Writer: LeKeisha Edwards
Des Gray earned a reputation as being one of the most sought-after music video directors, producing and directing videos for hitmakers like Chris Brown, Young Thug, Davido, Lil’ Baby, Future, Rick Ross, and Toosii, following the founding of her own production and film company, Foreign Made Films, where Gray made her directorial debut in 2018 for Lil Donald’s, Do Better video, that garnered 70 million+ views. Born in Haiti, Gray’s eye for art and the craft of production was cultivated as she pursued studies in the states, receiving her bachelor’s degree in Theater Studies from Alabama State University, and working with BET as a production assistant. Add to Gray’s resume the production of the short film Stricken, a project sponsored by the Beats by Dre, Black Futures initiative; her 2021 directorial work for Lil Baby’s Hustle campaign powered by Rockstar Energy Drinks, and both of Davido’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! and BBC Radio performances. With a repertoire of notable and acclaimed work, Gray used her expertise as a visual artist to pivot further into the world of filmmaking, determined to tell the stories that resemble the complexities of life that are found in the individual, the family, the community, and at times, the world.
Enter the short film, Mixed Girl, another pivotal mark of Gray’s filmmaking journey as she uses her creative vision and direction to tell the story of a biracial girl named Ashlynn (Livia Jarcem), raised in a small racially divided town, by her white alcoholic and drug-addicted mother, Leslie (Mikaela Seamans). Ashlynn’s father, James (Jermaine “J Young MDK” Carter), an African American college student who unbeknownst to him, conceives Ashlynn with Leslie after meeting at a fraternity party, is thrust into a turbulent journey of trying to have a relationship with his daughter and save her from the abuse and careless actions of her mother. The film shows the aftermath of the colliding of their two different worlds and the trauma of child abuse, as it raises the bar on the conversation about race, colorism, identity, and belonging. Upscale sits down with Gray and actor, entrepreneur, and co-producer of the film, Yandy Smith-Harris, to discuss the origins of the film, the strong visual of its movie poster, and its impact on society.
Upscale Magazine: The movie poster for the film speaks volumes. It features young Ashlynn, played by Izabella Dykes, and we immediately notice the hardship that the little girl is enduring. We see that her clothes are worn, she is holding one boot in her hand, sitting on the ground, with a trailer park behind her, and no smile on her face. You feel her desire to be loved.
Des Gray: When I shot the photo for the cover of the movie, I wanted to have the environment that surrounds her, tell the story, along with the worry you see in her eyes. I wanted people to see this innocent child that is supposed to be protected. She is not able to smile because when she goes to her house, there is no happiness there. As she holds the boot in her hand, she worries about how she is going to live from day to day. Not only does she live in a trailer park, but as you watch the film, you learn that she is bullied for having curly hair or because she has a white brother. When you look into the eyes of the little girl on the image for the cover, you see the emptiness and her hope for a better tomorrow.
Upscale: How did you come up with the concept for the movie?
Des: I was having a conversation with a friend of mine that is biracial. She shared with me some of the identity issues she faces and how she is treated differently by her white family and her Black family. She opened up about depression and suicidal thoughts she has battled, along with relationships she has had with multiple men, in her need for love and acceptance. Hearing her story and her struggle, I really wanted to write a story about being a mixed girl and have it be told from the perspective of a white family versus a Black family. We kind of wanted to flip the traditional framework of telling these types of stories. Co-written with my friend, Nikki Carter, we were able to come up with a powerful script.
Upscale: Another powerful way element to the story is the Black father’s fight that spans years, to save his daughter, right?
Des: Absolutely, because here we see this Black man that unbeknownst to him, conceived a child with a white woman after they met at a college fraternity party. Years later, he learns that he has a child with the white woman, and though he is married with a family, he does not relent in fighting to have a relationship with his biracial daughter and save her from having to fend for herself in this horrible cycle of abuse she suffers from.
Upscale: Yandy, we’ve known you as a reality TV star, actress, entertainment manager, agent, and of course, entrepreneur, with a skincare line and nail polish line. What made you decide to become a co-producer of the film?
Yandy Harris-Smith: I’ve known Des for years, and I’ve been in awe of her journey, her achievements, and when I learned of the project for this film, I wholeheartedly wanted to be involved. I knew there would be synergy with us and it would really push the conversation forward about growing up facing the challenges of colorism, or just being from different parts of the world, and having those worlds collide.
Upscale: Did the image for the movie poster speak to you in a profound way as well?
Yandy: We’re all familiar with the saying that we have to “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” and hit the ground running for the things we want or need. However, the image of this little girl, sitting on the ground, holding the one boot in her hand, shows that she is barefooted and has to walk through the mud, rocks, and all of the different things life brings you, because you’re not able to pull up your bootstrap, because you are just trying to make it through. She is showing us that she does not have the opportunity to pull up her bootstrap. She has to carry so much on her back and she has no time to adjust her boots.
Upscale: Would you both say the film has a message about interracial dating as well?
Yandy: I would really encourage viewers to see the film to see how interracial dating is depicted, however you will be able to see the white privilege that holds our society in bondage, from the jail or prison system, to a Black father that is trying to get custody of his child that looks different from him as far as skin color.
Des: I feel the same way. One of the biggest stereotypes that the film challenges is Black fatherhood. There is such a negative stigma on Black fathers, but we want to show the heart and passion of Black fathers that put their children first. Let’s tell the stories of Black fathers that are great fathers.
Upscale: What other negative stigmas would you say society places on Black fathers?
Des: Our Black men are being incarcerated at very high rates, disproportionate to their white counterparts. Unfortunately, as a result, many Black men are not present to raise their children due to high rates of incarceration. However, many of our Black men do not get the credit they deserve for being responsible, caring, adults that work hard to be in their children’s lives. The Black father in this film has a middle-class family, with a decent household, and sets an example for his bi-racial daughter by showing her love, acceptance, and a different life.
Yandy: This film shows a white woman that does not come from wealth, is addicted to alcohol and drugs, and plagued by a lack of resources. On the flip side, we see a hard-working Black father that is a great husband and dad. These types of stories are real and they exist. There are amazing dads that are incarcerated. There are white people that may have privilege, but they struggle with challenges and hardships too. We have to shine a light on all of it and have dialogue that changes the narrative for the better.
Upscale: Being one of the few, if not only, Haitian-American female directors in the industry, how does this film connect with you on a personal level?
Des: When I captured the photo for the movie poster of the little girl sitting on the ground, holding the boot, I saw myself in her. Being raised in Haiti and having a significant lack of resources, was so challenging for me and for so many of the beloved people of Haiti. Yet, we find a way to survive and thrive. Regardless of class or skin color, I want every little girl that is living in an environment similar to Ashlynn’s or my own when I was a child in Haiti, to know that they are not alone.
Upscale: Yandy, are their any experiences you have had that connect with this film or colorism?
Yandy: Absolutely. As a business owner and entrepreneur, you can really see the disparities when you walk into a city hall for example, to attain something like a liquor license for a business. You are asked a number of questions that your white counterparts are not asked and have to pass a number of barriers that your white counterparts do not have to pass. You are asked about felonies, you sometimes have to get fingerprinted. If I want to get a building permit, etc., if I send a white individual from my team, things happen a lot faster than if I were to go at times, despite the quote-unquote, “celebrity” that we may have. My accolades, my resume, my qualifications can be the same as someone of a lighter complexion, but they will easily assume that the lighter complexion individual does not have felonies, or would do right by their liquor license.
Upscale: Do you think the effects of slavery continue to impact a lot of the stereotypes and stigmas we see today with colorism and privilege?
Des: Yes, because there are times people are judged by their skin color first, before anything else. Even with hair texture. We think that a better texture of hair affords someone better opportunities, or more appeal, however some of the people society thinks is beautiful or more acceptable due to their hair texture, are broken inside. We have to get to know people first, as opposed to judging and/or making decisions based solely on the outside.
Upscale: The film also depicts the impact of alcohol and drug-addiction, and abuse. Tell us more about that.
Des: Being on drugs is the only thing the white mother in the film can do to fill the void that is in her life. Many people that suffer from addiction are trying to heal some of the traumas they endured or they may be attempting to sabotage themselves. The mother did not care about her children; the only thing she cared about was the pain she was feeling in the inside and using alcohol or drugs to sabotage herself.
Upscale: We would be remiss if we did not mention the late, Jacky Oh, as she also contributed to this film, playing the role of Christine, Leslie’s friend.
Des: I love Jacky Oh so very much and miss her tremendously. Jacky was bi-racial herself, so it was meaningful in more ways than one, having her play a role in this film. You really get to see her personality in this film and she did such a wonderful job, playing the friend of Leslie.
Upscale: Congratulations on winning the Social Impact Award for the City of Angels Women’s Film Festival. Where can our readers find the film?
Des: Thank you so much–it truly was an honor. The film can be found on Moneybagg Yo’s streaming app Bread Gang TV. They can also find the film on Tubi, Crackle, and other streaming platforms that will showcase the film in the coming year. Stay tuned for updates by following the film on social media @mixedgirlfilm.
Upscale: What’s next for you as a filmmaker?
Des:I have another project I will begin working on next year, and I am super-excited about bringing more stories about our communities to life, on a global scale.
(Cover Image of Des Gray by Photographer, Inari Washington)