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 Daphne Gabriel. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
I was born in Inglewood, raised in South Central Los Angeles to Haitian parents. I received my B.A. in liberal studies at Cal State Los Angeles and my M.A. at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England. I started writing out of necessity. I felt that by writing I’d find my confidence and opportunities. My feature film is called Papillon. The story: In the summer of 1982, an unfulfilled, black, Midwestern housewife leaves her family without a trace to become a Hollywood actress.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-?)
I’m currently crafting the treatment.
When did this specific journey begin?
Music sparks creativity for me. Blinded by the Light by Manfred Mann came on the radio one night, and the image of a woman sitting at a desk, surrounded by a sea of cubicles of worker bees. Her eyes are stunned. She’d just received a call with news that her life was about to change drastically.
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’ve gone from wanting to be the lead actor in Papillon to then wanting to be the director and actor to now: write, produce, direct and cast another actor. I’ve worn many hats in past projects. I’ve learned that I need to allow an equal amount of time for each and be kind to myself in the process and to remember the story is number one. I’ll be submitting this screenplay to labs within Sundance Institute and Film Independent for guidance.
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?
Guidance is the most helpful for right now. I’ve had conversations with other filmmakers who’ve shared info on how to make films (specifically how to make films on a budget), what makes the audience care about a character and helping me recognize and hone in on my natural skills.
What worries you most (if anything) as you embark on your first feature?
The fear is that this story of a black woman on a journey won’t be compelling to moviegoers.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
The toughest decision was firing my friend.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
The hardest for me is always starting: getting the idea(s) out of my head and down onto paper. Imposter Syndrome rears its ugly head.
When it comes to storytelling, many have said that everything’s been done before, and we’ve seen it all. Agree/disagree? How does your film primarily differentiate or distinguish itself from other work?
I do feel we’ve seen it all regarding the basic storylines, but the way a story can be told, I think, keeps these retellings intriguing. For example, combining genres like Get Out and the film scoring in Moonlight. My film differentiates from other work because it’s a coming of age story about a black woman in her 30s pursuing her dreams in 1980s Los Angeles.
Your hopes for what kind of life you want your film to have after it’s made?
I want to screen it at the Downtown Independent in Los Angeles. Then, at film festivals like LA Film Festival, Sundance, Pan African Film Festival, Telluride and SXSW. My reality for Papillon is to tour the film and have public screenings in Los Angeles and New York.
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?
Last year, one of my projects was put on hiatus. I had to remind myself why I wanted to tell this story in the first place to stay away from the discouragement and by doing that, I rewrote the script, and now it’s much stronger.
Do you have a support system?
My family has always cheered me on. It means the world to me to have their support. It’s rare! My artist friends and I are on this journey together, so when we’re able to meet up or chat on the phone and share good news and frustrations, it’s a reminder that this is a communal process. We read each others’ scripts, act in each others’ films, etc. Since my family lives in LA as well, I have many resources – one of them being a house! Greatness is having the privilege of creating art all the time.
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?
I go back and forth. I do hashtags, and then I don’t. It’s necessary for me because it’s an open space for sharing my work. I take social media breaks between pre-production and production. While in post-production, I share behind-the-scenes photos and videos. My goal is to have a healthy relationship with social media; make it work for me versus me working for it.
Are you inspired by what many are calling a “black film renaissance” (in the USA specifically)? 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 believe my work has a chance to travel far because of what’s happening in film! The fact that there’s room for more than one black female voice is very exciting! The more dynamic and specific the POV, the more we become humanized. We have the opportunity to show how multi-faceted we are as a diaspora.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this (the few successes we’ve seen thus far, the various initiatives announced to diversify the industry behind and in front of the camera, etc.) will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourselves? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
I’m most certainly encouraged by the changing landscape in Hollywood. My voice is welcomed right now. Yet, I’m constantly crossing my fingers that what the industry is building has a foundation and is sustainable for the next generation of filmmakers.
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?
It’s inspired me to be more welcoming and patient with all the ideas that run through my mind. I, specifically, target Netflix because I feel that my values are aligned with theirs.
Key lessons learned so far? Also, what do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
Pick the right people. The best idea is the best idea. Stay grounded and have fun. I learned that I can create anything I want, and the more I do it, the clearer my storytelling will become.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Well-defined characters and art direction make a film great to me. I tend to look for how the director chooses to introduce the characters.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Spike Lee and Wes Anderson both have dynamic characters and eye-popping art direction. The worlds they create are always intense! I love the Coen Brothers; I’ve been watching The Big Lebowski over and over. I love how I can feel how hot it is in Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing. Every character interaction in The Royal Tenenbaums is deeply intertwined. When I was really young, I remember sitting with my grandfather, who spoke little English, watching Coming to America and him laughing uncontrollably. I realized at that moment how transcending movies can be, how they can go beyond words.
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 feel the responsibility of contributing to the culture because I believe that stories make us more empathetic. Creating something is a vulnerable act, and sometimes, someone may not have the capacity to give more than their art, and that’s okay. The art can be the “give back.”
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have? What does success look like for you?
Health, joy and growth in my art-making.
Where can we watch your past work, if available?
I’m on Instagram @daphne.gabriel. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Watch my short film, We Traveled and Came Home, below: