Super Studs, Brownskin Showgirls and Challenging Identities- My Artist Journey

From making film to writing lyrics to painting on a blank canvas, I am at peace in the world when I am creating. A writer, visual artist and documentary filmmaker, I come from a family of artists and musicians from Los Angeles, CA. As a kid, all I ever wanted to do was go to the movies, play my new records and  delight in the freshest album art while memorizing the verses to my favorite songs. Today, filmmaking is my chosen form of self-expression because it allows me to mix all the mediums I’ve come to love.  Making documentaries allows me to explore the world, meet interesting people, and be a part of the telling of amazing, real stories that will inspire future generations to come. My goal is to uncover unique stories from unknown subcultures and entertain audiences with dazzling shows and engaging narratives while exploring different themes, forms and techniques.
M.I., A Different Kind of Girl

My first feature film, M.I., A Different Kind of Girl, was inspired by ‘Paris is Burning’, a 1990 documentary film chronicling the New York City ball culture and the African American and Latino, gay and transgender communities that made it an underground phenomenon. As I watched ‘Paris is Burning’, I had to ask: Where are the lesbian women of color?

In 2012, I created M.I.. A film document about a little known sub-culture in the Black LGBTQ community, M.I. follows one woman’s journey in the male dominated drag culture. I am out in my community, so the subject matter of gender identity within the LGBTQ community, and particularly for lesbian women of color, was immediately relevant to me. As I came to know my subject, I guess you could say it was easy for me to pick up my camera and head backstage to enter this strange and confusing world of illusion and to ultimately tell the story of Nation Tyre.

A spirited and passionate male impersonator born on North Carolina’s rural coast, Nation cut her teeth on stages in Atlanta but found the gender categories within their black drag community too confining. Sparking controversial conversations at film festivals around the globe about female identity, M.I. paved the way for more film projects that would educate, entertain and feature provocative subjects and subject matter.

My overall vision was to educate viewers through the use of interviews, photos, narration and music to help tell the story.  Featuring hip hop music by female rappers Kin4Life, M.I. demonstrates my ability to produce a compelling expository form documentary film while conducting and directing work in every area of the project – and stay true to my love for hip hop. With on-camera interviews at the crux of the M.I. narrative, I turned to this experience in my next feature film project, JIG SHOW.

My current doc is JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana. In this film, I take viewers on a tour of my grandfather’s famous traveling revue that birthed music icons, broke carnival records and significantly influenced Black and Latin entertainment during the Jim Crow era. In the film, I play with performative and poetic form and I use classic and new hip hop music, spoken word poetry, photography and video to help breathe life into Harlem in Havana. Archival research and photography curation has been a large part of the work on this project. I have collected and digitized hundreds of images and news clips spanning the 1920s through the 1960s, and I use innovative ways to showcase them in the film .

Visual art created for the film represents key moments throughout the story, while beautiful high definition b-roll shot in the city of Tampa highlight the place where Leon Claxton and the Harlem in Havana troupe were headquartered for nearly 40 years, and where I spent nearly every summer in my youth.

My own journey of the telling of my family’s story is an essential part of JIG SHOW. In the film, my approach is grounded in the relationship between me and my grandfather, Leon Claxton, the main subject. My deep connection to his spirit of entrepreneurship, my unique relationship with former performers, past patrons and familial ties to the Claxton legacy, adds to the authenticity and complex resonation of my grandfather’s life and the preservation of my family’s rich history.

The Harlem in Havana Project

JIG SHOW is part of a larger body of work called The Harlem in Havana Project, a transmedia project that aims to revive the show’s rich history through a variety of thought-provoking content: the film, a photography exhibit, a website and book, Brown-skin Showgirls. Above all else, my goal has been to rescue this arts and entertainment history from death and insert “Harlem in Havana” and the story of the traveling ‘jig show’ into the narrative of American popular culture before these memories and artifacts die with the individuals that carry them.

Although I am challenged at times with no budget, little equipment and less patience towards the end of my filmmaking process, I believe I uncover powerful and fundamental ideas I hope will challenge viewers thinking about life and identity . Indeed, the journey is always more rewarding than the destination for me. I am extremely grateful to my family, friends, donors, funders, subjects and fans who continue to support my journey.  I can’t thank you enough!

Artist Statement for Leslie Cunningham, February 2018


HAYTI! The Hippest Black Film Festival in the South Just Got Better!

By Leslie Cunningham, filmmaker and TRIBES Team

If you haven’t noticed, Durham’s Hayti Heritage Film Festival (HHFF) is bringing something fresh and new this year and Bull city film lovers are taking notice! I’m a longtime fan of the annual festival which is one of the longest-running Black film festivals in the country.

I’m damn sure proud of radioman Marc Lee, who dedicated his talents to making the festival happen year after year during Black History Month. Since I’ve been making film, Lee has definitely supported my work. In fact, my first documentary MI, A Different Kind of Girl, premiered at HHFF in 2012.  I remember when my female subject started taping up her breasts and transforming into a male on-screen and several of the festival goers got up quickly and walked out! A few minutes later, the audio got really low and we couldn’t hear parts of the film. I was mortified! Still, Lee invited me back again in 2014 to screen a work-in-progress of my current doc Jig Show | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana; and again in 2015 to premiere my experimental short doc, Funding Aumont Whitaker.  We also did a Q&A with the film subject and the packed house at the Hayti just loved it! If I haven’t said it enough, Thank you Marc Lee for helping me to kick-start my filmmaking career!

SDF’s Lana Garland taking HHFF to new heights

Lana Garland

HHFF just got LIT! Lana Garland, a filmmaker and program director at the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF) has taken over the festival’s programming and planning for 2018 and the film lineup is popping with an array of classic Black cinema, cutting-edge docs, fictional shorts and features, and an opening night reception! This year’s 24th season goes down February 15th-17th and is sponsored by SDF, Flourishing Films, Be Connected and a few other heavy-hitters helping Garland to make this a phenomenal festival year! The must-watch films are Stefon Bristol’s sci-fi short, See You Yesterday, executive produced by Spike Lee and Isaac Green’s Beyond All.  My dude Ricky Kelly, a really amazing filmmaker in Durham,  is also screening his new doc Black Beach/White Beachcheck out the trailer at the topI can’t wait to see it and I am so proud to be a part of Durham’s film community! Checkout the lineup of films and come out and support the Hayti Film FestivalSee you in the audience!





Friday, September 22nd @ 7 pm, Full Frame Theater, American Tobacco Campus, Blackwell St., Durham, North Carolina 27701

 The Center for Documentary Studies and the Southern Documentary Fund are pleased to present a free screening of JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana, a feature documentary film by Leslie Cunningham who takes viewers on a tour of her grandfather’s Black and Cuban traveling show that endures racism, segregation and immigration laws to become popular in the 1940s through the 1960s.

Also unearthed is the legend of African American carnival king, Leon Claxton, arguably one of the fathers of modern American entertainment, who leaves an extraordinary legacy despite the insurmountable odds against him and his dreams. A magical journey into the complexities of American entertainment, race history and family legacy, the film features breathtaking show photographs, rarely seen historical clips and on-camera interviews with a colorful cast of characters. Classic and new music remember the voluptuous showgirls and tenacious entertainers who bravely showcased their talents on the front-line of racial polarization and left an indelible mark on the history of entertainment around the globe.

The film is presented as part of the Fresh Docs series featuring documentary works-in-progress. Following the screenings, a moderated conversation with the filmmaker will be held, during which the audience provides valuable feedback. Note: This screening is a Fresh Docs screenings are free, but attendees must RESERVE A TICKET via Eventbrite.

About Fresh Docs – Fresh Docs is SDF’s free, monthly, work-in-progress screening series. These screenings give SDF filmmakers an opportunity to show their work fresh from the edit suite, and receive constructive feedback on story, structure, and characters from a diverse audience. As a result, not only do our artists make better films, but SDF grows documentary audiences by engaging them meaningfully in the creative process. This season of Fresh Docs is dedicated to the 50th Anniversary of North Carolina Arts Council.

Dancinema presents a Work in Progress Screening of JIG SHOW, July 29, DC area

The Capitol Dance & Cinema Festival’s feature film series continues Saturday, July 29 @ Dance Exchange with a work-in-progress screening of the coming feature documentary film, JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana by filmmaker Leslie Cunningham.

  • 7:00pm – 7:30pm Harlem in Havana Photo Exhibition and Event Seating 
  • 7:30pm – 8:30pm Film Screening Q &A/ Feedback session with filmmaker

The event is hosted by Jen Ray of DancinemaBrown Skin Showgirls Books Available for Purchase! Free Admission! Dance Exchange, 7117 Maple Avenue, Takoma Park, Maryland.

JIG SHOW film work in progress screening, April 4, 7pm, Beyu

Check out photos from the wip screening at Beyu Caffe in Durham, NC:

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Join SDF and Beyu Caffe for a lively evening of entertainment, film clips, and conversation about Leslie Cunningham’s work-in-progress, JIG SHOW: Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana! Come one, come all! Tuesday, April 4th @ 7pm.

Visit here to learn more.


TRIBES Magazine Pioneers Entertainment

Available on Amazon

TRIBES Magazine, the wildly popular award-winning arts and entertainment periodical, is back with new issues guaranteed to be the best ones yet!

Created in 2004 by Leslie Cunningham, TRIBES is one of the leading urban arts and entertainment publications online. Best known for showcasing indy artists making noise in their communities, every issue of TRIBES throbs with the beat of music, politics, visual art and photography, and bursts with writing, articles, poetry and personal narratives and authored by a winning team of entertainment journalists, artists and social critics.

Named Best Online Zine by Black Web Awards in 2009 and Poetry Magazine of the Year by the National Poetry Awards in 2010, TRIBES has featured many entertainment icons like Tyler Perry, Damian Marley and KRS One. Still, the heart of TRIBES magazine is always with the self-sustaining arts and ever-committed to telling the stories of the countless independent artists across the globe as they pioneer in entertainment.

TRIBES is currently available four times a year on and, content web-services which enables TRIBES to share its brand story worldwide in print and digital formats.

To view the current issue of TRIBES magazine or to stay updated on TRIBES’ Blog, Visit our website at

TRIBES is seeking visual artists, poets, writers, musicians and photographers interested in showcasing their talents. Questions or comments can be emailed to

Harlem in Havana Helped Popularize Afro Cuban Music and Dance in North America

Documentary filmmaker spotlights Cuban Dancers who brought Rumba, Batá Drums, Lucumi Rituals and Santeria songs to U.S. and Canadian Audiences before the Revolution

Mercedes Valdes (c) and the Cuban Dancing Dolls, 1955

PRLog — From the secular to the spiritual, Afro Cuban music and dance were rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. by the mid-20th century. With the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, international relations were shattered, artistic freedoms ended and travel was restricted to the tropical island once known as America’s favorite vacation spot.

Although the best talent from Cuba has long been forgotten in the states, Afro Cuban culture still has a strong hold on American entertainers. Many U.S. troupes today incorporate this rich blend of Latin, African and European cultures into their repertoires. But, there is still much to be discovered about how the Afro Cuban craze landed and took root in American soil.

Six years ago, Leslie Cunningham, a Durham-based documentary filmmaker and the granddaughter of Tampa millionaire showmen Leon Claxton, created The Harlem in Havana Project, a transmedia project in honor of her grandfather’s epic Black and Cuban traveling revue that braved racism, segregation and immigration laws to become popular in the 1940s through the 1960s.

Leslie’s father, John Cunningham, is a San Diego Latin percussionist and Leon Claxton’s son. “Claxton got his dancers direct from the Tropicana Nightclub, one of the most famous nightclubs in the world!”, says John who was raised on the show and learned to play congas from some of the top Cuban musicians.

Mercedes Valdes, 1955At the Tropicana, Claxton discovered Mercedes Valdes, a Cuban Singer who specialized in Afro-Cuban traditional music. Valdes was one of the first Santeria singers to ever be recorded and often collaborated with music icon Celia Cruz. For the 1955 season, Mercedes Valdes was a feature act on ‘Harlem in Havana’. Backed by famed drummers the Rodriquez Bros, Valdes wowed audiences with her interpretation of a Mythical Trip to Havana.

Cuban Danciang Dolls, 1955

In that same year, Claxton spiced up his chorus-line with four eye-catching imports- The Cuban Dancing Dolls. Flesh goddesses known as Las Diosas de Carne, The Cuban Dancing Dolls brought the rumba and early salsa party to American and Western Canadian Audiences. “How else can a girl see the world and get paid for it?” said Cuban Dancing Doll Susy Serrano in an interview with Jet Magazine, July, 1955.

Pitcuha Vega and Mario Valdes, 1957

In the 1957 and ’59 seasons, Claxton showcased top Rumba artist Pitucha Vega with her dance partner Mario Valdes, who had been with Claxton’s revue on and off since 1941. Along with the other 30+ cast members of ‘Harlem in Havana’, the Cuban artists spent their days rigorously, putting on more than a dozen shows in a day, depending on the crowd. Pitucha was reportedly happy to have the opportunity to perform for mainstream audiences in the U.S. “I love the evening shows because then you get the feel”, she said.

At the end of the tour in November, the Afro Cuban troupes had to return to Cuba until they were able to get their visas renewed. A few artists, like Mercedes Valdes, found other commercial opportunities in the U.S. after leaving Claxton’s show. After the Cuban revolution in 1959, it became increasingly harder to travel into the U.S. Some Cuban troupers defected on the trains somewhere along Royal American Shows’ 25, 000+ mile show route between the U.S. and Western Canada.

“That Castro has loused up a lot of things!”, said Leon Claxton in an interview with the Calgary Herald in 1961. “We were known all over the continent for ‘Harlem in Havana’. It was a show name like Ringling Bros.” That same year, Claxton buckled under the immense pressure to alter his show’s name. In ’61, Claxton presented the last and final iteration of his show, The Harlem Revue, with new cast members performing calypso, merengue and other forms of dance from the islands of Trinidad, Haiti and Jamaica. Although, the Harlem Revue maintained its standing as one of the leading outdoor attractions through the 1960s, Claxton’s world-famous brown-skin revue would never be the same.

“Harlem in Havana was referred to as a ‘Jig Show’. The jig show was cornerstone of the carnival stage, but is often overlooked when recalling the contributions of the tenacious entertainers and brave show producers of colors who helped shape entertainment,” says filmmaker Leslie Cunningham.

Leslie aims to revive Harlem in Havana’s rich history through thought-provoking content, including (the project website); Brown-Skin Showgirls (a photography book dedicated to the dancers from the show) and a feature documentary titled JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana ( which will premier in the U.S. in early 2017, exactly 50 years after the show’s last curtain call. Leslie is also working on a screenplay adapted from the documentary film. She is currently seeking funding to complete research and production in the city of Havana by late 2016.

“When I started the documentary film project six years ago, the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba was still tenuous and travel to the island was at times unpermitted and other times strongly discouraged”. Now that President Obama restored the relationship with Cuba, Leslie is planning to travel there and hopes to find more former Cuban troupers who performed on her grandfather’s show.

Ultimately a celebration of our multi-faceted past, The Harlem in Havana Project hopes to engage African Americans, Latinos and other communities of color who have been underserved in media and create a path for the descendants of African-Americans and Latinos to reflect, embrace, and liberate their own stories from historical amnesia.

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