One couldn’t be blamed for thinking that there is Renaissance brewing in the Bay Area. Filmmaker Adisa, whose first feature film Skin in the Game just premiered at the Urbanworld Film Festival, hints that the Oakland area may be the next hub for compelling, original filmmakers.

The mononymous filmmaker met director Boots Riley just a few months ago in Utah during Sundance, whose Oakland-based film Sorry To Bother You is also currently causing a stir in the industry.

“I didn’t see Sorry To Bother You at Sundance, but I did get the chance to meet him, and he’s just a great guy. I mean, he’s got a distinct voice. He comes right at you,” Adisa said of Riley. “After having seen the movie, I can see why people are talking about it so much. It’s just very provocative. He doesn’t hold back. He’s like Spike Lee in that way: Love him or hate him, he’s going to tell you his opinion. I think he’s a great guy, and I’m proud of what’s happening coming out of Oakland; Ryan Coogler is from the Oakland area too. There’s this surge of creativity coming out of the Bay Area.”

Adisa embarked on a career as a filmmaker after being inspired by Spike Lee.

“After seeing Spike Lee’s early work, I just saw what was possible. Before She’s Gotta Have It, I didn’t really know we could make movies and be in charge, and have that kind of facility or voice,” Adisa told Shadow and Act. “Once I saw that and I saw what he was able to do — putting his fingerprint on it from a black perspective — he just shook me up. Right away, I just knew I had to be a filmmaker.

The filmmaker also discussed being “greatly impacted” by the work of Ethiopian filmmaker Haile Gerima, who “created black imagery and its aesthetic properties in a hostile climate.”

In addition, Adisa also expressed admiration for Ava DuVernay. “She’s just courageous. She’s all out. I love what she’s doing in terms of her activism. She’s unapologetic,” he said.

Coincidentally, producer Howard Barish and cinematographer Kira Kelley, who worked on projects with DuVernay like 13th and Queen Sugar, also worked with Adisa on Skin in the Game.

Though Adisa had completed a number of documentary films that received positive critical attention, he still wanted to make a narrative feature. An eye-opening discussion with his sister ultimately led him to take on the heavy subject of human trafficking, tacking the topic in the format of a fictional feature film.

“We just got into a conversation around why her teenage daughter doesn’t catch the bus — this is Oakland, California. She started to tell me how there were gorilla pimps, who would just take girls off of a bus and put them into prostitution,” he recalled. “At first, I couldn’t get my head around that — like how? Abducting a girl off of a bus and forcing her be a prostitute?”

L-R: Sharon (Elisabeth Harnois), Lena (Erica Ash). Source: Urbanworld 2018
From Skin in the Game. Elisabeth Harnois as Sharon (left), Erica Ash as Lena (right). Source: Urbanworld Film Festival.

In the annals of black filmmaking, the subject of prostitution can be especially touchy. This is because black women have been historically typecast as sex workers, and this on-screen, negative stereotype has unfortunately bled into social consciousness. Though the main subject of trafficking in the film is a white teenager, Dani (played by Sammi Hanratty), who we witness being physically abducted, the supporting characters are black girls presumed to have been forced into prostitution. Perhaps since the publication of the book Pimp by Robert Beck (nom de plume Iceberg Slim), there has been the perception that black women choose to become prostitutes, whereas women of other ethnicities are forced into it. Adisa’s film attempts to adjust that erroneous perception.

Adisa emphasized that through making this film, he’s “gained a tremendous amount of empathy.”

“And no — I didn’t feel like I was perpetuating stereotypes,” he continued.

Part of why the filmmaker was able to give this authentic perspective was because of two film consultants, who each had a background in sex work.

“I’m very proud of the fact that we had both Jayla (Baxter) and D’Lita,” Adisa explained. “If I made any missteps, they were going to correct me.

Baxter is from Oakland. “She’s rescued over 5,400 girls within a ten year period and she continues to patrol the streets,” Adisa said proudly, as if he were talking about someone in his own family.

Adisa unabashedly admits that he wants to make films that will change people’s minds.“I’m a filmmaker, who wants to make — in the vein of Spike and Ava — socially conscious movies; provocative movies,” he said. “I want to be an impact filmmaker and make films that could change the way we think or society.”

To that end, Skin In The Game, which casts the excellent Erica Ash (Survivor’s Remorse, Uncle Drew) in the starring role of heroine and rescuer, indeed forces the viewer really think about who drives the demand for sex work, and what needs to change in order to dampen — if not eradicate —  that market. As illustrated by the film, men drive the market as consumers and profiteers. Thus, it’s up to women activists — as depicted by Ash — women in law enforcement, and women involved in the legislative process to make more effective laws, with respect to both pornography and prostitution.

Adisa’s research for the film led him to believe that pornography helps to drive the demand for prostitution. Technology abets the flourishing of trafficking, and this dynamic is included in the film.

“The internet has changed the whole game,” he said. “The trafficker now sends out hundreds of messages every day whether (on) whatever platform: Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook. They set this meet-up, and once you go meet up with them — and a lot of times it’s not even the traffickers; it’s really just a recruiter, right? And then that’s it. You’re gone! Instantaneously, they got you! This is how fast it could happen. They can sell you to a gang, or they could put you in a brothel. I can tell you some stories.”

We certainly hope he continues to do so.