Jordan Thierry is passionate about making films that support and inspire social change. Documentaries are truly his calling, and he tends to be interested in crafting the ones that can truly provoke thought about social issues, and move others to contemplate on their lives.
Thierry loves the idea of exploring what he calls “men issues” and hugely concerns himself with the day-to-day experiences of men of color, while bringing to the forefront what he considers important historical contexts missing from conversation on current events.
The filmmaker is a native of Portland, Oregon, and attended high school and college there. He directed Footprints in the Struggle: The Beatrice Cannady Story The Black Fatherhood Project, a documentary that essentially captures his essence as a documentarian.
Q & A
Footprints in the Struggle: The Beatrice Cannady Story is a film you directed while you were still in school. How was that experience?
For me, making that film was the first experience I had taking an idea of my own and bringing it to full life, that had significance in the community. It was a rush, and a feeling I wanted to feel all the time. Only if you’ve worked so hard to create something from your own vision, and built it to completion, can you get that kind of feeling. After making that film, I knew I wanted to do it as a profession. We made it over the course of about 8 weeks, and I worked with two classmates who were truly supportive and believed in my vision from the start. That was really inspiring to me, because we each pitched our own ideas at the beginning of the semester. These two classmates forfeited their own ideas to work with me on the Beatrice Cannady project. Having support like that on a project is so critical, and keeps you motivated and accountable as a director.
That documentary ended up airing on the Oregon Public Broadcasting. How did you manage that feat?
The University of Oregon Journalism School had a relationship with OPB already in existence, and the Documentary class regularly pitched their films to producers there each semester. Dr. Dan Miller, my professor for that class, has been instrumental in getting students’ films broadcast on OPB.
It was also nominated for a Regional Emmy in the Best Student Short Documentary category by the Northwest Chapter of National Association of Television Arts and Sciences. How did you feel about that?
The fact that it was my first film and received recognition from a professional institution like that boosted my confidence and gave me an idea of the possibilities there for my film career.
What advice do you have for those who want to get into the documentary field?
Finish your project! So many people have started making documentaries but never finish. I was almost one of those people, with The Black Fatherhood Project. At one point I threw in the towel and said, “this is too difficult. No one wants to hear what I have to say about fatherhood. I’m not the right person to tell this story.” But for whatever reasons, I finished it. And that’s been the best feeling I’ve ever had in life, because of the societal magnitude of the project, and the grateful, enthusiastic feedback I’ve received from folks of all walks of life, all over the country.
What’s the deal with The Black Fatherhood Project?
The deal is that it’s covering one of the most important social issues of our time. Fatherhood, as traditionally understood, is declining at an alarming rate all across American society. It’s related to so many important conversations happening around the future of the US, but it’s consistently missing from the conversation, I feel because it forces us to confront some sensitive, shameful, and complex realities dealing with racism, masculinity, sexuality, misogyny, culture, the justice system, and even democracy. The film provides historical context through the lens of the black father, but provokes thoughtful questions for broader society to consider in thinking about addressing issues today.
Did you have a good relationship with your father?
I have a great relationship with my father. He and my mother are still married, and have been together for over 35 years. He was my basketball coach growing up, and surrounded me with his friends all the time so I had many black male role models growing up.
Analysts sometimes tend to bemoan drop-out rates at colleges. You made it! How did you manage to get to graduation from the University of Oregon?
I had big aspirations to be a journalist, filmmaker and social change activist. Those aspirations, and a supportive family and college community drove me earn a degree.
In 2009, you graduated from Howard with a Master’s degree in the Mass Communications and Media Studies program at Howard University. Lately, there’s been a lot of articles about graduate degrees, and what is worth what.
True. I think it depends on the person, where they are at in their life, how much debt they want to be in, and where they want to go to school—and what they want to get out of it. I agree with most critics that a Masters degree is no longer as “special” as it once was, because so many people are earning them now. It still might help you stand out among other candidates, but work experience is still more important in my mind. I do not regret going to grad school because I learned so much there that I didn’t in undergrad, even though my majors were similar. Grad school was even more important for me because of the community it put in me in, Washington, DC, the network it connected me to of amazing black scholars and professionals from all over the world, and the pride it gave me in being a part of the HBCU tradition. It’s no secret that I learned more from the students than the professors at Howard, but I think that’s true for most great educational institutions. I would just advise people to have realistic expectations for what they want to achieve with a masters degree, and to make sure they do their research on programs, faculty, completion rates, and career services offered. Higher education is a business, after all.
How important do you think it is for a young leader to have a support system?
It’s a requirement. It’s hard to lead if you do not have support. I’ve never met a true leader that doesn’t have a support system. I’ve met people with leadership potential, but leadership itself is dependent on support and “followers”.
Do you have a documentarian or filmmaker that you look up to especially?
Yes! Spike Lee was most influential on me as a youth. As an adult, I really look up to filmmakers Marlon Riggs, Stephanie Black, Byron Hurt, Haile Gerima, and Steve James. I also like the folks at Kartemquin Films, Participant Media, and California Newsreel.
Have you seen anything by Gordon Parks?
Yes. He was a pioneer for black visual artists everywhere.
You’re involved with a lot of organizations, in addition to your work as a filmmaker and educator.
I’m still working on the balance piece, which is why it took me so long to get back to you.
As the co-founder of the organization BRIDGES to Higher Education, a high school-to-college tracking program for high school students of color, what are you most proud of?
That it still exists! A lot of times community programs within colleges that are student-led have a short lifespan because it takes a lot for future students to understand the mission, value it, and continue with the work the classes behind them began. So I’m thrilled that BRIDGES is still operating 8 years after we founded it.
What do you wish you had known when you graduated from high school?
That there was a community of like-minded people out there waiting for me.
You can learn more about The Black Fatherhood Project here.