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.

JIG SHOW | Leon Claxton’s Harlem in Havana

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