Here at Casting Networks, we believe in the impact that filmmaking can have, along with the role it can play in delivering important messages. And right now, we want to talk about the vital responsibility the industry holds in accurately representing the Black community and its members’ everyday experiences living in America. To do so, we spoke with Curtis Taylor Jr., a director who has worked with names like Yara Shahidi and Spike Lee. He’s behind a number of viral video campaigns and was the director of photography for Migos’ collaboration with Tasty, BuzzFeed’s “Cocoa Butter’s The Era,” and Facebook Watch’s “Quinta Vs. Everything.” Taylor Jr. also has a number of upcoming projects in the works, but he took time out to have a conversation with Casting Networks on telling Black stories and the language we use around them.
I want to begin by acknowledging that since I’m coming from my own, limited perspective, I’d love to have you start the conversation by giving me your perspective on the general topic of telling Black stories as a creator.
To start, I’ve found that as a Black man in the industry, it’s been difficult in the past to allow myself the space and the real estate to call myself a director. Being Black in this industry means we haven’t always been recognized for our thoughts. I’ve found that there are often other people like me, who have this ability to tell stories, but we haven’t always had the space and the opportunity to direct. And I think that that’s very important in representation, in how we show up in the industry. It’s essential that younger generations can read these headlines and see that Black directors do exist. It allows them to feel like they have the possibility to come into this space and to tell stories that feel real and true and authentic to them. So that’s something I want to do my due diligence in by taking up that space and calling myself what I am, which is a director.
Thank you for sharing that, and I’ll use the term “director” moving forward. As a director, can you speak to the importance of putting out content that accurately represents the Black community?
I’m going to be very transparent with the fact that as an artist, I struggle with the word “content” because I think it has created a belief that work is ready-made. That idea dilutes the essence and power of work, a concept that’s important to connect to Blackness. There has historically been this sort of veil put over stories about Black life and the Black experience so that they’re more digestible and can be told in the quickest way possible. These stories aren’t always afforded the space, the real estate, and the time needed to dive into them. So I personally struggle with what the word means because I think what we call “content” often lacks storytelling. The term makes me think of these one-off, isolated pieces, and I would say instead that it’s important to put more Black work into the world. I say “work” because I feel like that’s what we really have to do. We have to work to unlearn and relearn habits. We have to work to create spaces that are safe, as well as empathetic and intentional. And we have to work to give time to Black stories. We’re all learning how to do it together, whether it’s people learning to lean out or people learning to let others in. I hope that makes sense because the connection between the word “content” and its implications really resonates with me.
That definitely makes sense. I agree that the language we use matters and that in order to have a conversation on Black stories, it’s important to understand the right words to use. You mentioned a learning experience just now. Can you speak to the role that Black work can play in educating people?
Sure. I think that sometimes companies and production studios don’t realize the power that these ecosystems have or the fact that these are not just spaces of frivolous consumption of artistry. If you see a film that only shows white people and doesn’t have an accurate representation of what the world looks like, it sends the message that “whiteness” is what the world essentially is. So we’re constantly having these conversations and showing people that the work we’re making is not just about doing something cool. It’s an opportunity to educate people in a way where they may not even know that they’re being educated. I think a great, recent example is how Sesame Street and CNN did a town hall to have a conversation about race. And that’s been happening within media and entertainment for so long. Years ago, there was an episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which he shared a pool with a Black man on-screen during a time when swimming pools were still segregated. It had an impact and serves as an example of how we should think about media. It’s an ever-growing, adaptable space where we can have conversations that birth discourse, which allows us to educate ourselves, our peers, and the global community.
I really like how you said that. Can you share an example or two of your own work that has utilized the power of media in that way?
Yes. I’ll speak first to “Cocoa Butter’s The Era” because it was definitely career-changing for me. I had never before been on a project with a crew that was predominantly Black; it was just so polar-opposite to any other thing I had experienced in my entertainment career leading up to that point. And it made all the difference. The stories and the warmth that the viewers get on-screen reflect the beauty and experience we had in making it. The production environment wasn’t toxic or riddled with ego. It was a purely collaborative space where we were not only celebrating ourselves, but also our heroes. Through “Cocoa Butter’s The Era,” we were able to talk to people who were icons of the ‘90s and give them the space to tell their stories. They were able to go through that process with people that looked like them and cared about their stories. That responsibility to accurately tell their stories, especially when it came to editing, was a heavy thing to sit with. And the other project I’ll speak to is the upcoming short I’m co-writing that’s centered on Black love, which will also be my directorial debut in narrative work. It’s a coming-of-age story about two young people who aren’t looking for love, but they unpack the first moment when they feel what love could be. I’m really excited for the opportunity to be a part of telling more Black stories that show us joyous and celebrating life. It’s important to put out work that shows us being happy and just living like everybody else.
Besides a number of credits that demonstrate his passion for accurately depicting Black stories on-screen, the director also shares on his website that he “used his collegiate experience as an opportunity to leverage access for underrepresented voices as a bridge between education and creativity.” One example of this is when Taylor Jr. led a protest against on-campus racism called “The Epiphany” while he was still in his undergrad program back in 2012. When interviewed about the protest, Taylor Jr. stated, “If we continue to keep pushing ourselves and be innovative and use ingenuity, then we can all create something great.” Now eight years later, the director is still pushing forward, using creativity as an avenue towards change. Every time he steps behind the lens to accurately depict the Black experience, Taylor Jr. provides an opportunity for education and understanding via the power of storytelling.
This interview has been edited and condensed.