Filmmaker Kiosa Sukami’s latest short film A Letter To Black Men is both an examination of the portrayal of Black men in contemporary media and a humbling drama about the role of fatherhood in community. It follows Kevin who, on the cusp of succumbing to a life of crime, is confronted by Black, a fatherlike figure in his life who has just been released from prison and is seeking recompense. The film revolves around their relationship and the decision Kevin must make for his future. Sukami’s short is another film that continues a recent upsurge of excellent work that seeks to tackle stories about Black representation in challenging and vitalising ways. DN caught up with Sukami for an in-depth discussion about his journey making A Letter To Black Men – which is currently amidst its festival run and screens at Bolton Film Festival tomorrow and Raindance on the 30th October – talking everything from the notions of Black masculinity he wanted to tackle in the narrative to the technicality of his energised, free-flowing camerawork.
What was the starting point for yourself in the making of A Letter To Black Men?
As the title proclaims, I ultimately wrote this film to be for Black men. I did however also want the film to be an opportunity for anyone else who has trouble understanding us to look into this world the way I was seeing it. It is a personal social commentary film that looks to shine a light and address some of the negative aspects of men in our community; from the Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude to non-existent father figures, delivered in an entertaining way without glamorising the culture.
How did you seek to address those specific notions in the short?
There are a few different matters explored in the film but I want to mainly highlight four. Firstly ‘Survival Culture’: As a young Black man, I found myself often dealing with my immediate needs over my long-term needs. Kevin is influenced by his best friend Leon to get into a life of crime for quick monetary gain, not realising the long-term effects of going to prison. Also, the survival of the fittest mentality breeds people who riot rather than plan progressive change or revolution. There are many instances in the film where characters have the opportunity to solve their issues through conversation but it does not always go right.
Secondly, ‘The Black Family’: Although Black people are closing the generational wealth gap, we are still lagging far behind the significant head start our white counterparts have had. I wanted to emphasise the importance of building and maintaining strong family units in building better generations. There are a significant number of single parent Black households, mainly due to the absence of the father. Not every single-parent household comes about in the same way, as shown in the film, but the same cannot be said for the long-term effects of being raised by one parent.
I wanted to emphasise the importance of building and maintaining strong family units in building better generations.
Thirdly, ‘Brotherhoods’: Violence within the black community and where it stems from: i.e. lack of opportunities, resources and mentors/figures who are capable of nurturing young people. Kevin has artistic skills but he spends it tagging walls, so Black gives Kevin a blank canvas as an alternative creative outlet. The Lion King has ‘The Circle of Life’ and the ‘streets’ have something I wrote in the original draft of the film called ‘The Pyramid of the Hood’. This is essentially the idea that all ‘street’ guys have three outcomes in their life: get rich, die or end up in jail. Either way, the cycle will continue and you must be able to see change coming or initiate change. Another head will grow in that person’s place regardless of which of the three takes place. Although Black has been imprisoned, he comes out to find the world has carried on and there is a new alpha in the pack. County lines and grooming play a part in the cycle of gang life, which I myself witnessed growing up. In the film, Kevin is being recruited under peer pressure to work with a local drug dealer.
And lastly, ‘Religion’: Faith plays a strong part in the Black community. I was raised in a religious household and I went to church every Sunday until about 17. By then I had matured enough to learn right from wrong and I strongly believe without this guidance I may have made a lot of stupid choices. In the film, Kevin and Black are seen to be wearing a pendant of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. There is a further meaning to this but I will let keen audiences look into that themselves.
Could you walk us through the process of getting A Letter To Black Men off the ground as a production?
I’ve had little luck getting any funding for my projects so I decided to write something that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to produce myself, whilst still giving me an opportunity to figure out my directing style. I am influenced by directors such as Spike Lee for his realistic subject matter, characters and worlds but also Tyler Perry for his entrepreneurial approach to filmmaking.
Were there any specific works by those directors, or any others, that had a direct influence on this short?
Specific to this film, one of my influences was the 1999 film Kids by Larry Clark. It had a significant impact on me due to its very grounded approach of being shot in a semi-documentary style with inexperienced actors. The film chronicles a single day in the life of young people and these same two elements can be said about A Letter To Black Men.
When we see or hear about Black men from these ‘urban’ areas in the media, there is a constant narrative of misery.
I wanted to write about the people I knew growing up in London but portray them in the same authentic way I felt Clark had managed to for his characters, with real world problems. I always felt the media I was consuming were doing these characters a disservice. When we see or hear about Black men from these ‘urban’ areas in the media, there is a constant narrative of misery. Whether it is in the news, movies or TV shows, the portrayal of Black characters always felt one, maybe two-dimensional. Oftentimes these characters are fictional but written by people who could not relate to them if they existed and subsequently they never seem to teach me anything or show any personal growth throughout the story. I started looking around my surroundings for characters who I understood and could relate to and the rest was history.
How much of your own experience growing up do you see in your characters?
I wrote the film to represent me in the way I was seeing the world growing up. I was born in Congo and moved to London aged seven. Everything was new to me so growing up in these areas, I always felt like I was peering through the looking glass, almost like living in a documentary. I was never a complete outsider but I also never quite fit in, so I spent most of my formative years just observing groups of people and learning the ‘lingo’.
There are many similarities shared with my personal experiences that are shown in the film. There were people involved in crimes that were trying to recruit me in county lines; I was a creative person looking for my outlet, which turned out to be film rather than Kevin’s painting; I saw people, like our lead character Black, struggle to adjust within a new world after being imprisoned; the local shopkeeper stereotyped us and gave us hassle each time we went in based on his experiences with other Black kids shoplifting; I have a strong relationship with my sisters, being the only boy in my family, just like Kevin; my father gave me the same speech about bad influences not caring about their future, or mine, and the importance of education. The list goes on but I simply took inspiration from these and recreated fictional characters dealing with these in their own way.
In devising the story, did you find that the script went through many iterations before you landed on the final version?
The original script was about 30 pages long and my Assistant Director Laurelle Jones tore it apart immediately after reading it and seeing my budget. I ended up getting it down to 20 and we spent about a week on the casting process once the script was finalised. I had worked with one of our leads, Baba Oyejide, on my graduation film Longfield Drive almost five years prior. My experience working with him was so positive that I wrote the character of Black with him already in mind to play the role. Luckily he accepted after reading the script so we just had to cast his co-star, Kevin, played by Jesse Lihau and three other supporting roles: Leon played by Ashley Durant, Kelsie played by Lynsey Murrell and Smokey played by Adam Wright. The rest of the supporting cast were recommended by the actors we had already confirmed and I think it worked in our favour because we didn’t have to work as hard to build on-screen chemistry.
The way your characters interact and how they talk feels so free-flowing and natural. Did you do any workshopping or rehearsals with your actors to get them into the mindset of their characters?
Although the film is scripted, I wanted the performances to not feel like they were. I improv with actors during rehearsals, which consist of sensory details of circumstances in order to provoke an organic, subconscious performance. Conversations come across more naturally when you give actors a safe space to learn to react to each other as they would naturally without the constraints of a script. I was drawn to cinéma vérité, particularly when studying the works of Cassavetes like Faces or A Woman Under The Influence. He was particularly known for creating a comfortable and informal environment to freely experiment, with emphasis on rejection of the director’s ‘singular vision’. I wanted to allow my actors to interpret characters in their own way and we often replaced words during rehearsals based on the results of performance or because it just sounded better.
Pre-production was clearly a thorough journey. What was it like when it came to shooting the film?
We called in so many favours to make this film possible. I worked closely with my Art Director Tia Acheampong to build the look of the locations and actors’ wardrobe. She kindly let us film about four scenes in her house and with the magic of filmmaking as well as her talents, we were able to shoot multiple scenes sometimes in the same room without audiences noticing.
We shot the film over three days mostly handheld because we felt the story called for it. The characters are going through so many layers of emotion and personal conflict so we felt the camera should accompany them on their journey. In a more practical sense also, because I’m naturally a guerrilla filmmaker, it helped us move very quickly throughout the day. We simply could not schedule in more time to shoot so having the camera on an Easyrig meant we powered through the days whilst being able to quickly assess what the best angle would be for a specific character or scene.
What other kit did you utilise to achieve the grounded, anamorphic look of the cinematography?
It’s been a while since we shot the film so I don’t remember everything from the top of my head but what I do remember is we shot the film on a Blackmagic URSA Mini Pro 4.6K with a Kowa anamorphic projection lens our DOP Miguel Carmenes had built himself. He kindly broke it down for me like this: it’s a lens that would normally be attached to a cinema projector, rather than a camera, so it doesn’t have a focus ring and only an aperture. This type of lens was used to project anamorphic de-squeezed images back in the days of film and there was a big community of anamorphic filmmakers on social media who were all striving to achieve this look.
Because anamorphic lenses are naturally very expensive compared to sphericals, getting this look on a budget was always a struggle and this is where the need to build this lens came from. The first challenge was to find a lens that would solve the missing focus capabilities the projection lens was missing and then combine it together to create this sort of Frankenstein lens to give us that anamorphic look. It was a mix of a spherical Leica glass paired with a Kowa projection lens from the same mid-late 80s time period, so the look didn’t differ too much.
The characters are going through so many layers of emotion and personal conflict so we felt the camera should accompany them on their journey.
The version we shot the short was an earlier build and Carmenes now has a much more refined version. He hasn’t used it in almost two years because he’s now working as a cinematographer for hire and the projects he works on now allow for him to just rent really cool anamorphics. It’s more of a souvenir now to remind us to work with what you have. We went so far to get the anamorphic look with what was available to us but the beauty of it is that it retains the look until this day. Now everything has changed with so many amazing companies offering affordable anamorphic solutions, so there’s no need to build something like that anymore. What I love about our film though is that the lens we used has a very unique look to it and nobody or company will ever be able to achieve the personal look we had with the self-made projection lens monster.
I wanted to ask about a couple of the longer takes in the film. What motivated you to shoot that way for those moments?
I’m a big fan of long takes in my films so there were two shots that were purely Steadicam. I studied drama when I was younger and I really enjoyed the way stage directors would block the movement in a scene. I try to bring this into my work because it feels a lot more immersive when actors can hold the audience’s attention for two minutes without them realising we haven’t cut. I also like the feeling you get when something big happens after a really long take and you realise the actors knew it was coming the whole time.
What was it like editing this project yourself? Did you seek out feedback from other members of the crew during post?
Shortly after we wrapped production, the pandemic happened so any post-production we intended to do was put on hold. We were all made to work remotely so I had no choice at the time but to do the editing myself. I had managed to get the film together to a point where I felt confident enough to share it with other people, so we showed it to the cast/crew for feedback before making further revisions. I think this really helped make sure my vision and the team’s understanding/delivery of that were in harmony.
At the same time as we were working on post, George Floyd was killed at the hands of police in the US. It felt as though for the first time the world was finally seeing Black people. A man who is struggling to regain control of his life after a criminal past is valued less than someone’s property. I now felt more determined than ever before to complete this film since there were so many conversations being had at the time about George that shared similarities with our film. Our main character, Black, is an ex-convict who wants to get back into normal society but is unable to do so easily because of mankind’s value of property over life. Some of the on-screen messaging in the film was based on my feelings about the ongoing situation at the time.
One of the good things about the pandemic was the way we managed to still communicate with the world remotely. I had never met our Sound Designer Langa Manyoba in person but with the power of technology, we were able to work on a mix that I felt really enhanced the film. Directors such as David Fincher sometimes use music with lyrics that echo the themes of the film and because I was working heavily in music video production at the time, I wrote the film with music in mind for each scene. I wanted the use of music to be either thematic or ironic. Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin can be heard playing in the opening scene, foreshadowing what’s to come.
We asked our DOP Miguel Carmenes to colour-grade the film himself in the end, which turned out to be one of the things we have received good feedback on. It’s important for cinematographers to have input on the final look of their films and be able to have his vision marry up with mine.
How’s the future looking for both yourself and A Letter To Black Men?
In terms of A Letter To Black Men, I am looking for a production team to either turn the short into a play for theatre or to pitch it as a TV series. It was originally written to be a lot longer and each character has their own back story that I’d love to explore in depth. For myself personally, I have another short film I am writing for production in December. At the same time, I am reaching out to as many experienced directors in film and TV for an opportunity to shadow them on set, hopefully leading to agency representation and professional work.