‘Finding acceptance’: Student film promotes inclusivity

Producer Dazjah Washington, left, and director Jae Staten, right, named their student film “Dandelion” after a shade of yellow to illustrate their desire to create a colorful world. Photo by Max Weirauch

Junior film production major Jae Staten grew up struggling with what it meant to identify as both black and gay. But he is ready to share that journey May 16 at 7 p.m. with the Chapman community in his new film, “Dandelion.” The film is inspired by his life and created for his advanced production class, and will be screened at the Folino Theater. The story will highlight a black, queer young man struggling with his identity in a conservative environment.

“He’s finding (acceptance) in everybody else but himself,” Staten said. “It’s really just about finding acceptance within yourself and learning how to love yourself.”

Staten is one of the few black film production majors in the class of 2020, he said, and is the only black man which he described as “unfortunate.”
“It made me feel a little insecure when I first got to the school. There was no one I could seek validation from,” Staten said.

Growing up, Staten didn’t see his identity represented in the media. While he was interested in film, it was once he got to Chapman that the lack of representation in film began to inspire his work. With directing as his emphasis in Chapman’s Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, Staten’s goal is to change the way black people’s stories are told.

“The only other movie I’ve seen that has gay black people is ‘Moonlight.’ (Change is) still in the beginning phases. I want to be on that train to help push it. I want to follow in the footsteps of like Barry Jenkins, Donald Glover, Issa Rae and Jordan Peele,” Staten said.

Jenkins directed “Moonlight,” the Academy Award-winning film that took home best picture in 2017. The movie follows a black boy, Chiron, through his journey as he discovers his sexuality. Staten had a similar story growing up in a conservative household in Houston, Texas. He struggled with wanting his mom to acknowledge and support his identity.

“My mom and I just didn’t see eye-to-eye. It kind of was this journey where she’s a single mom and all she was doing was caring for me,” Staten said. “That conflict, I thought, was really important to show to let other people know they are not alone.”

Documentary film professor Sally Rubin said there are two components of creating more inclusive films, which involve both the actors in front of the camera and the producers, directors and technical staff. It’s essential for the creators of films to be able to live through a narrative in order to effectively share it, she said.

“Who’s behind the camera and who’s making the movie?” Rubin said. “We tell stories that we know. We tell our stories. It’s very rare that a person is able to truly branch out of their life experience to tell a story that isn’t theirs.”

Senior screen acting major Arianna Ngnomire worked on the film as Staten’s casting director. She and Staten had a vision and wanted to “showcase people of color that generally aren’t shown at Dodge films,” she said. When casting the lead, Staten and Ngnomire chose 2018 screen acting alumnus Tommie Russell, who had a similar experience to Staten’s, as Russell also grew up in Texas.

“It is very important to find people to resemble the characters in this, because it is easier to tell that story if you’ve lived that life,” Staten said. “Tommie was just the perfect person. He is another black gay male. We’ve all gone through something, so it was easy to talk to him and easy to relate.”

The film is expected to be around 10 minutes, Staten said.

Rubin believes that the most important reason for the film industry to be more inclusive is to make minority groups feel visible.

“It validates the fact that you exist. When the people on the screen don’t look like you, don’t talk like you, don’t have your same set of life experiences, you feel that you’re left (out). You feel that you don’t matter,” Rubin said. “That’s why those stories are so important.”