Glad to return to this series after a short hiatus since it began in the spring. If you missed the first few interviews, you can find an introduction for Finding the New Black and my conversations with Lena Waithe HERE and HERE,with Terence Nance HERE, and with Benjamin Cory Jones HERE.
For this installment, I spoke with filmmaker Shukree Tilghman, whose feature-length documentary More Than a Month premiered on PBS earlier this year. In looking at the next wave of black content creators, it seemed appropriate to explore how documentary filmmakers are bringing new approaches to the genre, a trend that Shukree represents well.
His film takes a funny and irreverent look at traditions surrounding black history, as it follows him on a “cross-country campaign to end Black History Month.” Through his company Intelligence Pictures, he and producer Owen Cooper have set out to film two additional feature-length documentaries over the next few years, as Shukree also continues to develop projects as a writer and director of narrative films and television.
S&A: Tell me about the process of making More Than a Month (MTAM) – how you got started, and how you funded and produced the project.
ST: We started in 2006 with basically just a concept, and we went out and started to shoot on our own. None of that footage eventually got used in the film but it was enough to get us a small development grant from ITVS. With the development money we were able to make a 10-minute trailer, which allowed us to show what the film would be and get more funding, and that process took years. Finally in 2009 we got production funding from the National Black Programming Consortium, and then ITVS Open Call. We made the film between 2009 and 2010, got finishing funds from the Sundance Documentary Fund and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and we finally aired on PBS in February 2012.
S&A: The concept of questioning Black History Month seems emblematic of a new way of thinking – something a generation of black people before wouldn’t have imagined. Where did that idea come from?
ST: The impetus for the film was really my personal experience growing up and at some point feeling condescended to by Black History Month, then asking is it okay, or is it detrimental. I was born in 1979. My parents didn’t grow up with the same things I did; they didn’t have the placemat at McDonald’s reminding them about heroes in black history. So naturally my experience was going to be different. But as far as questioning, if there’s anything I would say about this generation is that we don’t question enough. I’d like to see us ask more questions about what we’re told.
S&A: It seems that the doc world is largely populated scholars and people from other fields, who turn to filmmaking later in life as a way to highlight important issues. How was it to navigate that world as a young person, and someone who began as a narrative filmmaker?
ST: I don’t think it negatively affected anything. Many times, funders are looking for different approaches, new ways to think about documentaries. They’ve seen a lot of talking heads and long pans over black-and-white photos. So having a first-person narrative that looked at a controversial subject, that was sort of funny, that used recreations in a different kind of way – those were all good things. So I think being a fresh voice, and a person with a narrative storytelling background was an advantage.
S&A: You spoke at Silverdocs recently about using nontraditional ways to engage with underserved audiences. How did you achieve that with MTAM?
ST: One of the buzz words of today is “transmedia storytelling” – the idea that your project should exist on several levels with different ways to engage. It’s a concept I believe in quite a bit. So for MTAM we have this mobile app called More Than A Map(p), which operates like an ATM app or Starbucks app, that will point you in the direction of the nearest location relevant to African-American history. It’s a free app and something that we released simultaneously with the film, but it’s going to have a much longer life and the map is continuously building. It has user-generated content so people can actually add points to the map through their phones. The goal of MTAM was to increase and continue the exposure of African American history outside of February in new and innovative ways, so this is a way that sort of hit all of those markers.
It’s the same with the next project we’re working on, which is on black women and marriage, and the one after that, which is on the criminal justice system. With black women and marriage, the first year of the project is completely interactive and online, and part two of the project will be the film. I think it’s a little old-fashioned nowadays – maybe not as much with narrative, but especially with documentary – to think of films as something that begin and end with one film.
S&A: How do you approach a subject like black women and marriage, which has been dealt with from so many angles, and try to give it a fresh perspective?
ST: There’s a very real possibility that we’ll be completely late to the party. There’s already debate about the stats on black female marriage. But the thing that I try to use is me. The meat of this story is about me getting ready to marry a black woman. There are also three of my friends who we follow that are black and single and looking. So that’s the difference – I inject myself as a character through which the story can be told.
S&A: In addition to documentaries, you’ve continued to work on narrative films and projects for television. How did balancing those different areas become part of your career?
ST: Starting out, I never saw myself as a documentarian. Even with MTAM, I always saw it as more of a story that had real-life elements. When I think of my influences – Annie Hall was a big influence, Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore films, they all have a narrative approach.
As far as the different areas, it’s all pretty new. I just got representation as a screenwriter a few months ago. I wrote a script that won an award, and part of the prize was that you’d get meetings with agents and managers. So I went out and did that and nothing happened for a few years. But eventually, I got a call from a producer and things moved from there.
S&A: By then you’d gone back to school to study screenwriting. What was that experience like for you, seeking and securing representation at that time?
ST: It’s still very fresh. I didn’t have a lot of expectations. When I was in undergrad, like most 17 to 21 year olds, I was young and arrogant. I assumed that as soon as I graduated and stepped off the stage there would be a line of agents waiting to shake my hand. But that didn’t happen.
This time around I was 30, and I had a lot experiences that had humbled me. I had worked in a factory, I worked as a shoe salesman, I delivered water, I was a mailman for a while until I got scared off by the dogs. And I had been broke. So when I decided I wanted to go to graduate school for screenwriting, it was a totally different approach. I tried to be very professional about it and I really just wanted to get better at the craft of telling stories.
S&A: MTAM was your first feature film and you mentioned the process has taken about six years to complete. What were some of the lessons you learned while working on it?
ST: There are so many. I learned it’s hard to do two things at once. I learned it was critical to have experienced, quality people on the team, like my editor, Kim Miille. I also had mentors who were more traditional documentary filmmakers, like Marco Williams, who was a huge driving force and has been a huge influence in my life as filmmaker; like Sam Pollard, who gave advice; and Stanley Nelson and Mable Haddock who ran the Firelight Media Producers Lab, which I was a part of along with a lot of other great documentarians like Byron Hurt and Yoruba Richen.
S&A: A lot of your work deals with issues affecting people of color. Would you say that black filmmakers have a responsibility to use our work to further our causes socially? Do you feel that as either an obligation or a desire?
ST: Absolutely. I feel, certainly not a responsibility, but I do feel an inclination to address issues in a way that that’s engaging and entertaining through my work. And not just issues that affect the black community, although some of them may be specific to that, but really issues that affect our human community.
S&A: Would you say that part of that stems from your parents and their activist background, which you mention in MTAM?
ST: It’s a hard question to answer, because I really don’t have anything to compare it with. But I remember my parents taking me out of school to go see the film Malcolm X, and the same thing with Get on the Bus, which came out a year after the Million Man March. They sat me down to watchTo Kill a Mockingbird, which is still one of my favorite films to this day. So I do have a tie with media and what it means to be an activist as being connected to that.
S&A: Who have been some of your major influences over the years, and today?
ST: Of course filmmakers like Spike [Lee]. There’s Woody Allen and Oliver Stone. As far as television, I probably watch all the shows that are doing well right now – Breaking Bad, Mad Men. The Wire is the best show ever made probably. But more than any person, there have been types of stories that I’ve been drawn to more than the people that make them.
S&A: What’s the common thread among those stories?
ST: Heroes. I’m a big fan of heroes and humanity. There’s just something about someone going after the impossible – it could be greatness, it could be a love interest – but someone, against all odds, trying to accomplish something. I’ve kind of designed it that way in MTAM, that I was this guy up against all odds looking at the system of Black History Month. In the project on black women and marriage, these stats are the thing that we’re up against, and our subjects are painted as the heroes.
S&A: Over time, what do you feel will be your major contribution to entertainment?
ST: In the broadest sense, I’ve always hoped that if I accomplish anything, it will be to contribute to people’s capacity to love. Not in the romantic sense, but for example, in MTAM we wanted to recognize that we have to be vigilant about Black History Month and the fact that there is no story of America without African Americans. And hopefully that encourages people to see their world a little differently, see themselves differently and thus their capacity to understand, to empathize, to know, is increased. In my book, the root of all those action words is to love. If I can accomplish that with art, it would mean I had provided a real service – a service in the true spiritual sense of the word.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Many thanks to Shukree for sharing his thoughts.
To download the app, visit www.morethanamapp.org.