Adjani Salmon’s dreams are coming true. The Jamaican filmmaker’s 2018 comedy web series Dreaming Whilst Black went from a nine-episode YouTube series to a pilot on BBC. A feat that Salmon says took 45 re-drafts, minimum.
In the web series, we follow Kwabena Robinson (played by Salmon), working as a runner on various film sets in London, grappling with bad dates and a family who want him to choose a more stable career before deciding to write his own film. The BBC pilot builds on that. Kwabena is now an aspiring filmmaker stuck in a recruitment job. It combines scenes of pure fantasy – directing his own feature film or saying fuck you to his employers and walking out of a meeting to pursue his dreams – with the crushing reality that he is the only Black person in the office, navigating a series of microaggressions. In one scene Kwabena is passive aggressively forced to eat his lunch in the kitchen instead of at his desk like his white colleagues. In another, he’s pushed on stage at an after work karaoke night purely to sing the n-word in Lil Dicky’s “Freaky Friday”.
Although it is yet to be commissioned by the BBC for a whole season, the pilot is promising. A week after its premiere, I sat down with Salmon over Zoom to talk about turning his dreams into reality, writing an adorable meet-cute and his commitment to being authentic.
VICE: Hi Adjani! Congratulations on Dreaming Whilst Black.
Adjani Salmon: Thank you!
I was watching an interview of yours from two years ago about the making of the web series. In that interview you’re talking about doing a second season of the show with a major broadcaster. Were you already in talks with the BBC at that point? Or is this manifestation at work?
No, I just like doing that. I like dashing things out there in the universe. I generally like to spit goals and put it out there so that it almost forces me from my ego’s perspective to follow through because then it's like, well, I said, I'm gonna do it, so now I have to. It was always a goal.
How did it go from web series to TV pilot?
We released in 2018 and to be honest we didn't know anybody. So at least once a week, we'd go to an event with t-shirts and just say ‘Hey, guys, you should watch our series’ and just kept going on. We had a friend of mine, who was doing an MBA at the time in digital marketing, doing the t-shirts, which are really cool, and the branding was really on point as well. So I feel like with us kind of shouting everywhere about it, people were actually saying ‘rah this is good!’ You know when people see web series, they think ‘okay, that’s cute’, but people thought ‘oh this is legit’.
That word of mouth kept spreading and spreading. Then one day, I was at an event where I met a dude who had watched it. He said his brother's friend is an agent and he would talk to his brother to talk to his friend to check me out. The agent watches it, comes back down and got my number. Everything was aligned because of word of mouth.
How long was the process of reworking the web series?
I was signed nearly ten months after the web series came out and a production company finally auctioned it. So it’s taken about three years.
Was there a lot of back and forth over different drafts?
Doing a web series we're just writing and then our friends are giving us feedback, versus the BBC giving us feedback. We easily did over 45 drafts not including the outline, which we wrote before. Writing is rewriting and I genuinely believe that, because it's about constantly just trying to be better. It’s thinking ‘is this as good as we thought it was’ and ‘is this joke as funny as we thought it was?’ And for us specifically, because of the nature of the show and what some of the topics would touch on, ‘is it ringing true’ and ‘who are we laughing at?’ The more we read, learned and kept writing the script, it kind of just built up in these layers, which I think is what writing is really.
What inspired the title, Dreaming Whilst Black?
I'm big on titles but I started writing it and didn't have the title. I remember chatting to my friend and I was like, ‘I just don’t know what it should be. What is this thing that I'm writing?’ Then it literally just came to me. I was like, this is done. It’s Dreaming Whilst Black. I feel like it genuinely does encapsulate what the show is about. I also feel like it signposts to us to say, listen, we're going to talk about these things, you know and that's fine.
You’ve previously said that Dreaming Whilst Black isn’t “a Black show”.
Well for me it was just like, let me talk about being a Black filmmaker in London trying to make it. It just so happens that if you're a Black filmmaker in London, or just Black in London, you’re going to experience racism.
Would you say that some of Kwabena’s experiences are based on your own?
Well I grew up in Jamaica, where racism is something they tell you about in school, and I’ll never forget coming [to London] to uni and all of a sudden I can’t get into a club that I want to. I just thought the bouncer was being a dickhead, right? Because where I come from the bouncers are Black and can be dickheads sometimes. So when my friend started saying he was being racist, for the first time, I'm like, wait a second. This is that thing that them man talk about! So this was like an awakening for me, you know when you see something you can’t unsee it.
What was the process of writing about racism you’ve experienced in London like?
For me, it was about just portraying an authentic, everyday story. TV is entertainment, right? So you make the big shows like the Luthers, the Top Boys, you know, these high concept, high drama shows, which is perfectly fine because obviously that's one route. But I'm more interested in the everyday stuff. As I love those shows, I'm not a policeman nor a gangster, nor am I a Black person who exists in an all white space – because I feel like British TV loves that, let’s just dash a Black man in there and that’s it. We have Black friends and family, but this man on the TV has no Black friends and no Black family. They’re just a single Black person in a white space.
I think that’s something people have really enjoyed about the show. Especially the meet-cute where Kwabena finally introduces himself to Vanessa. People have been tweeting about that.
Yeah man, I think that's important as well. Look, as a Black man the patriarchy is in me. What can I say? I grew up in Jamaica, colourism is in me. I remember going to a Black film festival in America with all these super intellectual Black people and you assume you understand Blackness because you're Black, but you don’t, you understand yourself.
So I was thinking, if I'm going to write about a show about a Black person, let me not rely on my own experience, let me actually do the work and the reading. So it's in doing the reading that you start understanding the importance of certain things. I understood the importance of portraying a dark skinned woman as a love interest. We were very conscious about how we represent ourselves in every facet, and what type of person we were putting on screen for people for people to fall in love with? Ninety-nine percent of what we do is intentional because it’s about authenticity. Black women get wifed up everyday, we just don’t usually get to see it on camera.
What should we expect to see from you next?
Well, hopefully the rest of the season is next. But I just want to make more content about us, that entertains us and is for us. I was reading this book called Heavy [by Kiese Laymon] and he says there's a difference between writing for someone and to someone.
When you make something for someone, it's based on consumption but when you dedicate something to someone, or even when you write to someone, like a letter – you end them with love, best, sincerely, all that – you care about that person. So you keep that person's intentions in mind when you're writing to them. He had to learn that because he realised that loads of people make stuff for us but don't love us. It's not to us. So in terms of what’s next, it's being conscious with Dreaming Whilst Black and every other work that I do make, that it’s not only for us, but it's also dedicated to us. So when we see it, we can enjoy knowing that whoever's making this cares about what we're doing and that's why we love it.
Dreaming Whilst Black is available to stream on BBC iPlayer now.