These Directors Failed to Pitch Spike Lee — but Succeeded in Pushing Canadian Filmmaking Forward

With 'Bria Mack Gets a Life,' Kelly Fyffe-Marshall and Sasha Leigh Henry have "already changed the landscape of what Black mom characters look like"

Photos: Norman Wong

BY Rachel HoPublished Oct 10, 2023

Individually, directors Kelly Fyffe-Marshall and Sasha Leigh Henry, along with producers Tamar Bird and Iva Golubovic, are some of Canada's most promising filmmakers. But together?

"We come together and become the Transformers," says Henry of the four women's Toronto- and Brampton-based production company, Sunflower Studios. 

"We're such like-minded individuals [but] we also have such different skill sets," agrees Fyffe-Marshall, who released the debut feature When Morning Comes last year. "We really can do the whole job. Us four look at [a project] and we already know what parts we're doing. That's kind of what makes it magic."

Just as the Autobots roll out as a unit, when Henry heard that Spike Lee was going to be in town and might attend an event Henry was producing, she promptly hired Fyffe-Marshall with the intention of getting in front of the famed director, hoping that he would work with them as an executive producer. And when Spike did turn up, Bird and Golubovic got on their phones and did what they could.

"I don't want to forget that the industry can be very hard, but it's fun to try and swing big — what if we could get Spike Lee to do this thing?" muses Henry. "It's so much more fun and a lot easier to do that together than individually."

The Sunflower Studios crew are part of a new-look Hollywood. The entertainment industry is bending over backwards to appease calls for diverse storytelling while not always hitting the mark, often appearing more concerned with window dressing than substantive conversations or even pure entertainment. Fyffe-Marshall and Henry understand that, in order to move away from synthetic narratives, they have to get involved in the process.

"If we're going to be in this industry and move the dial, we really do need to engage with the business side," asserts Henry. "Sometimes, it can be tough. We want to be intentional about the kinds of stories we're trying to champion because that's what makes it worth going into the business side. But that often means, where we're not sacrificing on quality of the visual or story, we do end up sacrificing financially."

Having made its world premiere at TIFF 2023, Bria Mack Gets a Life will debut on Crave on October 13 and feature an exciting voice in the Canadian media landscape. The satirical and brazenly comedic show follows the trials and tribulations of recent graduate Bria (played by a wonderful Malaika Hennie-Hamadi), who moves home to live with her mother Marie (Leslie Adlam) as she navigates entering the corporate world. 

As showrunner, writer and co-director with Fyffe-Marshall, Henry created the show loosely based on her own experiences working in an office, specifically an instance she encountered when a graceless coworker felt the need to touch her hair. 

"I'd experienced these awkward interactions and I didn't know what to say or do. I definitely didn't have the vocabulary that we do now as a society to describe what was happening," recalls Henry. "[In Bria] we follow person goes in their head. The journey of how they wish they could react, even if it is inappropriate."

Henry brings to life that inappropriate voice via the fantastically named Black Attack (Hannan Younis). A Black Panther-suited hype girl, Black Attack pops up when Bria is confronted with astoundingly tone-deaf remarks from colleagues and moments of indecision or bad choices.

Through Bria and Black Attack, Bria Mack Gets a Life delves into the subtle and not-so-subtle, unconscious and not-so-unconscious racist rhetoric ethnic minorities face on a daily basis with humour and heart, elevating the significance and poignancy of the narrative.

"It's just in the ways that you tell the stories, what you wrap that in — wrap it in comedy, wrap it in familiarity — I think [that] makes it that much more powerful," Fyffe-Marshall explains. "You're watching it and you're not like, 'This is the message.'"

"Ryan Cavan [co-writer of Slash/Back] once said, as a writer — but I think this applies to all art — your job is to figure out what's been said, how recently has it been said, who said it, does it bear repeating, and who does it bear repeating by," notes Henry. "I tried to keep that in mind. Bria is asking of a young Black woman who might have experienced all of these things, or gone to a predominantly white institution, what comes after? There are echoes from the centre zone that a lot of the marginalized storytelling is focused on. [Bria] has remnants of that, but it's taking us to a new place, a new direction."

She continues, "Sometimes we're just asking: what are you not seeing? For example, in the case of Marie, often the immigrant mother is working two to three jobs to make ends meet to give their kids anything. What if she just had one job and she was successful? We've already changed the landscape of what Black mom characters look like, because now there's not just only that version of it, there's this one as well."

They never did get to pitch Lee that Toronto evening, but after hearing Fyffe-Marshall and Henry breathlessly recall Operation: Spike Lee during our conversation, it's clear their motivation, passion and work ethic are aligning in such a manner that the stars are bound to follow. When I remark to them that the greatest thing about that story is that, in 20 years time, they'll be able to share in this memory and laugh at their failure together, I begin to understand the bonds that spur them onward.

Fyffe-Marshall offers, "We're pretty insane to be in an industry that constantly tells you 'no,' and you show up every day with a 'yes' attitude."

Henry interjects, "Well at least these three other people are also nuts like I am." 

"Oh, we're crazy," Fyffe-Marshall acknowledges. "But because we love what we do, and we also love working with each other — we're all genuinely really close friends — it makes the insanity feel worth it."

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