How Junior Cai Thomas Is Challenging Film’s Shortcomings On Gender And Race
Top Story, Arts, On Campus

How Junior Cai Thomas Is Challenging Film’s Shortcomings On Gender And Race

Looking around her Biblical Heritage class, Cai Thomas, A&S ’16, is struggling with her classmates’ responses. It is her sophomore year at Boston College, and her professor is teaching a lesson on the Biblical canon. In an example, he asks his students to name films they considered to be in the canon of film. A list of films is rattled off, and quickly, Thomas notices a pattern. Completely absent from the “canon” discussed is a single film about a person of color.

Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Break-Up, Mississippi Damned. Ask Thomas for her favorite films, and without much reservation, she’ll list Vince Vaughn’s critically-assailed 2006 comedy right next to director Tina Mabry’s arthouse favorite, which follows the family struggles of three black children living in rural Mississippi.

“If someone succeeds in media—whether it be print, digital, or film—graduating from BC, they deserve all the glory, because that’s not an easy thing to do at all.”

A director and producer herself, Thomas speaks of her experience as a filmmaker with both a sense of purpose and urgency. She begrudges the absence of a single, female-driven film in this year’s Best Picture category at the Oscars and is particularly proud that both her major film projects—a series on BC’s production of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls and a documentary on professional hockey player Blake Bolden, BC  ’13—were released during women’s history month in successive years.

In recent months, Thomas has spent much of her time consumed by the production of the latter: scheduling interviews, staging shoots, collecting information on Bolden, speaking to family members and teammates, sorting through old pictures, arranging for film equipment, even hailing Uber rides for the production crew. 

The recently completed five-minute film, which recounts Bolden’s experiences an unpaid player for the Boston Blades in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, was produced out-of-pocket byThomas and took the better part of two months to film and another three to polish off for release. “Blake Bolden” is currently an entry in the New England Sports Network (NESN) Next Producer competition. Thomas is among 10 student filmmakers featured in the contest, with the producer of the most voted for video receiving a $20,000 cash prize and a job with NESN.

It was in her freshman year when Thomas first noticed Bolden on the BC Athletics homepage. Then a player for the women’s hockey team, Bolden stood out to Thomas. She considered it rare to see a black woman on a college hockey team. “She sort of always stuck in my mind,” Thomas says. Soon after hearing about the NESN competition this past year, Thomas decided Bolden’s story was one she wanted to pursue, and she reached out to the player through a mutual friend.

Bolden was very receptive to the idea, and agreed to take part in Thomas’ documentary. Thomas joined forces with Adisa Duke, A&S ’15, who took on the role of director of photography, and also employed the technical support of Rule Boston Camera, where she worked as an intern. From there, the extensive film process would start.

Those who have worked with Thomas note her rigorous production habits. She will spend several weeks closely following her subjects, familiarizing herself with them through multiple phone conversations before actually having a meeting. Off shoot, she puts in hours of research, making an effort to know all important figures in her subjects’ lives, even those only on the periphery of the narratives she’s following. She considers building relationships with the people she films to be one of the most important parts of telling their stories, and according to the people she works with, will hold herself to a near unattainable standard for the quality of these documentaries.

Alex Stanley, a sound producer and production assistant for the Bolden project and A&S ’16, (Note: Stanley also works as a sports staffer for The Heights) recalls one time the crew was approached about moving when filming the Blades on the ice rink bleachers.

“She was like, yeah sure, and kept the shot situated in the bleachers,” says Stanley, laughing to himself. “She wanted that shot.”

Thomas and Stanley first met in their freshman year at BC, bonding over Kendrick Lamar lyrics after meeting in their dorm. Now close friends with Thomas, Stanley describes her as both loud and introverted. He says she’s near impossible to track down during the week as she isolates herself in filmmaking and schoolwork, and then on weekends, she’ll frequently attend area film festivals. (Last summer, she made the trek to France for the Cannes Film Festival.)

Thomas embraces her mom after announcement she won the MLK scholarship in February. That day was her mother’s first time seeing snow fall. (Arthur Bailin / Heights Editor)

The BC housing process, an enormous social undertaking for many BC students, is of small importance to Thomas, who, according to Stanley, seems happy to ignore the ritual altogether and apply for random housing.

Thomas speaks about BC both with an appreciation for the school and a skepticism toward several of its traditions (including the dorm lottery).

Native to Miami, Thomas describes BC as “literally the most random” of all the schools she applied to. She first heard of the New England school from her guidance counselor, whose husband attended it and thought it might be a good fit for Thomas. She came to Chestnut Hill distinguished as a Jackie Robinson scholar, and in February, Thomas was awarded the University’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Scholarship, one of the school’s most prestigious student honors.

“BC has its ups and downs,” Thomas said. “I’m happy to represent the University, and also happy to have their support on this project.”

She notes how the Office of News and Public Affairs has been extraordinarily helpful in the sharing of her work, and how as an MLK scholar, she has found many meaningful opportunities to serve as a mentor to younger students.

Thomas thinks BC has several shortcomings, both in and out of the classroom. She questions the European leaning of the University’s history core, arguing that many classes in Africa and African Diaspora Studies should also count toward it.

“My black history, the history of my people, matters,” she says. “You can’t just say, oh, we’re only going to allow European history to be the history that fulfills the requirement.”

Those close with Thomas describe her as disappearing for extraordinary amounts of time as she focuses on her filmmaking and schoolwork. (John Wiley / Heights Editor)

She also feels that much of the responsibility of educating BC students on race falls on other students.

“I think a lot of people struggle with just having to educate their friends,” Thomas comments. “I should not have to talk to someone who’s 21 years old about using the N-word.”

A communications major and a film studies minor, Thomas notes several barriers that exist for those interested in media at BC—a lack of adequate film technology and a less-than-extensive professional network.

“If someone succeeds in media—whether it be print, digital, or film—graduating from BC, they deserve all the glory, because that’s not an easy thing to do at all,” Thomas says.

Stanley recalls how, after completing her Bolden film, Thomas kept commenting that there was something missing. It needed more interviews, she would tell him, or more B roll footage. Stanley personally was very impressed by the film, but he wasn’t surprised by her reaction.

For Thomas, there’s always something more to the story, another shot to be taken, another name belonging in the canon. 

Featured Image by John Wiley / Heights Editor

March 12, 2015
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