The Silver Screen, Its Chemicals, and the Boy Who Sat to Watch.
On the weight of making and watching movies.
This is (part) of my story.
I wasn’t supposed to make it. My body, my soul, the mechanics of my muscular heart, were overlaid in whispers of death. I was born premature: 26 weeks early, weighing 1 pound and six ounces. I later fell to 1 pound and three ounces – the size of a soda can. Pumped with iron and other essential vitamins, I was placed in an incubator: a box that kept me shielded from the outside world. Binding me.
Jafar, the conniving Grand Vizier from Aladdin who wants the throne of Sultan was the first brown character I remember seeing on a screen.Darth Vader, too, from my treasured Star Wars, saunters the galaxy in black armor that compels fear and signals impending death – his eyes, a humanizing feature, othered by the mask. These are characters I loved, and yet their existence located dark skin and Blackness in sole association with evil. The principal stories on-screen featured adventures with all-white casts, where the main character is likely a white boy. The complete absence, or complete brutality, of Black men on popular screens told me I needed to fear myself and that, ultimately, I did not matter. This was the power of film: images come into your life and change the way you walk in the world. They deepened wounds I already harbored about myself; however, I wanted to stand tall. I wanted to belong to someone in the world. I wanted to belong to myself. I found that belonging in writing.
I wrote love songs first, but it wasn’t until I wrote and performed spoken word poetry that I fully rose to the journey of self-healing. I remember attending my first poetry workshop during freshman year of high school. Each of us young poets introduced ourselves, and I, usually nervous about having to speak up, felt ready. As the ground was strong below my feet, so was my voice in saying: “My name is Vernon Jordan, III.” It must have been all that practice I had reading poetry after-school, because I was ready to let the world know who I was. That was the very first time in my life I uttered my full first and last names aloud for a room to recognize. I felt extremely powerful, like I owned myself. With new found courage I auditioned for a short film and landed the part of a goofball named Joey. That was my first experience on a film set. It wasn’t long before Big Picture Alliance (BPA), the organization running the after-school filmmaking projects, became my second home.
During my years at BPA, I was involved with the production of three short films, and in between productions I penned film ideas and short scripts. Outside of BPA, the bulk of my work centered around memory, friendship, selfhood, coming of age, the supernatural and, predominantly, dreams – all through an AfroFuturist lens, meaning my work concerns people of African descent and is located in science fiction, fantasy, or otherwise speculative worlds. It gets weird where I am. My independent debut, from senior year of high school, was a short called I Dream – I served as writer producer and director of the short, supernatural, coming of age film. At Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, PA, I directed, contributed script lines and camera work to a short adaptation of Alice and Wonderland; and during my time abroad in London, I wrote, directed, and shot a short autobiographical experimental documentary called Self-Portrait (Of A Black Artist), all while continuing to perfect a pilot script called Walking Shadows. It is through writing these projects that I am constantly reminded of the power of this craft. In writing for film, I slowly put dents and cracks in the frameworkslaid out for me and realized I could break the frameworks. I broke them. I broke them for myself.
I want to use this art form as a means of healing, recognition, reflection, and inspiration. I want people of color globally, but especially here in the United States – especially youth, and especially Black youth – to see themselves in cinematic stories. I want them to be shaken, to think, to laugh – and to feel empowered to tell their stories, after experiencing mine. I want Black people and other people of color to breathe – cinematically – rather than crumble under the many oppressive notions filtered through film.
I know I cannot meet my goals without focused training – without the structured opportunities to do more.
I wasn’t supposed to make it. Many films reinforced this idea; and it took quite a while, but I soon found films that rejected the cripplings and failures and beasts I was imagined to be. As such, I am grateful for, and ever-inspired by, these stories. Stories like Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, Terence Nance’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, Barry Jenkin’s Medicine for Melancholy, Jesse Atlas’ RECORD/PLAY, Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi, Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Dee Rees’ Pariah, Ryan Coogler’s Creed, and the musical work of Khalil Joseph have shaped me anew —giving me space to experience a cinematic livelihood.
When given the opportunity to write films, I experience that same liveness. I want to continue this process at an advanced level in order to formulate visual worlds — to visualize myself and my people — outside of rigid systems.