By Associate Editor Taylor Finley
Born in Augusta, Georgia to military parents, Hank Byrd was accustomed to moving around as a child. In 2003, he chose to make Tulsa his home and brought with him a vision of creating the black film scene here. Over the years, Hank has made some great headway towards that goal with the release of multiple short films. Last year, he released his first documentary In the Thick, which highlights the lives of plus-sized women in America. Hank is building on that success with the release of his web series “bLERDS” on August 29th.
“bLERDS” follows childhood friends Charlie and Tye, now jobless, and their estranged friend Warren as they navigate family and friendships while attempting to create a comic book. The term blerds stands for black nerds. The series is a coming-of-age story based on Hank’s life and the people he grew up with. For him, the web series is special. “I was a blerd before there was a word for it,” he added. He noticed there was a lack of representation for what a black nerd truly looked like. The difficulty for him growing up was that most of what he saw was a caricature of a nerd. He wanted to redefine the definition of the black nerd. “I may not be what you think about when you see a nerd, but that’s who I am. We don’t all walk around wearing Batman t-shirts,” he said. Coincidently, he was wearing said t-shirt during our interview. He went on to say, “It may not be what people think it should be, but it’s my reality.” He specifically chose to highlight black nerds because “I’m black first and it involves everything that comes with that. Then a nerd and everything that comes with that. Being black and being a nerd is different and it’s not easy.” With his work, he also strives to bring representation to the black community.
Hank didn’t take film seriously until he was in 11th grade. After 1989’s Batman, he went from being a fan to becoming fascinated by the mechanics of filmmaking. He then began working towards developing his skills as a writer. Starting out, he wanted to go the traditional route of being signed by a big studio company in Hollywood. Over time, his vision changed. He later became inspired by the likes of Tyler Perry who was able to create a major black film scene locally. Creating in a place that he also calls his home gives him that opportunity.
Hank’s connection to Tulsa didn’t just begin in 2003. It started in the 1960s when his grandmother moved to North Tulsa. Hank spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house as a kid. The house holds a lot of meaning for him, so he was excited to film some flashback scenes there for his web series “bLERDS.” He hopes that the series will hold a lot of meaning for many North Tulsans as well. He wants to have places in the story that they will recognize. “This is a piece of America just like any other place,” he said. He doesn’t want people to feel like they need to be in New York or Los Angeles to create content. He hopes that other people in North Tulsa will see that and be inspired to create their own stories about North Tulsa and growing up here. In general, he wants filmmakers to look at the places they grew up in and build from there.
Another thing that makes ‘bLERDS” special for him is his cast. Hank is the creator, director, and producer for the series, so the whole cast was hand chosen. Most of the cast is also native to North Tulsa. He was deliberate in knowing the people and their work. He was intentional about choosing women who represented all black women. Women you don’t typically see on the screen. Hank said he always has fun working with people he knows. “The greatest joy I have as a filmmaker is being able to do what I love with the people I love,” he added. He really wants to see people working together and really wants to see a black film community in Tulsa. He loves being able to create content and see something go from “script to screen, from creation to completion.”
Unfortunately, being a filmmaker (particularly a black filmmaker) has its challenges. He said that all independent filmmakers struggle with finances. It is hard to raise money. He believes that is what deters a lot of filmmakers from creating because they concentrate on what they don’t have instead of what they do. However, he doesn’t let that stop him. The other challenge is social media. According to Hank, “social media needs to be your best friend otherwise you are dead in the water.” He also feels that being a black filmmaker has its own unique challenges when it comes to exposure. That is his biggest challenge. He gets support from black media outlets, but not the mainstream media in Tulsa. He thinks that because black filmmakers are such a rarity, other outlets don’t take his work seriously or don’t think it is as important.
For aspiring filmmakers, Hank has three pieces of advice:
- Try to learn as much as you can about the business of filmmaking. For him, knowing how the business works has helped him set himself apart from other filmmakers that were not as aware.
- Learn how to write well. Hank said writing has opened up a lot of doors for him that he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. He says we don’t have enough black writers out there and there needs to be more telling their stories.
- Tell diverse stories. In his opinion, black filmmakers have relegated themselves to 4 or 5 different types of films: comedies, rom-coms, ensemble family pictures, biopics, and dramas. He says many black filmmakers just stick to those genres and don’t venture outside of that, but thinks they can do so much more than that and more of that is needed.
Photo Credit: Kenya Walker