Predictably, the pandemic has been particularly devastating for films and filmmakers. How do you engage the public when they can’t go to theaters? What is cinema if it’s viewed exclusively on a phone or television? Will the future of film consist solely of the Marvel universe and its subsidiaries? And in a world where so much is happening on the ground, from protests to attacks on the U.S. Capitol, what can movies really add to the conversation?
Of course, plenty of studios, distributors, and even theaters found ways around the conundrum. And they did it by embracing the virtual and physically distanced, rather than fretting over what it all means. There were drive-in theaters, virtual screening rooms for film series, Zoom film festival panels, and inventive platforms. For the first time, people who don’t live in New York or Los Angeles have had easy access to the repertory film circuit. Still, the pandemic and necessary appeals to public safety have given independent filmmakers yet another set of obstacles to navigate: How do you get a small film made or seen when money is even less available than before? What happens to independent cinema when it has to compete with prestige TV? And specifically, will the moves towards the inclusion of more and varied Black artists in Hollywood and beyond become collateral during an economic downturn?
Vanity Fair spoke to five Black independent filmmakers who have been succeeding despite these conditions—making or releasing brilliant new work, whether short or feature-length films, in the past year. There are no rose-colored glasses here—for most of these filmmakers, even if they shot their films pre-pandemic, the money wasn’t rolling in for original narratives focusing on Black characters. They had to be inventive and even reckless in bringing their visions to the public. Test Pattern director Shatara Michelle Ford took out several credit cards to fund their work; Desperate LA filmmaker Jeanetta Rich cashed in her stimulus check to get her production off the ground. As the country slowly opens back up, and we begin to thirst again for films that serve not only as a salve or distraction, but as sources of inspiration and astonishment, we’ll be glad they saw these projects through.
FILMMAKER: JEANETTA RICH
Los Angeles–based filmmaker Jeanetta Rich self-funded her first film, the short Desperate LA, which will premiere at the Brooklyn Film Festival this summer. Spurred by a controversial question posed by Salma Hayek to Jessica Williams during a panel in 2017—“Who are you outside of your Blackness?”—Rich sought to imagine the Black female lead beyond visions of unshakeable strength or dogged perseverance. “This character, Homegirl, she tries to just be who she is,” Rich told me over Zoom. “All of the Blackness and the conversations surrounding who she is supposed to be [are] projected [onto] her. And [Desperate LA] is really about herself-discovery and her combating these ills of our society.”
Exploring several themes in its 15-minute runtime, from imbalanced friendship to dead-end jobs to confused sexual politics, Desperate LA portrays Homegirl (played by Rich) as an insightful fuck-up. Homegirl shares her inner thoughts with a poetic voiceover, reflecting on her self-image and place in an always precarious daily existence. She’s cat-sitting at the house of a rich white acquaintance, Crystal, who’s stuck in Denmark during the pandemic; Homegirl receives a video call from her, yet the two women never quite seem to connect emotionally. Their exchange is both absurdly funny (Crystal, played by Shelley Hennig, obtusely references the Black Lives Matter protests) and achingly sad. “It came together, honestly, in the pandemic because [Black people] were having these conversations about Blackness and how we’re being held back, simply because of the color of our skin, and the Black Lives Matter movement, and in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,” Rich explained.
Despite the logistical difficulties of filming amidst a raging public health crisis, it was the perfect moment for Rich to make her film, “especially because no one was busy. And I called in all my favors. I really just wanted to talk about being a Black woman. Because when they look to us, they see us as super women or women who do it all on their own. And this is a woman who struggles; we never get to see that in Hollywood. We never get to see a Black woman just going through a regular womanhood kind of thing.” That ordinariness is essential to Rich’s vision, which weaves together her background in theater design and performance with a rigorously developed attention to the mundane, recalling the work of filmmakers like Barbara Loden, Kathleen Collins, and Chantal Akerman.
“I feel like non-Black people watch Black cinema and they say, ‘Well, what can we learn about the Black experience?’ Instead of saying, ‘What can we learn about ourselves through this character?’” said Rich. “I was experimenting with reimagining anti-romance, reimagining the female lead, because a Black female lead is going to be strong. She’s going to be pristine. And so this Black female lead, she doesn’t have it together. She lets it all hang out. She has schmutz on her face. She doesn’t have time to wipe it off.”
FILMMAKER: SHATARA MICHELLE FORD
Before Shatara Michelle Ford wrote their critically acclaimed first feature, Test Pattern, released this year by Kino Lorber, they had been trying to make something else entirely. One project, a historical drama, proved too ambitious to garner the funding they needed. “I was really excited about this movie, but I couldn’t [even] get a million-dollar movie made—and here I was, asking to do a period piece that was going to be $40 million,” Ford told me over Zoom. “My agents at the time were like, ‘You need to sell this and accept that that’s as far as it’s going to go, because you haven’t made a movie yet.’ And I was like, ‘Fuck, I really have to make a movie.’ That’s the context I tend not to share, but really the truth is that I had other things that I wanted to do. And I knew that if I kept sitting around asking people for stuff, it just wasn’t going to happen.”
Test Pattern follows a young couple, Renesha (Brittany S. Hall) and Evan (Will Brill), before but largely in the aftermath of Renesha being drugged and sexually assaulted during a girls night out after her first day at a new job. Renesha is reluctant to report her rape to police, but Evan insists that they go to get a rape kit. The process of navigating the health-care system proves excruciating—hospitals either don’t have rape kits available, or don’t have the appropriate clinician on hand to administer the examination, which itself can be retraumatizing. Renesha, who is Black, experiences both overt and subtle medical racism while Evan, who is white, nudges her through the system.
Ford has a background in sociology and policy, though they didn’t know what a rape kit was until 2017. That year, there was a lot of talk about the rape-kit backlog, the stream of untested kits languishing in police departments nationwide. But in their research, Ford noticed something even more insidious at play. “The other problem is that there are a whole bunch of people like me who wanted to know about forensic testing, were going to have access to it for whatever reason,” but couldn’t, they said—whether due to incorrect information, being charged for a kit even though that’s illegal, or another sort of discouragement.
“So I went to see my friend in Boulder and I wrote Test Pattern,” Ford said. “It didn’t take long because it was only 35 pages, but the idea [was that] I was trying to create a blueprint, to do something slightly experimental, and I wanted to create space for actors to help me cultivate the story a little bit further. But more than anything, because every beat that I put down was just so heavy, I didn’t think that it deserved tons of plot and information. I just really wanted things laid bare and for the audience to experience as much of that in real time.”
FILMMAKER: EPHRAIM ASILI
Ephraim Asili’s first feature, The Inheritance, was conceived as something of an act of defiance. “I had been making a bunch of short films, and at a certain point I just decided that, well, when you make short films, you always get put into group shows. And your content may or may not jive with what you’re being programmed with.” Asili decided that he would simply “make a film long enough that I could just have my own program. I’d also been making more experimental, documentary-style work and wanting to challenge my practice a little bit. I thought, Why don’t I make a feature about my experiences living in a collective when I was young?”
The Inheritance tells a fictionalized story about a Black radical leftist collective in Philadelphia whose members imbue Black radical thought, art, and literature into their everyday cooperative living arrangement. Asili wasn’t able to shoot the film on location, since his funding from EMPAC at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute stipulated that he had to film on a set in New York. Still, the filmmaker was able to bring a strong sense of Philadelphia to the shoot, including by filming a teach-in by members of the Philadelphia MOVE Organization who had just been released from decades-long prison sentences. “That was a joy,” Asili told me. “It was a great professional moment for me. I have a long history in relationship with MOVE. And so what you see happening in the film was, in many ways, what happened in my real life. I lived only about a block away from MOVE headquarters when I was 20. And then from about 10, until I was about 25 or 26, I was very close with MOVE. Mike Africa Jr., who’s in the film, we used to play basketball together and we raised our kids together up until a certain point—we go way back. So it was a very organic process in terms of thinking about bringing MOVE up to the set to get involved.”
That organic ethos also translated to his cast, which included former students and actors hired for a previous workshop reading of the screenplay. “By the time I had finished the script,” Asili said, “it was very much catered toward the individuals that I was working with. And I had a sense of who they were as people. So I really tried to make the script and the shooting cater to what I felt like their strengths and weaknesses are, because I knew the strength of the film wasn’t going to come from having all these rehearsals: It’s going to work because there are other things happening, and there’s a certain realism.”
IN SUDDEN DARKNESS
FILMMAKER: TAYLER MONTAGUE
For In Sudden Darkness, a short film about familial intimacy during the 2003 Manhattan blackout, filmmaker Tayler Montague had to figure out how to bring darkness to the city on a tiny budget. “My extras and my actors [in that scene] partially comprised my brother and his friends. And people that knew me in my life, my own friends, they showed up,” Montague said. “My DP, Mia Cioffi Henry, was incredibly helpful in terms of conversations about how we stage a blackout. How do we make it look like we’re walking in the dark? And also, my key grip and my gaffer, Ines Gowland and Rory Padgett.”
Their idea for visualizing the blackout was pulled from one of Kerry James Marshall’s Black Painting, which depicts the slain Illinois Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton’s bedroom. “I saw it as part of the Mastry show that happened at the Met Breuer some years back. And I remember being stunned by it because when you’re away from the canvas, it just looks like it’s all black. And then you get closer and closer to the canvas, and these kinds of things are revealed,” Montague said. “And so that was kind of the same process I wanted to bring to that scene in terms of thinking through it; we’re in the dark, but you see people moving. You see shoulders, you see movement, you hear voices.”
Released during the pandemic, In Sudden Darkness—Montague’s first film—was met warmly by festivals and programmers. It screened at New York Film Festival, Indie Memphis, AFI Fest, to name a few. In some ways, Montague said, the film has benefited from the circuit going virtual: “There’s an accessibility there. Maybe people who wouldn’t have been able to see it, had it just played on a screen city-by-city, were able to see it, which is really important to me. I want this to be a film that is accessible and does return to its community, online, or wherever, once it’s done doing the Festival Circuits. That’s my hope.
“Even with staging,” Montague continued, “it was also important for me to have it back in the community. Because I remember, even in my own experiences with the blackout, it was like, if everyone you live on the block with and you know intimately is outside, you start to be able to tell each other by voice. And that was something I wanted to fold into the film. These people know each other.”
FILMMAKER: MERAWI GERIMA
Like many first-time feature directors, Gerima was moved to tell a personal story in The film, distributed by Ava DuVernay’s company Array last summer, focuses on Jay (Obinna Nwachukwu), a young filmmaker fresh out of film school who returns to his hometown only to find that everything has irrevocably transformed. But in speaking directly to the gentrification of D.C.’s Black neighborhoods, Gerima knew he was headed towards an unresolvable conflict. By turning the camera on his neighborhood, he wondered, was the filmmaker himself exploiting the people he purported to give a platform?
“Truth be told, a couple of days into filming, we hadn’t even settled on the fact that Jay was a filmmaker coming home,” Gerima told me. “[Originally,] the guy came home and found [things had] [changed], because I felt that once I declared he was a filmmaker, it would be too obvious that it’s me. But once we just decided to say it out loud, that it’s literally the story of my life, it became one of those incredibly rewarding processes. The film itself really took off in terms of what we do with the camera, with the story, with the actors. My mother is in the film; the kids in the film are like my homies growing up.”
Gerima grew up around artistic parents who were constantly hustling to get their films funded and seen. His father, Haile Gerima, and mother, Shirikiana Aina (who appears in Residue as the mother of a young man who’s just been released from jail), were part of the L.A. Rebellion film movement, alongside Black directors like Julie Dash, Charles Burnett, and Larry Clark. He remembers handing out flyers as a kid for the 1993 film Sankofa, which was internationally acclaimed but largely ignored in the United States. But though filmmaking seems to course through his DNA, the vocation means that even on his own block, he’s something of an outsider.
“It’s an unresolved contradiction in the film and in my own life,” Gerima said. “Because I did make the film about my folks and it did launch my career in many ways. And in a material sense, [the film] did very little for the people who are in it. Probably in no way, shape, or form has changed the day-to-day kind of grind that they’re subject to as Black people in Washington, D.C. And so, to me, that’s still there. It wasn’t resolved in the film. But I think doing the film helped me to understand how complex the contradiction itself is. Because that story was very important for me to tell.”
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