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 starting today, Wednesday, July 11.
Ultimately, we hope these stories bring new awareness and admiration around these relatively unknown visionaries.
To kick off our series, read more about the life and lessons from New York City-based filmmaker Cathleen Campbell.
Introduce yourself to the world.
I’m a filmmaker and photographer. I’ve just finished a short film, Langston Hughes’ No Crystal Stair, based on a favorite Harlem Renaissance poem. I’m beginning to submit it to festivals now. The film stars Cecelia Antoinette (my favorite actress who I’ve directed several times) and rising star Khadim Diop.
My short film comedy, Outta My Name (watch it below), uses humor to address - and subvert - traditional notions about identity, self-respect and belonging. It stars Cecelia Antoinette, Elena McGhee and Willie C. Carpenter. It was televised nationwide in the African American Short Films series last December. It also screened at the 2016 Manhattan Film Festival, the National Black Writer’s Conference, the African-American Women in Cinema Film Festival and the 2015 Reel Sisters Film Festival.
I’ve directed several other shorts, and I’m developing my first feature. My Summer Break script was a finalist for the Urbanworld Film Festival’s Screenplay Competition. My photographs can be seen in the FOCUS 2018 exhibit at the B.J. Spoke Gallery later this summer. Previous exhibits were in New York and Chicago.
I’m a Yale graduate and longtime Harlem resident. I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago.
When and why did you decide to pursue filmmaking?
I decided that I wanted to be a film director in high school, a decision that led me to the road less traveled. Shockingly, filmmaking hasn’t turned out to be the get-rich-quick scheme I was expecting, given the hype that surrounds even indie filmmaking careers. At times, my checking account balance has been scarier than any horror film. My friends in traditional fields have made more money with steadier paychecks. I’ve toiled at all sorts of odd jobs to support my filmmaking habit. Basically, freelance writing and photography have kept me off the pole. So far. Hopefully, filmmaking riches still await. But far more valuable than the money I’ve made from the shorts I’ve directed is the experience of getting to do something that I truly love.
Even without a big, fantasy-size paycheck, filmmaking is still the best job in the world — on a good day. On a bad day, it feels worse than all but the most soul-destroying gigs, because you go into each day with such high hopes. Before you shoot, you’re thinking, “This scene tells the truth. It’s going to open hearts and minds, feed deep psychological hunger, then make somebody laugh and/or cry.” That is, just as soon as the entire cast, crew and stray passersby stop distracting you and getting on your last nerve. Meanwhile, three hours of sleep for the third day in a row isn’t doing wonders for your attention span either. And yet, the actress and actor who were driving you crazy a minute ago just gave such a brilliant performance that we’re all in awe of. Suddenly, “why” is no longer a mystery. We’ve all realized our purpose: Expressing and documenting life in all its complexity, simplicity, beauty and ugliness in a film medium that promises to be unforgettable or fleeting or both.
Your feature film (title, story and whatever else you're willing to share about it)?
Sorry, no, believe it or not, I’m not willing to share the title or story or anything else. Not because I’m afraid of somebody stealing my idea. I’m trying to decide between two scripts, trying to figure out which one is cheaper and easier to produce. If I were better at raising money, I’d shoot my script that was a finalist in Urbanworld’s Screenwriting Competition a few years ago. Since that script can’t be shot micro-budget, I think one of these other two scripts would make a better — and more feasible — first feature. All I can say now is that both scripts are basically love stories (with a side slice of genre mash-up). Because what could be more necessary, entertaining and realistic than black love stories?
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
When did this specific journey begin?
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?
Writer, director and co-producer, for sure. Possibly editor; I love editing, but I’m not nearly as fast as a professional editor, so if I can find an editor who shares my vision, I think that’s the way to go.
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?
Outside of winning the lottery and finding an extra 24 hours in a day, I need producers. I need a detail-oriented producer and a big picture-oriented producer, at least one of each. And good production assistants (PAs) with experience. I know great actors. I have a roster of fine DPs and sound mixers to choose from. Good PAs can actually be harder to find. I did PA work on big budget features for a couple of years because you could literally make more money doing the lowest non-union job on a union shoot than you could as the director of a low-budget film. Plus, you could learn a lot, seeing how those at the top of the profession do it. I got to watch Martin Scorsese direct. Eyes open, mouth shut.
Nowadays, however, thanks to cheap cameras and computers with built-in editing software that make it possible for anyone to make a film, everyone thinks they’re ready to direct. People see entry-level jobs like PA work as a waste of talent. It’s tough to find experienced PAs when the prevailing wisdom is that experience is for suckers.
To be fair, some producers and directors abuse PAs. Not me. I’m grateful for every member of my cast and crew. But, ah, how nice it would be to have a larger and more experienced production staff.
That said, despite all the distractions, it’s easier for me to focus as the director on set than as the writer/producer away from the set. With so many things that need to get done, my professional and personal hurdle is learning to prioritize. Time management!
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
Major fear: That I’ll fail Harriet Tubman, and make her wonder why she worked so hard to lead me, in particular, to freedom.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
Insisting on another take at the end of the day. Overall, persevering in the face of adversity. The inspiration to keep going? All my folks in the African diaspora and other folks who have also inspired me despite being melanin-deficient.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
Raising money. Haven’t tried crowdfunding yet. But I’ve found that raising money for an “art” project is difficult within the African-American community because there are so many legitimate concerns about directing money to fight poverty and other ills in our society. Donor fatigue is understandable but unfortunate.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said there are only so many variations of stories, and thus everything's been done before; that we've seen it all. Do you agree or disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
Well, I do think I have a unique point of view as an artist in more than one medium, and no, I don’t believe everything’s already been said. But let’s say it has. Did your Momma have to tell you something more than once? Who else? Is Whitney Houston’s version of "I Will Always Love You" better than Dolly Parton’s? Furthermore, is Aretha’s version of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" better than Carole King’s? Does John Coltrane’s redefinition of "My Favorite Things" kinda make you think maybe we shouldn’t have stopped after Julie Andrews? Ever heard a sample used in a rap song that brought new meaning to its source? The best part about the fact that we aren’t done yet is the fact that if we’re smart enough to see this opportunity for what it truly is, there’s room enough for all of us.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it's made? And the realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have?
I hope my film finds its audience in festivals, theaters, living rooms or basements on Movie Night and online. I hope everyone gets a big career boost from appearing in and working on my film. Realities: as close as I can get to the fantasy by doing the best I can.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project or at any other time during this journey)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
I always get discouraged, with this first feature project and every other project. Like I said before, I keep going because I’m trying not to let Harriet Tubman down. The legend says that she had to pull a gun on some of the more fearful folks she was leading to freedom since they wanted to turn back (which would’ve jeopardized everyone else fleeing by revealing their whereabouts). Ashamed to admit it, and I’m not talking about a real gun, but I’ve had to pull out a metaphorical Tubman-style “Don’t Stop Now” gun on myself on every project I’ve ever completed.
Still from Langston Hughes' No Crystal Stair (showing Cecelia Antoinette and Khadim Diop)
Do you have a support system?
My support system consists of friends that I converted to family because my biological family members love me, but they can’t help but think I should’ve cashed in my Yale degree until I settled down in the suburbs with Mr. Right. Fellow filmmakers, definitely. I’d also have to mention the founder and CEO of the Reel Sisters Film Festival, Carolyn Butts, who’s been very supportive of me and my Outta My Name short. These are all the people I want to be great for, along with the other folks who inspire me, past, present and future.
What does that support system look like? Depends on what phase I’m in. Writing? Please find some kind way to tell me to stop talking, get back to rewriting. Production? Please believe me since I really believe that my life depends on finding an actor, soundperson and/or location by tomorrow at 6 a.m. Post-production? Please tempt me to do something other than spending the rest of my life tweaking the editing and fantasizing about re-shoots. Screenings? Please come and bring a friend!
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 or shun it?
So far, and basically, no longer making any sense, I haven’t taken advantage of social media as I should. While this may not be a crime against humanity, I must do better than my current non-presence on social media. Moving outside my former comfort zone and old school ways now. Social media is absolutely necessary. New friends welcome on Facebook!
Are you inspired by what many are calling a "black film renaissance" (in the USA specifically)? Are you encouraged by the success of films like Black Panther or the achievements of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
I’m 100 percent inspired by the current black film renaissance. Make no mistake, I’m also inspired by filmmakers who have been working in the trenches for decades, some of whom never got to make the films they truly wanted to make due to a lack of resources (when it was far more expensive to rent equipment, develop film, make and ship prints, rent screening rooms, etc.). I celebrate the blockbuster mega-success of Black Panther and its cultural footprint. I was Afrocentric way before Wakanda, but if that’s what led you here, let’s all cross our arms then dance. Meanwhile, if you aren’t inspired by Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees, guess they’d better call the coroner to cart you away.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this (the few successes we've seen thus far, the various initiatives announced to diversify the industry behind and in front of the camera, etc.) will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourself? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
If it works — finally — great. Long, long, long overdue. Never worked for me so far, so I’d be crazy to count on it now.
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 welcome the emergence of these new world platforms. I’m choosing between offers to show Outta My Name and my other short films online, which I see as an opportunity to begin to attract an audience for my upcoming feature.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Key lesson: Like a shark, keep moving forward.
What do I wish I’d known when I started out? Same thing I have to remind myself now: Keep finding a way to grow as a filmmaker even when you’re not making a film whether that means writing or rewriting a scene, watching or re-watching a film or helping other people make their films.
What makes a film great for you? Do you look for any particular qualities?
Story and performances first, though I also appreciate great cinematography.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Most filmmakers short of Ed Wood inspire me on some level or another, usually audacity. Give credit to the dreamers who were practical enough to pull off a film, no easy task. As for aesthetics, since I started in photography, I’d cite everyone from Edward Steichen to Gordon Parks to Chester Higgins to Sebastiao Salgado. For cinematic influences, I’d have to mention the Italian neorealists like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio DeSica. I’d also have to give a shoutout to Julie Dash and her director of photography, Arthur Jafa, for creating the look of the permanently swoon-worthy Daughters of the Dust.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a filmmaker requires that you tell a particular kind of story or populate your film with specific types of characters, for example?
Yes, we have a responsibility to acknowledge the richness of the culture we were born into and to do our best not to denigrate it. I don’t see this responsibility as a burden; I see it as a gift; a source of inspiration, not a limitation. Others don’t; others won’t. Not everybody feels grateful. I recently read a saying: “Hurt people hurt people.” Still, when you need a friend, it might help if you’ve been one. Or could be one, too. Despite it all. Time will tell. It’s not my place to tell you that you can’t tell your truth the way you see it. Just asking though: There wasn’t any room in your film for even one sane, dark-skinned black woman or man? But that lighter-than-a-brown-paper bag test seems mostly to apply to sisters. And if your characters shoot their way out of every problem presented in your story before they ride off into the sunset, could the outro teaser slipped into the credits at the end include documentary footage of the seemingly endless funerals of murdered young black men?
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
Writing, making films, making photos, making a valuable contribution to my great culture.
Where can we watch your past work, if available?
You can watch my short film comedy, Outta My Name, below. Also friend “Cathleen Campbell” on Facebook. Just joined (finally); need friends, please! Will post info about screenings for my upcoming short, Langston Hughes’ No Crystal Stair, plus my photo exhibits and yes, Lord, my first feature!
Any final words...?
Yo, Tambay, you should call this questionnaire the “Lamaze List for First Feature Filmmakers.” Completing all these questions was perhaps slightly less intense than giving birth to a firstborn child. But thank you, seriously, for all your support of black filmmakers over the years via Shadow and Act, and now your initiative to help lift up sisters like me at this crucial stage of preparing to make their first features. To my fellow filmmakers, I’m grateful and proud to share this historic moment with you. I look forward to seeing your films.