The New Negress Film Society is small: A five-member collective, formed to feature work by and about black women.
But since its founding in 2013, its members have received filmmaking prizes that include a Gotham Awards grant, the Sundance Institute Director’s Lab, and the ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Discovery Award, and their works have screened at festivals including Sundance, SXSW, and Rotterdam.
That’s an extraordinary return rate for the Brooklyn-based group, which began as a screening of short films organized by filmmakers Ja’Tovia Gary and Kumi James. Today, the group comprises Gary, Frances Bodomo, Dyani Douze, Chanelle Aponte Pearson, and Stefani Saintonge. (James left the group when she moved to Los Angeles.)
“It was such an overwhelming success, and such a life-affirming moment,” said Gary, who said they were inspired by the work of conceptual artist Kara Walker in naming the society as well as its collective screening program, “I Am A Negress of Noteworthy Talent,” which they take to festivals and universities.
Beyond the shared goal of supporting the filmmaking of black women, there’s no throughline to the work that comes out of NNFS. They include stories about artsy queer Brooklyn housemates who fall in and out of love with each other, a preteen girl who tries to wrap her head around the concept of sex, and a would-be astronaut who endures the horrors of an ill-equipped space program in Zambia.
Gary says the collective’s members have found more exposure for their individual work since joining forces, partly through their touring program of films. “That draws a certain type of attention, a certain type of energy, from folks who want to be in that space,” she said, speaking to IndieWire during the program’s latest stop at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 23. “They want to experience whatever we’re giving off.”
Besides screening and producing their own films, the society wants to create educational and community-oriented projects. When newest member Pearson shot her webseries, “195 Lewis,” which centers on a group of queer women of color, she put together a crew of mostly the same, though she said they had “little to no experience in film.”
Pearson has close to a decade of professional producing experience, including on Terence Nance’s acclaimed feature “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.” However, she realized during production on “195 Lewis” that a “community-based” project like hers would benefit from a crew of non-professionals willing to volunteer their time.
“There is something about being able to create a project for us, by us, that changes the dynamic of how the project is made,” said Pearson, who won a women director’s grant from Calvin Klein at the 2015 Gotham Awards for the series. It will tour the festival circuit this summer before premiering its five-episode first season online in the fall.
From the outside, the rise of the New Negresses would seem to align nicely with Hollywood’s larger conversation about the need to diversify the film industry. But Gary, who is currently working on her first feature-length documentary, says she’s not concerned with finding acceptance within the “old guard.”
“They’re going to exist regardless, or they’re going to crumble regardless,” she said. “Our concern is getting the work done and maintaining a certain equitable space for each other and the community.”
Gary and Pearson have found some funding success, which makes the task easier. And they’re helping other filmmakers find the funding they need: One upcoming society workshop will teach filmmakers how to approach commissioned work and deal with clients.
“I can’t shift my goal and gaze towards climbing that ladder,” Gary said. “I have to make sure I can sustain who I am and make my ancestral lineage proud.”
Watch Ja’Tovia Gary’s award-winning “Cakes Da Killa: No Homo”: