Blackstar Film Fest 2023 Interview: Sean-Josahi Brown on Finding a Home in “Ebony”

Film can be an elusive thing, but in accepting an offer to be a part of one, it finally gave Ebony Andrews something to hold on to.

“When I asked Ebony if she had any old home footage of her family, she didn’t,” said Sean-Josahi Brown, whose short “Ebony,” premiering this week at Blackstar Film Festival, has a tactile quality by design. “So I figured if I don’t have that, then maybe I could replicate that with super 8 and Super 16 and it was just fun trying a different mix of media, and the Super 8 and Super 16 gave like an old vintage, back in the days, home video [quality] because she didn’t have that at the time.”

While Brown may have caught Andrews at a time in her life that most would want to forget — having moved into a homeless shelter in Brownville, Brooklyn when finding any other form of suitable public housing was impossible with six kids to take care of — it is clear from “Ebony,” he’s capturing memories that she’ll cherish later on when she can marvel at the strength it took to keep a roof over their head. Filmed over two years, the 20-minute short sees Andrews make the time for all of her kids — Erica, Damian, Deziah, Adonis, Syncereti and Skylah — while figuring out how to provide for them without a partner, illuminating the difficulty for so many single parents when a job needs to allow for her to pick up the kids from school and as much bargain-hunting as she can do at a grocery store, putting food on the table is a crisis every day.

Still, Andrews makes sure Thanksgiving is a joyous affair and Brown is able to show the love that’s always around the edges of a trying situation, one that he is careful to present as not necessarily of her making when she herself was the child of a single mother who had to take on responsibilities well beyond her years growing up. Determined not to have the same weight placed on her children as has likely been on the women in her family for generations, she makes clear she has no time for despair and can make humble surroundings positively regal. Brown appears to have the same gifts in his first documentary, with Andrews’ search for permanent housing doubling as an artist finding his calling and during a break from the action in Philadelphia shortly after “Ebony” debuted, he generously took the time to talk about meeting Andrews and her spirited family, presenting a complicated history and how both the filmmaker and subjects now have something to build on for the future.

How this come about?

Back in 2019, I had just quit at a job at a hospital to go work at a homeless shelter because that’s where my heart was — to go do something more fulfilling and I met Ebony and her children in my first month [there]. They came in one night to get dinner and the moment I saw them, I was just captivated right away. They were in the shelter at that time and with all the stuff going on with them, there was a lot of just love and joy and tenderness between the family. They just reminded me of my childhood growing up with my siblings. We have a similar story where we grew up in a home without a father, and we didn’t have a lot of stuff, but we had each other, and there was love in our house, so I just wanted to document their journey and ultimately showcase that you can come from a broken home, you could be in poverty, but your life is still valuable.

Initially, I didn’t have an idea how long this film was going to be. This is actually my first film ever, and I never had intentions on becoming a filmmaker. When I met them, I was just doing photography and over time, we began a friendship and I just began taking photographs of the family in hopes of documenting and sharing their story. But I [thought] these photographs aren’t enough and as I continued to hang out with the family and was trying to support them any way I can, I was just like, “Man, you guys really need a film on your story.” So one day I asked them and they were down. And I purchased a camera and just started filming and between 2019 and 2021, I had [already] built this trust with them, so that created the intimacy in the film that you see when we began filming in 2021.

Was there anything that happened that really changed your ideas about what this was?

I didn’t really have a preconceived idea of how I wanted to tell the story, but one part that helped me shape the film was going into the shelter [because] I couldn’t film the children. Unless you’re a resident of the shelter, you weren’t allowed inside, so what I decided to do is I just let the children tell their own story [with a camera of their own]. I told them just to document their their day-to-day and whatever they do and that helped me see where the film was going to go because on on one hand you have my footage where you know it’s more observational and I’m following them around and then on the other, you see inside the shelter and what their life is really like. That was the heart of the film, just seeing them brush their teeth or sit down as a family and eat dinner together. That was all the kids filming, And I think it’s unique as a family, [with] single moms and their kids in the shelter, you don’t really see [everyone] eat dinner together as a family, but here they are, and they tell jokes and it’s just a lot of love and joy. I wouldn’t have gotten that footage if it wasn’t for the children filming that.

You mentioned earlier how you could do more with more with shooting a film than taking a picture and one of the things that I loved the most was the section where Ebony talks about how she’s having trouble finding a job that would allow her to take care of the kids and you have an image of the kids a total handful, chasing each other around the room. Was that exciting to draw those kinds of parallels between the sound and the image?

That’s just me, and what I like. When I watch films, I don’t want to just see heavy, and I know this film could be emotional, but I also wanted to make it light. Ebony is talking about something serious, so I also want to balance that out with light moments.

It also is quite impressive how this is actually a generational story even though you never leave Ebony or the present tense. What was it like to decide to include her mother and her brother to the extent that you do?

After doing so many interviews with Ebony, I went and did the interview with her mom [because] there were a lot of questions that were asked by friends and associates [of mine], wondering, how did Ebony end up with six kids and how come she’s a single mom and has this immense amount of love [for them] when she didn’t get it from her own mom? I know she talks about how she needed to get along with her mom in the middle of the film, but I thought it was important to you know get her mom’s perspective a bit and to see the connection there. She was 19 when she had Erica and the father wasn’t around and maybe that led her to not being there physically and supportive of Ebony growing up, and I didn’t want to include a long interview, but I just wanted to [show] it’s just a vicious cycle and Ebony wanted to break that. She wanted to be there for her kids, no matter how difficult it may be.

What’s it like getting to Blackstar with your first film?

It’s incredible. I’m still thinking, “Wow, I really made this film” and just like I’ve said, I never had any intention of doing this, but I feel like it’s just aligned with my purpose of helping people, especially the homeless community. And I feel like I took a big risk when I quit the hospital [job] because it was a very comfortable job and I lost good benefits, but that door opened up to me following this new passion of mine. Now I want to make more films, and it’s to the point where [this film] just got into another film festival this morning, and it’s really opening my eyes to [the idea] this is like something I’m going to take on and I want to make another film that involves other issues that I’m passionate about.

Have you gotten the chance to actually show Ebony and her family yet?

Absolutely. I made this film during a film fellowship program at the Bronx Documentary Center. and towards the end of that program, we did a rough cut screening and the family came out. They loved it and you just see another side of them because the kids have grown so much and it’s like they haven’t even went through that situation [you see in the film]. They forget about it because of the impact that this film has had on them, and they’ve just been very grateful for this opportunity. We still hang out, and they’ve become like my family — I go see them maybe twice a month and I remember when I first met the children, they weren’t so open to me, especially the youngest girl, Skylah. She was not my friend for a few months, and now when she sees me, she gives me all of these hugs. It’s the same with the other kids. They just really appreciate what this film has done for them, and I’m grateful for that.

“Ebony” will screen as part of the shorts program “Progeny” at the Blackstar Film Festival on August 6th at 2:30 pm at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre and will be available on the festival’s virtual platform through August 6th.

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