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Saturday, April 20, 2024

During Black History Month, The Aggie recognizes Black alumni

Tiana Williams discusses having a platform in filmmaking and uplifting communities of color

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org 

This article is the third in a four-part series in honor of Black History Month in which The California Aggie interviews a few of the many distinguished African American UC Davis alumni. These alumni discuss their achievements, how they’re uplifting underrepresented communities and offer their wisdom to Davis students. 

The first line of Tiana Williams’ short film “Alexis Brown: Taking the Knee,” which she produced as an undergraduate at UC Davis, features Aggie gymnast Alexis Brown saying, “I take a knee because I have the platform of gymnastics.” Williams explained that similarly, she has found that her platform — documentary production — allows her to highlight the struggles of underrepresented communities and has become a forum for her own social justice activism. 

Williams graduated from UC Davis in 2020 with degrees in cinema and digital media (CDM) and African American and African (AAAS) studies. She is now pursuing a master’s degree in cinema and media studies at the University of Southern California (USC) and works as an archival production assistant for Campfire Studios in Los Angeles. 

Throughout her time at UC Davis, Williams pursued her interests in filmmaking and African American studies, and found that the two could be woven together. At Davis, Williams was part of the McNair Scholars Program, which supports undergraduates from typically underrepresented groups in their areas of study pursue research opportunities and apply to graduate schools. In the McNair Program, scholars produce a final research paper in their area of study; Williams’ focused on the history and current status of the prisoners’ rights movement. She said that while the movement, which began in the 1970s, led to some positive changes, it also produced more systemic repression that continues to impact the criminal justice and prison systems today.

While working on this research, Williams used her experience from working at KDVS, the student-run radio station at UC Davis, to conduct interviews and tell stories. She also volunteered at the Solano State Prison to get more acquainted with the community she was writing about, and ended up working with the Uncuffed project while conducting her research. 

“I transitioned to having a connection working in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, for a program called Uncuffed, which is a podcast made by men on the inside,” Williams said. “Because of my experience in digital storytelling courses at UC Davis, it was a really good fit for me. I have experience working in different communities and asking questions like ‘What’s your story? How can we find your story?’” 

Williams said that her McNair mentor, Jesse Drew, helped her get more comfortable applying for fellowships and grants for her research, and using different research methods, both of which have allowed her to elevate her filmmaking. 

“I see myself as a filmmaker, and I also see myself as an archivist because of some of the work I was doing with Jesse Drew on this project about the prison movement,” Williams said. “[The project] dealt very heavily with unearthing and uncovering hidden histories within the archive, digitizing them, and getting [the stories] out as part of my research.”

Although she sees herself as a filmmaker today, Williams began college with the vision of pursuing journalism, which led her to the cinema and digital media major. After finding that major at Davis, Williams began taking a broader range of classes and discovered an interest in African American and African studies, which she said benefitted both her personally and in her work. 

“I was also taking African American studies classes, and that was very integral to my time at UC Davis in terms of just having a sense of self,” Williams said. “I was in all these general education classes and these film classes where everyone didn’t necessarily look like me, but then I would go to the African American and African Studies Department and take classes, [and] it was really just heartwarming to be around so many people that looked like me, studying topics that were of interest to all of us and that related to all of us in a more experiential type of way.”

She took multiple interdisciplinary classes in the AAAS department in which she was able to use her film experience. In a course on digital storytelling, she said that she learned to look at the film production process differently — specifically keeping in mind how creating a film affects the community it centers. In a course called Black California, Williams learned about the Great Migration, which inspired her film about her own family’s history and experience in California. 

Classes she took in the CDM department also inspired Williams to bring her interest in social justice into her work. In a documentary production class, Williams produced the short film on Alexis Brown, the UC Davis gymnast who knelt during the National Anthem in a statement against police brutality. She recalls being surprised to find that Brown received a lot of backlash for her choice to take a knee and wanted to bring attention to Brown’s story and intention.

Williams said this piece was her favorite film to produce to date. She said that the hardest part was cutting all of the footage and information down to a 60-second film, but learning how to convey a story in under a minute helped her grow as a storyteller. “Alexis Brown: Taking the Knee” was accepted into the 2018 UC Davis Film Festival, which Williams said also helped her gain confidence in her abilities.

“I thought to myself, ‘This is something I care about, and I created it in a way that other people care about it as well,’” Williams said. “From that, I was more grounded, affirmed and confident, knowing that I can make films about social justice issues and people will listen.”

Williams has had a very successful career thus far, but she said that in getting to this point, she has also experienced struggles that helped her grow. She remembers having a hard time balancing her busy schedule when she first got to college and finding her footing in her career. 

“[My dad said,] ‘You have to be so good that they can’t deny you,’” Williams said. “That translates to what a lot of other people of color have been told, which is that you just have to be twice as good.”

Williams thought about this during her time in the McNair Scholars Program, which she said was a lot of work on top of being a student. She said these words stuck with her through her time as an undergraduate, and that she continues to remind herself of the message today as she strives to make a place for herself and others like herself in film production. 

“If I’m not there, it’s going to be twice as difficult for the person that’s a few years below me because they’re not going to hear about the struggles I went through,” Williams said. “They’re not going to see a face in that institution doing the type of work that I’m doing.” 

When asked what advice she would give to students who have been typically underrepresented both in higher education and film production, Williams said to not be afraid to step into new spaces even if no one else there looks like you — you can be that stepping stone for someone else to feel comfortable stepping into that space too. 

“You have to be thinking about who’s going to be here when you’re gone, and

who’s going to be telling your story,” Williams said. “I try to constantly remind myself of that: […I’m] here for a reason. It’s not just about you at the end of the day. I think ultimately that’s what Black History Month is about that there’s so many people who have come before me, and if they stopped, I wouldn’t be here either.”

Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org

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