UPDATE — Oct. 17, 2022: South Side native Charlene Carruthers’ debut film, The Funnel, will screen at the 28th annual Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, which takes place Nov. 4 through Nov. 27. 

Screenings of The Funnel will take place on Friday, Nov. 11 at 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, Nov. 13 at 4:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 164 N. State Street in downtown Chicago.

Here is the link to purchase tickets, starting at $12. There’s also a virtual option to view the film from Nov. 21 through the close of the festival on Nov. 27. 

For more than a decade, South Side native Charlene Carruthers has been an organizer and leader across racial, gender and economic justice movements. She’s now adding a new title — filmmaker — to her growing list of accomplishments.

Carruthers’ first film, The Funnel, will have its Chicago premiere on Friday, Sept. 30, at the 40th edition of Reeling: The Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival, which kicked off on Sept. 22.  The screening will take place at 7:00 p.m. at Chicago Filmmakers at 1326 W. Hollywood Avenue. There’s also a virtual streaming option available for the festival. Here is the link to purchase tickets, which are $12.  

The Funnel was written and directed by Carruthers. It’s a short film about love, ancestral power and the Black experience of displacement and resilience.

The Funnel is a “Black, Blackity-Black film that follows in the legacy of Black filmmaking, particularly Black, queer, Black, gay and lesbian filmmaking,” Carruthers said. 

The film is based in the present time. The main character, Trina, goes on a spiritual experience that connects her to one of her ancestors, Taylor, who also lived in the same home and on the same land. The film connects both periods through the lens of housing inequities.

Carruthers began writing the film in 2021 after reading Saidiya Hartman’s book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval.

“Hartman writes about the lives of these rebellious and anarchist young Black women and Black people living in these mostly tenement buildings in New York and Philadelphia,” Carruthers said. 

After reading the book, she thought about bringing this story to Chicago and connecting today’s housing crisis with the housing crisis Black people in Chicago experienced in the 1940s.

Black people migrated from the South to northern cities in droves during the 20th-century Great Migration. However, in cities like Chicago, Black people were limited to living in particular areas due to racist housing policies including redlining and racially restrictive covenants that effectively kept Black people isolated to neighborhoods within the Black Belt. In communities such as Bronzeville, that led to extreme overcrowding. And some lived in what was known as kitchenette apartments, Carruthers explained. 

“A property owner would take one apartment meant for a single family and split it up into three or four rooms, and a single family would be offered a single room,” Carruthers said. “Some of those rooms would have a stove and some wouldn’t have a stove. Everyone on a given floor would have to share one bathroom.” 

It was the only housing option for many Black migrants, she added.  

“We have a whole history of Black people living in these tight, crowded, poorly managed spaces without the things that folks deserved in the early 20th century in the United States,” she said. 

The film is also the first production by Carruthers’ 1863 Productions. The production company’s name was inspired by the Combahee River Raid, which took place on June 2, 1863, and was a military operation led by abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Tubman and 150 Black American union soldiers rescued more than 700 slaves in the Combahee Ferry Raid during the Civil War. 

“The Combahee River Rebellion is a symbol of Black people’s insistence to fight for our own liberation. So 1863 Productions is a Black feminist media production company that moves in that spirit,” Carruthers explained. 

Through 1863 Productions, Carruthers aims to develop work that tells complete stories about Black history and Black feminist thought and practice. 

Carruthers and the film’s producer Elizah Turner hosted a private screening of The Funnel in Chicago in late July. Since then, the film has been selected for five film festivals, including the Black Femme Supremacy Film Festival in Baltimore, Md., and the Afrikana Independent Film Festival in Richmond, Va., which were both hosted earlier this month, and the aGliff PRISM LGBTQ Festival, in Austin, Texas, which took place in August. 

The TRiiBE talked to Carruthers in August about the film, how she balances her work as a Black studies PhD student at Northwestern University and filmmaker, her vision for her budding film career, and what’s next on the horizon. 

(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)

The TRiiBE: There are some beautiful scenes in “The Funnel” between mother and daughter plus Taylor and Auburn. Why was it essential for you to showcase maternal love and romantic love between Black women in “The Funnel?”

Charlene Carruthers: It was essential to me to show the way that Black people love each other and are intimate with each other across different types of relationships. Intimacy is another major theme of the film. Mister Duke and Taylor have an intimate moment with each other. Madame Lucy and Taylor have an intimate moment. They are close to each other, and it was that close when we were filming it. We ain’t manufacture the closeness. We didn’t have to say get closer to each other. 

So with Taylor and Auburn, we’re seeing more and more images of Black women being romantically intimate with each other on screen. That’s a new thing [from] the amount that we see on TV. This is not the first, of course. And the things that we see now on TV and film today are not the first, but we’re seeing it more and more. 

I thought it was important to have that love story visually shown and to show that Black people and Black women, in particular, love each other in all sorts of relationships, not just romantic ones. 

What did this experience teach you about filmmaking that you didn’t know? And are there any parallels between filmmaking and your work as a community organizer? 

(Reporter’s Note: Carruthers worked alongside hundreds of Black activists as the founding national director of BYP100 (Black Youth Project 100).

CC: Everything because I knew nothing. This experience taught me everything about filmmaking. I knew very little before I said I would make this film. When I said I was going to make this film. I then went out and studied, went to workshops, read, listened and talked to people. I did a lot of studying upfront and then learned a lot on set that I just did not know before, and there are certain things you can’t learn until you do them. For example, how to direct actors, how to work with actors, and how to work with the director of photography. I did a lot of studying before, and that helped me on set. 

One of the other big things that I learned is that my experience as a community organizer, and leader of organizations, is extremely transferable to film production, particularly as a director, and working with people and working with a large group of people at one time. 

I was once told that good organizing is also like putting on a production. And so, in the past 15 years, I’ve supported, coordinated and participated in all sorts of direct actions that are coordinating productions. That is what doing a direct action is: you have people, props, a message, scripts and press, all sorts of things that are very similar to a film set. 

When you’re planning a conference or a meeting, what kind of food are you having? Are all the technical things, set up? The contracts, hiring people and working with people are all components of film production. And those are all things that I had done before “The Funnel.”

What would you say has been the most rewarding part of producing “The Funnel?” 

CC: We’ve had the opportunity to screen more than once in front of a predominantly Black and queer audience, and their reaction to it [was saying they felt seen. They didn’t feel like we were explaining what it meant to be Black and queer. That it was just our story, that they connected to it, has been super rewarding because you never know how people will receive your work as an artist. 

You just hope that people like it. I hope people think it’s good. I think it’s good. To hear people laugh at the parts where I wanted people to laugh is like, oh, wow, it works. I wrote a thing and the actors delivered a thing that I was hoping would happen and it happened. So going from writing the script, as a screenplay to seeing it on the screen and seeing folks reactions. It’s priceless.

What feedback have you gotten from audiences at film festivals that have seen “The Funnel?” 

CC: I have been extremely grateful and excited about how folks have responded to the film. I hear a lot of people saying it’s beautiful. I love the story. I want to see more. One of the most common things I’ve heard is that I want to see more. 

TT: What do you hope resonates with people after viewing “The Funnel?” 

CC: I hope they become more curious about how Black folks are organizing around housing justice. My hope is that they also become more curious about and want and desire more stories that are period pieces about Black folks lives in that particular day. And that people are inspired to do their own research and move outside the themes that we typically hear about Black folks lives. Instead, they say we want to see and know that there are Black, queer and trans people in our history, and that it wasn’t the exception. It was common. That’s what I want people to know and what I want people to see. 

More information about “The Funnel” can be found here

is a multimedia reporter for The TRiiBE.