Interview: Santana Coleman and Emily Kuester
Santana Coleman and Emily Kuester are Milwaukee, Wisconsin filmmakers who are currently working on a film project called Black Girl Training. I sat down with them in November to chat about it.
Tell me a little bit about how you came up with the idea for Black Girl Training and what inspired it?
Emily: Santana is part of a fellowship program with Black Public Media and the ending of it required her to make a short film. We both work for a company called 371 Productions. Santana is producing a feature length documentary there, but through the fellowship she couldn’t use the documentary she is working on. She had to create another film. We had been working together and I showed her my senior film. It impressed her and she was like, ‘do you want to produce this short film that I’m working on?”
I said yes. So the three of us [Santana, Emily and the writer of Black Girl Training, Jaz] started to brainstorm. And I don’t remember specifically what we were talking about but a reference or a movie was brought up and I didn’t understand what they were talking about. They were laughing and joking about it and I was just silent on the phone thinking, ‘what are you guys talking about?’ And then it came out that I was adopted by a white family and raised by a white family. So then they proceeded to ask me a bunch of questions about how I grew up and about movies I hadn’t seen and people in the black community and icons I just didn’t know.
So yeah, it was kind of born out of that. We took the basis of a black girl being adopted and dropped into a white environment and then when she is an adult wanting to be part of a community and wanting to be around people who look like her.
Santana: I would add that part of her story and our story that we really found interesting is that the actual niche of the story is the black girl training. So not only is it based on Emily being adopted by a white family and then also wanting to fit in a city with more diverse people, it is also bout making those friends and learning what it means to be ‘black.’ That was a very important part of it. When you are on the phone with somebody and they don’t know that joke that you’re saying and you are like, ‘oh, we gotta teach you. We gotta show you this movie.’
You all have a mostly female crew. What was the emphasis in choosing mostly women and mostly women of color? Was that a conscious choice or was it something that just happened organically?
S: It was totally conscious.
E: We knew we wanted the space to have women and filmmakers and for them to have the space to contribute to the project. Especially one like this where it is about three young women. Who better to tell the story then women?
S: And in a world where women don’t always have the opportunity—and people of color don’t always have the opportunity—we were like this is a woman’s story and a black woman’s story. So we knew for sure…initially we wanted an all woman crew and people of color was the second thing that we really wanted to go for. We found that it was really hard in Milwaukee to find an all woman crew so we just went for mostly.
While you have been working on this film what is something for each of you that you’ve learned about yourself or just learned in general? What has this film taught you?
E: We started developing Black Girl Training the month I graduated from college. So I think this journey of Black Girl Training has also been the exact same timeline of me being a ‘real’ adult and figuring out how to one hundred percent be on my own. It’s hard to tell what lessons are coming from the film and what lessons are coming from being twenty-two.
But I think one thing that has really surprised me through the process has been how many people can…relate to my story in some way. Because I always felt like my story was super unique. And it definitely is, but people will come up to me and say, ‘I totally relate to what you are going through. And thank you for making something because I finally feel like this is something that I can see myself in.’ And then, this realm of adoption has really opened up. I never paid attention to it. Yeah, I’m adopted but like I never went further than that. And now it is like this whole big giant community of people that has opened up. I’ve had parents ask me for advice on raising their black children. You know white parents who have adopted black children. And black children are like, ‘I totally relate to you.’ So I’ve become—I don’t know—like a voice for the community that I didn’t even realize I represented. So that has been amazing.
S: I would have to agree. I’m not adopted but I think it’s always a situation that when you start to work on something or do something you start to see more of it. So I have been learning more about the space of adoption and transracial adoption and people who, even if they weren’t adopted but were just raised in rural white areas. So that has been really eye opening.
I also agree that this is a unique story. When we first decided to do this story we knew it was going to be bomb. But as we started to get into it I think we stepped in at the perfect time. Because now we are starting to see so many films and shows and stories about identity and code switching and what it means to be black. You know, things like that. We are in that space.
I was on a panel during the Milwaukee Film Festival about what it means to be black and black identity. So I am glad to be in that space. I think what I have really learned ultimately is that as a storyteller I’ve always know I wanted to tell black stories. And I’ve always wanted to tell black women’s stories. But I think this really opened my eyes. This is really what I want to do. I love telling stories about black women and the things that we go through. And even identity I feel like is also something. I’m twenty-six and I’m still figuring out who I am. So just knowing now that I love to tell stories about black women and I love to tell stories about women and identity. I feel like women and identity is so complex and I don’t think dudes go through the same things we do so far as trying to figure out who they are.
E: I think we have also learned—and are learning—how to work together. And to figure out what the other person needs or doesn’t need.
S: Yeah. I think we are learning more about relationship dynamics and work relationship dynamics. It’s like learning a new partner and how to navigate that.
E: And we are like sisters.
S: So we clash. And we have to learn…Is Emily being Emily or is she actually making a good point? Is she trippin trippin or is she for real? So we are learning each other as we go.
How do you think this film will—or has already—impact other people?
S: I enjoy watching Emily navigate the space. I feel like in a way she didn’t know how powerful she was and so now watching her…
E: Are you saying that about me?
S: Yes! Because before I got to know Emily I felt like she was this really confident person and everybody in the office would always say, ‘Emily is Super Woman!’ They all just praised her. And that is kind of how I felt about her. Like she gets shit done. She’s like super confident, she’s involved in a lot of stuff. But as I got to know her I’m like, ‘why are you acting so scared? Stop acting like you don’t know what to do.’ Sometimes I think she gets scared or has anxiety and I’m like, ‘stop it. You are Emily. Out of all people.’ So I think in a way she is this very confident person and she knows her power. But I think in a way she doesn’t and so watching her come forth has been great. I told her Black Girl Training could be a brand, specifically for her because she’s the person it surrounds. Watching people who were adopted or went through the same thing reach out and ask for advice; I think that’s dope.
E: It’s weird that you say that about me. Because I feel the same about you. You don’t know how powerful you are. Santana has this ability to radiate something so powerful. I feel like you can talk to and get a long with anybody. You can make anybody smile. I envy that. You are just so entertaining to listen to and be around and work with.
E: We also represent Milwaukee now. It feels good to represent this city and show them that we are strong and powerful and able to create something that is entertaining that people are going to like and want to see.
S: I totally agree. I love putting on for my city. I don’t feel like we get enough recognition. People either don’t know about us or they think there are no black people here. Or they think it is a hot ghetto mess because of the riots that happened.
E: It’s just not how you see it in the news at all.
Why do you think it is important to tell our stories?
S: I think it is important because…I think it is helpful when it comes to mental health and releasing all of that. I think it is helpful because it helps other people understand that they are not alone. There are other people out there that go through the same thing. I am happy that this particular story that we are telling is a comedy because I feel like laughter heals a lot. And it also helps us connect as humans. Especially in a world that is so prejudice and not a lot of people take the time to understand each other or know where each other is coming from. Even if it’s a black story, white people can understand it and agree with it. And vice versa.
E: For me I think that it is one of the most powerful tools for bringing people together. Because once people can empathize with someone who is not like them I think you are able to reflect that and it shows in the things that you do. People start to understand more about those who are nothing like them. Storytelling is the foundation of everything.
What are you hoping to do in the future? Either with Black Girl Trainingor beyond.
S: I think in the broader sense of the future I just want to be a content creator. I’ve started calling myself that because I realize that I don’t want to just do films. I want to do anything that is creative content. I think for the immediate future I have When Claude Got Shot, which is the documentary I’ve been working on. It will hopefully be premiering at Sundance in 2020. And I’m also developing a series called Twenty Something. It will be about identity and being a young black woman who is married and a mother and how to navigate that world of finding yourself when you have to take care of so many other people. That’s based on my life.
E: So I work for 371 Productions and their sister company Custom Reality Services. There is a documentary project that we just started about Shorewood High School. About the schools journey to becoming more racially equitable. And I’m working with the Chicago Police Department to develop training to address implicit bias. That’s gonna be hella dope. And right now I am also in production for a short film called I Last Will I’m super excited about that. And of course Black Girl Training which is obviously going to be a hit. And then there is also a short film that I’ve wanted to do for about a year called Grocery Store Musical and its just a musical that takes place in a grocery store and is just about these mundane grocery store employees who are just livin’ their lives. I just want to be doing things and contributing. I like balancing heavier documentaries with comedies. Not to say comedies aren’t important.
Do you have any advice for girls growing up today?
S: I always say enjoy being a kid or a teenager. Because once you grow up you can’t go back. Enjoy just living off other people and having fun and not having any worries. Rules are the only thing you have to worry about when you are young. And you think they are the worst thing in the world, but they’re not. Follow the rules and have fun and shut up.
E: I would say don’t apologize for your existence. Don’t apologize for the things that make you happy and for your opinions. Because they are valid and important. Even if it’s a little uncomfortable when you are saying them there are people in the room that probably need to hear exactly what you are about to say.
S: Even if it doesn’t go over the way you want always say what you think and what you feel. Be an advocate for yourself.
Do you have any female figures you look up to?
S: I look up to Issa Rae and Lena Waithe. They are two of my favorites. And I know I should probably say some one like Ava DuVernay. Which I do look up to her, but I guess Issa Rae and Lena Waithe are both younger and doing the content that I want to do. And Beth from This is Us. She is goals. I want to be her when I grow up.
E: Can ellen be my response? I love ellen. But also Tiffany Hadish. For some reason comedians are my people I really look up to. I just listened to a podcast with Mila Kunis and she has now become one of my favorite people. She’s so amazing. Issa is huge. I think I have really been inspired by Insecure.
If you would like to support Santana and Emily in the production of Black Girl Training you can do so here.