What Directing My First Short Film Taught Me About Black Stories

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I’m a junior in college studying film production. This year, I accomplished something I’ve been wanting to do for years: produced a short film written and directed by me. 

The film was made as a thesis/final project for my Film Production minor. And now that I’ve wrapped production, I’ve learned so many things that only real life experience on set could’ve taught me. In classrooms, I developed an understanding of the art of film and directing, and through my own viewing and reading about cinema I’ve studied best practices and developed my own tastes. But being a director and working with a team gave me insight to the meticulousness of creating images and the deepened sense of intention that goes into—or at least, should go into—visual storytelling.

Filmmaking is difficult. But it’s also probably the most rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever done. Part of that is because I was so passionate about the story I set out to tell. Each challenge in the production process felt necessary to overcome, since it led me closer to putting out the story. If there was anything I wasn’t sure how to do, or couldn’t afford to pay for based on my initial budget, or if there was any moment where I felt like I may be taking this too seriously for something that’s simply supposed to be a school project—because I definitely had those moments—I took some time to reflect and always came to the same conclusion: this is bigger than me.

That doesn’t mean that it’s about my career, or that I’m submitting to Sundance or anything. In fact, the locality of the film and its audience, and the community that led me to creating the story, is what makes it larger than me. This made me ponder my role as a creative, especially a Black one. What is the “why” of my work? Not just this specific film, but everything I’ll do after? I don’t intend for all of my work to look the same or have the same message, but I do think I have a core purpose that won’t change: what is the ethos of my creativity as a Black woman?

The subject of “black trauma” has come up a lot in recent discussions about black media. The abundance of movies focused on slavery, the new Amazon Prime series Them, and the Oscar-winning short film Two Distant Strangers have sparked discussions about the prevalence of trauma in stories about black people, to the extent that many of these stories seem to be about the trauma itself and less about the people.

 As a filmmaker, I have nuanced thoughts about the issue, but I think creating a film changed my perspective on it even more. With each frame, at the beginning of each scene, I considered every choice I made as a director with new scrutiny. My film is about a girl who disappears at the age of 14, and follows her family and friends as they mourn the youth she never got to fully enjoy until she returns seven years later. The film addresses trauma without focusing on it. What I hope I accomplished is an expression of care for the audience while also honoring a story that many black youth can unfortunately relate to. 

Trauma shows up in all kinds of films because it is a real aspect of our lives as individuals, and it evokes emotions that we often need to release artistically. Both making and watching these films can be also an opportunity for healing. However, it is our responsibility as Black creatives to ensure that this healing is not one-ended: if focusing on trauma in your film helps you work through your own, are you also simultaneously triggering your audience? 

This is especially important when considering the treatment of Black women in media. Even in the stories that do focus on Black people, many of them treat Black women characters as collateral damage—relying on stereotypes, or leaving them undeveloped. This becomes even more apparent when considering dark skin Black women, fat Black women, Black women with disabilities, queer Black women, etc. We rarely see ourselves, and when we do it’s often in a light that doesn’t feel accurate or loving at all.

In Larry Neal’s 1968 essay The Black Arts Movement, he says that the primary duty of the Black artist is to “speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people.” This means that these needs must be prioritized in the artist’s work before anything else. White audiences may have a cultural (and often spiritual, in a sadistic sense) need to see stories of black people’s subjugation, exploitation and pain, if one chooses to believe that seeing these stories helps to extend their sense of empathy.

 But what do we gain from centering our art around appealing to the empathy of our oppressor? Neal quotes Etheridge Knight in the essay who says that “implicit in the act of protest is the belief that a change will be forthcoming once the masters are aware of the protestor’s ‘grievance’ (the very word connotes begging, supplications to the gods).” Instead of approaching storytelling as an act of protest, Black artists should use it as a tool to be in conversation with Black people.

The great Toni Morrison once said that her intention was not to talk about Black people; “I wanted to be I conversation with them. I wanted to be among them to say this is us.” Making my short film taught me that my first priority is for Black people, especially Black women, to look at the images and characters I’ve created and say, with pride, “this is us.”

What type of Black stories would you want to see in film? Let us know in the comments below!

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