Kwame Edwards says his journey as an award-winning filmmaker took off long before the trip to China that would birth the popular “Black in China” film series. In the years leading up to that experience, he studied Hype Williams’ groundbreaking videography while grappling with the question of how best to financially support himself.
Up until undergraduate graduation, a lucrative law career seemed the most sensible route. However, as time went on and the conditions that Edwards and other District residents faced weighed more heavily on his conscious, putting those stories on the silver screen would ultimately serve as the more fulfilling option.
“[As a child,] I didn’t understand the intersections of class and race, but I understood that my parents had less because they had jobs that didn’t net much,” said Edwards, founder of KMATiKC Media, LLC, a film company focused on highlighting stories of the African Diaspora. He’s currently in the research phase of a documentary about people of African descent living in English-speaking countries.
In July, the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment named Edwards filmmaker of the month, an honor he said speaks to his level of community support he receives, including that from elders that poured their all into him and those who don’t fully understand his decision to embark on a career path of intrinsic value.
“Society puts more of an emphasis on the income of positions — for example, lawyers,” Edwards said. “I initially pursued law because it was a field where I saw as a way to earn a well-paying salary. Once I decided I did not want to actually practice as a lawyer, I still thought that people would pay me more just because I had earned a [Juris Doctor] degree while working as a sports agent.
“I needed certain life experiences, like living abroad, to show me that I can’t chase money,” he said. “It works for some people but that’s not what’s going to keep me going every day.”
Edwards’ most recent feature-length documentary, “68,” signifies a continuation of his work highlighting aspects of the Black experience. He said the film title alludes to the approximate square mileage of the nation’s capital, and the metaphorical box that Black D.C. residents of different backgrounds find themselves in while navigating a former Chocolate City.
The April premiere of “68” at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia and an August screening at nearby We Act Radio brought together audiences that watched as various generations of Black people recounted their experiences and weighed in on the District’s racial and class-based divisions. Edwards said the film issues a call to action for D.C.’s Black residents to regain control of their communities.
“If you live here as a Black person, you experience things differently, and it starts from your interactions at the local market, post office, or with various establishments in your community,” Edwards said. “My film is about how we receive disparate treatment that translates into a myriad of unfortunate circumstances.”
A study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that the District had the highest intensity of gentrification out of any U.S. city within a 13-year span. Since 2000, tens of thousands of Black Washingtonians moved into the outskirts of the city and other places under financial duress as swaths of affluent white people took their places.
Nationwide, more than 100,000 Black and Latino people experienced displacement, the study said.
Meanwhile, Edwards, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and American University, forged his path as a diasporic storyteller with the production of the “Black in China” series, which followed 88 Black Americans living in the People’s Republic of China. Another project, “Black in Doha,” chronicled a similar experience for Black people living in Doha, Qatar.
With “68” came the opportunity to juxtapose D.C.’s reputation as the center of the free world with the harsh realities of a dwindling population. Production for the film took nearly two years, due mostly to what Edwards’ business partner Marcus Long described as Edwards’ passion for the subject matter and close attention to detail.
“Things don’t fall to the wayside with Kwame — ’68’ was at the forefront of every conversation,” said Long, a video journalist and Edwards’ colleague of six years.
“It wasn’t just the shooting schedule, but figuring out where to go with it and selecting the order things would go in,” Long said. “We debated and had correspondence about the simplest things. You have to have a level of meticulousness and care about your work for it to look good.”