“History By Us”
By: Curtis Stephen
For emerging filmmakers Nefertite Nguvu and Gabrielle Shepard, Black History Month this year wasn’t so much about returning to the familiar inasmuch as it was uncovering hidden figures – including those in plain sight.
In the latest edition of its decade-long “28 Days” series, AT&T enlisted both directors to place a multimedia spotlight on the contributions of two dynamic innovators in the arts.
And so, Shepard paid tribute to the late comic book artist Billy Graham – who was a trailblazer at Marvel during the 1970s while working on major titles Black Panther and Luke Cage. But even as the film Black Panther continues to break box-office records – and is projected to gross more than $1 billion worldwide – Graham’s story is largely unknown. “He’s so influential,” says Shepard. “It’s just amazing how much about our history isn’t known.”
Meanwhile, the Sacramento native has been setting some impressive milestones of her own. After scoring a production internship on the 2014 blockbuster hit The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I (“That’s when I knew I wanted to be a director – when I saw the magic happening around me,” she recalls) and earning a fine arts degree at Chapman University in Orange, Calf., Shepard has produced two short films – including the indie sci-fi drama “Electrogenesis,” which has gone viral on YouTube.
These days, she’s working on a feature-length version to her coming-of-age production “Queen” and is developing several pilots. “Opportunity is the difference between success and failure for so many people,” says Shepard, who has been mentored by actress Octavia Spencer and director Rick Famuyiwa. “So we should be taking some risks and just going for it.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Nguvu in saluting Charles Burnett – whose independent directorial output includes the groundbreaking 1978 film Killer of Sheep.
“Here was someone who was working on the margins while dealing with the challenge of getting the work seen when there was no machine behind it,” she says.
Burnett’s body of work, Nguvu adds, reflects a fight-the-power ethos. And she can relate to being the maverick as the founder of Hollywood Africans, a full-service production company. In 2014, she made her debut with the soulful, award-winning indie feature In The Morning. “I wanted to hold up a mirror to a community that doesn’t often get to see itself on film,” she recalls.
“I look back at the experience in awe, really, that we had the audacity to attempt to do it. And also the courage, the faith and the love to make it happen.” But in juggling a slew of projects, Nguvu – a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York – seldom has time to peer through the rearview mirror.
After producing several mini-docs with rapper/actor Common and a short film about a mural project in her hometown of Newark, she now finds herself “deep down the dive” of a new feature-length film. “One of the things I’m super-committed to doing is not only to make work, but to continue to push the envelope,” Nguvu adds. “And the more we can avoid the gatekeepers and the permission-based system that filmmaking is sort of predicated upon, then we’ll be in much better shape.”