Vimeo and Mailchimp Shine a Light on Black-Owned Businesses

Black filmmakers tell stories of hope, perseverance

"I've been in and out of this shop throughout my life and spent enough time there to see the community spirit and vibrant character the owner and the customers have. I felt this shop had a story to tell," says filmmaker Troy Browne of Mitchell's the Bowl, a West Indian grocery in Nottingham, England.

Browne created the five-minute mini-doc below, one of seven films in a grant-funded series from Vimeo and Mailchimp spotlighting Black directors and Black-owned businesses from around the world.

Combining cut-out animations with in-store interviews, Browne introduces viewers to Claudette Mitchell, whose father founded the store six decades ago. As its owner for the past 25 years, Claudette has carried on a tradition of service and camaraderie. Now, she plans to retire and turn over the reins to the next generation:

It's an affecting tale of a family's love for their work and neighbors. Of long hours and tireless struggle for success. Of the bonds that owners form with customers and the varied flavors, literal and figurative, their efforts add to everyday life.

"I hope people watch this film and get a look at a world they may not have seen—escape to a small place that would go unnoticed otherwise, and celebrate small businesses that have such a stake in their local communities," Browne says.

The videos launched under Vimeo's "Stories in Place" banner, launched a year ago in an effort to "give creators grants to tell stories about the world in this very unique moment" of pandemic anxiety and social unrest, Vimeo chief marketer Harris Beber tells Muse.

For 2021, the team decided to back a second series of films, partnering with Mailchimp Presents, the email marketing company's content arm, because "both platforms enable small businesses and value beautiful storytelling," Beber says. The pair have worked together before, mainly on product integrations, "so this was an exciting way to expand our relationship," he adds.

Black filmmakers from the Vimeo and Mailchimp communities pitched profiles of their favorite small businesses. Each director received $10,000 for production, with another $10,000 awarded to the documentary subjects through a mix of cash and promotional assistance.

"We focused on Black filmmakers and Black small businesses because we knew there were important, interesting, wonderful, heartbreaking stories—people adapting and innovating in the wake of the pandemic—that were likely undertold," Beber says. "We didn't want to make any broad statements about the Black experience with this project, but we wanted authentic, loving glimpses into the inner workings of special people and places."

The work achieves that end, displaying an impressive range of locales, voices and creative techniques.

In "Rebyrth Wellness," we travel to Atlanta and meet Imani Byers, who serves as a doula, providing pregnant Black women with compassionate care:

"I wanted to tailor my approach to this film in a way that matched Imani's persona and the feeling her clients get when they're working with her," says director Cydney Tucker. "It's organic, it's grounding, it's spiritual."

Indeed, the narrative achieves a meditative, almost hypnotic vibe on the subject of empowering Black women and saving Black lives. "I hope this film will raise awareness of Black maternal morbidity rates in this country and the power of Black birth-care workers," Tucker says.

Next, we turn to "Harriett's Bookshop," the series' longest installment, clocking in at 16 minutes. It focuses on Jeannine Cook, who opened the store in Philadelphia just before the pandemic hit to celebrate women authors, activists and artists:

This resonant tale—punctuated by mellow music, moody urban imagery and disturbing outbursts of intolerance—takes a deep dive into Cook's battle for space and sovereignty. It's a fight she shares to varying degrees with Black people the world over.

"We knew there was a story to be told not only about Harriett's positioning in the racial justice movement, but also about what it means to be a visible Black person dealing with this country's racism publicly and privately," say filmmakers Raishad Hardnett and Aidan M. Un.

Collectively, the films use their small-business lens to great effect. They probe intricate cycles of hope, dejection and triumph, sharing important stories that inform and inspire.

"This wasn't designed to be a specific Black History Month project, the timing is just serendipitous," Beber says. "By the time things came together, after giving the filmmakers two months to complete their projects, we were looking at a February release date."

Independent enterprises of all sorts have battled for survival since Covid took hold, and several recent initiatives, some tied to BHM, reflect that reality.

Notable examples include Square's intense look at Black-owned establishments in three U.S. cities (similar in approach to the Vimeo/Mailchimp project, though artist grants weren't involved) and a challenge among five leading creative agencies to buy from minority-run businesses all month long. While Facebook's pitch for its targeted advertising programs lacks an overt social-justice focus, it does showcase SMB diversity.

You can check out more "Stories in Place" below.

Curtis Essel serves up archival footage and chats with Jahson Peat, owner of a South London vegan restaurant:

Mosaic-tile artwork informs Travis Wood's mixed-media profile of Lori Greene, the multiracial proprietor of an art studio in in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Next, the hardscrabble journey of Newark, New Jersey, sneaker consignment shop Studio Sole, as told by Amandla Baraka:

Finally, filmmaker Ng'endo Mukii presents Njeri Mereka, an indomitable, hymn-singing grandma who runs Kanyoko Boutique in Nairobi, Kenya:

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David Gianatasio
David Gianatasio is senior editor at Clio Awards.

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