Shola Lynch
Michael Tullberg/Getty Images

Shola Lynch has emerged as one of the most exciting black female filmmakers in recent memory. Her groundbreaking documentaries—2004’s Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, on the history-making presidential campaign of black congresswoman Shirley Chisholm; and 2013’s Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, the story of iconic black activist Angela Davis—have established her as both a talented filmmaker and an artist with an eye on history.

Which makes Lynch’s new role seem custom-made for her. Lynch was recently named the curator for the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem.

Lynch, who was a collegiate track star before a chance meeting at a party after graduate school led her to a job with legendary documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, said she can’t wait to begin combing through the archives and compiling top 10 and top 100 lists of great black films.

“Whenever I make a film about Angela Davis or Shirley Chisholm, I am negotiating the worth of that subject,” Lynch said in an interview with The Root. “Often the questions that are asked of me [by funders] are, ‘Who’s going to watch that?’” She continued, “I’m at the Schomburg, and let me tell you, I don’t have to negotiate the worth of Shirley Chisholm or Angela Davis as a story. I feel like I’m living in this wonderful bubble or utopia. The worth of our stories is not negotiated here, and it’s very empowering.” 

Lynch, who is currently in development for her next film on Harriet Tubman, recently discussed her plans for the Schomburg’s archives with The Root.

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The Root: Can you tell us about your new role?

Shola Lynch: My new role at the Schomburg now is in the moving-image and audio collection. The original curator, James Briggs Murray, collected a large amount of material. We’re now trying to figure out what’s in the collection to make it available to the public.

There are some real gems in here, and so my job is to be the face and the vision of the collection and also to work with programming here at the Schomburg so that we can exhibit this kind of material, with the shows [and] programming films. I have a million ideas about what to do. My first order of business is to get through the collection and get it properly organized so I can make it open to researchers.

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TR: Can you tell us about some of the gems you’ve come across?

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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

SL: I’ve been in filmmaking 17 years. I do think it’s harder these days because there’s an expectation that every film will make money, so the business is really difficult to navigate. Also, there are a lot more people now who consider themselves filmmakers, so it’s a very crowded field … to get attention to be able to raise the money in and of itself is a huge feat.

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TR: Do you think it’s harder or easier for filmmakers of color now?

SL: I think it remains challenging, depending on the stories you’re trying to tell. What I love [is that] this year’s crop of films, from Fruitvale [Station] to 12 Years a Slave to Mandela[: Long Walk to Freedom], are actually funded in alternative ways, like [with] foreign money. For instance, Fruitvale wouldn’t have happened without Octavia Spencer and Forest Whitaker’s company.

The more we stand up for the stories we want to see, the more diversity we will have in our storytelling in the broader picture, and if I can help that from my position here, you know that’s what I’m going to do.

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Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.

Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter