An analytic reflection of Charcoal's latest documentary, "The Story of Charcoal."
Written by Sara Diaz
Edited by Mateo Daffin & Irvin Alonzo
Over the past five years, Charcoal Magazine has evolved into an immense power for the Boston University community. Every year, Charcoal Magazine raises the bar, shattering the glass ceiling every time it forms a new concept, sets a new record, and prints a new magazine.
“The Story of Charcoal” was privately screened to members and friends of Charcoal on February 24, 2023. The documentary was filmed over the course of several months by a collective of creatives, including Director Christine An and Producers Chike Asuzu and Melanie Menkiti. This documentary is a manifestation of that “labor of love” that is integral to the heart of Charcoal. The film begins with a relay of remarkable memories with an evocative soundscape echoing in the background, tying the images together. It starts with a return to its most recent issue, Return. “The Story of Charcoal” carries you into the pages of Charcoal Magazine with a tale of the past, present, and future. You are invited into the realm of the organization, where you are a part of the journey as much as the people telling it. Compositionally, the documentary’s delivery of this story is precise and intentional. Its ebbs and flows capture the audience with impactful narration, meaningful storytelling, and momentous music. The cinematography blends with the film's content, moving the audience through the story's chapters.
Chike Asuzu, Editor-In-Chief, serves as a reliable narrator throughout the entire film, guiding the audience through both the fantasy and reality of Charcoal Magazine. Chike’s ability to seamlessly recount the narrative of the story is reflective of the work they’ve done as a POC creative. They played an essential role in creating a safe space for fellow people of color in Charcoal while truthfully articulating why creating those safe spaces can be just as unsafe. Chike establishes a thesis for the film,
“If I were to define Charcoal, I would start by saying that I singularly can’t.”
The Charcoal community is essentially its own ecosystem, consisting of hundreds of creatives interacting with the environment. Anne Joseph, Director of Operations, makes an important point later in the film that
“the people are the priority.”
Charcoal is, has, and will always be about the people of color who choose to come into a space to create something substantive and purposeful. This sense of togetherness exists because of the complex layers behind each person, and our stories and backgrounds compose various intersecting forms of identity.
“The Story of Charcoal” navigates the life cycle of Charcoal Magazine. Founders Remy Usman and Adia Turner birthed the idea of the publication to Boston University’s BUild Lab in 2017. There is a callback to Charcoal taking those first steps to produce its first publication, “Mirrors,” with a small team of 18-20. Mirrors planted the seed for what it is today. It was also after this publication that Charcoal Magazine found a home with the Howard Thurman Center for Common Ground (HTC). The HTC would go on to give Charcoal a physical space to gather and foster ideas for future works.
Charcoal Magazine has always been perceived as this powerfully astral and transformative entity. “The Story of Charcoal” explores the hardships and emotions it took to garner the recognition that it holds. The documentary acknowledges the times when the Charcoal community has been challenged, especially following the passing of Erin Edwards. Her journey in Charcoal Magazine began in 2018 as a model, and by Spring ‘19, she became a Managing Editor, setting her up to become Charcoal’s Editor-In-Chief in Fall ‘19. Erin’s brilliance as a creative does not go unseen as she has made a lasting impact on the legacy of Charcoal. The film also touches upon the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the production of the sixth issue, “Fuse,” and the present feelings of isolation. Acquisitions Editor Skye Patton comments in the film that she was able to use Charcoal Connect to channel her feelings, “I just wrote about how stressful sophomore year was, and I published it.”
The film features playful imagery of the members of Charcoal. It shows us at our most joyous moments with seas of smiles and affectionate intimacy, echoing a sense of youthful nostalgia. As someone involved with the creative process, seeing this imagery made me fond of the memories I have of participating in Charcoal’s shoots. It reminded me of the laughter and love that was on set. I had the opportunity to see brilliant concepts come to life. The last issue’s “With Unbridled Joy” shoot displayed that sense of freedom in fluidity and movement. Model Esther Benson guided us through her thought process in creating the concept noting, “my pitch was centered around celebration. So, I was like, ‘What is the best way to captivate five years than through a party? A birthday party?” Model Maika Takemoto describes her experience as “supernatural and super fun.” However, there are two sides to every story. Fashion Stylist Jaelyn Carr hilariously contrasts the previous comments, saying that
“it was stressful as fuck!”
...in regards to having to style 20 models. These differing accounts demonstrate the wide spectrum of the creative team’s experiences when working on the shoot. There are feelings of ease and freedom, while there are also feelings of stress and restraint. Photographer Nat Ng makes a powerful point: "I think as a lot of creatives do, we always have imposter syndrome…so, those things came in a lot, especially during the shoots when things didn’t go well.” Past Creative Director Gauri Nema strongly states,
“We don’t just feel the happiness and excitement. We feel frustrated. We feel angry. We feel irritated. We feel sadness. We felt broken down sometimes, but we still come back because we understand that that is what it means to be human, that is what it means to be in a community.”
Although Charcoal has provided a safe space for people of color, it has taken an immeasurable amount of energy to provide that security, especially when its creators feel unsafe. As people of color at a predominantly white institution like Boston University, navigating and upholding yourself to a standard can be exhausting. Charcoal provided a space where we could express every fiber of ourselves cathartically. It provided a space where we could be joyous and relish in that. It provided a space where there were no limits to our boundless imagination. This positive outlook, however, shouldn’t dismiss that our work still faces internal and external limitations. As people of color, sometimes our work only seems valuable when we produce perfection at the cost of exhaustion. Chike Asuzu made a point after the film’s screening that
“To a larger institution, this is capital.”
There is a level of exploitation that POC creatives constantly face at the hands of a larger institution. We have to work tirelessly to uphold a constant standard of perfectionistic success resulting in feelings of exhaustion and anxiety. It can leave us feeling defeated, especially when the community is composed of students who intensely navigate this labor out of love.
Immediately following the screening, the team behind the documentary deconstructed the elements of the film and their emotions throughout the process, delivering a fruitful and meaningful conversation. Director Christine An pointed out that filming so many individuals who could become so vulnerable and truthful profoundly impacted her. Producer Melanie Menkiti also revealed that the editing process and rummaging through hours and hours of footage was eye-opening and felt more intimate. They were honest and captivating in their retelling of the filmmaking process. It felt like watching the epilogue of the documentary play out in real-time.
While I sat there watching the film, I was sincerely moved throughout all of it. I felt the emotions bubbling in my chest like a soda can waiting to explode. I felt awestruck watching Creative Director Atiyyah Mayale-Eke describe the sense of pride she felt being seen and represented when she pitched Power In Cloth. She states,
"People talk about representation all the time, and it’s like sometimes you need to see it and know that it exists and is just as valid.”
This completely resonated with me and probably with many other people of color who grew up unable to see themselves in light. Charcoal Magazine has been that representation for me and many of us. The documentary allowed you to feel what the interviewees were feeling. There were moments when you felt “grand,” like Model Grandee Rafael De Guzman felt when seeing himself on the cover of Return. There were also moments of intensity and vulnerability. It demonstrated a full range of profound, honest, and radiant emotions. I also felt excitement, waiting for the next chapter to unfold. I got to laugh at myself and all of the insanity that poured out of my mouth. I saw my friends, the people that I admire. I saw my peers and my mentors. “The Story of Charcoal” is just that, a life cycle of Charcoal. It demonstrates the thread that connects us together from past to present. It’s a manifestation of the labor of love that Charcoal Magazine has cultivated. It is a love letter, raw and genuine in its approach. Through “The Story of Charcoal,” we understand what goes into the community: fantasy and reality.
Special Thanks to the team behind “The Story of Charcoal”:
Director: Christine An
Producers: Chike Asuzu and Melanie Menkiti
Assistant Producers: Andrea Regina Esperon and Yaxin Mao
Cinematographers: Andrea Regina Esperon, Ayan Patel, Christine An, Gauri Nema, Hector Rivera Jr, Melanie Menkiti, Yaxin Mao, and Puturen Sungti Amer
Editors: Christine An and Melanie Menkiti
Assistant Editors: Andrea Regina Esperon, Rafeeat Bishi, and Regina Wang
Gimbal Operator: Yaxin Mao
Drone Operator: Christin An