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Saturday, April 20, 2024

During Black History Month, The Aggie recognizes Black alumni

Leola Calzolai-Stewart discusses her new film, “The American Diplomat,” and encourages people to explore more diverse accounts of history 


By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org 


This article is the fourth 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, share how they’re uplifting underrepresented communities and offer their wisdom to Davis students. 


UC Davis alumna Leola Calzolai-Stewart can now add director to her list of roles that already includes editor, producer, mother and diplomatic spouse. 

Although she has always had a passion for film, Calzolai-Stewart did not initially plan to be in the industry. As a student at UC Davis, she studied international relations and worked as an international relations undergraduate student advisor, through which she developed a list of opportunities — including grants, internships and fellowships — for students of color pursuing careers in international relations. 

After graduating from Davis in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a minor in Italian, Calzolai-Stewart went on to earn her master’s in public international law and comparative political and developmental analysis from The Fletcher School at Tufts University, supported by the Public Policy and International Affairs Fellowship

It wasn’t until she moved to South Africa with her husband, an American diplomat, that she decided to revisit her love for film production. She studied film and video production at Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria, South Africa, where she earned a certificate in motion picture production in 2004. 

Since then, Calzolai-Stewart has worked as an editor, producer and now director of documentary films that focus on historical and contemporary societal issues. 

For me, coming into film was a career shift, and I was a little older,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “By the time I started studying film and working in the industry, I was in my late 20s. Post-production often felt like a young, white male space. I wanted to be an editor — which is part of post-production — so sometimes, I definitely felt like an outsider.”

Luckily, she said, she made key connections early on in her second career with organizations geared at supporting female and Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) filmmakers. She attributes her perseverance in the industry to these communities that welcomed her. Calzolai-Stewart is a member of Brown Girls Doc Mafia, which aims to uplift the voices of women of color in nonfiction filmmaking. She was also named a Documentary Lab Fellow in 2019 by Firelight Media, another organization that supports people of color in filmmaking. 

“It was more than helpful,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “It has been vital and critical — especially in the past couple of years — in developing myself as a filmmaker and developing this [recent] project, having the support of other Black and Brown filmmakers [and other] filmmakers of color.”

For her most recent film, “The American Diplomat,” Calzolai-Stewart and her team received funding from Firelight Media as well as the National Endowment for the Humanities, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, the public radio station GBH and Black Public Media’s 360+ Incubator project. Calzolai-Stewart said that all of these organizations were instrumental in not only funding the project but creating a community.

“Being able to share space with other BIPOC filmmakers to discuss our projects, discuss our challenges, uplift one another and be a resource for one another,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “I can’t stress enough how important that is, especially in filmmaking, when you often feel kind of isolated, to have connections in the community that understand what you’re trying to do and allow you to tell your stories in the media the way that you want them to be told.”

In 2015, Calzolai-Stewart co-founded FLOWSTATE Films with two other women, Rachell Shapiro and Kiley Kraskouskas, to produce films for nonprofit organizations and universities, as well as independent projects. “The American Diplomat,” a one-hour documentary on three African American diplomats in the mid-1900s, is their most recent project and Calzolai-Stewart’s directing debut. It can be found on PBS online as of Feb. 15, 2022. 

This film has been an opportunity for Calzolai-Stewart to merge her passions for film and international relations. The documentary follows the lives of three groundbreaking Black American diplomats during the Cold War era who struggled with being the faces of the U.S. abroad while facing Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination back home. 

Calzolai-Stewart said that she chose to focus on diplomats, drawing from her own experience being in a diplomatic family abroad.

“We’ve been in the foreign service community for about 20 years now,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “When we go overseas, we’re often one of the few Black families at post, and after a while, you want to understand why that’s so.”

Calzolai-Stewart said that after reading “Black Diplomacy” by Michael Krenn and hearing her husband’s stories about the first African American diplomats, she decided that she wanted to tell their stories. She brought the idea to her fellow co-founders at FLOWSTATE Films, and they started developing the project together. 

“We thought that this was a fantastic opportunity to try to tell a story and hopefully create conversations around representation, diplomacy […] and why inclusion is important for American foreign policy and American diplomacy,” Calzolai-Stewart said.

She believes that this film has the potential to be a platform for change and hopes that it inspires young people of color to pursue international relations and represent the U.S. around the world. 

Calzolai-Stewart said she was excited to use the power of film to reach a wider audience to share the largely unknown history of African American diplomats.

“When you’re a visual storyteller, I think there’s also more of a possibility of being able to connect with an audience and draw them in,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “You can create empathy and create connections between the viewer’s life and the life of the protagonist on screen.”

Calzolai-Stewart has also done this with other films that she has contributed to, like the film “Dear Walmart,” which tells the story of a movement for Walmart workers’ rights. The film follows a handful of individuals who were involved in the movement for better pay and working conditions that ultimately led to wage increases and policy changes within the company in 2015.

 Calzolai-Stewart also edited “The Last Song Before the War,” a film about the annual Festival in the Desert, a celebration of music and Mali culture that took place in the northern Mali desert, and why it has not happened since 2012. 

  As advice for underrepresented students in institutions of higher education and in the film industry, Calzolai-Stewart said to follow your instinct. 

“Our voices matter,” Calzolai-Stewart said. “Find the path where you want to make a difference and want to add your voice. Stay persistent and build that community around you that you need to help sustain yourself in that project, in that field, in that space. When you leave Davis, that’s just the first step of what is going to be a long path toward purpose.” 


Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org



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