Karena Evans busts through Hollywood ceilings with P-Valley
The Pickering-raised director goes from Drake videos to TV with the premiere episode of Starz's southern strip-club series
By Radheyan Simonpillai
Jul 9, 2020
Courtesy Bell Media
Karena Evans (left) directs P-Valley's pilot episode
Pickering’s Karena Evans, the director behind Drake’s God’s Plan and Nice For What videos, is making the leap into television and movies.
Her narrative debut, the pilot episode of Katori Hall’s drama about strippers P-Valley, premieres Sunday (July 12) on Starz and Crave. She’s following that up with an episode of Snowfall, John Singleton’s series about the crack epidemic, and a feature film she plans to tell us more about next year. Evans is on a trajectory only a handful of people before her have successfully completed.
The list of music video directors who become prominent moviemakers like David Fincher, Michael Bay and Spike Jonze is long. But for directors who come from hip-hop videos, it’s another story.
F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) are the most prominent among the few who leveraged their hip-hop work to build a career in movies. Melina Matsoukas made the leap recently with Queen And Slim.
Even Hype Williams – whose cultural imprint between videos for artists like Biggie, Nas and Wu-Tang runs far, wide and deep – has not directed a feature film since 1998’s Belly.
“Life, humanity and art does not progress without Black culture,” Evans tells NOW on a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “Its maddening someone like Hype [Williams], who is the Godfather of music video filmmaking and storytelling, doesn’t get the same respect as a David Fincher and they come from the same place. That is bias and that is racism.”
Evans isn’t ignorant to how the mostly Black talent who come from hip-hop, no matter how many private jets they can own, are treated like they belong in coach by the artistic community. It took Kendrick Lamar winning the Pullitzer Prize for the entire hip-hop community to know that the Pullitzer Prize was even up for grabs.
“I have to work hard to not believe that narrative within myself,” says Evans, who in a few short years has been making a habit of pushing past one boundary after another. “I have to unlearn that thinking that was projected on to me to be able to move through that narrative and to break through.”
There is a lineage from Hype Williams to Evans, who is touted as the first lady of Director X’s company, Popp Rok. X was a Hype protégé. Likewise, Evans cut her teeth after she cold-called and started interning for X.
Evans also starred in Jasmin Mozaffari’s Firecrackers, a 2019 film about young women seemingly built from concrete scraping against the patriarchy. There’s a scrappy, chin-high energy in Firecrackers that can be felt in P-Valley. She admits that she soaks up all the knowledge she can from all her mentors and collaborators, Mozaffari included.
There is also that “hip-hop aesthetic” with saturated colours, neon lights, dizzying edits and slow-motion poses that can be traced from Belly to P-Valley. That, according to Evans, is exactly what the show’s creator Katori Hall, who adapted the series from her stage play Pussy Valley, was looking for.
“Katori envisioned a world called Delta Noir,” says Evans, explaining how they modernized film noir principles for the “Dirty Delta Mississippi” style, while using music video language. The high-contrast lighting and play with shadows from noir classics like Kiss Me Deadly and Double Indemnity are now flooded with heavy saturation. And the femme fatale is inverted to be the hero of this world. Hall has described it as doing a twerk on noir.
Evans and Hall also worked to give P-Valley an aesthetic that would subvert how strippers and sex workers have been portrayed in the past. The group has been frequently misrepresented onscreen and Black women in particular have been hypersexualized.
Flying high in P-Valley
There are plenty of scenes in the strip club, an exploitative space. But watching the spectacle in P-Valley doesn’t feel leery. Instead, it’s occasionally awe-inspiring. Watch out for when Brandee Evans’ character Mercedes climbs the pole, Goddess-like, and pounds the ceiling, taking the camera along with her while leaving everyone else far below.
The sequence is an example of how Evans imbued the material with a female gaze while recognizing that exotic dancing is also high art: There’s a performance, lighting design, costume and an interaction between dancer and audience.
“The power that they have over their audience, both men and women, is so fascinating and so worth telling,” says Evans, referencing her own leisurely experiences at the club.
Mercedes vaulting up the pole to bang against that ceiling is an apt and sensational metaphor. Women of colour everywhere, especially in media, are drawing attention to the glass ceilings and limitations that have been imposed on their voices and careers.
“I do very much feel like the industry has taught me not to strive to reach my full potential,” says Evans, referencing the assumptions made based on her age, sex and skin colour.
“I’ve just chosen not to accept that. And that is because I don’t feel it serves me as an artist and as a storyteller. My job is to be of service to the story and not anybody else’s ideas of who I should be,” she adds. “My job is to listen and to be present, and be a vessel for the story and the energy to move through, and not to abide by any one else’s misconceptions of who I am and how I should be.”
Evans has described herself as a vessel in the past, specifically when speaking to her music video work. She tells stories that artists like Drake or SZA want to tell and channels their voice into the visuals. But there is also a piece of her in the work.
“I don’t like to take on anything that I can’t offer my perspective on,” says Evans, adding that all her projects have something she personally connects and identifies with.
When I grill her about what projects are the most personal – ones that scream “KARENA EVANS!” – she pauses to mull over the answer: Drake’s God’s Plan and In My Feelings, and Coldplay’s Everyday Life as the titles closest to her heart. Tellingly, those are the videos that mix things up with street casting and in the moment discovery, reaching beyond a celebrity bubble and featuring working class people: New Orleans dancers, college-bound kids in the U.S. and gospel singers in Africa.
“Each of those [videos], in their respective way, have impacted culture and have impacted people, and have been able to in some small way strike hope in people,” says Evans.
“That’s why I tell stories. It’s to move people. Those were successful in moving people because they came from a place of love, purity and honesty.”
Radheyan's first assignment for NOW was reviewing the Ice Cube heist comedy First Sunday. That was back in January 2008. Born in Sri Lanka and raised in Scarborough, Rad currently lives in Leslieville with his wife and two adorable kids.