By Muni Suleiman
The opening sequence of Them (2023) features main character Ira’s vibrant pink boots, jacket, hair, and hat, contrasting with an otherwise bleak winter afternoon in New York. I am greeted by equally vibrant colors upon entering the dorm of screenwriter, director, and joined-Letterboxd-when-it-was-still-in-beta senior Samara Huckvale, CC ’24.
Them, Huckvale’s directorial debut, recently won the Marvels of Media Festival’s Award for Best Student Narrative Short. The festival, hosted by the Museum of the Moving Image, champions autistic media makers of all ages and skill sets. When I asked how neurodivergence factors into their work, Huckvale immediately jumped to recall a Letterboxd review of Them from an internet friend: “You can tell a neurodivergent person wrote this!”
At the heart of Them rests an awkward social dance that Huckvale witnessed between two friends. Contrary to most, Huckvale revels in the tension that arises when navigating conversational norms. Their affinity for the awkwardness underlying the Black experience, in particular, is evident in their love of Issa Rae’s Insecure. “Everybody wants to be Issa, but they’re not Issa,” they told me. “I feel like I’m a Kelly. She eats.”
Them imagines a reality in which people take more chances creating friendships with the people around them, even if social interactions are harder to navigate as a neurodivergent person. “The character to me is autistic, some people can read it as social anxiety, or it could be both,” Huckvale said. “I just feel like there’s not a lot of stories about friendship, how important that is, fostering one, and putting yourself out there [to] create some really meaningful relationships.”
Deep friendship not only drives the plot of Them but forms the very ground upon which it stands. Indeed, Huckvale admits that it takes a village to make a film. They called upon their internet friends to inform many aspects of the film, from the set design to the soundtrack. While working on the film, Huckvale prioritized and dedicated it to the specific marginalized community to which they belong: “I wanted to keep the whole cast, crew, everybody that touches the film to be Black and queer. I don’t think anybody else would get the message.”
In their childhood, Huckvale always managed to find themselves in front of a screen, whether it was bonding with their father through frequent trips to the movies or simply watching TV. Their love went beyond idle consumption. “I used to memorize scenes. This is literally just autism,” they joked. “I remember full episodes and I played them through my head and acted them out when I was alone.”
Huckvale’s resounding commitment to cinema is all the more surprising in light of the fact that they were admitted to Columbia as a chemistry major. Published in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry as the first author on a study finding a positive association between GlycA, an inflammatory biomarker, and depression, Huckvale once wanted to be a chemistry professor. In retrospect, they said that becoming a chemist felt much less like a desire and much more like an obligation.
Huckvale also felt a lack of belonging and creativity in STEM compared to the diverse community they’ve found through film. The value that Huckvale holds for friendships heavily ties into their feelings about the Black queer experience, especially since they grew up in a small white town in Texas. Deep care for their community and mutual responsibility drive their work, which acts as a way to pay it forward. “I don’t think I would be alive right now if it wasn’t for my friends who are Black and queer … In this world, when we’re all one or two steps away from being on the street, it doesn’t make sense for us not to be together,” Huckvale expressed.
Huckvale also cares very deeply about how their work is perceived by other neurodivergent people, as they strive to represent that worldview while acknowledging that neurodivergence looks different for different people—a nuance not often explored by existing film depictions of neurodivergence. Huckvale elaborated, “Every canon autistic character I know of is a joke or a caricature of themselves. I have some characters [in mind] that I think are autistic, but I don’t think the filmmakers know that they wrote autistic characters.”
As a Black filmmaker, Huckvale is heavily inspired by the works of major Black directors. Watching Jordan Peele win the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2018 for Get Out (2017) and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996) made Huckvale believe that they could become a serious filmmaker.
There are, of course, also challenges to being a Black creative on campus. Throughout our digital correspondence over the past three years, we’ve connected over the frustrations of having to over-explain the relevance of subject matter pertaining to race in our respective creative writing classes. After remarking on the lack of Black queer people within Columbia’s film program, Huckvale recounted an experience in a screenwriting lab much earlier in their Columbia career. Huckvale was presenting 16. F. Dallas., a short screenplay about a queer youth trying to understand their sexuality online, when someone asked them quite bluntly, “What’s the point of even writing this?” 16. F. Dallas. went on to win a Short Screenplay Writing Award at the 2022 Urbanite Arts & Film Festival.
Huckvale’s most recent writing project is their senior thesis film, a high school comedy with similar sensibilities to Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart (2019) and Emma Seligman’s Bottoms (2023). They hope to act as a main character in it as well. Columbia’s thesis films are traditionally a five-minute affair according to Huckvale, but their thesis film would act as a proof for a much longer feature film.
Since it will be completed for a Columbia class, Huckvale has formal restrictions that all participants must be Columbia affiliates. However, Huckvale meets this challenge head-on. “I think it's pretty cool that everybody [working on the film] is in our graduating class. I think it’ll be a nice little time capsule for people,” Huckvale smiled.
As for after graduation, their immediate priority will be working on a documentary on the experiences of Black, trans, and autistic people. They feel that a major factor in the high levels of undiagnosed autism within the Black community is the poor representation of neourodivergence in popular media. “People don’t know what autism is,” Huckvale explained. “I want to talk about what that means, being an undiagnosed person with all these other marginalized identities.”
I noticed a unique sense of urgency from Huckvale as they relayed their post-grad plans to me: make the documentary, attend grad school, and eventually crack the industry. This urgency is driven by their belief that “there’s a lot of stories for me to tell here and help other people tell.”
They have a similar urgency to get off the app formerly known as Twitter, where we built a friendship in our digital freshman year and where they might be considered a micro-influencer. “I should have shut up a long time ago, but it’s great that people can see my work that way,” Huckvale rationalized. “That’s why I feel like I need to make more stuff before the app burns.”
In addition to carving out space for Black queer and neurodivergent creatives within the film world, Huckvale is also currently plotting their future collaborations with Ayo Edebiri and Jordan Peele. Before concluding our interview, they requested that I do my part to honor this manifestation by putting it in writing. However, I get the feeling that Huckvale doesn’t need much manifestation to get where they want to go.