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 New York-based Tamika R. Guishard. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
I am a first-generation American, born of Kittitian heritage in East New York, Brooklyn. With the mind of a storyteller, heart of a teacher and soul of a dancer, I taught middle school social studies in my hometown before matriculating into NYU Graduate Film in 2006 to ultimately update and resurrect the after-school special, mainstream marginalized HIStory, and bulk my films with curricula. I am a writer/director who believes in the powerful fusion of education and cinema, producing for school districts, Tribeca Film Institute, Great Minds, National Parks and on Leech Lake Reservation to make “films that help.” As a “pedagogical filmmaker,” I’ve premiered at Oscar-qualifying festivals, been awarded by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, featured at SXSWedu and Harvard’s Center for Educational Policy, as well as served as an African Burial Ground National Monument Park Ranger, creating webisodes to launch Ken Burns’ docuseries on National Parks. Based in NYC, I am on the road to my first feature, Rhythm in Blues (RnB), with help from the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).
RnB (formerly D-Days) is the story of native Brooklynites, whose journeys embody common paths for escaping the realities of their early existence: a choice of school, service or streets. Through the beats of African rhythms, these three foster siblings from East New York, born on the tail-end of the crack epidemic, struggle to heal from the invisible wounds of PTSD, leukemia and addiction while longing for security, family and love.
Jackie—the student and dancer—needs a heart to deal with her feelings of abandonment instead of numbing them with alcohol; Duke—the runt-turned-soldier— needs a stronger brain to withstand PTSD from his tours in the Middle East; and Dante—the hustler with a green thumb— needs courage to fulfill his promise to stop dealing drugs by his 21st birthday. Having aged out of a broken system, these three traverse a yellow brick road that has left them scarred beyond belief, but they’ve always had each other to turn to... until now.
Rhythm in Blues was one of twenty U.S. Narrative Features selected for IFP Week’s No Borders International Coproduction Market, and I was one of three U.S.-based fellows with the Brooklyn-based Residency Unlimited. At the Toronto International Film Festival, I was one of two non-Canadians selected for Black Women Film! Canada. I continue screenwriting while in development on RnB, with my first TV pilot, Green & Grey (inspired by my experiences at Lower Manhattan’s African Burial Ground), being selected by Nashville and Canada International Film Festivals, and my short screenplay Pride winning the Governor's Office's "Celebrate Equality NY" Film Challenge.
Most recently, I was one of eight auteurs selected for the inaugural Athena Film and TV Screenwriting Lab in Los Angeles and a SAGIndie Fellowship finalist for Stowe Story Labs this fall. Fostered by my Bushwick middle school motto “to whom much is given, much is required” and the non sibi fundamentals imbued in me at Andover, I am the daughter of civil servants who sees my filmmaking as service—a testament that edutainment is boundless. From the griots of West Africa to the after-school specials of yesteryear, entertainment, art and education have always coexisted. I am both humbled and proud to carry this torch for future generations.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
When did this specific journey begin?
I produced the dance theater production Dide Omo Dide (Rise, Child, Rise), that inspired the film back in 2000 at Penn as director of a group called African Rhythms and under the tutelage of Jeffrey Page (then a student at Philly’s University of the Arts). The script was first drafted at NYU in 2008; proof of concept hit the circuit with world premiere at Cleveland Int'l Film Fest in 2012; received first grant(s) for feature production in 2015-16. This December will make roughly eighteen years on this journey.
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 writer/director/producer. Balance?? That's a thing!?!? You got jokes, but I actually try and budget time to watch films and hold myself accountable to a Google survey for each. Completely shifting to creative will be magical—the eventual payoff. I’d experienced pure directing on Jackie. and have been hooked ever since.
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?
Exposure/ambassadorship toward financing would be a huge lift right now. Our story is very unique, and with former foster kids raising all the bars in mainstream media (e.g., Tiffany Haddish, Misty Copeland, Simone Biles), we'd love to bring one or all of them on as an ambassador/EP to shed light on the project. Magnetizing these specific champions, along with black women making moves across the industry, in general, would be huge, given that we are shot, written, directed, co-produced by and starring black women. Building out a robust community of support in this way will eventually lead to funding. I am also currently tightening the script to get it under 95 pages and make it more attractive to folks open to collaborating with a first-time feature director like me.
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
We've attached some awesome talent to play our foster sibling trifecta including Tristan "Mack" Wilds and Curtiss Cook Jr. My fear is that we won't get funded in time for them to be age-appropriate for the roles.
Toughest decision(s) you've had to make so far?
I've had longstanding champions ("Day 1's") on RnB, but the process has been lengthy and not all partnerships have withstood. (There will be college freshmen this fall born when this African dance show premiered!) Sometimes decisions that were best for the project presented personal dilemmas.
Toughest challenge(s) you've faced so far?
We are still finalizing the numbers but are in what I call the "black hole" of budgets largely because of our dance set pieces; the budget is not small enough to be considered "micro" but not necessarily large enough for a hugely significant ROI. Additionally, as a scripted, impact film, a lot of the grants earmarked for work that speaks to our social issues (i.e., PTSD, leukemia, foster care) are for nonfiction. We were fortunate to receive a NYSCA grant from our home state because of our film’s “capacity to help New Yorkers realize cultural self-determination and vitally connect them to the arts.” Financial investors on the project will be those who, similarly, believe that this film should be in the world and can make an impact.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that there are only so many variations of stories, and everything's been done before; we've seen it all. Do you agree or disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
Our film is different in that although it deals with the dark side of coming out of the crack epidemic, it utilizes drum and dance to celebrate the victory; those extraordinary young people that have not only survived but also thrived through it all. It is a feature-length African dance-driven film, which has not yet hit the big screen. RnB is also a bit of a unicorn because it will not only be written, directed, co-produced by and star black women but will also be shot by a prolific black woman, Cybel Martin. With even smaller percentages of black women DPs, she is one of only a handful in the union. While I am in agreement that "everything's been done before" to some degree, I do believe that these layers make RnB a standout.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it's made? And the realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will actually have after it's made?
As a filmmaker steeped in academic performance standards and policies, I plan to bulk Rhythm in Blues with a standards-aligned, holistic curriculum for educational distribution. Utilizing multiple intelligences or learning modalities, viewers will be able to learn the movie’s dances, unpack the implications of green spaces in urban communities and dissect its major themes. Given that I'd segued to filmmaking from the classroom to ultimately revive the after-school special, I'd love the film to live on the small screen after its theatrical premiere/run. In cinemas, museums, classrooms and foster youth safe-houses, the proof-of-concept short, Jackie., has already sparked some eye-opening dialogue; I am really looking forward to the conversations that our feature will foster and furnishing a transformative experience long after the credits roll.
Ever been discouraged (whether on this specific project, or at any other time during this journey that you've been on)? How do you keep your head up when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges?
Yes, I have. I have an amazing foundation of "framily" who help me dig my head out of the sand. As the only black woman in my class at NYU, it was TOUGH. Funny enough, being a native New Yorker, it was the folks in and around Tisch that got me through on the daily: the Guyanese security guard (Victor), who always had a kind word, or my boy at the wine store (Dennis), who reminded me who/where I was from. Close friends outside of the industry/filmmaking are pivotal in helping me recalibrate my identity (as well as reading my drafts, casting and crewing on my projects :) to move forward. With Bill Reilly having passed on (RIP), there is still a core group of professors and mentors to whom I can turn. I also have a small arsenal of black women within the industry (i.e. Cybel, Marquette, Safiya, Brittany), who have been an invaluable source for hard truths and empathy, as well.
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers...? 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)?
“Framily” notwithstanding, there is actually a great church in my neighborhood. Since moving back to NYC, my support system has evolved with my schedule/priorities, such that I have to budget time to support myself to wholly be present in this movement of groundbreaking, black, women filmmakers. The block is hot; I’m happy and grateful to be on it! Oh, and I’m no good without dancing/dance class at least twice a month…need my drums.
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 or shun it?
Inactive. I am soooo bad Cybel constantly roasts me for my analog-ness. I do think it's necessary, though, and plan to one day (soon) take full advantage of it. Terence Nance summed it up best by saying that technology in the digital age can be a “weapon or a tool.” You need materials and the like to utilize it as a tool; so it’s more difficult but worthwhile. I am currently aggregating and refining my tools to be more present on social, but, truth be told, I need a support group for how much I miss the '90s.
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 (inspired) for sure, and especially proud of those black women filmmakers, who also produce like Issa (Rae) or Ava (birthday shoutouts to Ms. DuVernay!). I feel that this is a dope advantage as I think it is necessary in independent filmmaking, particularly as a black woman. Certain themes (i.e. historical, LGBTQ) seem to be more palatable to funders/studios, who may have a harder time digesting complex black characters (from black auteurs) outside of those lenses currently, but I feel a shift happening. It’s also been inspiring to hear male directors sound off on the amazing women they collaborate with on set. It’s an incredible time to be in this field.
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 do applaud some of the changes and initiatives being started. However, I am reticent to say that it will necessarily lead to change until I actually see it.
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 have relationships with folks at some of these platforms but have not yet looked that far down the road with respect to distribution, being that we are still at the point of trying to get the film financed/made.
Key lessons learned? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
One key lesson is the value of a crew in this game. Again, as the sole black woman in my class at Tisch, I often felt so alone. Each class is really siloed, and I wish in those earlier days that I'd been more proactive in trying to cultivate community beyond my immediate surroundings. As it turns out, there were black women filmmakers everywhere going through the same things, but now that we're all in the weeds of our projects it's more difficult to form those genuine bonds as it may have been earlier in our careers. Also, although it is EXTREMELY difficult to navigate this industry as a black woman, it is important to remember that you are not a charity case…you have something very special and valuable to offer the world.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
I knew Ryan Coogler was special after Fruitvale Station. I had never experienced a feature-length film that packed the punch of a short in leaving me breathless after hours of watching. A great film for me does just that: synthesizes performance, cinematography and sound to leave me fundamentally changed.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Ryan Coogler/all-around; Barry Jenkins/performance and perseverance; Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae/altruism and diversified skillset; Dee Rees/story; Seith Mann/writing and directing; Warrington Hudlin/longevity and humor (comedy is hard); Spike Lee/pioneering. My birthday twin, John Cassavetes (Woman Under the Influence), is also a fave, along with Wong Kar-Wai and Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies).
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a filmmaker requires that you tell a particular kind of story, or populate your film with specific kinds of characters, for example?
I do feel the responsibility to "give back," but more so because I am an educator and not a creative, per se. If my storytelling does not inspire or imbue someone to tell his/her stories or imprint the importance of diversifying the canon of stories being documented and told, then I have not done my job. “Carrying the weight of a weaponized skin color and the invisibility of a silenced gender” allows for me to more easily walk in the shoes of individuals unlike me and furnish my films with whatever voices will best communicate the story’s urgency. Nonetheless, my perspective will always be that of a black woman, and my characters usually default to black.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you'd like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success, for me, means being able to be sustained financially by writing/directing/producing stories that engender critical thinking and reach viewers/communities that really need to see them...not just independent film enthusiasts. It’s still coming together, but my new site (guishardfilms.com) provides an idea of how I attack this goal as both a creative and a consultant merging cinema and education. By staying grounded in the community/education, while reaching new heights in the “industry” (and paying off these school loans!), I will have achieved success.
Where can we watch your past work, if available?
I have some other shorts floating around that will be accessible through my site, but I usually share Jackie. (watch below), the proof of concept for Rhythm in Blues.
Anything else you'd like to say that I didn't ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in her
Dude, thank you for shining this light. I want to use this space to express my deep gratitude to you for carefully curating these profiles and reaching out to us. I also want to shoutout my team on Rhythm in Blues: Seith Mann (EP), Cybel Martin (DP), Jeffrey Page (Choreographer), Christine Kromer (Casting), Ania Trzebiatowska, Marc Parees, Kellye Janel, Travis Davis, and Prof. Spike Lee who’s advised and endorsed throughout. From GFS in the Bronx to former classmates and students and directresses in Toronto, I’ve been blessed with an incredible village of support on this long winding journey to transform African dance theater from 2000 into a homegrown, topical film about the everyday heroes who thrive through foster care and continually shatter expectations. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.