The Reel Spotlight: What Oprah missed in praising teen filmmaker

Photo from Media That Matters.
You know you have made it if Oprah is booking you on her show. With last week’s Oprah spotlighting Kiri Davis’ film A Girl Like Me, the value of youth media must finally be recognized by mainstream America. Or has it?
At the age of seventeen, Kiri’s representation of current issues on race and beauty has garnered major media attention, from Cosmo Girl Magazine, Ebony, CNN, GMA to National Public Radio, and even influencing the recent launch of Oprah’s “O girl, O beautiful” campaign.
Kiri’s success and talent is undeniable, however, it is a bit disconcerting when the only mention of the context and support for her film production on last week’s Oprah was a brief flash of “Reel Works Teen Filmmaking” across Kiri’s piece. This silent mention barely paid homage to the youth media organization where the film was incubated, and given life. No where in the discussion of Davis’ film was mention of how the film took shape at Reel Works. Somehow, the fact that Reel Works provides a professional filmmaker to mentor young filmmakers (like Kiri Davis) was left unmentioned. Quickly disappearing on the screen, Reel Works and its vital role in A Girl Like Me, as well as an opportunity for the process and value of youth media to be recognized by viewers, was lost.
Youth need and deserve recognition and a platform for voice in mainstream media—but so do youth media organizations.
Having visited the small house above the YMCA in Brooklyn, NY where Reel Works Teen Filmmaking thrives, I wonder if Oprah and crew would have taken time to visit the nesting ground of where A Girl Like Me took shape. After contacting Harpo Productions to see if in fact, Oprah’s crew did visit Reel Works the calls and emails still remain unanswered.
Upon speaking with Reel Works Teen Filmmaking Executive Director John Williams about the Oprah piece, he informed me that it was quite difficult to request that “Reel Works Teem Filmmaking” appear on the Oprah segment of Davis’ film.
Why would Oprah have a hard time representing Reel Works? This question led to others, such as, how can youth media organizations survive, if they are not recognized for supporting an environment fostering youth voice? If youth media organizations do the work of financially supporting and developing youth to identify and express societal problems through media, why are they not represented in mainstream media?
As John Williams explains in a recent interview with YMR, “It is natural when a film like A Girl Like Me is written about [and given public attention that] the focus is on the [issue represented] and the unique perspective that a young filmmaker brings to a topic like race. What is lost, often, is the context within which the film is made: a youth media program like Reel Works.”
Williams continues, “So much is written about the democratization of media through digital technology and internet distribution like YouTube. But, of course, it’s very rare to find youth media—or any user-created media—on these portals that tell us something important, that contribute to the public dialogue on issues that are important for our society, our democracy. But at Reel Works—and other youth media organizations such as DCTV, GAP, and EVC—young people are telling vital, important stories every day. We do it 30 times a year.”
He states, “Kiri, for all her brilliance as a serious, talented young woman, would not have made A Girl Like Me on her own (as it is sometimes suggested in the recent press written about her). Only within the context of the Lab, could this movie have been made.”
The Lab is a course at Reel Works Teen Filmmaking where teens become active creators of media. The Lab offers an opportunity for young people to re-create themselves and transcend the labels that others, or society, have placed on them. In telling their stories, young people are able to bring order and meaning to the central questions of their lives and experience, where, according to Williams, “their creative energy can be a greater force than their problems.”
Kiri Davis participated in The Lab course and Filmmaker Mentorship program at Reel Works. The Filmmaker Mentorship program offers students individualized attention where they learn career options available in the film and television industry but more importantly, leave the class with a real product encompassing what they have learned.
Williams explains, “At Reel Works, [providing opportunities to work with] mentors like Shola Lynch—who suggested that Kiri reproduce the doll test [in A Girl Like Me]—helped Kiri shape her story, her questions, and edit her film into the final form that has been seen by over a million viewers in the past year.”
Upon interviewing filmmaker Shola Lynch about her experience mentoring Kiri Davis, she states, “What I liked about A Girl Like Me—the film was an expression of Kiri’s mind and where she was at the time. My job was to facilitate her work—she was the director. We met once a week to talk about film, outlines, the concept of audience (all of which filmmakers think about). Ultimately, she pulled everything together.”
Even though ultimately, young people write, shoot, and edit films through Reel Works, the organization provides a very unique opportunity for one-on-one dialogue and mentoring with professional filmmakers. These professionals support young people and provide guidance as teens take leadership on making their own films.
These filmmakers make a big commitment and as a result, often have a major impact on young people. Each filmmaker volunteers their time and meets with teens once a week for five months. This year, Reel Works for the first time will be able to offer small stipends for these dedicated mentors to continue to serve at-risk youth filmmakers.
Shola Lynch explains, “[When I applied to be a mentor at Reel Works] I had just finished a film and wanted to work with a young person that didn’t have an ulterior motive. At Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, everything is structured and set in motion for young people. The program provides discipline and knowledge—something that not all filmmakers have. At Reel Works, teens can really focus on the joy, art and expression [of making a film].”
It is clear that Reel Works, adult allies in youth media, and mentors pave the way for teen filmmakers such as Kiri Davis to make A Girl Like Me. Mainstream media spokespeople, such as Oprah, should recognize their efforts and spotlight youth media organizations and the context supporting the creation of such powerful youth films.
As John Williams explains, “It is important to acknowledge that these youth films that rise above the youth media ghetto and get real national attention are produced within a specific context, and that youth media educators have a role in challenging young people to tell stories that are important to them, to channel their talents into the service of narratives that have value for the broader community.”
It is natural for tensions such as these to arise. Youth media organizations work to support the success of teens and their own expressive media—to have a voice in society—but in order to sustain and amplify this type of work, these organizations must be recognized. Even larger numbers of smart, focused teen filmmakers will surface in the mainstream as a result.
When young people’s media becomes powerful—when it raises issues, re-visits stereotypes on beauty and race, and has the power to influence popular icons like Oprah—the “reel” spotlight must also showcase youth media organizations. Undoubtedly, these organizations—comprised of dedicated professionals and mentors in the field—are what will make more pivotal teen films like Davis’ A Girl Like Me come to life.

Reel Works Teen Filmmaking and A Girl Like Me