1939 Studios
Tale of Tarot courtesy of 1939 Studios

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Shalom Omo-Osagie’s 1939 Studios started as a senior thesis. During her final year as a theater major at Bowie State University, the 23-year-old worked up a proposal for a film studio that would focus exclusively on telling stories written, performed, and executed by Black artists. 

“After presenting it, my professor was like, ‘Why don’t you want to just start this and do this now? This is amazing,” Omo-Osagie says. “And I was like, ‘Oh, no, I think this is something I should wait to do … until I was established in my career first.”

But Omo-Osagie’s senior spring—and her post-college plans—were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The pandemic definitely lit some fire up under everyone to figure out like, OK, what am I doing right now? What am I doing with my life? What am I doing with my career?” she says. “At any time, certain privileges and things can be taken away from you. You have to really look at what you have and say, ‘Is this something that I’m comfortable living my life with?’”

In Omo-Osagie’s case, the answers to those questions brought her to one conclusion: The time to start her film studio was now. Two years later, 1939 Studios has produced four short films, one of which—2021’s Tale of Tarothas won numerous awards at independent film festivals. 

This week, the studio kicks off its first annual DMV Short Film Festival. Running virtually, with an awards ceremony streaming on May 21, the festival features four short films from local Black talent. In The Grey Town, a young traveling Black couple stops in a small town, where they’re met with hostility. Feed/back is a narrative told in reverse, intercut with interviews with former food service workers in D.C. These films and the other two are available to stream for free on 1939’s website, and will compete in various categories at the awards ceremony.

A ticket to the ceremony costs $9.39. That price, and the film studio’s name, is an homage to blues singer Ethel Waters, who, in 1939, became the first Black person to host and star in her own television show, NBC’s The Ethel Waters Show

“Ethel Waters, I feel, is one of those icons that you don’t necessarily see in the forefront when it comes to talking about entertainers in the ’30s and the ’40s,” Omo-Osagie says. “You get a lot of Josephine Baker, and you get a lot of Eartha Kitt, which is amazing, but you don’t hear a lot about Ethel Waters.”

With 1939 Studios, Omo-Osagie wants to help other Black artists do what Waters did—create their own art and tell their own stories. “I have always been a firm believer that we need more stories being told from the Black perspective, instead of it being told for us,” she says. “We want to see Black people inside sci-fi and fantasy just as much as we want to see ourselves in dramas. We want to see ourselves doing horrors and thrillers and not be the first one killed, and just have a lot more opportunity for the different types of stories that we get.”

That was the motivation behind Tale of Tarot, a 40-minute film directed by Alexander Hammett and Angel Taylor-Carr, written by Aaliyah-Janay Williams, and starring Omo-Osagie. Set in the 1800s, it follows two maids working in an opulent manor entangled in a love triangle, who are forced to reckon with a revealing tarot reading. The film features an all-Black cast, which means that unlike most movies set in the 1800s, Black characters are found across all social classes, including the most elite.

“It was fun to do a period piece, because that was actually the kind of story that I felt we were not really being represented in,” Omo-Osagie says. “Usually, when you think 1800s, you think slavery, you think discrimination, and I just feel like sometimes we don’t want those stories being thrown at us 24/7.”

The team had to be scrappy. Costumes were largely sourced from thrift stores; a Regency ballroom scene was choreographed by Omo-Osagie’s high school dance teacher. But Tale of Tarot is racking up awards. It was selected for the LA Independent Women Film Awards and the New York Independent Cinema Award. At the Miami Indie Film Awards, Hammett and Taylor-Carr won the best directors award, and Omo-Osagie nabbed best actress.

As of now, 1939 Studios has only released short films, but the team plans to expand into meatier formats. “Features are the end goal, because we want more time and space to share stories that will take a lot more than a few minutes to unpack,” Omo-Osagie says. “We hope to even branch out into TV one day.”

With the DMV Short Film Festival, Omo-Osagie hopes to pay some of the success she’s had thus far forward. “This [is] a perfect opportunity to give [local filmmakers] some exposure, get them some support, and show them that the 1939 family, we back everybody when it comes to filmmaking.”

Omo-Osagie also wants to show her neighbors that they don’t need to move across the country to find success in the industry. She grew up in Baltimore, and has lived in Prince George’s County since college. 

“I want people to know that you don’t have to go to L.A., you don’t have to go to Atlanta, you don’t have to go to New York,” she says. “Film is being made everywhere, so you just have to be a self-starter … and not necessarily wait for someone to hand opportunities to you.”

Maybe not necessarily, but if you’re an up-and-comer in the film industry hunting for opportunities, Omo-Osagie and the 1939 Studios team are creating plenty.

The DMV Short Film Festival runs through May 21 at 1939studios.com.