Author, professor and filmmaker Stephane Dunn knows the power of a good story. Whether it is recollections of her family’s history or the words of her favorite authors, Dunn knows the positive impact storytelling can have on a person—and the negative consequences when you don’t see yourself reflected in a narrative.
In her work as a filmmaker, Dunn focuses on highlighting Black stories that aren’t represented in Hollywood. Dunn is the director and co-founder of Morehouse College’s Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) program, where she seeks to break down barriers and empower the next generation of Black filmmakers. Dunn explains the legacy of oral storytelling, and why telling diverse stories is essential.
When did you first become aware of the power of storytelling?
I really became aware of the power of storytelling through two things. One, was my grandmother who used to be a great storyteller. Although she didn’t tell stories often, when you’d get her alone in the middle of the night, she’d start talking about growing up down South. [They were] stories that typically wouldn’t come out in a normal day. That really made an impression [on me]. And then that corresponded with my mother always having books. …We read Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, but those are some of our great fairytale stories. I think it started with my grandmother and my mother who would help tell great stories, but also those early books…that awakened in me this love of stories and the possibilities of storytelling.
Can you talk about the legacy of oral tradition and how that lends itself to making good storytellers?
As an African American and as a Black girl growing up, I didn’t know it then, but I was really a part of a great African American oral tradition. That’s the gift to us, those of us who became writers and filmmakers later on grew up with grandmothers and aunts who passed the stories down. We even see examples of that with Roots. [It] came from Alex Haley’s oral tradition and his family, and then he wrote it down. That follows the tradition of most of us. Those voices really do become the inspiration for who we become as we search for our own voice in storytelling.
I always say that my grandmother’s voice and my mother’s voice and my aunties’ voices, the accent of them is in pretty much everything that I write and every story that I tried to translate into film.
How do the stories we tell shape our perception of the world?
The stories we learn early on in our lives and that we hear play a role in who we become and how we perceive the world. It’s not just what we learned in school. We are surrounded by stories, whether it’s at school or at home or out in society. It really forms a way to think about the world—whether it’s politics or it’s thinking about other groups of people, a lot of people get their impressions of other people through stories they’ve been exposed to.
You can find people in different countries who think they know, for example, Black people in America. But because they’ve only had limited exposure to certain television shows or certain sort of magazine representations, they may have a totally skewed vision of the history of African American people in this country, of our values, of our systems and vice versa. All because the stories that have been distributed to them don’t give the rich, complex representation of who we really are.
Why do you think telling diverse stories is important?
It is really essential, not important, but essential to tell diverse stories and not [just] for diversity’s sake. I always ask people: ‘How is it that one can know America?… How can you tell the story of America through primarily only stories about white people from white people’s perspectives?’
It’s a strange question, to have to kind of justify diversity. It seems so obvious, right? It’s almost like you cheat yourself out of the truth of the story, you cheat yourself out of the fullness of humanity…you’re really cheating yourself out of the possibilities of so many creative stories.
Diversity is part of the fight for social justice. … It’s part of the freedom that we say we believe in, that is part of the American creed, supposedly. And so if you lack diversity, if you don’t believe in diversity, if you don’t understand, whether you know it or not, that America and the world is already diverse—why wouldn’t the stories we tell through film represent that? The truth is that it’s a diverse world. Period. Why wouldn’t the storytelling that we have represent that?