Chicago filmmaker Vincent Martell is dropping a new television series, “FINESSE,” on Juneteenth. 

“After two years of it being in production and post-production, we’re releasing it online on YouTube in full. That’s my gift to my people on [Juneteenth]. I’m really excited,” Martell told The TRiiBE on June 8. He wrote, directed and stars in the series. VAM Studio, is an award-winning Black and queer-owned production company and film collective founded by Martell and co-founded by Jordan Phelps. VAM produced the series. The production company pushes inclusivity and diverse narratives.

“FINESSE,” Martell said, grew out of the desire to see something different on screen for Black people that didn’t center on trauma or pain. Instead, through the show, he wanted to showcase Black people being their regular selves as they experience the ebbs and flows of life. As a result, each character on the show can let their hair down and be their whole selves. 

The series also highlights the perspectives missing in the mainstream representation of Black queer people. For example, “FINESSE” depicts intimacy between two Black queer men, something that’s often not seen on the screen outside of the television drama series “Noah’s Arc” or the 2016 film Moonlight, Martell said.

“I’ve never seen two Black queer men show intimacy,” Martell said. “That’s an issue.” 

“FINESSE,” two years in the making, also revolves around a question posed by his therapist: What does intimacy look like for you? 

Martell didn’t immediately know the answer to that, but that question inspired him to find the answer. 

“I had to start to think about all of the people in my life who have shown me intimacy. For me, that has shone strongest through my chosen family and the community of artists that have held me when times were bad,” Martell said. 

“The more I wrote about it, the more I was releasing all of these demons, which made the work feel more vulnerable in a way that I feel like no one has seen before in stories like this,” he observed.

So Martell put pen to paper, re-imagining the role of intimacy and its role in his life and the lives of the would-be 20-something-year-old characters on the show: Daryn (Jeez Loueez) Kizer (Jaren Merrell, a.k.a. Shea Couleé) and Martell (Vincent Martell) who are roommates and friends. 

The trio’s friendship exists on and off-screen. They’ve been friends for over a decade, Martell said. On working with his real-life friends, he said, “It felt f— incredible. It was life-changing to grow with these people and to be able to tell a story about your life. It made me realize that we can create art with the people that we love and we can create art with our homies.”

The series was shot in Martell’s home in Humboldt Park. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, he came to Chicago with his family in 2001. They moved to the western suburbs in 2004 and settled back in Chicago in 2008. He relocated to Los Angeles in 2020. 

Additionally, the series has a political, but catchy intro song that’s in tune with Chicago’s juke and footwork music, “Beat Lori Lightfoot” by Ëkoli.

The TRiiBE caught up with Martell ahead of the Juneteenth web premiere of “FINESSE” and discussed the show’s origin, the power of storytelling, the importance of intimacy outside of the traditional means, what it was like to shoot and produce a show with close friends and what’s next for the series. 

“FINESSE” will be available on Sunday, June 19, on Vam Studio’s YouTube page at 8:00 AM central time. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity).

The TRiiBE: So I was at an award ceremony back in May. I was taking a bathroom/selfie break when I unknowingly heard the series theme song, “Beat Lori Lightfoot” by Ëkoli,  for the first time. Then I saw the screeners for the series and realized it was the same song. Was this song created for the show, or did it already exist?

Vincent Martell: That song is from an amazing artist and producer, Ëkoli. I think it might have been around for a minute. But I knew as soon as I heard it that I had to incorporate it in this piece because it just felt specific to how I felt living in Chicago and dealing with [Mayor] Lori Lightfoot. The communities and the city that I love are being neglected.  So it made sense to put that first in “FINESSE” because “FINESSE” is a statement. “FINESSE,” for me, is a political act. So that song matches the energy I was trying to get there.

How would you describe “FINESSE ” for people tuning in for the first time on Juneteenth?

VM:  When I created “FINESSE,” I wanted to create something fun. I wanted a good-ass time for Black people. I was tired of watching TV where we‘re seen as either villainized or victims. I wanted something different. I wanted to give a story where we’re celebrating ourselves, where we’re smoking joints, talking shit about the mayor and watching Wendy Williams, and we’re having intimacy in the truest forms. 

I wanted to live in those moments. When I was going through these dark times, I wanted something to escape, and there was nothing I could relate to and get lost in. So me thinking, “sh– if this is happening to me, I know it’s happening to many other people.” I wanted “FINESSE” to be a sexual colorful roller coaster for Black people. It’s showing the best of our humanity, and it’s also showing us being messy and how that can be beautiful in its rawest form. 

When I think of the word finesse, I think about how Black people use the word. The idea is, how can I do this to get this result? Does the series title come from that same idea?

VM: Absolutely, it’s that, but also, I think finesse is a lifestyle for me. Just thinking about my journey as an artist and business owner, I’ve had to adopt this finesse lifestyle to be able to get ahead and bring resources to myself and my people in my community, to make sure that our work was getting seen in the mainstream, outside of Chicago and U.S., but across the world. It takes a lot of finesse to be able to do that and to be able to move in those spaces and to be able to create some sort of revolution and what’s happening is, right now, you have Chicago artists who are naturally finessers, because we’re from Chicago, a place where you have to finesse to survive, and the most corrupt city in the world, in my opinion.  

We wanted to show that natural finesse that we have not just being from Chicago, but the Midwest, where you’re slept on all the time, just because you’re not on the East or the West coasts. But we grind harder, do the work, stay quiet and put our head down, but we finesse to make sure that we survive because Chicago is not an easy place. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s not an easy place. So “FINESSE” is that. It’s that journey. It’s the action. It’s the lifestyle and the mindset. 

But also, there’s a bad side to finesse too. There’s burnout, depression, and a lack of intimacy. There’s the soul-finding process that can be messy and beautiful. So it’s finesse in the way that we know. But it’s also the lifestyle and the mindset of finesse for me. 

When we started speaking, I asked you about the inspiration behind creating “FINESSE,” and you mentioned a conversation with your therapist where she asked what intimacy looks like for you? Is that what you hope people walk away with after viewing “FINESSE” that they answer that question themselves? 

VM: I do. Because I want people to walk away and reflect on the intimacy in their lives, it doesn’t have to be the traditional way of intimacy we see or we’ve been told we need. It can come from friends, those close to you, or those in your community. That’s what “FINESSE” is about. You see that intimacy is the strongest when they’re on the couch, chilling with their homies, and that’s something that I had to learn too. I don’t need intimacy in a traditional way. I need intimacy in the community, friendship, and homie way, and seeing that with just us Black people not being victimized, not being targeted. It’s just revolutionary in itself because we just see us living and having fun. That’s the type of party I want to bring to TV.


What has the experience been like for you being a filmmaker and creative here in Chicago?

VM: It’s been tough. I’m now in LA because there weren’t enough resources for me out there [in Chicago]. I had spent my entire 20s trying to create a community of filmmakers, of underrepresented artists and underground artists who weren’t getting seen. That’s what VAM Studio was, and I dedicated my entire life to that, and to make sure that underrepresented artists got time on screen and sets, got hours and got paid. But I didn’t feel I could do all that I could because of what the city could provide. I felt as though sometimes Chicago only holds you up when you make it somewhere else, and unfortunately, I’m now seeing that [with me] being out here in LA and killing it. So now, all of these resources and attention are coming. 

It’s sad that we have to leave our city to get the attention of our city. Whereas you know, this thing about being an inclusive set, a teaching set, making sure that women and femme Black people are on the forefront of the lines in the film, that’s something that VAM has been doing for 10 years before Hollywood was even buzzing about it. 

We created that system and culture, and we didn’t get any credit for it. That’s what happens in Chicago. Sometimes as a creator, you might get lost, sometimes forgotten, and that’s tough. 

That was heartbreaking for me. So what I learned, though, is if I’m going to be about the art, I have to be about the art. I can’t be about whether or not people know I’m doing it; I have to be about the outcome. I got to be about making the opportunities and the sacrifices because I want to do it. That’s the biggest thing I learned from being an artist in Chicago. If I’m going to be about the socio-economic impact of the film industry, then I got to do the work. But it’s okay if I don’t get the credit all the time. I just got to be for it. 

You mentioned that Martell, the character that you portray in the series, is pretty close to you as a person in real life. Was it scary to share so much more about yourself on the show, and does that make you nervous leading up to the premiere of the show? 

VM: Yeah, it’s interesting because this has been two years in the making. I’ve had this idea for longer than that, and it feels surreal. This is a good question. I’ve had to sacrifice a lot to get it here. There are a lot of people who maybe didn’t believe in it but a lot more people who did believe it. So for this to be coming out now, it’s pretty cool. These are happy tears because this is probably the coolest thing that I ever made. This is cooler than VAM. It feels like I’m ushering something big, and I can’t put my words on it. I just want to live in this moment. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I’m excited because I know it’s what people need. 

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.