By Hamil R. Harris, Special to the AFRO
Calling him “bold, motivated, and unafraid to tackle true stories,” the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music, and Entertainment is recognizing Ajani Amiri Thomas as the August 2018 Filmmaker of the Month.
The son of a physician and a lawyer, Thomas has followed a childhood passion to make movies on the backlot of Universal Studios, where at 12 years old, he was filming and editing in Hollywood. He developed artistic skills at Duke Ellington School for the Arts and Howard University where he is a senior majoring in TV and Film.
“I want to tell bold stories that reflect the times that we are in now,” said Thomas, 21. “I just want to tell stories and stay true to the realities of the people who inspire them. I see film as a surreal art. If the work isn’t bold, then it hasn’t gone far enough.”
Thomas produced, wrote, and directed a short-film called “Crispus”. The film is based on the life story of Kalief Browder, a teenager falsely accused of stealing a backpack and thrown into solitary confinement in New York’s infamous Riker’s Island Prison where longing “to remember the sound of his mother’s voice” he committed suicide. “A year later his mother died of a broken heart.”
Thomas claims Spike Lee as his inspiration and said after graduation he plans to work on a film called “Kings of Babylon,” which will focus on the real story of a confrontation between the Black Panthers and the KKK in 1970.
Thomas said, “The Trump era is forcing artists of color to dig deeper to find a response to the troubling news of today and the goal of myself is to be the mouthpiece for the people to tell the stories that have been silenced over the years.
“Its kind of crazy. I didn’t realize until a few days ago that the same White supremist group in Charlottesville is coming to Lafayette Park. It’s kind of surreal because a couple years ago during the Obama era I was an idealist before the American dream became a nightmare.”
Herbie Niles, associate director of OCTFME, said, “OCTFME is proud to have the opportunity to shine the light on the talents and achievements of District resident filmmakers on the rise like Ajani,” Niles said. “Ajani is an incredible talent with boundless potential, and OCTFME’s filmmaker of the month initiative is the perfect platform for letting the local and national film community learn more about an emerging talent like Ajani.”
His project, “Crispus”, recently earned him honors at the Equal Justice Society’s Annual Gala. The film premiered at the Kennedy Center as part of the Safe Streets Foundation’s Prison Art Show. Thomas used the District’s Correctional Facility at Lorton, Va. as a backdrop for his film project. After decades of problems, the facility closed in 2001, and now the grounds are converted into an artist’s space, part of the Workhouse Arts Center. Thomas’ film is scheduled to be shown at the former prison following its Kennedy Center debut.
At Howard, Thomas is a founding member of the Sesh Art Collective, a group of artists who meet regularly at an art space on U Street. Thomas says, in terms of success, one can’t progress alone. “It takes a lot of people to [make] your dreams come true,” Thomas said. “Listen to people and be open to people and it works.”
In addition to his school work, Thomas runs a workshop for aspiring screenwriters. Thomas’ advice for aspiring filmmakers is simple. Find “your group of collaborators that you know really care about you and that you really care about . . . eventually you’ll get there.”