Director Elisha Smith-Leverock on her film that champions Black joy as “a force that restores us and gives us strength”, particularly in a year full of grief and anger
‘Rejoice Resist’ from Lief director and ambassador for Free The Work Elisha Smith Leverock is a short fashion film revolving around themes of Black joy, Black resilience and Black pleasure as “the ultimate form of resistance” in her words.
The film, surreal and lighthearted despite its powerful themes, depicts a woman on a quest to discover this truth, as her younger self finds guidance from a group of other women.
Responding to a brief from IN THE BLK and Equator Productions, Elisha’s starting point was celebrating Blackness and speaking to solidarity and independence within the Black community.
Earlier this month, the film was included in FILM NOIR - a showcase of five films by five directors, featuring 50+ collections of Black designers at Paris Fashion Week.
Full of questions about the complexity of this accomplishment, LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with Elisha to find out more.
LBB> Can you describe how you were feeling and what you were thinking when the idea of Rejoice Resist first began for you?
Elisha> The idea behind Rejoice Resist came in response to a brief IN THE BLK and Equator Productions approached me with at the end of August. It focused on celebrating Blackness and speaking to solidarity and independence within the Black community.
It was a perfect moment for it, after a period in isolation, where I had spent a lot of time processing the developments around the BLM movement, constantly being bombarded with horrific news and images in my social media feeds.
It felt like such an important message and mission and got me thinking about how we - specifically within the Black diaspora - comfort each other, what types of content and memes we share, how we connect and uplift each other in these times when we need it most but when personal contact is difficult and rare.
I took it to Margo [Mars] at Lief, my ally and friend, to see if we could pull it off…meaningful projects like this are what we live for so we threw ourselves into making this happen. They couldn’t have been more supportive partners in bringing this to life.
LBB> What was it about meme culture that interested you?
Elisha> With the lack of face to face interactions, Black joy focused content became important to me - I was doom-scrolling, stuck in anger and grief and it was hard for me to get out of this endless stream. But when I got to seeing Black people frolic or laugh - it took me out of that. For instance seeing Johnniqua Charles spontaneously burst out in song whilst being detained
and that video spreading and her chant becoming an anthem at BLM protest everywhere was so powerful.
It dawned on me that this content is far more than distraction - it is a survival tool.
LBB> What was happening around you and in the world in general that was positive, in response to all the horrors and injustice? And how did that feed into the film?
Elisha> There were so many people coming together, community building, lifting each other up. There was renewed support for existing Black-led projects, businesses and initiatives, in addition to a lot of important new ones that have come up.
Amongst them is the IN THE BLK initiative, whose mission it is “to unify, build solidarity and economic independence for Black individuals in the global fashion industry.” They commissioned this film and four other films by incredibly talented Black filmmakers in order to showcase Black designers at Paris Fashion Week.
I full heartedly embrace this move towards independence and equity with focus on showing the thriving, rich abundance of Black art and culture, seen from a Black perspective. Too often we are presented with impressions of Black culture through the White gaze.
LBB> Why were Black joy and Black pleasure important to you as the themes of the film?
Elisha> Black joy is and was always political. We recognise this when facing the reality that right now, in 2020, people are perceiving Black people to be a threat for the most mundane things like having a barbecue, or going swimming and that Black people can lose their lives for simply going jogging - as well as when looking at the very long history of this.
Rejoice Resist is a film that celebrates and shows Black joy and Black pleasure as the ultimate form of resistance and it highlights the necessity of allowing yourself to feel joy especially in the face of adversity. Joy is our birth-right.
LBB> With the overarching themes of joy and resistance and the relationship between the two, how did you come to ground those ideas in scenes between actual characters interacting?
Elisha> The interactions were based around this inner conflict/conversation I was having with myself. About allowing myself to feel joy with all this going on around me. At first seemed counterintuitive. I felt my anger had more power. And although I recognised quite quickly that running on anger alone I was going to burn out, it took me a while to internalise that joy is a force that restores us and gives us strength.
I wanted to show this chasm between knowing what you need and allowing yourself to accept that. This is what’s happening between the Women and the Girl. The Girl is stuck and the Women are trying to help her move past that, get unstuck. Each of the Women have a different approach in trying to achieve this, from gently nudging to being absolutely in her face about it.
LBB> Can you talk about the casting process? What were you looking for mostly and why did the people you landed on fit the bill so well?
Elisha> I’m so lucky that Lief, Margo and myself have a long relationship and friendship with casting director Kharmel Cochrane and that we were able to get her on board for this project. Not only does she have an incredible eye for talent but she has long been an advocate for the importance of representation and a strong voice in discussions around inclusion and issues of racism when it comes to casting. She was such a natural go-to and totally nailed it.
It was an absolute pleasure to be able to work with such brilliant women like Rhoda Ofori-Attah and Shaniqua Okwok, although I was a bit intimidated at first as Shaniqua had just wrapped up shooting with Steve McQeen, one of my all time heroes. A tough act to follow.
Rhoda was the embodiment of regal beauty and power but also warmth and pure joy. Shaniqua was bringing the energy and positivity and so much raucous fun to her character and just making everybody laugh on and off camera. It's impossible not to get swept up in it.
LBB> I'm also intrigued by how the film looks. What was your process for deciding on the wardrobe?
Elisha> IN THE BLK stylists Ade Samuels and Memsor Kamarake had the enormous task of styling five films globally within two weeks' time, with as many designers from the collective as possible. This task also included carefully balancing the best way to showcase the garments with crafting distinct looks relating to the films characters in order to bring them to life.
It was exciting to see how they worked, taking ideas from the script and pairing them with the right designs. I love the dramatic Fe Noel robe with the L'Enchanteur finger cuffs they chose for our Women in the opening scene, it perfectly elevated her presence and gave her something mystical. Another important piece was the Girls blue dress that she wears throughout the film. It needed to embody her spirit. As a character she made me think of Diana Ross in The Wiz and the Beads By Aree dress with the ruffles that Memsor and Ade chose for her was just perfect.
Lief pulled out all the stops in getting us these stunning and epic locations. The pool for instance was very important to me because of its symbolism and it turned out to be an incredibly challenging location to find but Margo pulled it off. Paix Robinson’s set design and Nathalie Pitters beautiful cinematography and lighting really made these locations sing.
It was so important for us all to really make something that is visually as stunning as the work of the Black designers we featured and that it truly did the job of highlighting Black excellence.
LBB> I feel like the animated parts impart a sense of magical realism to the film. What inspired that aspect?
Elisha> I wanted to make a connection between the real world and the place where joy comes from, where it lives. I also very importantly wanted to show the Girls’ metamorphosis, her reunification with the Woman, once she had found her joy. Because it’s an internal process that is happening, it felt like it needed to be shown in a way that was less literal.
We worked with the very talented Jamaican artist, animator Jenille Brown, after Equator helped us track down the best talent to create this internal space. Being in Covid times is quite freeing in a way that remote working is the norm and you can look anywhere in the world for your talent. She had only a few days to make her part, and was such a force getting it done. I love the end result.
LBB> What are your hopes for how Rejoice Resist will affect people?
Elisha> I hope it connects and makes people happy. I hope it’s restorative. The entire process of making it has been that for me. It’s been one of a few rare occasions where I have had the pleasure of working with an almost exclusively Black cast and crew. This was a special feeling to everyone on the project, it really united us.
It was just incredible to have a crazy talented sound designer like Rucyl who was based in Philadelphia be able to work with Ben, the music supervisor in Berlin and for him to be able to record a Soundtrack on an afternoon there, and with the same spirit of joy that all the dancers would be dancing to it on a rooftop car park in London a day later - just amazing. It couldn’t have been done without the support of everybody involved.
Behind the scenes images by Betty Oxlade-Martin.
Written & Directed by: Elisha Smith-Leverock
Producer: Margo Mars
Production Company: Lief
Executive Producer: Ashely Cimone
Director of Photography: Nathalie Pitters
Animator: Jenille Brown
Production Designer: Paix Robinson
Editor: Ryan Boucher
Colourist: Yoomin Lee
Sound Designer: Rucyl Frison
Music Supervisor: Ben Smith-Leverock-Esser
“Rejoice Resist”: Ben Smith-Leverock-Esser, Sedric Perry and Giselle Mapp
“Cut Me”: Moses Sumney
Movement Director: Natricia Bernard
1st Assistant Director: Giselle Garcia
Costume Designers: Ade Samuel & Memsor Kamarake
Featuring Designs by: Aliétte, Amber Raye, Beads Byaree, Brother Vellies, Dixie Graze, Épifenē, Fe Noel, The House of RG, KHIRY, Kai Collective, L’Enchanteur, Marty Moto, Nooni, OLTR London, Sheer Suga, Third Crown, 90zBack.
Casting Director: Kharmel Cochrane
WOMAN: Rhoda Ofori-Attah
YOUNG WOMAN: Shanice Weeks-Brown
WOMAN 1: Shaniqua Okwok
WOMAN 2: Zakyia Wellington