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 Nia Symone. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project to the world.
I am from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and come from a family filled with actors, singers, dancers, writers and filmmakers, who haven’t quite achieved big success or popularity. So I’m not surprised that I made the switch from biology to English during my undergrad at Clark Atlanta University. I’ve always known that I enjoyed writing and storytelling, but did not believe I could make a career out of it after I changed my major. I was an intern at the Tupac Amaru Shakur Foundation where I was able to work closely with the performing arts center and foundation’s director. Being able to work closely with the estate of Tupac Shakur and the arts, my interest in film and entertainment blossomed. However, It took me a while to understand that I was a director as well as a writer. One day, I wrote and directed a visual poem to commemorate the eighth year of my sister’s passing as a way to honor her life and my life since her absence. The feedback and support I received from my peers were rewarding and overwhelming.
The summer of 2016, I bought my first camera and began taking filmmaking seriously. As someone who is self-taught and self-motivated, I embarked on an ambitious journey of owning a production company to produce content I desired after years of not securing employment at the top production and entertainment companies for entry-level positions. Although I did not have everything I needed or the knowledge at the time to start my own company, I had a clear vision for it and knew I wanted to create stories for marginalized groups of people. N.O.M.O.R.E (Never Oppressed Making Opportunities Real Empires) Entertainment is committed to giving you social realism through our poetry, films and documentaries.
Sky Blue Walls is about a young woman who had it all until tragedy tore her life apart, now she is determined to get her life back starting with an epic All-Star Weekend.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
When did this specific journey begin?
I began writing Sky Blue Walls as a way to get myself out of a depression. I was depressed because I was in a space of transition, and, as we know, experiencing change can be painful. I was forced to take a look at my actions and how my trauma influenced my self-esteem and my behavior. I began doing the hard and uncomfortable healing work, and the more I began to understand my trauma I was able to create from it. When I slip into a hardship, I try to look for films I can watch to feel less isolated, and there aren't many black films that deal with black women and depression. Since I had a lot of free time on my hands, I decided to add my voice to that category and started to write. I had read that some directors take portions of their features and turn them into shorts to gain exposure and support to complete the feature. So I decided to take a portion of the feature and turn it into a short and sent the scripts to my friend and Emmy Award-winning writer/producer Diahnna Nicole Baxter, and she loved it. She came on board as a producer and director, and we decided that I would play the lead role. We’re still in the pre-production phase, but, so far, things are falling into place.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing? And if wearing multiple hats, how are you achieving balance?
Literally, I have worn every hat mentioned, plus more! It's like the greatest euphoric high because each time I am in one of these roles, I surprise myself with my ability to perform well. Remembering my intent for wanting to be a filmmaker keeps me balanced when it gets overwhelming.
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?
Financial help would be great, I think it is the thing most filmmakers need, but also exposure. Getting the chance to be in publications talking about our projects and our intentions will help, as well.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
I don’t want to live in that space or the fears will come to fruition, so I am just approaching my feature with a positive mind and silencing the voices that tell me I can’t do this or it won’t work.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
During the script revisions, I had to omit a few things that I loved but that others felt were distractions, and that was hard because, as a writer, you think every word or idea is brilliant, and sometimes it's not.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
Trusting my team. Making a film is a collaborative effort, and I’m a loner by nature, so it’s been a bit of a challenge for me to let go and trust. I have to believe that everyone I brought on board are as dedicated to this film as I am.
From my short visual poem Enuf.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything's been done before, and we've seen it all. Agree/disagree?
There is nothing new under the sun. It’s just how you view the sun that makes it different and unique.
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?
I want it to be well-received, of course! I’d like to see it circulate the major film festivals, as well as being featured on one of the major streaming sites. I would love for it to become a classic in its own right.
I wrote it for women of color who are struggling with trauma and mental health. The topic of mental health within the black community is still taboo, so I’d like for this film to aid in the discussion by showing a vibrant young woman with so much potential who is engulfed in trauma and how tragic the situation is. The main character represents someone’s daughter, sister, wife, mother and even one's self.
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?
There was an opportunity recently that I just knew was mine, but I didn’t get it, and that was devastating for me because it seemed so perfect. When I face disappointment, I feel every inch of it... I sit with it and create from it. Then, I remember my intent for why I believe I can even accomplish my goals and re-strategize.
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)?
Yes, I am fortunate to have an incredible support system in my family and friends. It’s been a journey trying to find like-minded people who understand that when one of us shines, we all shine, but happily I am finding my tribe. Recently, I joined a nonprofit organization for women directors, editors and DPs called "Free the Bid." It provides creative women an opportunity to get hired for commercial work by ad agencies. Also, I belong to a supportive group for filmmakers of color called "Broken Barriers."
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 am extremely active on social media, and I use it as a tool to get my projects out there. I often create short-form content as a calling card and share on social media because you never know who's watching.
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 and encouraged by the success of Black Panther, Ava DuVernay and Dee Rees. I simply hope to add my name to the movement.
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 just hope it's long-lasting and not just a trend.
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 would love to see my projects on a legendary platform like HBO, but with the “new media” platforms emerging, I feel like I have a greater chance of my projects being picked up because they’re hungry for innovative content, content that is going to make them a top competitor among the big studios and TV networks, and I know I have that kind of content.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew, when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I’m still new to the game, but one thing I have had to learn is patience. The overall time and planning that goes into getting your film from paper to the screen... It all requires patience and prayer.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Great actors. I think you can have an amazing script and an awesome crew, but if you don’t find the right actors to bring the characters and the story to life, then you’re screwed. Acting isn’t easy, and everyone can’t do it. When you find an actor who can deliver both a great performance and evoke the emotions of the viewers, then you create magic.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Lady Sings the Blues; Imitation of Life (1959 version); Girl, Interrupted; The Virgin Suicides and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape all have really complex storylines of real people struggling with identity, sanity and suffering. My first introduction to film was at 4 years old, when I woke up to my mother watching Lady Sings the Blues, and I remember being with my mother and asking her so many questions about the film. These films lingered with me and still do. I hope to make films that resonate with people as they did with me.
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?
Yes, I never understand when celebrities say, “I’m not a role model”; I always think that’s BS. With great power comes great responsibility. I believe if you can influence millions of people, then you’re going to either affect them with positivity and empowerment or with negativity. As a black woman filmmaker, I can’t afford to impact my community negatively. I believe I must tell the stories of little black girls and black women whose voices are left out of the conversations on important topics like mental health, physical and sexual abuse and feminism.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success, for me, is being satisfied with every area of my life and finding peace regardless of my situation. I want to grow my production company, N.O.M.O.R.E Entertainment, into a powerhouse. I want to leave a legacy of films that make you feel, think, grow and change.
Where can I (and others) watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
I can be reached via email: email@example.com, and I'm also on Instagram @iamniasymone_.
Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask?
I just want to add that there’s enough shine for everyone, and we all deserve the space to share our talents and stories with one another.