Cinema has a long history of exploring supernatural themes like vampirism and witchcraft. Despite our centuries-long curiosity with the undead, there has been almost no examination of how African folklore and legends fit into these film narratives. With her hypnotic and astonishingly filmed short, Suicide By Sunlight, Sierra Leonean American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu turns the spotlight on a Black female vampire.
A pediatric nurse, Valentina (portrayed by Natalie Paul) is also a day-walking vampire who is protected from the sun by her melanin. Though she wants to make a difference at work, Valentina’s personal life is in disarray. Devastated by her estrangement from her twin daughters, Valentina struggles every single day to curb her bloodlust. Ahead of her two sold-out screenings at the Sundance Film Festival, Shadow and Act sat down to speak with Jusu about Suicide By Sunlight, how Octavia Butler invigorated her and why she made this film almost on accident.
"I stumbled across Octavia Butler’s work many years ago, and I discovered Fledgling," Jusu explained. "The story was really compelling, but I knew I needed to do more research about melanin because I love when genre melds scientific fact with fantasy. The idea of Black vampires walking in the sun is such a springboard for so many ideas, and I wanted to explore that."
Melanin and how it fits in with fantasy was something that the New York University’s Tisch Graduate Film school alum could not shake. "I was thinking about miscegenation, our history as Black people, and passing," she revealed. "All those layers are inherent in the concept of Black day-walking vampires. Then it was about researching the origin of vampires in our respective cultures. I was validated when I discovered that there were African vampires, grounded in Ghanaian culture. There are Haitian vampires called Loogaroos grounded in that culture. So melding all of that with the springboard of Octavia Butler—it's just so rich with so much story. The hook is day-walking Black vampires, but you still need the story."
Though Jusu conceived the concept for Suicide By Sunlight many moons ago, it took some time for Valentina as a character to begin speaking to her. "The concept went through many iterations," the George Mason University professor explained. "It started as a web series seven years ago, turned into a feature script— I have almost every variation of the concept that you can have. Shout out to my co-writer [R. Shanea Williams]; we joined heads grounding the concept in very relatable characters who want universal things."
Once Jusu could see Valentina clearly, she and Williams had to begin to understand who she was. "We were like, 'Where would a character who was trying to fight her desire to drink blood work?'" she said. "She would work somewhere where the blood is sick, so it's a way for her to control herself, but it also allows her to connect to the sick children because she's estranged from her own children. So we grounded her as a pediatric, oncological nurse."
With a crystalized script for the short film, Jusu’s next challenge was casting Valentina. She leaned on her executive producer Terence Nance to help her find actress Natalie Paul. "Terence sent me a list of actresses, and Natalie Paul was on the list," she recalled. "At the time, Natalie didn't have much online, but I saw that clip on Power, and I saw another clip, and she was perfect. She's stunning, but the icing on the cake was that she has the acting range. She can easily just go into that zone and give you the performance that you want. I went through her agents, and we did the dance, and I was nervous, but it came through, and I'm so thankful because it was a collaboration made in heaven. Now she's really excited about us doing a larger series that centers her as a character."
At just 17 minutes long, Suicide By Sunlight is a cinematic orgasm. Shot in only four days in locations across New York City the film’s ambition is stunning. "My producer Nikkia Moulterie is brilliant," Jusu laughed. "We knew what we were getting into. The budget was higher than what I wanted to make the film. We had so many characters, we had so many extras and three children under ten, so it was highly ambitious. I had a very predominately woman crew. Most of the heads of departments were women."
Though there are certainly some dark themes and gore in Suicide By Sunlight —the cinematography and overall look of the film is just breathtaking. "My director of photography Daisy Zhou is a brilliant woman with a brilliant eye," the Flowers director said. "I met with a bunch of DPs interviewing them the same way that you date to find a partner. But I just kept thinking about Daisy’s reel and some of the shot selections that she makes. It stands out to me because I'm also very aesthetically motivated. I want every shot to be a painting. So I chose her, and we sat down, mapped it out, came up with a color scheme, and came up with the visual language. We rehearsed together so much with the visual language that by the time we were on set, she was able to do her thing, and I was able to work with the actors. It was perfect."
Jusu was able to bring Suicide By Sunlight to the big screen because of THROUGH HER LENS: The Tribeca Chanel Women's Filmmaker Program. She won the grant in the program’s third year. "I highly encourage filmmakers to just apply to stuff because you never know [where] it is going to lead you," the Atlanta native reflected. "I applied to Tribeca All Access, which is a great grant that gives you $10,000 to work on your feature. Yvonne Shirley and I wanted to turn our short Flowers into a feature, but we got rejected. However, they liked our work so much that they nominated both of us for THROUGH HER LENS. I was tired of shorts, but it was $85,000. So, I tried to be slick, and I submitted what was very much a teaser for my series. They were like, 'This is great, but this is not a short.' So I sat down with Robin, my co-writer, and we came up with the short film that is Suicide by Sunlight.
THROUGH HER LENS ended up being a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Jusu. "It was five days of nurturing and mentorship," she revealed. "I had mentorship from Effie Brown, I had mentorship from Ilene Chaiken and Amma Asante. Mira Nair and Rachel Weisz were judges. So it was us and four other women teams that were very competitive. You practice your pitches, you get feedback, you meet with people, and you go to Master Talks. It was so fruitful. When they announced that we won that night, I was shocked. That was the beginning of the journey for this short.”
Though we only get a small window into Valentina’s world, Jusu is nowhere near done with the character. She’s already been pitching her television series based on several day-walking Black vampires. "This has been the easiest pitch of my life," she grinned. "The series circulates around four primary characters. We have a character who doesn't know that he's half-vampire-half-human. He was in the foster system, so he's just starting to learn his abilities. Then, we have a character who knows that she's half, but rejects that lineage. So it's different stages of their identity as Black vampires. Valentina is the fully fledged vampire who sees human beings as disposable and self-destructive. It's a lot of commentary on identity, but also commentary on race and sexuality. It's really important to know that our vampires are very much alive. This is an identity that exists, and it's kind of like tribalism, you're either a part of this tribe, or you're not. We're currently pitching it to different networks."
Suicide By Sunlight is incredible because the brilliant concept was right there under our noses all off this time. "In terms of melanin, it's grounded in science," Jusu said. "Black people are more protected from the sun. Grounding that in the genre, so many people miss the opportunity to explore that, from True Blood to Interview with A Vampire, because they're only thinking about whiteness."
Suicide By Sunlight premiered at Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2019.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide