Making spaces: “Black Enough” web series explores the details of authenticity

"Black Enough," an original web series created by Micah Ariel Watson and starring Tiffany Gordon (shown) as Amaya, is available to watch on YouTube. Courtesy of the artist “Black Enough,” an original web series created by Micah Ariel Watson and starring Tiffany Gordon (shown) as Amaya, is available to watch on YouTube. Courtesy of the artist

Micah Ariel Watson wanted to take a break from writing.

It was summer 2018, and the filmmaker and playwright was back home in Wichita, Kansas. She’d just graduated from UVA with degrees in drama and African American studies, and she’d been busy.

Her films Edges (2016) and Educated Feet (2017) screened at the Virginia Film Festival, and 40th & State (2018) screened at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. She won a prestigious Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award in 2018 for her full-length play Canaan. And The Black Monologues, an original storytelling production that Watson and a group of collaborators first staged at UVA in 2015, resonated so strongly with fellow students that it’s been revived every year since.

So it’s easy to see why Watson wanted to pause for a moment before diving into a dramatic writing graduate program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

But as she reflected on her experience as a black student at UVA (a predominantly white institution), the challenges she faced, and the transformation she began, she processed her thoughts and feelings as she always has: she wrote.

The result is “Black Enough,” a 13-part web series that follows Amaya, a young black woman who grew up in the predominantly white Chicago suburbs, and her friends through their freshman year at Weston, a fictional PWI not unlike Watson’s own alma mater.

Amaya, a dancer and a Christian, “realizes that in order to survive at this PWI, she has to find black friends for her mental health, for her well-being,” says Watson. “But the problem is, she doesn’t feel like she understands black culture enough, or fits into the community enough.”

Each episode of “Black Enough” follows Amaya as she attempts to find her place. She attends a Black Student Union welcome event. She decides to stop relaxing her hair and has it braided, with the goal of eventually wearing it natural. She plays spades and reads Ta-Nehisi Coates for her African and Diaspora Studies 101 class. She dances, she listens to music, she goes to church.

Amaya’s written the ingredients for what she calls her “Black Girl Magic Potion” on her dorm room mirror, ticking them off “in an effort to become ‘blacker,’ which doesn’t quite work for her in the ways that she expected,” says Watson, “because blackness is nuanced and complicated, and not really something that you can write down in a list.”

“Black Enough” was shot mostly on 16mm film, over the course of 19 days this past June, in and around Charlottesville and UVA. Watson wrote, directed, and executive produced the series, and she says that collaborations among the cast and crew are what really made the series sing. From the acting to the costume, sound, and production design, and details such as the Oreo cookies on the table in the scene where Amaya and her friends play spades and debate the question, “What does it mean to be black?”

“We wanted to make something artful and meaningful. It’s not just about giving people something good to watch,” says producer Josh Palmer.

“Black Enough” was not beholden to any “professors, or rules and regulations, or industry standards,” says Watson. “The art was coming from a place of authenticity.”

Watson hopes viewers watch closely enough to pick up on some of the details. For example, when Amaya dances under a streetlight in episode six, the shots reference rapper Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and To Pimp A Butterfly albums, as well as the music videos Lamar shot with filmmaker Kahlil Joseph. Watson titled the episode “Butterfly Wings.” Transformation, once again.

The first Black Student Union scene was shot at UVA’s Jefferson Hall—young, black people occupying a space while “literally surrounded by images of old, white people; old, white men,” in order “to show [how] even when black people try to create a space for themselves, there’s still a history that they have to try to pierce through in order to make the space actually their own,” says Watson.

The “Black Enough” cast and crew experienced that very challenge acutely while filming episode 10’s BSU protest scene at the UVA amphitheater. The cops showed up and asked what was going on, though Palmer and Watson both say it was clearly a film shoot, with lights, cameras, catering tables, actors in makeup, and wardrobe. Just a couple days before, Watson and Palmer had noticed a group of white students, perhaps fraternity brothers, being rowdy and loud in the same space, completely uninterrupted.

“It’s frustrating to me, the ways that black bodies are surveilled, even when we’re making art, even when we’re not going to do anything that’s going to harm anyone else,” says Watson.

“The idea that making art poses a threat to people, it’s frustrating, but it also…makes me feel very powerful,” she says. “Like, y’all are stressed that we’ll put something out in the world…that we’re using our voices. It’s a testament to what art can do, and how it can shake up spaces.”

Perhaps that’s why Watson just couldn’t take a break from writing.

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I work with Black Enough and didn’t even know some of the things mentioned here. Thanks for writing!