The film world changed when Jordan Peele won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Get Out last year. Horror was back in the Academy Awards conversation after a decades-long absence, and Peele’s blockbuster success made Hollywood stand at attention and recognize the vitality (and marketability) of black art. The writer and director signed development deals with major studios, got a reboot of The Twilight Zone off the ground, and put a new Candyman film in motion, and his next feature, Us, is one of the most anticipated movies in any genre of 2019.
But Peele’s rising tide is lifting the boats of other black creatives in horror, too. The Octavia Spencer–fronted Ma arrives in theaters later this year. Peele tapped Nia DaCosta to helm Candyman. Dee Reese is reportedly at work on a haunted-house horror movie centering on a lesbian couple, and there’s a whole community of black filmmakers proving their mettle with short-form work who are just waiting to get their shot at higher-profile projects. If Peele was a boulder falling into a lake, these hustling writes and directors are the ripple effects.
Writer and director Nikyatu Jusu has done everything right to work her way up the entertainment-industry ladder. After getting her undergraduate degree at Duke and her MFA from New York University’s Tisch School, Jusu has been making short films and hustling her work for a decade. She’s participated in workshops. She’s done incubator programs. She’s won awards, and she’s even an assistant professor teaching screenwriting and directing at George Mason University. So, when she got the chance to apply for a short-film funding grant from the Tribeca Film Institute’s Through Her Lens program in 2017, honestly, she wasn’t over the moon about it. After making a handful of well-received shorts — including the award-winning African Booty Scratcher and Flower — she didn’t see herself as having anything left to prove in that discipline. It was time for something bigger. But Through Her Lens was an invite-only program offering a $90,000 prize for the winning pitch, and mentorship from some big Hollywood players, which included a judges panel of Rachel Weisz, director Mira Nair, and producer Paula Weinstein.
Jusu didn’t have another short pitch, but she had been shaping a whole series in her mind for years called Suicide by Sunlight, which focused on day-walking black vampires in New York City. Their dark skin protects them from the sun, allowing them to live in the day and move freely through the world as passing humans — a future in which blackness is both a superpower and a societal shield. Jusu fashioned the series down into a short and focused it on one character, Valentina, an oncology nurse who is also a vampire caught in a custody battle for her kids. Her pitch was selected for competition. And then she won.
Suicide by Sunlight was then selected to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival (“a true cinephile audience,” she says), a step that landed her an agent. “For the most part, agents have to find you. Like, it doesn’t matter how badly you want representation,” Jusu tells Vulture. “It’s such a pain in the ass. I would watch people get it and they’d be like, ‘You should get representation!’ And I’m like, ‘No shit! That’s something I want.’” The agents, in turn, got Jusu meetings, and now all those boxes she’s checked on the How to Succeed in Hollywood bingo card are starting to pay off.
But even when you make all the right moves, making it in the Business still takes a lot of good fortune — especially if you’re a woman, and double especially if you’re a woman of color. Calls for diversity across the industry are louder than ever, but the numbers are still tragic, particularly behind the camera. (A recent study characterized the situation as “radical underrepresentation.”) Jusu has weathered the storm of buzzwords before — inclusion! Women! People of color! — but thanks to the success of Suicide, she finally feels like she’s leveling up. Timed with increased industry interest in both content from black creatives and horror, Jusu knows her years of hard work have put her in a position to leverage the cultural mores and go from shorts to series and full features. There’s some luck involved, sure, but it’s the kind of luck you earn by staying on your hustle, and being so good that the check writers can’t afford to overlook you anymore.
To get a firsthand account of what it takes to go from blind pitching your original series all over to getting booked at Sundance and crafting narratives with Rachel Weisz, Vulture got on the phone with Jusu for a wide-ranging conversation about wrestling your dream into submission. From her candid Twitter feed where she’s trying to demystify the Hollywood machine to her recent meetings with [redacted] to her goal of melding West African cultural influences into the African-American experience onscreen, here’s why you should keep eyes on the name Nikyatu Jusu. And why the future of horror is black and female.
You’ve said that in the time leading up to Suicide by Sunlight you were feeling pretty burned out on making shorts, but you’ve had the lead character, Valentina, in your head for a long time. So how did it all come together?
In terms of Valentina, approximately seven years ago I conceived an idea heavily inspired by sci-fi novelist Octavia Butler and African diasporic mythology around the different versions of vampires that exist in Haiti and Ghana. So, I did a little bit of research about the origins of vampires as they manifest in different countries, and I stumbled across the idea of having day-walking black vampires who are protected from the sun by their extra melanin. It just felt like such a rich springboard to create a world, to explore a near-future New York City that has this underbelly of people lurking in the shadows that have their own little microcosm within humanity. What is it like to take the skin tone that has so many negative social ramifications and so many stigmas around it in larger society and invert that through the vampire mythology? It just felt like such an opportunity to explore a world in which blackness was a biological advantage.
Yes, it basically seems like a superhero gene. Does that mean the more melanin a person has the greater sun protection they possess, therefore making it a play on colorism?
That’s exactly it. It’s something that is grounded in scientific fact, but is being explored through the genre of vampirism.
Why did the constructs of genre — vampirism and all the blood, sex, and violence that goes with it — feel compelling to you for the story you wanted to tell?
Vampires are sexy for so many reasons. There’s so much symbolism in a being who subsists off the blood of others. It forces you to think about community. It forces you to think about who is the monster and who is literally just surviving. And obviously the idea of being marginalized falls right in line with who is the monster of the era. Vampires are immigrants. Vampires are queer people. Vampires are black people, and we talked about the biological advantage of being black in this world. I’m really exploring that, because vampirism for so long has been really centered in Eastern European mythology. At the heart of vampire mythology, however you remix it, what seems to maintain itself is the idea of sunlight being a vampire’s worst enemy. This is an opportunity to think about how racism might be inverted in a world where you need dark skin to be able to pass as human. You need dark skin in order to assimilate into dominant human society.
So with that fatigue around shorts in mind, how were the Sundance and Tribeca experiences, especially since Suicide ended up being a kind of breakthrough piece for you?
Yes. I am and was burnt out on shorts, and I almost didn’t submit, but Through Her Lens has to nominate you. And because it’s not like this huge open process and you’re not wading through a sea of obstacles to get this money, it felt very real and it felt very tangible. We had some stiff competition and it was amazing, but it was not just the winning that was the prize. I’ve done a few incubators. I’ve done a few workshops. I’ve done intensives. This has been the most fruitful one that I’ve done, because we were so immersed in the process and sitting down with powerhouses in the industry.
I met with Amma Asante and I met with Ilene Chaiken and I met with Elizabeth Olsen, which is kind of random, but she knows her stuff! Rachel Weisz was amazing. She asked such smart questions. I sat across from Mira Nair, who was a judge. I was surrounded by some of my heroes, and I just got to pick their brains over the course of three days, and you also get to meet other immensely talented women. It was enriching in so many other ways outside of just winning the grant. Ilene has written recommendation letters for me. She meets with me when I go to L.A. She’s actively giving me advice about how to break into television as someone who is creating an original series.
With programs Through Her Lens and Sundance making a more concerted effort to diversify this year, are you seeing the functional benefits of our heightened discourse around inclusivity? Do you feel like the way this short came about and what you got out of it signify a tangible increase in benefits to you of putting a short out and going through the festival circuit like that?
It’s always tricky because we’re always emerging filmmakers until we make that one or two or ten big things. Everyone’s been on the scene for the past decade and we’re figuring it out, and every couple of years you hear the same buzzwords, the same rhetoric — you know, diversity and women of color and women and POC. So at some point I think whether the buzzwords are floating around or not, if you’re tenacious enough and you are making the right moves and treating people well, I think inevitably the cream rises to the top. I just so happen to feel like I’ve stuck with it long enough to see more fruits of my labor.
But also, yes, sometimes there’s an intersection of timing and you busting your ass and having done the work for so long. Finally! So in answer to your question, this short has been so crucial for me in a way that none of my shorts have been for various reasons. Horror is something that people are paying more attention to right now. We’re living in the midst of a real-life horror film, and it’s making the genre seem a lot more appealing, I think. People are exploring the intersection of social resonance and horror, and people are asking where the women of horror are, which is great for me. So, I think it’s serendipitous in terms of timing, in terms of people being ushered out of the industry because their actions are being brought to light, and it’s this domino effect of realizing that white guys cannot run this forever. Everyone is exhausted. Everybody wants new blood. Everybody’s tired of biding their time. We need diversification of content. Yes, people are taking a chance, so it’s all these different variables that are working in my favor. As a black woman filmmaker who did everything she was supposed to do, went to a top-tier film school —
Your credits are extremely impressive.
Jordan, I know. [Laughs.] But it’s like, you do everything so all these variables come together and it’s finally right for you to be on the scene.
I wanted to go back to what you said about microcosms, and pulling from African vampire lore. I think one of the most exciting possibilities right now, in a world where Get Out is a huge success, is that black horror will be able to greater reflect the diversity of the black American experience, which is not a monolith, and include broad influences from across the creative communities of the African diaspora. Your family is from Sierra Leone, correct?
Yeah! I’m first-generation.
Did that point of origin factor into your world-building at all for Suicide?
Absolutely. It’s interesting because I think what’s also happening quietly — and only someone who’s paying attention will notice — is specifically first-gen black kids making content, and a lot of the stuff that we’re making is kind of out-there. I think that’s partly because we grew up as black kids in America, but we’re never quite completely black American and we’re never quite fully African, or something else. So a lot of us are exploring what it means to be that something else in really weird ways, and I think that speaks to me wanting to exist within genre, because it allows me to just explore these West African mythologies but ground them in the American context. That’s a major goal of mine. With everything going on with immigration, there are just so many things happening that we can make commentary on, and also pull from our lineage as fodder for some of that content.
As you pitch your work, are you finding that there’s room for you to bring that cultural specificity to it? Or are people wanting to box you in with, “Well, you’re an African-American, so this is the kind of story we want you to tell about the singular African-American experience”?
I’m curious about that question, about how receptive people are going to be to my goal. It’s just something that we don’t often see, and in between your white agents and your African-American meetings that you’re having, you never know how people are going to receive that. But the good thing is, now I have a tangible product for them to see what I’m talking about with Suicide by Sunlight. It’s no longer theoretical. It’s no longer a blind pitch. I’m having meetings because of the film, so people’s interest is piqued. We are pitching it to different networks and production companies, and we are getting traction in terms of getting it to a network and getting it green-lit as an original series under the same name. It’s rare that people get to jump from a short to an original series. They go to directors who’ve done like 20 features! [Laughs.] I’m exaggerating.
When you’re trying to get that first feature done, it seems like it might as well be 20 features away.
It might as well! And I’m so — I am at a point where I’m like, Come on. I don’t have to prove it to you. I don’t need to do a feature to show you that we can do this. We have everything ready to go and it’s been done. Premiering at Sundance is a win, you know. Through Her Lens was a big win. Now new people have their eyes on you, people who can take you to that next level. I have found collaborators who are so brilliant and believe in our vision collectively. I won’t even call it my vision because it takes on a different form when you attach these collaborators. I’ve found such immensely talented people that I want to take with me. So, it just adds fuel to your fire. My director of photography Daisy Zhou, who shot Suicide by Sunlight, she’s brilliant.
The short really is gorgeous. It looks like if Barry Jenkins made a spinoff of Blade.
[Laughs.] I met with so many DPs for this, mostly men, but her reel stayed with me and I just kept going back to her. I’m so happy that I chose her because I want to work with her forever. There are people who make this all worthwhile, like my producer, Nikkia Moulterie. I want to work with her forever, too, and my co-writer Robin [Shanea Williams]. You’re not doing it alone ever in film.
You’re very gracious on Twitter about the people you collaborate with. [Laughs.] Speaking of my Twitter! I cannot wait for somebody to be like, “You need to tweet less.”
If I notice a drop-off I’ll just assume something massive is happening for you.
[Laughs.] That’s right! It’s happening! I try to be as transparent as I can, because even when you do everything right, if you are not plugged in —which, most of us are not — everyone is feeling their way through the dark. What I hope that I can give through random tweets is just a little bit of a glimmer into how this thing works, because it works differently for everyone. A lot of people are sitting on information that they don’t need to be sitting on. It really doesn’t need to be a huge mystery.