If the success of “Moonlight” and “Atlanta” are any indication, 2017 is set to become the year of the visionary black auteur (about time already). Joining their ranks soon enough is Chanelle Aponte Pearson, director of “195 Lewis,” which recently won a Special Mention from Outfest for “highlighting the contemporary life of queer black woman with flair, vibrancy and substance.”
The short series explores the joys and pitfalls of open relationships in a vibrant community of black queer women living in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. Flowing with original music by members of the community and glowing with luscious colors and warm light, Pearson breathes life into the eclectic mix of characters with equal parts humor and lust. The script, by first-time screenwriters Rae Leone Allen and Yaani Supreme, radiates a confident originality that heralds a fresh new perspective.
Allen and Supreme originally approached filmmaker Terence Nance with a treatment for the series, hoping the director of the 2012 Sundance film “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty” might like the project. He did, but he liked it for Pearson, a producer on “Oversimplification” and co-owner of Nance’s production company, MVMT.
“Terence saw the brief description of the show, and immediately thought, ‘Chanelle — you need to do it,” Pearson told IndieWire. “Terence is really good at encouraging folks to take it beyond the idea stage. We’ve been friends and partners for a long time and he has always been super supportive.”
When Pearson met up with Supreme, the two immediately hit it off. “We talked for hours about queerness in Brooklyn, and poly-ness in Brooklyn and how we’re not seeing that,” recalled Pearson. “We were really excited to create a project reflective of the experiences we were observing in our community.”
For Allen, the impetus to make the series was similar. “Yanni and I both moved to New York around the same time, and we were just blown away by the scene of all the black queer women in Brooklyn,” she said.
She describes an experience every queer woman can identify with: Re-visiting “The L Word” and noticing all the ways the groundbreaking lesbian show (which ended in 2009 and may return soon) feels outdated. “We were like — our lives are so much better than this.”
For the first time since leaving their respective Dallas and Washington D.C. homes, Allen and Supreme found themselves surrounded by a dizzying variety of queer women of color. “All the women had natural hair and Masters degrees. I think it’s a Brooklyn thing,” said Allen. Part of the magic of “195 Lewis” lies in the representation given a community that rarely sees its own stories told — much less one created by its own.
“There are so many images of the opposite of us — black people that are underserved, marginalized, having issues. All that stuff is real, but I think there is a big vacuum around the beauty of our lives. I feel like, it’s almost a service to overdo that. Because there’s so little of it in cinema,” said Allen.
With so much at stake, the team fretted over every single detail, down to each character’s hair. “Even something like, ‘should this character have an afro or should she have a blowout?'” recalled Pearson. “I specifically remember an argument that was — ‘No, Jamila has a blowout, that’s a part of who she is.'”
Of the many comic touches in “195 Lewis,” the often dense philosophical reasoning the characters use to manage the stress of multiple booty calls is its most singular juxtaposition. “A lot of the lines are verbatim from our lives,” said Allen. “Black women are the smartest beings on the planet. They’re the original beings. It’s odd to me when people are taken aback by it. I’m like — ‘Where do you hang out? Who do you talk to?'”
Pearson modestly attributes the show’s quality to the crew — which she estimates was 90 percent queer women of color. In true indie film form, many of the PAs and grips had little to no experience. Ryann Holmes, founding member of the black and trans collective Bklyn Boihood, stepped in as music supervisor to give the show its electrifying soundtrack.
“I think that’s reflective of the community. Sometimes we’re shut out of a lot of institutions or spaces, so we have to create the opportunities for ourselves to make the work that we want,” Pearson said.
Pearson has received a few industry boosts that will aid the transition from producing to directing: In 2015, she won the Gotham Awards’ Spotlight on Women Filmmakers Live The Dream grant, and she was a fellow with IFP’s Screen Forward Lab. With all the buzz surrounding the project, there is no doubt there are many more accolades coming her way.
“195 Lewis” plays Philadelphia’s BlackStar Film Festival on August 6.