Jennifer Jones Archives - Kendall College of Arts and Sciences

Jennifer Jones

TU film, music alumna gets a big break at Red Clay Studios

Madison Kenya (BA ’21)

It is no secret that Oklahoma’s film scene is gradually expanding into something incredible. In turn, doors are opening for students and alumni to become part of the magic of the film industry.

Madison Kenya, for instance, graduated from The University of Tulsa with her bachelor’s degree in both music and film studies in 2021. Now, Kenya is the executive assistant for the CEO and founder of Red Clay Studios, Cassidy Lunnen. The film, television and commercial production company opened its doors in 2021 right here in Tulsa.

There are many hidden perks to living in a thriving yet smaller city. The arts scene has blossomed in recent years, bringing people from all over the map to express their unique creativity in impactful ways. As a result, making meaningful connections has become easier than some might expect. However, to make these connections, one must be driven by a desire to succeed. Kenya fits the bill perfectly.

While Kenya was finishing up her degree, she found herself applying for highly competitive Los Angeles-based internships but often had trouble getting past the application process for many of them. However, her part-time pet-sitting job soon provided more than some extra cash. “One of my clients happened to know and put me in touch with Cassidy,” Kenya stated. The pair met at a coffee shop for an informal interview and by the end of the conversation, not only did Kenya have an internship at Red Clay Studios, but she was also going to travel to Los Angeles to work on a Marvel commercial for Disney Theme Parks.

Executive duty

Crew coffee run

After interning at Red Clay Studios for a few months, Kenya was offered a full-time staff position as operations coordinator in August 2021 and became Cassidy’s executive assistant in January 2022. Though her responsibilities vary widely, each and every one of them is incredibly important to the productivity of the film studio.

Kenya recruits and supervises new interns; reviews casting tapes and makes recommendations; codes credit card statements and manages daily office operations; organizes script, editorial, sound, color and music notes; mails documents and hard drives; and creates agendas for Oklahoma Motion Picture Alliance (OKMPA) board meetings. She also books travel, grabs lunch and coffee for Lunnen and the crew and schedules meetings.

“The amazing thing about my job is that I get to see the full scope of production, including development, production, post-production and delivery,” Kenya said. So far, her experience has given her confidence. Being surrounded by encouraging company has certainly helped: “I’ve been embraced by many of the creators and artists I’ve had the pleasure of working with.”

Kenya has also learned valuable lessons at Red Clay Studios. Her advice to those thinking about finding a career in film is solid: “A strong work ethic is key to striving in this industry. Additionally, the industry is based on respect. It is something you must earn and give. Lastly, you should socialize even when you don’t want to. You never know what connections you might make or whom you might meet.”

Projects of pride

Kenya as a background performer on the set of “The Kiss List”

The first project Kenya ever worked on was Avengers: Quantum Encounter, a dinner show that plays on the Disney Cruise Line. The production featured an amazing cast including big names such as Anthony Mackie, Brie Larson and Paul Rudd. “It was really exciting to see everything come together. And, being my first project, it will always have a special place in my heart,” she said.

Kenya’s most fulfilling project was the BMX Gala Fundraiser Specs, for which Red Clay Studios made two different shorts highlighting the BMX Foundation’s STEM educational programming. “We were able to film and interview kids in the RISE program, which is a mentorship and education program serving underprivileged youth in Tulsa,” Kenya stated. Red Clay Studios donated their time and resources to create the shorts, which were used to aid in fundraising for the foundation’s programs. “This was one of the most inspiring projects I’ve worked on so far,” she said.

As far as favorite projects go, Kenya reported that her time on the set of Sick Girl, an upcoming film starring the Vampire Diaries sweetheart Nina Dobrev, was incredibly rewarding and fun. “The film is a great concept with witty dialogue, beautiful production design and cinematography and a very talented cast,” said Kenya, who advises readers to watch for the release of the film later this year.

There are several works currently in development at Red Clay Studios that Kenya is eager to explore. There is the possibility of a second season for the series A Thousand Tomorrows, which premiered Feb. 24 on Pure Flix and was filmed mostly in the Tulsa area. “Right now, we’re leaning into inspirational stories and have some great things on the horizon,” Kenya said.

Where it all began

Left to right: Kenya, Lunnen and film producer Emily Mathason

Kenya’s post-graduate success is due in part to the profound education she received from her TU professors and their enlightening courses. She also reports that the university gave her a wonderful foundation for film: “I was introduced to new creative concepts, and I gained a greater understanding of all of the facets of the industry.”

Additionally, Kenya expressed her gratitude to those who helped make her TU experience so great: “I would like to thank Professors Kim Childs and Richard Wagner for making rehearsals so fun and engaging,” she said, “and I would also like to thank Professors Judith Raiford and Diane Bucchianeri for teaching me to find new approaches to learning. Lastly, I would like to thank Professors Joseph Rivers, Jennifer Jones and Jeff Van Hanken for instilling in me the importance of story in film.”

In hindsight, Kenya finds herself highly appreciative of TU’s learning environment: “The atmosphere at TU is one that lends itself to growth and exploration.”

Do you want to be a part of Oklahoma’s film renaissance? Check out TU’s Department of Film Studies to get started on the career of a lifetime.

Camille Billops

By: Jennifer Jones, Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies

woman in an orange room wearing a pink top and a heavy artistic necklace
Camille Billops (source: Altina)

Provocative and pioneering, Camille Billops was a multimedia visual artist, filmmaker and archivist. Born in 1933 to a middle-class Black Los Angeles family with Southern roots, Billops trained as an educator and visual artist, studying at the University of Southern California before earning a Bachelor of Arts from what is now California State University, Los Angeles, and a Master of Fine Arts from the City College of New York. Working in ceramics and sculpture among other media, Billops eventually moved into filmmaking with her husband James Hatch, a white theater professor focused on issues of Blackness. She became most widely known for their collaborative documentaries focused primarily on her family.

That’s how I met Billops in the summer of 1990. She and Hatch taught filmmaking at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities, a state-funded summer institute for gifted high schoolers. I knew I liked movies but wasn’t sure what that meant for my future. They were the first to show me through an extracurricular on video production. My group made a documentary interviewing people about Spam while recording their shoes. Perhaps embarrassed to be so absurd with our instructors, we interviewed them face to face. In Billops’ entry, she acted shocked at our query then closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. The moment is startling and delightful, partly for how Billops’ striking appearance — braided and beaded hair, heavy Egyptian-influenced eyeliner, dangly silver jewelry, mixed patterned clothes and hairy lip — mingled with the absurdity of her own performance.

Billops also shared some of her work in progress, a documentary about reuniting with the daughter she had given up for adoption almost 30 years prior. I was struck by her candor, that an adult trusted us high schoolers to engage thoughtfully with this thorny, intimate experience. That work became Finding Christa, winner of the 1992 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for documentary, making Billops the first (and for a long time, only) Black woman to earn that honor.

One of Billops’ greatest legacies is the archive she and Hatch amassed on Black artistic production. Understanding the struggles of Black artists for recognition and the importance of preserving both their work and words, the couple created the Billops-Hatch Collection, gathering materials and recording interviews and conversations with as many Black artists as they could over several decades. Initially housed in their SoHo loft, the couple donated most of the archive to Emory University. The university hosted a major exhibition of the archive from 2016 to 2017, with Billops and Hatch able to participate in the event despite encroaching dementia for them both, each ultimately succumbing to their illness in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

black and white headshot of a woman with short hair and glasses
Jennifer Jones

At 16, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of Billops, her work, and her legacy. I started to understand as an undergraduate in Cinema and Women’s Studies with her name popping up in my texts; this expanded with my graduate studies. Now, as a feminist media scholar researching race, gender and sexuality and teaching video production who has worked in media archives, this formative encounter with Billops feels especially fortuitous. I’m continually buoyed by the memory of her brave, bold spirit, and feel honored to be, even in a small way, part of her legacy.

Does the shaping of lives and society by race, gender, sexuality, class and other factors fascinate you? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out TU’s welcoming and vibrant Women’s and Gender Studies program today.