What’s it like to be a filmmaker?
Picture this: a little brown girl lying on her parents bed, beads in her braids, empty popsicle sticks for days, laughing at some kid show that made her excited to be alive.
It was a Skipper commercial (Barbie's younger sister). In 1995, Skipper was a swimmer and so were her friends. They were also all white. The visuals were super cool, especially because this little brown girl loved water at the time, so much so that her nickname was Guppy. However, this young girl was confused. She rarely saw anything that made her see a reflection of herself. She had a strange feeling brewing inside of her. This young brown girl was 5 years old.
Flash forward a few minutes later, this young brown girl went into the kitchen to see her mother, this beautiful soul with high-waist stockings on, rollers in her hair, smoking a cigarette, ironing her clothes for work. The young girl went up to her mother and said, "Mommy, I want to be white."
Before she knew it, this child's face was throbbing from being slapped something serious. This mother grabbed the young child and screamed at the top of her lungs, "Never say that ever again! You be proud of who you are and what you look like!"
This girl's life changed forever. I am this young brown child. My name is Jessica Estelle Huggins. I am a filmmaker. Those feelings of making a difference still brew within me today.
I was always into the arts. I grew up with all kinds of music, films and got into writing at an early age. My dad had one of those huge VHS cameras and I always wanted to play with it. He never trusted me to, until one day, a few months after my little brother was born, my Dad let me hold the camera. I immediately fell in love with what I saw behind the camera. I wrote tons of stories, wanted to film them, have worldwide releases, but knew nothing about how to do such a thing. So, I focused on acting. At 14 years old, I was accepted into the Boston Arts Academy, where I studied theatre. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer my freshman, so I honestly cannot remember that much about that year except that I kept my distance from everything, including my art. A month into my sophomore year, she was in remission and I somehow became more aware about what was going on in my life.
At that time in 2005, Boston Arts Academy had a requirement where every theatre student had to take a tech class, which consisted of set building, costume design, media and later added graphic design. I chose costume design for one semester, which was awful because I kept pricking my fingers with the sewing machine. Another semester, I did set design where I just bossed the boys around where to lift things to. Finally, I chose media, where I fell deeply in love and found an outlet for telling the stories I wanted to tell. The class consisted of basic camera and editing work, however I finagled my way in being able to shape narratives in class where I was able to create pieces largely about women, being a person of color, and the arts. Those 4 years at BAA have truly shaped who I am as a person today.
The Boston Arts Academy made sure that the conversation of higher education was always in the air. It was especially during my junior year that they put a lot of pressure for us to research colleges. Being someone who came from a blue-collar family, I had no idea how we were going to pay for college, but something kept telling me to apply. I continued to research film schools in the nation. It was interesting because most film schools focused on either the technical aspect of filmmaking or just theory. Columbia College Chicago focused on both. Once I was accepted, I pulled all of my applications from other film schools. Columbia was where my heart was set on. Even with a crazy summer of saving $8 per hour for only 20 hours a week of working, trying to finalize loans, and crying almost every night because I was leaving my home, my best friends, my family, and my high school sweetheart, that very strange feeling kept pushing me to go to the Windy City.
In August 2008, my big girl pants were on in full force and I moved to Chicago, still very much a kid. I immersed myself in the arts, the city, and the culture. I discovered another side of myself that I never knew. I started to become a woman; my voice as a filmmaker became louder in classrooms swarmed by my white male counterparts, many of whom are incredible people to this very day. Of course there were some that looked as if they wanted to touch my skin to see if my brownness wiped onto their own fingertips. I did have a few uncomfortable racial situations during my Columbia experience. My sophomore through senior years in the film department, I was either the only woman or one of two black people in the class. My sophomore year in particular, I was both the only woman and black person. There was an assignment to write a short, three-minute film, and my class exchanged the scripts with the class next to us. The point of the assignment was to go through the process of someone else bringing your story to life. The script I wrote was about a father who had an alcohol issue, and decided to clean up his act after his wife left and took their young daughter with her. This was a one-man show and I used an old kid photo of myself. Needless to say, the actor was black. The story had nothing to do with race, but I cast a black man on purpose. It was something different. The written feedback that I received from the other class for the most part was great. However, there was one student in particular who said, "The Director did a great job. However, she needs to go outside the box by casting other people that do not look like her". Please remember that I am swimming in a room filled with white faces. Two classes, about 50 people in total (including instructors and their assistants). My blood boils to this day thinking about it. The ignorance and stupidity that this person allowed to even project into the world is beyond me. Without losing my shit in front of everyone, I pulled my instructor and the other class's instructor aside, showed them the sheet, and immediately on the defense, told them to never tell me anything like this. They both were genuinely appalled. My instructor in particular just looked at me and said, "I would never ask you to change your view of how you see the world or who you want in your films." This situation just made me work harder in being a better filmmaker. Our narratives mold minds and clearly there are many minds that need adjustments.
I spent four years at this college, filtering through circles (both social and professional), still trying to find my footing in it all. I continue to hold my love of telling stories through black and brown people closely to my heart. I discovered my junior year at Columbia, that film is truly my purpose. It says so much about who I am as a person, who I am as a woman, who I am as a person of color, who I am has a Huggins, who I am in every single aspect of myself. I am a filmmaker because it's my God-Given responsibility because it whispers into my heart when I am deep asleep and wide awake. I am a filmmaker because I never want to have another little black girl telling her mother that she "wants to be white" because of the lack of depictions that she sees of herself on screen.
There will always be challenges especially when you follow your purpose. I'm not scared to tell stories because people may not listen or care for those stories. I count so deeply on my faith, I keep going, and honestly, so far so good. I am determined to be happy and living in my purpose everyday as an artist. My biggest challenge has always been funding. Filmmaking is a highly expensive art form. You have multiple people doing many different jobs for long periods of time. The right thing to do is compensate them. Most times, no one is compensated the way that they should be, and often times, the lead is not paid at all. But that's only the beginning; the very same people who are not checking for you or deny you, will be the very same ones that want your attention when you start to gain momentum in your career. Those are not the people to focus on. Focus on the people that have always work hard with you, the people who always listen to your ideas (and don't steal them), the very people that have donated to your Kickstarter’s, your Indiegogo's, all of your crowd funding campaigns, or that made sure that you didn't go to bed hungry. They are the ones that matter most because they are always listening. I thank those very people to this day:
Momma and Papa Huggins, my heart (little brother Bri-Bri), my godmother, Misty Tyrance, my oldest childhood friend, Shanessa Crawford (especially for acting out my stories in elementary school!), my artist love, Kadahj Bennett. To my dearest friends that answer the phone in the middle of the night to listen to my tantrums or random ideas, Jahcobie Cosom, Johnnie Campbell, Cameran Battley, Ruthie Pierre, Gerardo Vazquez and my late friend, Marcus Martin.
To my crazy dope artists friends who continuously believe in me and I have no idea why: Candice Majors, Regina Selma, Olivia Cole, Jovan Landry, Lonnie Edwards, Jennifer Peepas, Derrick Sanders, Tiffany Johnson, Chan C. Smith, Devon Edwards, and my mentor, TeQuila Shabazz. I look up to you all. I hold each of you close to my heart.
In the future, I hope to work with those same people (if I haven't already) to make more powerful narratives. I have found small success in my social/political pieces, but I want to focus on fiction narratives, films that you can watch in movie theatres, they just so happen to have black leads. Don’t get me wrong, I can work with all kinds of people of many different backgrounds. My focus is on people that look like me because I have a true responsibility to make sure that our images are getting out into the world in a positive way. I want to leave a huge impact in the world. The way Michael Jackson did when he transitioned. I do not want the fame, but wouldn't mind the fortune. That fortune would only go back into the very communities that give me clarity, made me fearful, make me excited, and ultimately made me who I am today.
I am a filmmaker because it's truly my purpose in this life. So, think about what it is that you love to do, and how you can use that to make the world a better place. That thing, that very feeling may be something for you to look into, because everyone has a purpose. And There is no age limit to discovering your dreams. Listen to your deepest self. You know you best.
Trust your journey.