Samantha Bailey: Space On Her Own Terms

Interview by Charia Rose
Photos by Will Inman

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Interviewing a creative whose work has left me feeling raw and exposed was an intimidating thought for me. Sam’s art locks you in a closet with a bright light and lays the deepest, most intimate parts of yourself before you. There is no moving away, no shame, just truth. To be in the presence of someone who does not seem to fear or find flaws in the dirty honesty of intimacy is exciting and scary and inspiring all at once.  

Samantha Q. Bailey, a writer, actor, director and all around bad bitch, is very self-aware. She is aware of her world, the way she presents herself, and the way she maneuvers and takes space. Space is something that can be difficult for Black Women to sit in deeply: What are we allowed? How do we continuously make ourselves smaller without sacrificing our sense of self? It is an impossible facade of balance. And yet, something about Sam feels as if she has it all figured out, regardless of how desperately she wants you to know that she doesn’t.

Her rise came with her first web series You’re So Talented, which premiered on the then infant Opentv. A show focused on Bea (played by Bailey), a 20-something actor attempting to survive heartbreak, judgement and the harsh reality of living as a Black millennial in Chicago. As writer, producer, director, and actor on the show (how dare she?!), it was the one thing Sam had always wanted to do, regardless if anyone loved it. The Gotham and Emmy nominations are proof that people did. Speaking with another midwestern artist also reminds me of what I miss about being home, and the creative spaces that are crafted for us and by us there. On the west coast, a sense vulnerability is missing. In midwestern spaces, people are more concerned when you dedicate your life to the arts. So many people throughout my life have told me: “It’s unstable. Uncertain. No way to make a solid life or way for yourself and future family.” People like us live to prove “good intentions” wrong. We drop everything that makes us comfortable and work four jobs and live in communes and drive cross country to foreign places in the pursuit of destiny. I think of my artistic nature as a midwestern work ethic with a healthy dosage of west coast self-sabotage.”

Los Angeles is a foreign space for both of us; this place is built on entertainment as industry. Most people here are involved in Hollywood some shape or form. The goal is always success and accolades here, but we agreed that it oftentimes does not feel “real” or conducive to true community building. Especially when you have to focus on the career side of the landscape.

“I think about LA and myself in LA A lot. My experience of LA is not LA, it’s Hollywood. I moved to the industry, I did not move to the city. I am not around the LA that built NWA or Ava DuVernay… LA has a lot of strong communities of color and strong feelings of community and I don’t want to negate that. But I don't think Hollywood has a strong feeling of community.””.  

There is another facade rooted in trying to find the balance of wanting to work in the field that moves you with the harsh realities of the space’s refusal to make room. It’s something I struggle to reconcile; something that holds me back from going full throttle towards my goals. But Sam refuses to let the systems at work keep her from doing what she was born to do. She found her way to film post graduating from Columbia College with a degree in acting. After a short move to New York and one particularly excruciating theater experience, she decided to start writing for herself.

“I got to a place where I was doing this play and got asked to twerk in a slave costume with a gun pointed out to the audience and was like, you know what, there is a line of self respect and I’ve been hitting up against it for a few years now and that was just not something I was going to do. Chicago has a very big live lit scene and Sam Irby was one of the first people I met there and she was the one voice that made me want to write. I started doing Second City work and again realized that I didn’t want to do performing but really did like the short form which brought me to the webseries (You’re So Talented)...We got Tribeca and it’s been rolling ever since”.

I was really drawn to the way Sam’s career has begun to take shape. It is not a fairytale or a lucky occurrence, but a consistent determination to find the medium that will best service the art she is striving to share with the world. I have spent most of life in silence, and attempting to make myself as small as possible. It’s why I became a writer: creating worlds bigger than myself without having to ever truly expose my identity was gratifying for me. Words on a page are universal. In a book or a script, I could be whoever I needed to be to enact the change I needed folks to see. But Sam has broken away from that notion. Her words are a critical extension of her as a as a black woman. As a creative. As a midwesterner.  If there is any takeaway from this interview, it’s that the thing you are missing is out there, and you just have to be invested in the search to discover it.

Sam has an astonishing amount of projects happening simultaneously. She is currently directing for television, finishing up the Film Independent Program and developing multiple projects for various formats (yes, including Brown Girls for all the fans out there lusting for information on the show’s arrival. It’s still in development at HBO). She barely has time for herself, her days consisting of being on set, in general meetings or writing and creating decks for her projects in production. As millennials, we are conditioned to do as many things as we can as often as we can and through that there is a loss of balance. Add being in an environment that is not conducive to cultivating that balance, it makes it even more foreign. I can honestly say I have never met balance. Sam is no different. Even though we are at different points in our lives, it is something that we cannot deny we would like to have. “I really want the balance. I’m 29 and going into being 30 so I have a whole different phase of my life [coming] and wanting stability even if it’s shaky stability… I know that I don’t want to be a director for hire for my whole life.

In order for me to not do that I need to be creating content and in order to do that I have to be in Chicago… Here, I don’t ever really feel grounded.”

For a theater kid who didn’t consider film “art” until a few years ago, Sam has an incredible eye for direction. Her style of directing and her vision for a shot are so particular, but so free from the constructed rules of a standard filmmaking that it makes her one of the most skilled in the game. In You’re So Talented, there are moments that are so intimate, and the camera just holds, no escaping the discomfort of being vulnerable. I mentioned how much her works reminds me of mumblecore and she lit up.

“This black girl was hella inspired by mumblecore! People really get mad at me about this, but I really only watch movies as fun entertainment. Like, INDEPENDENCE DAY is one of my favorite movies. I was just such a theater person. I took a [course in college] called Story in International Film and Fiction. I saw all these foreign films and fell in love with Gael Garcia-Bernal and like Y TU MAMA y TAMBIEN and AMORES PERROS. I was like oh shit, there’s an art to this that I didn’t even know about. It’s interesting. Film is such a young art in general and to have this mainstage of white men who are considered the gods of it [even though it's a new form]. And everyone is just recreating what they’ve done. So I’m really interested in different ways of storytelling. And different ways of exploring characters. Which is why mumblecore was so exciting to me. It was something that felt like it went against the status quo of how these films were made… And it also made me feel like, ‘oh I can do that’. I can sit in my living room and put a camera on and just shoot my friends”.

I gushed about how much I loved YST and was intrigued to know how involved with creating the shot list and the overall production process she was. As a first time director, it can be harrowing to take on so much responsibility out the gate. But she loves nothing more than taking shit head on.  

“I am very involved with the shot list. And I did not know what any of that was in the first parts of shooting YST. But, Mateo Gonzalez who is my favorite cinematographer in Chicago, literally told me, ‘I don’t think you know that you’re a filmmaker’. I’d send him pictures and we’d talk for hours and he taught me in that way. So I always say I come from the school of Mateo. There is something in the way that I shoot that is not film school”. She is very adamant about how much she dislikes the traditional way of doing things (The Aquarius in her jumps out and I love it).  “Let’s try to figure out how to get coverage in a nonconventional way. Let’s play shit out in one take. I want to do more exciting and interesting things that open things up. Or brings them in more. I’m a very intimate director. I am interested in intimacy and the human condition in that way. I want to shoot life in urban settings. I want to show growth in concrete jungles”.

Feeling a strong sense of community is a crucial human need. For those living with more marginalized identities, it is often times a gift and not a right. It is something we have to find, cultivate and protect at all costs. Seeing someone like Samantha, who is so vocal about not only what she wants but what she needs, is crucial. Her focus on building up the community for creatives of marginalized identities, is so comforting. She is forcibly making space in a world that, regardless of all the articles and “Initiatives” being announced, still does not give a fuck about what we want or need.

“Fatimah [Asghar] and I work together a lot. Sam Irby and I are trying to work together. I try to be cognizant of who I collaborate with. I am constantly talking about how I want to meet more creatives of color who are on my level so that we can create together and move up. I think they oddly keep us separate from each other to keep up this crabs in a barrel thing. Like, you’re gonna be the special black unicorn and we just make you shoot to the top. And like, that’s dope but also lonely because once you get there and look around and see that the only people celebrating and collaborating in your success are old white guys. That’s not what I want. I want to be creating with people who are like me and move up together. Like that Judd Apatow thing but without those guys. Doing that for us”

Even with this “renaissance” occuring in media, there is still a feeling of disconnect. Its hard because we have cried and fought for black stories and queer stories and female stories to finally be respected and told through our  lens, but even that doesn’t feel like enough. I find myself turning away from television, even though I love it. There is too much of it, and even with that, none of it ever seems to scratch the itch of what I feel like I need. And then feeling emboldened to critique those things? We have three major black lead shows, and if you say an ill thought about it, then people think you were never with the shits. How do we exist and create and critique our work without it sabotaging the movement? Can we widen the space and also be critical? It often feels like a trick question. We talked about the idea of these shows being slices of life, but ultimately, a slice of a singular pie will never be enough. We need the whole damn bakery. And we deserve it. Because our experiences are different, no matter how many identities we share. The way we exist is completely our own, and we have to feel emboldened to tell our experiences and take up space in our own nuanced ways.

I asked her the one thing I ask everyone, and I am always grateful when people answer. The question of what does liberation look like, in your own eyes. A question that, to me, is an invitation into the soul of a person. “Liberation looks like, to me, being able to experiment and work without the burden of [being] perfect. There is a particular burden on people from marginalized communities to represent every aspect of their communities. That is really difficult for artists. I think someone tweeted once like y’all love art but hate artists. And that’s some real ass shit. They want your work but don’t care about the mental gymnastics you have to do in order to curate and create that work. Like, Brown Girls cannot represent every brown girl. It can’t. Not if we want to to tell a real nuanced story that feels real and intimate. But maybe you’ll find something in it that you do and can appreciate...That is all I can do.”

Sam is not simply talking about inclusion or what Hollywood should do. Her life is her action plan. Her work is her liberation. Her crew is inclusive by design but also simply because it is an extension of herself. She is commandeering these spaces and taking no prisoners because, for her, there is no other way. She is not trying to be anything other than what she is. There is nothing more jarring and powerful than a black woman understanding her power and utilizing it. It is a kick in the stomach, and it makes you question the ways that you maneuver this fucked up world. No one is safe from the harshness of this society, so the least you can do is kick some ass while you figure it out. Sam is kicking ass, taking names, and being 100% herself whilst doing it.

“I’m a black midwesterner who grew up baptist who is no longer religious who has a lot of queer friends and practices in queer communities and hates industry. That is my experience and most of my work will come from that lens... There’s nothing about Hollywood that I am trying to preserve. I don’t want to be attached to anything or anyone that is harmful to communities that I am a part of or adjacent to. I don’t want to help sustain that. So I say burn it all down”.

And you better believe that she is more than willing to light the first match.

You can follow Sam on all socials:

Twitter: @SamQBailey

Insta: @samb.chi

And see her webseries You’re So Talented & Brown Girls, in full on opentv @

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