Filmmaker Kimberly Aleah on making the work she wants to see in the world—and elevating young creatives in the process
Interview by Suze Myers
Photographs BY Sara Maria JOnes
Kimberly Aleah, a writer-director who hails from Atlanta, made her debut in the film festival circuit this year with her short film Woke, a story that considers questions of identity and race set on a college campus. In March, Constellation art director Suze Myers chatted with Kimberly about her hometown’s music scene, the importance of supporting young artists, and Hollywood’s performative “woke moment.”
Suze Myers: Hi, Kimberly! How did you find your way into the film industry?
Kimberly Aleah: It’s funny, hearing that I’m “in the industry” still doesn’t resonate with me, even though I work for a TV company and am a week away from my first festival season. To me, “The Film Industry,” (capital T capital F capital I) was always this rich and old and white and male idea of a thing that didn’t have doors for people like me to walk in––only windows to watch through. I think that’s why, for years, I stuck to promoting content instead of making it. I was Tyler Mitchell’s studio manager for a summer, have worked on an array of visual content for musicians through my company, Human Error, and spent some time in entertainment PR and print, which have all been their own sort of loopholes into film.
One of my first formal entries into the industry was when I was working for a digital art space called Lightbox (they’ve since become the creators of The Museum of Ice Cream). My boss at the time trusted me way more than a first-year-film-theory-student-that-sometimes-leaves-the-lens-cap-on deserved (thanks, Manish) and let me direct, shoot, and edit the promotional video for the space. He loved it! That was definitely one of the first times I thought; “Maybe I should be opening these doors myself instead of waiting for someone to notice me in the window.” We’re at an amazing moment in the industry where more people are having that light bulb go off.
SM: Do you recall a decisive moment—or series of moments—when you realized you wanted to be a filmmaker?
KA: Growing up, I was a ballerina. From a very young age, I realized that I liked watching the productions more than dancing in them. Something about seeing all of the individual movements come together, whether sitting in the seats of the theater or even just watching my troupe in the mirror during rehearsal. It got to the point that while I was learning dance combinations, I would start envisioning what they would look like when it all finally came together. What if the choreography was like this? What if the spotlight moved this way? What if we were watching from a bird’s eye view instead of the front row? I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was filmmaking. Flash forward to 2010 when Kanye dropped the visuals for Runaway on MBDTF and it clicked. That. I want to do that.
SM: Tell us about your new film, Woke, which follows a Black fraternity as it admits its first white member. What drew you to tell this story and what was the development process like?
KA: This all started in my living room right after graduation when Ronnie [Braithwaite, co-writer] wanted to talk over a story with me. I’ve known Ronnie since we were kids, so I can say this out of love: the pitch was a hot mess. At worst, it was a rant, and at best, it was a confusing attempt at Dear White People Get Out of Atlanta. But I know Ronnie. The frantic stream of ideas was just enthusiasm—we’re in a Black TV/Film Renaissance. He wanted in.
So I listened and eventually started jotting down dots that I thought were at the heart of this story. My job became: “What story can we tell that traces a line through these dots? Who are the people that need to be telling this story? And what do their voices sound like?” Once you know your characters, they tell you the story. And then you have two jobs as a writer: One, to keep up and two, to not be afraid of where they lead you. Sometimes it’s putting an N-word chant in the script (removing myself as the very black director that will have to lead this chant on a very white bus), and sometimes it’s letting the hero of your story cover up a murder.
Development was a logistical nightmare. Ronnie and I were only together in Atlanta for one week. It was a lot of Facetimes and a shared Amazon storywriter account spread across new jobs, new apartments, and everything that comes with the botched two-step that is postgrad life. It was stressful and sleepless. But I will say that there really is a delirious magic to running dialogue at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday, and we got some of our best content from that.
SM: Woke deals with complex themes like racism and toxic masculinity culture. What do you hope audiences will take away from this short?
KA: When we started this project, we were embarrassingly obvious. The fraternity was the microcosm for society, race was the focus, and there was a white guy covered in guilt, looking for redemption in all the wrong places. It didn’t work, because we were trying too hard to spoon-feed a message to the audience instead of letting real characters tell a real story. So we stripped it down to each of the characters’ voices, where those voices came from and how those voices intersect across the space they share as fraternity brothers. Then we loaded the script with some of the darkest elements of fraternity culture—racism and hazing—to see how each of those unique voices would react.
We ended up with a story about identity and how morality and intention can get lost in the fixed ideas of who we think we’re supposed to be. So if there’s anything I want the audience to take away, it’s how self-perception can be a dangerously blinding thing.
SM: Alongside Braithwaite, you created the Woke Development Program to support young filmmakers. You're also the founder of Human Error, a music and film distribution studio that forges connections between emerging artists, particularly artists of color. Why is it important to you to create mentorship opportunities like these for young creatives?
KA: Film is expensive. Even with the rise of new digital formats and popularity of OTT/streaming, most people can’t afford to make their own stuff. Yes, 13-year-olds are making millions off of 45-second iPhone videos (and no, I don’t want to talk about it), but our industry is still a dollar signs-first kind of show. Money is the reason that a lot of people count themselves out before they even get to the race and, more often than not, these people are women and POC. It’s tragic, because we need our stories. They’re the ones that (had been here! but) are new to the screens. WDP and Human Error are my way of reaching out to those stories.
SM: Though you now live in New York, you grew up in Atlanta (and shot Woke in Florida). How has your connection to the south and southern culture influenced your work?
KA: Music. Growing up in Atlanta, you’re surrounded by hip-hop, rap, and R&B, and I think a lot of those sounds coming out of the south inherently have a visual quality. Outkast is a great example—think of Morris Brown. You don’t just hear it; you’re thrown above it, watching a marching band move across a field in various formations. And Don’t Chu Worry Bout Me––the sounds of clapping hands and shoes scraping against wood drop you in a smoky room, dodging dancing silhouettes around you. Or maybe the doo-doo-doo harmonies in the chorus cover you in that southern humidity, best experienced on a wraparound porch. You hear those types of multilayered sounds as a kid and it becomes second nature to imagine what sounds look like. (Seriously, I couldn’t tell you how many music videos are in my head). Imagining the faces of those sounds taught me how to visualize a production from script to screen.
Yes, a lot of those stock images are held in the songs and specific references themselves, but they also call to a larger audio-visual tradition that’s grown from jazz, from blues, from hymnals, from slave spirituals. It’s a distinct voice of pain that comes from being Black in the south, and an intergenerational trend to wrap that pain in art. I love hearing a sample in a song because it’s a chance to unwrap that heritage. I apply that same curiosity to every script, setting, and character that I create.
SM: The industry has increasingly (albeit slowly) embraced diversity and inclusion in recent years, and at last, we're starting to see greater visibility for actors of color in film and television. But there’s still a glaring dearth of women directors (particularly of color) in Hollywood, with Dee Rees, Ava DuVernay, and Shonda Rhimes serving as a few of the only names with mainstream recognition. What challenges have you faced while navigating the film industry as a Black woman behind the camera? And, on the flip side, what do you consider to be the benefits of blazing your own trail, while the industry catches up?
KA: Navigating the film industry is no different than the rest of my life as a Black woman—it’s hard.
On set, they’ll never assume you’re the director. Then you’ll direct, and they’ll question you. 99% of the characters that are “representative” of your experience are actually two-dimensional tropes. And when you push back, it’s different than when they’re fighting for their creative perspective, because you? “You’re just angry.” They’ll call you the name of the one other Black girl. You’ll sit in rooms with the types of people that make those types of Pepsi commercials. White women will fight against sexist plot elements and then sign off on the racist ones. That Black man you supported will forget to include female leads. You will work three times as hard as everyone around you, and the opportunity will still go to Steve or John or John or Steve. We won’t even talk about pay.
Don’t get me wrong—this moment for inclusion in our industry is deeply inspiring. I am here for every second of content that’s been left off of the screens for decades too long. That being said, you have to stay weary. A lot of people are only supportive of this moment because Wokeness (or rather, the performance of it) is profitable in 2018. A lot of people don’t know the word ‘intersectional.’ And a lot of the gatekeepers are still doing things like refusing to watch Get Out because “It’s not an Oscars film.” Entertainment mirrors society and, here in America, we have been racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, ableist, you name it, for a long, long time. Combine that with the capitalist pulse of Hollywood? Genuine change is going to take a lot more than adding some seats to the table. We need a new table.
The advantage is simple and at the heart of storytelling: No one can tell your story better than you. Audiences are getting more critical and seeking authentic stories about women and people of color. Steve doesn’t know my story, and John definitely can’t tell it. They’re going to have to make room for me.
SM: What's next on the docket for you? What are you excited for in 2018?
KA: I have a sticky note on my computer right now that says, “I want to make visual stories with, for, and about Black women.” That’s my 2018. When you’re a black woman, and I think any woman of color can identify with this, people often want you to choose between your various intersecting identities (that by no means are limited to just race and gender), so that They can more easily understand. Especially on-screen. I’m tired of doing that, so I’m not doing it anymore.
I’m working on a lot of great stuff with amazing Black women, and it’s bliss: a visual poem about Black womanhood in White spaces; a narrative short about a Black family dealing with a schizoaffective daughter; some really cool portrait work just capturing Black women at work, at play, and in life. It’s going to be a good year. ★
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.