Winds of Change: Recognizing Octavia In My Short Film

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Spelman is full of traditions: There is an arch that no one is to walk under until they graduate or they will be cursed to spend more than four years pursuing their degree; All Spelman Women must wear a pure white dress with sleeves and a hem that falls past one’s knees for momentous traditional events, such as your first Founder’s Day; There is an age-old preconceived notion of how a “Spelman Woman” should dress, talk, and act that is prominent on our campus.

Spelman is also full of opposition to those traditions: People dismiss the arch lore as merely superstitious. Many argue that the white dress represents dated ideals of femininity and purity that contradict with the progressiveness of the school. Pushback against the traditional “Spelman Woman” is also prominent on our campus.

Faced with such either/or situations, I am often tempted to choose a side when it comes to the complexities of Spelman. But if there is one thing Octavia Butler has helped me come to grips with this semester, it is truly embracing the idea of nuance. None of her novels allow you a black and white, good and evil interpretation of anything. She gives an almost inordinate amount of care with her gray spaces, lavishing in them, whether it be through the exploration of the relationship between Nikanj and Lillith in Dawn or in the evaluation of consent between Shori and Wright in Fledgling. Octavia doesn’t allow you to pick a side by quickly pointing out that the sides are not as easy to define as we would like to believe. What she is more concerned with is how we navigate the space we are given, how the choices we make influence our realities.

As the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activism Short-Film Festival approached I found myself immersed in a story of disappearing time and disappearing women and that was all behind the scenes. After plans for one short film fell through, I set to work on another, writing the script in a few days and cobbling together a makeshift crew and cast. I had my DSLR camera, a borrowed tripod, and some enthusiastic volunteers: I was ready to go. Of course, like most well laid (if somewhat last minute) plans, I found my film schedule falling apart as I faced my deadline. Two separate actresses casted for the lead ended up backing out of the project last minute and so I had to take on the role myself. One of the big scenes I planned on filming needed too many people and I had to rewrite. And then, perfectionist that I am, I spent all of my free time leading up to the festival editing. The morning of the event I fell asleep at my computer as I waited for it to upload and woke to a tweet from Professor Tananarive Due asking for my link. In the end, things fell into place and Winds of Change debuted as the first film in the festival and the only student film.

Winds of Change revolves around Cassandra, a gifted psychic who, at fourteen, was approached by the being Oya to be a warrior of change and bear the responsibility of changing the world for the better. Cassandra, however, could not bear the burden of this responsibility. Years later, Oya, recognizing that a single human couldn’t accomplish her goal, begins collecting a variety of world-changers to merge with her and become one super-warrior. The film focuses on this process, called “The Claiming”. It begins with two girls who dare to walk through the arch and are absorbed by Oya. The climax is a face off between Cassandra and Oya after Oya claims Cassandra’s best friend, Talibeh. At the heart of the story is Cassandra’s horror at the thought of Oya’s super warrior, a conglomerate of young women who lose their free will in pursuit of Oya’s “healing”. But Oya argues that the woman who are claimed share the same will, to make the world a better place, and that their merging will allow that on a scale never seen before. In a way these issues mirror the issues I find myself confronted with on my campus, the issues of being a “Spelman Woman” without losing my identity. To what point is the adherence and love of our school and tradition a betrayal of my free will? To what point does “A Choice to Change the World” become a choice to stop making choices? And the ultimate question: Is it worth it?

Winds of Change doesn’t answer any of these questions. It was written in three days and filmed in two but more than that, it is embedded with an Octavia Butler ethos, her rejection of simplicity finding its way into my five minute short without much conscious effort on my part. Instead of allowing a simple good/evil dynamic between Cassandra and Oya, I presented two beings who are equally flawed, Cassandra by such a desperate desire to keep her life as her own that she is unable to sacrifice anything to fulfill her destiny, and Oya who requires such a complete sacrifice of self, individuality is completely lost.  But Cassandra and Oya are also equally strong, Cassandra loyal and freethinking, Oya determined and full of good intentions. The ending of the film still unsettles me because though it implies “The Claiming” is inevitable, it refuses to confirm whether this is good or bad, because it doesn’t acknowledge if Oya is right or wrong. After a semester with the Oankali and the Ina, I find this discomfort familiar if not enjoyable.

At first, as I reminisced about the film, I thought that with more time I might have ferreted out some kind of middle ground between Cassandra and Oya that truly captures what it means to be a Spelmanite who adorns both her white dress and free will with pride. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that both Oya and Cassandra have the capacity to fill that role, to choose differently, to shape their reality in a way that allows this nuance. For me that is my next step, to not only write a gray area, but to also allow my characters to dive into it headfirst.

The Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activist was full of brilliant activists and storytellers from Dream Hampton to Junot Diaz who discussed how Octavia had shaped the way they saw their worlds, both fictional and physical. Winds of Change has many flaws, the worst of which being my acting, but I know that I will always prize it, not only because it is my first truly eerie wor, or because the sound wasn’t as horrible as I feared it would be, but because it is a crucial part of my Octavia Butler story.

And it just makes sense that that story is inextricably linked with my Spelman story as well.

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Like a stone

I remember when I first came across the tenet “All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.”–I  was temporarily paralyzed by its puzzling and almost cryptic nature. I tried counting the ‘feet’ in order to peg it as a certain type of poem, and I tried reading it as a riddle, but the more I thought about it the more transparent it became and the clearer it was to me.  This is definitely one of my favorite Earthseed tenets, because it mirrors the cyclical nature of life, which is the cornerstone for many African derived religions and also my personal worldview. If I had a tenet it would go a little something like this:” I am a catalyst for. An instrument intent on. And a proponent of change.’ For me this three-fold interaction with change is very much the same as Earthseed. But in my worldview change has less of a religious connotation, because to me Truth is equal to the never-ending quest for knowledge. In this tenet I see my myself like the stone cast into a pool, sending countless concentric circles, rippling through the once unmoved waters. Here is my personal translation of the tenet:

“All that you touch you change.”-As a catalyst for change, it is my duty to be the stone in a stagnant pool of thought–causing ripples of change.

“All that you change, changes you.”-As an instrument intent on change, there will be times that, like the tossed pebble, I will be displaced from my ‘comforts’ in order to enact change. And like the stone as it meets the pool, I understand that I will also meet change.

“The only lasting truth is change.”-As a proponent of change, I will never deny that change is the only one inevitable and unavoidable truth of the universe. Like the stone meeting resistance on the moment of impact into the pool, I am not immune to resisting change. And as the stone must penetrate the stagnant water, I must be steadfast in my belief in the “lasting truth” that is change.

At the end of the day if God is The Truth, and The only Truth is change, then by all of the powers of deductive reasoning= God is change.

Ashe!

PANELISTS: Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts and Activism (Spelman College) 4/16/14

Last March, Spelman College celebrated the life and legacy of Octavia E. Butler with a panel of her friends, teachers and colleagues called the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts. Readers and fans from around the country came to the campus to participate in the historic event.  [See the video HERE.]

In 2014–on the 50th anniversary of civil rights milestones–Spelman’s celebration of the science fiction pioneer’s work expands to the realm of social justice with the Octavia E. Butler Celebration of Arts & Activism. This is the Culminating Event of Cosby Chair in the Humanities Tananarive Due, who also organized last year’s event. The Celebration will include a panel, a Black Science Fiction Short Film Festival, and a presentation of papers by Octavia Butler student scholars at Spelman.

All of the panelists both admire Octavia’s work and have embraced roles as artist/activists in different ways. More information about the schedule to come.  (Please “like” our Facebook page for updates.) 

CONFIRMED PANELISTS:

Nnedi Okorafor 

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A leading international voice in black speculative fiction, Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the groundbreaking novel Who Fears Death, a 2011 World Fantasy Award winner that tackles real-world issues such as rape and female genital mutilation. The Nigerian-American author has also published several young adult titles: Akata WitchThe Shadow Speaker and Zahrah the Windseeker, which was awarded the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. She recently published a short story collection, Kabu Kabu. Find her on Twitter @Nnedi.

Junot Díaz 

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Junot Díaz was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New Jersey. He is the author of the critically acclaimed DrownThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award; and This Is How You Lose Her, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist. He is the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, PEN/Malamud Award, Dayton Literary Peace Prize, Guggenheim Fellowship, and PEN/O. Henry Award.  A graduate of Rutgers College, Díaz is currently the fiction editor at Boston Review and the Rudge and Nancy Allen Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

He is the cofounder of Voices of Our Nation Workshop.

dream hampton

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Dream Hampton is a writer and award winning filmmaker. She’s a senior fellow at Moms Rising.  She was an Associate Producer of VH1’s Emmy-award winning “Behind the Music: Notorious B.I.G.” and Co-Producer of “Bigger than Life”, the first feature-length documentary on the rapper, directed by Peter Spier. Her short film “I am Ali” was an entry at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and won “Best Short Film” at Vanity Fair’s Newport Film Festival. She was a Co-Executive Producer of “An Oversimplification of Her Beauty”, 2012, Associate Producer of “The Russian Winter”,(2012) Director of the music video “QueenS”, 2012 for SubPop artists TheeSatisfaction! “QueenS”, which NPR named one of the most stylish of 2012. Hampton directed the feature length concert film Black August: A Hip-Hop Documentary Concert, 2010. Hampton has written about music, culture and politics for 20 years. She was a contributor to Vibe for 15 years, beginning with its launch 1993, The Village Voice, and Spin. She is noted as a “pioneering” black female journalist. Other publications her writings have appeared in include The Detroit News, Harper’s Bazaar, NPR, Essence, Ebony, etc. Her Essays have also been included in over dozens of anthologies, including Born to Use Mics: Reading Nas’s Illmatic, 2009 (edited by Michael Eric Dyson) and “Black Cool: One Thousand Streams of Blackness”, 2012 (edited by Rebecca Walker). Hampton collaborated with Jay-Z on the New York Times bestselling book, Decoded.  She also writes for “BET Honors” and co-produced 2013’s “Black Girls Rock.”

Find her on Twitter: @dreamhampton

Adrienne Maree Brown 

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Adrienne is a 2013 Kresge Literary Arts Fellow writing science fiction in Detroit, and also received a 2013 Detroit Knight Arts Challenge Award to run a series of Octavia Butler based science fiction writing workshops. She is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements with Walidah Imarisha (coming 6/2014). Learning from her 15 years of movement facilitation and participation, she approaches Octavia’s work through the lens of emergent strategy – strategies rooted in relationship, adaptability, and embracing change. Adrienne has helped to launch a loose network of Octavia Butler and Emergent Strategy Reading Groups for people interested in reading Octavia’s work from a political and strategic framework, and is building with Octavia E Butler Legacy Network on other ways of extending Butler’s work.

She is on Twitter @adriennemaree.

FEATURED YOUNG ARTIST/ACTIVIST:

Bree Newsome 

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Bree Newsome’s mug shot after her arrest (July, 2013)

Bree Newsome is a North Carolina writer, filmmaker and singer/songwriter and progressive activist who was arrested at a sit-in in July of 2013. She and five other protesters were arrested while protesting changes to North Carolina’s Voter ID law that restrict voting. Her short horror film, WAKE, was featured at last year’s Black Science Fiction Short Film Festival at Spelman.

She graduated from New York University with a B.F.A. in Film & Television. While still in high school, Newsome created an animated short, “The Three Princes of Idea” which earned her a $40,000 scholarship from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. In October 2004, YM Magazine named Newsome one of the “20 Coolest Teens in America.” While at NYU, she wrote and directed “Your Ballot, Your Voice” a humorous PSA encouraging youth to vote. The PSA went on to win Grand Prize in the Tisch/MTV Rock the Vote PSA Contest. Newsome wrote, produced, directed and edited “Wake”, her final short film as a student at NYU. “Wake” has received numerous awards and honors. It was selected for official competition in NYU’s prestigious First Run Film Festival where it went on to win numerous awards including an Audience Choice Award and craft awards for Producing, Art Direction and Acting. The film was also named as a finalist for the festival’s highest honor, the esteemed Wasserman Award. Newsome is the first African-American to be nominated for this award in the undergraduate category (Spike Lee had previously won the award in the graduate category). As such, she was honored in June 2010 with an invitation to screen her film at the Directors Guild of America in Hollywood. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures recognized “Wake” as one of the best student films of 2010 and awarded Newsome a student grant. The film also won the Paul Robeson award for Best Short Narrative at Newark Black Film Festival. Newsome was subsequently invited to screen her film in several other major film festivals including the 63rd Festival de Cannes in France, the New York International Latino Film Festival, the International Black Film Festival of Nashville, Montreal Black Film Festival in Canada and Cucalorous Film Festival in Wilmington, NC. “Wake” concluded its festival run by taking the top prize at BET’s Urbanworld Film Festival in 2011. Newsome was invited in 2011 to serve as the first ever Artist-in-Residence at Saatchi & Saatchi, a global creative communications and advertising company headquartered in New York. In August 2012, Newsome wrote and recorded, “SHAKE IT LIKE AN ETCH-A-SKETCH!”, a song that skewers presidential candidate Mitt Romney and criticizes the Republican Party for policies that promote classism and bigotry. Newsome then directed and edited a music video for the song which she released on YouTube. The video immediately drew attention and praise from political bloggers, including The Huffington Post. Most recently, Bree Newsome has served as a consultant and teacher for the Cinema School in the Bronx, NY. She is the frontwoman for Powerhouse, a Charlotte-based funk and r&b/soul band and she is currently at work writing and recording her first EP. A staunch advocate for civil rights and social reform, Newsome was arrested last year during a sit-in at the North Carolina State Capitol where she spoke out against the state’s recent attack on voting rights. She continues to work as an activist and youth organizer in North Carolina.

Bree is on Twitter @BreeNewsome

Moderator: Tananarive Due 

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Tananarive Due is serving her second year as the Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. The American Book Award winner is the author of more than a dozen novels and a civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which she co-authored with her late mother, Patricia Stephens Due. Octavia Butler said of her novel My Soul to Keep: ““I enjoy reading the kind of novel that seduces me right into it and makes me forget about work or sleep. My Soul to Keep does that beautifully.”  She and her husband, science fiction novelist Steven Barnes, recently co-produced and co-wrote a short horror film, “Danger Word.” 

Due’s mother, Patricia Stephens Due, spent 49 days in jail after a sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1960, arrested while she was a student at Florida A&M University. Her father, civil rights attorney John Due, is still active in the fight against racism.

Due and Spelman College English Department Chair Tarshia Stanley are co-teaching a spring course at Spelman entitled: “Butler’s Daughters: Imagining Leadership in Black Speculative Fiction.”

Due is on Twitter @TananariveDue.