Allyship with Arkasha Stevenson

When Arkasha Stevenson wrote and directed “Vessels” in 2015, she was still a film student. Yet for all her inexperience, she understood what many in Hollywood do not: the importance of representation behind and before the camera.

I’ve seen many films and TV episodes involving cisgender individuals playing a transgender role, and it’s always been disappointing (here’s looking at you, Sir Michael Cain). But “Vessels” doesn’t even so much as dabble in that bullshit. Instead, “Vessels” casts three transgender women to play three transgender characters, and their performances are achingly passionate. This is not a camp story; it’s a quiet drama that unfolds like a midnight fairytale.

“Vessels” is about the dangers transgender women face in our society, and how limited access to medical care can funnel them into risky situations. I don’t want to spoil what happens when or where, but I really encourage you to watch it here. The strategic use of lighting, color, and blur are immersive. Small gestures and expressions layer beautifully with the dialogue. There are moments you will want to look away, and Stevenson clearly knows how to use this to make her point.

So yes, watch it! But then hurry back, because I have to tell you about a longer Arkasha Stevenson project.

Channel Zero was a speculative anthology series that had a much shorter run than it deserved – only four seasons (2016-2018). But if you’re looking for a Halloween mood that 1) isn’t over-rated and 2) you haven’t seen a dozen times, I recommend season three of Channel Zero: Butcher’s Block. Directed by Stevenson, Butcher’s Block is six episodes of unpredictable entertainment. In it, two college-aged sisters move to a new city, where they find themselves pulled into the multi-dimensional misadventures of a cannibal family that promises them freedom from sickness, mortality, and student loans (yes, really).

In Butcher’s Block, elder sister Zoe (played by Holland Roden) struggles with drug addiction and schizophrenia. Younger sis Alice (played by Olivia Luccardi) has her own set of troubles, ones that reveal themselves and intensify as the season progresses.

The plot is engaging and deeply weird. But what stuck with me throughout was Stevenson’s careful representation of schizophrenia. Mental health issues have a terrible track record in entertainment, but Stevenson seems to have a knack for treating people like people – not on a pedestal, which is just another kind of Othering – but as fully developed characters whose choices can be just as savvy or frustrating as anyone else. Stevenson’s creative origin is in photojournalism, so perhaps this focus on “human interest angles” comes naturally for her. Roden’s character endures many situations that would be easy for the camera to exploit, but Stevenson is firm in her denial of salaciousness for its own sake.

It’s got gore, fair warning, but if you’re intrigued (you are), check out the trailer! I’m looking forward to seeing more work from this director, and witnessing how her style evolves in the future.