Filmmaker Jhanvi Motla ’14 received a NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Short Form, Live Action, for the film Black Boy Joy. The film is about three generations of Black men struggling to juggle the demands of raising a young son with autism while adapting to their new normal after the death of a loved one. It explores how to raise a Black boy with autism in America today, especially amid microaggressions and policing of Black bodies.
We spoke with Motla about how she got involved with the film, some of the programs and organizations she has participated in, and the impact COVID-19 has had on her work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Congratulations on your NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Short Form, Live Action. How does that make you feel?
It’s kind of insane. Being recognized by people feels good, but it’s also hard to believe sometimes. Black Boy Joy has been on an unbelievable festival run. We got licensed by HBO, it lives on HBO Max now. I’m incredibly proud to be part of it.
You got involved in Black Boy Joy through your participation in Film Independent’s Project Involve. The program provides hands-on filmmaking experience from pre-production through premiere. Each year, 30 filmmakers from diverse backgrounds are given the opportunity to hone skills, form creative partnerships, create short films, and gain industry access. Tell us more about the program.
I applied to be part of Project Involve in 2018. It was something my husband had done and he encouraged me to apply. I think when you are an indie filmmaker, you’re always looking for outlets to make things.
Project Involve was an organization that was not just going to bring you in a room with other people who were going to do that, but they were also going to set you up financially, which is the biggest hurdle to making a movie in my experience. I was like, ‘Great, I can meet a ton of people.’ They choose writers, producers, directors, editors, and more.
The writer for Black Boy Joy was in the program and I loved it at the treatment stage. I thought it was a really strong piece. I approached the writer and then I became attached. There was a process. I was on it before there was a director.
What about the film appealed to you?
I think it’s a combination of things. First, the writing was really good. I think Michelle Sam is a really talented writer. She tried to make something very intersectional. It’s not just about a child on the spectrum, but also about someone who is Black.
In Black communities there’s this need to survive in a world that is tough, that is cruel to them. There is no clear villain in the film. Nobody is evil. Everybody is trying to do their best. People are misunderstood or misguided in that process, which came through even in the treatment stage.
Why is this an important story to tell?
There’s this reality show on Netflix, Bling Empire. There was a lot of backlash that it’s not showing Asian folks in a good light. For me, this model-minority stuff has to go. I’m Indian myself, and I’m personally tired of the doctor/lawyer/taxi driver stuff we see on screen. I am always writing people who are really messy and make terrible choices. I think that makes people uncomfortable. There’s a message behind that, too. I understand, because many people feel like they’ve never been represented on screen, and when we finally get the chance it’s something that they may disagree with.
But you gain a lot from imperfect representation. It creates conversation, room to grow. Toxic masculinity is not really addressed, especially in Black families when it comes to father-son relationships. In the film, you see the trauma that’s being worked through. I think that’s why this story was important for me. Yes, there’s some really uncomfortable truths being talked about, but it’s important to talk about things that are uncomfortable.
In addition to being a producing fellow at Film Independent’s Project Involve, you’ve also been a mentee in both the Hillman Grad mentorship program as well as Women in Film LA. Tell us about your experiences in these programs and organizations.
All of these programs have been great. What I really enjoyed about these organizations and programs is that they are all geared toward giving different resources to you. Hillman Grad was really focused on giving us tools and learning how to improve our skills. They’d host workshops, they would get people to do a writing class. I had a chance to submit a script to be workshopped.
There was no proving yourself. Even in the application it was so straightforward — what are your goals? If your goals met what they could help you with, they took you in. They’ve been very empowering. [Co-founder] Lena Waithe’s really sweet. She doesn’t need to be doing any of this, but she talks the talk and walks the walk. I walked out of both Hillman Grad and Project Involve with people I work with regularly and friends who have been a support system and also opened me up to opportunities.
As for Women in Film, we only just started the mentorship circle. We’ve had one or two conversations with our mentor so far. They, too, are focused on people in the industry who are working every day. It’s been great for me. I can’t complain.
Tell us about the documentary you are directing and producing, Household Heroes. I know it was inspired in part by your mother and the invisible and untapped value of unpaid care done by homeworkers everywhere.
In India, my mother is what’s called a housewife, but I refrain from using that term. She’s a homemaker. I was raised in this modern, English-speaking environment, and got a Western education. Even in India, I went to a school that was bringing global, modern ideas. A lot of that was like, women don’t belong in the kitchen, women belong wherever they want.
What I realized after living on my own for so long is I don’t think what my mother did is worth nothing. She has enabled me and my siblings to be successful. Growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have a washing machine, cars. She took us to school, cleaned us, bathed us. Why, because she’s doing this stuff for children, is it called leisure or not work? It’s hard to capture a really personal movie in one schedule, but every time I go back home I shoot a little more.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work?
I was supposed to go to India and continue shooting last year. In the beginning, it was really frustrating. But you know what? COVID has brought so much attention to the work I’m doing. Because of COVID, people have to work from home. People can no longer send kids to daycare. Now there’s been so much dialogue about how care work needs to be factored into how we live and make policies.
It’s such an essential part of what we do and how we survive. As a kid, I’d never say what my mom was doing was important. The right thing to say was women belong in the workforce. I think COVID has shown that taking care of the house and family is really difficult work. Even when you pay people to do it, those people are underpaid. COVID has helped contextualize what I’m talking about with everything that’s going on.
What are you working on now?
Right now, I just finished writing my first feature. I’m starting to send that out to folks. I’m writing the next short I want to make.
I started out as a producer, never thinking I’d do anything else. I came from a business family, so the tasks associated with being a producer just naturally came to me. But if I don’t write, people are just going to keep telling me what I can do, what I can’t do.
I’m still a producer. I love doing it when the script is right and when I really believe in the director, because being a producer is a thankless job. As a producer, you’re on it first and off it last. So, you want to work with someone you believe in.
Motla will be screening and discussing two of her short films virtually on March 11. To attend the event, click here. https://forms.gle/EbWVrHLR3mYdXvFD6
Winners of the NAACP Image Awards will be announced on March 27.