When beloved filmmaker Lynn Shelton unexpectedly passed away earlier this year, her tight-knit communities rallied together to find a way to honor her legacy in a way that felt appropriate for the big-hearted creator. In July, Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum and Duplass Brothers Productions announced their solution: the launch of the Lynn Shelton “Of a Certain Age” Grant. The $25,000 unrestricted cash grant will be awarded each year to a U.S.-based woman or non-binary filmmaker, age 39 or older, who has yet to direct a narrative feature.
Less than four months later, the selection committee has chosen their inaugural winner: Keisha Rae Witherspoon, a Caribbean-American filmmaker based in Miami. Per the official announcement, “Witherspoon’s work is driven by interests in science, speculative fiction, and fantasy, as well as documenting the unseen and unheralded nuances of diasporic peoples.”
Her dazzling short film “T” world-premiered at the BlackStar Film Festival 2019, where it won the audience award for best short film. It went on to screen at Sundance and win the Golden Bear for best short film at Berlinale. In 2013, she co-founded the Caribbean artist collective Third Horizon (which also hosts an annual film festival of the same name in Miami), where she currently serves as Creative Director. Earlier this year, Witherspoon was also named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual 25 New Faces of Independent Film 2020.
Shelton, who passed away in May, was among the leading voices of American independent film, working on all sides of the camera on such films as “Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister,” “Outside In,” and “Sword of Trust.” Like the filmmakers the grant is intended to help, Shelton didn’t direct her own first feature (“We Go Way Back”) until she was 39. In the 15 years that followed, she built a prolific canon of both feature and television work, from the Sundance hit “Humpday” to “Sword of Trust.”
Speaking from her front porch in Florida, Witherspoon charted her unconventional path to filmmaking. “I was giggling with another friend of mine who is also in her forties and we were just talking about what it is to be considered ’emerging,'” she told IndieWire. “It’s pretty funny. I think what has happened is that we’ve had a lot of life experience, and those things were crucial for my voice. I don’t know what kind of films I would have made in my twenties had I gone to film school. My personal story is that I needed to have some life experience to guide my hand and to have a dependable North Star in my storytelling.”
Originally, Witherspoon wanted to be a visual artist, but her practical mother balked at the idea that she might become some sort of “starving artist” type. Ultimately, Witherspoon toyed with the idea of becoming a medical professional, before moving into writing, which led her back to the visual arts.
“Then I started taking photography, and it’s like I couldn’t escape it, to have a visual aspect,” she said. “I’m a very visual person. I ended up marrying photography and writing [into filmmaking] at some point, it just made sense. Finally, I just arrived at a place where I allowed myself to step into who I really wanted to be as a creative.”
Witherspoon will use the grant to partially fund her planned first feature, a currently untitled project described as a “post-alien-abduction black sci-fi drama set in Opa-locka, Florida.” Witherspoon and her frequent collaborator, co-writer Jason Fitzroy Jeffers, are still writing the project, which was once targeted for a March 2022 completion date. Now, Witherspoon said, that schedule might need a small “COVID edit,” but struck an optimistic note.
“We’re really lucky in that we’re in early development, still writing, and so what comes with the pandemic is taking it one week at a time, even one month at a time, pacing ourselves,” she said. “We’re getting the script right and just have to take it as it comes until it’s finished.”
Much of Witherspoon’s work has a futuristic or sci-fi edge, so her untitled feature fits right into her growing body of work. A former latchkey kid, Witherspoon said she spent much of her afterschool time watching sci-fi features, including classics like “The Fly” and “The Thing.”
“I watched a lot of sci-fi and I was alone a lot,” she said. “I found a lot of refuge and comfort in film, I think as many kids did. I somehow ended up watching a lot of disturbing sci-fi, too. I mean, it was the ’80s, so it was a different time!” Witherspoon’s affection for sci-fi and “bold characters” will inform what will become her feature debut.
The award selection committee was comprised of Justin Chang (film critic, Los Angeles Times and NPR’s “Fresh Air”), Nia DaCosta (director, “Captain Marvel II,” “Candyman”), Mel Eslyn (President, Duplass Brothers Productions), Aurora Guerrero (director, “Moquita y Mari”), and Nahnatchka Khan (director, “Always Be My Maybe,” executive producer, “Fresh Off the Boat”).
In a statement, DaCosta praised the specificity of Witherspoon’s work. “Her point of view, visual acuity and humane sensitivity make her work electrifying,” DaCosta said. “She creates in the exciting mode of our late Lynn Shelton. I feel there is a kinship in the process between them — an unbreakable and clear thread between their distinctive works.”
Witherspoon never met Shelton, but expressed admiration for the late filmmaker’s work, citing 2011’s “Your Sister’s Sister” as a favorite. “Based on everything I know about her, she was a wonderful human,” Witherspoon said. “To be the inaugural winner of something that I imagine something will continue on for years, I can’t say enough about how much it means. I was in tears on the [congratulatory] call [from the committee], it’s bigger than just the grant. There’s a purpose behind the grant, there’s vision and intention to it.”
While the grant fund was spearheaded by Duplass Brothers Productions, it was bolstered by many others, including Washington-based production company COLOR, Tracy Rector, Eliza Flug, Marc Maron, Joshua Leonard and Alison Pill, Michaela Watkins and Fred Kramer, CB Shamah, Chris and Philip Wohlstetter, and Jennessa and Robert West. It is being stewarded by Northwest Film Forum, a community film center that supported Shelton in her early years and throughout her career.
The nominations were sought from Advisory Committee with expertise on the current filmmaking landscape and knowledge of emerging filmmakers from around the country. “The resulting nominees were representative of the multiplicity of identities, lived experiences, and talent of eligible filmmakers around the country, including the underrepresented voices of BIPOC filmmakers, LGBTQ+ filmmakers, filmmakers with disabilities, and those at the intersection of these groups,” said NWFF board member Megan Griffiths, a filmmaker and close collaborator of Shelton’s who helped oversee the granting process in 2020.
Check out the runner-ups for this year’s grant on the next page, with biographies courtesy of the awards selection committee.