In West African communities the task of preserving the cultural and historical legacy was left up to the “griot”–a class of musicians, poets, or other storytellers—who passed down these traditions. Like many words transposed between different cultures and languages, there is no literal translation in English for a “griot,” since they variously serve as advisors, ambassadors, historians, interpreters, masters of ceremonies, and other community services. This largely hereditary position helped keep the past alive for cultures not content with the use of the printed word.
Today, of course, the information age gives us myriad vehicles to communicate intangible ideas for vast segments of the masses, which might otherwise be underrepresented. Independent writer/director Nia Malika Dixon is a millennium-era standard bearer of this storytelling tradition whose most recent offering, the digital series “East of La
Brea” has recently wrapped under the banner of newly formed Powderkeg Media (https://powderkegmedia.com/). Conceived to showcase creators and filmmakers who are female, LGBTQ and ethnic, Powderkeg specially focuses on digital content.
‘East of La Brea’
“East of La Brea” garners special attention since it centers on the changing demographics of Los Angeles. Set in the transitional neighborhood of Korea Town, it follows the adventures of two 20-something roommates, a Bangladeshi-American and a Muslim African American, as they negotiate the growing pains of independence. It also heralds the rise of Dixon, a new, distinctive voice in visual storytelling.
Dixon’s own story begins across the country in Baltimore, a city with its own stellar storytelling tradition whose standard bearers include Ta-Nehisi Coates, W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neal Hurston, Edgar Allan Poe, Wes Moore, and David Simon.
Dixon’s path was charted by her mother, a Muslim and retired educator. Her childhood was spent between her paternal grandparents, a pioneering Black fireman in the suburban community of Randallstown, and her mother’s West Baltimore home in Park Heights, near the landmark Pimlico Racetrack.
Following her mother’s legacy, she chose a career as a school teaching while honing her chops writing articles, short stories, and other literary in her spare time. Along the way, she raised two children, who are now in college.
“Of all the jobs I do, mothering is the one of which I’m most proud,” she says of her offspring, who both continue her legacy as writers.
As her career in education continued, the urge to tell stories, coupled with her passion to see stories involving Black Muslim women on the Hollywood platform, compelled her to cash out her 401k, and head west to Tinsletown.
Making her mark
Flow state-An altered state of consciousness in which the mind functions at its peak, time may seem distorted, and a sense of happiness prevails. In such a state the individual feels truly alive and fully attentive to what is being done.
—From the Free Dictionary online.
“These exceptional moments are what I have called “flow” experiences. The metaphor of “flow” is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as ‘aesthetic rapture.’”
—From Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1997.
Upon her arrival, she fortuitously gained employment at the Grove’s flagship Nike store. With the permission of her supervisor, she secured permission to stage her first film there. “Temporary Loss of Power,” a 2007 short film is about two women and their struggle to survive and thrive in the corporate world. During this shoot, she experienced a moment of clarity, wherein she and the rest of her crew developed a “synergy,” wherein they bonded together as one unified force towards completing the best film possible.
Among other lucky breaks was the opportunity to work as a development assistant for Morgan Freeman’s production company.
While she didn’t go to film school, Dixon secured her skills through on the job training.
“I learned by working on other people’s film sets,” she remembers.
By doing so, she has worked in virtually every position on a film crew.
“I know what’s required of every person on a film set, and since I’ve worked them all, I have a high standard expectation for the work.”
Part of this learning experience included tenure on a student film directed by an up and coming film auteur, Ryan Coogler (as second assistant director on his USC thesis film “Fig”).
The Pain of Conformity
Certain themes recur in Dixon’s growing filmography. “East of La Brea” and “Temporary Loss of Power,” focus on individuals striving to flourish in oppositional environments.
Her (female) protagonists experience conflict as their identity as a whole clash with their ability to pursue their professions and/or survive in the world at large.
“The primary focus of my work is to share authentic stories of Black Muslims, centering on Black Muslim girls and women,” she says, acknowledging the ongoing premise in her scripts.
In “Vengeful,” a homicide detective conceals her Muslim religion while advancing in the misogynistic boys club of the Los Angeles Police Department. In “The Trap,” another Muslim woman goes against the tenets of her faith, when she makes the decision to take over a major narcotics syndicate to financially provide for her child (a scenario inspired by actual events).
“Not only does it provide the much needed, representation of my audience members on the screens, it also shares stories that connect all of us, as humanity, and fosters empathy for one another,” she continues, using scripture to drive home her point.
“As stated by my favorite verse in The Qur’an, Al-Hujurat, 49:13:
‘O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.’”
Moving towards Inclusion
Audaz – audacious bold, daring.
In 2006, Dixon launched Audaz Entertainment, an independent production company, (https://audazentertainment.wordpress.com/) with the stated purpose of sharing “…compelling, diverse, and inclusive stories that entertain and inspire audiences worldwide.” In the works is her first foray into the realm of documentary filmmaking, “The Muslim Women” series, projected to be a narrative portrayal of diverse women of the Islamic faith in various guises and locales (https://themuslimwomenseries.wordpress.com/). Dixon encourages other women from various backgrounds to contribute in her quest to provide “…an authentic answer to the skewed narratives of Muslim Women that are presented in the current media.”
For more information on this new and compelling voice, go to: https://niamalikadixon.wordpress.com/
Her website, specifically dedicated to empowering girls of color is: https://bmgfly.com/, while her cinematic output is at https://www.youtube.com/NiaMalikaDixonPresents, or https://vimeo.com/niamalikadixon.