A new interactive web series called Downtown Browns is striving to help viewers better understand the dynamics of diverse city life. Created by a group of radical female filmmakers, the shorts tell the stories of women of color living in Los Angeles and gamifies the challenges they face, guiding viewers through a choose-your-own-adventure film of sorts, with the goal of fostering cultural understanding.
Nationalistic, anti-immigration doctrine, coupled with waves of protests against the outcome of the US presidential election makes Downtown Browns feel incredibly timely. But its creators—Tonia Beglari, Jazmin Garcia, Emilia Yang, Allison Comrie, and Luciana Chamorro—caution that activism is only truly effective when it’s informed.
“A lot of people are waking up and trying to understand, but they’re not digging into the details of how discrimination works or how racism can be structural. That’s what we’re striving to do—show the system,” Yang tells The Creators Project. “One thing I did realize from the election is that a lot of people’s opinions are based on feelings,” Beglari adds. “We need to bring in more facts.”
Downtown Browns is rooted in exhaustive research, and each story in its first three episodes is based on the stories of real women. “A lot of the issues that we show in our series are things that wouldn’t necessarily be in the news, like microaggressions,” Beglari says. “Those stories often only get shared between friends, and it’s easy for people who aren’t in your circle to act like those things aren’t happening.”
The first episode in the series follows a young Chicana high school student, who gets an exciting academic opportunity but comes home to terrible news. Her narrative is based on stories like that of Diane Guerrero, an actress on Orange is the New Black whose parents were deported when she was 14, as well as testimonials from the numerous families detained by US Immigration. Episodes two and three are similarly research-based, but centered on the experiences of different women of color.
Downtown Browns engages viewers with game-driven storytelling techniques. The videos prompt you to make decisions for the protagonists, or, alternatively, switch your perspective in order to listen to different characters’ inner monologues. “We specifically chose interaction mechanics that kind of seed the theme of that episode,” Beglari says. “And interactive video is so rarely done that I felt like maybe we would be able to reach audiences who are into interactivity but may never click on a video about a Latina high schooler.”
In addition to telling stories about women of color, who are too often excluded from mainstream media narratives, Downtown Browns is committed to diverse perspectives onscreen and off. “We’ve seen a lot of efforts [at the University of Southern California], both in production and games, to try to diversify entertainment, but sometimes I feel that it’s just on the representation side and not behind the camera, on the creative side. And that was why it was really important for us to build a woman-led crew,” Yang says.
While the filmmakers are excited to share the experiences of women of color with a wider audience, they emphasize that Downtown Browns wasn’t created to be a “walk a mile in someone’s shoes, kumbaya” experience. “We’re very cautious about saying that interactivity equals empathy,” Yang explains. “We hope that this series will help people imagine how people of color live their lives.”
Watch the first three episodes of Downtown Browns here.