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 City-based clinical psychologist and first-time documentary filmmaker Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your feature project.
My name is Dr. Gillian Scott-Ward. I am a clinical psychologist and a first-time documentary filmmaker. I started production of my first film in 2013. I decided to pursue filmmaking really on a fluke. I just had an idea for a documentary; it was inspired by things going on within me, what I was seeing in the world and what I was seeing going on for some of the young people I was working with. I attuned to an unconscious, knowing that “something wasn’t right” and needed to be explored via film. I wanted to combine my knowledge of people and my academic background in a way that would impact more people than just writing a paper or doing other things that psychologists traditionally do. So I decided to use film as a way to explore an idea in, hopefully, a way that a large audience would have access to and be interested in.
Film is one of the most powerful mediums–it connects people who would otherwise have no contact with each other, globally. My doctoral dissertation looked at, among other things, the influence of media, both on personal and racial identity, but also as a vehicle for understanding our social world. I really want to be a part of the fight to create content that portrays black people with nuance and complexity. The reality is that we are fighting against hundreds of years of psychological and systemic dehumanization of black people. We can’t mince words; we can’t talk around the issues. Dehumanizing black people is literally the foundation upon which the United States, and many places beyond us, were built. I am really excited to combine my understanding of psychology and humanity to create media that helps black people feel seen, heard and validated, and also gives genuine insight into black experiences as opposed to black experiences as seen through a white, pathologizing or demeaning lens.
My first documentary feature film is called Back to Natural. It reveals the well-hidden and shocking truths about natural hair, politics and racial identity in black communities. It exposes the globalized policing of black bodies via hair. It’s part historical narrative; the evolution of black people’s relationship with hair pre- and post-colonization and slavery, until now. The film looks at the modern-day vestiges of that history and clearly lays out that while some things have changed, some have not. How many people know that, all over the world, including in the United States of America and continental Africa, children are kicked out of school because of a hairstyle? That schools can legally restrict a black student’s ability to wear their hair in styles that are appropriate for the unique textures of hair that black people have? How many people know that it is legal to discriminate against people looking for jobs because of their hair? Why aren’t people honest in acknowledging that this is a racial issue masquerading as something else to get around anti-discrimination laws? As a result of these realities, the film delves into the psychological, emotional and community repercussions of this oppression on identity, authenticity, relationships, health and general well-being.
I shot the film in the U.S., France and South Africa, and spoke to a variety of people to compare and contrast black peoples’ experiences worldwide.
As a psychologist, I think a lot about healing, how people heal from individual and systemic trauma and oppression. I find my work as an individual therapist very fulfilling and impactful, and I also am aligned with healers who want to grapple with what healing on a larger scale may look like. In essence, that is what my work is about: creating engaging and entertaining content that has the residual impact of touching souls and sparking deeper curiosity and understanding of the self, as well as compassion, insight and connection with others.
The film also has an underlying theme of “how do we help people thrive, not just survive?” So, if a school discriminates against your kid for having natural hair and kicks them out of school, you can easily just help them survive that reality and straighten their hair, or do whatever the school finds acceptable. But what the research says is that it doesn’t actually help the child thrive. What helps them thrive is to feel positive about themselves and their black identity. This is what the research says that by denying or stigmatizing a black student’s/black person’s identity, you prevent them from performing their best. It’s restrictive; it’s simply a different type of bondage.
We cannot flourish when we are oppressed and forced to live hidden and restricted lives. I look at the injustices students face all over the world, being kicked out of school or otherwise prohibited from getting an education because of the choice to wear their hair in styles that are appropriate for their natural hair. Similarly, we discussed the ways in which adults, globally, also have to create these alternative presentations which are not necessarily natural for them and, frankly, put them in danger. The EWG (Environmental Working Group) did some research and found that because white standards are forced upon people of color, people of color not only spend more money on hair and beauty products to meet these unreasonable standards, but the results also show increased and disproportionate exposure to toxic and carcinogenic substances. This just adds to why there are significant health disparities in communities of color, specifically black communities. Not only do we have to deal with the daily, physiological impacts of being constantly on edge because of racism and oppression; not only do we have to worry that our doctors won’t treat us appropriately because of unconscious bias; not only do we have to worry about the food available in our neighborhoods; but to be educated and secure employment, many of us (specifically those with less privilege) are either exposed to toxic chemicals in straightening our hair, or we wear wigs and weaves that can permanently damage our scalps and hair follicles. I assure you the average non-black person has NO idea about this. That’s unacceptable. I have never been one to suffer in silence, so there it is.
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
Back to Natural is currently in film festival circuit. We have been in about 15 film festivals in cities in the United States, South Africa, France, The Netherlands and England. Visit the film’s website for upcoming screening information.
I am also organizing on my own a school/college/community center tour, targeting students, educators and families, as well as offering the movie in conjunction with a healing workshop. The workshops explore racial identities, discuss the psychological and physical impacts of racism, and I provide concrete coping and healing tools. It’s really about giving people a place to explore themselves in an effort to connect with others, acknowledge pain and encourage healing.
When did this specific journey begin?
In 2013, I was working in Manhattan, New York, as a clinical psychologist. During the spring of that year, I remember having this “ah-ha” moment. I don’t even think we were talking about anything related to hair; I just had this thought, “I have to go natural.” I just felt confident and sure that it needed to happen. I turned to my partner and said, “I’m going natural.” His response was a very nonchalant “OK.” Immediately after that, it hit me. I had to do a documentary. I don’t know why that was my next thought. I had no experience in filmmaking, and I had never even considered making a film. I just knew it had to be done. My husband just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, “That’s a great idea!” as if it was the most normal and expected turn of events. The next day we started production.
I had always been a big believer in intuition and that we have positive forces guiding us. All you have to do is listen. This project was a real confirmation of that. I had no specific end goals for this project when we started. I just believed there was a process that I needed to engage in and explore, and that eventually, it would make sense. And it did. For the next four years, I met people, traveled and filmed their experiences and their relationships with their hair. I learned how to use a camera, do lighting and editing. It wasn’t always the smoothest experience, but I learned so much, and it opened up my world. It feels like such a blessing that something that seemed like a whim – to just “make a documentary” – now has literally been seen on three continents, and seems to be having a positive impact. It’s a real testament to risk-taking and following your inner knowing.
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 was the director, writer, producer (though we have two other producers, Marquis Smalls and Dominic Ward), story editor (I had an assistant/graphics editor, Jacopo Francia), light, sound, and pretty much everything else. I don’t know what “achieving balance” means, but it was a long, four-year process. I completed the project while working full-time at Barnard College of Columbia University in the counseling center as a psychologist. I think getting a doctorate prepared me for that because I am not used to instant gratification. I also didn’t have specific goals when I started production, which made it easier. It was just a project I was working on when I wasn’t at my “day job.” I found it exhilarating and exciting. I was learning new skills every day, using different parts of my brain, meeting new people. It was an exciting (and challenging) time in my life.
As you work on your first feature, 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?
The most helpful thing for me, right now, would be help with the next steps! Our producer, Marquis Smalls, is reaching out to networks. I am reaching out to distributors abroad. I am formulating next projects now. It would be great to get funding for a complete team.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
My biggest fear is that it’s not good enough and/or it doesn’t do the issue justice. I worry if I am doing what I need to do to make the most out of the opportunities this film can connect me to. Obviously, the film could have been better had I had an actual crew or worked with an entire team of experts. That goes without saying.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
I still lose sleep over at least one thing I had to cut out from this film. I shot some of the film in South Africa, and it was a scene that gave us insight into issues a woman experiences marrying into an Xhosa tribe and their reaction to her based on her skin tone and natural hair texture and how hard she had to work to prevent her daughter from internalizing these messages. I felt it was so important, but we had a time limit on the length of the film. I am going to find it and release it separately because I think black people outside of South Africa have to see this to understand that in some parts of Africa, other Africans perpetuate anti-black values and beauty standards. That’s deep.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Every single step was “the toughest challenge so far.” Learning to use a camera was the toughest; then it was lighting; then it was sound; then it was editing. Now it’s trying to take the film from the film festival network to distributors and sales agents. It’s also now figuring out how to begin to pursue my next project. Do I embark “alone” again – just me and a camera – and start shooting? Or do I try to assemble a team with no budget? I am still in the learning phase and anticipate it will just be like this for a while.
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?
In documentary film, the stories are endless as are the perspectives a filmmaker can take on it. It may seem like everything has been done before if the content creators are all the same or similar. I think there is so much out there; people with fresh ideas just need opportunities. I think sometimes people with funds, the “decision-makers,” aren’t comfortable with risk, which stifles the field and possibilities to some extent. I think that’s why it’s important that we don’t wait for permission to create; we must find a way.
Hopes for what kind of life you want the film to have after it’s made? And realities (as you see it) of what kind of life the film will have after it’s made?
I really hope that the film will be used as a healing tool and also as a “historical document.” There are many natural hair movies, and they all tell a different story, and all reflect a unique time and place. I hope that this film lives as one of the many pieces of work that we keep to document our stories. I really hope to continue to travel worldwide with it for as long as I can and do it in conjunction with group healing work. Of course, I would like to get it sold and try to make some of my production money back, but I have less control over that.
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?
People don’t really respond with confidence when you tell them “I’m a filmmaker now.” I had a mentor tell me he was surprised the movie isn’t “languishing on YouTube somewhere.” All the belief has to come from within. I did have a lot of people believe in me though; I have chosen a good circle to exist in. I have recently been looking up African proverbs, and the one I connected to today is from the Ashanti: “You must act as if it is impossible to fail.”
Do you have a support system? Family, friends, fellow filmmakers… alcohol (#Jokes… kind of)? 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)?
I could not have done any of this without my support system. My partner and my family have been incredibly supportive. My family was my largest Indiegogo funder. I found that people in the natural hair community and the documentary film community were so supportive, collaborative and giving with no expectations. It feels like a real community. People just want to share their knowledge and their enthusiasm. It’s nice to be in a world where people approach you assuming your work is valuable, and they want to see you thrive, and they realize that everyone thriving is what’s best for us all. I am not a big believer in the “there is not enough” mentality; I think it’s false and toxic. There is room for all of us to do well. Especially in this time, where we are politically, and what we see in the media as being representative of America; I am happy that that’s not what my community looks like.
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 it?
Social media is really vital. You need to build an audience, or no one will see your content. It’s really that simple. Managing social media is a whole job in and of itself, so, obviously, I am not doing as well as I could be. I try my best to embrace it, but there is no way I am maxing out the benefits of social media.
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 completely buy that there is a “black film renaissance.” I am extremely encouraged. I was talking to another filmmaker this week, and she said, “It’s a good time to be a black (woman) filmmaker,” and I agree. You cannot deny the content is good and makes money. Once the “powers that be” realize something makes money, they can’t turn it off. They opened the floodgates to our greatness. Here we go! *Picks up my bag and strolls in*
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion (I know that similar initiatives have been announced in other parts of the world; in the UK notably). 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 yourself? Are you encouraged by what might be a changing landscape that may be more welcoming of you and your voice?
I don’t feel knowledgeable enough to really know. I just feel conflicted about the issue largely because I resent having to see these organizations/systems as being capable of judging black content in any real way. Some of the Oscar judges refused to even watch Get Out. How can I take an organization with members like this seriously?! I cannot. I don’t respect that at all. It’s disgusting, and frankly, they should be completely ashamed.
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?
This is exciting, and, frankly, where I think the best content will be. My fantasy is that with projects that end up on these newer platforms, creative decisions will be made by people much closer to the project, as opposed to creative decisions being made by a small, homogeneous group of decision-makers at the head of these networks/big studios.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
I learned that filmmaking is pretty hard, and pretty expensive, but is largely about persistence. I wish I had more technical skills. That’s really where I want to grow — really focusing on improving my visual and storytelling skills. I think this first film gave me confidence and a starting point to get serious about making films.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
A great film is a film that sits in my soul. It’s anything that leaves me feeling more connected to humanity in some way.
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
Obviously, Ava DuVernay is inspiring. She, like myself, never even picked up a camera until she was in her 30s. I feel like she creates possibilities simply by existing. People talk about the power of Olympic athletes setting records and how each time someone sets a record, it pushes humanity further in their imagination in terms of what’s possible. That’s what Ava is to me: an Olympic athlete who is pushing the bounds of what we think is humanly possible.
Do filmmakers have any responsibility to culture? Do you feel that, as a black woman filmmaker, being a creative person requires that you “give back,” or tell a particular story, or not do something specific? Why or why not?
Freedom, to me, means being able just to do what you want. I used to really feel that strongly, that black people have to do everything with the understanding that the impact reverberates exponentially for all black people. Maybe that’s too much to put on people.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
Success looks like my work being a catalyst for healing on an individual, communal and societal level. Success, for me, with this project is getting written “grooming standards” for schools and jobs changed so people can engage in the world as themselves, authentically. It’s time for integration. What we have is not integration if we can’t come as we are. I love the work I am starting to do now, traveling with the movie and offering healing workshops. It really allows me an opportunity to bring together the two worlds that I feel most connected to: healing and film. That’s success; that’s joy. So I want to be able to do this for this film and with new projects in the future. All my work, I assume, will have some theme of healing in it.
I encourage people to join my mailing list so that they can be the first to know when Back to Natural will be in a city near them. Visit backtonaturaldoc.com.
I also encourage educators and community leaders to reach out to me and schedule a screening alone or with a healing workshop. People can find out more information on our website or by sending a message to email@example.com.
Any final words or thoughts that you’d like to share?
I can officially announce that actress Kimberly Elise has just joined our team as an executive producer! We are also partnering with her on her line of all-natural beauty products called Kimberly Elise Naturals!
Watch a teaser for the upcoming documentary below: