Stella Meghie Is a Black Auteur for Our Times

How the Filmmaker Went Hollywood Overnight

Interview: Fariha Róisín   Photography: Christian Werner

The artistry of Toronto-born, L.A.-based director, Stella Meghie, is apparent but it has many iterations. Her storytelling centers around the multiplicity of black familyhood, but more importantly, on black women that are complex and animated. Who are artistic. Who are sultry and dynamic. She takes space as a black filmmaker and proves that black stories aren’t just eclipsed by identity, but that they’re globally relatable and kindred.

There’s also something about the way she wields colors, the way she frames a scene. Growing up she watched a lot of Spike Lee and Woody Allen, and you can tell in the portraiture of her work. In Jean of the Joneses, a family overcomes the strange death of an unknown grandfather. Anchored by comic interpersonal interactions, the film uses dark reds, gold, and staged regality that is reminiscent of Philip-Lorca diCorcia, but with the filial quirk of The Royal Tenenbaums. In her latest film, Everything, Everything, based on the novel by Nicola Yoon and starring Amandla Sternberg, there’s a new vision. It’s light, with a pastel iridescence—it’s an onscreen incantation with a Petra Collins vibe.

Two films in, and at the steadied arrival of her warm brilliance in Hollywood, I got to talk to her on a summer’s morning in July.

Fariha Róisín: In 2009, you quit your job in fashion PR and enrolled in school for screenwriting. Explain to me the jump from fashion to screenwriting?

Stella Meghie: When I was in school I always wanted to do creative writing. I didn’t know if I wanted to write a book or be a journalist—I wasn’t really sure. I ended up getting an interview by chance at Def Jam and I was also interning at Women’s Wear Daily during my first summer in New York. So, I just started out in fashion and music. It’s definitely easier to get a job in PR than it is to be a writer, so I just fell into that, but I couldn’t stay in it forever. I was just looking for a career change and I knew I wanted to do something I loved and at the time I loved film.

That sounds like a really organic process. I know for you it has probably been really difficult at times, but reading about you and seeing your rise, it feels like things just fell into place.

Yeah, it definitely didn’t feel organic at the time! I just felt like a 25-year-old girl trying to figure out what the fuck she wanted to do with her life. And not being sure if I was going to be poor forever or what. So I decided to apply to a bunch of schools for screenwriting for my Master’s and I ended up getting into one, so I just packed up all my shit and moved to London. Then finishing school and polishing Jean of the Joneses took a long time until I was able to get the money together. Everything took years…

What was that experience like of building this thing for years then putting it into the world?

It was strange because it came together so quickly that I almost didn’t have time to take it in. Like, we got the money and then we were shooting two weeks later. It poured out of me because I’d been thinking about this movie for so long and imagining it. There was a surreal moment that very first day when I showed up and was like, “I’m directing this movie, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I’m just running on instinct.”

In Jean of the Joneses Jean is writing about black love and romance when another character asks: “Is slavery redundant?” It’s an attack, as if to remind her of the historical past. We often do see these narratives, like in 12 Years a Slave, which is so necessary, but what you’re doing is making stories about black love and black life outside of that...

Right. I mean I think those stories are definitely necessary and important, I just don’t think it’s my purpose. I feel like my purpose is to tell contemporary stories about young black women—like the ones I know. That’s all I really care to tell for the most part. I’ll leave the heavy history lifting to others.

“I feel like my purpose is to tell contemporary stories about young black women—like the ones I know.”

What was it exactly that stood out for you about the book Everything, Everything? Was it the complexity of this black girl’s interior life and story—one that we don’t normally see?

Yeah, that stood out for me. You don’t see a lot of scripts pass your desk that have a black lead. That’s just the bottom line. And then on top of it, a young black girl who just gets to fall in love— that really doesn’t just come along. It’s usually dark stories that don’t have a lot of joy in them.

In an interview with The L.A. Times, you mentioned that some stories don’t fit in the studio system, and that you’re going to want to tell some of those. Like what?

Ha! All three original movies I wrote, you know? It’s very hard if it’s not a book adaptation or a franchise—it’s very difficult to make it at a studio, period. It just rarely happens these days. I feel like the films I write are most likely going to be made independently because most of the opportunities coming my way from the studio system are adaptations or franchise fair.

Do you think in that sense it’s easy for Hollywood to be like, “We’re not racist, look, we’ve got Stella, we’ve got Barry Jenkins?” How do you feel as a filmmaker navigating these systems? Is it actually changing?

I don’t know. It’s been a good year, that’s as far as I’m willing to put my chips on it. It’s been a good year, hopefully there’s more good years.

Any advice for filmmakers trying to break into the industry?

Nobody was bending over backwards or running across the field to give me money for Jean. I really had to finesse my way into making that film. Work smart, be good at your craft, get better at your craft, and then will your movie into existence. Don’t wait for people to be handing you opportunities because they really won’t. For Jean I really begged, stole, convinced my way into making that film. And for Everything, Everything I really went in with a serious attitude of “We need to make this film—and this is why I’m the person.” I think you really need to be bold. You can’t be a shrinking violet about it.

Interview: Fariha Róisín   Photography: Christian Werner