Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Oakland-based filmmaker Melinda James is still, in her words, “figuring it out.” A sociologist by trade, James transitioned to filmmaking to honor a population in Oakland often relegated to statistics and academic scrutiny by scholars and researchers. With just a camcorder and the internet at her fingertips, she sought instead to celebrate the creativity and joy among the city's underserved communities.
Today, in her new life as a full-time filmmaker, her work carries a sense of obligation. Her production company, About Her Films, spotlights creatives from marginalized communities with an intimate, vibrant, and lucid spirit. James’ latest project, When Women Disrupt, involves traveling with artist-activists Jessica Sabogal and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh in the rural Southwest for two weeks to facilitate a willful, difficult dialogue about anti-Blackness, misogyny and xenophobia in states that voted for a leader who embodies much of these issues. It’s a unique form of revolution, and one that she hopes will give rise to a more equitable future.
We talked to James about coming-out narratives, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, and the value of cinema in social justice.
What does the name of the production company you founded, About Her Films, represent for you and your work?
It's open to interpretation. I'm so curious when people ask me about this. It's like "Oh, it's you!" It's "About Her," it's all about you. And that’s one way. But for me, it's about representing any woman in your life. Whenever there's an opportunity that comes up where I can work with women, showcase women, folks of color, and other underrepresented groups, okay, I'll do it all. I'll be it all.
If I could just hang out with people that I think are very talented and are doing something for their communities — for the world — if I could just hang out and document that, that would be it. I would love that. I'm so amazed at the process of creativity, and I feel like I'm a vehicle for either someone's vision or if I see someone who's doing really good work, and I want to showcase that. It's a privilege to represent Oakland in an authentic, positive, and well-meaning way.
One of your most compelling projects to date was “When Women Disrupt” a tour you went on with artists Jessica Sabogal and Tatyana Fazlalizadeh. Can you talk a bit about that experience and what that meant for you?
It was really amazing. Just imagine being on the road with two of your highly talented friends, and you just get to see them work. You get to see what goes into that process, and you get to hang out, and you get to be a part of that, and you're road-tripping through some of the most beautiful parts of America. It's a little conflicting because those parts are not welcoming to folks of color, to women, to queer folks. And yeah, it makes you think about other places in America that you may not know about because they're Republican, they're conservative, because folks of color don't belong there. It was an amazing trip.
As a filmmaker who went through a less-than-traditional route, what inspires and informs your work?
A way that I keep myself pushed and inspired are finding the images that make me feel something and lend themselves to some sort of narrative, that mean something other than looking good. Anyone can make a good image, but to make an impactful image — an image that you can take now and 50, 100 years from now, that would provide some context to what was going on in that moment in time — that's what I strive to do.
The things that inspire me are long projects, when people spend time with communities and other people to create this really beautiful body of work. People like Mary Ellen Mark and Gordon Parks spend years and years with people and have big, vast bodies of work. That's what I try to use to keep myself grounded when I'm feeling impatient or when I'm feeling frustrated. When I don't feel inspired, I just remind myself that good things take time. If I spend the rest of my life to only get one good thing, I've done my life's work.
There’s a lot of people who talk about a shift in media representation toward inclusivity across underrepresented groups. Do you feel as if there is, indeed, a shift?
People are hungry for different stories, stories from different people, stories that show different representations of life, especially Black life. From what I remember as a young kid, when I was a kid, just watching all those Disney movies with my parents in the movie theater, and it was like, the damsel-in-distress, but the characters are all white. In The Little Mermaid, you have Ursula, she's like…you know.
I think about that where we are now, and you have Ava Duvernay, who's directing A Wrinkle in Time, and her whole cast is just very inclusive. There's lots of really great, strong women in the media. When you think about Master of None — that Thanksgiving episode — could you imagine seeing something like that 15 years ago? A coming out story about a Black, queer woman? Although it's still white, it's still male, there are avenues to make sure that we are represented and that our voices are heard and respected.
You have an opportunity as a maker and as a creative to have a platform to talk about real issues. It's my duty — my responsibility — to make sure that what I do with my craft not only serves me and my creative needs, but also serves other communities and voices that aren't often heard. The more that I do this, the more I have that in mind. The idea of making something just for me, just because, seems like a waste of energy.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
It'd be great if there were a way to bring everyone together and showcase all of their different work. It would just be nice to see a gallery of awesome women doing incredible work all at once. It feels like there isn't a lot of space for it, so it'd be really nice to see people come together. I just wish that more people know about all the rad work that a lot of women are doing out there. I'd love to shout it from the rooftops.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews and videos. Do you know a Bay Area artist who is doing amazing things? We want to hear from you! Highlight her efforts using #BayBrilliant.
For arts stories you won't read anywhere else, come to KQED's Arts and Culture desk.