Representation & Black Women Horror Films with Writer/Director Kellee Terrell

I'm a horror fan who is not sick of zombie narratives. Primarily because Black women writers and filmmakers are emerging with ways of placing the menacing reanimated around characters that we don't see enough of or at all in most popular depictions. These are characters who complicate minimalist concepts of survival due to the ways in which survival has had a doubly oppressive impact on their lives pre- zombie apocalypse. In the post- world, old establishments die hard; and the uniquely personal becomes the politically-charged universal.

My utter disdain for the trajectory of the Showtime series The L Word is long gone and Goodnight My Love is a 10 minute horror film I am boldly placing above that entire six season cluster. Goodnight focuses on Aimee (Flavia Borges) and Cynthia (Kristin Anderson), a Black lesbian couple using a moment away from evading zombies to deal with issues with homophobia, heteronormative impulses and its opposition that have plagued their seven year relationship. Immediately pleased with its narratively fresh gumbo, Goodnight still manages to ground the experience in real human emotions we all experience, regardless of orientation.

Writer and director Kellee Terrell's talent knows no perimeters. An accomplished journalist reporting on health for BET online, Colorlines, Al Jazeera, The Root, Huffington Post, and more. With all acclaimed freelancing, Terrell finds time to work on her MFA in the Cinematic Directing Program at Colombia College of Chicago.

Her current project Blame, "tells the story of Jason, a young working class African-American father, who discovers that his recently MIT admitted son Junior and three of his friends gang raped Lala, his teenage neighbor." There is much more to this story in how the aftermath is handled and even adds a taste of the supernatural that blends with the dramatic effect."

A big, huge thank you to Christina Manch (@CongoMuse) who pointed me in Kellee's direction in order to see her work and get to know her better. #Blackwomeninhorror are becoming a fabulous network of support, depth, and content creation that help our mission propser!

I love getting to know the artists I talk to by asking first how the horror genre has influenced their storytelling. What were some of your favorite horror films growing up? 

I was exposed to horror films at a really early age. Looking back at it, I’m not sure how appropriate it was lol, but my father had old movie stills like Frankenstein, Dracula and werewolves just sitting in the windows. And so as a 4-year old, seeing these images, you had two choices; be scared as hell or become obsessed with them. I think it’s obvious which one I chose.

As kid and a teenager, I liked all kinds of horror films—except vampires. Didn’t really get into that until True Blood. I was more into serial killers, monsters, ghosts or just weird ass people. So movies like Halloween (all of them, even the really bad ones), Sleepaway Camp, Friday the 13th, Motel Hell, Silence of the Lambs, The People Under The Stairs, and Night of the Living Dead to name a few were always my go to films.

The story for Goodnight My Love could've been told under the many conditions of utter stress and extreme, physical danger. Was there something about the zombie apocalypse that impacted your choice to use that setting? 

A story about love, loss, regret and sacrifice could be told in any medium with any kind of backdrop. But I was never really interested in telling Aimee and Cynthia’s story if zombies weren’t part of it. Because real talk: I just REALLY love zombies and The Walking Dead just made my obsession worse.

And so being in film school at the Columbia College of Chicago at the time the film was made, I told myself, “You’d be a damn fool if you graduate without making a zombie flick!” So the first step was figuring out what kind of zombie story I wanted to tell. I knew I wanted it to be in similar tradition of The Walking Dead. That balance between the flesh eating monsters, the personal relationships and how characters evolve over time.

Until this season of The Walking Dead, there were no out LGBT characters. I was like, “Um, did they all die first?” And if they did, what is that really saying?

So from there I worked on making Aimee and Cynthia’s dysfunctional relationship, Aimee’s internalized homophobia and her past with her uber-Christian parents fit into this zombie world.

I have to say that developing and making this film was so incredibly exciting because we were filling in the gaps that mainstream media leaves behind by creating images for folks who are often overlooked, ignored or underdeveloped. In doing something like this, there is a risk that no one will care, no one will think it’s special but me and my parents. Thankfully, that’s not what happened. The response Goodnight My Love has received over the past year has been incredible and humbling. We’ve been official selections in 16 film festivals around the world including the Pan African Film Festival, the International Black Women’s Film Festival, the Toronto LGBT Film Festival and the Rio Gay Film Festival. We only hope there is more festivals in our future so that we reach more people who are yearning for this type of film and representation.

With Goodnight, you specifically point out that "a lesbian couple of color" is "somewhat invisible in popular culture". In horror, this sentiment tends to be magnified. If you plan to produce more horror films in the future, what is your vision for the portrayal and centralization of these particular bodies? Do you plan on producing any more horror films? 

I am always going to be committed to telling stories of Black LGBT people, regardless of which genre or medium it’s in (documentary, horror, drama, television, etc.) And that’s important because it fits into a larger goal of mine as a Black female filmmaker, which is to create films that provide a more diverse understanding of what it means to be Black in America by telling all types of stories period.

Will I make more horror films? I sure hope so. But I also tend to work on what speaks to me and not everything I am working on or thinking about is horror-related. But there is one project that is that I am excited about. It’s supernatural-related. A Black straight woman who sees dead people seeks help by her gay best friend who is dead. It’s in the very early stages, may or may not go anywhere, time will only tell.

Your new drama Blame deals with sexual assault and its effect on not only the victim but those close to one of the perpetrators when the victim’s ghost visits one of them. How do supernatural elements in stories challenge an audience to understand their place in dealing with very difficult and consistent human behaviors?

Adding supernatural elements to a story like this gives the viewer a little bit more to chew on; give us a deeper view into the mind of the characters and it completely raises the stakes. But it also raises questions of whether Lala is really a ghost or just a manifestation of Jason’s guilt. I am really interested in hearing audiences’ thoughts on that when the film comes out. Yet using the supernatural in this film is thematic is as well. I made Lala a mostly invisible, powerless and silent ghost for a reason—it mirrors how so many rape victims feel in real life regardless of whether or not they press charges.

Do you feel it’s important for Black female film directors to embrace genre cinema, particularly horror in their style of filmmaking?

I believe that Black female filmmakers should embrace the genre that speaks to them the most, but then take risks with it. I don’t know about you, but I am very tired of seeing the same traditional comedy or romantic comedy, “I need to find a man, why am I not married, Oh Lord bring me a husband” shtick.

Luckily, I am seeing so many Black filmmakers, regardless of gender—doing so many different things and it’s really encouraging for me because it gives me validation that we can do more and think outside the box.

With that being said, would it be awesome to see more of us doing science fiction, horror, thrillers and fantasy and creating work like The Conjuring and Orphan Black? Hell yes. But I don't believe that gap exists because Black people are not trying hard enough or are completely disinterested in the genre. That speaks to something else way larger about whether or not we are encouraged to make these films and whose green lighting and funding these projects at the end of the day.

How can horror films revolutionize the way the world imagines Black womanhood?

Horror films, especially when we are not the first to die, can do a lot to reimagine Black womanhood. And when the Black female protagonists are well developed and multidimensional, they can allow for us to be the hero, the antihero, the serial killer, vulnerable, conflicted, strong, weak, you name it. The possibilities can be endless. Just look at Michonne. 

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