel had written to me when I met him as a high school student. He wrote, “Love is the message” on the first page, and I instantly remembered the moment he wrote it and then pointed at the camera I had slung around my neck, encouraging me to use it as a tool to share my truth and uplift those around me.
After reading that message, I decided to move on his advice and use my camera to further explore my yearning for community and share the truth about the Bed-Stuy I knew before gentrification.
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’m currently the director, executive producer and production manager. My experience working in production has taught me to multitask and to run toward a goal with tenacity.
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?
I went to college for international relations and have mainly worked in entertainment journalism and television, so I’m still learning the ins and outs of the film world. To sharpen my storytelling skills, I participate in documentary labs (most recently UnionDocs) and am currently a member of the Diverse Filmmakers Alliance.
I’ve become super unapologetic in asking for things that I need in both business and career because you don’t get what you don’t ask for. As a businesswoman, I don’t just “ask” for what I want, instead, I try to package my request so that my goals, intentions and immediate needs are clear. It’s a skill I’ve developed that’s really helped me as a director.
As a director, it’s my duty to not only lead a team of talented creatives but speak their varied and very specific creative languages to make sure the bigger picture is served and met at the highest quality. It takes a lot of grit, and it’s effective, but sometimes things get lost in translation. When something doesn’t work, before getting upset or feeling disappointed, I check my attitude and realize that asking is only half the battle. Getting to the next level isn’t about getting things “right,” it’s about pulling up your sleeves and figuring out a way to make it work, maybe not the way I initially thought it would, but pressing forward so that the work will get done.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I’m extremely passionate, and my biggest fear (until recently) was that I would get stuck working with a team of people that weren’t as passionate as I and ultimately end up working alone. Working with people can be so hard. With large projects, I don’t intend to do work alone, but because of past experiences, I see how difficult it can be when the energy levels don’t match.
As I continue to grow and mature in my team building skills and experiences, I think when someone drops the ball, it’s God’s way of removing the options that keep me performing at the same level when he knows I’m capable of greater.
The older I get, the more I value the roadblocks as they develop my patience and challenge me to make myself and those around me better. Sometimes you can be your own roadblock. I had to get comfortable with recognizing that and learning how to get over myself (or what’s in my head) when I allow my fears (or the pessimism of others) to anchor me by standing in the way of making things better.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
The toughest decision I’ve had to make, thus far, is choosing to intentionally chronicle black history in the midst of a cultural tug of war. It’s been fascinating to see how resistant people can be toward a history they haven’t explored. A lot of people don’t know that Bedford-Stuyvesant has New York City’s largest black community (which is why gentrification there is such a problem), and those people challenge my film’s premise all the time, but luckily it’s done nothing but make me work harder to make sure that I share not just my truth, but the truth of my people.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
The toughest challenge I’ve faced in the industry thus far is choosing to do this project. Creating a film (with a possibility to be a docu-series) with no experience and not too much financial support is risky. Every day I wake up and make a decision to work on something that I deeply believe in, and although things aren’t progressing quickly, or with as many bells and whistles right now, I refuse to stop working on this project until it’s complete and I’m satisfied with the message it shares.
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?
When I talk to people about my project, I’m always warned about the influx of documentaries about gentrification that have already been made and are floating the festival circuit.
Although there are other films about gentrification, I’m confident in mine because no one is telling the story from the perspective of a black girl from Bed-Stuy, who grew up with ’90s hip-hop and very much belongs to a culture that has disappeared despite its residents still being there. I’ve watched the other documentaries about gentrification, especially the ones about Brooklyn, and no one is talking about hip-hop culture in Bed-Stuy and chronicling the neighborhood’s rich and longstanding black history.
A majority of the gentrification documentaries that I’ve seen are about business owners or narrated by a gentrifier and don’t add much more context with regards to the deep and rich black history of the neighborhoods; just the highlights. My heart wouldn’t be satisfied if I didn’t add my voice to the symphony of cultural war cries because “just one film” or “just one perspective” is not enough. I have to share my truth.
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?
I think the film has the potential to become a docu-series. Gentrification is happening everywhere, and it would be so fascinating to see the history of black cultures in other neighborhoods and understand what their cultural peak was (ending with ’90s hip-hop) and see how it relates to where gentrification in that specific area began. Additionally, I’d love to create a curriculum to complement the film and share the histories of black neighborhoods to be taught in grade school history classes.
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 definitely have been disappointed so many times by so many things, but I try not to let disappointment get the best of me. As the famous quote says “You’re not as bad as your worst review or as good as your best,” I try to keep that in mind when things don’t go according to plan. I understand that before my career, I am a person, a black woman, and once I’m confident in who I am, everything that happens around me will be just another stepping stone for me to climb on my journey through life. I’m a Christian, so my faith plays a huge part in my optimistic spirit; I believe when God closes one door, all I have to do is work in my faith, and there’ll always be another ready for me to walk through.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers… alcohol (#Jokes… kind of)? 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)?
My family and best friends have been my biggest and best support system. They don’t work in the industry, so they always give me fair and unbiased advice and suggestions on what to do with the content I create (because they watch and listen to my stories as consumers). They’re also really good at uplifting me and reminding me not to take things too seriously. I need those reminders because I spend a lot of time in my head, getting in my own way, and it’s good to have a group of people to shake you out of self-inflicted anxiety. I’m appreciative of all the times they’ve allowed me to take a break from my work and enjoy the little moments. They’re my biggest cheerleaders, and I’m grateful that they not only invest in my mental health but my creative career choice, as well.
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 use social media to track down the people that I want to interview. It seems like everyone is either on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram so it makes it a lot easier for me to track subjects down and reach out to further connect. Additionally, I use social media to follow conversations about gentrification and how people feel about the changes. I look beyond statistics and really take heed to the conversations surrounding cultural identity and community. It’s always so fascinating to see the collected sense of belonging with which everyone seems to struggle. Every time I share news about my project on social media, it’s always well received, and that helps reaffirm that the story from my perspective is very needed.
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.?
I am excited about it and feel like it’s here to stay. I know it has happened before, but I think that it’s interesting to note that now we’re also seeing conversations about media literacy happen across generations, which is very important. I think as we educate a generation to become conscious consumers, we can also equip those who are called to work in film with the tools and resources they need to sustain the paradigm shift of mainstream media reflecting its audience.
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 sure if it may be more welcoming because there will always be resistance (in some shape or form), but I am hopeful that as I claim my seat at the table my voice will be heard.
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 study digital media, and the tug of war for content and viewership is something that I’ve been researching for a while.
It’s an arms race for eyeballs; every brand and large platforms are in the race to create compelling content, and I think that it will challenge filmmakers to take a step back and fine-tune their voice. No matter how big of a brand it is, if the content doesn’t resonate, no one is going to watch it, so I’ve committed myself to understand the nuances of the human condition. I want to understand what brings us together and what are the small details that transform a project from entertainment to an experience. I think that understanding the human condition and finding ways that it translates through the stories I’m producing will help me create things that resonate in people’s hearts and minds. I aim to create content that leaves my audience feeling like they were with me when I conceptualized it and are now helping it grow.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I think a key lesson to take away in filmmaking is that “things take time.” As a millennial, the latter half of my life has been ruled by technology, and with that, comes the blessing and curse of instant gratification. Social media gives us so much instant gratification and can often allow us to feel like things are supposed to happen much faster than they should. It’s an interesting time to blossom as a filmmaker with all of the amazing content that’s coming out, and I constantly have to remind myself that although things are taking off for black filmmakers (especially young women), I still have to wait until it’s my time. I have to take time on my project and produce quality instead of rushing to throw something out, so I can be celebrated in a moment that, deep in my heart, I believe isn’t going anywhere. Everything happens in its own time, including my time to shine in film, and I’m finally comfortable believing that.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
A great film makes me forget that I’m in the audience because I’m so invested in the moment on screen, and have accepted it as a temporary reality.
What films or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
For A Time Before Kale I’ve been incredibly inspired by Spike Lee’s Crooklyn and Do the Right Thing as well as Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Wattstax and Time is Illmatic. I love that those films capture a moment in history that educate but also share the authentic stories of the people. They’re heavy topics, but they aren’t a burden to watch. And those are the types of films I hope to create. I also love the way the films normalize music’s involvement in curating community, and I think in telling black stories we need to see more of that.
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 don’t think it’s a requirement as much as it’s something that we naturally do. In every story we create, we give a piece of ourselves, and that’s something that’s not specific to black women filmmakers but all filmmakers. However, I do think that black women giving pieces of themselves within the filmmaking process is interesting because, culturally, we tend to tell our stories (or the stories of those around us) to help us heal, or to offer counsel to people that we hope to see be and do better. I don’t think we have to bear it as a burden, but I do think we should be encouraged to pay attention to films created by black women. We want to help heal, and we have something to say.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Well, my life is currently comprised of running a nonprofit for young women of color and creating films. I don’t think I’d have it any other way. I’m still fairly new to it all, so the finances could be a little better, but I’m happy, and I hope that my future consists of just what I’m doing now: my nonprofit well supported and funded, and my films are seen by large audiences.
How can we see your past work, and how can you be contacted?
This is my first feature-length film; however, a lot of my media work can be found on my production company website: passionfruitvineyardproductions.weebly.com/.
Website One: atimebeforekale.com
Website Two: passionfruitvineyardproductions.weebly.com
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
Well, I mainly want to thank you for doing this. As a first-time feature filmmaker, I feel lost, but it feels good to know there is someone out there who sees and who cares enough to shine a light on those of us figuring it out.