Black Woman Creator: Eliyannah Amirah Yisrael
Eliyannah Amirah is a creative professional with a wealth of experience in both independent and studio systems. In addition to producing and directing independent projects for over 10 years, Eliyannah has worked on films and episodic material for Sony, FOX, NBC, Lionsgate, ABC/Disney, Warner Brothers and Participant Media among others. Beginning her educational career at Chicago State University with a BA in Communications, Media Arts and Theatre, Eliyannah continued her studies in Loyola Marymount University’s MFA Production Program. Eliyannah’s voice and stories are made up of the voices and the stories of black women and other women of color. She’s interested in who we were, who we are and who we’re becoming. She is the director of the upcoming web series, Hermione Granger and the Quarter-Life Crisis, which focuses on Hermione’s life post-Hogwarts and the second Wizarding War. We spoke to her about the web series, Harry Potter, and what inspires her to create.
Black Girls Create: What do you create?
This is actually my first time doing something remotely comedic. I normally tend to do drama and I’ve done a few short films. I’ve done a few pilot episodes of web series’, but I’ve never done a full season or multiple seasons of a web series. This is also the first time I’ve fallen into anything metahuman or anything non-traditionally human, but I kind of feel like I can’t say I’m delving into it because it’s Hermione and it’s magic. But I tend to do dramas with a lot of internal conflict. That tends to be my thing,
BGC: What draws you to drama, specifically?
I feel like it’s a cliche answer to say it’s about people overcoming, and to be honest I don’t think that it. It’s just the kind of books that I like to read. I just listened to the Goblet of Fire chapter 1 podcast, and there was a part where Frank was hanging around being nosy and to be honest, that’s really what it is for me. I’m really interested in people, and books, movies, and creating the kind of stuff allows you to be nosy without jumping into real folks’ business. Looking at how would you handle that, what would you do. It allows you to have those nosy conversations without actually being an asshole. I’m drawn to drama.
BGC: Yeah I get that. I don’t like to be in drama, but I like to know what’s going on, you know? It’s like you want to be a fly on the wall.
Yeah, the thing is in real life, I actually have the least amount of drama around me as possible, because I don’t like to deal with drama. People who are messy in their personal lives are not people who I keep around, but I do like to keep an eye on them because I find it entertaining, to be honest.
BGC: Are you pulling any of that real life, entertaining drama into this fictional world? Are you trying to tell Hermione’s story on two different levels?
I actually think that the idea that Muggles become magical people and then they leave the rest of the world behind and live in this cocoon of magical-ness doesn’t ring true to me in the books. It never felt accurate. Dean Thomas is not going to no longer speak to the rest of his family once he’s out of the house, it doesn’t make sense. These are his people. And I felt like we don’t get any part of Hermione’s family. She got wrapped up in fixing everything, but I think that once Hermione has a chance to breathe, she would come back to who she was. Like she even took a Muggle Studies class because she was interested in learning about it from a magical perspective. I don’t think that’s something that she’s just going to give up. I also think that that new generation of people after the war would approach the world differently than before. Coming out of something like that, they would be more worldly than their parents were. As they got older, they would be able to understand that it was being small-minded that ended up ruining their world.
BGC: Is that what made you decide to write this project, or was there a specific moment where you were like, ‘I’m going to write about this’?
I actually read a lot of fan fiction, I love fan fiction. I was volunteering at Sundance Film Festival, and I was re-reading this story that I love called “Friend Number Three” and for years I’ve been wanting to shoot and make a live action trailer or something of this fic that I like. I’ve been wanting to have my hands in that space for a while, so I was re-reading “Friend Number Three” and it was so smart and so zippy and them being normal people after all this stuff had sort of settled. I also had kind of an emotional breakdown at Sundance. “I’m 32 and volunteering at this festival and I don’t even have money for food every day and why? I’m a smart person, why am I here with no money?” I just felt so frustrated and it converged with me reading this book, and I thought what if this Hermione was me, but younger, because I didn’t want to see Hermione at 32.
I am from the Southside of Chicago and grew up there during the 90s, so making movies never crossed my mind. It wasn’t a thing that black people did, it wasn’t even like I thought about it and dismissed it. It wasn’t anything that occurred to me until college. I went to grad school out here in LA and going into my third year it was 2008, the economy was crashing, so suddenly I couldn’t get approved for my loan. So they were like “by the way, you’ll have to pay for summer school, so just write us a check for $14k.” I was like, I didn’t know humans asked other humans for $14k checks and was told to call a family member. I’m like, who’s family? Who can I just ask for $14k? We’ll write all the checks you want but there’s no money behind it. So I ended up not being in school, living out of my car, and sleeping on couches. Meanwhile, I was the person everyone knew was going to take over the world because I was so smart and suddenly, it was just like OMG. It was just unexpected.
The only reason I didn’t make Hermione the age that I am now is because I think I’m just more self-aware than when I was 25. As you get older you have a better idea of yourself and I felt like, for it to be honest for her to create as much of a mess as she’s creating I thought she needed to be a little bit younger for the story that I wanted to tell. It’s rooted in the real world because that is how I like to think about them. I am not telling JK Rowling’s story anyway, so I might as well tell it the way I want to tell it. I’m not telling her story anymore. Hermione’s whole ending is going to be different. I hate the way Hermione ended up in the epilogue.
BGC: Why do you hate it?
A couple of reasons. Again, I was a little bit older when I started to read the books, so the first movies were out and I was in college when I started the books. I started at book 3 and as a 20 year old I thought it was cool that it was a book of just three friends, that it was two dudes and a girl that were just friends, I thought it was awesome. And then you saw the Ron stuff happening, and you saw her dropping the hints but I was like it’s fine, they’re in high school. They’re in a super stressful situation. Of course they’re going to crush each other, no problems. But once they get out of high school and things get normal again, they’ll just be friends, and I would love to see these people be friends at 45 years old. And I also felt like, and this is kind of what the show touches on, we get the impression that when she first got her letter and when she first got to Hogwarts, this whole new world of possibilities had opened up for her. This was a girl who, even in her Muggle life, she was the same person at her Muggle school, overachiever, top of the class. And now suddenly she’s got this explanation for the strange things that were happening, so I imagine when she went to Hogwarts like oh my god, I could probably make a new Earth if I wanted to. And then she gets sucked into this Voldemort, Harry, Ron thing that takes over her life for the next seven years. I just felt like by the time she was in her late 30s she would’ve gotten back to herself, and that epilogue makes me feel like she never did.
BGC: How did you originally read Hermione, and when did that come to you?
So my insight was that Hermione is Black but a whitewashed Black in that she’s the only child of two dentists, two doctors. It’s completely going to color her relationship with the world. I imagined she grew up in a predominately white upper middle class neighborhood, she’s vacationing in France. She this only child of these two wealthy adults, and then she’s being written by this white woman, so she’s a whitewashed black person. I also think that there is a bit of this “exceptional negro”-ness to Hermione because she’s written by this white person. Again, thinking of her as this black girl and she’s the smartest person in her generation and I loved that about her. A lot of it is apart of her personality, she wants to be that overachiever but there is that tokenism in that she’s the only black person in her primary school, and I imagine her parents are a little bougie so she is also getting that rhetoric of you have to be twice as good. So she’s at school like, I have to be at the top, I have to be better than everybody, because I am the exceptional black. And so I think she is a whitewashed, exceptional Black person, and she’s being written by a white woman, who’s great, very creative, smart, talented, but she’s still a white woman.
The first two movies were out when I started to read the books, so my first introduction to Hermione was Emma Watson. So initially I hadn’t imagined Hermione, she just was Emma Watson. It wasn’t until I started seeing some of the race-bent stuff online. I stumbled upon Black Hermione on DeviantArt and it blew my mind and then I started to rethink some of those cues. I don’t think she set out to make her a black character, but there are so many cues about her that read specifically as black. I just think that maybe she did and maybe just the climate of writing this story in the 90s didn’t give her the chance to put this black girl at the front and center of the story. And I think that she had good intentions in writing this exceptional negro character, because a lot of people love the black person who overcomes all of the stereotypes, it’s makes them feel good.
BGC: How did that change your relationship to the books?
It did change my relationship with her and specifically when I was in grad school, I was the only black female in my program. I felt a lot of pressure, even just from myself, to do better and to be better. I didn’t feel like I could make mistakes. And there was a lot that I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen the movies they had seen, I felt like Hermione at Hogwarts. I literally was watching two movies a day, like I’ve gotta get caught up, they all know so much. And they were talking about movies and meanwhile my movie library is like Boomerang and Mo’ Money, these very black movies. And I didn’t know about The Big Lebowski, that’s not something they played on my block. And even though I’m from the southside of Chicago, because I read so much and my parents started their own school, I grew up around a lot of Afrocentric kids and Black muslim kids. So it was a very Kwanzaa-centric southside of Chicago. There was this dichotomy of us being in the hood, but we were the African kids in the hood. Nobody knew if you were Pan-African or Muslim, because for some reason black folks confuse those a lot. But I went to grad school and was like I don’t know any of this stuff and I felt so much pressure to not mess up and I didn’t feel like I had anybody who could understand where I was coming from because I was the only black woman. There was another black guy, but I think we purposely stayed away from each other because we didn’t want to be two black kids hanging out because you’re just hyper aware of it.
So once I started seeing black Hermione, and I was in grad school when I saw it, I was instantly like “Oh my God.” Hermione at Hogwarts is me at LMU, I know exactly what this is. So it completely changed my relationship and I started to read the books completely different. I would love to have a one-on-one with J.K. Rowling and ask her whether she was trying to write a black character, or did it just happen that way because the culture needed it. I just need to know what the intention was. I think that it’s spot on, but I also think it’s tinted by having a white author and both things are true.
BGC: Did it change your relationship to the fandom?
This last year or two is my first time venturing out into the wider fandom. I didn’t really have a relationship with the fandom to change. This is my first time connecting on Twitter and going to conferences. It was just me and the books and DeviantArt and fanfic.net for a long time. It was a very singular relationship. But seeing how people responded to the casting of Hermione in the play, seeing the outrage and the response from the fandom, it was like I see what’s going on. It did change, but only recently. I’m dating the fandom but not broken up. We’ll have a good weekend, like LeakyCon, but then we’ll have some not-so-good weekends.
I have four siblings, three brothers and one sister, and we would all see the movies together. We were poor so there would be one book purchase and there were fights about who would read them first. So we were our own fandom, and I made assumptions that we wouldn’t fit in with the larger fandom. We would stick out at the movies. We would be at the movies and it was a lot of white folks and we were there in plain clothes thought we wouldn’t be welcome in the space. That was a fact for me and I just went with it.
At LeakyCon, I was really nervous presenting the show. Once I saw the stuff online, I knew there was a community of Black Potterheads and knew that they would appreciate having a black Hermione, and that Parvati Patil is a main character, but I wasn’t sure how the fandom would respond to me having a Black Hermione. But any time it came up at LeakyCon you would see the whitest kids but they were all excited that Hermione was black. My assumptions were incorrect and I’m so happy i was wrong.
BGC: What has been your favorite thing about making this series?
I’m going to say writing, and it’s because writing is something I shied away from for a long time because I felt like I needed to focus on one thing and get really strong from there. I knew I wanted to direct, so I really focused a lot on that and I haven’t done a lot of writing. I have two writers, but I lead the writing team, and work with them to make the story, and I wrote the teaser. But I want them to have an opportunity because I don’t want to be a writer professionally. The most I want to do is write the stuff that I direct, but I want them to have the chance to show what they can do, so I only wrote one episode. But really seeing myself as a writer, and us going back and forth, and coming up with the story has been more fun than I thought it would be.
BGC: What was the challenge about making the series?
The casting wasn’t fun. There are three characters that feature heavily on the show that people are familiar with: Hermione, Parvati Patil, and Draco Malfoy. And then we created some original characters. One is an American Muggle-born witch, Juniper, who lives with Parvati. She was created originally to be a Hispanic character, but we ended up casting an actor who wasn’t Hispanic, so her background is changing. And then I created an original character, Hermione’s Muggle cousin whose name is LaQuita Granger. The thing that drives me crazy is this concept of black names and wrongness and how it’s ghetto and stupid and all these things. I think I was trolling the fanbase a little bit. I just want them to love a person named LaQuita, because she’s amazing. And also, what does Hermione’s family look like? You never see Hermione’s family. Her parents weren’t born in a bubble, they have to have family. I also was thinking that the Grangers are a strong bunch, and I find those kind of names to be very black power, in the sense that after Roots, black folks didn’t know what to call themselves so they just started making it up. I appreciate that, that to me is very rooted in black power and black pride and black liberation. We think of these as ghetto names because they tend to be socioeconomically poor, but at the root of it it’s a very black pride thing to do, to have names combining two people’s names. And if you notice too, there’s a lot of sounds, we tend to like Qs and Ls and Ss and Ts and I feel like those are cultural cues. Those sounds come up a lot. Hence, LaQuita and the double capitals.
LaQuita’s original and she was the first actor that we cast. She came in and instantly we were like “she’s got it.” Parvati was the second person to be cast, and Hermione was the last person and it was so hard. I saw a lot of girls. The accent messed a lot of people up and I think some people couldn’t conceive of Hermione outside of where they had already seen her. What I didn’t want Hermione to do was regurgitate Emma Watson, I wanted them to think of Hermione as a 25 year old person. Not Harry’s fix-it friend. Also, when you’re casting, you know what you’re looking for. I always know when the person walks in the room. I feel it instantly. It’s Hermione Granger, she’s got to have a pizzaz. Hermione can’t be a snooze-fest. She’s the lead of the show. And I need to be confident, but for a long time I wasn’t confident in the people - and I met some lovely people - but you just know. So the actress we cast is fantastic, phenomenal.
BGC: What do you hope people get out of the series?
I actually don’t have a hope. I don’t know if that makes me a bad filmmaker. To a certain extent, of course you want people to like your work, but I also feel like I just want to make it and people get what they get. It really is just me wondering what Hermione would do, that’s the crux of it. What could her life had become if she got back to herself as opposed to being wrapped up in the Harry and Ron train. What could happen?
As far as what people get out of it, I don’t think there are any messages we’re teaching. So I don’t know what they’ll get out of it. Hopefully they’ll think that I’m a great director. Hopefully they’re like “damn she is talented.”
BD: I think that that’s real. I think that sometimes, especially as black people, we need to be able to create without having to have something attached to it. So I think that’s super legit. I’m just making this because I want to make it and not because I want to make some larger statement and represent all these people.
RJ: It goes back to when the creator is done creating it and it’s out in the world then it’s out of your hands. I think it’s great because there’s this freedom of not having expectations, so then I’m not going to feel like “oh you don’t get it.” So what do you want to create? Where do you want to go?
It took me a while to really figure out what my voice was. I think it’s a question that, if you’re going to be making work, you shouldn’t have an answer to it, because then you start to box yourself in. My voice is what interests me. That’s how I was able to figure out that I really truly just enjoy. I get a kick out of wondering to myself how people would handle different situations. One thing I do love is high fantasy. So magic, time travel, and other metaphysical elements. I love that stuff, I think that you’re able to expand your imagination so much. Futuristic stories don’t hold a lot of interest for me because there are so many periods that have already happened that are already fascinating enough for me. I love the stuff that’s not separate from this world. It was reading that made me want to make films, I loved to read. And some of my favorite books are set in a made up place, and it’s not rooted in the world that we’re in. This concept that you can just create a place, because why not. So that’s the kind of stuff I’m into. The fantasy and high fantasy elements that asks the questions of who a person is, existing in this island of humans and creatures, but how does that person deal with losing a child in this world? So it’s still these internal conflicts and real world issues. I don’t think we stop being humans just because the world is different.
I’m totally fine with slave movies, make 10 million more of them as long as they’re good films - but it’s almost like black people disappeared from the country after the Civil War and until Civil Rights - and then there was a tiny period for the Harlem Renaissance where all the black people were in New York being creative. But it’s like we had some millennial parties in 1899 leading into 1900 you know? There were people in the city and there were folks in the South. We were there, we were around, we were asking questions, and marrying folks, and falling in love, and being pissed off, and I wonder what would it be like to be black in that time but to have a supernatural element to yourself.
BGC: Who or what inspired you to create and/or continues to inspire you?
I feel like I should start naming all these people, but the truth is that I just have a lot of pride and I’m embarrassed to give up and sometimes that’s not even a good thing. Sometimes you need to say this isn’t working. My mom calls it stubbornness but I like to think of it as being very determined. Once I decide to do something, once I have it in my head I can’t fathom not doing it. I persevere because I don’t know when to throw in the towel for better or for worse. I’m like “no! This could still happen” and the house is literally burning down. And I’m like “the house isn’t burnt down. It’s just currently burning. That means it can stop.” That’s who I am as a person.
But I will say, my grandmother died when I was eight but when I was seven, I told her I wanted to be on the Mickey Mouse Club. And at that age, you’re super impressionable. We’re this normal poor black family from Chicago, and I told her this. And I liked her response, because she didn’t act like it was ridiculous that I wanted to be on the show. She instantly thought it was possible, and it wasn’t condescending, it was a possibility. A few weeks later, she found an advertisement that the casting director was casting and you could do it and get on the show. And we talked about if I would get it, it was such a practical conversation. Her doing that let me know that anything is possible and it was practical and possible. Even though I didn’t know at the time that I wanted to do film, it put in my head that anything is possible. When I got into film it gave me confidence. When you’re young you’re aware enough to know when you’re being condescended to and you know when adults aren’t taking you seriously. She planted a seed of confidence that when I got older, I knew there was a way. My mom is great though, she started her own school, I graduated high school from my mom’s school. There was this ongoing cycle of finding a way to not close the school down, so my foundation was in this person. I was taught how to use a computer by a homeless schizophrenic. My mom knew him before he was diagnosed, and then she saw him on the street one day, and she knew that when he was good with computers so she had him teach us. She was just creative and found a way.
BGC: How do you balance creating with the rest of your life?
You do have to find a balance. There is some work to be done there, I need to find a better balance. I do get into the mode where I get tunnel vision and I don’t call home as much as I should. Thankfully there is a good core of people who love me and forgive me. But I’m also single and that makes a difference. I don’t know how that will affect things if I ever get into a romantic relationship. I think I find a balance because my sister and I work together, I guess it’s balance by merging the two and not trying to keep them separate. We talk about what’s happening in production and in the same thread will talk about what’s happening in our lives. The balance is to merge, which works for me.
BGC: What advice would you give to young creators or people just starting to create?
I would say to be honest with people that you’re working with. Sometimes being honest can be embarrassing, sometimes being honest doesn’t put you in the best light. It’s important to find people that you trust enough to be honest with. I think too, you can’t be afraid to dream a little bit, you have to be ambitious and I find that your ambition forces you to find a way to make it happen. Just try. For awhile I was trying to emulate the people who I saw around me and approach like I had all these answers, and I knew what I wanted to make and I know my voice. But when I got older and had done more work, I realized I just have to create what I want to create. Allow yourself to be free and to be fearless.
I think it’s really important to talk about what you’re doing. Don’t tell me you’re doing something if you’re not serious because I will hold you to that. Tell everyone what you’re doing because you never know what they’re going to offer. Anything I want to do I just keep talking about it. When I came up with the idea [for the Hermione Series] in January, I told this girl about the series, and at that point it was literally just me and an idea. I really had nothing, but I just told people, and now we’re about to start shooting. Put it out there and stand behind it. Give yourself dates and deadlines. I originally wanted this show to premiere September 19, for Hermione’s birthday, but it didn’t happen. But because I was pushing for that date I was making progress. A lot of times I just pick arbitrary dates.
BGC: Any future projects you’re working on?
I have a project I want to figure out how to get written and one that I think can be produced fairly easily. And I also have this project that I want to do, but I can’t start until I wrap this season with Hermione. But it’s this epic music video project that’s going to come out in June of 2018. I’ll be releasing an epic black female video project. Epic!