Vincent Martell may be the bravest amongst us all.

Vincent Martell

Founder of VAM STUDIO, Writer and Director; Vincent Martell discusses the importance of authentic storytelling, the representation of Black queer bodies on screen and how young filmmakers need to want to make Hollywood nervous.

Vincent Martell is one of America’s most exciting creative talents; Founder of VAM STUDIO, actor, writer and director whose work ploughs into the depths of the human experience. Particularly focusing on how race, gender, class, and sex impact the lives of people of colour. Martell is the visionary behind culture-changing shows like ‘Damaged Goods’ and ‘Finesse’ . Here, he talks to Chelsea Mtada about the power of being seen; in life, on-screen and in sex.

Vincent Martell is a Chicago bred and now Los Angeles based writer and filmmaker known for his unapologetic cinematic storytelling that centres around the hustle of artists of colour, gig chasers, and sex workers. Martell is the Founder of  VAM STUDIO, a production company “known for producing some of the edgiest, most surreal and whimsical content on the internet.” I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to Martell about how his own experiences have found their way to the core of his creative output. As well as the importance of nuanced storytelling of queer and POC stories. Martell and I  have had many conversations about his work over many occasions, but as I write this down, I can only start from the beginning and recall the first time Vincent Martell and I met.  

Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell, photographed by Mercedes Zapata

Today, we are talking about Martell’s new film series, appropriately titled Finesse, which is a cinematic ode to hustle culture.

Finesse, is daring, sexy, funny, and all the things you’d expect from the mind behind the game-changing web series Damaged Goods, initially released on Youtube in 2019. Three years later, the web series stands as a culturally defining moment in independent filmmaking. Martell sets out to not only make Finesse a cultural moment but make it a standard for the way the industry tells the stories of the lives of underrepresented communities. 

Finesse is Martell’s second film starring himself as ‘Martell,’ Shea Couleé as ‘Kizer,’ and Jeez Loueez as ‘Daryn.’ The three play irresistibly loveable, relatable, black, queer hustlers living together in the city of Chicago. At the centre of the story is the love of self, love of chosen family and the communities of the underrepresented. In the exclusive pilot shared directly by Martell,  I am instantly pulled into his most vulnerable project to date. 

We are sitting across from each other at a pop-up coffee station at the entrance of Soho House, Chicago, dressed in all-Black, with his signature durag that covers his usually braided hair. I am delighted to meet a fashion-forward person in the windy city. Martell’s gentle but captivating demeanour immediately provides me with a sense of ease. Before he’s had his first sip of coffee, I can’t help but ask if I can ask him everything. His smile lights up the room, and he nods his head and responds, “Sure! You can ask anything you want.” 

Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell, photographed by Mercedes Zapata

Where did you grow up? 

I grew up in Toledo, which is a big factory town in North West, Ohio. Toledo is this somber intersection of people who have big dreams but can’t get out of the city to make anything happen for themselves. The nickname for Toledo is the ‘mud city’ because it’s easy to get stuck there. I was raised there with my mom and my dad, who were young parents.

 I always saw them making a lot out of nothing (stretching the dime) and just being young black parents trying to figure it all out. 

Vincent Martell

My parents divorced shortly after my little sister came into the picture. They divorced because my Mum wanted to move closer to family in Chicago; she had big dreams for her family. She knew that wasn’t going to happen in Toledo. After the recession, most jobs just disappeared overnight, including my Father’s job. Even then, he had this love for Toledo, which made him want to stay, ultimately leading to their divorce.

How did your parents’ divorce at that stage impact you? 

Going from a two-parent household to a single-parent household in Chicago was a huge shock. We never had any financial stability in our family; I was born living on food stamps. But I think realising that my Mother couldn’t provide as much as she wanted to, as a single mother, was rough. We faced a lot of hardships; there were many times we didn’t know where the money was coming from. Seeing that as a child made me know the bullshit that black women have to go through to provide for their children. So my Mother hustled a lot, and with that came a lot of responsibilities for me.

Did you find yourself having to take up too much responsibility as a child? 

My Father battled with substance abuse. So there was a time when I was living solely with my Father before I moved to Chicago. There was a lot of parenting and taking care of him. I’d be having to figure out how to get myself to school, looking for spare change on the couch so we could pay for gas. There was a lot of problem-solving as a child and in my adolescence, which is now a huge plus. Problem-solving in art and business is now super easy for me. I come from a lot of places of trauma that have forced me to problem solve quickly to survive and look at a situation for what it is.

There is nothing in Hollywood that could ever shake me.

Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell, photographed by Mercedes Zapata

When did you discover your interest in drama and filmmaking? 

When I was young, acting was definitely a way to escape. It was a way to put myself first, and it’s the way I realised that I was an artist. It’s when I knew that there was something inside of me that needed to be put out into the world. I can recall throughout high school, my Mum and I scrambling for money to take me to L.A. So I could meet with talent managers and have auditions. Looking back on it now, there were so many crazy scams we had to go through. 

The Hollywood dream, the American Dream, it’s all a fucking scam.

Vincent Martell

But even with all of that, you still ended up pursuing acting as a side hustle, as well as in college?  

Yes! This was also a scam, but this time, I decided I would finesse the system to make sure that I could get something more out of it. So when an opportunity came about to study abroad, I did it. I went to Barcelona, partied my ass off, met the most amazing artists, and fell in love for the first time. 

Through my experience of being Black outside of the U.S. I finally learned my worth. It was the first moment I truly felt loved and seen because I wasn’t under the constraints of American racism.

Vincent Martell

 Even though there is racism everywhere, American racism towards Black Americans is a new level of debilitating. It was an awakening for me to be able to be Black outside of the U.S. and see how big the world actually was.

What were the early days of VAM like? 

As soon as I returned to the States, I started to craft what VAM could be. It took me five years to actually execute it, but I knew that it was all about amplifying artists in the States, specifically in Chicago. Where artists were in some ways marginalised but were pushing the idea of what art could be and tapping into something that America didn’t want to see. That was the basis of my work. 

The gag was no one knew who I was, and no one was checking for Vincent Martell or VAM.

Vincent Martell

 So when I came back to the States with this fantastic idea to change the world, no one gave a shit. No one would respond to my emails or answer my phone calls, so I had to start from scratch with little to no support. I started to focus on my friend group and the places that I already knew. From there, I started to build a community of people who loved VAM and loved the stories we were telling.

Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell, photographed by Mercedes Zapata

What kind of stories were you passionate about telling in the early days? 

Before Damaged Goods and Finesse, we featured artists like drag queens and burlesque dancers, performance artists and sex workers, and installation artists. We would go with our cameras into the gay bars or the warehouses and just film. And then we started to release them online for free.

The idea for our first web series, ‘Damaged Goods’ was just to show how incredibly diverse the community was. It also touches on the really important topic of community that is synonymous with the Chicago art scene. For me, [Damaged Goods] was a way to open Chicago up to the world in a way that felt like everyone could relate to it. That’s why I can’t wait for people to see Finesse when released. I know so many people will see themselves in our three main characters.

What is Finesse about? 

Finesse is a story of three hustlers in Chicago searching for love and intimacy in a world that is on fire. They are three black people in Chicago, searching for intimacy in a way that feels real, unrequited and kind of messy. They’re all looking for something they can’t find, whether that’s status in the drag community, financial stability in sex work, or building their own business. But they’re constantly failing at it. 

To be honest, they are also really horrible, in a sense, because they’re so selfish in a way that feels honest to what I know.

Vincent Martell

 I worked really hard in Damaged Goods to make the characters feel loved. I wanted them to feel politically correct. Whereas in Finesse, I just want us to live how we live and be okay with that. I find beauty in reading your friend or calling someone out, which is not something that we’re getting on T.V.

Finesse has a lot of sex scenes. As an actor and director of the show, how do you ensure that everyone feels safe on set? 

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Finesse is incredibly sexual. If you thought Damaged Goods was intimate. Finesse takes it to a whole different level. I love it. There are multiple intimate moments where you see black bodies in this very beautiful way, where we’re celebrating each other and ourselves. 

Before people even knew about us. We were doing the work and talking about making our sets and productions more inclusive, putting queer women, femmes and trans filmmakers in the forefront, and making sure that we discussed our pronouns. We were introducing a sex coordinator before anyone was pushing for it. 

Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell, photographed by Mercedes Zapata

We’ve been making our sets inclusive; we’ve been making it a safe space for everyone. 

Vincent Martell

We set the template for that structure that Hollywood is now trying to catch up to. But many times, as we see in art, as we’ve seen in everything black people do. We don’t get credit for those things; we don’t get credit for sparking the movement. And so I’ve had to learn over the past two years specifically that if I’m going to be about the work, I can’t be about just making sure that people know about it, I really gotta be about the work.

 I can’t be worried about people seeing and acknowledging me for the work that I do, because it’s not going to happen all the time. And I don’t want to go into the industry with this resentment of not being seen. At VAM, we’re about being safe; we’re about being inclusive, we’re about making sure that everyone feels as though they’re being seen.

What are your thoughts on the current representation dilemma in Hollywood? 

Me being black, queer, and non-binary is revolutionary in a sense. I think it’s the future of the industry. I’ve been breaking barriers just because I’ve been able to exist. And I guess taking that approach and putting it in my work in Hollywood in this way feels really fulfilling. 

It feels like I’m doing everything in a way that is setting me up to be whoever the fuck I want to be. 

Vincent Martell

 It’s hard, though; it’s fucking tough. Because queer people, black people, POCs in Hollywood are just now breaking in. We’re just now creating the foundation of something that’s been established for 100 years by white men. This means that those who are breaking in have so much work to do. There are so many mandates to be filled. What sucks about Hollywood is that I’m seeing that the people we put on the pedestals are not necessarily the people who are creating that infrastructural change. There are very few of us  in Hollywood who have the ability to create the foundation of the community of inclusivity and safe spaces. 

Who are some Black Filmmakers that you think are revolutionising the industry alongside you and VAM STUDIO? 

The first name that pops into my head is someone who’s not even from the States, but Michaela Coel , I think she has done a lot for American black artists, probably more than she might know. When I first became a filmmaker, Chewing Gum was something my friends and I obsessed over. I was obsessing over the artistry of the stories that she was telling with other black filmmakers in a way that felt fresh and liberating. I am also appreciative of what Issa Rae has done, as far as showing the industry that black people can make beautiful things and acquire a huge global audience if you give them the space and creative freedom for it.

Vincent Martell
Vincent Martell, photographed by Mercedes Zapata

What advice do you give to young filmmakers and writers trying to find their way in the industry? 

It’s really important to know the stories you want to tell, or, specifically, it’s really important to know who you want to be in the world. For me, that’s starting with what I know. I feel like many times, as writers, we chase this idea that we have to write outside of what feels comfortable to us to get the acknowledgement or the resources we deserve. But what I found is that when I stray away from what I know, I feel the most disconnected and depressed. So I’ve started only to write stories about people, places, things, or interests that I love. And my work has gotten so much stronger because of that. 

 I’m done making people feel comfortable.

Vincent Martell

It’s also okay to make other people feel uncomfortable. You have to be authentic to who you are first. So the more writers, the more artists I see making the industry nervous, the better. There’s so much work to be done, and it’s going to take a lot of strong, passionate voices to create some infrastructural change that will last another 100 years in the industry.

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