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 London-based Clare Anyiam-Osigwe. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
I graduated with a joint bachelor’s in drama, film and TV in 2006. I worked as a makeup artist evenings and weekends while studying throughout my college and university years. I got a few bit parts on TV, for example, the “black nurse” on Comedy Central, with no lines in the script. The future looked bleak, so I left the acting and directing world to pursue a career in beauty. I opened my own brand, PremaeUK, in 2011 and became a royally honored dermatologist. In October 2017, after a conversation with a friend about dating in the black community and her trials and tribulations, I wrote a short film script and developed it into feature-length over six weeks. I directed the film, which was released in June 2018 in London. I feel like I have returned to my craft, older, wiser and less obsessed with fame but more concerned with using art to educate people on topical subjects, like colorism demonstrated in my debut feature No Shade.
The film is about a successful black woman named Jade and the love she has for her best friend, Danny. They are closer than close, but he won’t go that step further because he feels that she is too dark-skinned for him. Through the film, we learn about the origins of his beliefs while the story interweaves themes of self-love, the fetishism of fair skin and the sanctity of marriage.
When did this specific journey begin?
I wrote a short film script within two days in October 2017 and then developed it over six weeks. I shot the film in six days across two weekends in January this year. I moved quickly on this project because I didn’t want to give myself enough time to doubt whether I could achieve this mammoth goal of “making a feature film.” For the longest time, I had convinced myself that I wasn’t a good writer or that no one would want to read my work. The reaction I got from the table reads from my cast was so strong and encouraging. I knew I was on to something. It was a story I had to tell.
How many roles did you have to play beyond directing? And if you wore multiple hats, how did you achieve balance?
I am the writer, director, actor, wardrobe, makeup artist, hair stylist, production designer and co-producer. I achieve balance because I already have the experience of wearing several hats as the founder of PremaeUK. In a small business, you learn how to become supremely organised, and I had my husband as executive producer. I needed someone around that I could trust to have my back. My sister, Jo, was on set helping with directing and so was another actor, who was my second AD when I was acting in scenes. My cast was brilliant; they dedicated their truth to the project and listened to my direction.
As you worked on your first feature, where did you need help the most?
Financing. This film was funded by myself, my husband and my brother; a family production. We set a budget and went 30 percent over on day one. Unforeseen circumstances occur all the time on set, and when you’re not filming, you still have to pay people to hang around. This ate into the post-production funds we needed to source extra footage and marketing deliverables. Thanks to our brilliant editor, Charles Scowsill, we have a great film that makes full use of the footage.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) you had as you embarked on making your first feature?
I believe in God, so I don’t do fear. But my concerns were that I had quite a big cast for a small indie film. There are more than 15 people with named roles. I felt that it would be difficult for me to direct and act but quickly learned that I do this every day in business — presenting and selling ideas while leading the team. My screen husband, Algie Salmon-Fattahian, would look at me in awe as I’d call “Action” and then go into character and deliver what was required of my onscreen role. He would say in between takes, “Jeez, you’re incredible, Clare. How do you switch from one role to another?” The answer is focus. Quiet your mind and deal with the matter at hand. Take nothing personally.
Another worry was that the story wouldn’t come together well; that it sounded good in the table reads but ultimately might be boring to audiences as there are no major action scenes, no real threat of violence or anything. It’s a romantic drama, and it’s set in the calm, dulcet surroundings of North London. But we had three sold-out screenings in London thanks to the British Urban Film Festival (we opened the festival). The reactions from audiences filled me with so much joy. Just to sit back and hear people laughing, crying, kissing their teeth at words I had written was a mega achievement for me. The emails and DM’s I have received by lighter-skinned and darker-skinned women expressing their gratitude for the film and its authenticity is the perfect validation that I was meant to make this movie.
Toughest decision(s) you had to make?
Recasting two days before we started shooting after spending four weeks in rehearsals and also recasting during shooting. Instinctively, I knew what I was looking for on and offscreen. I knew that the project was going to change lives and help people get an education on a subject matter that is taboo and difficult to talk about. Therefore, I needed actors that had a certain level of emotional intelligence, and that were completely selfless. I believe I have ended up with the right cast. Adele Oni (Jade), Kadeem Pearse (Danny), Algie Salmon-Fattahian (Eddie), Sharea Samuels (Andrea) and Jade Asha (Gemma), my principal cast, are super talented and so giving. They all cared about the lives of their characters and making sure they left their junk at the door so they could give me great performances.
Toughest challenge(s) you faced?
Turning up on day one and our first location collapsed. We couldn’t get into the building. It was freezing cold, and we were stranded. We moved to location two, a Portuguese restaurant named O’Bombeiro. The manager let us camp out there as long as we ordered food. I frantically phoned around to find a new location while directing a scene and managing an entirely new crew of people. I was like, “Here comes Satan, trying to shut me down before I’ve even begun.” I’ve had several battles throughout my life with Satan, and I always win (glory to God). There were many moments on set when I, Kadeem and Emmanuel would laugh if something went wrong. We’d give each other a look like, “There goes Satan; this too shall pass!”
Other challenges? Weather conditions, misconduct from actors, venue constraints, running out of cash. I’m sure they’re the usual challenges for every filmmaker.
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 would have to disagree. I can’t think of a feature film, directed by a black British director who also wrote the screenplay, that tackles colorism — the causes of it and the reasons why some people carry the prejudice in their community (But if I’m wrong, please, please correct me).
I had no reference point for this film. There was nothing for me to watch and go, “Yeah, I’ll use that method, and I’ll take that story, and those angles and create No Shade.” To me, it’s truly a classic; it’s a reflection of my style.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have?
I hope the film becomes a reference point. I hope that it lives on as a piece of art education and is examined in schools for cultural studies and citizenship. I think it will mark an important time in modern history, a time when black people begin to look inward at our problems and find solutions to fix them.
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 am continually discouraged by negative people, directly or indirectly. But I use this as fuel to keep on succeeding. Sometimes people reject your ideas because you are a visionary and you’re ahead of the curve. Don’t take it personally. People who I hoped would come along for the journey have found a way to exist no longer in my life. I do understand that this is a part of God’s process over my life; he clears my path every five-to-seven years — fresh ideas, fresh relationships and fresh opportunities — I’ve learned to embrace it. Nothing scares me more than being stale and bored.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers… alcohol (#Jokes… kind of)? 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)?
My family is my greatest support system. Having two brothers, two sisters and my husband are all the backbone and strength I need. I have one friend who is like what Gayle is to Oprah. Her name is Jasmine (Jas) Walcott. We’ve been friends since we were 11 years old; that’s 22 years of divine sister-ship. My family is my strategic advisers, and each counsels me on different areas of my life. Jas is my devil’s advocate; she helps me keep grounded and sees things from an outsider’s perspective. Apart from that, I’m a bit of a loner; I enjoy my own company.
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 as a necessary component to keeping up with the world. I don’t let it control me but understand its vantage points. I communicate most days and then will take breaks to unplug from the world. That’s healthy.
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 do buy it. As an outsider, looking in from the U.K., I long for the days when BBC, Channel 4 and ITV will give black creatives like me a chance to get a full drama show written and directed by black creatives commissioned on free-to-air TV. It’s starting to happen on pay-TV with Sky, but not on the terrestrial channels yet. I feel the U.K. is 20 years behind the U.S. in this sense. If only we had OWN TV UK or black TV commissioners. Hopefully, there will be a shift in the U.K. sooner than I expect. Things are still very white, stale and pale here. If you want something done, you have to back yourself. The BFI (British Film Institute) does not fund black films. Out of 100 films made per year, less than five will be black. That’s why I don’t play the lottery. The lottery funds the BFI. Why pay into a system that deliberately ignores voices from your community?
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion (I know that similar initiatives have been announced in other parts of the world; in the U.K. notably). Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
Diversity talk in the U.K. looks and sounds good, but in reality, means nothing. That’s why I don’t pay any attention to them anymore. Most of the companies here will “talk” diversity for one year, and then go back to “50 shades of pale” for the following 10 years or tokenize blackness (a “one in, one out” system). It’s just their inherent racist nature to do so. Their stock answer is, “Look, we know we need to do better,” but under their breath, they’re really saying, “Look, we know we need to do better, but the truth is, I’m paid £250,000 ($325,900) a year, and my kids are at private school, and I don’t want to see too many black faces on TV; I don’t ‘get’ your story/culture, so why would I really wanna commission this?”
I will believe that diversity exists in the U.K. when 20 percent of all programming on each channel is black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME). From the producer to the director, the mixer, sound guy, cinematographer, writer, actors, gaffers, production designers, etc.; all departments.
Any desire to move to the USA to pursue your filmmaker dreams?
I’m thinking about the USA; it seems like the natural home for entertainment, and I’ve seen elders that I look up to, like David Oyelowo, flee from Britain due to the same issues I’m dealing with a decade on. I think the USA is a very entrepreneurial place, built on expansion. I love New York City and miss that electric city. I’d love to work with more American creatives. I’m always shown love when I come to the States. I’ll actually be in Washington, D.C. this month for the U.S. premiere of No Shade at ADIFF (African Diaspora International Film Festival) on Sunday, August 19. Tickets are here.
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 what Netflix has done to the industry. Over here in the U.K., all the major broadcasters hate Netflix and regularly downplay it when having to address it. It has given a platform to international stories that would otherwise have no way of being told, shown or reaching its intended audience. I hope that Netflix takes No Shade and that I can write new material that would fall under Netflix Originals.
The film will be on Amazon, Directur and other pay-per-view platforms from Wednesday, August 8. But you can watch it now on Vimeo On Demand.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I wish I knew that I would need 50 percent more than I budgeted for. I wish I knew that even after a five-month press campaign and sold-out screenings, that British cinemas and commissioners would still refuse to give you a release because they consider your film a “niche black community film.” I think the choice has been made for me; my D.C. trip might become a one-way ticket!
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
A film that makes me care about the welfare of the lead actor is a film that is great to me; whether the character is the protagonist or antagonist is irrelevant. I need to care about them enough to keep on watching. I like films that allow the audience to think and assume or interpret from themselves. The over-explanation is patronizing and makes the story predictable.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
I love F. Gray Gray’s work. His personal story and journey are very inspiring to me; starting out in music videos to now shooting $100M movies is incredible. I also love John Singleton and Spike Lee’s work. Most of my childhood was spent watching their films, and I still love them today like Higher Learning and Set It Off; I cry every time.
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 do feel that black filmmakers should “give back” at least once in their filmmaking journey, no matter where you are on that journey. I do think we have a duty as filmmakers to use art for transformation as well as entertainment. One great story that exposes the challenges or triumphs of our times and educates can change a generation of people. We owe our communities that.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success to me is peace. I have peace of mind and peace of heart most days of my life. Therefore, I am successful and have been for quite some time. Once I’ve made a few more films, I would like to help other filmmakers. I’d like to raise a family. I would like to travel more frequently, living on different continents year-round.
How can you be contacted, and where can readers keep up with your progress?
My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Find me on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at @clareanyiamo, @bufforiginals and @noshadefilm.
Our website is bufforiginals.com.
Here’s a trailer for No Shade. which you can watch in full on Vimeo On Demand: