McKenzie Chinn

McKenzie Chinn

McKenzie Chinn

Tessa Films

What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?
My first work as director was the poetry video “First You Need A Body,” for Growing Concerns Poetry Collective, of which I am also a member, on its album BIG DARK BRIGHT FUTURES. I worked with a small professional crew, including DP Remsy Atassi, editor Lindsay McKenna, and colorist Kalvin Johnson.
The video, featuring original music by poetry collective member Jeffrey Michael Austin, explores Black women’s experience of personal agency, sensuality, and power, and crafts rich imagery around the poem’s allusions to tennis star Serena Williams, as well as “The Little Mermaid” mythology to support those themes.
Filmed in 2020 over two days on the south side of Chicago, the video was completed and released in 2021.

How did you get into directing?
I came to directing by way of my work as an actor and writer. After earning my MFA in acting, I felt limited by the majority of roles available to Black women in the industry. I decided to write my own project, which became the independent feature film Olympia (2018). After witnessing the success of my work as a screenwriter, I realized that it was time for me to realize my creative vision in full by expanding into directing, and decided to seek and create opportunities to hone that craft while applying my previous skills in shaping performance and narrative.

What is your most recent project?
My most recent project is the short film A Real One, which I wrote and directed. It premiered at the Oscar-qualifying Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2023 and will complete a strong festival run at the end of this year. It was shot by Hannah Welever, produced by Lisa Masseur and Sarah Minnie, and edited by Lindsay McKenna.

It stars Eris Baker (This Is Us) and Ireon Roach (Knives and Skin, The 4400), and is about a bright teenager on Chicago’s south side who learns the power and persistence of true friendship when a closely-held secret is discovered amid the final weeks of her senior year in high school.

It is the proof-of-concept for the feature of the same name, which I developed as part of the 2021 Sundance Screenwriters Lab, and the subsequent Sundance Directors Lab. My team and I hope to begin production on the feature in 2024.

What is the best part of being a director?
The best part of being a director is the ability to synthesize various art forms – photography, performance, music, design, narrative, etc. – into a singular experience that has a collective emotional impact on its audience. As humans we are inherently emotional beings, and so much of how we perceive and behave is governed by how we feel. Being able to harness my creative sensibility in ways that can shift a person’s perspective, shape their thinking, deliver a truth, or inspire empathy, feels like a superpower.

In a society that often undervalues the wisdom available in our heart and gut, I’m grateful that my work reminds me of the transformative power in what we feel, and gives me the opportunity to influence it in positive ways.

What is your current career focus: commercials and branded content, television, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre–comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
While I began directing via music video and narrative projects, I’m deeply interested in adding commercial and branded content to my creative skillset, as I work toward realizing more long-form narrative work. My strength is in crafting potent, deeply human stories with humor and heart, and I look forward to applying that sensibility to both narrative and commercial endeavors.

Who is your favorite director and why?
My favorite director is Alfonso Cuarón. From Y Tu Mamá También to Children of Men to Roma, his work embraces poetry in the visual image, and emotional subtlety alongside epic human truth. It’s beautiful, enigmatic, revelatory, and raw. His work is the template for the work I aspire to.

What is your favorite movie? Your favorite television/online program? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
I have too many favorite films to name, but several that come to mind are Everything Everywhere All at Once, Do The Right Thing, and Cradle Will Rock (Tim Robbins, 1999). On television, I’m currently enjoying Winning Time. And along with having one of the best slogans of all time, I find that Nike’s commercial content rarely misses.

Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I grew up in Fort Washington, Maryland, a suburb of Washington DC. I was attracted to books, storytelling, and performance at young age, and decided as a teenager to become an actor. I honed my performance skills working in theatre in DC, Baltimore, and Chicago, then began working in television and film as Chicago’s on-camera industry expanded.

After witnessing the emotional subtlety and cinematic magic that the camera offered, alongside my growing confidence in my own creative vision, I began creating my own opportunities to grow in my craft as a storyteller with an expansive vision and a specific point of view. Honoring my foundations in poetry, Black culture, and activism, I forged working relationships with friends and collaborators I’d connected with in Chicago’s vibrant DIY artist communities, and found independent and economical ways to create the work I wanted to see in the world.

My work, thus far, has culminated in the short film A Real One, which is completing a strong run at film festivals, and is intended to help pave the way toward its feature version, which is currently in late development, and has received strong support from organizations from Sundance to Gotham.


  • Tessa Films,