A Conversation with 'Really Love' Producer Aaliyah Williams | The Nerd Daily (2024)

Producer Aaliyah Williams has a lot to be proud of, but she’s really just beginning. Since her days working in the mailroom at an LA talent agency—“the traditional route of starting [out],” she calls it in our interview—Williams has forged her own path through the film industry. After running the Digital Studio for MACRO, she launched her own production company Just A Rebel that recently scored a first-look deal at CBS Television Studios. For Williams, Just A Rebel’s mission is to “focus on content that centers Black women and girls in some way.”

Her latest production, the MACRO film Really Love, which premiered on Netflix over the summer, is a prime example of the art she wants to create for the world. The film, directed by Angel Kristi Williams and penned by Felicia Pride, tells the all-consuming love story between a struggling artist named Isaiah (Kofi Siriboe, Queen Sugar) and an ambitious law student named Stevie (Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing, Love Is___). What’s significant about Really Love—in addition to being produced by an all-Black women team (Angel Kristi Williams, Mel Jones, and Williams herself)—is its meta-commentary about the validity of Black people, stories, and cultures as being worthy of central artistic expression and representation. It is, at once, a challenge to the predominantly white-faced industry to do better and a shining beacon of the magic that happens when Black artists are empowered to tell their stories.

Really Love recently celebrated the release of its official soundtrack, which features the immaculate jazz-based score by Khari Mateen. Of Mateen’s collaborative process with the films director, Williams says it was like a “lock and key: they just really, creatively, hit it off right away.” The score begins as a smooth ember, growing as Isaiah and Stevie’s lives become intertwined, before blazing into a, as Williams describes it, “a fullness that just really brings you back to what it feels like to fall in love.”

In our interview below, Williams talks about the power of being a Black woman producer, the importance of the activism that accompanies the stories she seeks to tell, and the mission, above all, to move culture forward. Having been able to sit down and talk to her, it’s evident how she climbed to the top: she is funny, sharp, open, and warm, with one ear on the pulse of social change and the other on one-of-a-kind narratives. And immediately, you know with utmost certainty that, as long as Williams is around, the future of (an equal, equitable, and powerful) cinema is in very capable hands.

Before we get into Really Love, Id like to ask about your own producing journey, particularly with MACRO, and whats been like to bring to life Black-focused narratives with a production team of all Black women?

I actually started my journey in entertainment—and trying to find my place in terms of producing—in New York, working in financial services. My scholarship program, the Ron Brown Scholar Program, put on this conference about arts and entertainment. Charles King gave a fireside chat about his life as a super agent. I connected with some other folks and was planning to submit applications to business school, [but] it made me rethink things. I’d always been interested in the arts and produced plays in college, but I didn’t really know what that meant as a real career.

I came out to LA, probably about like 15 years ago, and did the traditional route of starting at the start in the mailroom at a talent agency and worked for different producers like Effie Brown and Michael Mann, and went through this route of producing short films and short form content. When I came to MACRO, I created and ran, at the time, the Digital Studio. Charles and my colleagues there at the time, Kim Roth, were always very open to good ideas coming from anywhere. So, I did have the opportunity to bring in a number of projects that had legs for long form television series, like Gentefied as well as Really Love.

I now have my own production company Just A Rebel that focuses on content that centers Black women and girls in some way. I have a deal set up on the TV side with CBS television studios, and on the film side, I’m a free agent. But this experience with making Really Love, with it being financed by a Black company and making it with Black women, definitely influenced my focus for my company.

What I loved most about Really Love was the sort of meta-commentary about the validity of Black people, stories, and cultures as being worthy of artistic expression and representation. I took art history classes in university, and I remember the canon” of monumental pieces of art were stuff created by white men, and if I wanted to study art by people of colour, it was in very niche and always elective courses. And yet youve produced a movie that puts at the center art created by, for, and about Black folks. How did Really Love cross your path? And what drew you into the story and made you think that this was a story that needed to be shown?

It was a very organic process. I, at the time, was producing a digital series called Leimert Park that’s currently on BET; it was one of the projects that I was shepherding as head of MACRO Digital Studio. The director for that project is one of my producing partners, Mel Jones. [Leimert Park] was actually her directing debut, and Angel [Kristi Williams] has been really close friends with Mel for a while—they’ve worked on projects together before. I happened to be taking a break from set, and we were shooting in Leimert, so I was headed over to this Jamaican spot to go get a bunch of Jamaican patties for the crew. Angel tapped me and said, “Are you headed out?” I said, “I’m gonna get some Jamaican patties, you want to come with me?” So, we’re catching up as we’re waiting on these patties, and she said, “Listen, I really wanted to talk to you because I think I found my first feature film. I think I found the script that’s gonna be my first feature.”

[When she sent me the script] it was a Sunday morning, and I was just going to read the first five pages of it, just to see where it was going. But I just couldn’t stop reading it and I immediately reached out to Angel and I asked if we could sit down and talk about it. We [with writer Felicia Pride] talked a lot about what their ambition was for this movie in terms of showing young Black folks on the precipice of following their dreams, figuring out who they’re supposed to be, but also being ambitious about love, and how there can be a tension with that, especially when it’s that first big love that you’re not necessarily completely prepared for.

We were reminiscing about what that had meant in our respective lives, and I said: I need to see this [movie]. There’d always been conversations about the desire for this to not just be a meditation on love and a celebration of Black love but also a celebration of Black art in general.

Id like to talk about the score because I feel like the music really was the backbone of telling Isaiah and Stevies love story. I mean, the films colour palette was so rich, the paintings were vibrant, but the music really underscored the passion between these two people who really are at these very mercurial points in their lives but are still trying to hold on to each other. How did Khari get involved, and what was it like to collaborate with him?

We were fortunate enough to work with a fantastic company [who] hit the ground running as our music supervisors. Jonathan Christiansen and Marielle Jade Te were our main focus, especially in the beginning stages of post. Through the development process and pre-production process, music was also always very important to Angel, even before we had the cast, and she always had a playlist of music that inspired her as she was thinking about the visual language for the film.

There were a lot of different names that we went through of people that we were thinking about, but when Jonathan introduced Angel and Khari, it was just like a lock and key. They just really, creatively, hit off in every way. [Khari] is wildly talented with all of the instruments that he plays and with the work that he’s produced in the past and the people that he’s producing music for—I mean, we were just thrilled. They both talked about wanting to express our characters’ journey of love and even the parts where there’s discord—how do you express that [through] instrumentation? For Isaiah, the trumpet was his instrument, and Stevie’s instrument is the cello. Angel always talks about the film being her ambition for love. The score is really: what does that sound like?

Do you remember the first time that you listened to a track or the entire score? What did it sound and feel like for you?

I always think about what you feel when you fall into a story that you’re reading or that you’re watching—and the same thing when you’re listening to music—and I just felt enveloped in this world of the [string instruments] and everything just made me teary-eyed. I totally got teary eyed. I was like…I feel everything. It always had this fullness to it that just really brings you back to what it feels like to fall in love.

The film juxtaposes Isaiahs art and passion with Stevies intellect and desire to help those through the judicial and political systems. As a Black woman in a position of power working within an artistic medium, how important is it for you to champion social change through film and uplift socially-conscious work?

Oh my god, it’s the reason why I get up in the morning. Plain and simple. It is my form of activism, you know? If a picture’s worth 1000 words, what is a film or what is the television series worth? I do believe that, if we had more, not even just slice-of-life [narratives] of people of all walks being themselves, but also the imaginative [narratives] of, you know, seeing Black folks and people of colour in [stories set in] the future and sci-fi and things like that…we just need more versions of ourselves onscreen. There cannot be enough of us with that mindset. I very much so believe that, obviously, this is a business and you want to make money and all that good stuff, but, at the end of the day, what will always keep me pushing forward more than anything is the fact that this is my activism.

You touched on this idea of seeing different people of different walks of life in all different types of narratives. Can we expect something sci-fi or fantastical from you in the future? What’s a world that you would love to tackle?

Yes, you can. You absolutely can. Right now, I have a bunch of absurdist dark comedies in development. I am a true fan of Octavia Butler, so I’m always looking for a modern Afro-futuristic vehicle. But I think, at the end of the day for me, it’s all about really good writing. I get really excited when I discover a voice I haven’t heard before.

With the amount of progress thats been made in terms of more equal and equitable opportunity and representation for Black artists in the film industry, and with the amount of work that still needs to be done, how optimistic and excited are you about the future of film?

[It] depends on the day. That’s the honest answer. Realistically, we’ve got a long way to go. But I definitely believe that there’s a lot more avenues [now] to get it done. There’s a lot of great like-minded folks that are in this business, who are figuring out ways to collectively work together to push things through. And I think we’re going to get there.

See also

Kian Lawley Fired From ‘The Hate U Give’ Movie

You can follow Aaliyah Williams and Just a Rebel on Instagram: @theliyah & @justarebelmedia.

Really Love is now available to stream on Netflix. The soundtrack is available for purchase and streaming on major music apps.

A Conversation with 'Really Love' Producer Aaliyah Williams | The Nerd Daily (2024)
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