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.
New York City-based filmmaker Cathleen Campbell kicked off our series on Wednesday, July 11, followed by Los Angeles-based filmmaker Martine Jean on July 12. Continuing the series today is another Los Angeles-based filmmaker, Numa Perrier, whose profile follows below.
Introduce yourself to the world.
I am an actress, filmmaker, visual artist. I co-created the platform Black&Sexy TV and was a lead influence as a creative on many of the popular digital series there between 2009-2017. I'm currently focused on House of Numa, my art house production company which is launching my first feature, Jezebel, with more projects in the works.
Making films was a natural extension of my artistic expression from acting and working in theatre and being a self-taught photographer; it was a natural merge to move into actual moving images. I've been learning as I go, creating my signature which straddles the film and art worlds.
My feature film is titled Jezebel, a bizarre, sexual, coming-of-age story about two sisters. The older (a phone sex operator) grooms the younger one to become one of the first black webcam girls in the '90s. A true story based on my relationship with my sister, who is also an executive producer on the project and financed a good portion of the film.
We are currently in post-production.
When did this specific journey begin?
I wrote the first 15 pages about eight years ago and just sat on it. I didn't think anyone would care about this story. When Tribeca Film Institute asked for referrals for their new program "Through Her Lens," my agent, Peter Dodd at UTA, referred me, and I sent in those 15 pages. They really took to the story and selected me out of about 300 referred industry submissions. I pushed through and wrote the rest of the feature and filmed it. It all moved very fast once I finally committed to it.
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 the writer, director, and I play a supporting role (I play my older sister). I did all of the casting, wardrobe and production design. I've been used to wearing these many hats since my very first short film, and I don't have a problem switching in and out of them. This is because the team around me is very strong, and we all collaborate very well together. It is the choosing of the team that really saves you.
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?
Where I need the most help is with money. Filmmakers need money without questions asked. Without a lot of red tape and bogus pitching contests. We need benefactors who believe in us as artists and are willing to fork up cash and let us create and explore our stories. I have some people like this at different levels, and I seek to be one for others. I am now turning to post-production grants to get through the finish line and continuing to ask other producers and financiers to come on board. It's a lot of "no's" or no response, but you have to keep going anyhow. I've learned to ask for and accept help and explore all of my resources. No one wants anything until someone else wants it, so you can't let the rejection get you down for too long. Everyone is going through it. I'm still finding my way.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
They call it a feature because it's a FEAT. After all of the content I've created and been responsible for, I thought this would be a breeze, in a way. I was wrong! It's its own beast and deserves its respect.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
Juggling my money and not being able to pay people exactly when I thought I would is VERY TOUGH. This is a reality of the indie filmmaker. Asking people to wait just a little longer when things fall through is humiliating. Some of your risks don't pay off right away, and you have to navigate that.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
There's a lot of anxiety seeing the first assembly of your film. I was convinced that I had a hot mess of very strange scenes at first and hyperventilated. But that's part of the process until you breathe and write out your notes and carve -- do the surgery. Editing is creative surgery. I LOVE the editing bay. But that first assembly is a challenge because you are feeling around in the dark, and doubt creeps into those dark spaces.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree?
I disagree. We all have unique stories. However, are we brave enough to tell them in their most raw and honest fashion? It's a lack of honesty that makes things seem redundant.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it's made?
Jezebel is an "odd bird" story. The family is odd. The situation is odd. It's kinky. It has rough edges; it is not slick. But it's me. It's quite a way of confronting yourself. It definitely falls into the art house category, yet it's a linear story. I want the world to see it. An art-house release theatrically as well as museum screenings followed by strong streaming distribution feels correct.
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've felt discouraged, distressed and depressed. I have great friends that get me through. Some days I stay in bed. Then I have to get back up and go at it again. It's a cycle. They are my support system. Great friends who have my back, other filmmakers who bemoan and also celebrate with me. Non-physical support - guardian angels. I have fans of my work who reach out randomly, and that also sustains me. I appreciate every single person who is cheering me on and even those who don't because they fuel me, too.
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?
Social media is WAKANDA! It's how our culture connects without interference. It is VITAL. Before it, none of us knew each other. None of us could ever connect so broadly. IT IS VITAL FOR BLACK AND BROWN FOLKS. Get into it.
Tiffany Tenille in Jezebel
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 encouraged by their success, and I try to learn something from all of them. I came up with most of them, so that makes me feel like my time is right around the corner, but it also makes me feel pressure sometimes. I think I really have my own lane, and all of it reminds me of many circumstances where I felt like I didn't belong -- just on the fringe of the popular kids, ya know? But I also know that many of them felt that way, too, and I take a breath, focus and get back to work. Without the work, you have nothing. And all of them have my respect for doing the work despite how they felt day to day.
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 yourself?
I love that the tide is shifting. We do need to concretize some things, though. Like inclusion riders should be very specific. Film festivals that boast a 50/50 split between films made by male and female filmmaker, but the 50 percent that is female comprises of mostly white women? That's not cutting it. Narrow inclusion is not inclusion.
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 love the streaming platforms; they are a dream come true. They need to continue to nourish and uplift new voices, though; otherwise they are no better than the "traditional" studios. At Black&Sexy, we nourished and uplifted so very many new voices who are series leads and major stars now both in front of and behind the camera. Not just a few. MANY. These larger platforms should do the same. Some are. I really hope they remain progressive.
What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Gosh, I wish I knew how freaking expensive insurance is! That almost stopped my shoot. I have so much to learn still. That part is exciting, but some lessons come at ya fast.
What makes a film great for you? Do you look for any particular qualities?
I love a stripped down and raw film. I also love a big blockbuster. But, no matter what, I want to see and feel honesty in the performances; I want some humor even in the darkest situations, and I want something fresh.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Oooh, there's a lot of work that really stays with me. Spike Jonez's Her and David Lowery's Ghost Story are two more recent films that I loved, and I would love to make a film that touched people in that way. Some filmmakers and films that are classic to me are Agnes Varda (Cleo from 5 to 7), Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust and her early short film work), Fellini (La Strada), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), and I can't wait for Misha Green to make a film.
They all bring sensuality to the work and never force anything. I would love to see new work from all of them, although I will have to be satisfied with what Fellini left us. Also, I love John Cassavetes (Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, Opening Night, etc.) and Lars von Trier (Breaking the Waves, Dogville); not von Trier's behavior, but his work yes. Ugh! I hate that so many of these men are trash, making me conflicted about their work. I digress...
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?
The responsibility is to keep raising the bar. The responsibility is to reject respectability politics and get into who we really are as a people. The responsibility is not to placate. Yes, we are responsible, and we must be very vigilant.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
Acting in films and directing films that make my heart beat fast, that put a chill down my spine, that get me lost in a fantasy or a reality. Films that reach a whole lot of people all over the world and impinge. That's success to me. Being highly-called upon, highly-paid and highly-celebrated. It all matters to me! Being in a position to help others do the same is also success.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available?
Houseofnuma.com has my journals, links to my short films and info on my first feature, Jezebel.
Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
Thank you for caring and taking the time to ask about our process. I want to see all of us making our films, and I'm going to launch a funding program for first-time black women feature filmmakers as soon as I can! I've been thinking about this, and we really need this. A cool six figures to make our first features. That's a program I would have loved to have had access to, so I guess I will have to create it. And I will. Thank you, Tambay, as usual, for amplifying us!!!