Cai Thomas says that it’s important not to put limits on what’s possible in one’s career. She reflects that if anyone would’ve told her just a year ago that she would have a film premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival and airing on BET Networks, she would’ve asked what in the world they were talking about. Fast forward to the summer of 2021 and Thomas’ documentary is preparing to make its cable television debut truly fulfilling a dream come true.
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With Queen Collective, Procter & Gamble has partnered with Queen Latifah and Tribeca Studios to spotlight and promote the work of Black women who are committed to telling diverse and rich stories representing communities of color.
In Change the Name, Thomas tells the story of a group of young Black freedom fighters and their educators, who tried to get the name of a park in Chicago changed from that of a slaveholder to the names of two abolitionists, Anna and Frederick Douglass. The documentary serves as living proof that a local movement in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood can inspire and embolden a generation and demonstrate that change is indeed possible.
Thomas discussed with BET.com just how important community is to her and how it inspired her to become a filmmaker.
BET.com: When did you first fall in love with filmmaking and when did you realize that you wanted to make them?
Cai Thomas: It wasn’t just one moment. It’s been a collection of moments for me. As a kid, I really was information hungry. It wasn’t really until I went to college that I started to learn about independent cinema and be exposed to different filmmakers that weren’t blockbusters, things with emotional depth that made me feel. I was kind of like the family documentarian and so it’s really fun to see my earlier camera work. My love of filmmaking has just been an evolution and something that I feel really blessed and fortunate that I’m able to do. It’s been really amazing to be a working filmmaker at this time and in this moment, and I’m really excited for the rollout of the film.
BET.com: How would you describe the power of film—what do you think makes it so powerful?
Cai Thomas: Film has the power to inform and also misinform. A big part of why I’m interested in documentary filmmaking is so that when events happen, they can’t be questioned. It was important for me to document those young folks because I never wanted people to question or say that’s not possible. My filmmaking is really important to serve as an archive of the world that I’m living in.
BET.com: How do you choose to celebrate or memorialize Juneteenth?
Cai Thomas: It’s very interesting to see that larger corporations are aware of what Juneteenth is. For me, it’s really important to keep the integrity of it and realize that there was a time when we were enslaved. How is the world changing? How is the world trying to shift to become a better experience for Black folks? I think there is a lot of systemic inequities that still exist, but for us to celebrate Juneteenth as a moment of Black joy is really powerful.
I really want young folks to watch the film. It’s a big moment for me as a director, but it’s also a big moment for these young folks, that their organizing is going to be recognized on a national scale.
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BET:.com What advice would you give to other people trying to break into the film industry and how can they have their voices heard and their stories told?
Cai Thomas: The advice that I would give is to surround yourself, especially in documentary, with folks that aren’t just filmmakers. It is important to be a person who’s living in the world and paying attention and interacting with folks from various walks of life. And do the projects that you can’t get out of your head, because working on a film is a lot of time, sometimes years. They definitely take a lot of patience.
BET.com: Why should people watch Change the Name? What makes this film so special and powerful?
Cai Thomas: There’s a real power in being educated as a young Black person by another Black person. There aren’t enough Black teachers. I think it’s really powerful to show kids even as young as kindergarten age to be like, ‘Hey, if we see an issue in our community, we can galvanize and try to change it.’ What these young folks did is really powerful and the relationship that they have with their educators is really something else.