Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. Renisha McBride. Jordan Davis. Tamir Rice.
These names, as well as many others who have fallen at the hands of senseless racial violence, have crushed us in recent years. They have placed us in a state of collective and continuous mourning.
But what price would you pay if there was a chance to bring each of these beautiful souls back to life?
That is the question posed in the science fiction short, “Rigamo,” the first winner of EBONY.com and kweliTV’s “Color TV” contest. This competition, designed to recognize and uplift content creators of color, inspired tons of entries; a few comedic; some tragic and some utterly creative and mind bending. Still, at the end of the submission process, all of our judges agreed there was one clear winner.
“Rigamo” is a poignant exploration of the intersection of Black Lives Matter, mortality, family and mourning with a Twilight Zone twist. The plot centers on Kera, a five-year-old girl who is forced to watch a close relative die from a terrible disease, until she discovers that she has a magic power that can turn things around.
Of course, her unique gift doesn’t come without certain strings attached. Brooklyn-based filmmaker Che Grayson says the fictional child came about as a result of a real-life trauma.
“This character was born from emotional build-up,” explains Grayson, who worked with partner Sharon De La Cruz and producer Matt Shields, to bring the vision to life. “The fall after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, my Auntie Carolyn passed away from cancer. I was overcome with this frustration about losing people and in Trayvon’s case, in the most unexpected, violent kind of way.”
Grayson, 25, recalls telling friends about her frustration at the time. “We’ve got people out here killing others without impunity, so [I thought] what if there was a girl who could bring them back and they couldn’t do anything about it?”
Just like that, Grayson’s imagination churned out a 12-minute masterpiece, which took this idea from an anguished thought to a finished film. EBONY.com spoke to Grayson about some of the challenges she faced in filming and her inspirational advice to fellow content creators. Read our interview below…
EBONY.COM: How long have you been interested in film?
GRAYSON: I would say five years now. I’m currently a Master’s of Fine Art thesis student at New York University’s School of the Arts in my fourth year. Plus, I’m a full-time video producer at BonAppétit.com.
EBONY.COM: Let’s talk about your winning entry, “Rigamo.” What does it mean and when did you shoot it?
GRAYSON: Rigamo is short for rigor mortis and it actually isn’t just a film; it’s a comic book series. My partner, Sharon De La Cruz, who is an artist, and I pitched this as a multimedia project. I’m a huge comic book nerd. I was thinking, how can I immortalize the people who have been taken from us, like Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride? I decided to immortalize them in this way.
EBONY.COM: How did you go about raising the money for the project?
GRAYSON: We released a Kickstarter two years ago and only asked for $1,500, but ended up with $4,000. I guess I could have asked for more [laughs]. Sharon and I did an introduction of us saying we’re Black girls and want to show what trauma and suffering looks like in Black communities. We attracted both activists and science fiction fans. It circulated pretty well and we received a great response from that. The comic book came out six months after the Kickstarter. Then in October 2015, we shot “Rigamo” in three days.
EBONY.COM: Did the crowdfunding cover all of your costs?
GRAYSON: It helped a lot, but it also was partly funded through my producer, Matthew Shields. Another female director in my graduate school program is very good friends with Matthew and talked to him about our project, sharing our link. He thought it was amazing.
EBONY.COM: Once you got the funding out of the way, how’d you handle the casting? No shade, but child actors can sometimes be difficult to coach and the little girls in “Rigamo” are both such great actresses. I wanted to hug them both!
GRAYSON: I got really lucky. I put out notices saying that I was looking for a Black or Afro-Latina actress who was about five-years-old. I figured I’d find that actress first and whatever she looked like I would have to find a 14-year-old who was pretty similar in appearance. I found Skyy (the actress who plays the younger Kera) through Facebook. I was happy about that because I only had two responses for the older version of Kera at that point, so it took much longer to find my older Kera. I was really trying to get Amanda Stenberg, who I envisioned in this role. My producer’s dad used to be an agent and had a connection to Amanda, but it fell through. Just by good fortune, I put something on the NYU grad listserv and that’s how I met Olivia. She’s my spirit child…like my spirit animal…she was me when I was younger. I finally found two young girls who were extremely intelligent, obviously compassionate, and produce the kind of performances that I think worked.
EBONY.COM: Aside from casting, what were the biggest challenges in creating the film?
GRAYSON: I had to reschedule shooting several times. One day we were set to shoot and I’d lose an actress. Another day, I’d lose a cinematographer. Honestly, I thought the day of shooting with everyone would never come. Producing was also extremely hard and several times I felt it just wouldn’t happen. Luckily, my cast stuck with me. These were people who believed in the project. It was a lot to get people to work for me for free in Fort Greene, N.J., but everyone came together to make my dream come true.
EBONY.COM: What prompted you to enter the EBONY.com and kweliTV contest?
GRAYSON: I decided to enter because I was getting frustrated submitting “Rigamo” to film festivals and getting rejected. I started wondering, well who exactly is seeing this? As a Black, queer woman in her 20s from the East Coast, I just didn’t think submitting to these elite festivals would work. Could any of them relate to me? The contest was to an audience I wanted to speak to and honestly get a feel for that response.
EBONY.COM: What did it feel like to win?
GRAYSON: I saw the e-mail at midnight. I was sitting next to my mom in her bed and she was passed out. I clicked on the message and I was like, ‘Mom, mom!” She was so tired, she just said ‘that’s great’ and then rolled over and went back to bed. It was so nice because it had been such a long, dry spell of hearing no.
EBONY.COM: What do you hope to gain from winning?
GRAYSON: I hope to get to an audience who has been starving for this kind of work. I hope to reach people who grew up loving The Wiz, but they also loved Harry Potter. It’s hard growing up liking Sci-Fi and fantasy, but being sensitive in your blackness and knowing the characters in your fantasy don’t look like you. As a nerd, as a geek girl who loves comic books and super heroes, I want to reach other people who are like that and show them a character who looks like them and feels like them, so they know we can have this space too.
EBONY.COM: What is your advice to other content creators of color?
GRAYSON: The biggest hurdle that we face is the whole greenlight process. That’s what we work for, right…to be greenlit? My advice to everyone is to greenlight yourself by saying yes to yourself. I told myself, don’t wait for “Rigamo” to happen by the power of higher beings or higher executives. Instead, do it on your own like Issa Rae is doing. Don’t try to only pitch and pitch until you get through. Find a like-minded person and create no matter what the scope is because you don’t have to ask for anyone’s permission.
EBONY.COM: That’s amazing advice, and you’re right. Don’t wait, create. Speaking of which, what else are you working on? What’s next for you?
GRAYSON: I’m working on an animated series with my creative partner called “Scatter Brain,” a psychedelic space odyssey where our characters look and feel Black and brown. We’re trying to Kickstart for that in the summer. The other thing I’m working on is a debut feature film called “Redbone” a family drama that focuses on three Black sisters, but it’s also a horror/mystery film.
Watch “Rigamo” now on kweliTV’s site, by subscribing right HERE. kweliTV subscriptions are free for the first 30 days. If you’re a content creator, enter the newly opened second round of competition by visiting ebonycom.wpengine.com/colortv. Submissions close on June 3 at 12 a.m. CST, so hurry up and enter! This time, the theme is science fiction.