February 16, 2018
Clark Burnett is from Green Brook, New Jersey, a sociology major, and has been making documentary films since long before heading off to college. He also smiles easily, and refuses to name Moonlight as his favorite movie right now — even though it is. (“It’s such an easy choice,” he tells me.) Karnessia Georgetown, who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, studies economics, and is pursuing a certificate in education studies. Unlike Clark, who’s mainly into more obscure artists like the “dude who produced ‘Gabby’ from the Internet” (Steve Lacy), Karnessia looks to the conceptually daring recent work of Demi Lovato for inspiration these days. J. Joseph, a New Haven native, was on track to becoming the next tech star before watching The Social Network at 13. He loved the craft of the film so much he realized that was what he wanted to do, not live the story of Fincher’s biopic. Now, J., an avid skateboarder, studies film and media studies.
Clark, Karnessia, and J. are each in their junior years at Yale University. Together, along with Amani Hill, the trio’s publicist, they are the visionary students behind Now, In Color, a new 6-part docuseries currently making waves on Yale’s campus and beyond. With Clark and J. handling the film side of things and Karnessia producing, the series features six roughly 15-minute interviews with Yale students. The interviews are conducted long-form, and with minimal editing, presenting the subject with a truly unique range of depth and nuance for the genre. The filmmakers ask their subjects a variety of questions. But each interview begins with the same one: “What’s in your cup?” The goal is to offer an alternative to the typical, monolithic media representation of Blackness, an alternative that renders Blackness with all of the beauty, variety, and excellence of a culture that has, arguably more so than any other, created The Culture.
The series opens with a muffled countdown and a black screen. Soon, the face of Anita Norman comes into focus. Anita, a slam poet with national titles to her name, is a junior at Yale, a lover of jump rope and chocolate-covered pretzels. But before we learn any of that, we hear her sing. The song choice is clearly intentional. In an effortless soprano, Anita intones a snippet of “I’m Here” from The Color Purple. Though the interviews rarely broach overtly political subjects, at the heart of Now, In Color is an unmistakable appeal to the politics of representation: These are the stories we are never told; let’s listen together. “I’m gonna hold my head up / I’m gonna put my shoulders back /And look you straight in the eye,” Anita sings, and the heart begins to beat.
To learn more about the history of Now, In Color, why it’s so relevant, and what the future may hold for the series, we interviewed its creators, Clark, Karnessia, and J.
We also asked them what’s in their cup.
Teen Vogue: I know you all started work on this project two years ago. I’m wondering whether there was a specific moment or event that inspired Now, In Color?
J. Joseph: No. It wasn’t and never has been a reaction to an event or a controversy. We were really just motivated by the Black community at Yale, by seeing all of these wonderful, interesting, talented, creative, hilarious people around us and realizing just the lack of representation of Black stories, and how even when there is media representation how monolithic it is. We’re trying to break that down by showing individuals first, by telling individual stories.
Clark Burnett: Because the series was based on interpersonal relationships we’ve made here, the project was and is something that feels very personal to us. These were the people that attracted me to Yale in the first place. They are the ones who’ve made me happy to continue being here. And so people may not have the same opinion about what the Black experience is. So we chose to go through these individuals. We want to show the world who they are.
TV: Now you mentioned these interpersonal relationships. How did you go about choosing interview subjects for the series?
CB: We started with the people we knew, mostly through the Yale Black Men’s Union. It was actually Karnessia who said, ‘We should extend this to the Black community at large.’ We looked for voices that weren’t being heard, hidden gems. And it wasn’t only that: We asked ourselves what parts of the diversity within Blackness do we want to highlight, whether that be geographically speaking across the diaspora, or in terms of gender, sexuality, religion?
JJ: The idea is that we will never be able to include everything. We could expand this to 20 episodes per season and do it for 25 years, and we still wouldn’t capture all of it. That’s the point: just illustrating how different everyone’s experience is.
TV: Each episode, each shot, even, focused exactly and exclusively on the subject. Besides the title sequence and some music, there were very few stylistic elements that came between viewer and interviewee. Why did you all choose this particular form?
JJ: The goal was always to show individuals, to tell individual stories, and so we wanted to make each episode as much about the subject as possible. On the creative side of things, we made a lot of formal decisions about how to really get that out. We run the interviews as conversations. We sit the subject down with a mug in front of a fireplace. We try to create an intimate space so that we can share that intimacy with the audience.
Karnessia Georgetown: As a producer, what drew me to Now, In Color was that it was personal, that it was personalized, that it wasn’t about making a point about injustice then choosing specific people to come back up our position. This series was really saying ‘Let’s let them take a seat and tell us about themselves.’ Let’s delve in. The media always tries to direct a story then justify it. Now, In Color is different. We asked similar questions in all of the interviews, but you wouldn’t know that because we let people bring their whole selves. It was just them, and that allowed our subjects to control their narrative.
TV: Were there any particular moments during the interviews that took your breath away?
KG: I remember after Leonard’s interview the room was just in awe. Everybody was quiet. After every interview, there would be different dynamics. The room would feel different. Jemima’s was so upbeat and fun. Anita’s was so artsy and poetic. Katerra’s felt so calm and homey. And Leonard’s, I don’t know how to describe it. I hung on his every word.
TV: How would you explain Now, In Color to people beyond Yale University?
JJ: Growing up in New Haven, I unfortunately didn’t get a lot of people from my community going to Yale — especially Black people. And so then coming to Yale and seeing this vibrant Black community, I wanted to do something that we could share with the youth in our community so that they could see people like themselves at Yale, and can say I can do this, too. And so while the content of the series may not always be political, the project always engages the politics of representation.
KG: Thinking of 10-year-old Karnessia, this show would have made a world of difference for me. I’m at Yale now, but the path was winding, and I never saw this for myself. Had I been able to see other Black students at Yale, I would’ve been like ‘Oh, that’s a possibility for me.’ And that’s what J. is hitting on — that access. If we do nothing else in Now, In Color, we provide access. We provide a signal for people saying We are here.
TV: Thinking of the historical moment we’re in right now, what makes Now, In Color so important?
CB: A lot of it is about empathy, about considering the humanity of Black people. There’s a whole discussion about whether projects like this are as effective as forms of activism that have more hard-hitting political fangs. But I do think what we are producing conjures empathy, familiarity with people you may never know. Through getting to know people, through building empathy or a sort of virtual friendship, you begin considering the needs of minorities.
JJ: We sometimes forget that a lot of people grow up in communities where everyone looks alike. And that certainly is the result of systemic design by people in the past and even people now, but what this results in is people not knowing anything but what’s immediately around them, which constructs ‘otherness.’ If people see representation of other cultures, then they’ll be less inclined toward violent attitudes and actions. And they’ll be less inclined to vote for those who, out of true malice, systemically design oppression.
TV: What’s next for Now, In Color?
JJ: Season 2.
TV: So, you all probably know what’s coming, but I’ve got to ask anyway: What’s in your cup?
KG: Family is in my cup. A strong sense of the importance of friendship and community, too. Debate and education are in my cup. In my cup is constantly this heart for Mississippi, so everything I do I think about how it will impact people back home.
CB: In my cup is Now, In Color, absolutely. Filmmaking in general is in my cup. The best directors have something to say. So in my cup I also have this pursuit of what do I want to say through my work. And right now, Now, In Color is what I want to say.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. To see the entire first season of Now, In Color, check out their website.
By Robert Newhouse
This article was originally published by Teen Vouge