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 (although originally from the U.S.) Tai Grace. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project to the world.
I’m Tai Grace, 18 years of age and currently in my first year of university. I was born in the USA, but I moved to London to study and to pursue a creative career. Also to travel, because it is one of my greatest passions. I’ve been obsessed with cameras, in front of and behind them, since I came out of the womb practically. I pursued photography heavily throughout high school, and I remember my mom telling me I would eventually pursue film around my junior year. I laughed at her, and, well, here I am.
I decided to pursue this because I am deeply connected to creating stories. I’ve been doing it all my life in my head. Now, I want to manifest these stories onto the screen, and I am very determined. I know that I am going to go far; I can feel it. I am just so glad that I finally decided to pick the camera up in a new way.
My first feature is a documentary. I am super excited about this because I will be getting to do something I love along the way - travel! This will tell the story of the many obsessed fans of various artists who go to great lengths in their obsession over a celebrity, aka "Stans." This is a community I have been a part of since I was 13 years old, so I know the world very well. Our choosing to be members of these fan bases have brought opportunities, crazy events, and great social media influence to the surface. These are very important stories that I am so excited to tell.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
I am in pre-production right now. While I am in Paris, I plan on doing some test interviews to really get the vibe of how things will go, so I am extremely excited!
When did this specific journey begin?
This is a funny story. Well, this project all came about because of a shrooms trip… seriously. So, I planned a group trip with some of my “Navy friends” as we call one another, and we went to Amsterdam in January of this year. Shrooms are completely legal there, and they even have dispensaries; so being the psychoactive enthusiast I am, I gave it a go. Long story short, everyone turned into a character! Everything unfolded before my eyes; it was such a spiritual moment for me. I remember thinking, “Look at these people from all walks of life that were brought together because of our love for an artist and social media; the world needs to hear about this.” Initially, I wanted to turn everything into a fictional television show, and I still plan on doing that. Something just feels right about this documentary; it needs to happen.
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 the writer, a co-producer and I will be a co-editor. I’m like a jack of all trades; it’s my Gemini mid-heaven, so the balance is something I was born with. I practice mindfulness very heavily, and that helps, as well. I focus on one task at a time to ensure I don’t overwhelm myself.
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?
Honestly, I need to continue building my team. It truly takes a village for any kind of production. I need people who have the freedom to travel, and I know the universe will bring them. Until then, I’ll be working with what I’ve got! I also would really like a creative mentor who is a black woman. I’m super young and new to this. Natural gifts need nurturing and practice, too. Although I’ve had very inspiring creative mentors throughout my life, they’ve never been of my race or gender. There is just something missing in my creative life because of that. Black women have a different creative vision; I can’t really explain it; it’s really a feeling. We can vibe off one another’s frequency, and you can’t really get that anywhere else.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I really try not to worry and fear. Before I made a commitment to this project, I wrote my biggest fears about it on a sheet of paper and then burned it. I trust God; I trust that the universe will allow me to manifest what is needed. I was given this vision for a purpose; I know things will be OK.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
The toughest decision I’ve made so far has simply been to start. There’s always this inner fear that I think all humans possess that tries to stop us from fulfilling our destiny and working out our purpose. I refuse to let that voice win. I am scared out of my mind, but I know that if I want to see this thing come to fruition, I have to continue to work!
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
Overcoming my saboteur! I constantly have to remind myself that I wouldn’t have been given the vision if it wasn’t meant for me and if I couldn’t do it. Anything we can visualize has the ability to come to fruition. It doesn’t matter how young I am or inexperienced; I was born to do this. Beating this into my psyche was not easy at all. I’ve gone through a lot of late-night tears and journal entries. I know it won’t be in vain.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree?
Creativity stems from an endless source within. There will always be new and fresh ideas, I truly believe. To start, my film is so different because its take on social media puts it in such a positive light. Not only that, I am really digging deep into the lives of these Stans who are often misunderstood and seen as crazy by regular people. The energy being put into this project will distinguish it from all other work because my passion and dedication is something extraordinary. I am putting all I’ve got into this.
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?
After making the film, I plan to produce a fictional TV version of it, as well. I believe the film will not only inspire folks and bring a new perspective on the power of social media, music and artists. I still plan to do a fictionalized project on "Stan Twitter," in general; however, I decided to do a feature rather than a television series. I've started writing the script, and I am very excited to see this all come to fruition.
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?
Of course, I have! Besides the late night crying and journaling, I do a lot of positive affirmations. They whip me back into shape and allow me to see my worth, my creativity and my passion.
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)?
My support system is really just my mom and God. Both truly understand my vision and where I want to go in life with my gifts. They play a huge role in my life as I strive to change the world with my camera, my words and my enthusiasm!
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?
Of course, I am super active with social media especially since it is a major part of this project. It is an extremely necessary tool in today’s society. I honestly don’t think you can reach your full potential without it. I embrace it with every bit of my being! I just have to make sure I don’t overdo it, though, and detox every now and then because you can get really sucked in by the noise that happens sometimes.
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 am extremely inspired. Just getting started and seeing what's happening in the industry gives me much more motivation.
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?
Yes, I think what’s happening is all great! These moves are really long overdue. We’re still seeing things like “first black person to win XYZ,” and that shouldn’t be happening at this point in history. So, overall it will benefit many of us in the future.
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 so obsessed with these new platforms! I will definitely have my projects on Netflix, Hulu, etc. It’s like a new era of creative freedom! I love how Netflix really gives support to indie films especially. The emergence of these platforms allows for an entirely new wave of creative folks to do their work and on a big platform. I am definitely loving it all and taking advantage.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Just pick up the camera. I mean, Tangerine on Netflix was filmed with an iPhone 5S. Anything is possible! If your content is on point and creative, it won’t matter what kind of camera you used. We will all get to our “DuVernay” status if we strive and have consistency.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
For me, a great film is something that really stimulates the mind and soul. I want to be sucked completely out of this reality and walk out the theater thinking I just left an entirely different world.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
The Josephine Baker Story is the first film that really inspired me. First of all, you’ve got an acting god in Lynn Whitfield playing an icon. I love everything about that movie: how it was shot, the emotions conveyed and how Lynn played the hell out of that role.
Tarantino is… something else, but his creative vision truly inspires me. I love how he can make lengthy dialogue work in film because you usually would want to keep conversations pretty short. He makes it work, though.
Ava DuVernay! My queen! She's so inspirational in every way. She’s dabbled in several different areas of the film industry, and it really shows that you can diversify and create for both TV and film, and you don’t have to stick to one area. And she kicks butt at it!
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 believe that every creative reflects and creates based on their inner world. My responsibility is to show the many things going through my mind, all of these characters that have come into existence. It is not my responsibility to tell a particular story at all; I think that’s silly. I think that telling stories through my lens as a black woman in film is revolutionary in itself.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
The career I am going to have is going to snatch wigs. I’m ready to shake the dice and steal the rice, ha-ha! But really, as long as folks view my creations and not only get completely sucked into the world but also get inspired, that is success to me, along with my many, many future Oscars. I mean, I’m not doing it for the Oscars, which are the icing on the cake. I am doing this because I know my purpose is to tell stories, create worlds and get all of this out of my head and beyond journals and notebooks.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
This is the first time I am putting together a film project. I have been writing, working and crying through "impostor" syndrome and, to be quite honest, it has been a challenge. I know that I am very young, but I believe that my talent, drive and dedication will help the world see this vision I have, see these worlds I am creating and finally see the new style of film that I will pursue.
I just finished school for the semester, so I have a few shorts that I will be producing and have out by the end of the year. I want to showcase what I can do before I completely jump into my other two projects, but I want to take my time and do it right.
I have to keep reminding myself that it's not about proving myself to the world; the art will speak for itself. In the meantime, I write a lot and run a blog. It's pretty versatile in topics. I think it will give people a vibe and take on my creative style/flow until I get some visuals out. I am very excited for what is to come and for the film world to be introduced to me.