“I rarely meet people who tell me what they’re doing.”
When I was 13 years old, I received an award from my eighth grade teacher, in which she predicted my future career as a “comedy screenwriter.” At that time, I had no idea what a screenwriter was. I, of course knew it had to do with filmmaking, but that’s it. Growing up, I had no conception of writing or directing films. It was not a career that people around me talked about or pursued. Soon, that would all change.
Recently, I watched a keynote address by writer/filmmaker Ava DuVernay, given at the annual Film Independent forum in Los Angeles. As the first African-American woman to win the Best Director award at Sundance (for her film Middle of Nowhere), DuVernay has broken barriers over the years, releasing two feature films about complex black female characters, and helping to found the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement. Though she is known for her pioneering work in independent cinema, she spoke of a time where she wore a “coat of desperation” while searching for a big break, access to Hollywood, or someone to help her get into film. She says, “All of that energy and focus of trying to extract from other people is preventing you from doing. All of that other is desperation. When I figured that out, things started to change for me. When I’m meeting people and they’re coming up to me, I can’t say to them in that moment what I’m about to say right now because it would be rude, but we’re all here and I’m going to say it: knock it off.”
I connected to this because as an emerging writer/director, I sometimes wonder if my passion to create and make films matters, if my will to make a feature film will come to fruition, or if my stories are important or good enough to be accepted in the independent film community. The validation that comes with being accepted to film labs, to film festivals, and exclusive circles all factor into what DuVernay talks about here. Do I have what it takes?
Recently, while ordering and delivering lunches for TV writers, I was reminded of my mission in life, echoed by my eighth grade teacher. I never was one to ask for permission. Since I was a child, I’ve made things happen: in elementary schools, I wrote stories and poems and demanded that administrators create a black history month assembly. When I wanted to make my first film while an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, I did, on the streets of Oakland, guerilla-style holding the camera and directing actors. Later, I tested film school boundaries by endeavoring to make a film about black mermaids and water-based trauma.
Even as I write this, I wonder if people will care. I am not a famous writer or a well-known filmmaker, but I am someone with distinct stories to tell; stories about black women straddling dual lives and worlds, confronting ruptures of family, sexuality, identity, and freedom. They are stories informed by the intricacies of my existence, the way I interpret the world, and they are important. It is this fact that carries me through nights revising screenplays. It is this fact that has informed my film work thus far.
Later in her speech, DuVernay states: “All of the time you’re spending trying to get someone to mentor you, trying to have a coffee… is time that you’re not working on your screenplay, strengthening your character arcs, thinking about your rehearsal techniques, setting up a table read to hear the words… all the time you’re focusing on trying to grab from others, you’re being desperate and you’re not doing.”
In the last week, I’ve completed the first draft of a feature script, one of many I’m working to direct and make in the near future. I get lost in the world of the script and rehearse dialogue and scenes in my apartment. I wonder if my neighbors can hear me. I live to write, to render images, and examine human behavior through my own films and through others, and I know it will be difficult. There is no Hollywood entryway for people like me. I work, create, produce, and try to build relationships with others. In the end, nothing else really matters. No one is going to do it for me. I thank my eighth grade teacher for helping to plant that seed, and I thank Ava DuVernay for the valuable reminder.
We have what it takes.
Read Nijla Mu'min's other columns on film.
Photo of Ava DuVernay via For Harriet.