It’s a holiday when I speak to filmmaker Maya Washington, but she’s been working all day. She’s the director and producer of Through the Banks of the Red Cedar, a film about Michigan State and Minnesota Vikings legend Gene Washington—who also happens to be her father. Her documentary explores how Michigan State coach Duffy Daugherty recruited Black players from the segregated South to create the first fully integrated football team in America, profoundly shifting the racial demographics of college and professional football. The film also ventures into Maya’s sometimes cumbersome relationship with her dad: despite having an NFL player for a father, she grew up with little to no knowledge about the sport that so shaped her family’s life.
The road to making this film has been long and challenging. Washington’s doc, like those by so many Black indie directors, tells a multifaceted story about a forgotten slice of Black history. But like her peers, particularly other Black women directors, securing funding for her project has been the single most difficult challenge.
Although there are success stories from the world of Black filmmaking—Ava DuVernay has become a household name, with a slew of big directing projects on slate—the backstory almost always includes a staggering amount of personal and financial sacrifice. (DuVernay put up $50,000 of her own money, intended for a house, into her first film.) Even some established White male directors in the indie vein have expressed their anguish over Hollywood’s corporate-minded distrust of anything non-blockbuster. The question is, if Francis Ford Coppola can’t get a studio to produce his films these days, then who can?
Before Maya Washington embarked upon Through the Banks of the Red Cedar in 2013, she’d made the award-winning short White Space, about a deaf spoken word poet’s debut performance for a hearing audience.
Early on, Washington pursued funders whom she hoped would give her the first chunk of cash she needed to begin, but being an early career director made it hard to get those meetings. “It’s challenging just to expect that someone’s going to take your call—even if it’s a story about former NFL players who happened to be quite famous,” she says. “Most of the response I got was, ‘We’d love to see it when it’s finished.’ ”
Needing the money to get started, but talking to funders who only wanted a finished product… It was a conundrum, but also a dare. “After a year or so of getting those reactions, I was faced with a really difficult choice: do I keep shopping this around, or do I just go into production?”
She chose the latter. And once she began, what quickly emerged were moments in the ongoing story of the current Michigan State team she couldn’t have anticipated: Gene Washington was honored with the Ford-Kinnick Award at the Big Ten Championship in 2013; Michigan State won the 2014 Rose Bowl. “Our cameras were rolling the whole time,” she relates. “Had I waited to go into production until I had full funding, we would have missed those really amazing elements of the story.”
She was also able to interview the last two living coaches from the Duffy Daughtery era: Hank Bullough and Vince Carillot, men in their 80s.
“I couldn’t risk waiting for someone to make it happen,” she says. “[I recognized that] these men are getting up there in age, and I don’t want to wait another four years to convince someone to give me the money. I needed to tell this story.”
Washington cashed out her 401K to supplement the grants she’d already received. She and her two-person crew filmed in Minnesota, Michigan, Texas and Los Angeles to capture interviews and other footage they needed. Those expenses for flights, accommodations and equipment rental quickly tallied up.
“There’s this thing in indie film—people who are early career often just call in favors. But I also just fundamentally believe in compensating artists for their work and their effort. If I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do it right.”
Through the Banks of the Red Cedar is now in post-production, with a goal of being completely finished this year. 2016 marks 50 years since Michigan State’s “Game of the Century,” a 10-10 tie against Notre Dame and the team’s second straight coronation as National Champions, a moment which solidified the impact Gene Washington and his teammates (Bubba Smith, George Webster, Clint Jones) had on college football. The next year, they all were drafted to the NFL in the first round.
Despite the extremes Washington has gone to for this film, now, closer to the finish line, she’s more appreciative of the journey. In having to raise funds from individuals, she’s gotten to know those people personally—and audience-building is a crucial factor as she begins to explore distribution options.
“The upside of indie filmmaking is that if someone had just given me a bag of money in 2012, I don’t know that I would have had some of the interactions with our audience and supporters. A check will come in the mail, and with the check, someone will include a story about my dad I’d never heard before. Those things keep me going.”
She sees these individuals (many of whom started off as strangers, but have since become friends of the project) as teammates she must keep a promise to. To date, she’s raised over $43,000 from individuals across the country. Through this network, she hopes to raise an additional $60,000 in individual contributions by the end of spring.
“People don’t understand that the situation is so dire in terms of raising funds that $10 actually does make a difference. And it’s a morale booster. It says to me, ‘I believe in you. I believe in this story. Don’t give up.’ ”
Kyla Marshell is a Brooklyn-based poet and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in Gawker, The Guardian, Spook, O, the Oprah Magazine, and elsewhere. Learn more at kylamarshell.com.