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 Los Angeles-based actress, director and entrepreneur Tanya Wright. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your feature project.
I play the role of Crystal Burset on Orange Is the New Black and worked for seven seasons as Deputy Kenya Jones on HBO’s True Blood. I’ll also appear in the upcoming season of a network television show, but I can’t say too much right now.
My mom was 15 years old when she had me, and I spent most of my time as a Grade A introvert with a wildly overactive imagination. We couldn’t afford a Christmas tree in the 5th grade, so I created a story about having the best Christmas tree ever and won a contest where I got a medal for “Best Writer”!
Writing was a retreat for me. I could put pen to paper and create worlds of any kind, type and variety I wanted. I got reprimanded by my grandmother a lot for daydreaming. A few years after that, I was cast as a birch tree in a play called The Little Birch Tree in school. I had no lines—just had to stand on stage for 45 minutes while people danced around me and talked about me. Then in college, I started reading literature by transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau (I did my thesis on him). They validated my thoughts about the world, which gave me the confidence to explore my voice.
I was an actor and a writer—already a storyteller. Filmmaking was an organic next step, though I resisted it at first. As an actor, you watch what directors go through: the number of people coming to you for answers, notes from a studio/network. Blerk! Directing never appealed to me. Every time I approached a director about Butterfly Rising, somehow it always fell through. Finally, a friend who knows me well told me that I should direct it. After calling him every name in the book, I went home, and in the quiet of my mind, the message was clear, and the writing was on the wall—yes, I had to direct Butterfly Rising; there was no one else to do it. I took a deep breath and went all in.
I like to say I directed this very personal movie because if I gave it to someone else and they f**ked it up, I would kill them and I would be in jail. Of everything I have ever done in my life, Butterfly Rising remains my proudest all-around creative achievement, but, I will tell you though, I am not one of those actors who’s like “what I really want to do is direct.” I like acting, and I like writing. I like to do things and MOVE ON. With directing, you have to live ACTIVELY and PHYSICALLY with the film for a long, long time. I feel quite fulfilled as an actor and a writer. That’s more than enough. But it might have more to do with the way the story came upon me and the grueling process of getting it done that has darkened my view on directing.
My dear friend Warrington Hudlin (and a real champion for the independent filmmaker) loves Butterfly Rising—he had a screening of it at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City where he sits on the board. It was great! A packed house and a great audience with vibrant questions. Several other screenings happened as a result of that one. Warrington has told me I need to direct other films, but Butterfly Rising took so much out of me that the thought is overwhelming. Maybe if I had more money and more people, I would be more open to it. It would be easier to make the next one. We will see how life shakes down.
Butterfly Rising is the story of two unlikely women—the town seductress (black) and a grief-stricken singer who doesn’t sing (white) who steal a vintage truck and set out on the open road to meet a mythical medicine man named Lazarus of the Butterflies. The story was motivated by the shooting death of my younger brother by police. People urged me to make a movie about how the police are killing African-American men, but it wasn’t the movie I wanted to make (I still have not seen Fruitvale Station—I think it would be too much for me— but I HAVE SEEN THE GLORIOUS BLACK PANTHER!!!!! GO RYAN!!!).
I was enchanted with butterflies when my brother died (actually, obsessed with them); plus, the story of Mary and Martha from the Bible gave me enormous hope that I would see my brother again. The two characters in Butterfly Rising (Rose and Lilah) are not literal sisters; they are metaphorical sisters—women who love each other deeply. I set out to write a story about faith, love and forgiveness, and I believe I achieved that. I wrote the script in eight days. Now, I would not recommend anyone do that. It is unhealthy (no food, little sleep or contact with the outside world). When I finished the last scene, I put it down for a few months, not really knowing what I wrote or if it was even coherent. I wrote the movie in an altered state (no, I don’t do drugs; don’t even drink), a state of deep grief. It was a very “watery” time in my life; that’s all I can say about it. My perception was heightened, but, at the same time, I don’t recall a lot of that period of my life. I haven’t been the same since. Once something like that happens, I don’t think you ever go back to the way things were. Life gets excruciatingly simple (mine was already quite simple; I like it that way because my professional life is pretty crazy), and things that really matter come to bear in a very apparent, crystallized way. There are only a few things that matter. And that’s all there is.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
The movie is complete, but it is not yet distributed. I would like to screen it at grief centers, women’s institutions, etc. I want the movie to WORK; it has to be a film that works to help people in their lives. I want to tour the film — touring lends itself well to the movie, especially since it’s a road trip movie. There was so much more story to tell about Rose and Lilah (my two characters) that I wrote the novel, Butterfly Rising. The book chronicles their lives from childhood to their death (they are together) while the movie focuses specifically on one aspect of their lives. I could make two more movies from the material I have. I screen the movie now on request at various places (it will screen at a museum in Miami soon). I never felt like the timing or circumstance was right to… I can’t explain it. I read somewhere that sometimes “the sailboat has to wait for the wind.” That’s true. I believe the time for the movie is upon me now. It is very, very difficult to do so many things. I recently read a great book called “Essentialism” that has helped me a lot. A lot, a lot! I have started and finished many things but, with Butterfly Rising…. you know what, Tambay? Honestly? I just don’t know how to do it. I don’t know where to start. It probably stems from the way it all came down on me, my brother’s death and the story, the butterflies and the Bible. But I’m ready to find my way with it all. The butterfly has got to fly…
When did this specific journey begin?
I was talking to an investor about doing a slate of movies (I have several screenplays, TV pilots and the like I have been writing quietly over the years). The investor was dragging his feet, and finally, I had enough of him, and I started to the door. I was over it and told him I was going to make my movies without him. But just when I put my hand on the doorknob, he told me that he would give me $50,000. I was stunned! I truly had no idea how I was going to make the movies, but I am a scrappy girl from the Bronx, and I knew I would get it done—how was another story. I am a pretty determined person (I’m told Taureans can be this way), and I don’t stop. It might take me a while to get there, but I will get there. I spent six weeks looking at that $50,000, planning how I would use it. When you have $50,000 to make a movie, there’s a lot of things you CAN’T DO, LOL. I knew I had a strong script, so I had to focus on actors who could deliver in one or two takes (we had 21 days to shoot almost 110 pages) and on the cinematography. A few weeks ahead of production, my investor asked to see the plan with the money he gave me—then, he gave me another $50,000. It went on this way—through production and post—until I eventually got the full budget for the movie. I am an actor who has lived off rice and beans, so let’s just say I understand FULLY the art and science of frugality. LOL. It is a real balancing act!
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 wrote, directed, produced and starred in the movie. I also served as the casting director (fortunately, I was able to dive into the wellspring of my super talented friends here), locations manager; you name it. I have a very healthy respect for the editor in the process of filmmaking—I had a great one. When you are wearing as many hats as I was, the truth is THERE IS NO BALANCE. The drive to make this film was unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. All pistons were firing—it was a healing of sorts, with the mission to help others heal, as well. And to be inspired at what can be done with grief. I am getting better at self-care though, making sure I do the things I need to do for myself, taking the time I need; slowing down (I can be very impatient). The importance of exercise cannot be underestimated, not so much for the body, but for the mind. And I have gotten much better at saying NO. It makes things easier in that it helps me focus in on the things I really want to do.
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 need a team: an industrious, hardworking, kind, think-outside-the-box-and-get-it-done team. With a bullhorn. I think with a skilled team, Butterfly can fly and get to her destination quicker, better and stronger, and have others experience her and help more people. A strong tribe of dedicated folks working toward the same aim is like putting gasoline and wind on a fire. I like raging fires LOL! I am getting out into the world more, meeting people. I lived in Los Angeles for a time, went back to New York for five years and just recently came back to Los Angeles. I call this period “Los Angeles, 2.0.”
I also need money. I want to get my investor his money back—he loves the film, but he has since moved on to other things and has little faith in the movie business. And I would like to have some money for myself. I didn’t make this movie to have it shelved somewhere but to be seen and experienced. I have an out-of-the-box way to recoup that would include leveraging some of my existing retail relationships. Executing the plan atop all the other things I do is a lot; as a result, things take longer. I have recently found a tribe of high-achieving, hyper-creative types who seem to be, how do I say it—having “glitches” channeling their creative energy in one powerful direction. I feel like, when channeled properly, it looks like, say, Shonda Rhimes. She’s created many shows—all very different—but she’s a high-achieving, hyper-creative who has MASTERED her output and direction. We are all working on that, mastering the direction of our creativity so that it comes to the end we want, whatever that is. We talk alike, think alike and articulate in much the same ways. We see the world similarly. I’m not sure that physically “working harder” is my issue. I’m probably the most “unlazy” (new word alert!) person you’ll ever meet. No. It’s something more subtle, quieter. I suspect it has to do with more BEING and less DOING. I am listening now and seeing things fall into place.
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
HOW WILL I GET IT ALL DONE? I also have a thriving hair care company called HAIRiette that keeps me very busy. There are several other projects I’ve written (I was a Nicholl Fellowship semi-finalist, and a play-writing fellow at the Mark Taper lab). Oh yeah, I may have mentioned I am an actress! That is probably the nucleus from which all these things come from. People assume I have some big machine behind me, and, honestly, I don’t. I don’t even have an agent. I asked my agent if they could help with my feature, and they told me it wasn’t part of their business model. It seemed to me pretty shortsighted—I tell you, if I had an actor who had somehow written, directed, produced and starred in her film and, having no experience at all in the beauty industry, managed to launch at Whole Foods (expanding from one store to nine in a year), gotten herself into retail outlets in the Northeast, had scripts and other projects ready for sale, I would at least take a look! Companies that don’t innovate and mine talent from within, eventually die—I can give you a list a mile high of companies who met their demise because they didn’t mine the talent they had in-house. I felt stifled. They just didn’t know what to do with me and didn’t seem interested enough to think about it. So I left. I have no agent in Los Angeles but, somehow, I still get calls for things all the time—I just got back from New York shooting a TV show, and I’m on hold for a project now. I haven’t been out looking for representation because I’ve been too busy working, to be very frank.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
About 17 days into our 21-day shoot for Butterfly Rising, I had to fire my key grip—we were renting all his lights and equipment so, as you can imagine, it was hairy. But I had to do it—he was a cancer that needed to go. Not sure if he had problems with me being a director (because I am black, a woman, etc.), but honestly, I just didn’t give a s**t. I knew if he stayed one more day, the whole thing would topple. I fired him, shut down production for a day, drove six hours to get lights (we shot the film in a small Mississippi town), and we resumed without a hitch. I had a great cast and crew who backed me, and, if it weren’t for them, I couldn’t have done it.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
I am a bit of a lone wolf. You can’t make movies and have them seen and be a lone wolf. That is fine as a writer—it’s also not so bad as an actor—but as a filmmaker, it just doesn’t work. Although I have been on just about every popular, critically acclaimed TV show of the last few decades as an actor, I know NOTHING about distributing a film. I need a team of people who know things that I don’t know, and I am finding them, slowly…
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?
It’s a little movie about very big things. A beautiful one. If the only movie I ever make is Butterfly Rising, I would be satisfied. It says all I ever need and want to say about this life and the way I think we should live it. That’s what I can say.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it’s made?
The trajectory of Moonlight was inspiring to me— when I saw that film, I realized there could be a real place for mine. They are very different movies, but tonally, there is something in the way he (Barry Jenkins) communicates and sees the world… I’m not angling for an Academy Award, but I would like to have the film seen and experienced, at the very least, on both coasts theatrically. Then there’s television (a natural fit for me since that is where I have lived for most of my creative life as an actor). International. I think there’s a life for the film in an educational setting, thus the requests for museum screenings (it also screened at the Schomburg Center for Black Culture and Research).
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?
As an actor, there have been COUNTLESS roles I have auditioned for and didn’t get and wanted very much. I have never been a person who stews for long. I mean, do I get disappointed, sure! I let myself have a moment, then I pick myself up and move on. You HAVE to do that to survive—some have this trait naturally, and others have to cultivate it, but there’s just no way to survive in this business—or THRIVE in life—without it. Persistence and drive. Discipline and consistency.
Do you have a support system?
I have a deeply rich and profound spiritual life. It is my source, and I draw on it like a well in all of my creative endeavors, whether it’s writing, acting or even being an entrepreneur.
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 something I can stand to get better at. I’m having issues just writing this blog post, to be frank. Thinking twice about whether I should say this or that. But I really do stand behind all of it.
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.?
Yeah, baby! I love it; I love it all! I am a huge fan of both Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees. I was one of the first waves of folks who saw Selma in an early screening and tweeted about how great it was. I don’t know if it’s so much as a renaissance, as it is that voices are being amplified NOW. I’d love to have a conversation with Ryan Coogler about the spiritual aspects of Black Panther.
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?
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 have content for every network you mentioned above. Romantic comedies, dramas, farcical stories. Scripted, non-scripted, animated. I am pretty prolific and have quietly amassed a large amount of material. In addition to all the hustle that goes into getting something done, it helps to make a joyful noise about what you’re doing and what you’d like to do. I wish I had a bullhorn to help me do that. I have to grease my wheel more times than I’d like.
Key lessons learned so far? Also, what do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Build a team! Have a plan for AFTER the film is done BEFORE you shoot. Also, make sure you have enough resources! There’s merit in being scrappy, but there’s also merit in being properly funded. Partner with people who are better than me in the ways that I’m not.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
If I’m still thinking about it days later, or if it changed my mind on an issue. As an artist, I am obsessed with learning WHY people do the things they do. It creates compassion, empathy and understanding and unites us more than just about anything else. I love lots of films, too many to list here. The ones that can do that for me have my heart.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
People who are using technology to tell their stories are inspiring. He was not a filmmaker, but I am obsessed with the late Steve Jobs.
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?
Black people are just as textured, varied and unique as any other group of people on the planet. We come in all types. An artist’s job—by his/her very nature—is to educate and inspire, cajole and interrogate. It’s crazy to hear people say “you’re an actor; you should just act and not get into political concerns.” I think people are confused by the red carpets and the Hollywood ooh-la-la of it all, but ACTORS ARE ARTISTS! And artists have ALWAYS been on the front lines of social change. ALL. WAYS. It’s our job. Now, there are many, many ways to do that—sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle. I feel uncomfortable with the term give “back” as if somehow I have advanced or I’m “beyond” something or someone else. If it’s about replenishment, then I’m here for it. I think one gives because our chief purpose is to help others—why that is, I have no idea, but I believe this to be true. We all have a need that is met by someone else whether we know it or even acknowledge it. NO HUMAN ESCAPES THIS REAL FACT. I think when you embrace this truth, it can’t make you feel anything but humble.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
It looks like making sure I realize my full potential before I leave the planet. I want to continue to act on film and television in more substantive roles—most immediately, the lead in a drama series; scale my hair care company, HAIRiette.com, and create film and TV shows for myself and others. I see a deep, rich and full life for myself with a unique group of other visionaries whose goal and mission is to do well by doing good. We work well and happy together—all with special and unique talents that are integral to the whole— and we trust each other. It’s a dash of Jessica Alba (Honest Company!), Denzel Washington and a mighty helping of the indomitable Oprah Winfrey (LOVE!). I am interested in IMPACT and creating—and being a part of—deeply resonant communities. I envision an easier life for me as a creative while focusing on the things I know how to do best, to serve the greater whole. I want to create while I live on a farm and grow my food. Well, maybe not growing it myself (I am trying to do fewer things, lol). I wrote a piece for Viola Davis and myself that I would like to see realized fully, and I also wrote a project I think would be great for Morgan Freeman’s company. I want to have an overall deal with a network/studio where I am creating, writing, acting and producing. I have worked on just about every network as an actor, and I must tell you, I feel I have been a good student over the years, soaking up all kinds of information. I’d like to take what I’ve learned, what I know and all my material to create a thriving, bustling and prolific production company with a secret concept which I can’t divulge. It’s been in my mind a long, long time. I am profoundly inspired by the force that is Queen Latifah. We did a project years ago called Mama Flora’s Family–a period piece where she played my daughter–for CBS, and I’d love to work with her and Flavor Unit.
Where can we watch your past work, if available?
All of my acting work (which I mentioned in my introduction) is out there, on all the major platforms. As an entrepreneur, Hairiette.com and my hair products are also on Amazon! I’ve got some great hair products: a curl creme, oil blend and co-wash, with more products to come. I also wrote a book called I Found God in My Hair: 98 Spiritual Principles I Learned from my relationship with my hair that is a part of the brand. I made a musical to the book—yes, there is an I Found God in My Hair musical. It’s in my computer. It’s fun!
First: I’d like to say THANK YOU Tambay for the insightful and generous inquiry and for reaching out to black female filmmakers! I hadn’t thought about a lot of the important questions you asked in this piece, and writing them down made a lot of things plain in my mind. Shadow and Act has been kind to me over the years, and I am very grateful. This inquiry—and your invitation to be a part of it— has made me realize that this “Lone Wolf” has never really, truly been alone.
Watch a trailer for Butterfly Rising: