Award-winning filmmaker, producer and director Dami Akinnusi is making the most of her opportunities while residing in Brooklyn, N.Y. with her family.
In 2003, the premiere of her documentary “Bleach My Skin White” aired in primetime on the U.K.’s ITV network. She investigated the negative attitude toward darker skin. However, after a falling out between executive producers over the content of her next film, she came to America to find opportunities.
She met James Moore, who conducts the pilgrimage to Malcolm X’s grave every May 19.
“I can’t believe this happened, it’s been happening for 50 years,” she said. “How come we didn’t know about this in England? I’d love to make a film about this.”
And she did. In August of 2008, she made her documentary film debut at the BET UrbanWorld Film Festival. She received the African Movie Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2009 for “Malcolm’s Echo: Legacy of Malcolm X.”
“I felt really proud to be recognized by my people,” she said. “Malcolm really is a global icon. People around the world were energized by him. Here I am, a British-Nigerian who came to America to tell this story and then I get this big award in Africa. It doesn’t get better than that.”
Born in Brixton to Nigerian parents who wanted her to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant—anything but a filmmaker—she attended the University of Derby and studied psychology.
“That’s what I was allowed to get away with,” she said. “But I lied to my parents and actually studied psychology and performing arts.”
She wanted to be a performing artist and decided television was her calling, but she understood that her dark complexion would be a factor. After shadowing directors and producers while working for Granada Media in the U.K. as a production assistant, she found her true passion, which lay behind the scenes.
“Behind the camera is really where the power is,” she said. “That’s how I got into filmmaking.”
She started at the bottom like anyone else but networked and applied for grants. Three years after graduation, she won the BBC Millennium Award for journalism and directing training after pitching her documentary called “Go to Your Room: The Bedroom MC Competition,” which focused on U.K. hip- hop talent. She toured with the British Council World festival tour.
She began working with BBC, focusing on the youth hip-hop scene because of her connection to hip- hop.
“I was able to say which artists should be featured,” she said.
At the time, she was simultaneously working with two music radio shows on pirate radio, PowerJam and Genesis, as well as the BBC.
“That’s where the real stuff is coming from, the trends are made and the real voices of people are,” she said. “And BBC was okay with what I did.”
She made the documentary, “The Hip Hop Generation” for BBC 1.
“It was important for me because we found a lot of hip-hop in the suburbs,” she said. “Obviously, Black people love hip-hop, ,but now these white kids love it too—like, why? So I went to find out why they loved it because that’s what BBC wanted. It was a great experience to get my feet wet with BBC.”
She launched her production company Darkling Productions in America in 2013, with the mission to tell socially conscious stories.
“Having been in the industry now for nearly 15 years, the stories unfortunately really lack diversity and there’s a thirst to see color represented on screen,” she said.
When she produced “Malcolm’s Echo,” people at BBC and the Creative Diversity Network looked at her film, and some weren’t pleased.
“Some of the things that were told to me as to why the film wasn’t accepted is because the film was top-heavy with Black faces,” she said. “I was told I had to find white faces to put in there to make it relevant because it’s not representative of the population.”
The U.K. wasn’t ready for the film.
“To be honest, if I were to really succeed in what I’m trying to do, it would be to bring in more diversity by way of people of color having some of the jobs the higher echelons have in TV, especially in the U.K.,” she said.
With a larger audience in America, she felt more freedom with regard to the type of work she could put out to the public. When she walked into BET for the first time and saw an office filled with Black faces, she was stunned.
“I’ve always been very used to the experience of being the only Black face when working in television, so to see a production office run by an ensemble of Black faces was refreshing,” she said. “It’s much easier to put out content when you know you have potentially 13 percent of the nation that would be interested, and on top of that, because it’s more open with the racial situation in America, you have more white people who are happy to engage.”
“Malcolm’s Echo” was screened in multiple places, including at the former Audubon Ballroom, now the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center in Harlem, where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965.
“Nothing beats that occasion,” she said. “To see the mix of faces in the audience was unbelievable.”
She just signed with Plaza 7 Talent Agency and is currently finalizing two documentaries. One is “Sons Rising from the Last Poet: Abiodun Oyewole,” which looks at positive family unity through a conversation between the founding member of the last poets and his son about his latest album called “Gratitude.” The other is titled “Ode to Malcolm X” in honor of Malcolm’s 50th anniversary. Both films will be screened this summer.
“That’s the power,” she said, “owning your own productions and selling them.”
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