Meet Ryan Henry Knight

The Independent Filmmaker Making a Case for Education

At 20 years old, Ryan Henry Knight has been making films for half his life. The independent filmmaker from Virginia, currently at school in Atlanta, has a ‘passion for telling stories’ that stems from growing up in a creative family. Specifically, though, watching the music channel, VH1, as a young child stands out in his memory – and there was one particular scene from a 1980s music video that really captured his imagination. ‘There’s shoes moving on their own, and it’s not that crazy, but when I was a kid, I was like “Wow, I’ve never seen shoes moving without people.’ His mom explained that it was stop motion animation, and taught Ryan how to do it himself before enrolling him at film animation classes at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Virginia. Ryan now teaches classes at the center himself.

Enriching the lives of young filmmakers and other creative practitioners is something Ryan values enormously. Earlier this year, he helped launch BLACK-PLANET, a multimedia educational platform that aims to both connect with, and nurture, the creative talents ofthe African Diaspora, whilst also pushing for change in the face of racism and system oppression. Though the concept of the platform had been in the works for the best part of a year, the unveiling of BLACK-PLANET began in earnest with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in June. The original idea stemmed from a conversation with Ryan’s friend, the screenwriter and producer, Shantel Lankford, about the absence of a community specifically for Black artists like themselves. They considered a gallery space in Atlanta that would eventually expand into other cities, whilst Shantel had also toyed with the idea of opening a club called BLACK-PLANET. ‘We were kind of meshing the two ideas, the one that she had, and the one that we had – but this didn’t happen recently, we were talking about this in October of last year.’

The BLACK-PLANET platform that they would eventually create is, for now, limited to online programming, as Covid continues to wreak havoc upon the United States and the world. Butits existence as a virtual community is no less important – and, perhaps, more so –especially, as Ryan explains, that it was ‘inspired by what’s going on in the world, with Black Lives Matter and this fight for justice that we’re in. That was a big catalyst.’ Education wasthe platform’s call to action. ‘We wanted to change the way education is done because they teach the wrong things in American schools - not the wrong things - they don’t teach all ofit. So they don’t talk about everything Black people have done for America or for the world;they teach it from the perspective that white people did all this, and then slavery happened. And it’s not right.’ But it’s not just educational tools that BLACK-PLANET intends to sharewith its community; future plans consist of community events and services, art festivals and,in a return to the original concept, gallery spaces. ‘There’s so much on the table.’

Ryan is keen to talk about and promote the 20 or so people spread out across the country making BLACK-PLANET possible. The team of ‘really talented artists’ is loosely split intothree branches covering art, community and education. Alongside Ryan and Kennedy,there’s Karynn Greene and Winter Bell who are responsible for engaging artists with the platform; Noah Washington and Meron Baruda in charge of community events and fundraising; the team who research and coordinate the educational aspect of BLACK-PLANET, led by Peyton Wilson and Ryan’s sister, Taylor; and there’s also campaign manager, Zipporah Dorsey, and Luigi Thomas who is events coordinator. ‘Everyone on the team is a college student, and so we’re all young and Black, of course, trying to do something. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.’ For their first event, BLACK-PLANET hosted Black of July as an alternative to the Fourth of July – which, as Ryan points out, ‘frankly means nothing to Black Americans if you think about it because it was the declaration of independence for white people in America.’ The aim was to instead focus on Black artists, Black excellence and Black freedom, with a day of live streamed content and discussions led by Black creators. Theevent was regarded as a success by both the BLACK-PLANET team and those who tuned in alike.

If there’s another way to describe BLACK-PLANET, Ryan’s use of the term ‘network’ fits well. As part of the Black of July, Cary hosted a discussion about his practice – something that excited Ryan, who’d long admired the photographer and artist, as a mutual friend of Kennedy. ‘I was looking at Cary’s work like, “Dang, he’s fire!” And then here we are:’ Not long after the event, a phone call in which Cary played a jingle he’d made for timeless.goods led to the prospect of creating a series of commercials together. From there, the filmmaker came up the idea of creating something ‘ultra-corny’, taking influence from cheesy seventies infomercials and Afro Sheen commercials. The idea is to launch a series of advertisements relating to the puzzles and merchandise available on timeless.goods – videos that both playup the seventies references and make use of Ryan’s talents. Not long after that original call with Cary, Ryan worked on a series of pilot commercials, working with his friend, fellow filmmaker and ‘very talented colorist’, Ahab Mullick, to realise the concept. ‘I’ve never done this specific aesthetic before. I love shooting on film, but this is gritty, super 8mm and you’ve got the corny aspects, cheesy zoom-ins and text flashing up on the screen. I really like putting my passion for film into anything visual, and really experiment, and a commercial is just another way to do that.’

Besides Ryan’s work with BLACK-PLANET and timeless.goods, and after he concludes his studies in two years’ time, there are several options he’s considering. On the one hand,there’s the possibility of going on to grad school, a great way to gain access to resources and opportunities available to young filmmakers. But it’s not cheap; ‘I’m trying to debate whether I put money into school to make a film, or put money into a film,’ And so, on theother hand, there’s a number of scripts he’s completed that he’d like to make through his production company, Höma Motion Pictures. Whatever choice Ryan ends up making, it’smore than likely that his finesse as a filmmaker will carry him forwards. His last three films alone, this year’s short film, Run Away, They’ll See Us and last year’s You Almost Saw Me and Ludere have all racked up a number of selection awards from highly-esteemed festivals for short and independent films, including Aesthetica, NoBudge and NFFTY. These are al limpressive feats for someone at such an early stage in their career, but Ryan has an oldhead on his shoulders.‘

I’ve always had this dream to open a school when I’m old – I’d do it now, that would be fire, but the resources needed to do that make it more likely a long-term goal.’ He adds that the‘education system that we have now doesn’t really cater for growth in the way that [allowsyou to] explore things you may be passionate about.’ Ryan is already putting what he preaches into practice, using his classes at the Workhouse, to immerse kids into the role of a filmmaker and a storyteller in an interactive way that, he hopes, will teach longevity beyond the trends and styles that differ from one director to the next. And that’s a quality he recognises in timeless.goods; ‘Everything needs to be timeless – that word has become so important in my life as of late because when things are timeless, they always function effectively. It’s functionality, effectiveness, creativity, art and innovation.’

Ryan’s latest feature film, How to Disappear Completely, is currently in post-production – so keep an eye out for that.

by Ellen Brown, writer & art historian