Building on a previous work called "In the Sun" from last year, executive produced by Kerry Washington, Neutrogena Studios has released two more films under its "First Frame" series.
The two works were created alongside Passion Point Collective, the Ghetto Film School and ChloeXHalle, who were given $25,000 to create two short films—one scripted and one animated.
The first, "En Avant," follows a young Black ballerina.
Written by Sarah Jean Williams, the story explores Ragan, who's secured her first lead ballet role after a lifetime of dreaming about it. What starts out as genuine pleasure quickly becomes a troubled situation when, behind the scenes, Ragan is accosted by the pressure and microaggressions of her director, who constantly finds ways to remind her of how lucky she is, even as he tries encouraging her.
"You need to be perfect. Otherwise you look like a mistake," he says.
Because the film is mostly shot in black and white, details leap out that might otherwise not—like the striking contrast between Ragan's skin and her shoes. It's only in recent years that pointe shoes in different shades have become available, a small detail that nonetheless makes a big difference for young ballerinas who are not white.
But things really become troubling when, minutes before her first performance, the director gives Ragan a big bottle of foundation that does not match her skin color at all. "It's nothing major, it's so you look more uniform with the rest of the company," he tells her.
Anyone who's ever worn foundation that doesn't quite match their face knows how psychologically trying it is to walk in the world this way, never mind dance in it. Under the stage lights, she almost appears to be wearing a mask—something Ragan begins having nightmares about when a young fan, also African American, asks if Ragan thinks she, too, could become a ballerina, even if she doesn't have the same "pretty skin."
This is the moment Ragan breaks, and decides to honor the version of herself who was that girl once. She goes out to the next show without the whiteface makeup, to the aggressive chagrin of her director, and smiles the first real, relaxed smile we've seen since she first received her part.
The "First Frame" program is designed to support emerging, diverse filmmakers. The second film, "If My Voice Rang Louder Than My Skin" by Kyra Peters, is animated and has a kind of In the Heights vibe.
It also starts in monotones, and follows Ray, a city kid who loves music—drumming on every available surface he can find. But this innocent act of affinity is given sinister weight by those who judge him based on his skin.
That is, until Ray encounters Tanya, a person with a song in her heart, but whose song is suddenly silenced by the labels people attribute to her. (The uniformity of Tanya's facial color is broken by something that could be a disease like vitiligo, but that could also be a burn. It's never explained.)
"Everyone's skin rang so loud, not one voice could be heard," the narrator laments.
Ray reaches out to help her, breaking through the fomenting crowd and starting to drum beside her, lifting his voice alongside hers. This inspires others to take part, and triggers a technicolor transformation of the world around them.
"If my voice rang louder than my skin, my voice would finally matter," Tanya sings.
"Then maybe the world could finally have its own happily ever after," Ray adds.
The short—about raising your voice, and giving the world a chance to harmonize to it—ends with a happily-ever-after.
The films were released online in March after Sundance was canceled. They are currently being submitted to film festivals world wide, including the Pan African Film Festival this month in L.A. and Cannes.