Two filmmakers are among the 16 Minnesotans named 2021 Bush Fellows. E.G. Bailey and Naomi Ko will each receive a flexible grant of up to $100,000 to develop the skills and relationships to drive large-scale change. Both are committed to justice and equity, bringing more voices to the table and creating opportunities for people of color in the film and television industry.
An award-winning artist, filmmaker, director and producer, E.G. Bailey was born in Liberia and came to the United States as a child. His films include “New Neighbors,” which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Festival, and “KEON,” now screening at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. He’s currently working on “Black Star” a new web series, and the cineplay (his word for a hybrid of film and theater) of Greta Oglesby’s “Handprints” with Ten Thousand Things Theater. Bailey is the co-founder of Tru Ruts, MN Spoken Word Association and the Million Artist Movement. With his wife, actor, director and playwright Shá Cage, he co-founded the independent film company Freestyle Films.
Born and raised in Minnesota to immigrant parents from South Korea, Naomi Ko is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, actor, comedian and cultural producer. Her films include the independent pilot “Nice,” an official selection at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival, and the made-in-Minnesota feature film “Dear White People,” in which she played Sungmi. She’s currently in post-production for her short film “Sweet 18” and is developing a feature film. A founding member of FAWK (Funny Asian Women Kollective) and co-founder of the APIA MN (Asian and Pacific Islander American) Film Collective, Ko splits her time between Los Angeles and Minnesota.
We spoke to Bailey and Ko individually, but touched on similar topics with both. The conversations have been edited and condensed.
MinnPost: Two of this year’s Bush Fellows are artists. Both are filmmakers. What does that say to you?
Naomi Ko: It speaks to the importance and the power of film. That it is an art form that can reach millions and billions of people. And right now in Minnesota, after the year that we had – we’re coming close to the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder – how important it is to see faces like E.G.’s and mine, people of color. And the powerful narratives that marginalized and underrepresented folks have from the heartland. I think the Bush Foundation recognizes that this is a moment and a movement and we can lead it.
E.G. Bailey: It’s a sign of the times. The pandemic brought a number of things more urgently into the light. Many center around race. The pandemic centers around people’s attitudes and feelings about Asian Americans. And then you look at the George Floyd murder. Issues of race and representation have come to the forefront and highlighted the divide in the country. The need for representation is even more critical.
Naomi’s doing great work within the Asian American community and with filmmaking. The Bush Foundation is stepping up to meet the demands of the times. Giving artists an opportunity to gain leadership skills to help elevate their communities is a move toward equity and parity.
MP: It feels like some doors have opened this year to representation and equity. Do you feel that way?
NK: Yes and no. I think doors have opened further for individuals who are already in the network or in the system. And I think it’s great that individuals who have been working in the industry, who have already had opportunities, who have already had traction, have been given more opportunities. But for filmmakers like myself, who work in the industry but also have strong ties to the Midwest, I don’t think those doors have opened.
MP: What does it mean to you to win a Bush Fellowship?
EGB: It’s an amazing feeling. There are different stages to the process. As each stage goes, you keep your fingers crossed. Revisions give you a chance to get deeper into your goals. When you find out that you got such a prestigious grant, that is such an amazing moment.
NK: It is a tremendous honor to win a Bush Fellowship. For an artist, it’s recognition of the work I’ve done for all these years. The Bush is a cross-sector fellowship; you’re not just competing as artists, you’re competing against everyone, all these different sectors. So it does feel nice. It brings validation to the importance of filmmaking and art-making.
What I’m really excited about is it brings street cred in the way that I would like to have street cred. I’m trying to tap the Minnesota investor pool to invest in filmmaking infrastructure in the state, and the Bush brings some validation in that regard.
MP: What will the fellowship enable you to do?
NK: For one, I don’t think I have to work all the jobs I work right now. That’s a really big thing. I’ve been bouncing from fellowship to fellowship. I was doing tutoring. I was picking up gigs left and right, trying to survive.
What the Bush Fellowship does is provide a level of security for the next couple of years so I can focus on learning new skills to bring transformational change to this region. I’ll be learning about public policy and venture capitalism. We need money. Filmmaking is really expensive.
Right now, Funny Asian Women Kollective [FAWK] is working with the Minnesota State Legislature on a bonding bill that would give us $1 million to start building a state-of-the-art multimedia arts center in St. Paul that would include sound stages. My dream is to make Minnesota the home of Asian American filmmaking, like Tyler Perry has done for Black filmmaking in Atlanta. In order to do that, we need serious investment and help from major entities. So I’m all about the money now.
EGB: It will give me an opportunity to go deeper into filmmaking, and to get a chance to visit different film communities and see how they work, see how they organize and come together and build as a community. And bring that back to the Twin Cities and support the filmmaking community here. It will give me a chance to gain expertise in certain areas, maybe even slow down a little bit. I feel like I’ve been running at a breakneck pace for a number of years.
MP: What kind of filmmaking community have you found in the Twin Cities?
NK: The Minnesota Asian American film community is small, but it’s developing very quickly, and they’re making connections with filmmaking institutions and filmmakers in both LA and New York. I’ve been working in film for a while now, and I’m pretty immersed in the Asian American film community in Los Angeles.
Pre-pandemic, with APIA MN Film Collective, we were building a three-year pipeline to have [artists] be ready to enter their scripts into the Hollywood and independent film system, and have them direct their own sample they can take to festivals and use as a launchpad to either develop a feature film or sell a TV series. We were trying to build a system that nurtures emerging filmmakers and provides them a pathway to survive and thrive in this industry, instead of just plucking those who have already done well and saying “Look how great we’re doing!” Those are only the select few. We have to nurture the community from the ground up if we want to have an impact.
EGB: When we were on the festival circuit with “New Neighbors,” people would say, “You’re from Minnesota? There’s a filmmaking community in Minnesota? Black filmmakers?” That brings to light the fact that our stories aren’t getting out there.
There’s a renaissance of Black filmmakers in Minnesota. There are more Black filmmakers now than have ever been in the cities. Some of us have come together to start Black Film Minnesota. It’s still a work in progress, but we’ve done a couple events and we’re continuing to build that up. There’s a growing group of Black filmmakers in the cities, probably between 30 and 50 people.
MP: What do you want to be doing in five years?
EGB: My hope is that I can contribute to Minnesota becoming a thriving film hub. And that the work of Black filmmakers here is recognized, and the Black film talent here continues to get supported, and the Black filmmakers have opportunities to learn and improve their craft and become better filmmakers, so we can tell the stories of the community and create a better understanding, but also bring attention to the artistry that’s here.
That’s my vision. I get excited about it. If you look at Atlanta, it first came on the map because of music. But in the last 10 years – more like the last five years – it’s really taken off as a film center. My dream for the Twin Cities is that it becomes one of the centers for filmmakers, especially Black filmmakers. I think there are some exciting artists here that can make that happen.
NK: I want it all. I want to be a filmmaker creating my own content, I want to continue acting and performing, I want to continue writing, I want to build a new system that will nurture Asian American filmmakers and build wealth in the entertainment industry for my community. I refuse to be pigeonholed in one thing or another. My community refuses to be pigeonholed. We’ve earned it. We deserve it.
MP: What else would you like people to know?
NK: There is something really unique that both E.G. and I won this year, together as POC filmmakers. This is a strong signal to the rest of Minnesota and the rest of this region’s community to start looking and to start investing. We’re kind of tired of talking about representation and we want to take some actual action around it.
EGB: I love this community. I love this artistic community. And I just want to celebrate it. When I talk to people, it’s like, “You don’t understand how dope the Twin Cities are! So many dope artists.” The No. 1 literary center is here. The No. 1 playwrights’ center is here. The No. 1 regional theater is here. The No. 1 hip-hop label is here. You can’t have so many No. 1s and not be a dope place.
When the pandemic hit, who were the first people on the ground, coming together and trying to figure stuff out? Artists. They’re the advance guard. J. Otis Powell‽ taught me that. Artists went into action right away. It happened when the pandemic hit, and it happened when the George Floyd murder happened. It makes me proud, excited and hopeful. If artists are taken seriously and brought into the conversation, there’s more they can do. It gives me hope that true change can happen. It’s just a question of whether we can have seats at the table. And that goes back to the Bush Fellowship. My hope is that it gives me the tools to sit at that table and be more effective.