Filmmaker Shola Lynch’s New Role in Bringing Our Stories to the Masses

The celebrated documentary director will be the curator of moving images and recorded sound at Harlem’s Schomburg Center.

Shola Lynch Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

SL: I was listening to some audio of the sleeping car porters collection, and I’d never heard A. Philip Randolph speaking. It was really wonderful to hear his voice. Obviously he was influenced by Paul Robeson. He’s pre-Sidney Poitier! [Laughs.]

There are film collections like the William Greaves collection. We have outtakes from many of his films. We have Jazz on a Summer’s Day. We also have newsreels from the ’30s and ’40s, examples of us doing all sorts of amazing stuff in the moving image. We have 25,000 albums. I think we can probably track the whole history of jazz and Caribbean music in albums. So once we have that stuff databased, we can have listening parties. How amazing would that be?

TR: In your ideal world, what would the collection look like in five years?

SL: First of all, we would be open and accessible through digital databases. What I’m interested in creating is an amazing reference library for visual material and audio material. So I want the whole history of African Americans on film, whether it’s flappers in the ’20s, marches in the ’60s or black power marches in the ’60s or ’70s.

If people are curious about it, I want people to be able to see what it looks like—what we look like. I want to have every film that we’ve read about, that we’ve created or been in, that [is] particularly important, so that if somebody wants to see Eve’s Bayou or Middle of Nowhere or Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song—all these films that represent us that people don’t necessarily know about—I want them to be accessible.

TR: What is your favorite film by a black director?

SL: One of my favorite docs is 4 Little Girls. That was an incredible documentary. I think he [Spike Lee] should have won the Academy Award that year. And I’m torn because I really love Daughters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. I love what those films were able to do. I particularly like for us to focus on the films that disrupt the standard narrative of blackness in media.

TR: Thanks to the success of 12 Years a Slave, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and The Best Man sequel, many call [2013] a banner year for black film. Do you agree?

SL: I think [2013] is a banner year because we were well represented in terms of black directors. I don’t think it’s necessarily a banner year in terms of the types of stories being told.

TR: Since you’ve been making films, has the landscape gotten tougher or easier for filmmakers?