On June 27, the Nubian Productions website went up with a mission statement: “We are bold and resilient black women who create content for our people.” On July 7, the organization released its first of four videos in a series called “Land of the Free,” which aims to center Black voices in the context of current protests (both it and the second installment are up on the Nubian Productions website and YouTube channel). At the moment, founders Ariana Steen (a local singer-songwriter who performs as Oya Storms) and Mia K. McNeal (a local photographer, filmmaker, and teacher) plan to focus mostly on short videos, posted weekly, some of which will be part of longer works. Later they may move into photography too.
Last week, I spoke with Steen and McNeal about why they started the organization. (The following is lightly edited for clarity.)
I thought to start we could just talk about what prompted Nubian Productions and what the plan is at the moment.
Ariana Steen: Pretty much Nubian Productions started—we decided one day we wanted to create content for Black people made by Black people, since we don't see that very often in today's world. We see that Black people are creating content, but usually it's not a whole production team full of Black creators coming together to create content for our people. So, initially, we just started with this video series “Land of the Free.” And from there it stemmed into working with different Black creators within Seattle.
Mia K. McNeal: That's perfect. I just want to reiterate that it was really mainly that we wanted to create content by Black people, for Black people. In my experience within the film industry, I have always been the only Black woman in the industry that I've worked with.
When did the idea come together for you? What were the early conversations around creating this like?
AS: It originally started off—Mia and I kind of had an initial idea about “Land of the Free,” creating a call to action video for people because we want people to be educated on what was going on within Seattle and within the Black community in general. We want to talk about these things and create a safe space for people. We had some assistants that came in to help us when it came to filming that first day. From there, we decided it'd be best if we just create a production company that [is] solely for creating safe spaces for Black people to be truthful, to be honest, and to also showcase their honesty through creative direction.
This is a conversation that's been happening in all levels of media—from magazines and newspapers to film studios. Why is it vital to have not just the people in front of the camera and not just the director, but people at all levels of the production, be Black?
AS: With our philosophy, representation matters 110 percent. Very often, we see people within the industry that we work in—I'm a singer myself, and like Mia said, she works in the film industry—but we don’t see a lot of Black people behind the scenes, and so our goal is to create that type of representation. So if there is someone who doesn't know that there are Black people who are PAs [production assistants], that there are Black people that do lights, that do this, do that, we want to create a foundation for those people to know that these things do exist and that we can have a full, Black-owned production company from the back end to the front end as well.
Do you know of other production companies like this?
MM: I personally do not. I actually was doing a little bit of research last week just to see if there's anything like this, and there isn't, as far as I know. I do know of some production companies that put out work that is unrelated to social issues. But I don't think there are any production companies that are Black owned that put out content about social issues. So this was very important for us. And I do know production companies that put out content about social issues that are all white. And I think that there is definitely a different perspective to be had with that, that the content that they're putting out isn't actually coming from and being made and shaped by Black voices. So I think it is very important that we're doing this. And we're hoping that this inspires other people to do the same.
Why did you decide on “Land of the Free” being your first piece?
AS: With “Land of the Free,” we've definitely wanted that to be our first piece, because it's kind of an introduction to what we stand for and what we believe. Also, looking at CHOP and stuff, the narrative is being switched so much, and it wasn't really necessarily about us anymore, down there. So our whole goal, when we first started this whole project, was we wanted to change the narrative. We wanted to talk about the things that people were not talking about there. We wanted to bring up issues that were not being voiced. And we also really wanted to point people in the right direction, to the right organizations that they could partner up with and get connected within the community. So that's really kind of where that stemmed from. And that was our whole purpose, having that be the first video that we put out with Nubian Productions.
Do you see a particular lack of Black perspective in video? I was keeping track of a lot of the coverage of CHOP, and kept trying to write a story about it, but things changed so much that the story kept getting scrapped. [The coverage of CHOP] ranged so much in accuracy and how much of a narrative was being imposed on it. A lot of the worst stuff I felt I saw was on cable TV, especially Fox News, obviously. But video can go for a very sensationalized aesthetic, even more so than other mediums.
MM: Actually being down at CHOP and photographing and filming it, I saw a lot of news people that were white men there. And I saw a lot of photographers there that were white or Asian. And I didn't really see a lot of photographers or even media people that were Black. So I think that is a part of the problem. And I think that the image of CHOP has been skewed because of that. I think because people aren't able to understand fully what it originally started as. And then people kind of took that idea. And then obviously showing that CHOP is a bunch of anarchists is like Fox News—that's what they wanted to portray. And then they sent their people down there to keep that idea going. They were only showing a certain image of CHOP. So that is very problematic. And I think that more news media needs to incorporate different voices to actually showcase what CHOP is too. I did the same thing where I researched CHOP and what other people were saying about it, and a lot of people were just saying crazy things about it. It was very sad. Then going down there, you see how peaceful it actually is.
AS: The day that we went to go film Hanan—she did a spoken word in our first video—[CHOP] was just not for us it felt like. And it was a bit triggering walking down there, being Black and seeing the festival atmosphere. So we really wanted to talk about the real stuff, the stuff that people didn't want to talk about. And there were conversations about it, but a lot of these conversations were not led by Black people. A lot of these conversations were led by white people. Black people should lead these conversations. We should be the ones voicing what's happening, because we're the ones that are directly affected by it. So it was a bit triggering being down there. But it was really nice to be able to create content that kind of changed the narrative of what it is that we expect as Black people and what we're tired of as Black people.
With video and photography, there's this sense for viewers that it's more objective. Do you think that can be part of the danger of having these production companies that are all white, especially when they're trying to tell Black stories? Because a camera takes away the person behind the camera—you don't see them, you don't see their input usually. [A note: I’ve been one of the white writers and photographers covering protests, as have others for Seattle Met.]
AS: I believe that it is a bit problematic having all white production companies talking about our experiences of Black people, because the only people that are really affected by this art is us. So we should be the ones telling the story. We should be the storytellers about what's going on within our own community, about what's going on in our world. So to me, I believe that it is important for us to have a Black production that talks about these things.
MM: I think the difference [is when we] actually assemble all the footage, I get the opportunity to choose what I'm going to put into the video and what I'm not going to put into the video. I think that's also the problem with white production companies—they might put something else into the video that I think shouldn't be put in there because it might skew what we're trying to say as a Black voice. I think that's also very important. It’s just really sad to see all of the white—or not even just white, but non-Black people—that are photographing this whole movement. Because I don't think that they should be photographing this. I think it should be Black photographers, Black videographers, documentarians that are photographing this movement and putting it out there. And I think also that news media should be hiring Black photographers to go out in the field to do all this. I'm hoping that changes soon because we're really tired of seeing the media skew everything. We're really tired of that.
AS: There are so many Black creatives within our state, within this world. I feel as though it's really no excuse at all, when it comes to people that are that are not Black, there's no excuse for them to not reach out to Black creatives, to Black photographers, to Black news reporters to be able to cover these types of stories. Because, like I said, representation matters. Who is telling our story and why are they telling our story? So Nubian Productions, we're all about telling our stories and [being] 100 percent Black owned. Everything from direction to who's behind the camera to everything, we want to be 100 percent Black owned. We’re the ones that tell our story. We don't need anyone trying to change our narrative within the news.