Documentarians Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson have never settled for a conventional approach in their storytelling. Whether following their son over the course of thirteen years in American Promise, or merging both poetry and biography with Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, the married filmmakers have always looked for a new or surprising angle on their subject matter.

So when the opportunity emerged to make a short film for the iconic ESPN 30 for 30 series, Brewster and Stephenson knew they weren’t going to make another classic sports documentary. In fact, Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games may not be a sports documentary at all. The film traces an entire history of the rhythm games that young Black women have played for not just decades, but centuries. The idea for the film came from ESPN development coordinator Adam Newhouse, but Brewster and Stephenson immediately identified it as a fit for them and their production company, Rada Studio.

“It really is in line with our mission at Rada,” says Brewster. “And that is to provide information that surprises, and to look at what happened to enslaved people, and how they’ve turned it into something that we all use on a day-to-day basis, to make our days better.”

As Stephenson points out, the film is a natural extension of the couple’s work, once again centering the voices of Black women. “The archival footage we selected showed hand games across the decades. In the same way they were using what some have called “Black Atlantic Expression,” we were using it unconsciously in our editing style in Going to Mars,” she says. “Even in how we work in our process—it’s a constant call and response.”

Both Black Girls Play and Going to Mars were shortlisted in their respective categories at the 96th Academy Awards. Black Girls Play is also nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Short Form Documentary.

Awards Focus spoke with Brewster and Stephenson about their unique approach to storytelling in both films, and offer a preview of what else is on the horizon for Rada Studio.  As Brewster puts it, “We want to create more stories that provoke, and that shake us up a little bit.”

Awards Focus: Your latest project, HBO’s Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, explores the life and work of poet Nikki Giovanni. What drew you each to her story, and how did you navigate capturing her experiences?

Joe Brewster: We love the work that Nikki does, but more importantly, she has a mindset unlike others. She is loving and provocative. We thought ‘wow, what a great character to profile,’ because in her character is everything that we covet as filmmakers. She is built in structure, she is humorous—we didn’t know that she would be laugh-out-loud funny—and she allowed us almost complete creative control over the story. The number one thing is that she was an important part of our life and our development, with issues that she raised in the 70’s and 80’s. It allowed us to tell our own story. Her work was such an important part of our upbringing, it’s a quasi-autobiography for us. 

Michèle Stephenson: We left a 13-year project titled American Promise that had also done the Sundance Film Festival and had won awards there, but it was a long period of turning the camera on ourselves and doing a lot of observational work, and it had no archive. We wanted to challenge ourselves creatively on the next project which we knew we would be raising money from scratch for, because we’re independent filmmakers and that’s how we start our work. We heard Nikki in an interview on NPR a few years after our film American Promise and realized that there was ‘something in her attitude’ as Joe says, and the impact of her creative work that we could really sink our teeth into and push ourselves creatively. 

Especially with this idea for us of wanting to not do a conventional bio documentary. I find it frustrating at times to see a bio-doc that’s a profile of an artist that I very much admire, and yet little time is spent on their actual work or their actual voice. One of our navigations of this project to make it creatively interesting for us was to commit to not using any external interviews, but to rather dig into the immense library of material there, both written material of her poetry and also all kinds of recordings—of her, but also of the black experience that we could interweave. 

AF: Joe, you said the phrase “loving and provocative,” and Michele you spoke about capturing Nikki Giovanni’s attitude—can you expand on that essence about her which you sought to capture?

Joe Brewster: Well, to speak to her loving and provocative nature, you really have to get to know her. She comes from a traumatic background, in which it would have been easy for her to be a hater. It would have been easy for her to accept orthodoxy. One of the ways that she coped with the experience that her young Nikki had was by doing the opposite—appreciating who she was and her agency. You’ll see that throughout her life. That translates to what we call ‘loving’ and ‘provocative.’ Provocative means that she doesn’t accept that poor people have to remain destitute. She doesn’t see fables and children’s rhymes like the rest of us. She’s always looking for a different take, and a way out. Whatever she used to survive, I want more of that. My shorthand for it is ‘loving’ and ‘provocative’—but it’s a lot more than that. It’s the ability to make something out of nothing. It’s the ability not to accept that she can’t do science or that the work that women have done over the millennia is not important. She will describe the science behind cooking and the science behind dance, or child-rearing in a way that I’ve never appreciated. It makes me love my mom and my wife even more. 

Joe Brewster of Rada Studios courtesy of talent.

Michèle Stephenson: For me, when I speak about ‘attitude,’ it’s really about her unapologetic nature in terms of always centering her own truth in whatever decisions she makes and how she moves about her own life. It’s also about the intentionality in her work that centers Black love and Black joy, although she also does talk about pain as well. But from this perspective of love and respect. I think that her unapologetic way of being, her being very transparent about her boundaries, is something for us to admire. For me it feels like a north star when we’re constantly pressured to do things based on what others might think about us. We open the film with her saying “I just don’t care what people think about me, and I try to live my truth.” I think that’s an amazing mantra to live by. There are prices to be paid by that, and she has. Sometimes she’s taken positions that I don’t agree with and don’t necessarily admire all the time—but the fact that she’s going through this life journey with wanting to be true to herself is a real beacon for us. 

AF: Rada Studio’s mission is to tell stories unapologetically and without compromise. How did this creative philosophy play a part in your documentary on Nikki Giovanni’s lived experience?

Michèle Stephenson: We are constantly trying to push the envelope in how we tell stories, and trying to play with what the points of reference are. This opportunity to work with Nikki’s body of work was deeply stimulating for us. We really delved into our own cultural experiences to help define how we edited, how we perceived the material and the archival, how we wanted there to be call and response, and how we wanted the archival, music, sound, and poetry to be in conversation as opposed to being simply didactic, expositional, or illustrative. I think we’ve broken a few barriers for ourselves creatively. We hope that we can bring this new framing that we’re engaging in into the next film. We may not be as outspoken as Nikki when we speak, or by what we write, but in our approach to our work and how the work is out in the world, there’s a definite point of view and an unapologetic message that we hold true to ourselves that I feel resonated with people within our intersecting communities. 

Joe Brewster: One important question in filmmaking is the question of diverse voices. That’s important for us, but it’s not as important as diverse conversation. So many times you have BIPOC characters, but they don’t say diverse things. They’re not allowed to complain or scream or act out of the orthodox characterization that we’re used to experiencing them. Nikki is allowed that. And that’s freedom for us. I’m not sure we agree with everything she says, but her viewpoint is liberating. That is our goal as filmmakers. To present the audience and ourselves with new ways of looking at life. Case in point: ‘men’s abuse of the penis,’ which is one of the funniest scenes in the film. Her thinking should be seriously considered. Or her discussion of the relationship between Mr. Clause and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer—which I’m guessing was a question of the relationship between generations—the orthodox of that relationship, we’ll see immediately. It’s very exciting for us, and we try to do this in all of our work. Nikki makes it easier, but we want to give voice not to gender, or race, or generations only, but viewpoints. 

Michèle Stephenson: In addition to the idea of more than a single narrative, it is to really challenge the form as well. Sometimes we just fall into this trap of trying to just repeat conventions when there’s a lot of other things out there. Our film on Nikki takes a lot of liberty with timeline and the collapsing of time. It’s a lot of fun to play with that, and I think it can be accessible. This is the other thing—the false notion that if you diverge a bit from conventions or the algorithm in terms of what people like, people will not respond. Because we have emotion at the center of what we do, our reach can be pretty broad and deep. 

Michèle Stephenson of Rada Studios courtesy of Talent

AF: Can you discuss or expand upon any unique cinematic / storytelling techniques you employed to convey the richness of Nikki Giovanni’s experiences?

Joe Brewster: When people talk about craft, they’re talking about every element of the filmmaking process from production to development to post-production to make the story stronger. If you focus on one, and that’s what we usually do, it’s editing. We took a number of liberties. Those include a more rhythmic metric, polyrhythmic editing style, so that the editing was almost like jazz. It was rhythmic. It was creative. There were moments of creativity that are bursts that you notice in the film. There is also always a call and response between the three and four layers of storytelling. 

We had a layer of storytelling that was based in observational storytelling. We had a layer of performance. There was a layer of archival. We have those three layers not just repeating what the previous layer of footage is expressing, but sometimes questioning. So Nikki says something in observational, in real life, and then there’s a discussion with her and James Baldwin questioning that– questioning what it means to be an American, to vote, to love. That is so important in terms of adding complexity to the message. What we find is that audiences are listening. We confuse them, and they lean in, and that ambiguity that we are allowing in our messaging really draws the audience in a very powerful way. 

Michèle Stephenson: We spent a lot of time in the edit room. This film took seven years to make. We spent a number of months cutting in stanzas. There were thematic units, either emotional or historical in nature, that included some of the elements that Joe was talking about—some of her performance that was funny, some of the conversation with James Baldwin—and those stanzas would probably include one or two poems, or would go back to the Going to Mars poem. The Going to Mars poem serves as a glue—it would be something that we could go back to, to anchor us in this journey where time has collapsed. For us, the idea of time collapse also meant not using the archival footage in a historical way. We had an audience member tell us that when we cut back to the historical material, it didn’t feel like flashbacks. It felt like it was the present, because of the way we juxtaposed. Nikki in 1971 and Nikki in 2021 talking about her father, for example, are juxtaposed in a way that’s more thematic and emotional. We were playing with the material that we had in a different way. 

If I take just the poems that we used and how we represented them visually, and in being in conversation with the poetry, it was really about “what can I use that will either counter what’s being said or conflict with what’s being said, or emotionally resonate with what’s being said” as opposed to “let me show when she says ‘chicken in a shoebox in space,’ let me put that in there.” We wanted to challenge all of those different levels, which is what poetry does. To express this visually, it means that in some cases people are seeing historical and community and family archival videos that have never been seen before, but in a context that makes us feel like we’re in community. On the other hand, we also took iconic historical archives, whether they be stills or film that people have registered in their collective subconscious. The one I think about the most would be the funeral of Emmett Till, and how we represented that in a very different way under Nikki’s Rosa Parks poem. Or how we traveled through space. We’re listening to things, and then we’re time traveling, and then we land in the Birmingham Bombing. There is no narration over the burning of the church, when the bodies of the four young girls who are killed are being taken out. We land to that through time travel, and so people are feeling like they’re in the moment, and feeling what’s going on as we see people’s emotions. 

It’s really about juxtaposing, thinking about how we can creatively redefine or reimagine or recenter some of the visuals, given what we have. Also, we played with storytelling in the auditory, and in the musical environment that we create. I think this comes from the VR experience that we have as filmmakers, because we’ve created in the 3D space as well. In some ways, the film is an immersive experience that doesn’t rely on a three-act structure. There is an immersive element to how you’re introduced to our world at the beginning. You see space, but you hear a ship in water. You hear seagulls while you’re in space. We’re playing with “what are our brain references telling us.” 

Joe Brewster: We train the audience from the first frame that this is going to be different, you have to think differently. You might be in one time and one moment and another time at another. Once you train the audience, their mind flows seamlessly through this film. 

Michèle Stephenson: It’s often done in fiction and in VR experiences. You build a world and introduce a world to the audience so that they become comfortable with the codification of that world. It can be jostling or abrupt at times, but it’s about creating the world that prepares them, so that they’re ready to take off, to go to Mars. 

AF: What does this nonlinear, layered expression of storytelling and world building allow audiences and filmmakers?

Michèle Stephenson: It’s about opening our minds to think about the world differently. Opening our minds to making connections differently. We’re proposing a different way of seeing the world. A different way of processing pain. A different way of processing joy. A way of coming in community that’s not necessarily linear. But the one thing that we definitely try to do at Rada is to center everything around emotion. We don’t get too esoteric. We will use esoteric devices that we feel help us in these juxtapositions, but that anchor it in emotion. 

AF: Not only are you Oscar shortlisted for the Documentary Feature Film with Going to Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project, but you are also currently shortlisted for Best Documentary Short with Black Girls Play: The Story of Hand Games– making you one of the firsts to achieve this feat. Can you tell us what this means to you as storytellers?

Joe Brewster: Although we understand it’s an honor to be double shortlisted for our documentary Going to Mars and our documentary Black Girls Play, it’s not something that sustains us. At Rada, we’re always looking to improve. Sometimes to our disadvantage. Michele will wake up in the middle of the night and say things like “wow, we should have shot that over.” But it’s an honor to be acknowledged by your peers. I would also say, being an ex-therapist, it’s also a curse, because Michele’s going to wake up more frequently asking us to reshoot or reconsider some work that we thought we had finished last week. But I think after 30 years of making films and making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, getting two right back to back is the least of what we could do. 

We’ve made a lot of films. And we try our best to be ethical, to learn from every mistake, to improve. We’re obsessed with storytelling—not only from the standpoint of documentary or short documentary, but we’ve done animation, we’ve done virtual reality. We think storytelling is not only important to us in an artistic sense, but it’s also a healing medium. People are inspired by, they are given hope by our stories. They were the healers at one time, they are the lawyers and the musicians that tell us that we’re going to be okay. They’re the grandmothers, as Nikki describes them. We love what we do, and I think we’ve made a lot of work. And so although we are proud of these two honors, I guess we expect to perform at a high level.

Michèle Stephenson: To be double shortlisted from a community of peers that is global, we couldn’t ask for more. To Joe’s point, we turn to storytelling as a form of healing, as a form of communication, and as a form of excavating for stories that we want to see, to help validate our experiences and to pass on to the next generation. We both didn’t go to film school. I come from a law background and international development background in human rights and Joe comes from a medicine background, he’s a trained psychiatrist. If we wanted to make money, we would have stayed in the professions that we were in. We were really risking a lot of years that we spent building careers that, for me personally, I was not happy with. When I found film through Joe as a form of storytelling, there was a healing aspect to it that both existed in the process, whether it was interacting with participants, trying to write stories that were relevant, and excavating and researching, and then having the final product that can be shared, to feel a form of validation and healing. All of our films to some extent or another had a healing impact. Both on ourselves individually and those we participated with, but also those who have watched it. So that’s really at the center. That’s not going to change. We just hope that our craft gets even better. Whether the Oscars happen or not, we are deeply grateful. But we have this mission that centers healing for us. It doesn’t mean we don’t address questions of prominent pain, that is in all our films, but there is a purpose to it. 

Joe Brewster: Regardless of awards–if we have our health, we have better stories coming. For many, many years, decades, our stories were neglected, and when they were told, they were told from an outsider gaze. So, imagine: we’re neglected, we have tons of things that we can write about, we can make 2D, 3D, VR stories, and we can inspire. Our neglect is also our gift. 

AF: Black Girls Play highlights the culture and history of hand games historically played by young Black girls, and ultimately the influence these games have had on the American creative landscape. Can you expand upon some of the key themes in this project?

Joe Brewster: Black Girls Play was brought to us by ESPN, and their development coordinator Adam Newhouse. We mutually decided that it was an amazing opportunity for us to look at something that people ignored, or that people didn’t appreciate, which was the rhythm games that black girls played. But what we discovered after reading the work of ethnomusicologist Kyra Gaunt is that they were more than games, it was a cultural institution that dates back thousands of years. It was a nonverbal communication where rhythm and verse and rhyme and metric were used for people to learn. Our job was to tell that story, and we found that those games and the pillars of those games are part of almost every form of popular American music, and culture, and ways of communicating.

The hand games include polyrhythms, and a concept called individuality within the collective. These games are often circle games where you are encouraged to go in the middle of the circle and innovate. After you innovate, you recede from the circle and someone else enters the circle. They have the opportunity to innovate, to out-do you. You all have your time and space. Imagine the kinds of musical expressions that use that today. From jazz, to hip-hop, to gospel, to modern American oratory. We focus on the musical forms of jazz and hip-hop and gospel. It really is in line with our mission at Rada, and that is to provide information that surprises, and to look at what happened to enslaved people, and how they’ve turned it into something that we all use on a day-to-day basis, to make our days better. 

Michèle Stephenson: We’re centering black women’s voices of all generations in Black Girls Play. That was intentional. We pulled from the historical expert who made the connections surrounding hip-hop appropriation of black girls’ hand games, and the archival footage we selected showed hand games across the decades. In the same way they were using what some have called “Black Atlantic Expression,” we were using it unconsciously in our editing style in Going to Mars. Even in how we work in our process—it’s a constant call and response. There is an investment in the creative process that’s respectful, but each person has a moment to express their individuality, then we either contribute or respond back with something that takes off on that to create something new, or maybe just honors what’s there and we go “wow, let’s keep that.” This mode of playing hand games is also a mode of being that is more collective, as opposed to being hierarchical or individualistic. It’s individuality without individualism, in terms of the circle admiring what the individual can express, as it’s expressed within the collective. We talk about that in Black Girls Play as well. Specifically, Jamila Woods, the vocalist, talks about how she found community through these games, but how there was encouragement of her own expression as well. 

What is next for each of you and Rada Studio, where can readers find out more?

Michèle Stephenson: To further perfect what we’ve explored in Going to Mars and in this editing and storytelling style and putting that into the next project. We’re hoping that the collaborators who are bringing us on board for projects are as excited about that creative approach. We want to create more stories that provoke, and that shake us up a little bit. 

Joe Brewster: The biggest gift for getting these two projects shortlisted is that our projects are being coveted by companies that are going to allow us for greater experimentation, and the ability to tell these stories in an unapologetic manner. We’ve always wanted that, and that’s why we would rather tell the story ourselves than to be muted or lose the final cut. So what’s so exciting is that we have two or three pieces that we are developing that will allow us to explore our communities in a meaningful way. 

It’s not necessarily money that’s going to make our stories stand out, it’s time. Creativity at the highest level takes patience. What we would like to be afforded is the ability to not push out a documentary in eight months. It may not be where capitalism wants to take us, but creativity requires more. Time to reflect, time to share, time to rewrite. That’s what we had with Going to Mars and Black Girls Play thanks to HBO and ESPN. 

More details can be found at and on Instagram at @radastudionyc @michele_0608 and @brewsterjoe.