New York Film Academy Documentary Filmmaking grad Amy Wright hasn’t slowed down since winning Best Short at the March on Washington Film Festival at the White House. While busy at work creating a documentary with Emmy-winning media personality-turned-activist Darieth Chisolm, the young documentarian and producer took the time to catch up with the NYFA Blog to share her insights into the important issues behind her documentaires, what’s coming next, and how to revolutionize the mainstream narratives around people of color.
NYFA: Can you tell us a little bit about your journey, what drew you to documentary filmmaking, and why you chose New York Film Academy?
AW: I had a pretty roundabout journey that led me to documentary filmmaking. First and foremost, I’ve always loved documentaries. As a kid, I would watch nature documentaries with my grandfather, so there was always that positive feeling associated with docs.
I studied theatre in high school and undergrad, so the arts was always a part of my life. However, after graduation I moved to New York, went to grad school at LIU for education and became a high school special education teacher. I enjoyed being in the classroom and working with kids, but there were a lot of issues I saw within the system — issues that affected the kids I worked with the most (underprivileged, of color, immigrant, disabled).
It started getting to me and I knew that I was going to leave the profession. I just didn’t know what I was going to do next. Then one day, I was in Union Square when I saw a bus stop ad that said “Learn Documentary Filmmaking,” and something just clicked for me.
At the time, Netflix had started expanding their catalogue of docs, and I was watching docs multiple times weekly. I think at that point I had just watched The Black Power Mixtape and was completely inspired. I saw it as a path back to the arts, but also as a way to change the things I couldn’t accept in the world.
I went to the next available open house, learned about the doc program, was completely sold on the idea of learning by doing, and a month later I was resigning from the DOE! I finished out that school year with my kids, came to NYFA the following September and never looked back.
NYFA: What inspires you most as a filmmaker?
AW: I think what inspires me the most is seeing grassroots movements enact change. Or even a single individual. There’s something so motivating about seeing one person, or one group who believes in something so fiercely, use the medium of film to change the world for good.
I think about films like Blackfish and I wonder if the filmmakers knew when they were first conceiving the film, what an impact it would have on whales in captivity. The idea that I could share something through film that is so important to me, particularly Black American stories, and it changes a system or even just people’s way of thinking about an issue — that’s what keeps me energized and inspired as a filmmaker.
NYFA: You’ve mentioned that your thesis film, Legacy, was inspired by your grandfather. Can you tell us how Legacy came to life and a bit about your experience of production?
AW: During the gauntlet that is the second semester of the NYFA docs program (lol), I had settled on doing a doc on the education system, because I was already so invested in the lives of disabled students of color. But as we learn in production, there are lots of roadblocks and challenges to getting the type of access that we need, especially within the time constraints of the semester. I was struggling to come up with a plan B.
It just so happened that I was on my way to JFK airport when I passed by these stables that I had passed a million times before, and I saw a sign that read “The Federation of Black Cowboys.” And I knew that was my story.
Something about working in docs makes you look at the world a little more carefully. It felt like I was meant to see, really see that sign. Add to that, as a child my grandfather would take us all to the Bill Pickett Invitational Rodeo (a Black rodeo), and the Black Cowboy Parade in Oakland every year, so it seemed like a no-brainer for me to pursue it.
NYFA: The Black Federation of Cowboys talks about its mission to promote and share knowledge of the “Black West.” After your experience of making Legacy, what is the Black West for you? AW: For me, the Black West is wherever the people are. Post slavery, I know for many freed men and women, the West represented a place with no chains or borders, and an escape from the oppressive South. Of course, we know that during that time there wasn’t really a place where a Black person could live without the looming fog of white supremacy and terror. However, the West was romanticized as a place where a man could be free, and forge his own way ahead, and Black people grabbed at that opportunity and never looked back. Which is how legends like Bass Reeves, “Stagecoach” Mary Fields, even outlaws like Nat “Deadwood Dick” Love, could go out and forge their own way ahead, despite being born into slavery. Today, the descendants of that cowboying tradition carry the Black West wherever they are, be it Oakland, Compton, Tulsa, Charlotte, Philly, or even Brooklyn.
NYFA: Legacy screened at DOC NYC and also won Best Short at the March on Washington Film Festival at the White House, which is amazing! How did this come about, and how did that moment feel?
AW: I can’t talk about this without first mentioning our [NYFA New York City campus] documentary chair, Andrea Swift. This woman has this amazing knack for putting her students in the right place at the right time, introducing us to the right people, and overall just setting us up for success.
My class (of 2015) was the first to screen in the DOC NYC U program, which was just an incredible opportunity. And if I do say so myself, being up there with NYU and Columbia … NYFA Docs were pretty strong! So that experience alone, screening at a major doc festival so shortly after graduation, was surreal. I even posted about it on Instagram, and Ava DuVernay liked my post and commented … my head just about exploded!
During DOC NYC, Andrea introduced me to one of the programmers, Opal Bennett, who also happens to program for March on Washington. She suggested I submit. I was thrilled just to be accepted to March on Washington — I had no clue it was a competition. So you can only imagine my shock when a few weeks after learning I was accepted, I found out that I had won for Best Short.
Then, to add to the excitement, we learned that we would be screening at The Obama White House! The actual screening was very bittersweet for me, though: The day I learned that we’d be screening at The White House, I called my grandfather to invite him. We lost him very unexpectedly later that day. So for him to have been a huge inspiration for the film, but not be able to attend that special screening … it was a pretty emotional day for me.
NYFA: So many times we see Black culture and Black women especially portrayed on film — and behind the scenes — in subservient or tertiary roles. As a minority woman director, what are the stories you see that still need to be told?
AW: I think right now there’s an active push to present images that counter the mainstream narratives about people of color and women of color. I mean, right now we have Black Panther, this huge blockbuster about a non-colonized Black, African people. That in and of itself is revolutionary. And it was shot by a woman! A whole action film, shot by a woman.
Visibility is key. Personally, what I would like to see are more stories about people of color that have nothing to do with the fact that they are people of color, because in many ways, unapologetic Blackness is inherently political. So it’s cool when we see things that show, “Hey we live normal lives and experience human emotions just like everyone else.”
In Detroit, right now, there are people who have repurposed the empty lots for beekeeping. They happen to be Black. That’s so dope to me, that as a people we do these incredible, regular things just like anyone else. That’s what I’d like to see more of.
NYFA: What’s next for you? Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
AW: Right now, I’m writing and producing an exciting project with former NBC journalist Darieth Chisolm called 50 Shades of Silence, in which we chronicle her terrible experience with revenge porn and her mission to have legislation passed to protect victims and punish perpetrators. We were recently featured on Dr. Oz and The Today Show with Megyn Kelly — you should check us out!
Also, I have been developing another (currently untitled) documentary feature about the Shreveport six that’s really near and dear to my heart. In 2010, six Black kids drowned in the Red River in Shreveport while trying to save a friend. That friend survived. It’s a tragedy that shook an entire community, and there are rippling effects of that tragedy in Shreveport to this day. But more to come on that … I don’t want to give too much away.
The New York Film Academy would like to thank Amy Wright for sharing her story with our community. Learn more about 50 Shades of Silence here.