Cierra Gladden says there is space for everybody in film. There’s always something to learn regardless of your background, interests, or skills, and she’s dedicated to creating more opportunities in the field for people of color. That’s why the film and media studies junior is so proud of her first film short, “Sundown”; the community that helped her create it; and the way she learned to trust her collaborators.
“The moment I step on set and I’m making a film, it’s no longer mine,” she says. “It’s all of ours. ‘Sundown’ was a labor of love for all of us.”
The film short is a coming-of-age thriller about Mikey, a young Black man dealing with unresolved trauma. Teenaged Mikey stays out late one night against his mother’s orders and encounters something horrifying. The film follows him to early adulthood as he struggles with the emotional fallout of the incident. Gladden came up with the idea for the short in her Introduction to Scriptwriting class. She wanted to write about what frightens people the most: reality.
A Scary Story about Mental Health
She constructed the script around genuine fears people of color face in their daily lives. She pulled inspiration from filmmaker Jordan Peele, as well as from sundown towns. Towns where Black people have historically not been welcome after dark. But as she refined the story with her crew, cast, and advisor, senior lecturer Meredith Ward, “Sundown” evolved into a story about mental health in Black men.
“It comes from a personal place of wanting to tell a narrative about mental health and trauma within the Black community. I worked to inject this story within the medium of thriller/suspense to make for a relatable, yet engaging, viewing experience,” she says.
Finding the right actors and shooting a movie set at dusk turned out to be ambitious. Gladden had three months to plan after winning grants from student film organization Studio North and the Hopkins Office for Undergraduate Research. The cast of “Sundown” is made up of primarily Black people, and two actors portraying Mikey at different ages. Her community helped again: of the six actors, one is Krieger School lecturer Jamie Young, and one is her cousin.
The Communal Process
The whole short was shot locally, including at friends’ and family members’ houses. She was especially grateful for the opportunity to work with and learn from non-student cast members. For example, the actor who played young Mikey. It was a different creative process, she says, to understand who he was as an actor, and to see his dedication to the craft.
“I was so happy to have a predominately Black cast and a crew that was extremely diverse and extremely collaborative,” she says. “I very much value collaboration, diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also just taking space and making space for other people.”
After months of editing and crowdfunding, Gladden says it was a joy to stand on the Parkway Theatre’s red carpet with her crew at the film release. She hopes this is just one step on her path to working as a creative executive at a production company or owning her own. She wants to create more stories of people of color, by people of color, and support a new generation of beautifully crafted independent films.