In his hour-long documentary Searching for Shaniqua, Phill Branch explores “the bias that people face when they have names that are considered to be ‘ghetto.'”
“I have these women and men talk about their own personal experiences with their names,” he says. “And what happens is, [viewers] realize, ‘I make fun of this name. But when I do that, there’s a real human being sort of judged, who’s being hurt, who’s not getting a job, who’s not being considered for opportunities.'”
Searching for Shaniqua made the rounds of the festival circuit last year, winning the HBO Award at Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. It’s also spawned an unexpected side gig for Branch: The Howard University English professor has been consulting for corporations, universities and health care entities, sharing lessons about diversity, inclusion and “implicit bias” that he’s learned as a direct result of the film.
Branch was motivated to make his documentary for all the people in his life whose names are far more out of the ordinary than his own, from his brother, Abdul Kadir Mustafa, to his students at Howard, to the eight children he and his husband have fostered in their home in Baltimore. “I look at these kids, who already, by the age of two, have had rougher lives than some people live by the time they’re 90,” he says. “And I think about these kids surviving what they have to survive and then going on a job interview and someone still not seeing their worth because of their name. So it’s very personal to me, because it’s impacting the people who I love.”
For Branch, the power and resonance of Searching for Shaniqua boils down to its focus on storytelling — and his own passion for the craft of sharing personal stories, including through the popular D.C. organization Story District.
“At a Story District show, there may be 500 people in the audience and someone is talking about the struggles of being a trans woman,” he says. “Not preaching about it — they’re not telling you you’re wrong because you believe this or that. They’re just telling you what it’s like to be them. I think that has so much impact on people.”
Branch has shared six or seven of his own experiences through Story District, including a riff on aging as a gay black man, “Gray Matter,” which the 43-year-old performed at the annual LGBTQ-themed event a few years ago. For this year’s Pride show, Out/Spoken, he is directing a diverse group of eight storytellers, helping them tease out the more interesting, entertaining and relatable aspects of their personal stories.
“I’m really moved by what they have to say,” he says. “A lot of times shows that talk about LGBTQ issues often are about the despair, about things being so rough and bad…. What I like about these stories is that there’s hope. That people see the light, that people see that things do get better, that things can be good, that they’re making mistakes that anybody can make, that they’re making choices that anybody can make. I think it really shows the humanity.”
Out/Spoken is Saturday, June 3, with doors at 6 p.m. at Nightclub 9:30, 815 V St. NW. Tickets are $22. Call 202-265-0930 or visit storydistrict.com.
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