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“There’s nothing I can’t overcome because my ancestors and the many who came before me overcame so much.”
Words by Justice Nnanna + Photos by Mark Clennon
Tannis Spencer approaches life with a generous balance of confidence and thoughtfulness. Sitting down with her for our quick interview, I am stuck by her eagerness to ‘learn’ me. Questions about my work, background, and my interests moving into the future. I answered her questions with coy haste, after all, I’m meant to be asking the questions— and ‘learning’ her. Spencer’s curiosity in others belies the fact that she herself is a driven storyteller. Her narratives focus on the intricacies of human relationships and the socio-political borders which frame them. Her film, ‘Curtis’, is a tale of a young man struggling to make amends with the harsh family life he left behind, while ensuring the safety of his younger brother, still there. Moving forward, Spencer is determined to write more about black femininity. She admits that until now she has been hesitant to tell stories of people “like her.” Noting her concern, or worry, that she would be unable to build a just, full, portrayals. Still early in her career as a filmmaker, it’s Spencer’s commitment to authenticity that makes her not only an admirable creator, but also one to watch.
For this ‘Thoughts Become Things’ series, could you share a positive thought that you often have and a negative thought that you often have?
Positive thought is, follow your gut. I’m pretty good at that, I don’t tend to second guess my decision making too much.
My negative thoughts have to do with perception—how do I look? I’m sometimes too worried about keeping up with what other people are doing, but I’m getting better about just focusing on my own journey.
James Baldwin said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” What history do you carry with you most as a contemporary creator?
I feel the ancestral history more than any time in my life. I take a lot of pride in who we are and what we’ve accomplished, and what black people have overcome. There’s nothing I can’t overcome because my ancestors and the many who came before me overcame so much.
How do you navigate working in spaces that don’t feel supportive of you or in line with your beliefs?
I want to work with people who I don’t have to explain everything to. Explain why it’s important for my vision to be realized in a certain way. There’s a massive benefit to finding the people who understand what you’re trying to do, and how. Find the right people, naturally. Not finding people who you have to butter up and help understand something that a whole lot of people already understand, and live. I don’t fault those people who don’t understand me, I just think that I have to show them this work of art, that they were hesitant to put funding behind.
How do you use your community to move your goals forward?
Being a part of that community is helpful. It’s my peers, my peers motivate me beyond anything. Put yourself around the people who are ready to elevate you, elevate your creative, and people who are ready to work.
What’s your definition of success?
Personal happiness and some sort of win. I suppose some sort of outside recognition—but definitely some sense of personal satisfaction. One thing I felt very successful about is when my film ‘Curtis’ was screened at the MOMA this past summer. The opportunity fell in my lap, and that’s another reason why I believe it was a success. Caryn Coleman from Nitehawk really invested in me and asked me to participate in the “The Future of Film is Female” series, and it was a piece of validation that boosted my confidence and made me believe that I could pursue film seriously.
True or false- “When they go low, we go high.”
Do I believe that? I think it’s hard in application. I think it’s false. The idea is admirable, but I don’t think it’s applicable in reality. Change is made not by regality, but by challenging the status quo.