Yellow Springs native’s latest film spotlights importance of diversity

‘Una Great Movie’ pokes fun at Hollywood while challenging stereotypes.

Yellow Springs native Jennifer Sharp, a filmmaker, screenwriter and actress, is excited that her dream project grounded in the importance of diverse representation in contemporary cinema is now a reality.

“Una Great Movie,” released last month on Amazon Prime Video, tells the story of Zoe, a Black screenwriter fighting the Hollywood machine. After taking notes from studio executives, her quiet character study about Susan, a Black woman poignantly reflecting on a bygone relationship while vacationing in Mexico, morphs into a romantic comedy with an all-white cast. Ultimately, the film becomes “a quirky cerebral look into commercialism and greed, juxtaposed with a heartwarming movie that challenges stereotypes.”

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

“Growing up as a Black woman, I haven’t found myself beautiful as much as I should have,” said Sharp, who also portrays Susan’s colorful friend, Jenny. “I’m thick. I’m not a skinny white girl. So, that influenced me as an artist. When I make movies, I don’t want to show just one body type. I don’t want to perpetuate that. I want to show beauty in all sizes. Everybody deserves to feel like they can be loved, sexy and attractive. It’s a mission of mine because I’ve been stifled by images of beauty in the media my whole life who never looked like me.”

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‘A script is just a gateway to your vision’

In particular, the film, spoken in both English and Spanish, humorously highlights the difficulties of creating in a sea of criticism. Studio executives quibble with Zoe’s script due to its slow pace and lack of celebrity star power. Sharp, based in Los Angeles, says she’s been in similar situations over the years, resulting in frustrating yet eye-opening experiences derived from seeking validation.

“There is no perfect script,” she said. “Feedback can be good but at the same time an artist must create their vision. You can’t always be so consumed with what other people think. An artist must learn to trust their vision. At the end of the day, a script is just a gateway to your vision. People were turning down my scripts left and right. No one would help. For the most part, every bit of feedback Zoe receives in the film comes from lines straight out of rejection letters I saved.”

During one of Zoe’s studio meetings, St. Paris native Zac Titus, Sharp’s fellow independent filmmaker/actor, portrays three execs at once: Bob, Rob and Tom. His comedic turn adds to the absurdity surrounding Zoe’s circumstance.

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

“I had been experimenting with creating three distinctly different characters and filming them with a locked off frame, basically acting off of the other two versions of myself,” explained Titus, a Graham High School graduate whose drama “Two Yellow Lines” was released last fall. “This is very difficult and requires you to know everyone’s dialogue, the pacing of each character’s performance and the reactions to each. When Jenn’s film called for three separate characters, I felt I was ready to pull it off. ‘Una Great Movie’ is as indie as it gets. It goes against the norms of Hollywood and shows a voice that is often muffled.”

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‘The island changed my soul’

In 2016, Sharp began production on her film on the picturesque island of Isla Holbox, located north of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula roughly two hours north of Cancun. She visited the island in 1999 and fell so in love with the people and the environment that she moved there in 2000 and eventually wrote her first screenplay. Over the next 14 years, her travels to the island fueled her passion to finally commit to developing, writing, editing and filming what would become “Una Great Movie.”

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

“I went through my life savings, I went through my credit cards,” she recalled. “With no greenlight from the studios, I shot this movie. Nearly all the actors on the island are locals, my friends from the past 17 years. In 1999 I set foot on the island. The island changed my soul, and I knew I had to make a movie there. Seventeen years later I powered through and made the movie happen by all means necessary.”

Looking back on her upbringing, Sharp, who says she “declared at 6 years old” she wanted to be an actress, is grateful to have been inspired by the arts in her youth. She credits performing with the Yellow Springs Youth Orchestra under the leadership of Shirley Mullins and being in numerous school plays under the leadership of Becky Brunsman. She is also a Muse Machine alumna, notably appearing in the 1989 production of “The Wiz” as a Wiz-ette and the 1991 production of “Oklahoma!” as Sylvie as well as the Ado Annie understudy.

“I had a really great arts background,” she said. “In school I played the violin and clarinet, which kept me creative. I feel so lucky to be from a small town that had such a great musical program.”

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

After graduating from Yellow Springs High School and receiving her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Sharp realized she would have to carve her own path.

“As soon as I graduated, there were no parts for me as a Black woman,” she said. “I could either be Halle Berry or the ghetto girlfriend. So, in 2000, I wrote my own first short film, and I wrote it for me to act in, but I ended up directing it and I never turned back from directing. I realized I belonged behind the camera.”

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‘I’m trying to keep truth in art’

In addition to her cinematic endeavors, Sharp, whose directing credits include “’I’m Through with White Girls” and “Solitary Worlds,” is encouraging the next generation of moviemakers. She stresses authenticity and originality as she teaches directing, producing and production design at the New York Film Academy.

“I’m trying to keep truth in art, which is my goal as a teacher,” she said. “I want to keep people truthful and creative – not just following formulas.”

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Sharp is pleased for the release of “Una Great Movie” but cautions there is still much work to be done in Hollywood to showcase the breadth of the Black perspective.

“Hollywood is doing more Black films but they’re doing biopics and revisiting history,” she noted. “We’re fighting for justice but we’re still being kept in boxes. I want to see Blacks outside of the boxes. Have you ever seen a movie in which a Black woman travels to Mexico? My film opens the door to (recognizing) Black people travel and Black people can swim. It’s important for everyone to see Blacks as humans doing human things. We just happen to have a different color than the people usually doing it. And that’s diversity – and that’s how we evolve.”

“Una Great Movie” is also available on Google Play and YouTube Movies. For more information, visit http://www.unagreatmovie.com.

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Credit: CONTRIBUTED

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