Back Row (from left): Tobi Omodehinde (actress in film), Inger Tudor (actress in film/talent); James Bland (Executive Producer of Film, Writer/Creator and Star of “Giants”); J. August Richards (student film mentor). Front Row (from left) Troi Henderson (writer); I’shanee Ford (actress in film); Congresswoman Maxine Waters; Kelsey Scott (student acting coach), and Ayo Afolayan (actress in film). (Photo by Maury Phillips)

Last week marked the culmination of the 2019 HBCU in LA program, an 8- to 10-week summer experience during which HBCU students from across the country gain access to coveted opportunities in the entertainment industry through training and internships. As they pursue paid internship positions, they are housed in Los Angeles free of charge, ensuring that they are not barred from participating due to low-income status. HBCU in LA is the signature program of the Entertainment Industry College Outreach Program (EICOP), a recruitment and diversity program that seeks to give students of all backgrounds the tools needed to succeed in the entertainment industry.

The 30 students who participated this year got to show off what they learned on August 6, when they screened “Uchawi,” a short film that they wrote, produced and directed with the help of their mentors. The screening was held at the headquarters of SAG-AFTRA, one of the entertainment industry’s largest labor unions and the host of three 2019 HBCU in LA interns.

From left: James Bland, J. August Richards, I’Shanee Ford, Ayo Abigail, Cole Mason (Co-Director), Mia Joseph (Co-Director), Troi Henderson, Jonathan Kee (Associate Producer); and Stacy Milner answer questions in a post-film Q&A session. (Photo by Maury Phillips)

Stacy Milner, the founder of EICOP, opened the event by welcoming the audience and expressing her excitement about the program.

“I couldn’t be more proud of what we are doing,” Milner said. “We are truly creating a pipeline for students to have access into what I call Hollywood’s coveted inner circle.”

Milner was followed by SAG-AFTRA’s Chief People Officer Tashia Mallette, who introduced herself as a proud HBCU graduate and expressed her pride in the partnership between SAG-AFTRA and the HBCU in LA program. Finally, Mallette introduced the highly anticipated guest speaker Rep. Maxine Waters, who applauded Stacy Milner for creating a pipeline to diversify Hollywood and offered a few words of wisdom the program participants.

Waters told the students that while they may not see the value of their work as they are doing it, their success in the HBCU in LA program and beyond is crucial to the success of diversity and inclusion programs everywhere, including those Waters herself has spearheaded as a congresswoman.

“You, the HBCU students, who have been learning the trade during these past two months, are the validation of our efforts,” Waters said. “You are the metric that matters. Your learning and your dedication confirm the value of these programs and justifies their continuation, expansion and replication in other industries. Your success will help you launch your careers. It will also help launch the careers of others who follow you.”

At the end of her speech, Waters left the students with one final piece of advice.

“I know you cannot help but be focused somewhat on what is going on our government and these difficult times that we are involved in,” she said. “But I don’t want you to let that get in your way. I don’t want you to be discouraged. I don’t want you to be diverted. Keep your eye on the prize. And remember, when anybody gets in your way, just do what your auntie did. Reclaim your time!”

The screening began once Rep. Waters finished her speech. “Uchawi,” which takes its name from the Swahili word for “magic” or “witchcraft,” follows two sisters coping with the loss of their mother. It is evident at the beginning that their mother’s death has brought them together for the first time in a long while. One of the sisters finds among the things her mother has left to her a beautiful necklace, which turns out to have magical abilities. When the sisters touch the necklace at the same time, they can view one another’s memories, which leads to a heart-tugging dialogue about all the times they failed to be there for one another in their time apart.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters speaks to HBCU in LA students at the screening of “Uchawi.” (Photo by Jaimie Milner)

After the film was over, the audience was treated to a short behind-the-scenes video documenting the making of “Uchawi,” which can be found on YouTube. This was followed by a 45-minute panel discussion and Q&A with moderator and star of “Giants” James Bland, student film mentor J. August Richards, actresses I’shanee Ford and Ayo Afolayan, co-directors Cole Mason and Mia Joseph, screenwriter Troi Henderson, associate producer Jonathan Kee, and Stacy Milner.

Bland asked the student cast and crew about their various experiences and challenges on set. Henderson talked about drawing creative inspiration from black womanhood and her struggle to cut the first draft of her script down to a reasonable length, Joseph and Mason discussed their journey in bringing their vision to the screen, Ford and Afolayan reflected on what was for both of them the first experience acting on-camera, and Kee talked about the massive amounts of work it took to get all the little elements in order to make “Uchawi” possible.

Collectively, the panelists shared memories of frustrating challenges, difficult learning moments and multiple late nights scrambling to get everything together for the final product. But they all agreed that in the end, it was an incredibly valuable experience for which they would always be grateful.