Visionary Filmmaker Elijah McKinnon Uses Dreaming as a Survival Tactic [Interview] cover

Visionary Filmmaker Elijah McKinnon Uses Dreaming as a Survival Tactic [Interview]

To Elijah McKinnon, dreaming is a survival tactic, a blueprint passed down through generations of the African diaspora. “For those who struggle with tapping into the divine, I challenge you to dream as big as your mind will allow,” the award-winning entrepreneur writes from South Africa, where they’re busy scouting locations for an upcoming feature-length film.

“I’m not able to share much about it,” Elijah says, teasing the film’s working title—Nothing But Clarity Remains—before dishing out a modestly portioned inside scoop: “[The film] is a psychedelic love letter to Black virtuosity, queer transcendence, and trans sorcery, all set during a meditative long drive through the Eastern Cape of South Africa.” Writing from the road, Elijah explains that their practice champions softness and vulnerability, opening space for marginalized populations to express their true identities. “The world can be incredibly rigid,” they say, lamenting a lack of interpersonal warmth in media and modern life. “The more we ignite the parts of ourselves that have been yearning to be witnessed, the brighter our flame will burn toward a future that is anchored in empathy over division.”

Activist Elijah McKinnon joins us to discuss their latest feature-length film: a psychedelic love letter to Black virtuosity and queer transcendence.
Film still from ‘Nothing But Clarity Remains’; photo: RD Photos.
Activist Elijah McKinnon joins us to discuss their latest feature-length film: a psychedelic love letter to Black virtuosity and queer transcendence.
Film still from ‘Nothing But Clarity Remains’; photo: RD Photos.

Based between Chicago and Johannesburg, Elijah is a longtime activist who works to raise funds, share resources, and generate meaningful change deep within queer, disabled, and underserved communities. They are the co-founder of Emmy-nominated nonprofit Open Television (OTV), an independent media platform that amplifies marginalized voices in an effort to build empathy. Acting as founder and director of People Who Care, a creative studio and consultancy, Elijah also produces branded campaigns for nonprofit organizations with their signature blend of radical compassion and intimate, unorthodox storytelling.

“I come to this work with a lot more questions than answers,” Elijah admits, explaining that their practice hinges on the spiritual support of the people and communities in their immediate orbit. I wish I could say that I chose the line of work that I’m in but in all honesty it chose me. I’m a firm believer in leadership being ordained by the siblings, lovers, and comrades who will benefit from intentional and compassionate amplification.”

Elijah’s philosophy on life seeps into their career-defining projects, which include OTV’s Two Queens in a Kitchen, a cooking show that explores cultural narratives surrounding food; Good Enough, a limited web series that follows a tight-knit group of friends as they navigate adulthood; and THANDO, a meditative feature-length film on black love, vulnerability, and the pursuit of joy. Now in the early stages of production, Elijah’s latest film unfolds across the mountainous countryside of South Africa’s Eastern Cape, a road-trip movie for a new generation of dreamers. “[Nothing But Clarity Remains] is going to be a wild journey filled with the perfect balance of self-discovery and questionable proclivities,” Elijah says. “Buckle up!”

In Today’s Q+Art Interview…

Elijah McKinnon discusses their recent stay on an eastern African island, the (possible) return of beloved web series Two Queens in a Kitchen, and the best strategy for bringing dreams into reality.

Film still from ‘THANDO.’
Watch the trailer for feature-length film ‘THANDO.’

How does your experience as an entrepreneur, abolitionist, and activist inform your artistic practice?

Elijah McKinnon: Everything is connected for me. I approach the world from a place of liberation. At my core, I’m a problem solver that strongly believes we have all of the tools we need to break free from the systems that have been designed to perpetuate harm. My curiosity encourages me to ask questions, build alternative ecosystems, and cultivate equitable solutions. Art has a way of penetrating culture and developing a shared language for us to imagine a future that is brave. I’m deeply influenced by the world around me and utilize my experience as an entrepreneur, strategist, and activist to engage in nuanced conversations where new worlds can emerge. In my most recent film, THANDO (2021), I explore the ways Black queer people engage with love, intimacy, and pleasure through a cinematic meditation. It was important for me to share the soft and tender sides of our experiences that we often don’t have access to in the media.

Why have you chosen the work that you do? Have you always been a dreamer/visionary?

EM: The internet loves to portray me as this incredibly polished person, but in reality I’m deeply nuanced and reside quite comfortably at the intersection of many challenging dynamics. From an earlier age, I was taught to question everything that was presented before me, and I think this is how I learned how to draw upon my own visions when reality did not align with what I believed to be true.

How do you look past the present reality towards an intersectional future?

EM: Our worlds are collapsing on top of each other and this process is revealing the detrimental effect that supremacy culture has played in applying and upholding a binary to every facet of our livelihood. As people discover the parts of themselves that they have been forced to hide, silence, and erase, we will start to understand how our collective liberation depends on the universal amplification of intersectional identities and experiences. In my web series Good Enough, the characters spend a lot of time trying to understand how to create space for the most beautiful, nuanced parts of themselves in a society that doesn’t represent their full humanity.

Activist Elijah McKinnon joins us to discuss their latest feature-length film: a psychedelic love letter to Black virtuosity and queer transcendence.
Film still from ‘Two Queens in a Kitchen’; photo: Jaclyn Rivas.
Film still from ‘Two Queens in a Kitchen’; photo: Jaclyn Rivas.
Watch the trailer for OTV’s ‘Two Queens in a Kitchen’

Where did you get the idea for OTVs Two Queens in a Kitchen, a cooking show that explores art, culture, and politics?

EM: Like many of my artistic pursuits, Two Queens in a Kitchen (2016 – 2018) found me. Like many people in 2016, I was feeling deeply isolated, anxious, and saddened by our cultural climate. I didn’t know this then, but this web series was the beginning of a several years-long healing journey that ultimately led to my sobriety. As I shared in OUT Magazine, “There is something incredibly human about joining forces with someone to create a meal. From the project's inception, I knew that I wanted to produce a body of work that was heavy and relevant. Two Queens in a Kitchen is not your typical Easy-Bake-Oven cooking show. The conversations are complex and difficult because those of us who occupy Black and brown bodies or LGBTQ identities are not monolithic characters. Our references are challenging and rough around the edges. There is nothing easy or basic about our experience when we discuss our family, home life, politics, culture, or art.” The girls have been asking me to bring this series back for years and I can neither confirm nor deny if that may or may not be happening soon. Smile.

How do you keep fresh ideas and creativity flowing? Are there any go-to practices that spark your creativity?

EM: Traveling is a huge part of my identity. My public life tends to take up a lot of space, so traveling to new places provides me with the opportunity to listen and learn in ways that I’m not normally able to in more familiar settings. I love the vulnerability involved with surrendering to a space that doesn’t belong to you. I recently spent a month on a small island off the coast of Kenya where I was able to dedicate some much-needed time to writing my next film. The ability to immerse myself in this small village community that is governed by the tides and the sun brought about many amazing realizations and downloads that I can’t wait to share with my community.

Film still from ‘Good Enough.’
Watch the trailer for Elijah McKinnon’s web series ‘Good Enough.’

How can dreamers bring their ideas down to earth? How do you know if youre dreaming too big? Is that possible?

EM: I’m a firm believer in resource sharing, meaningful relationships, generative conflict, restorative justice, and equitable solutions: the core foundations of my dreams. From my experience, the best way to wield your ambitions into focus is to get very specific on the destination, goal, or target. To achieve this it is imperative that your core values stand on solid ground. Personally, I live my life with an air of delusion, which helps keep me grounded. The world does a horribly amazing job at chopping us down and making us feel small, so to counteract those purists, I spend a lot of my energy pouring love and grace into my values, passions, and fantasies. It’s all about perspective. Who are you allowing yourself to become when no one is watching?

Who do you look up to? Any mentors?

EM: I look up to the people who are in my backyard; I often call them my “friend-tors!” These are the folks that provide me with expansive insights on the world around me, cultivate liberatory spaces anchored in nourishment, and develop possibility models for people like me to thrive. These are the folks that are in my current care continuum and provide my very curious mind with a lot of answers: Kamilah Rashied, McKensie “Bunny” Mack, Treyvone Moo, Aisha Shaibu-Lenoir, Zola Makeda and Chris Glass!

You admitted on your website that you love a good cup of joe. What’s your go-to coffee order?

EM: I’m a simple girl: Triple shot Americano. No sugar. No cream. Black is great as it is!

Activist Elijah McKinnon joins us to discuss their latest feature-length film: a psychedelic love letter to Black virtuosity and queer transcendence.
Elijah McKinnon; photo: DeLovie Kwagala

Elijah McKinnon: Website | Instagram | Twitter

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist(s). Featured photo by DeLovie Kwagala.

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Morgan  Laurens 

Morgan Laurens (she/her/hers) is NOT REAL ART’s editor in chief. Morgan is an arts writer from the Midwest who enjoys saying “excuse me” when no actual pardon is needed. She specializes in grant writing and narrative-based storytelling for mission-driven artists and arts organizations. With a background in printmaking, pop culture, and classic literature, Morgan believes a girl’s best friend is the pile of books on her bedside table.