Filmmaker Avery Kelley—who is 15—is adding her name to the list of creatives eager to present authentic and respectable images of Blackness to the world.
Raised on Chicago’s South Side, she witnessed successful, enterprising Black businesswomen who inspired her to pursue the arts. Originally a dancer, Avery found her talent in film, writing and producing content. In the four years since she started her production company, Inspired Melanin, she’s garnered award after award for her works, which include a historic documentary on the impact of the Soul Train television show, as well as a documentary on Chicago’s storied Studio One Dance Theater.
Critically acclaimed, her most recent work, The All-Aroundz, is touring film festivals stateside and internationally. More than just a worker, she’s equally known for her commitment to social causes, which includes her Give Love and Carry On fundraiser, which donates clothing to foster children.
Hip-Hop Wired: How are you? Recently, your organization hosted a clothing drive for foster children, called “Give Love and Carry On.” What inspired you to choose this as a fundraiser for you and yours?
Avery: I found out about the plight of children in the foster care system from my mother, and from there I began researching to learn more about the situation. I know that I can’t just solve every single problem that goes on within the foster care system, but I wanted to start somewhere, so I knew this was a way that I could start. I started by deciding to raise duffel bags and luggage tasks. That’s where the idea came from. I did research, saw a problem and wanted to fix it.
It’s a great idea! Who were some of the sponsors for your event?
Oh my gosh, we have an entire list of sponsors. So I’m so incredibly grateful for it. I’ve never had sponsors for anything in my life. So to be able to have it for this event, to be able to help us raise these bags just really warms my heart. I can name the main six. First, we have Riley’s Way Foundation. They were not only a sponsor, but are also the fiscal sponsor for the Give Love Carry On event as it’s not a nonprofit. Next, we have Over Time Elite, which is an Atlanta-based basketball league with teenagers. They are amazing. For the event, they donated bags for foster children. They also donated swag bags filled with game day tickets and merch to be able to give to the guests.
Then we have True Star Media, which is a Chicago-based youth media program. We have Project Osmosis, which is also Chicago-based but works nationally. They help students throughout the arts. Fifth, there’s Project I Am, which works to be able to create blessing bags for the homeless. And last, we have my production company, Inspired Melanin.
You were born and raised in Chicago and recently moved down to Atlanta. What was life like for you growing up in Chicago, particularly on the South Side?
Growing up in Chicago is amazing. It’s the best. It’s the best city in the world. And I know, I know there may be just a little bit of bias to that because I’m from there, but I’m serious. I grew up in a very family-based environment. I lived no more than like six minutes away from my grandmother my entire life. Of course, I know there’s always the serious type of Chicago that has violence and shootings, but there’s so much more to it than that. I grew up around so many powerful black women who inspired me to be able to go after what I wanted. I went to great schools with great teachers who helped shape people and helped shape me. I loved growing up there, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.
Was film your first dream? If not, how long did it take for you to recognize you had a talent behind the lens?
It’s not something that I knew originally. I’ve always known that I wanted to do something that has to do with the arts. I’ve been dancing since I was 2 years old, and at my dance studio, I was around so many entrepreneurial-based mindsets that I always knew it was something that I wanted to do. I just didn’t necessarily know which art field yet. I originally assumed, “oh, hey, I’m going to be the next Zendaya or Viola Davis.” So I kind of went after that dream, and I did different auditions.
During one audition, we had to write our monologue. I wrote a little monologue, and I performed it. And I was like, “OK, the self-tape was OK, but this monologue was pretty good!” I was only like 9 or 10 at the time though, and so after writing that monologue, I told my mom I like this. I was able to find my passion from that. And it was very unexpected, but I’m so grateful for it because film is like one of the best things ever. And I’m so glad I get to be able to tell different stories through this art form.
I think the world is grateful that you found it, too. So from this seed of screenwriting, you started a production company, named Inspired Melanin. What’s the inspiration behind the name?
It’s such a funny story to me. When I knew I wanted to start a production company at 11, I completed my very first short film called Backrow, which is about a group of seven kids that all sat in the back row of class. I didn’t want to just stop here. So I researched what a production company was and said “OK, but what am I going to call it?” I knew what I wanted to do. I knew that I wanted to be able to represent the underrepresented, which is a kind of umbrella. But I didn’t know the name. That same morning I was talking to my mom about tattoos I wanted. I was 11. Why am I over here thinking about tattoos, I don’t know! But I was telling my mom I wanted a tattoo on both arms, one saying inspired, and the other saying melanin.
Suddenly, I was like, “oh, wait, that kind of has a nice little ring to it.” My parents were like, “Why don’t you name the company that? It aligns with the mission that you want to be able to do.” It’s two tattoos that I wanted at the time and two tattoos that I still want, not just because of the name of the company, but because through the work that I do, I want to be able to inspire melanated people.
There’s a constant theme of representing teenagers and making art for teenagers. As you begin to grow, is your focus going to remain on inspiring teenagers?
I’m a teenager right now so I want to be able to write work that’s for teenagers in the future. When I’m an adult, I want to be able to do that as well and tell adult stories. I want to be able to explore a bunch of different avenues and use them to inspire this generation. For example, my favorite show is A Different World. It’s touched so many people and left a positive impact on the black community. It affected everything from music, style and television and just changed so many different things. A Different World made my dad go to college. And so when thinking about just the impact that film can have, that’s kind of similar to the impact that I want to be able to have.
You grew up around the type of Black excellence that people associate with Atlanta. Why did your family move to Atlanta?
I moved right before my freshman year. So it was the very end of my eighth grade. My family and I decided to move to Atlanta because it is such a huge film hub. There are so many more opportunities in the film space in Atlanta currently than there are in Chicago. Once I arrived here, my mom mentioned the Black Girls Film Camp to me in 2022 after scrolling on Instagram. When those applications opened at the end of 2022, I was like, “this is the time for me to apply.” I applied on the last day, made a pitch video and submitted it at almost 11:59 p.m.!
And when I got my interview and found out that I was accepted, I was like, “oh my gosh, this is God.” Because I almost missed this amazing opportunity, Black Girls Film Camp has changed my life. It changed the way that I see myself as a storyteller, the way that I see myself as a writer, a director and a creative. It’s opened so many doors for me to be able to explore different fields of the industry and meet so many Black women powerhouses, like those who are heavy hitters in the industry currently in the past.
Tell me about the films you’ve made. What was your first work and how did it come to be?
Back Row, which I touched on a little bit before, was the first script that I ever wrote. It was my very first short film that I ever did. I was able to have it in a film festival and it got a lot of amazing feedback. Next was the Teen Dom Talk Show, which originally started as Teen Dom. It was my project. It was a talk show for the kids, the teens and everyone in between that I began back in 2020. It was non-scripted, and we had two full seasons of the show, one of which was all livestream while the other was pre-recorded. Then I have the Soul Train Soul Change documentary. It originally started as a school project for the Chicago Metro History Fair, but it advanced to the National History Day Competition and won one of the best Illinois entries. It was also highlighted in a week-long exhibit in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
After that, I did a 10-minute documentary, called One Step at a Time, which is the first feature-length documentary I’ve done. It is one of the projects closest to my heart because it focuses on the story of my dance studio, Studio One Dance Theater in the Chicago area that highlights Black excellence, black love, black sisterhood and family. Due to the pandemic, it was unfortunately shut down. That brings me to my most recent work, The All Aroundz, which is a short film that I did as a part of the Black Girls Film Camp 2023 cohort. I’m so grateful and blessed and thankful to Black Girls Film Camp because thanks to them and thanks to this experience, I was able to enter into so many different festivals. Also, more projects are coming soon.
How have your parents helped you in your journey?
I’m so grateful because without my parents none of this would be happening. First, legally, I’m a minor. Beyond the legal aspect, they’re just my biggest supporters and they know that this is something that I genuinely want to do. They have done nothing but constantly support me throughout this entire process and helped me balance doing filmmaking, school, dance, and all of these other fantastic things; school, which is a top priority for them.
Do you have any final thoughts?
I do want to say that for the Love Carries On Drive, we still are accepting donations until the end of this year. We are looking for the goal to be able to raise 1000 duffel bags for foster children in need. My social media has a link labeled Love Carries On Drive, and you can learn all the information about the drive. From there you can click the Amazon wish list to donate and then just click the Love Carries On address and send a bag over. We are looking for as many bag donations as possible. Feel free to follow the Love Carries On Drive on Instagram. You can also follow my Instagram @askaveryk for Love Carries On Drive updates as well as for film updates and more. Last, check out the Inspired Melanin website. We’re updating it.
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