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Issue 003 Fall 2021 Interviews

“The Voice I Sing Is an Echo”: The Power of Black Collectivity

A Conversation with Sophia Nahli Allison and Merawi Gerima

by Philana Payton

“Be a voice, not an echo.” This quote regularly makes its rounds across social media platforms and, although unconfirmed, is often attributed to Albert Einstein. But it is another version of this quote, born of a night of thinking, talking, and dreaming with my friends, that sits deeply with me: “The voice I sing is an echo.” I cannot tell you its exact source or what directly inspired it, but in that time and moment, all we knew was that it resonated with us profoundly. We were Black graduate students at different stages of our careers but enrolled in various programs at one of the top-ranked film schools in the world. We had somehow been guided to one another. (I say guided to be very clear that our communion, friendship, and subsequent work is the result of an effort that was beyond our own imagining and intentions.) From our earliest conversations to now, an undeniable ancestral presence required our attention and demanded that our creative practices be shaped by Black collectivity and cultural memory. And in spite of the omnipresent violence that graduate schools enact on Black students, we fostered an environment that prioritized care, joy, and radical creation that continues to resonate in our work.

A Black face is centered, with their eyes closed, while a number of other Black hands are touching, caressing, holding their face.
Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground (2021), dir. Sophia Nahli Allison. Film still courtesy of Sophia Nahli Allison.

A few years have passed since that time of intense study. In the spring of 2021, I had the opportunity to moderate a conversation with filmmakers Sophia Nahli Allison and Merawi Gerima, members of this chosen community who have both achieved critical success on projects that were envisioned in that Los Angeles living room. Allison is an Oscar-nominated director whose recent short documentary, A Love Song for Latasha (2019), tenderly (re)introduced audiences to Latasha Harlins, a Black girl and aspiring lawyer from South Los Angeles whose life and premature death spirited the 1992 LA Uprising. Her feature-length documentary Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground (2021) premiered at BlackStar Film Festival in 2021. Gerima’s directorial debut, Residue (2020), is the winner of several major film festival awards around the globe and takes an unapologetic look at the disorientation and violence of gentrification in Black neighborhoods.

We are three members of a larger Black creative community who flourished through and beyond the gates of film school. Our conversation below is contingent on years of gathering, studying, building, and creating space intentionally devoted to crafting stories that honor and engage Black diasporic practices. Our experiences in and outside of film school lay bare the inherent struggles of contemporary Black filmmaking, as well as the radical possibility that remains available through Black collectivity. As a Black film and media studies professor, I understand the value of higher education; however, I am also fortunate to have been a participant and witness to the power of community and care fostered outside of institutional control. 

This particular conversation is a small segment of a series of ongoing dialogues centering the LA Rebellion film movement, cultural memory, and contemporary communal filmmaking practices. It was made possible through the organizing efforts and generosity of Professor Desha Dauchan and the film and media studies department at the University of California, Irvine. The focus of the series was to (re)introduce audiences to the creative and industrial practices that were crafted by the contingent of Black student filmmakers who attended UCLA from the late ’60s into the ’80s, formally recognized as the LA Rebellion. Over several weeks, a selection of LA Rebellion artists and contemporary filmmakers who were deeply influenced by the legacy of the LA Rebellion participated in conversations spanning various aspects of art making and creativity. My conversation with Allison and Gerima touched on the power and possibility of communal care and collaboration beyond the purview of institutional validation. More so, however, this dialogue pays special honor to the echo of our ancestors’ voices that we hope to continue to visualize. 

Philana E. Payton: Both of you come from a lineage of artists and were surrounded by and grew up with art prior to what institutions would consider “formal training.” How did that impact you, and how did that deep sense of knowing encourage you to step into being an artist?

Sophia Nahli Allison: I grew up in South Central [Los Angeles]. My mom was a storyteller in Leimert Park, and my dad was a musician—and [art] really is my foundation. I think there was a period of my life when I was disconnected from my own memories, my own childhood, and needed the space to remember what my lineage was. You know, remembering my childhood—when I would spend time with my mom, going to different libraries or [watching] her [perform] throughout the community. There were times when I did some storytelling events with her, and my mom instilled within me this hunger for the imagination, for really allowing folklore to be a truth and to be surrounded by these histories and these memories that felt ancestral. 

My dad is a musician, and I remember every day after school when he would come home from work, he would always play his upright bass in the living room, and he would have his electric bass, so I was always surrounded by the richness of Black art. And it felt like my survival, you know? It was my way of understanding, something that made me feel connected to the past, made me feel like I had a purpose. And for me, as a young child, I felt like I was always trying to understand where I fit in the world, and through the art and through this understanding of ancestral memory—that’s where I felt connected. That’s where I always felt safe. 

And I am grateful that my mom taught me how to dream. My mom taught me how to build a story; my mom taught me how to make something out of nothing. I don’t think I would be doing this without her and without my mom and my dad’s love for art and finding a way to keep that a part of their everyday even though they had to take care of me [and] my brother. You know, having different financial issues and having their own nine-to-five jobs, but always finding a way for art to be how they ended their day, how they spend their time. It’s an energy that I’m so grateful that I was surrounded by. It’s inspired me so deeply.

Merawi Gerima: It’s wild because when you’re a kid, you’re just in it, and it’s only as an adult when I had enough distance to really see my parents for the things that they had done and the magnitude of their accomplishments and their attempts. But my first year in graduate school was just an emotional awakening in many ways. Y’all would come to me talking about, “Yo, read this excerpt from this thing that your dad wrote when he was a student,” and it was stuff that I didn’t even know. A whole aspect of his career and development that I had no clue about, so there I was—along with y’all—learning about my own parents. It was a process of me finding out later about the gifts that they had given me. 

I’m reminded of my dad telling us Ethiopian stories in Amharic when we were kids—scary stories at night with all six of my siblings being in bed, crying but also having a great time. And my mom would lay out the whole scope of Black revolutionary struggle in the United States in a way that a little kid could understand, which situated me so firmly in Black radical politics and tradition. Only now am I able to reflect on the skill and intention behind those things, not to mention seeing them in the stories that they were trying to bring to life in film and the struggle that they had to wage throughout forever, even to this day, just even to have [their films] distributed under normal means. [I was] watching them, despite all kinds of obstacles, fighting against this behemoth of a racist industry, which we still are in today. 

Still from Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground shows a Black family in a deceptively idyllic scene — two children having a picnic on one side of the lawn as a parent mows the other side. On the steps of the home stands the other parent, perhaps the mother, but their face is obscured by a an American flag represented in the colors of red, black, and green. The three people whose faces are visible are all looking up at something in the sky.
Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground (2021), dir. Sophia Nahli Allison. Film still courtesy of Sophia Nahli Allison.
Five Black people sit in a circle playing a hand clapping game. Four of them are little girls, and one is an adult whose face is masked. They all wear white dresses.
Eyes on the Prize: Hallowed Ground (2021), dir. Sophia Nahli Allison. Film still courtesy of Sophia Nahli Allison.

PEP: Both of you also have somewhat nontraditional paths of starting and completing MFAs. What were some of the biggest lessons that you took from that experience and being in these institutions? How has it informed your overall relationships with institutions?

MG: I [consider] the folks who we look up to—the Black filmmakers who were able to somehow, someway thrive despite UCLA or any other racist institution. I felt the same exact way at the school that we went to because, despite its best intentions, it was still incredibly suffocating and racist in so many ways. I think that when you are trying to develop a specific toolset and craft, you don’t even come into that thinking that you’re going to have to deal with such low-level bullshit day to day. You can ignore that to a certain degree, until it starts to affect the actual craft that you’re trying to focus on. 

Trying to tell stories as a Black person in these institutions is already difficult because you are in classes with professors who don’t know what that means. Well-intentioned teachers don’t know how destructive it is when they pass judgment on your stories because they know nothing about its context. I think that Black stories often do not fit into these typical three-act structures. I had teachers telling me, “I’m sorry; this isn’t a story,” flat out in those terms. Had I been oriented a different way coming in, it could have done a lot more damage than it did. Fortunately, I had people like you, Lishan [Amde], Janice [Duncan], Jheanelle [Brown], Darol [Kae]—the whole collective that we built out of desperation in order to survive this environment. Thankfully I had that, but think about how many Black students we went to school with who did not have that type of collective; who are trying to find their way every time you see them. You get this sensation that they’re just drowning and trying to stay afloat amongst folks who really don’t know what to do with them. I got some good technical skills, but it was a battle to protect my own inherent, amateur, unique way of telling stories, which is the most important task of any film student.

SNA: I love that you said, “I got technical skills,” because I was thinking that these institutions cannot teach you how to tell a story. They can give you the tools you need, but you must unlearn everything you’ve been taught because it’s all rooted in a very Western gaze. And what’s interesting about the time period of when I met you all is that I was taking a break from grad school. I felt that I had hit a wall, where I had everything I needed, but I didn’t know how to keep moving forward. I felt really stunted, like I didn’t have the support system to really nourish the spirit of storytelling. I took a year off from grad school, moved back to LA, started working at a company, and then I realized, “Oh, it’s the same as any institution. No one’s going to trust you as a Black person telling a story, and I am going to have to find a way to do this myself.” 

I always felt really insecure when I was in institutions. It made me question and doubt myself, and until I was surrounded by other storytellers—Black folks who were connected to spirit, who were connected to ancestors—that’s when I understood that I knew what I was doing and that I needed to trust myself. And I still have to remind myself of that working in the industry. People will continue to challenge you. They will continue to want to make you conform. They will want you to tell a “traditional” story, and I think it is up to us as a collective—as a people—to fight for Black liberation within our storytelling process and to return back to what we know. I just remember crying a lot in undergrad and in my first year of grad school. I eventually went back and did graduate and got my master’s, but I don’t think I’ve used anything I really learned from school to get me to where I am now. I had to surround myself with literature from Black feminists to teach me how to do what I’m doing and to affirm everything I’m doing. School will give you the technical tools you need, but it will not teach you how to tell an authentic story. It will not teach you how to trust yourself, and it will not teach you how to listen and try something radically different.

MG: I also want to add that [in school,] they’ll never talk about all the debt that you’re taking on. I went to school, but I could not afford that shit. I think that, ultimately, the technical things that we learned at these schools, you can learn outside of school. I think that it’s nice to learn it in that format with that type of regimen and timeline, but it’s not worth $200,000 to $300,000, which is the type of debt that students take on in film school to go be starving artists. There are so many things that you can do, so many alternatives to film school. It has not qualified itself as necessary, and I’m saying this on the other side of Residue. If [the school gives] you money, it can make a little more sense—if [it is] paying your way or part of it—but don’t be so quick to take on that much debt. It is the type of debt that you pass on to your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. You don’t pay it off in this lifetime. You are basically expected to wish that you are the one person that’s cherry-picked by Hollywood who makes it—the one out of a million every year or every three years. They use big names to sell you, like, “Oh, so-and-so went here.” But so-and-so went there like five years ago. How many other times has somebody followed and ended up in that same type of route? I think, in many ways, it’s making itself more and more obsolete. The more and more expensive it gets, I don’t see it as necessary for filmmakers.

PEP: Let’s talk about collaboration. At one point, we were all in the midst of thinking and working toward projects that we’ve very recently completed. What does it mean to gather outside of institutional gates to commune, to study, and to think together? And in hindsight, how did that time influence your current artistic ethos?

SNA: I’ll never forget when I was sharing a later rough cut with Rachel Summers, and she said, “I want to see these women now at the end.” I was never going to show their faces at the end of A Love Song for Latasha. She’s the reason that you finally see them at the end. Having a community of people who support you and understand you, and understand that you are staying authentic and being intentional in all of your choices, and they can hold you accountable for that. . . . I mean, Philana, I can’t explain how inspired I always am by you. You know we weren’t always in deep conversation throughout the years, but every time I saw you and what you were doing, every time I was in witness to your brilliance, it reminded me what we were working toward. Lishan was someone that I was so inspired by and how she was thinking about interactivity beyond the 2-D experience. Janice Duncan, the creative producer and my boo (who Merawi introduced me to), who was a part of this group—she challenged me in ways that I didn’t let other people push me. Everyone brought their own energy. Everyone brought their own brilliance. When we gathered, we understood the weight. You had to continue carrying for everyone and with everyone. Merawi, we were filming the same summer, and we were telling stories about our homes, and I don’t think it’s by accident that this parallel exists. And to see the trajectory we both had. . . . I am so deeply inspired by everyone in this group. I am thinking about Darol, Cali [Lyons], Russell [Hamilton]. Thinking about Jheanelle and her brilliance. When she opens her mouth! All of the artists I didn’t know about, and the language I didn’t have until I met you all. I was struggling to discover the language to explain what it was that I was doing, and I think you all kept me on my toes and you kept me wanting to evolve. I knew I couldn’t stay stagnant in a group like this.

MG: [I] want to second that shout-out to everybody—JB, aka Jheanelle Brown, who was central to all of this because almost everything happened at her and Lishan’s house. On the question of collaboration, it was always important for me to shoot a feature film before I graduated, just as my own personal goal. And it was Bradford Young who was in my ear that summer before film school. I was like, “Yo, should I go? This shit mad expensive.” And he was like, “Go. Find your cadre.” That’s what he said to me. He said, “Go find your cadre, because you want to go shoot films, but who are you going to do it with?” From there, Philana, Rachel Summers, and Cali Nicole Lyons were critical to getting Residue off the ground that first summer. Philana and Rachel came through. Y’all were the whole pre-production. Deep introspection was made possible because it was us three and Raquel [Lake]. 

PEP: Sticky notes—

MG: Sticky notes on the wall. The moment before y’all got to town was the darkest moment of the film, which is saying a lot, and is actually a good thing because it wasn’t that much. It was a brief moment when I was like, “Yo, like what am I doing? Is this even possible?” And, of course, the example my parents set was important, but it was the people behind it, the actual labor that went into it. I was confident that we had what we needed because we had this collective that gave me the confidence. We had people to help out, and we were always driving towards a project from day one. It was like, of course we’re going to be shooting projects together. We have other short films that we worked on as part of that work. We worked on small projects, and one of them eventually developed into a feature film. Meanwhile, while I’m at school, they’re like, “Oh no, your thesis should be a fifteen-minute, $20,000 short film.” Nah, actually, I don’t need to do that. I am going to do a feature film with less money if I can. In fact, I got homies to help me if nobody else is down. So it was confidence-inspiring to have that kind of village. My dad says a lot about conflicting decisions that you might have to make when it comes to the industry and film school. And he said this: “If you go, you gain something. And if you don’t go, you’re gaining something else.” I think the problem becomes when film school presents itself as the only viable path, and I want to push back on that. 

SNA: I don’t regret my undergrad. I don’t regret my grad school. I am who I am today because of all of my experiences, but you don’t need this to become the artist that you want to be. And if it weren’t for me going to grad school, taking time off, I never would have met you all. I want to lift up Janice Duncan because she was my ride-or-die for A Love Song for Latasha, and without her I don’t know how we would have done it. And then my other producer, Fam Udeorji, as well—another South Central native. I couldn’t have done it without him. These were my two folks who were with me the entire time, and just feeling so grateful that it was such a small team, but we were able to remain intentional. We were able to be honest with what the story was going to be, and we didn’t have to follow anyone else’s rules. It was difficult, but when you have your people who believe in you, it will happen. It will manifest.