Getting Black kids in front of and behind the camera

Solomon Gustavo/MSR News Miguel Myers, aspiring director, and his trusty first camera

Black representation is an ongoing battle in every sector of professional and political life. In more visible positions, like in TV news and movies and TV shows, the portrayal and description of Black people are often loaded. Even the simplest creative or journalistic depiction can be the difference in painful stereotypes being reinforced, or Black people seeing themselves in a straightforward or inspirational way. 

Two educational programs have given local Black kids an opportunity to gain experience and insight into TV news and film production. With this support, the Black students may soon enter the industry and change things.

“We get to learn about it and actually do it as well,” said Blessing Kasongoma, 19, standing outside of the KSTP TV studios on University Avenue in St. Paul. As part of the University of St. Thomas ThreeSixty Journalism TV Broadcast Camp, Kasongoma, who attends Augsburg College, had just finished a tour during the station’s midday news broadcast in late July. 

The diverse group of high school and early college students was welcomed by KSTP staff through the station’s labyrinth of soundproof walls and doors, allowing students into the production studio to watch — silently — as KSTP producers and directors communicated with one another in front of a massive wall of screens. 

Students also watched as anchor Brandi Powell delivered the news. Before the broadcast, students asked Powell and anchor Matt Belanger questions about putting news packages together for TV. 

The tour culminated ThreeSixty Journalism’s six-week program. Being lectured to about the TV news process, reading about it, and witnessing it in a tour do well to enrich a budding broadcaster — and ThreeSixty goes even further. The St. Thomas program has a TV station on its campus, where broadcast TV campers like Kasongoma were able to write and film their own packages. They also wrote print stories, some of which were published on the ThreeSixty website. 

The first time Patrick Henry High School senior Datelle Straub grabbed the microphone and stood in front of the camera, he couldn’t help but be nervous. “My heart was pounding,” he said with a smirk. The 17-year-old with ambitions of being a sports reporter said having the experience of shaking off initial nerves has been invaluable. 

Solomon Gustavo/MSR News ThreeSixty Journalism Broadcast TV Camp participants ask KSTP TV anchor Brandi Powell questions before a newscast at the station

Film and TV production

Getting more Black people on screen in movies and TV shows has been a cry intensified of late by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and box-office and critical successes like Get Out and Black Panther

As much money and power that’s on display in front of the camera, there lies an entire industry behind the lens — camera people, gaffers, writers, producers, directors. Enter Fresh Films.

Fresh Films is a production company with work on Amazon, IFC, PBS and DIRECTV that finds and trains young talent. It’s based out of Augustana College off the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Ill., but it’s set roots in multiple locations, including up the river in the Twin Cities. 

In early August, Fresh Films produced a drama TV pilot in South St. Paul, bringing along a group of high schoolers and early college students, including Miguel Myers. 

The 18-year-old St. Cloud State University student was acting as a college intern tasked with helping the high schoolers. Myers first heard of the program through his mom who signed him up as soon as she saw the notice on Facebook. 

Myer’s mom acted quickly because he always loved movies and spoke of making his own. But he was unsure — he saw movie making as a one-in-a-million goal like trying to become a famous rapper or make an NFL roster. His mom knew of his passion, but he often kept it close to the chest, never sharing his dreams with his friends. 

When Fresh Films came in 2016 Myers was a 16-year-old Park Center Senior High School student who had never touched a camera. The first one he approached on set tipped over and crashed as soon as he laid his hand on it. Nonetheless, Fresh Films staff and college interns coached Myers through his first stint on a film set. 

Each of the participants has roles like camera crew and light crew. Myers was assistant director, calling out direction to camera and production people. 

“It boosted my confidence,” said Myers, who began to see the creative confidence of Black directors like Ryan Coogler and Ava Duvernay as attainable. “These Black directors really coming up. So I’m like, ‘Why shouldn’t I try?’”

Myers bought his first camera after his first Fresh Films session. Since then he fills his time with writing scripts, shooting random scenes, and shooting music videos. Myers major at St. Cloud is film and business. 

Shaakir Banow, 15, has a similar story of having his film desires reinforced by Fresh Films. The Edina High school student fell in love with movies after watching Transformers for the first time, an experience that was so powerful that he was convinced the shape-shifting vehicles must be real. The awareness of such potential for the visual and narrative awesome spurred Banow’s goals toward a life in film.

For the TV pilot, Banow had done work as a camera person. Banow could see himself being a director, but the hands-on camera experience has shifted his ambition. “I see myself as the camera guy getting all the shots, focusing it.”

The FreshFilm’s Minnesota program is made possible with support from the Best Buy Foundation.

For more information about ThreeSixty Journalism, visit threesixty.stthomas.edu. For more information on Fresh Films, visit freshfilms.org.

About Solomon Gustavo

Solomon Gustavo is the editor-in-chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He welcomes reader responses to sgustavo@spokesman-recorder.com.

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