2021 Queen Collective series all about many pathways to Black freedom, joy

The series champions four Black female documentarians pointing their cameras at narratives ranging from youth advocacy and maternity to Black genius and gaming

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Queen Latifah may be one of the most quietly underrated artists we have, a performer who’s mastered both the big and small screens and climbed her way up the hip-hop ranks during a time when the music genre was governed by men. She’s still going strong today as the star and producer of the CBS iteration of The Equalizer.

Queen Latifah
(Photo by Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images for BET)

If that wasn’t enough, for the last three years she’s co-produced the Queen Collective, a series of short films made by Black female directors, for the Tribeca Film Festival.  

Amid overwhelming rhetoric that posits there are too few Black women behind the camera, the Queen Collective series champions four very different Black female documentarians pointing their cameras at narratives ranging from youth advocacy and maternity to Black genius and gaming. While their storytelling techniques vary, sometimes to a fault, their desire to amplify and achieve Black freedom with each story is apparent in every frame. 

For example, Ethiopian American director Haimy Assefa’s Black Birth warmly explores the pregnancy journeys of three Black women, including with Assefa herself, who must navigate their anxieties and excitement about becoming parents as well as an often-prejudiced prenatal process.

Assefa doesn’t shy away from the specificities of Black women’s experiences on their way to parenthood, folding in concerns about how they will talk to their child about racism, but she most profoundly captures the essence of each of her subjects at their homes, by themselves and with their partners. 

Gibrey Allen, Marc S. Pritchard, Camrus Johnson, Zoey Martinson, Marshall Tyler and guests attend the Tribeca Festival After-Party for the Queen Collective and 8:46 hosted by P&G at the Harbor on June 18, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for 2021 Tribeca Festival)

The love, the fears, the vulnerability — all of these feelings are beautifully honored in the film, giving agency to women whose experiences are too often disregarded. Amid COVID-19 restrictions, Assefa even records Zoom sessions with them to catch up and assure that they are not alone, celebrating a precious sense of sisterhood unlike any other. 

Director-producer-cinematographer Cai ThomasChange the Name shifts the focus to a Black female schoolteacher at Village Leadership Academy in Chicago doing what many of us have done during today’s cultural reckoning —learning and unlearning the truth about ourselves. In this case, she’s teaching her students how to do that so that they become self-aware, proud adults.

“I became an educator because I had no Black teachers,” she says in the film. 

Though the overall theme in Change the Name is relearning Black truths, Thomas follows one particular cause, verité-styled — rechristening Douglas Park, named after a man who owned 123 enslaved people, as Douglass Park, in honor of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Activated by their teacher, Black and brown students at VLA hit the streets to advocate that the city instead commemorate freedom fighters, not enslavement. 

While their campaign is steadfast, Change the Name falls a bit of out of focus after the murder of George Floyd redirects the young people’s efforts. It’s an understandable pivot, but given its short runtime and broad theme, it would have behooved Thomas to follow the one storyline about the park through the end. It doesn’t make the film less impactful, but it is a bit scattered and does take you out of the major story in favor of a much-discussed topic of young activists in the wake of Floyd. 

On the other hand, director Tina Charles has a razor-sharp focus in her new film, Game Changer, which explores the lack of diversity in the gaming community. Zeroing in on the story of Tanya DePass, the Black woman whose tweet about #INeedDiverseGames launched a long-overdue shift in the gaming community, Charles examines the community and its issues at large — including misogyny in corporate spaces, racism and Gamergate. 

(Credit: Tribeca Film Festival)

But Game Changer doesn’t just analyze the problems that are still being worked on in the gaming community, Charles celebrates why it’s been such a unique space for Black female nerds to come into their own power, develop their creative voices and — perhaps most importantly — add joy to their lives. By centering DePass’ story, Charles highlights a pathway for Black women to reach victorious heights. 

The young girl at the heart of director Arielle Knight’s terrific film, A Song of Grace, has also orchestrated her own journey to success. The story of 12-year-old Grace Moore becoming one of New York Philharmonic’s youngest composers is certainly enough to anchor an entire film. But Knight makes a wise decision to take a more macro approach to explore the relationship between Moore and her supportive single mother, a woman who was determined for her daughter to come into the world with a “clean slate.” Meaning, to have her pursue whatever her heart desires without constantly worrying about the repeated history of racism and discrimination. 

Flitting from color to black-and-white imagery, thanks to cinematographer Alejandro Mejia’s gorgeous eye, A Song of Grace poignantly augments what’s it like to dream beyond the world that has been created for you. From Grace’s mother standing proudly near her daughter as she plays the piano, to Grace asking her mother how she feels when she hears her music, to mother and daughter looking forward as if already embracing the future, A Song of Grace wonderfully bridges the gap between potential and reality. 

That’s resounding throughout each of the films in this year’s Queen Collective. Each narrative acts as its own roadmap to freedom — whether it’s through art, political advocacy, motherhood or games. An expectant mother says it best in Black Birth: “May we all birth and raise free children.”

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