Words by Nneka Samuel
Artist and London-based content creator Cecile Emeke’s short film Ackee & Saltfish looks every bit as satisfying as the Jamaican national dish it’s named after. It follows Olivia and Rachel, two friends en route to pickup takeout thanks to Rachel, who forgot to soak the saltfish. Along the way, as only besties can, they discuss any and everything, from their love for rapper Common, to whether or not couscous is a rice.
We had a chance to talk to Cecile before the premiere of “Ackee & Saltfish” and got a deeper look into the premise behind the film, her plans to turn it into a web series, her thoughts on how people of color are depicted in film, and much, much more.
POTENT: What was the inspiration behind “Ackee & Saltfish” and what is it about?
Cecile Emeke: The inspiration behind Ackee & Saltfish was to explore the reality of complaints against gentrification; for me it is not an abstract complaint in the name of political correctness, but rather an intimate and personal pang of pain. It hurts when you are being pushed out of the only place you know and when parts of your culture that you have previously been mocked for become appropriated and exploited by others outside of your culture. The story itself is a retelling of a real life experience myself and the assistant director, Abraham Popoola (actor, director/writer & music artist), had on several occasions.
POTENT: In your strolling series, you engaged with subjects you personally know. Was that also the case for Ackee & Saltfish? How did you come to cast Vanessa Babirye and Michelle Tiwo?
CE: We didn’t do auditions, I had worked with Michelle previously so I got her on board. Just through word of mouth I looked for the second actress, when Abraham recommended Vanessa. So it was all very touch and go, but I think the Universe has a way of making things work perfectly because Michelle and Vanessa are both extremely talented and were perfect for the roles.
POTENT: Do you have any plans to expand the short into a web series? If so, how would that differ from the short (in terms of additional characters, etc.)?
CE: Yes the short will become a web series. I don’t want to give too much away but it will very much be grounded in the bubble that Olivia and Rachel live in.
POTENT:What has the response been like so far based on the “Ackee & Saltfish” trailer?
CE: So far the response has been amazing. People love the trailer, they love the characters. A lot of people have found it really relateable and make comments like “this is just like me and my sister” and so forth, which is really encouraging! I’m interested to see the response for the film.
POTENT: Do you feel that people are starving for original content that reflects us, content written by and about people of color?
CE: Most of my friends and I barely turn on the TV anymore because nothing on it is appealing whatsoever. So I think there definitely are people like myself out there who want more original and imaginative content than is currently offered. I’m definitely hungry for content written by and about people of colour, but especially women of colour, without the pressure and influence of the white gaze that Toni Morrison so famously critiques. That makes a huge difference.
POTENT: How do you envision yourself taking on the task of putting London on the map in the way that films you admire like “Crooklyn” and “Do The Right Thing” do? Is that something you consciously try to embody or is it a natural tendency?
CE: I just intend to keep putting in the work in really. I don’t think I consciously try to be anything other than myself. I try to write and create things that I want to see and that I find beautiful and interesting, as opposed to creating what I think the majority of people want to see by conforming to what you’re “supposed” to do. What “people” want to see is an interesting concept to me. What people? Who exactly are we talking about? I think again the whole idea of disregarding the white gaze becomes important here because that is the gaze we are talking about when we talk about appealing to a “wide” audience; the white, capitalist, patriarchal gaze. So I think I just try to stay authentic and true to who I am, but luckily I have a natural intolerance to such things so it doesn’t take too much effort!
POTENT: When it comes to a majority of film and television, whiteness is the norm and blackness is often seen as a distraction. We are perceived as non-universal, seemingly unrelatable beings. What do you say to that and how does your work combat that negative and inaccurate assumption?
CE: I think that is a racist view that perpetuates the system of white supremacy and anti-blackness. Police, lawyers, detectives, doctors, nurses, soldiers, presidents, aliens and animals are non-universal and therefore “unrelateable” but yet we see film after film about these groups who form minorities in society, or in the case of aliens, don’t even exist. You are openly promoting anti-blackness and white supremacy when you say films about black people who actually exist are less relatable and universal than films about aliens and figurements of people’s imagination, but that white people are “relatable”. A dog or a flesh eating alien is more relatable that a human being who just happens to have been born with more melanin in their skin? It is not only ridiculously ignorant and racist, but it is also completely illogical. In my work I completely ignore the white gaze and any other irrational arguments such as the one above that try to convince me that my stories and narratives aren’t good enough without being tweaked or whitewashed. It’s unimaginative, lazy, hateful and ignorant.
POTENT: Yes, you titled your short film after it, but is ackee & saltfish your favorite Caribbean dish?
CE: Yes! Ackee and saltfish is my absolute favorite!
POTENT: What are your personal ties to the Caribbean?
CE: I am Jamaican so I have a very close tie to the Caribbean.
POTENT: What other projects do you have in store, in film and the various other mediums you work within? And lastly, how and when will people be able to view “Ackee & Saltfish”?
CE: Other than the Ackee & Saltfish webseries and the Strolling series, I am working on a poetry film series which is going to consist of short films along with some poetry that I have written. The first one is nearly ready for release and is called “Fake Deep” and we basically drag psuedo-intellectual patriarchs who in the name of “feminism” and “black power”, oppress black women. So look out for that. There are also some other web-series and film projects in the works, so just stay connected to see what else is coming out soon. If the short film Ackee & Saltfish goes online you will see it on my Vimeo, join my mailing list for updates. We are yet to decide or set a date just yet! But stay connected for updates.