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Student thesis film ‘Long Dance’ explores sexual pressures, uplifts Black youth

Kenny Beckford smiles in front of Melnitz Hall. The fourth-year film and television student is the first Black undergraduate film student to direct a thesis film since 2018. (Alice Yang/Daily Bruin)

By Ruwani Jayasekara

March 5, 2023 8:40 p.m.

In “Long Dance,” Kenny Beckford is redefining the roles of Black characters on the screen.

The fourth-year film and television student is the first Black undergraduate student to direct a thesis film since 2018. In his upcoming comedy “Long Dance,” Beckford showcases the vulnerability of Black masculinity through the story of a high school senior attempting to hide his anxiety about losing his virginity, he said. Initially starting out as an actor, Beckford said he made the switch to filmmaking in order to create roles for Black youth that were not previously accessible to him.

“At seven or eight, I was auditioning for a nerdy Black side character,” Beckford said. “I’ve always felt like within TV and film there’s this idea that you could either go on one side of the awkward, funny spectrum or the very charismatic, attractive character. I really wanted to find the middle ground between that because I think it gives more depth to Black characters as a whole.”

(Courtesy of "Long Dance")
Dante Brown stars as Wayne in "Long Dance." The film follows an anxiety-ridden teen as he navigates his fear about losing his virginity. (Courtesy of "Long Dance")

[Related: Graduate student Jahmil Eady brings social issues to screen with short films]

The film follows anxiety-ridden Wayne as he expresses his apprehension about losing his virginity the night of his high school prom, Beckford said. Reflecting on his own personal experiences, Beckford said conversations he had in high school about sexual pressures often made him uncomfortable and forced him to portray a sense of false confidence around the topic in order to fit in.

“There is this conversation about why we feel the need to competitively talk about sexuality and our experiences,” Beckford said. “It’s a normal thing for a teenager to not feel comfortable to want to (have) sexual experiences.”

In writing Wayne’s character, Beckford said he wanted to create a figure that struggles with the same sexual expectations as most teenagers, yet is able to eventually have an open conversation about his personal insecurities rather than hide them. Vulnerability for young Black men specifically is rarely portrayed on screen, Beckford said, and he hopes the film will show young viewers they are not alone in that experience and can create a sense of normalcy around anxiety about sex.

“Long Dance” attempts to shy away from the norm of Black media by depicting a more everyday experience, rather than one burdened by themes of trauma and injustice, Beckford said. For lead actress and fourth-year communication and sociology student Anecia Forbes, playing Wayne’s love interest Sarah felt very close to home, as she was able to draw on her own personal experiences in preparing for the role, she said. Being able to portray a character that resonated with her first high school relationships, Forbes said, was what particularly drew her to the film as it showcases a story that is often not told from the perspectives of the Black community. Prom, for instance, is a commonplace experience that most high schoolers encounter yet is often only depicted on screen from a white lens, she said.

The classic coming-of-age story is not uncommon in film, Forbes said, but young, Black love is rarely highlighted by the entertainment industry. Recounting her first exposure to film as a child, Forbes said the trope of the young girl falling in love was prevalent in media, yet there were only a handful of young Black girls experiencing that on screen within the non-POC-saturated entertainment industry. She said having a creative team comprised of people of color is very meaningful, as representation in media cannot exist without their voices being heard.

“I don’t think the entertainment industry will do justice if everything is just being produced and shown from one culture or one lens,” Forbes said. “When there are different people with different journeys and different outlooks on life, that’s when the entertainment industry really does flourish.”

A former high school classmate of Beckford’s, third-year film and television student Christopher Jordan said he had always joked about being part of Beckford’s films and was finally given that opportunity as a producer on “Long Dance.” Having a student thesis film composed of predominantly people of color was very important for both the cast and crew, Jordan said, as it was an integral opportunity for representation that is not always seen prevalently on campus.

“We had many different people from many different backgrounds that came in and helped Kenny execute his vision,” Jordan said. “It was definitely very empowering to put people like that on screen.”

(Courtesy of "Long Dance")
The cast of "Long Dance" dance in front of a multi-colored backdrop. Beckford said he hopes the film reshapes the typical portrayal of Black men within the film industry. (Courtesy of "Long Dance")

[Related: Short film “Dogwood” spotlights Native representation on both sides of the camera]

In his four years in UCLA’s film program, Beckford said he lacked the opportunity to work on Black-led films, so when it was finally his turn to be in the director’s chair, he prioritized having as many people of color on his set as possible. Beckford said he hopes to be a resource for the new class of filmmakers who seek to see themselves represented both on screen and behind the camera. Through writing stories inspired by his own experiences, Beckford said he is taking on the responsibility of providing the on-screen representations he wishes he saw growing up.

“Representation in film is very rare, so when we do have an opportunity, I want to make sure I do uplift all different types of communities,” Beckford said. “It was just helpful for me to understand that I wanted to write and direct roles for the kid like myself that weren’t there before.”

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