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 Dallas, Texas-based writer and director Seckeita Lewis. Read our conversation below.
Introduce yourself and your project.
I’m a writer and director from the South Side of Chicago who found her way to becoming a filmmaker through an unconventional path with a background in marketing and engineering. I settled in Texas and co-founded Lewis Taylor Productions in 2014 with my husband and partner, Brandon “Snackbar” Lewis. My first feature, Jerico, was independently financed and produced and earned a Best New Director Award from the Women’s International Film Festival in 2016, and a total of 14 festival awards from Best Film to Best Actor. Jerico was released nationwide on May 1, 2018, in Walmart stores and Amazon.
Jerico is a satire about best friends who set out on the morning of the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 with aspirations to capture the newly available Paper Press Manager promotion. But when their car breaks down, all hell breaks loose. With the dangers and biases of an unrelenting Jim Crow South, along with a menacing lynch mob in hot pursuit, a simple trip to work becomes an outright fight for survival.
In today’s chaotic, social climate, we feel Jerico can be a causative factor to positive change that begins with opening lines of communication through its unique use of comedy to tackle the very sensitive subject of race. Audiences are educated and entertained at the same time, leading to a discussion between races about our past and where we stand today. Conversation is the first step in moving forward as a nation.
The film highlights the Piney Woods School where my husband and writer, Brandon Lewis, attended high school to keep him safe from rising crime in South Central. Piney Woods is one of the oldest black boarding schools in the country, founded in 1909 to educate the children of slaves. It never turns away a student for financial reasons. We intend to use the film to raise awareness and support them in their fundraising efforts to keep the school open. We are donating a portion of our profits to the school.
Jerico is led by newcomers Brandon Lewis and Anthony Fort, supported by Black Hollywood icon Irma P. Hall (Big Mama in Soul Food and Hap and Leonard); George Wallace (the legendary Las Vegas comedian); one of television’s favorite moms, JoMarie Payton (Harriette Baines-Winslow in the TV show Family Matters); Gregg Daniel (HBO’s True Blood) and Numa Perrier (filmmaker and co-founder of Black&SexyTV).
How far are you into the process (writing, pre-production, shooting, post-)?
Distribution. We completed the film in March 2016, were on the festival circuit through September 2017, signed distribution November 2017, and, as of May 1, the film is now available on DVD for purchase in stores or online at Walmart. When it launched on May 1, it sold out within hours and was delayed for orders until they could replenish. We are also rated “Amazon’s Choice” now because of the film’s momentum. It is the best feeling in the world to finally see it available. I am excited to see where else the distributor finds placement for it.
When did this specific journey begin?
Summer 2014. My husband and I decided we were going to make a feature film inspired by his comedic impressions. The social turmoil of the time with Mike Brown’s death and the resulting unrest in Ferguson later influenced the development of the final script into a much more serious project intended to impact change.
How many roles are you having to play beyond directing?
Several. I am primarily the film’s director and co-creator. However, I am also one of the executive producers, one of the producers, an editor, craft services, accountant and more. My husband is the writer, star, executive producer, casting, tow truck driver, etc. Honestly, we didn’t have real balance. Our project was much bigger than our budget, so it required the wearing of multiple hats. Also, we were working full-time jobs during production, so we leveraged our two-week vacation to shoot the project and used our nights and weekends for everything else.
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?
Access. There are many resources and avenues for films to get made and distributed, but getting through to the right connection is a key hurdle for success. Getting someone to watch our film outside of the festivals was one of the biggest hurdles to moving forward. Just having that introduction and cosign to a project is worth its weight in gold to get focus. By networking, we have met some amazing people but need to do much more to get the right people involved in our next project. In doing so, we know we just have to be ready to perform when the opportunities arise.
Major fears, concerns, worries (if any) as you embark on your first feature?
My fears didn’t materialize until after we were well into shooting. I didn’t go to film school. In some ways, I think that is good because I was naive enough to jump into a full feature when many folks have been intimidated by it. I had no idea how many films don’t make it out of planning or ran out of funding before they were finished and were left sitting on frustrated directors’ shelves. When we were filming, learning the intricacies, I worried if could I pull off directing seasoned talent and whether the film would turn out alright, if audiences will understand it and whether we would get it across the finish line to distribution.
Toughest decision(s) you’ve had to make so far?
How to get the film to market. After all the ups and downs during the journey of making the film, when all was said and done, we had to decide whether we should self-distribute or give our baby away to someone else to manage. We loved the control of self-distribution, but we felt like we lacked the knowledge, and more importantly, didn’t have any marketing budget to go it alone. We ultimately decided to release the film with a small distributor, getting it into Walmart, which was an important milestone for us. We realize that we still need to market our film, as distributors have lots of films, but at least the film is now accessible. That was the first step. Now we can go on from there with publicity and marketing.
Toughest challenge(s) you’ve faced so far?
Once we attracted Hollywood talent to the project, it quickly changed everything about our project. It was a blessing that they found it unique enough to join the cast, but it meant we needed to step up our approach across the board which significantly increased our budget. We also needed to convert to SAG, making it a union shoot. The toughest challenge was figuring out how to do it all, hosting these amazing acting legends that we admired so much and, at the same time, balancing the budget.
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 don’t think it is true. Yes, most stories come back to a few principles, but the context in which it is told can be truly original. We have seen horror movies before, but I would argue the context of Get Out last year was truly original. For my film, Jerico, it is familiar that we focus on racism in the Jim Crow South, but the context of our heroes trying to get to work on one fateful morning and the way we balance comedy and drama is unique. Coupled with the harshness of the language and situation, it made it hard for us even to categorize our film. Is it a comedy, a drama, a satire? Well, the answer is that it is a satire, purposely over-the-top at times. But then we weave comedy with a harsh history to influence change in the audience.
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?
Originally, our dream was to see the film on the big screen. All the ups and downs of trying to get it there were sobering. In the process, our goal changed. By the time we got the distribution deal, we had decided against a limited theatrical release because, to be successful, we understood how much marketing it would take to get butts in seats. Since we are with a small distribution firm, we focused on Walmart, and VOD and SVOD streaming for broader reach, providing a better opportunity to recoup cost.
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?
All the time! I always say it was the hardest thing I have ever done (and I took thermodynamics), but I can’t wait to do it again. The idea of creating something from nothing, seeing your own stories in real life, keeps bringing me back.
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)?
My husband and my parents are my biggest support. My husband is an actor, writer and comedian. He and I have the same vision and passion for filmmaking and entertainment. I am more behind the camera, while he is in front. So that helps a ton. We push each other to be better and smarter every day. I have the most amazing parents in the world. They believe in taking control of your future and being your own boss. They are supportive and encouraging in this journey, offering encouragement, a sympathetic ear and even funding support. I would not have the confidence to do something like this without them.
How active are you with your use of social media as a tool for any part of the process?
We are very active. Well, truthfully, my husband is more so for the film. It is incredibly important to enroll people on your journey, to care about the project and want to see it when it is done. Social media is the best medium for it at this point. It is not in my DNA, so I have to make a concerted effort to do it. I am not great, but getting better.
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.?
Definitively! Especially since Dee Rees and Ava come from similar working backgrounds as I do, I feel that their success and drive is a proof point that I could get there, too, via unconventional routes. I am enamored with Ryan Coogler’s work, as well. His storytelling feels effortless but dead-on every single time.
Thoughts on proposed changes made by the Academy and Hollywood studios to nurture diversity and inclusion. Do you think all of this will lead to something sustained that will assist up-and-comers like yourselves?
I am definitely encouraged with the efforts being made. I hope to see it all continue and expand to markets outside of LA and NY in the form of satellite programs to support and reach artists across the country. I live in Dallas, but I’m a member of film associations in LA because of the resources and educational opportunities. I’d love to see more of these resources expand regionally.
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?
Things have changed a bunch. I think every filmmaker longs to see their film on the big screen, but hybrid models like what Netflix has done provides the best of both worlds, in my opinion. Everyone will see your film in this model. I’d love to work with all of those platforms. I think different content lends itself best to different platforms. Each has its strengths. The toughest thing to figure out, however, is what model allows you to pay back investors and recoup your costs. That part should be a 101 class for every filmmaker today to set the right expectations for their content going into each project.
Key lessons learned so far? What do you know today that you wish you knew when you began your journey as a filmmaker?
The lesson: “It is truly a journey.” As a novice, I didn’t understand just how long the entire filmmaking process would be. Post production is a bear, but we expected it. What we were not prepared for was the year-and-a-half that followed as we took the film on the festival circuit and all the costs that come with that, for example, paying for travel for yourself and your key cast. I think a lot of new filmmakers may not properly account for these expenses as a part of their budget. I know we didn’t. Nor did we understand what the journey to find a distributor would be like. It is hard, but you must be persistent and never give up.
What makes a film great for you? Are there certain qualities you look for?
Tears. LOL. It depends on my mood. But I think great cinema takes you on a journey and by the end of it changes you in some way. Whether you are smarter, inspired, depressed, or empowered, it has to cause some change, provide some empathy. I just watched a film that I came across called Breadwinner. It’s an animated film about a little girl and her family surviving in the midst of the Taliban and war. Wow, that film took me around the world, tore me down and brought me back, changed! Great filmmaking! Black Panther did the same. Took me on a journey, built me up, made me royalty, presented me with a conflict with a long history and returned me changed. That is great film!
What films and/or filmmakers have been the most inspiring or influential to you and why?
My favorite films are:
The Color Purple – It was a defining film for my generation, I think. I was 8 when it came out. It was so visceral, painful, unfortunate and inspiring all at once. It is forever a classic that made me feel our stories matter and need to be told from every angle.
Tombstone – I loved the dialogue in this film so much that I would quote it all the time; clever, smart, witty, engaging. The film taught me how when you build a character and give them a unique voice that can change everything in a film. The Doc Holiday character will go down as one of my favorites, making that movie unforgettable for me.
Purple Rain – All I really have to say is Prince. I absolutely cherish his crazy talent at EVERYTHING, but what was special about Purple Rain is that it was such an amazing way to infuse music in a film. Many folks don’t like musicals, but who didn’t like Purple Rain? It proved that every construct could be turned on its head. Nothing is off the table when done right and in your unique voice.
Today’s films are blowing my mind, as well, like Get Out, Mudbound and Black Panther.
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?
Yes, I do. I feel like our responsibility is greater than for other filmmakers. It is such a hard road, so I want to give back to make the path easier for someone behind me and hope that someone ahead will do the same for me. I feel that pressure in the content I create, as well, and it is sometimes a struggle. Should the black guy be the bad guy? Is it OK? Would it be perpetuating more stereotypes, or is it just a movie? I think about that in my writing and projects.
Paint a portrait of the kind of career you’d like to have. What does success look like for you?
I’d like to have my own concept studio that comprises works across print, film, digital and TV. I’d want each project to have impact on their targeted communities, giving each work added purpose. I’d travel to speak and inspire our youth and also those who have the potential to go after their dream as adults.
Where can audiences watch your past work, if available, and how can you be contacted?
My first project, Jerico, is available for purchase online at Amazon! Not sure where else yet. You can watch the trailer below, and find more information at the website jericothemovie.com, or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jericothemovie. My personal Facebook page is at https://www.facebook.com/seckeitalewis.
Anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask? You have the floor, so feel free to dig in here.
With one film under my belt, I feel ready to take on a bigger project. I am in development on it now. It is titled 100, and the story follows a morbidly obese man facing a sudden health scare that challenges him to lose 100 pounds to change and save his life. I will direct the film, which is largely based on the experiences of my husband, Brandon Lewis. It will follow his struggle. This is an ambitious project, as our goal is for him to walk out of the film 100 pounds lighter. We believe it will have a huge impact on the community and empower and educate others to take control of their health. We are currently assembling the development team and working to secure financing. We hope to share more with your audience soon. Here is a brief teaser of the concept for 100:
And watch the trailer for Jerico, and look for the film at Walmart and Amazon: