On August 1st in a crowded theatre at BlackStar Film Festival, hundreds of people sat forward in their seats, engaged throughout the entirety of Kiara C. Jones’ screening of her latest work, “Christmas Wedding Baby.” The audience was laughing hysterically one moment and looking with sad eyes at the screen in disbelief the next. A hybrid romantic comedy and family drama, “Christmas Wedding Baby” tells the story of three sisters and their unique struggles with expectations they face as not only siblings, but as women in relationships and romance, marriage and motherhood, and the home and workplace.
The 4th Annual BlackStar Film Festival was held July 30th to August 2nd at International House Philadelphia, an event dedicated to presenting a curated selection of some of the best independent films from across the globe made by and about people of African descent or who otherwise identify as Black.
BlackStar Founder and Artistic Director Maori Karmael Holmes stated, “In this moment we need to recognize a need to acknowledge that Black lives matter and also that they cry, laugh, sweat, celebrate, and grow. It bears repeating that too often when we watch mainstream media – we fall into patterns if Black life is acknowledged at all, then the same stories, the same characters, the same aggressions on our humanity repeat themselves. We are tired of this. And now more than ever this project feels critical.”
Kiara C. Jones recognizes that moment, not only in her work and film, but also in our interview, and she seeks to change the negative patterns of representation and stereotypes.
Femme & Fortune: What inspired you to create and tell this specific story?
Kiara: I wrote this film between nursing and naps (my son’s naps, no naps for me!). I had come to a place where many of the stories I had been told about womanhood were unraveling right before my eyes. I could see the girl that I was behind me and the woman I wanted to be in front of me, and wanted to connect to both of them. I wanted to capture that energy, that innocence, that adventure, that integrity in a film, and found a story that would allow me to explore the men and women that I’ve known as well as my own identity.
I ran into my first boyfriend at a party. He’s a photographer, and he took a great photo of me. I remember thinking that people who see you can always see you. That’s why models work with the same photographers, and actors like certain directors. How great it would be to have eyes like those behind the camera at your wedding, and how awkward. I wanted to talk about sisterhood and family and what happens to dreams deferred and dreams destroyed. There were a lot of energies wanting to be explored, a lot of voices in my head, and they came out in this film.
Femme & Fortune: While creating the film and seeing the story unfold scene by scene, did you change anything?
Kiara: The film is very true to the script. In the writing stage, there was a lot of evolution. I recently found an early outline where there was just one girl and her girlfriend. The story focused more on the two relationships between the bride and her ex, and the career woman and her commitment-phobic boyfriend.
I defined the male characters first to avoid making them one-dimensional. In that process, I realized I was missing too many issues that women are dealing with today that I wanted to talk about, particularly about when to have a child and what to do with your energies when those children leave the nest.
A lot of things changed in the script development. However, I take the script very seriously and use it as the map and Bible during the shoot. One of my biggest responsibilities as a director is to protect the script. The writer has time and perspective on their side when developing the script. Serendipity has its place, but if you take something out of the first act that plays in the third, you could make a very regrettable mistake. When in doubt, check the script.
There was one scene that got completely omitted. It was the very first scene in the script with Andrea and her fiancé in New York. We were supposed to shoot that scene on the last day of production, and as productions go, the location failed. At that point, I had a “Come to Jesus” meeting with myself as the writer,director, and producer, and recognized that all the information delivered in that scene was delivered somewhere else in the film. We kept the option to shoot it later, but as the editing went on, I confirmed that that scene was not essential to the audience experience.
Femme & Fortune: The women in this film are all very different and strong in their own unique way. How did you craft the characters, their actions and reactions? Do you believe that women are often portrayed in a stereotypical and/or negative manner? If so, how did you want to change that in your film?
Kiara: It is a great privilege to be the “sayer” and to have been granted the gift of voice by God. One of the primary reasons I made this film was so that I could see and show the world a vision of Black women that I know. Mainstream media does a terrible job of representing African American women, especially on the reality shows that flood our airwaves. Every type of character has its place, but we have been denied the privilege of perspective when it comes to our stories and characters.
I strive to present multi-faceted characters in my films. I hope that through presenting the unique challenges and complications that these men and women face, we can begin to change the perception of our people. Just think of how many times you’ve seen images of Black people on television enraged or in handcuffs, and consider how that plays on the psyche of the American public and the world. “Christmas Wedding Baby” shows African Americans in relatable situations having rational reactions and fully fleshed-out human emotions. A large, dark, Black man lovingly tickles and hugs his children. This is an image rarely seen in our media. I create these humanizing images in hopes to combat the demonizing images that flood our society daily.
Femme & Fortune: While each character had their own “story” to tell in the film, the relationships and bonds of the three sisters and mother was at the forefront. Were you influenced by certain women and moments in your life when creating the intricacies of each character?
Kiara: The first rule of writing is, write what you know. I am surrounded by strong, beautiful women, and that is reflected in my work. There are colors of my mother, my aunts, my sisters, grandmothers and friends throughout the work. After I had my son, I realized that there were a lot of serious issues that we weren’t talking about as women. Societal pressures and gender roles, sexuality beyond motherhood, career progression through child rearing, expectations in the family circle, and loving ourselves more than the fairytales we’ve been told as children. There are many moments in “Christmas Wedding Baby” that are INSPIRED by actual events. I highlight that word because nothing in this film actually happened, but the energies and emotions were defiantly shaped by people and events in my life. I am the oldest of three sisters, but my siblings will tell you the film is more three versions of me than it is about them. Of all the characters, I relate most to Isaac, the artist that’s struggling to keep his family together though his work often pulls him away.
Femme & Fortune: A lot of women have had that one person in life they love being around and feel in love with, but who is not necessarily good for them in the long run. What do you want to say to them?
Kiara: First of all, this advice and a quarter will buy you a gumball. That being said, start by not using false monikers. They create an unrealistic sense of security that often traps women in a world that doesn’t exist. There are only two types of people: single and married. If you’re not married, you’re single. Keep it real. Don’t let him call you his wifey if you’re not. Don’t introduce him as your fiancé. If you want a real commitment, you have to commit to the truth. Relationships are not a situation you can speak into existence.
There is no such thing as the perfect man or perfect partner. Everyone will have their flaws. The question is, do you have the skills to accept and overcome their flaws and are they willing to try to grow out of them? If you want a partner, there is one out there for you, but you will probably have to tear up your list and start over. Instead of making a list of things you think he should be, try making a list of things that you’re not. It is terribly hard to combine two fully formed entities into a whole which is why it was way simpler when people were marrying younger. I’m not saying a partner should “complete” you, but they should help you to become a better version of yourself.
Lastly, if he doesn’t want what you want TODAY, you have to walk away. I know that’s harsh, and it’s so hard to do, but it’s essential for women to recognize that they CANNOT afford to wait for a man to decide that he wants a commitment, family, career, better relationship with God, or whatever it is that is the hold-up. Women are on a clock, and that clock is real. The three years you wait for him to finish his degree might be the sunset of your fertility. If you’re strong enough to walk away, you’ll be free to find a true partner that will love you, support your goals, and build a life with you.
Femme & Fortune: Throughout the movie, the audience was laughing out loud during one scene and poised at the edge of their seat with concern the next. You seemed to hit the perfect balance of a romantic comedy with a greater message. Was this intentional? Do you believe that some films risk being “too funny” and miss the message?
Kiara: Thank you, that’s a lovely compliment. You really have to respect the intelligence of your audience. I think that is a great flaw with a lot of comedies, and particularly, Black films. They don’t trust that the audience will “get it,” so they spend a lot of time on backstory and try to force the laughter. Life is funny, so to me, making a film without laughter doesn’t reflect reality. Life is also complicated and dramatic. If you’re honest with your characters and the situations you put them in, that balance will be there.
Femme & Fortune: As a filmmaker, how have your films progressed and/or changed over time?
Kiara: I don’t think my films have changed. I’m still in the infancy of my filmmaking career – still screaming and throwing things to see what will work and what doesn’t. My heart is on my sleeve, and I’m bleeding emotion and shooting very straight arrows. I’m like a kid on a bike shouting, “Look at me, do you see me Mom?” I’m not ashamed of it. I understand that it’s part of the process. I love sitting in the audience when the film plays and watching how they respond. Some things hit, some fall flat on their face. I take note of the demographics in the room and am eager to see how the different groups relate to the film. I’m eager to make the next one- to take the lessons I’ve learned from this experience and create new art.
Where can people who want to see “Christmas Wedding Baby” find it and when? What about your other work?
We are the opening night film at the African Diaspora International Film Festival in Washington, DC on August 23rd, and the closing night film for the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago on September 3rd.
We are also working on our deal with Netflix and hope to be streaming this holiday season. A wonderful film I produced for Director Marco Coppola entitled “The Nearest Human Being” is in post and should be out next spring.
I’ve just begun pre-production on my next feature currently titled “Manhattan Millionaire.” The film is about a man who is fighting to keep his family together as he struggles to keep up appearances living in “Money Fakin’ Manhattan.” I plan to film next spring and am working on financing now. You can find updates on all our projects at our website www.cultivatedfilms.com and on Facebook/cultivatedfilms.
What do you want to tell the audience when watching your film?
Look at these beautiful Black people. Don’t you love them? We can make more. Keep watching. Support Black films and Black film festivals. Tell your friends. We finally have the power to control our own image. Let’s use it for good.