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 Edinburgh, Scotland-based award-winning filmmaker Victoria Thomas. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your feature project.
I’m an award-winning filmmaker who works across documentary and fiction. I trained as a solicitor and worked as a journalist for ITN Central and BBC West Midlands before enrolling for an MFA when no one wanted to pay journalists anymore, as bloggers would write for free.
My project is titled Born in New York, Raised in Paris, a creative documentary that explores why “music negre/n****r music” became a thorn in the side of France’s political elite as a presidential candidate vows to ban it if he wins the elections. Several French rappers appear in the film including Mokobe, Menelik, Kery James and Ekoue of La Rumeur. Also, Public Enemy frontman Chuck D is contributing.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
When did this specific journey begin?
The idea of doing something about racial identity in Europe and the role of hip-hop in it started in 2006, a year after the Paris riots; but I only pursued it in 2016 when I was accepted into the Future Producer School at Sheffield Docfest with the project.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing?
I started off as a producer because my legal background made it super difficult for film school tutors to see me as anything but a suit. But I am now focused on writing/directing, and I co-produce my films because most producers prefer projects with traction instead of building ideas from scratch if you are new. I am co-producing this film with Rokhaya Diallo, Yasmina Edwards and Severine Catelion.
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?
I need to stop hearing that the film needs more famous black Americans because Americans won’t watch it; and without America, it is too niche. Luckily, France won the World Cup, and the issue of minorities existing in the country is not something I have to explain as much. Fortunately, we have attracted two solid executive producers to the project. They love the genre and understand its intersection with the political landscape in Europe, using France as a microcosm. So now we are fully locked in post-production, animation and working out the release strategy.
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
Having to take a story that is very French and needs to be French, but having to water it down to suit what gatekeepers think Americans want to/would watch.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
Going into production without raising funding first because I did not think it was fundable without people first seeing it. Most are still quite shocked when they hear some of the interviews in the film, learning that these issues even exist in France, which is just next door to London.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
One producer getting a cancer diagnosis, and me needing surgery. It was the reminder we all needed that life is a gift, and everything else pales in comparison without health. From that moment on, no one needed to tell us to take it slow and not stress ourselves out over minor hurdles that used to seem big.
How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
It is a film about racial history. It is a film about hip-hop, but it is in the context of racial identity in France and the two-tiered blackness that prevails, which means that most African Americans see France as the place where equality prevails (it is the promise of the constitution). But the reality, if you are African/Caribbean, it is different, as being from a former colony gives you a different ranking. It is a glimpse into a rarely seen world.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it’s made?
I hope it is launched at a major film festival, possibly a limited theatrical release in France and UK, and an SVOD platform, so that it is accessible.
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 occasionally think that in law I would get paid a generous amount to be stressed. But I would not have it any other way. I launched a tech startup with actor Gbenga Akinnagbe that is funded by Creative Europe which should help us and other indies use data to navigate the naysayers. My challenge is being able to demonstrate/reach the black (non–African American) audience in other parts of the world. The reality is that that audience remains under-served and unmapped. So until we build that infrastructure from scratch, there is pressure to either adapt and cast/skew African American or be branded niche /art house. (getcues.net)
Do you have a support system?
Alcohol and Real Housewives of Potomac, Atlanta, Married to Medicine. I am the only one in my family/close circle of friends in the arts; others are in more traditional white collar roles so, if anything, they probably feel sorry for me at losing all that legal potential. But I have my “film friends” who empathize, so it never really feels alone. And organisations like Women In Film & TV, as well as Creative Scotland are largely supportive.
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?
It’s a love/hate relationship. It gets tiring, but I know I need to use it. I have my moments when I am on it every day, then weeks when I just cannot be bothered. But because of the tech startup, I now need to post content regularly so… Some decision makers do look at “social currency,” but that can also work against you, if your opinion is too different from what is expected of you.
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 success of specifically black women filmmakers like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, etc.?
I am happy for them that they can push through with what they want to do. I loved Pariah, so it was great to see Dee Rees make another film that got a lot more attention because she is an amazing filmmaker. But the boost is really on stories that skew for African American audiences primarily. So a lot of UK talent (non-actors) are now going to America. I want to tell stories that reflect the West African/European diaspora existence and do so without feeling under pressure to cast Will Smith as a Nigerian. That is still a long way away. My greatest inspiration in cinema is still Euzhan Palcy.
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?
The U.S. has a sizable enough black population and a black media that can be used as a route to the audience. Europe does not. There is also a language barrier, so even though the black French and black British have a lot more in common, both look to America across the ocean instead of across the fence.
For the UK, diversity or “voice” is still a perception and curated by people with a strong view on what our voices should be. Notably, the schemes in the UK support writers and directors, but not producers. And I think that is a mistake, as people from diverse backgrounds spearheading content creation will naturally result in diverse output. So you are constantly having to “educate” or “argue” with producers who — with the best of intentions, jumping on the diversity bandwagon — have a radically different perception of the stories or how they should be told. For the UK, specifically, I fear we could sleepwalk into a situation where diversity is more of an aesthetics thing; different people looking different but maintaining the status quo. We are still a long away from diverse perspectives. And without developing producers from diverse backgrounds, I don’t see things changing much.
Any desire or plans to move to the USA, to pursue your filmmaker dreams?
I love American TV, so I would love to do so at some point. I would love U.S. distribution for my films, but without the pressure to cast Forest Whitaker as Desmond Tutu. Non-U.S. black filmmaker dreams do not thrive in Hollywood… yet.
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 am keen to see more day-and-date releases, and I think VOD would play a huge part in that. In the UK, there is still a distinction between cinema and TV, theatrical and non-theatrical releases, so I feel compelled to push for the traditional route. Our primary film financier is the government, so to go against the grain completely is to make life a lot harder. The private sector takes it leads from who the BFI, BBC, FILM4 or regional agencies support, as it means costs are subsidized. So, until the public bodies change their view on “new media,” there is a bit of a tier system developing. I think. Ken Loach launching on Netflix will be parlayed as a victory for Netflix. Unknown indie going directly to Netflix will still be “emerging.”
What do you know today that you wish you knew, when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
What a producer does.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Story first then great technical execution, image, performance and sound. I have yet to develop a taste for brilliant visuals with little story.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Cinema was my babysitter, and, as an only child, my best friend. I was recreating films from 8 years old, from Sound of Music to Goldfinger. I have a collection of films I really like. There are few filmmakers whose body of work appeals. I love Thelma and Louise, but I cannot really say any other film by Ridley Scott was as impactful on me. Billy Wilder, Woody Allen (whisper), Jason Reitman, Tom McCarthy, Pierre Salvadori are some of my favorites, but that is probably because they are writer-directors.
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 kinds of characters, for example?
Nope. Your responsibility is to tell the story you want to tell; but cinema, like any art form, has a different meaning to different people. For some, it is activism; for others, it is entertainment; and still, others see it as just a job. Be authentic to yourself.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have if you could have it. What does success look like for you?
Making at least one feature a year – either documentary or fiction – plus writing a novel somewhere in between. Basically, tell stories.
Where can we watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
You can see my work on the documentary streaming site Afridocs.
My website is www.polkadotfactory.studio; email: email@example.com; Twitter and Instagram: @thesheeo.