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 Columbus, Ohio-based Celia C. Peters. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
I am a filmmaker creating compelling stories about authentic characters. I am a Midwesterner (native Ohioan!) at heart, but I lived in New York City for a long time, and part of my heart will always be there. Lately, I’ve been splitting time between my base in Columbus, Ohio; Oakland and New York. I work mostly in science fiction; I love science, mathematics, astronomy, cosmology, and I’m intrigued at how science and science fiction are converging so quickly, but I am also drawn to the absolute creative freedom of science fiction. As a woman of color, the future and other speculative settings offer freedom from the toxic racism and misogyny that has tainted so much of our history. Not that everything has to be sunshine and rainbows, but there are new, more imaginative challenges that don’t relegate people who look like me to some inferior status. I am a writer, director, producer and visual artist; all of those roles coexist very happily for me (a blessing!). It means I have a complete vision of my work, from the creative stages to figuring out strategy and executing it. All of the work I do, whether film or visual art, is pretty much in the realm of Afrofuturism… but with that said, I believe that time is a construct, so what is future, what is past….?
Outside of developing my film and visual art, lately, I’ve also been producing more events to provide platforms that showcase my work as well as other diverse voices in science fiction at New York Comic Con, Afropunk, etc. Representation matters and I know that audiences want to see more diverse representations in science fiction, and that’s not about just me. It feels good. There are many other underrepresented filmmakers, and artists doing fantastic work in the genre and shining a light on them is something I feel fortunate to have been able to do.
Right now, my top priority is getting my first feature into production. It is an Afrofuturist feature film project called Godspeed. It’s about Brandy, a brilliant tech editor who is plagued by terrifying psychological symptoms and finds herself losing her grip on sanity and life as she knows it until she’s informed by someone she trusts and loves that the problem is not psychosis it is that she is not human, and the only way she can survive what’s happening to her is to go back to the world from where she came. But she does not believe it.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
Pre-production: packaging and financing.
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?
I am the writer, director and one of the producers. I guess I achieve a balance between my multiple hats because each role is prominent at different points in time. I wrote the script first, have been acting as producer for a few years, but the director part of me has also been developing creative aspects of the film all the while. Even though I would much rather be working with actors or the creative departments, if I’m honest, I have to say that overlap between being a producer and director works well during pre-production… for me anyway.
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?
What would be most helpful now is financing. We have a core team, we have interest from different quarters, but having financing means we are definitively moving forward and executing the project. I’m strategizing, networking, requesting introductions, having conversations, meeting the people who I think will be helpful with getting to investors. Our next step is shooting a proof-of-concept short in the next couple of months. We have a corporate partner who has committed part of the budget for it, but we need to raise the rest of the money for it. Having a scene directly from the feature script will give people a clear picture of my vision — the characters, the story, the look and feel, the sound, the style. This proof of concept will be an important tool in connecting with financiers and distributors. More showing, less telling!
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
My major fear is missing things while I am in production and looking back and wishing I could do things differently, or that I could go back and do things that didn’t even occur when I had the chance. It’s sort of irrational, though, because, deep down, I believe that things happen as they should; I’ve put a lot of thought into every single aspect of this film these past few years, so while I’m always open to new ideas, I know Godspeed pretty well.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Ending a partnership with a previous producer.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Trying to keep my wits about me when I want to be making this movie so badly. Some days, I feel like a fly stuck in ointment when I can’t seem to get anything moving. I know sci-fi lovers, especially sci-fi lovers of color, want new voices and new faces driving hot science fiction stories, but there are definitely times when no one seems to care… except me. Ha! But, for better or worse, I care, and I am going to deliver.
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 agree in the sense that, at the core, most stories are speaking to some facet of the universal human experience, so, in that sense, yes, all stories have been told before in some form. But that’s the thing: there are literally countless forms for any story to take. My film is different because it is science fiction with a black woman protagonist, a multiracial cast and a plot that is not about race. The story does, however, incorporate diasporic belief systems, sensibilities and aesthetics, so there’s that. Furthermore, the story is being told by someone (me) who sees visual art, music, fashion and design as central elements of telling the story, not afterthoughts or props. They are an integral part of the story world because they’re an integral part of my world. The influences, experiences and insight that went into creating this story are uniquely mine, and my life experiences definitely do not fit the typical expectation of how black women live (as if we all come from the same place and live the same way!) so that automatically distinguishes Godspeed from other films.
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?
Immediately after being completed, I see this film in a very limited theatrical release, in an arthouse theater in 15-20 targeted U.S. cities where our audience is concentrated. Simultaneously (and in the long-run), I want this film to live on digital platforms (online, streaming, VOD, etc.) where it can be accessed around the world, starting with key territories: North America, western Africa, South Africa, western Europe and the UK, the Caribbean and South America. These are the places where our core audience is. I would also like the film to be on airlines.
I refuse to buy into the mythology that “black films don’t sell overseas.” First of all, America’s biggest cultural exports — jazz and hip-hop — are black art forms that have transcended popularity to become universal. And then, well, Black Panther. It makes much more sense to get the movie to the places where the intended audience lives and spends money instead of banking on convincing people in parts of the world that are unfamiliar with or uninterested in black culture to see my movie.
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?
Yes, I have been discouraged many times when there is no movement or I feel very alone in trying to make this movie, or I feel like things are going backward! I keep my head up by remembering that everything I want is within my reach, but I’ll only get there if I keep moving forward. I think about my newborn nephews, Henry William and Emory Cecil; my 11-year-old goddaughter, Luna; my young cousins, my friends’ kids, the little girls and boys who were clients when I was a social worker and even my younger self, and I want them to see something different. That keeps me moving forward with my chin up.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers…? 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 great spiritual foundation, which gives me a very expansive, clear perspective. I also have a support system of wonderful friends, solid team members, trusted colleagues and caring family who believe in me. (Some of those groups overlap, too!) I also have a sisterhood of other women who are on the same uphill journey as I am; they know the struggle, and we are there for each other. I’m looking forward to expanding that sisterhood with women in this series!
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 embrace social media, but I always feel like I’m not doing it well enough when it comes to promoting my work. Like I’m not as effective as I’d like to be. For me, there’s a constant tension between wanting to be fully analog and present at the moment and kicking myself afterward because I missed a photo op. I think that my core sense of how social media works is totally off-kilter, so I’ve concluded that someone else would be better suited to doing social media for my work! Any takers?!?
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 totally inspired! I buy it because it’s happening, but I don’t need this to understand the value of the work. I find it inspiring because I feel like these successes will be convincing to investors when they see that black films (however you define that), written by talented black writers or directed by talented black directors make their money back like films written and directed by anyone else who has skills.
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 am encouraged but realistic. Any time things are imposed externally, you’re dealing with a construct which can stop garbage behavior but does not change people’s garbage hearts or minds. I think the thing to focus on are the opportunities to create new work under the new mandates/regulations/standards that come out of the changing landscape because, as we know, one film can be game-changing. Also, I am quite encouraged by a general shift that tells people to expect a demand for inclusion and diversity; that consciousness shift alone goes a long way.
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?
As a first-time feature filmmaker, I want to give myself space to build the political capital (fan base) that will get me the best deal. In the long run, I would like my work to live on a streaming platform because I want the audience (both domestic and international) to be able to easily access my work, and that seems to be the way that more and more people are watching films. Bottom line, I want my work to be where people are going to find film, and, clearly, that is going to change and evolve. And so will my presence. I’m most familiar with Netflix, Amazon and Apple, but, above all, I want to create the situation that is the best for my work.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Key lessons I have learned are that perseverance is the name of the game; always trust your gut, and play to win (i.e., never forget that you are bringing gold — your content — to the table). I also learned to stop relying on others who I think are more knowledgeable to produce my work. I resisted producing for a while because I wanted to focus on being creative and leave it to others who had produced more, but the reality is, I’m smart, capable and I get things done, and no one wants this film to happen more than me.
I wish I had understood the value of having a mentor when I began this journey. If I had, I would have strong-armed a mentor into my life, LOL! I also wish I had known there is no secret formula I needed to learn before diving in and doing this. Just. Do. It.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
What makes a film great, for me, is tightness and cohesion and characters that mesmerize and get into my head/heart; when the performances and character development and plot are so on point that I’m living in the story. Generally, I look for tight execution, which is one of those “I know it when I see it” kind of intangibles. I look for originality, an absence of tropes and stereotyping (LAZY!), believable characters, credible dialogue, creative restraint (“less is more”), a coherent plot and a plausible, well-crafted story world, plus a baseline of technical savvy and attention to detail – music is right, no gaffes, etc. (These are all things I aspire to in my work, by the way.)
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Ahhhh, this question kills me. There have been so many along the way. Oscar Micheaux is incredibly inspiring to me because he did it and stuck to it against all odds and, really, at risk of peril. That’s how committed he was to his craft. It consumed him, to which I relate. Creatively and professionally, I’ve been inspired by the work of Kasi Lemmons, the Hughes Brothers, Catherine Breillat, Gordon Parks, John Cassavetes, Mira Nair, Stanley Kubrick, Maya Deren, David Cronenberg, Charles Burnett, Spike Lee, Alfred Hitchcock, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and Kathryn Bigelow, among many others! As for films: Blade Runner (original), Eve’s Bayou, Strange Days, 2046, Existenz, Scarface, The Shining, Suture, The Last Seduction, Alien, Aliens, The Brother from Another Planet, Brainstorm, To Sleep with Anger, My Brother’s Wedding, The Killer of Sheep, West Side Story, Arrival, The Godfather (1 and 2), Odds Against Tomorrow, Videodrome, Gattaca, 12 Monkeys, Virtuosity, Children of Men, Serenity, Donny Darko, A.I., The Matrix (1), Solaris.
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?
My production company is called Artistic Freedom for a reason. I claim the freedom to create art and express myself (whether in film or any other medium) in any way I want and feel; I am NOT beholden to other people’s projections of what THEY feel a black woman filmmaker should be making. I’m not interested in other people’s constraints. I do feel that black filmmakers have a responsibility to represent culture truthfully. I see giving back as a duty of anyone who has been the recipient of help/support/privilege from someone else. And I feel a responsibility to give back on multiple levels, based on my experiences, but also on my knowledge of history. But I can’t impose that on everyone; it’s a personal decision, and each black woman is entitled to determine her relationship with culture for herself.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success, for me, is having my work come to fruition in accordance with my vision. It means my work reaches the audience and I have the ability to create work whenever I want, without going through extended years-long periods of begging for money to finance it all. It means having the resources to live well and have my energy freed to push myself artistically and creatively instead of scrambling with unrelated freelance jobs. It also means creating at such a level that I can easily collaborate with other artists whose work I admire, as colleagues, on the strength of my ideas. Last, but definitely not least, success is being able to provide support, guidance and opportunities to other filmmakers (especially women of color, women, people of color) who need or want it.
How can we see your past work, and how can you be contacted?
Godspeed (current project/feature film): godspeedscifimovie.com/home
Artistic Freedom Ltd. (production company): artisticfreedomltd.com/about
Socials (IG, TW, FB): @celiacpeters
Production company Twitter: @artfreeltd
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
I appreciate this moment of sea change. I feel like so much in American society is changing; some negativity is rising up and showing itself in full force, but, on the other hand, so many are finding their voices and their power as a result. The film industry is breaking down, opening up and figuring out that it’s failing and must adapt, and I feel like this tumultuous context is a great place to be. POC content creators, women content creators, and movers and shakers who are not white men are coming into their own. And, most importantly, audiences have realized they don’t need to settle for the standard, cultural propagandist American film industry fare. It’s a great time to be a black woman filmmaker; we now know we are being heard, loud and clear. Now, those times that I felt like I was pushing a cart of concrete blocks up a hill feel worth it because of the anticipation, liberation, hope and energy happening in this very moment.
I would like to thank you very, very much for doing this series and for including me. On the industry side, the intersection of gender and race still hits hard. Despite the reality of reality, many in this industry are committed to pandering to a sliver of the world’s population, even when it means leaving money on the table. Regardless, black women are here, and we are doing it; the paradigm has shifted. Spotlighting black women filmmakers in an industry that is stuck on nurturing and idolizing white patriarchy (and if all else fails, just plain old patriarchy) is a huge reality check. I was a black girl; I am now a black woman, and I am committed to representing for what I am, whether that’s in characters I create or just in showing up as a director. In a society that often attempts to distort or erase black women, this series honors our presence, our power, our talent, our skills, our creativity, our complexity, our diversity, our electricity, our Black Girl Magic. Our reality. THANK YOU!