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From Shadowing to Shaping. A Guest Perspective by Tayo Amos.

Updated: Feb 21

It’s one thing to enjoy watching movies and television, but it’s another to be engrossed and curious about how it’s made. The first movie I remember being captivated by how the story came together was THE PRESTIGE by Christopher Nolan. That movie was the first that inspired me to “get under the hood” of a movie. How did he structure the story so I didn’t see the end coming? How was he able to construct an emotional response from me through visuals? 

I was grateful to express my gratitude to Christopher Nolan in person when I attended the DGA Awards earlier this month that take place during the annual awards season - where he ended up winning the DGA Award for directing Oppenheimer. The journey from a Black girl making little music videos and short films with my friends in the lily-white neighborhood of Palo Alto to a professional director and filmmaker is truly a blessing.

As a Black woman filmmaker, I am attracted to stories about characters who do things out of desperation because they are in situations that they can’t control - usually systemic, societal circumstances.  Whether it’s a young Latino man trying to get menstruation products for his little sister when she gets her period for the first time but he can’t afford it (from my USC thesis film ON THE CLOCK) or a Black woman singer who is forced to sing for a segregated audience (from the USC Stark film I directed MAGNOLIA BLOOM), I find myself attracted to characters and stories that take people who are in situations where they feel out of water.

That makes sense that I want to tell these stories, given how I grew up. As one of the few Black girls growing up in a predominantly-white area, I constantly felt like I was out of water and constantly thinking of ways to acclimate and feel more comfortable. As a Black filmmaker, I want to be intentional about telling stories that encompass other parts of the Black American experience. As a first-generation Nigerian-American, I felt that certain Black shows and films didn’t reflect my specific experience. 

I decided to render that specific experience in my first feature ELITE which is in the process of development with Federal Films (with the goal of production this summer). The story follows a Nigerian-American high school senior who joins a cheating ring to get into Harvard. The pressure of getting into a top school was palpable for me and all my friends growing up, but it felt particularly loaded when set with the expectations of my parents who had sacrificed so much for me to attend a private all-girls school. My goal in making this film is to add to the small but growing canon of coming-of-age films that center the experience of Black girls. I enjoy films like SELAH AND THE SPADES, YELLING TO THE SKY, and JINN which give audiences a look into what it looks like to be a young Black woman. I want to create more images and more stories of that time so that young girls who look like me who feel like the other can know that they’re not alone. 

I’m also grateful to continue developing my craft as a television director. After shadowing amazing directors like Meera Menon, Tom Verica, David Katzenberg (through the Half Initiative Program) and Reza Tabrizi, I directed my first episode on CHICAGO FIRE. That experience was one of the most edifying experiences as a director. Not only did I love collaborating with the talented and hard-working cast and crew (especially in the middle of the intense Chicago winter!), I was able to tell stories at a scale I was not accustomed to, given my work in independent productions. The ability to tell stories at a larger scale while honoring the vision and ethos of such a heart-felt, thrilling show was wonderful.

I’m inspired by the way producers and showrunners have used their platform and influence to elevate Black woman directors. The way that Ryan Murphy collaborated with Tina Mabry on the show POSE shows how he trusted her wonderful, unique artistic vision to direct some of the most impactful episodes of that show. Tina’s first feature MISSISSIPPI DAMNED is a beautiful film that focuses uniquely on the Black womanhood experience and it’s hard to find films that are told unapologetically from that lens. To see a filmmaker like Tina embraced and championed by a showrunner to continue telling stories that change the world is very inspiring. I’m grateful to have received support from organizations like Ryan Murphy’s Half Initiative and NBC’s Female Forward program and I hope that that work of advocating and hiring Black woman directors continues in our ever-changing industry.

I felt the impact of being a Black filmmaker when I shadowed and eventually directed an episode on Chicago Fire. I was the only Black director of S11 and the second Black woman director in the entire season run of the long-running show. I was told constantly by Black crew members how inspired they were seeing a Black woman director on set. As inspiring as it was to show the cast and crew that Black woman directors are talented and more than capable of helming an episode or a set, I look forward to the day when seeing a Black director is more normalized. 

I aim to change the world we live in by telling stories about characters who are in situations that are not built for them or catered to them to help highlight the weaknesses of these systems and to encourage those who can to instigate change and inclusivity. I saw firsthand how my short film about period poverty inspired people who watched it to advocate for free menstruation products at their schools and offices. I saw how my episode of Chicago Fire helped people learn that they’re not alone when people coming back in their lives triggers their deepest emotional wounds. As I continue to grow as a director and storyteller in film and television, I hope to continue changing the world by reminding everyone - but specifically Black and women of color - that they are not alone, their feelings are valid, and that they will prevail despite the world telling them that they don’t belong.

Tayo Amos is a Half Initiative mentee who shadowed David Katzenberg on Lone Star.


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