Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah is no stranger to the biases Black women face when it comes to beauty standards in the world, which is why her latest film, To the Girl That Looks Like Me, is an essential watch for those interested in challenging the status quo.
A recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Dawson-Amoah is working to elevate representation in the industry both in front and behind the camera with her company Melacast, which connects BIPOC filmmakers with BIPOC talent, as well as acclaimed works like To the Girl That Looks Like Me. It is a unique visual poem unlike anything you’ve likely seen, a collection of images and scenes – many shot in locations with special meaning to her – that play out as she reads her deeply personal poem. What emerges is a beautiful celebration of Black womanhood in America, and one that caught the eye of Will Packer, who mentored her as part of the Scene in Color Film Series.
Sharronda Williams for Rotten Tomatoes: This is such an amazing opportunity to have everyone see your work on so many different platforms. What has this experience been like for you?
Ewurakua Dawson-Amoah: It’s still kind of crazy now. I’m like, is this really happening? When I got the first email from NBC, I thought it was definitely fake. Like, this is a scammer [laughs]. I was not even about to answer it! I’m just so happy that other girls who didn’t have this growing up will be able to show it to future girls who will have it as they’re growing up in white spaces or just in spaces where they just don’t look like everything around them. So I think that’s the most exciting thing for me, knowing that other little Black girls will be able to see it and see themselves in some of the scenes or in some of the words and just double in confidence with who they are.
Williams: Can you speak to the essence of what inspired you, in your own personal experiences, to speak towards the beauty of being a Black woman today?
Dawson-Amoah: I mean, the main reason for what pushed me to tell this exact story, it was frustration. I was online and I was seeing boxer braids being the hottest new trend. And it was the word “new” that really got me, because it’s not a new style at all. It’s something I wore growing up, and I would literally cry…. Like, if my mom had to cornrow my hair or give me extensions for school, I would cry because I just knew that I would feel so different. And I really want people to know how frustrating it is to have our culture put on display and kind of pointed at. But then when someone else does it, it’s suddenly this cool new thing and it’s suddenly celebrated and it’s suddenly beautiful when other women do it.
I wanted to show that frustration, but I also had to turn it into, okay, now I’ve spoken to the white community or the community othering us, and now I’m going to speak to my people because I really want this film to be about girls that look like me. And so I wanted it to have this full-circle moment where I start by pointing out the problem, pointing out all of the beauty that comes with being a Black woman, like your skin and your hair… If your name is tied to your culture and your history, and it’s a name that people want you to shorten, don’t let them unless you want them to, and let them know that it’s okay to be exactly who you are without letting the media tell you.
Williams: What was that pivotal moment when you no longer felt ashamed and were able to see your beauty?
Dawson-Amoah: I don’t know if it was a specific moment. It was, I mean, I’m still learning it, I’m still getting comfortable. But I guess the period of my life where I realized that it was a problem everywhere was when I came to school, because I came to school in New York specifically for the reason that I want to do film, but I also wanted to be in the melting pot. I wanted to be around like other people of color. And I got to New York, I got to my school specifically, and it was exactly the same. And I was, “Okay, so this is just, this is a world issue, representation; it isn’t just in my town.” It wasn’t different from my upbringing. It’s a world issue. But also with that, I was able to meet people who had similar experiences. And I was like, “Oh, okay. I can’t wait for the people around me to accept me for who I am, I just have to make that choice for myself.”
When I came to school, I kind of had this chance to start anew. So I remember I walked into class and the teacher was taking attendance and the teacher was like, “What’s your name?” And I was like, “Ewurakua,” and she said, “Oh, can I call you something else?” I said, “No.” That was the very first time that I told someone, “No.” Up until that point, I’d be like, “Oh yeah, look, I guess you can call me this or this.” But at that moment I said, “No, you can’t call me another name.” And I started going by Ewurakua – I guess that was the moment.
Williams: There’s spoken-word in the background of your film, but then you see these beautiful visions of Black women, different ages, sizes, and shapes. I really want you to speak more about why you wanted to go that route instead of having someone on screen, actually speaking these words to the audience.
Dawson-Amoah: Poetry has always been a huge part of my creative process and I had never thought to integrate it one of my films before. And so for this, I wanted to marry visuals – extreme visuals – with poetry. I wanted it to not be someone speaking, just like someone speaking at you; I wanted it to feel as open as possible so that someone could place themselves in any of those scenes. I felt like the best way to do that was to have this voice going over all of these scenes and the scenes explaining what it means to be a Black woman and celebrating that.
(Photo by Saskia De Borchgrave and Alexander Stavila)
Williams: Can you tell me about your experience of making this film?
Dawson-Amoah: It was a journey and a half! I mean, if someone had told me how expensive filmmaking was when I got to school, I don’t know if I would have had as much confidence coming up as I did trying to figure out how to make it work on such a small budget. I’m actually really grateful that I didn’t have the budget that would have been amazing to have, because it forced me to be really creative about how I told my story outside and also the people I met along the way. So I did something that I enjoy doing: for all of the locations, there was a place that I grew up in, like there was a hill that was next to the school, the church was my church, one of the studios was a studio that I used to dance in as a little girl. And so all of those places were really personal and I got to meet people in the new places, where I would go to that person to explain my story, explain who I was, and then I’m making a connection.
I would also host ticketed open mic nights. All the proceeds would go towards the film, these little ways to get really creative, to make it work and to make it both exciting for the people who were giving to the project and then also actually make the project happen.
There were also things that that didn’t end up making the cut, but there was one scene that I fought for. I was like, I need a spider for this one scene because it’s important to my culture. There’s this folklore tale in my dad’s culture called Anansi the Spider, and I really wanted to incorporate it into the film. So, I looked for a spider and I got a spider, we shot the scene and then I went into the editing room and it didn’t work. And so things like that, where I would put all this energy into something and then realize it doesn’t work and I would have to pivot and give away my babies through the process until I got to this piece… There was a lot that went into it, budget and things like that scene – something that no one sees – but it’s always an exciting story to tell.
Williams: What was your inspiration to become a filmmaker?
Dawson-Amoah: Well my dad loves movies. He would always have Friday night movie nights where we would go to the Redbox or Blockbuster Video and bring home a movie and we would watch. And my mom really liked to watch plays. So, when I wasn’t watching a movie with my dad, I got really, really into plays with my mom and I would memorize the scripts and in my room I would re-enact all of these storylines.
But as I got older, I realized I wasn’t acting storylines with people that look like me. Like, none of my favorite films back then had Black people in them. And when they did have Black people in it, they were either a side character or they were put in a stereotypical role or a comical role. The only time a Black person was in the lead role was when they were the butt of the joke. There wasn’t a serious three-dimensional character. So, I started to rewrite my favorite movies and plays to have people that were Black and people that look like me, like girls who had tight curly hair that were the lead female character and like fellow women in bonnets, that were making fufu in the kitchen – just things that made me think of the people around me. Like, they had kente cloth in their house. And so I got really into that. And that’s what started the reading side of it. Because I was like, if there’s no one on screen that looks like this, maybe there aren’t people writing people that look like this. So, I was like, okay, my goal’s to be able to write scripts that have people that look like me so that one day I can have people that look like me on the screen.
That was really the initial jumping off point for me. From a young age, I knew that I wanted to be a director, no matter what. I didn’t tell my parents; I was a senior in high school and up until then I told them I wanted to be a forensic pathologist. That was only because on one of my favorite shows I watched that was what the lead character’s job was. So, I just kept that narrative up until I applied to NYU. Then I was like, I actually really like doing this and thankfully they were really supportive of it. My dad, he’s been my rock in this entire process. It’s kind of his fault because he started my love for movies. I feel like deep down he knows that.
Williams: How has directing To the Girl That Looks Like Me changed you as a director?
Dawson-Amoah: It taught me how beautiful you can make something when you don’t compromise on people. And I don’t mean “don’t compromise” at all, because compromise is something that just comes with life and comes to making; but “compromise” in that I knew I wanted to make a film with Black women, I made a film with Black women, and was able to come out of that knowing that I didn’t say I can’t find the people I want, maybe I should change my story. Knowing that I didn’t do that was rewarding and something that I’m going to bring to all of my future projects. So, if it ever looks like it’s going to be hard, but I know that the thing that I want for the film is so important to my vision and my story, I’m just going to remember how good it felt to make this film and then keep doing that for my future work.
Williams: How has your experience been so far being accepted into the Scene in Color Film Series and being mentored by Will Packer?
Dawson-Amoah: I’m so excited to be mentored by someone who has the same passions and who makes sure that our community is on the screen. Will has been someone who’s been showing us in his films since when no one in Hollywood was really doing that until recently. The fact that he was able to be so strong and do the stories he wanted to tell with the cast that you wanted to use… a lot of his casts, like, they laugh, which is a really nice thing. I’m just really excited to learn from someone who is able to fail a lot, knowing what they wanted to get at the end. I’m also scared. This came out of nowhere and so I have my path where, “Oh, what if I don’t write something good? What if I’m too stressed and I’m in over my head?” When I first met him he was just so warm. I can already see him as an amazing mentor figure. So, I’m just really excited to get started on this with a mentor who looks like me; this is the first time that I’m going to have a mentor who looks like me, which is wild and that alone is worth celebrating.
Williams: Are there any specific films Will Packer has made that has inspired you?
Dawson-Amoah: Well, for me Girls Trip was… I mean everyone, every age, creed, went out to see that film, it sold out so many theaters and basically you see Black joy on screen. Because in a lot of films, they show us going through it, but to sit down and just laugh the whole time and laugh and laugh and laugh, that’s something that inspires me. I love watching comedy. I love romance movies with Black people in them because it’s something that we don’t see a lot. We don’t see Black joy, or it’s like Black joy for a little bit, but there has to be some trauma in there, like something has to go wrong. And so that inspires me. Because I just love seeing Black people happy on the big screen. Media really does speak to people. Because people don’t have the opportunity to be in New York, they don’t have the opportunity to be in melting-pot areas where they’re able to see everyone, and the only thing you’re seeing of our community are these negative portrayals, like everyone’s gonna think that. And so, when we’re able to see us in happy roles and lead roles, when the character is a journalist and successful professions like that, that does a lot for young girls and the surrounding communities as well.
Williams: How do you want to see the representation of Black Women in Film and Television evolve?
Dawson-Amoah: I think it is important to have representation in front of and behind the camera. Something I saw when these initiatives started popping up that were talking about diversity, was that there’d be commercials with people of color, smiling and giggling, but then you pull back the curtain and you look at who’s holding the camera, who’s saying “action,” who’s yelling “cut” – who are the people who are on the crew? There’s still those folks who have been in these positions for so long. I think representation has to be on both ends of the spectrum. You can’t just have it for people on screen, if the people still calling the shots and still pulling the strings are the same people pulling the strings all this time. So I think representation in high seats is something that I want for the industry going forward. I want to walk into a job interview and my interviewer is Black. I want to be on set and the DP is a woman. I want to be able to see people all over the board, not just when it’s convenient. It’s not enough to just have us there as representation, but giving us the say in the writing room and in the roles that are actually going to be making the changes in the end.
Williams: What advice would you give young up-and-coming filmmakers?
Dawson-Amoah: Imposter syndrome is a scary thing. I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is to know that every single opportunity that happens to you happened to you for a reason – you belong in the room that you’re sitting in, and you belong in the next room that you’re going to be sitting in. All the doors that open for you were not opened for you by accident. So don’t let anyone make that way and don’t feel that way, especially our community. In this industry, a lot of my friends and myself, we get to these places – even this opportunity, I was like, “Oh no, like maybe I don’t deserve it, maybe people are gonna think this or that.” I had to talk myself out of that space so many times. So I think the biggest piece of advice I can give is just to be so confident in yourself and in your successes, to take time to celebrate yourself and tell yourself that you deserve everything that’s happening to you – because the world won’t do that. It will tell you you don’t deserve it. And it’s not true.