The name Cecile Emeke has been on everyone’s lips these past few weeks due to the growing popularity of her East London-based series, Ackee & Saltfish. The British-Jamaican filmmaker, inspired by her own environment and community, already achieved success with her previous work Flâner (French for stroll) and Strolling. Both examined the ups, downs, issues and concerns with the Black diaspora in Britain.
Encouraged by the positive remarks from peers and pundits alike, Emeke, an all-around creative, honed her experiences into the short film, Ackee & Saltfish. The short film, which follows “two ordinary girls in ordinary old East London,” finds Rachel (Vanessa Babirye) and Olivia (Michelle Tiwo) engaging in empty-bellied banter about couscous, gentrification and being adopted by Solange Knowles.
The short was a prelude to the web series: a mix of pop culture and off-the-cuff riffing that instantly passed the Bechdel test. (In order for a film or series to pass, it must have at least two females present who talk to each other about something other than a man.) The first two episodes of Ackee & Saltfish, online now, feature Rachel and Olivia chatting about their love of Lauryn Hill and debating the pleasures and pain of eating backbread.
Cecile Emeke follows in the line of original content creators such as Numa Perrier and Dennis Dortch (of Black and Sexy TV) and Nicole Amarteifio (An African City). She creates an intriguing and relatable look into another world rarely seen here in the U.S. or abroad—exciting, complex and insightful Black youth —and that’s an honor to watch.
EBONY.com interviews the writer-director about her kooky characters, how gentrification influenced the show’s creativity, and how Strolling has affected Black youth in London.
EBONY: There’s been a lot of excitement pegged to your recent project, Ackee & Saltfish. Share with us your cinematic inspirations and how those have influenced the stance you have with your own work.
Cecile Emeke: I’ve always had a lot of respect for Spike Lee. He has a body of work that unashamedly celebrates African-American blackness without giving way to pressures to present these stories through the White gaze. You know when you are watching a Spike Lee film because his style stands alone, and yet it’s not forced. I also love Wes Anderson because of the artistic nature of his films. Every shot is deliberate, and again, his style is one of a kind.
EBONY: Those familiar with your work may notice a conversational connection between Strolling and Ackee & Saltfish. How do you feel the dialogue you craft for the latter will impact audiences inside the United Kingdom and here in the U.S.?
CE: I think creating dialogue is a craft, and it’s something I’ve really enjoyed doing within my work. In respect to Ackee & Saltfish, both the short film and the web series, I hope to have mirrored an authentic energy and relationship between the two best friends, Olivia and Rachel. We rarely, if ever, get to indulge in the contagious and addictive banter that is so common between Black British women, on British television.
EBONY: Here in America, much as it’s highlighted on Ackee & Saltfish, gentrification is a subject of contention. Do you feel the attention the series has received is part of the “tanning” trend that’s proliferated mainstream culture? If not, please share your thoughts on how gentrification plays a part in your creativity.
CE: I think gentrification will play a part in creativity differently depending on when and where we are talking about. The short film Ackee & Saltfish sought to explore what that looked like for two twentysomething friends, who are Black women, in East London in 2014. I was inspired to capture elements of the everyday conversations on this subject, through the lens of Black friendship between two women. The film is as much about friendship as it is about gentrification. I’ve also enjoyed exploring their friendship even further through the web series.
EBONY: Once your series caught fire, there were instant comparisons to a show here in the U.S. called Broad City. What comparisons, if any, do you see between your own series and its supposed counterpart?
CE: I have yet to actually see Broad City so I have no idea!
EBONY: The humor in the show with the series’ stars Michelle Tiwo (Olivia) and Vanessa Babirye (Rachel) is relatable, conversational and very rooted in culture identifiable by people of color. How much of the bits are scripted and how much is improvised by the actors?
CE: All the episodes are scripted, but my directorial style is one where I allow the actors to have freedom. We worked for months in advance on the character profiles in excruciating detail, so that I can trust my actors to really lose themselves in the characters and make the script come to life.
EBONY: In your opinion, has Strolling and its counterpart Flâner affected Black youth in any way? If not, can you share what your own personal aim is with such programs?
CE: I can’t speak for all the Black youth across the world. But from some of the responses online and offline here in London, I feel Strolling has begun to do what I intended it to do—that is, affirm others and relieve alienation within a safe, intra-communal conversation. I’m excited to travel, learn and film more of the Black diaspora with the Strolling series.
EBONY: Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted you when you released the Ackee & Saltfish short film trailer. Has anyone on your side of the pond, like Steve McQueen or Menelik Shabazz, reached out to you?
CE: No one on this side of the pond has reached out to me just yet, but it has been great to receive support from people like Ava DuVernay, Lexi Alexander and many more. It has been extremely encouraging and humbling.
EBONY: Your comment about Hollywood was quite the sound bite from your chat with The New York Times, but new fans of your work are wondering what your future aspirations are. Can you share that with the readers?
CE: I’m not one to plan the future into much detail to be honest with you; things always change. But in terms of my film work, authenticity and autonomy are important to me moving forward.