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 Thembi Banks. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project to the world.
I worked in marketing before moving to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California (USC)’s MFA program in film and TV production. I attended a performing arts high school, so art and entertainment have always been a huge focus for me. I was an NBC page in New York and then began working in integrated marketing at MTV and eventually Essence, all the while shooting and writing things with my friends. It became clear to me that storytelling was my passion and that I had to find a way to do what I loved. So I decided to go back to school and move to LA. One of the hardest, yet best, decisions I’ve ever made.
The title of my feature film is Suitable. Logline: Brandy is a tomboy who just moved to a more conservative school where her non-traditional appearance makes her an outsider. When some students place her name on the ballot for prom queen as a joke, she decides to put her hat in the ring, shake things up and piss everyone off. However, things do not go as anyone suspects, and Brandy learns some important lessons about identity, love and friendship.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
The writer and I are preparing a pitch and plan on going out with it and our producer to a few studios and production companies.
When did this specific journey begin?
Last year, I sold a pitch to a major studio to co-write a film. It was to be produced by a well-known rising star in the TV world. The deal fell through, but the producer was still very much interested in figuring out a project on which my co-writer and I could work with her. We pitched her three film ideas, including the feature version of the short we made. We got an email a few days before Christmas telling us she wanted to produce the feature version of the short.
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 attached as the director only, but I’ll do a pass on the script at some point as I did with the short version. I’ll be involved in the development process, from the pitch and script phase. Having worn many hats in the indie space, I’ve learned it’s difficult to just concentrate on one thing. Directing is such an intense, comprehensive process. There’s no way around that.
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?
I truly value mentorship. It has already helped me a great deal, and I don’t take advice, guidance and the chance to observe for granted. Being able to shadow as much as I can leading up to production, ask questions on prep, etc., is what I feel will help prepare me the most for my first feature. My mentor, Millicent Shelton, has been a tremendous help already. Her level of preparation is insane, and her confidence on set is inspiring.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I’m definitely worried about how the story will be perceived in the marketplace. Coming-of-age stories about black women and black youth in general are somewhat uncharted territory. But that’s also very exciting. I believe this is an amazing time for black women creatives in this industry, so I’m confident that the support for me as a first-time director will be there. I’m both anxious and proud the story we’re telling is so fresh, nuanced and specific to a certain black experience.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
In general, I’d say this year I’m learning how to pick my battles, how to let go and how to be a better communicator. There are so many personalities, sensitivities and political situations to navigate in this business both on and off set, and I am learning that talent is only one part of what establishes you as a director and creative force.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Having the short do so well on the festival circuit brought many opportunities to interface with fans and champions of the film. There is a bit of pressure I feel to create a feature that lives up to or surpasses the success and impact of it. Thinking of ways to build on the visual and story elements of the film is something I grapple with even at this early stage. I want to make decisions that elevate the film.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree?
I definitely agree that there is nothing new under the sun. However, I think ideas in the right hands, shaped by fearless creators with limitless imaginations, can make anything feel unique, special and new. I also think that when considering black art, there are many stories that haven’t been told at all or very much. However, even given that fact, there is still worry that sometimes black films can be compared to similar white stories. In our case, there is a concern that folks will compare our film to Lady Bird. I’m not so concerned with that because I believe the story is different enough, and the world and characters will be realized through “the black gaze.” The way this project will be photographed, the pacing, the look and feel and even the sound will stand out and hopefully feel so different and fresh that audiences will focus on the power of the beauty of the characters and not how much our story may resemble another narrative.
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?
In general, I want to make independent films that are commercially viable, so I hope this film fits in the category of others that would be characterized similarly. The subject matter (sexuality, sexual representation, gender, identity and identity politics), I believe, lends the project to being received as a topical film. I hope to address these issues as they pertain to black women and men in an artistic and powerful way for the film to serve as a conversation on the issues while also being a stunning and skillful visual representation of my voice and vision as a filmmaker. In short, I’d love for the film to be a fresh, well-received piece in the lexicon of “new black cinema.”
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?
I faced a huge amount of rejection during my short time in this industry. From not getting into fellowships and high-profile programs to being told my work isn’t ready or good enough. In fact, this industry is the first time in my life I’ve faced this amount of rejection. I’ve usually been able to achieve anything I’ve worked hard toward or set as a goal. It has been a huge, conscious effort to maintain and build my confidence while still forging ahead. It is a daily battle. However, the small and significant wins, words of encouragement and notion of just needing one “yes” or one ally keeps me going.
Do you have a support system? 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 an amazing group of friends, who are mostly all filmmakers, who keep me encouraged and motivated. We are a group of mostly black writers and directors that I believe are some of the smartest and most talented people in this town. Many haven’t had their big breaks or are on the verge of them, and some are even in the middle of it. We are also grounded, humble and observant of the culture of filmmaking and black artists. We see how some of the veterans and more experienced folks in this industry move and are able to make different choices in how we want to uplift and support one another.
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 have a pretty strong online presence. I co-host a film review show with another USC grad and filmmaker, and I try to engage with folks online. I’ve learned from watching others how the perception of doing well, being active in the industry and touting your accomplishments (humbly) can lead to other opportunities. Creating a visible presence as a filmmaker is important, and although it can feel silly, annoying and not pertinent to the overarching goal of filmmaking, there is a place for it in today’s landscape should you have the stomach to participate.
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 don’t know if inspired is the right word. I think film trends are interesting to follow, but I can’t help but feel bothered by the fact that black cinema is a part of what some deem a “movement.” Black film is a constant for those who receive and consume it as a cultural and artistic anchor of visual art. I think Hollywood will create a narrative that positively promotes and cheers black film as long as the financial gain is clear and undeniable. Money is the driving force unfortunately… and fortunately. As long as we’re making money, we are heralded as the great new wave and force in entertainment, which is annoying. At the very least, commercial viability shouldn’t be the biggest qualifier for access and recognition in this industry, but it is. I am extremely encouraged and inspired by folks like Dee Rees, Ryan Coogler and Ava DuVernay. They have managed to tell beautiful, authentic stories that in one way or another have reached a “universal” audience. They’ve proven what we knew all along: centering black folks in films doesn’t narrow its scope. In fact, providing a different (black) perspective to a universally themed narrative only makes that film more interesting, layered and complex — all things I think most Hollywood execs would say are a plus.
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 think initiatives like inclusion riders are a very encouraging first step into creating a more diverse and fair industry. I believe new voices, especially women and people of color, have a moment to capitalize off of and create art that is seen and promoted in a way it hasn’t been before. However, like many industries, there is a bait-and-switch dynamic where initiatives are proposed, and then other less marginalized groups are the ones who benefit from it. I hope that inclusion riders actually benefit people of color, the LGTBQIA community, directors with disabilities, etc. and not just folks who are left-handed or have other arbitrary “differences” that executives can claim, so they are able to check a box.
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?
Most filmmakers want that moment of watching your masterpiece play to a silent audience, in a theatre, on the big screen. However, online streaming platforms are taking more chances and allowing bold new voices an opportunity that most traditional studios cannot or will not. There is something exciting about their presence and how they stand to change the filmmaking and viewing experience in the next few years. I think the biggest challenge is having them create the environment for newcomer filmmakers to actually be seen and celebrated on a wide scale. That is the biggest drawback because there haven’t been many streaming films with an ability to reach mass audiences as of yet. Once that has been figured out, I think new filmmakers will feel even more comfortable making their debuts on these platforms with the expectation that their films will be a launchpad into becoming visible, respected and celebrated.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Patience is a virtue. Film is one of the slowest grinds known to man. LOL! I believe every missed opportunity and rejection that happened early in my career was a blessing. I look back on things I’ve written or done even a year ago and can see the growth in my work. I’m glad some things didn’t work out when I so desperately wanted them to back then.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Skill, vision and voice.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
I love Dee Rees and Gina Prince Bythewood. They are masters of their craft and make decisions based on their personal truth and need to express themselves as artists. I appreciate that purity and deliberate approach. Their skill and craftsmanship stands out, and I can only hope to have the wealth of knowledge and ability to execute at such a high level as they possess. Spike Lee, David Fincher and Steven Spielberg are also heroes of mine for various reasons.
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?
I absolutely believe in creating stories that matter. Whether that is in the genre of comedy, drama, sci-fi, etc., I can’t tell a story without saying something meaningful and contextualizing it around characters and worlds that are important to me. My responsibility as a storyteller is to create a portfolio of work that adds to the cinematic landscape and enriches it with visuals and narratives of the diaspora. Specifically, the women of color whose lives have been so ignored, that their mere existence in cinema feels foreign, exotic or too specific. It’s my responsibility to create a normalized space for us to exist in cinema, thus, hopefully demystifying who we are and our existence in real life.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
First and foremost, being happy and satisfied with my accomplishments regardless of awards or accolades. That kind of peace and self-assurance is hard to come by even with the greats and veterans in this industry. I find it funny when I hear stories of people I consider my heroes being depressed or disappointed with not winning an award. I don’t want to create a moving target for what I deem success is. I would love to work in both TV and film, writing and creating shows then directing during the hiatus.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
My website is thembibanks.com.