Yara Shahidi, the 17-year-old black-ish actor and lead of its spinoff series grown-ish, has taken on a new challenge — this time behind the camera. Yara Shahidi is making her directorial debut with a short film that she had complete creative control over. Drawing inspiration from classic French film The Red Balloon, podcast “99% Invisible”, and her experiences in the city she lives in, Shahidi says she was drawn to the opportunity because it was her chance to tell a story her way.
“I enjoy acting thoroughly, but I also like the process in which we tell stories,” Shahidi told the Los Angeles Times. The film, Shahidi's directorial debut, is part of Refinery29’s Shatterbox Anthology, a series of shorts helmed by women directors. She told the Times that her backers gave her creative control to tell the narrative she wanted and she found the experience to be empowering. She explained:
“Directing really makes you stick to your voice and have the ability to back it up, saying, ‘This is how I want to do it.’ Of course you have to make compromises here and there, but it really did remind me to not be so willing to [make compromises], and to feel empowered to execute my vision.”
Still it takes a village to make a movie. Shahi co-wrote the movie with grown-ish scribe Jordan Reddout. She also enlisted the help of her mother, Keri Shahidi, who served as as executive producer, her dad Afshin Shahidi as the director of photography, and other people she has worked with on her Freeform spinoff and the original ABC comedy.
The short film itself is based on an experience Shahi had when walking down Melrose Ave with her friends. Though the plot sounds simple in its narrative, it touches on bigger themes that preoccupy the Harvard student's mind. Shahidi told the Times, "The story centers around one character who we have aptly titled ‘X,’ and it’s X’s journey through L.A. — a day in the life — but also a larger commentary on what it’s like to maneuver through a space that you don’t own or have ownership of."
Shahi explained that while she has "benefitted" from the diversity and generally liberal mindset of other people living in California, she finds that there's a universal experience shared by people who are marginalized even in these spaces. She says she wants the film to "discuss what it’s like to be an unprotected class of any kind, whether you’re a person of color, whether you’re an immigrant, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re differently abled — whatever it is.”
The film will debut later this year on TNT's networks. There are eight women directing shorts as part of the series, including actor Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love) and documentarian Jessica Sanders (After Innocence). During last year's inaugural run of the series actors Kristen Stewart and Chloe Sevigny directed films that were screened at prestigious film festivals. Stewart's Come Swim was shown at the Sundance Film Festival, while Sevigny's Kitty debuted at Cannes.
Despite many people calling for more women filmmakers, a 2017 report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film revealed that women directors comprised of only 7 percent of the directors of the 250 highest grossing films in 2016. While the Directors Guild of America offered some promising news last November with a study that showed that more women and people of color are directing television episodes than ever before, the gender and race gap is still huge.
It's important that more women and people of color, particularly younger women and people of color, are given the opportunity to direct, because they can share narratives that old-order Hollywood might not be able to tell. Shahidi's choice to tell a story that is greatly influenced by her experiences and the issues that drive her can open the viewer's eyes to this different perspective. And it's incredibly important that Shahidi stuck to her voice.