DeShuna Spencer admits that the idea of an online library of black indie films started from ambitions she’d admit to being “a little self-serving.”
“The idea literally came to me after scrolling through a bunch of cable channels and not seeing anything that I wanted to watch,” she says. “I was frustrated because there was not a space to watch black independent films, particularly from a global perspective.”
By 2015, Spencer had gotten so frustrated at not finding media that reflected the diversity of the African Diaspora that she decided to act. Then she learned more about the hardships black filmmakers face getting their content picked up by streaming services. She quickly realized that there wasn’t a lack of content, but a void of platforms. So she figured: Why not create one?
Soon after, KweliTV was formed.
The streaming platform, similar to Netflix or Hulu, allows monthly subscribers unlimited access to more than 200 indie films from nearly 150 creatives across Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as black communities in Europe and North America. The goal is for KweliTV (kweli means “truth” in Swahili) to give emerging independent creatives an opportunity to get their work shown—especially to the audiences who look like them.
“It’s also an opportunity for us to just learn more about each other,” she says. “As black people in the U.S., we should be able to learn about Trinidad, or South Africa or Brazil through media arts, and that’s what KweliTV strives to do.”
After two years, KweliTV boasts more than 2,000 monthly, paid subscribers and nearly 20,000 online members—and those numbers continue to climb. For black visual artists struggling to move beyond small film festivals, it’s a much-needed avenue for securing additional viewership.
“There aren’t that many avenues for nonwhite, independent filmmakers to be seen, so KweliTV has the potential to be a game changer for those of us who have struggled finding places to showcase our work,” says Charysse Tia Harper, a longtime filmmaker with three films on KweliTV, including a look at Trinidad’s carnival and a documentary on one man’s mission to offer one family $1-per-month housing for a year.
“Kweli allows us to celebrate who we are and our diversity while showing off what our emerging creators in the Diaspora can do,” she says.
From challenging all-white award shows to the lack of diversity among executives, Hollywood’s boxing out of black cinema is no secret. According to a 2016 study (pdf) from the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at the USC Annenberg School, of the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, 47 had no black or African-American actors. And just 5.6 percent of the 900 films analyzed since 2007 were led by a black or African-American director.
Streaming services, while providing more opportunities for mainstream viewership, have not been nearly as much of a reprieve for budding black filmmakers as many might have hoped. Not only have platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.com faced backlash for whitewashing minority characters, but many filmmakers say it’s still much harder for black creators to get streaming services to buy in.
“While it hasn’t always been my personal experience, just like any profession, black filmmakers often have to work twice as hard,” Harper says, “and with streaming services, the cost alone for them to host your content can box a lot of filmmakers of color out.”
But Spencer is quick to clarify that KweliTV isn’t a dumping ground for projects rejected by mainstream platforms. She and her team of four screen up to five films a week, using strict guidelines, before projects ever appear on the site.
“Generally our criteria is that the project has to have been screened in a least one film festival, or some type of peer review,” she says. “But even then we review films to make sure they fit what KweliTV is trying to do: be a catalyst for underrepresented perspectives in black media to be seen and heard.”
That means subscribers will likely never see reality TV, melodramatic stage plays or other content that Spencer says “perpetuates dangerous stereotypes of black people,” whether it be excessive documentaries on violence in Latin America, poverty on the African continent or gangster films in the U.S.
“Hollywood provides enough of that,” she says. “We’re trying to show there’s more to us than these predictable narratives. We want character, not caricatures.”
Getting KweliTV off the ground hasn’t been easy. The company is still mostly made up of a small team of dedicated producers and filmmakers united in their mission. Spencer herself says that she invests her own salary back into the company. But with KweliTV’s popularity soaring, Spencer is thinking several steps ahead.
“We want to eventually have our own awards entity that specifically recognizes excellence in black independent films,” she says. “Right now, you pretty much expect that any mainstream film with a majority-black cast or audience is going to be nominated for staple black awards, whether it’s Soul Train, BET or NAACP Image Awards. But there’s little out there that recognizes our own independent artists.”
And while she’s flattered by the Netflix comparisons, Spencer says “the black Netflix” is not a moniker she chooses to embrace. She likens Netflix to a modern-day Blockbuster, merely a vessel that houses content, whereas KweliTV attempts to immerse everyone within a community.
“Besides,” she adds, “being ‘the black’ anything isn’t really a compliment. We’re better off when we recognize that being black is enough. And that’s what KweliTV is here for.”