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Alabama filmmaker catches the eye of big Hollywood name

June 9, 2018

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Raised in Prichard, Alabama, 26-year-old Cierra Glaude, says she never could imagine taking her passion for filmmaking from Alabama to television and film sets, working on large-budget projects.

“Growing up in Mobile, or just as a young, gay, black girl in the South, I never knew that filmmaking could be a thing. I thought it was always going to be that I’d have to get a ‘good job’ and go to school and get an M.B.A.,” she says.

With an interest in film that began with a morning announcements show at McGill-Toolen Catholic High School in midtown Mobile, Glaude says she started her tenure at the University of Alabama with no real idea how she could make a living once finishing her degree.

“I was working two and three jobs, trying to get myself through college. I was working on films and stuff over the weekend. But, I thought, ‘This is fun. This ain’t no work!’”

However, her passion led to a chance encounter which rerouted her entire journey, landing her a spot as a pupil of one of the film industry’s most coveted entities. And, under the tutelage of a director-producer powerhouse, the young Alabama filmmaker is on a fast-track to success behind-the-scenes.

Glaude’s fate changed when she helped organize the University of Alabama’s first Black Warrior Film Festival in 2014, under the direction of Dr. Rachel Raimist. Raimist, a tenured instructor at the university, invited her friend and colleague, esteemed film director Ava DuVernay to come to the festival.

“Now, I was already enthralled with this lady,” Glaude says. “I had watched her speeches. I knew her company. I’d watched her films. I was a fan. So, the fact that I was going to meet this lady, I was like, ‘Damn!’”

Coincidentally, an eager Glaude showed up to the festival early on opening day, giving her the chance to pick DuVernay up from the airport.

“So, I go to the airport, and Ava is asking all these questions,” Glaude remembers. “She asks, ‘Does anyone know what AFFRM (pronounced like ‘Affirm’) is?′ I said, “Yes, ma’am. It’s your independent film and distribution company.’”

DuVernay took a wristband she was wearing, which represented the company, and gave it to Glaude. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ I’m like anointed, already.”

“She’s always had a level of care for me - even going way back.”

Though Glaude had an engagement that took her away from the closing day of the festival, she made sure to check in with DuVernay, with whom she’d begun to hit it off, on her way out.

“I was like, ‘Hey. I’m the one you need, and I’m fenna work on your films. So, what I gotta do?’” Glaude says.

“She looked at me, and she was like, ‘Send me your stuff Saturday!’”

Glaude contacted DuVernay, who brought her on to become a part of the crew of her period piece “Selma”.

The two kept in touch, crossing paths at the UrbanWorld and Sundance Film Festivals, until Glaude built up the nerve to email DuVernay when her weekend work on films, between school days, started to dry up.

“I was like, ‘Whenever. Wherever. I’m down.’” Glaude says. “About an hour-and-a-half later, I got a call from an L.A. number.”

The person on the other end was one of DuVernay’s representatives. DuVernay wanted to offer Glaude a job as her assistant in New York.

Glaude ran out of class on a Wednesday, and immediately to her film professor’s office, bursting into a meeting.

“I spilled the beans, and she screamed and threw her hands in the air. When her hands came back down, they landed on the phone and she said, ‘I’m dropping all your classes.’”

On Thursday, she was completing paperwork to transition into a role at CBS Studios as DuVernay worked on a pilot.

By Friday, DuVernay called Glaude to ask if she was serious about leaving school for the opportunity.

“I told her, ‘I done already left! I done already dropped my classes!’”

The next week, she was in New York, working with her idol.

Glaude admits she got off to a rough start, even going as far to pull DuVernay aside to tell her, “I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never done this before.”

“She was like, ‘It’s OK. We gon’ figure it out.’”

After her tenure as an assistant on the pilot, Glaude pulled double duty as a teaching assistant for Dr. Raimist and a liaison for DuVernay’s AFFRM offices in Los Angeles.

“Half the time, Ava didn’t even know I was there,” she says.

“When she did come in, she’d be like, ‘Hey! You are really in here gettin’ it! You are really ‘bout this life.’”

Soon, DuVernay brought her new protege in to work on her television series “Queen Sugar”, tasking Glaude with shooting her own short feature, with the hopes of building enough skill to one day direct on the show.

Glaude mentioned the opportunity within earshot of one of the show’s starring actresses Rutina Wesley, who offered to be in her short.

The budding filmmaker struggled to find an idea for her film, but a conversation on the set of “Queen Sugar” struck a chord with a moment from her own past.

“A big part of my disposition is the fact that I lost my brother when I was 16,” Glaude says.

Her elder brother, Kriston, was killed in a motorcycle crash in Mobile. A tragic turn of coincidence, the collision took place as he was headed out on a ride to clear his mind after the death of a close friend.

While Glaude recounted the story on-set, a makeup artist interjected with her own story of loss. She told Glaude that she had to perform the makeup duties for her own brother, after losing him to suicide.

“I remember, in that moment, thinking, ‘That is heartbreaking. How could you? I could barely look at my brother when he was laying on a hospital table, but you sat with him and groomed him?’” Glaude says.

With permission from the makeup artist, Glaude co-wrote and directed an adaptation of the story. The film, “Last Looks” premiered to much fanfare at the UrbanWorld Film Festival in 2017 and was released to the public as a part of Issa Rae’s ”#ShortFilmSundays” YouTube series.

“One of my favorite comments (under the video) was when somebody said, ‘Wow. Me and my brother aren’t close, but I’m about to go call him right now and fix that.’”

In addition to directing her short film, Glaude has kept her hand in DuVernay’s other projects, including Disney’s “A Wrinkle in Time”.

“It was crazy. All the VFX, all the blue screen, all the green screen. Also, just always knowing that I am living and operating in a historical moment, because this is the first black woman with a $100 million film.”

And, on the set of “Queen Sugar”, which DuVernay has joked is Glaude’s personal film school, of sorts, the Alabama filmmaker has taken on a bigger role, moving into the writer’s room.

Being that the show is based in Louisiana, Glaude takes an express interest in making sure the language is authentic to the colloquialisms of the South.

Glaude has also taken up other personal ventures, such as shooting her first music video, right around the corner from home in New Orleans.

“I have some ideas for Mobile, because I love home. Sometimes I can’t get out of L.A. quick enough to get home. I have Alabama tatted on my arm,” Glaude says.

“I’m proud to be from Mobile, Alabama. It’s just I couldn’t stay there to do what I needed to do as a filmmaker. In my career. I hope to be able to change that. And not just for a production at a time.”

“Ava told someone on set once, ‘This is my friend Cierra, she’s a director.’ If she can be able to call me a director, I sure better be able to say it,” Cierra goes on.

“She told them, ‘She dropped out of school to be here.’ I said, ‘Correction: I got drafted to the league. Why would I continue to pay tuition for the opportunity to do what you’re paying me to do?’”

“I don’t regret that for a half-a-second.”

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Information from: The Birmingham News, http://www.al.com/birminghamnews

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