While teaching filmmaking at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, Thato Rantao Mwosa says she had a hard time finding films that drew her students in.
“That's when it dawned to me that they are really looking for themselves because that was important to me when I first started to see Black people on television, especially in America,” says the filmmaker.
Television shows like “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Cosby Show” fascinated Mwosa while growing up in Botswana. Enough so that she decided to study filmmaking in the United States, Boston in fact. She’s lived in the Boston area for almost 25 years.
In 2005, the Roxbury International Film Festival (RoxFilm) gave Mwosa its Emerging Filmmaker Award for her short film “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me.” Since then, she’s made other short fiction and a documentary. But she returns to RoxFilm with her first feature film called “Memoirs of a Black Girl” about a motivated high school senior from Roxbury.
“I decided to write one to celebrate my students, to honor them and say, ‘I see you. Your stories matter. Your lives matter,’” says Mwosa. It plays the festival’s opening night with an in-person screening at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.
In the movie, the main character, Aisha (Khai Tyler), stresses over earning high SAT scores and competing for a scholarship. She and her best friends, Marcus (Nick Walker) and Marisa (Carolina Soto), test each other with vocabulary words in a game that Mwosa says she played in her youth.
But Aisha faces a tough decision that puts her future at risk. Mwosa’s script balances the goofiness of being a kid with some serious obstacles. The friends lean on each other, even if it means skipping class. Through the course of the movie, each has their own challenge to overcome.
Khai Tyler says she thinks the movie captures the high school tension of “people trying to fit in and people trying to figure out who they are.” A few “mean” girls stir up trouble for Aisha but Tyler says there’s more to those characters than being mean. The same can be said of Aisha. “She's not just this goody two-shoes, perfect girl. She makes mistakes and, you know, she has her problems too,” says Tyler.
Mwosa and her team used Roxbury’s bold murals, tree-lined streets and other recognizable landmarks, like signs for Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. boulevards, as the backdrop for the teens’ lives. Scenes take place inside Dudley Café and Frugal Bookstore.
She says she and cinematographer John Oluwole ADEkoje worked together to decide exactly what to include. “We knew how we wanted to capture Roxbury and we are deliberate about how we wanted to capture it because it's such a beautiful place.”
Mwosa also tapped into almost all Boston talent for the crew, cast and soundtrack. She even asked the real-life inspiration for Aisha, Cindy Severino, to read an early draft of the script.
“My first reaction was like, this is us,” Severino says. “This is us as students, like this is Madison Park. Like, this is this community.”
Severino took Mwosa’s class at Madison Park about 10 years ago. After college, she became Mwosa’s teaching assistant. When Mwosa started a new job at Brookline High School, Severino filled her shoes at Madison Park.
After knowing Mwosa for so long, Severino says it didn’t take much to convince her to join “Memoirs of a Black Girl” as the production manager. Her students can’t wait see it.
“I would like them to be inspired by Aisha. I would like them to be fearless, to be that person who wants to go out and get their future… and be in charge,” says Severino.
Seeing yourself — and your neighborhood — on screen definitely helps.
The 23rd Roxbury International Film Festival runs June 17-26 with in-person indoor and outdoor screenings at the MFA as well as titles that stream the duration of the festival.
This segment aired on June 16, 2021.