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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

Meet the Up-and-Coming Black Filmmakers of CSU

Exclusive interviews with some of the talent graduating from the School of Film and Media Arts this spring.


Written by Cara Robbins





Interested in becoming a patron of the arts? This Black History Month, celebrate the local creatives making waves in the Cleveland film industry! Make sure to catch all of their final thesis film projects this spring, screening through the School of Film & Media Arts May 9 and 10, 2024 (program details, location, and time TBD). 


MONIQUE COBBIN


Monique Cobbin is a first-generation student wrapping up her last semester at Cleveland State on the writing and directing track. The driving force behind her filmmaking is simple yet motivating. “When I was a kid, I had trouble learning regularly. I would always watch educational TV shows or videos to reteach me the materials. I decided that I wanted to help teach kids.” Ever since, Cobbin has been making family-friendly content. 


One such film, called “The Little Door,” was based on her own past. “It’s very loosely based on the story of me and my two younger siblings. We grew up in our grandma’s house and her house is ancient. We always thought there was treasure in there because it was so old.” Cobbin returned to her grandmother’s house to make the film, watching her childhood come back to life. In “The Little Door,” of course, the kids do actually find the legendary treasure. (Whoops! Spoilers).


Her upcoming thesis film “The Little Monster” builds on a similar sense of timeless childhood. The story follows two young brothers who discover an egg at the funeral of their archeologist grandfather. While processing their grief, the egg hatches into a strange creature that they have to take care of while ensuring their parents don’t discover the havoc it wreaks. The film is intended to be a “classic kid film,” inspired by ’80s classics such as “ET” (1982) and “The Goonies” (1985). “But I wanted it to be an all-Black cast,” says Cobbin. “None of the classics have any Black people in it.”


When asked what her inspiration is, Cobbin doesn’t even hesitate. “When I say I want to do educational TV, I mean that I want to be the next Mr. Rogers. I just really like helping kids and there’s some people who Mr. Rogers basically raised, because maybe they didn’t have parents and all they could do was watch TV.” Cobbin is particularly fond of the “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” character Officer Clemmons, who was one of the first recurring Black characters in TV history and the very first Black police officer to appear on television. In one of the most powerful scenes in kid’s entertainment, Officer Clemmons and Mr. Rogers cool their feet off in the same kiddie pool while singing “There’s Many Ways to Say I Love You” — a revolutionary moment of activism during an era where segregation prohibited Black people from swimming in the same pools as white people. 


In the future, Cobbin hopes to take her Christian faith, a staple of her identity, and incorporate it into her creative work more. “I’ve done it a little bit in sprinkles here and there where it’s not obvious to anyone but me, but I’d like to incorporate it more. It’s my entire life.” 


After graduation, Cobbin has one big dream that she would love to see come true: a TV show that travels around the globe and shows children what other kids live like in parts of the world with different cultures and lifestyles. “I think kids in America can be a little … American.  I think it would be good for children to see, especially without their parents’ influence, what the world is like and what kids around the world do”. And what would she call the show? “‘Mo’s World,’” Cobbin says with a grin. 


MCCAYLA CONNORS

TikTok: @macintushi


McCayla Connors, a senior on the writing, acting, and directing tracks, had a love for film since childhood. “The first time I was really in awe of TV was when I saw the ‘Hannah Montana’ pilot. I was just awestruck and I knew I wanted to be on TV and make silly stories about life and what people go through. It was just something about Miley Cryus as Miley Stewart: the idea of this girl living in two different lives. Growing up biracial with a Black mom and a white dad [who never married] (which is a rare mix in the community), it resonated with me, because I felt like I had two lives with two different households that were two separate races and cultures.” 


Connors decided to transfer from Wright University in December 2019, when she realized the CSU’s film school offered a high-level and varied experience to all students, beginner or experienced. “It paid off for me,” says Connors. “100%. I had no idea the details that went into each film role in the film world … Not only did I get background knowledge, but I got more time to train my acting skills and learn the method style that I like.” In her final year at CSU, Connors is focusing on two of her own original thesis projects:


"My director-focused thesis is a documentary called “YouTopia.” It is a 10-minute, interview-based documentary discussing the idea of someone's perfect day and it is explored through five different perspectives.The goal was to see if we could make everyone’s perfect day come true, and if it could all simultaneously work in the real world. It’s something that I later want to develop into a miniseries, so we can open a discussion into what a utopian society would be and if we could make that a true society."


In addition to “YouTopia,” Connors also wrote and stars in her original film “Void of Course.” Connors enjoys using a blend of genres and perspectives to create a philosophical dilemma for the protagonist.  “I wanted to see something where this main character doesn’t believe in the spiritual element, but the people around them very much do. Are they going to let their pride get in the way of protecting themselves from what is clearly real? Or is he going to allow himself to be subject to what they’re seeing in front of their eyes to save themselves?”


In addition to her personal thesis projects, Connors is also producing Jayla Rose Moore’s “Lucky You.” After graduation, Connors plans to eventually make her way out to L.A. or Atlanta, get more acting experience on her resume and break out into a writer’s room. Her ultimate goal is to become a showrunner and producer of her own original series. “I think that a really important part of my growth as not only an actor, but as a writer, is making sure that I’m producing work that reflects my values and is able to shine a light on characters that I can identify with — which is something that I didn’t have growing up.”


JAYLA ROSE MOORE


Jayla Rose Moore, graduating this spring on the acting and directing track, first knew that acting was her calling during a high school performance of “The Tempest,” where she played Trincula (the gender-bent twist on Trinculo). “I’m not the biggest fan of Shakespeare,” says Moore, “but learning the long monologues and having that much fun on stage for multiple days — it’s one of the only things that I wouldn’t mind stressing over day after day, year after year.”


Moore transferred to Cleveland State from Tri-C after taking a break from education. “I called it [a gap year], but in my head I didn’t think I was coming back,” she said. “The universe really wanted me to be in school, even though I didn’t want to be.” After receiving a full ride to Cleveland State through the “Say Yes! Cleveland” program (which awards tuition scholarships to eligible graduates from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District), Moore chose to return to college because of CSU’s accessible and affordable acting programs. 


Currently, Moore is writing, directing, co-producing and starring in her thesis project “Lucky You.” Moore perks up while explaining the premise: “It’s kind of a romance-slash-thriller-slash-drama. It’s about this couple’s therapist that is miserable with his life and gets a second chance at love, until his toxic traits start to emerge again. The audience and his current love interest start to realize his true self and what he did to his ex.”


Drawing inspiration from films such as “Promising Young Woman” (2020) and “The Gift” (2015), Moore dives into the complex psychology of morally disingenuous protagonists who view themselves as good people. According to Moore, “the main character in my thesis stays away from women for a long time because he knows that he’s controlling and toxic. It doesn’t necessarily make him a better person, because he did some bad things that he ran away from instead of accepting responsibility. It’s showing that he’s trying to be better. It’s a twist, though — because it didn’t make him better, it didn’t make him worse, it just kept him in the same spot. That’s not necessarily a good thing at all.” 


Moore wears plenty of hats in addition to her own thesis project. She’s producing “Void of Course,” as well as “Ben and Teddy,” a coming-of-age short film written and directed by fellow film major Quinton Likosar that explores the heartwarming friendship between a shy young boy and his turtle. 

After graduation, Moore plans to spend some time saving up money and securing more acting gigs to help pave the way for a clean move to Atlanta. Once there, she’s excited to continue her work with the Cleveland-based performance group Spectacular Performance and Entertainment, which also features shows in Atlanta, while she builds her name in the film industry. If there’s one piece of advice she can offer to filmmaking hopefuls, it’s to try new things — especially if it’s outside your self-perceived skillset and career ambitions. “A lot of films that became successful were because of people doing things they haven’t done before. I think it's a rule of thumb in the industry to get out of your comfort zone.”


JADE HALL


Jade Hall, a first-generation student and the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, grew up on Disney DCOM musicals and always had a soft spot for the magic of music in filmmaking. “I think that music plays such a big role in how people can make new ideas visually through storytelling,” she says. “A song or just a simple theme can carry out the story and help develop the audience into what emotion and tone that exact scene in the movie is going for.”


Hall is a bit of a jack-of-all-trades in filmmaking, dabbling in directing, cinematography, photography, acting, social media managing, assistant directing, composing and more. She also has a particular passion for fashion and costume design, favoring inspiration from early 2000s pop culture. Hall points out how HBO series “Euphoria” effectively took this pop culture and added a modern flair to appeal to today’s audience — in particular, in fashion taste among Gen Z. Inspired by the show’s social impact, Hall explains that she’d “like to put something out there where I influence the whole generation’s style. I’d love to do that.” 


This year, Hall is directing “Void of Course,” written by McCayla Connors — and is looking forward to her first time in the  director’s chair.  “I wanted to direct my own film this year, but I didn’t really get to [due to scheduling conflicts].” Though disappointed that she didn’t get to work with her own original script this year, Hall has channeled that passion towards bringing the vision of “Void of Course” to life. 

She remembers fondly when Connors requested her for the directing role. “She chose me specifically because I think she knows that I have a lot of ideas on this script, and [the premise] is similar to me as a person,” says Hall, referring to her own spirituality. Upon reading the finalized script for the film, she says she immediately felt a connection: “I’m just like ‘oh, this is great. This is a Jade-type thing!’” Hall is particularly excited to play up the horror elements of the script, drawing visual and tone inspiration from Netflix series “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” to create a complex mise-en-scene that highlights the lore of witchcraft, paganism, Satanism and Christianity. Hall also draws thematic inspiration from “Talk to Me” (2022) to explore the ways that people can take things too far in the pursuit of selfishness.


Upon graduation, Hall plans on utilizing her versatile skillset and developing her talents in other careers that she’s passionate about: in particular, real estate. “It’s kind of a generational thing,” she says. “One of the first things [my dad] did when he came to America was to get into real estate. He bought a whole bunch of properties, renovated them, and rented them out. I want to keep that as a Hall tradition. Like, ‘hey, you can still do whatever you want, but we want to make a legacy of having our own family business.” 


In addition, she’s hoping to do freelance work with photography and social media management while continuing to work on different film sets — which she enthusiastically mentioned that she’s willing to travel for. “I’m a frequent traveler and I like to expand my horizons into new places [...] I would also like to explore a work-from-home thing, which works well with real estate. That would allow me to travel and explore new things.”


CALVIN BROWN


The fact that Calvin Brown doesn’t graduate until this spring hasn’t stopped him from developing an already impressive presence in the Cleveland animating scene. His 2022 short film, “The LEGO Justice League vs Starro the Conqueror,” has garnered over 480K views on YouTube and was featured in the Cleveland International Film Festival’s (CIFF) FilmSlam, a media literacy program designed to expose students in grades 5 through 12 to outstanding examples in filmmaking. 


Brown describes how he used the experience to show kids that entering the film scene isn’t as daunting as it seems. After another director in the FilmSlam shared that his 8-minute short cost $100K to create, Brown used the opportunity during a CIFF Q&A session to share the grand-total budget of his own film: $150. “Blendr, the software I used, is free. If that’s the only answer they heard,” said Brown, referring to the $100K statistic,  “some high school kid might think ‘filmmaking isn’t for me because I don’t have the money’. But if someone like me comes up and says you can basically do this for free… Well, hopefully that would inspire someone to give it a try.” 


Brown first became interested in animating as a kid, but struggled to find a program that was accessible to beginners. “My dad was at the airport when he met this guy and struck up a conversation with him. He turned out to be an animator from Sony,” says Brown. “My dad mentioned that he had a 10-year-old son who was trying to get into animation, and this guy recommended that I try LEGO stop motion animation, because it’s a lot easier to learn.”


Now in his final year at Cleveland State, Brown is branching out into new and dynamic visual approaches with his current projects. One such short film, “The Fisherman,” draws visual cues from 17th-century painters such as Rembrandt and is heavily inspired by Robert Eggers’s “The Witch” (2015). According to Brown, “It follows a fisherman living in New England in the year 1630, and he’s very religious and has a small family. They start experiencing these surreal curses and things just get progressively worse and worse.”


The project is particularly special to Brown because it’s his first original concept. Though the final cut of the film will wrap mid-March, Brown plans on submitting the film to the 2024 festival circuit. As a result, the short will not become available to general audiences until late 2025. 


In addition, Brown is working on his thesis “Akunta,” which he is writing, directing and animating. The short pulls from all of Brown’s go-to sources of inspiration: history, folklore, mythology and poetry. It follows the titular character, a young San boy living in South Africa in 1652. After Dutch colonists murder his family, Akunta’s father sends him on a journey to seek revenge (à la “Hamlet”) that forces Akunta to come to terms with his true fear: being forgotten.


“It’s about how as we get older and experience death, we understand the permanence of it. Eventually, you know you’ll be forgotten. That’s a scary thing. So what do you do about it? There’s famous people that we read about in history books — what would you give to be that? Would you sacrifice the right thing? Would you take the wrong path and do wrong things to cement that legacy or will you do the right thing regardless of if it will benefit you?”


“Akunta” is certainly distinctive in its visual style and approach, drawing heavily upon the stylistically unique cave paintings of the San people, one of the oldest remaining (yet nearly extinct) cultures on Earth. Brown plans to release a version of the film spoken entirely in Zulu. Though this isn’t one of the historical languages spoken by the umbrella category of San people, it’s the closest surviving language with enough speakers to source voice actors. 


Upon graduation, Brown plans on animating freelance work while he develops feature scripts and short films in his spare time. Brown’s ultimate post-graduation goal is to write and direct professionally animated original films. 



Note: The author is a student at the School of Film and Media Arts. The article content may reference projects that the author has worked on as part of her studies.


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