Avery Kelley is no ordinary 15-year-old. She’s a teenage inspiration who juggles school, friends, extracurriculars and family time while exercising her film-producing and directing skills and mulling over her next big film idea.
Additionally, she gives back to the community through her self-founded organization, the Love Carries On Drive, which supported foster children in Chicago before expanding to Atlanta (hopefully nationwide).
After discovering a love for film at a young age, Kelley took her newfound admiration to a different level by creating her production company, Inspired Melanin, at 11, enabling the Chicago native to put everything she didn’t see in films — lack of representation and diversity — into her works.
The 15-year-old prodigy would procure national attention for her films, like her self-produced and directed Soul Train Soul Change documentary, which was initially a history project that was showcased in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC, in 2020.
In August, the now-Atlanta resident released a new short film, The All Aroundz, through the Black Girls Film Camp non-profit organization, becoming a finalist for the Cannes World Art Festival’s Best Short Film award and the youngest filmmaker to be featured in the Black Film Festival Atlanta.
Kelley conversed with Sis2Sis over Zoom to reflect on her journey as a rising filmmaker, director and philanthropist. She was candid about balancing everything as a high school sophomore chasing her dreams with much on her plate.
S2S: How did you get into film?
Avery: Well, I’ve always loved the arts, for one. The arts have always been my safe space. I started as a dancer. I’ve been dancing since I was two years old, which drove me into the world of film. I wanted to tell stories in some way. I didn’t know which medium or how.
I knew I wanted to be in the arts and thought, “I’m going to be an actress. I’m going to be the next Viola Davis.” I loved Zendaya as a kid. I thought that I was going to be that. Through my dance studio, they often worked with this one talent agency, and I was like, “You know, I really want to do some auditions.”
I was searching for casting calls, and for one casting call, I had to do a self-tape, but I had to write my own monologue for it…Self-tape wasn’t that great, but I really enjoyed writing the monologue. I knew I could write essays for school, but I had no idea what this world of screenwriting is, and that’s what it was. I started to do my research on screenwriting and fell in love with it. I was always writing different stories in my notebooks, and I would practice my scripts with my friends in the school library.
That was really how I began exploring film. Also, just from being a kid who grew up loving television, I felt like I never really got to see positive Black stories that spoke to me. That was for my age group. It was the same three shows and then sitcoms from the ’90s, but it was nothing current. I wanted to find a way to change that with the stories I wrote.
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S2S: Looking at films from back then to now, who were your influences? Who inspired you?
Avery: I have so many influences. Film career inspirations? Debbie Allen (A Different World, Fame, Grey’s Anatomy) has always been one of my favorite directors of all time because A Different World is my favorite show. One, I love the storyline. I love every single thing about it. I love the HBCU life, love stories, all of that.
Also, the positive Black stories it was able to tell could relate to all audiences and just the huge impact the show had on Black people, Black people seeking higher education, and interactions between Black people and other races. Just the cultural phenomenon that the show was.
I also love Issa Rae. I love how Issa Rae was able to take this idea that she had of awkward Black girl and just make it, put it on YouTube and since then has been able to create her empire from there. She’s a true embodiment of what I want to be able to do with my work.
S2S: Those are good choices! So, do you like how Black women or Black people, in general, are portrayed today in media or film and TV?
Avery: I have to say I do feel like it has gotten better from when I was younger. I feel like, especially since 2020, there has just been a wave of Black content on television and film, on social media in general. I feel like it has had its positives and its negatives. There still can be more that is done to showcase positive Black stories. And when I say that, I mean not just any stories that have Black people in it because representation is important. It’s important to also include representation that’s not just Black people suffering, Black people in turmoil or Black women fighting against each other and just constantly bickering.
It’s important to showcase Black friendship, Black joy, Black love, and just Black people living as Black people. I was little, but still, more to be done.
S2S: You’re in high school doing film. Is this something you see yourself committing to in the future, or are you interested in other fields?
Kelley: This is something that I see myself continuing to do in the future, that I want to be my main career path. I’ve always loved telling stories, and I know that that’s always what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how until I explored the world of film, screenwriting and directing and just being able to see that aspect of filmmaking.
I see myself telling stories. I don’t see that ever-stopping, ever-changing. Sometimes…I wonder if I’ll ever dip my toe in a different area to see or try things out to be well-rounded, specifically, the film area. I want to be able to try different things like cinematography and what that aspect looks like and the world of editing so I can be well-rounded as a filmmaker, director and creator. But film is something I see myself sticking to.
S2S: How did you come up with the idea of The All Aroundz?
Kelley: I have to give props to the amazing Black Girls Film Camp, which is the program that I was a part of when creating The All Aroundz, and without them, the project would not be possible.
So, I knew I wanted to be able to create a story that represented Black female friendships in a positive way ’cause I feel like I didn’t often get to see that portrayed in film and media. I wanted to tell a story that was Black joy, but I wanted to have some Black cultural aspect behind it.
I learned about an amazing organization called the 40+ Double Dutch Club. My aunt is a part of the chapter that’s in Chicago. The 40+ Double Dutch Club is a group of women who are 40 and over that get together to Double Dutch, and it’s a very therapeutic but sisterhood-bonding way for them to be active but also have that sisterly bond they now have.
Double Dutching has been so huge in the Black community, especially the Black female community, for years. I feel like I’ve only ever seen one move that touched on it: Jump In (2007, Keke Palmer and Corbin Bleu). I wanted to find a way to combine all these different aspects of Black joy, Black friendship and Double Dutch, and The All Aroundz came from that idea.
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S2S: What surprises me is at 11, you started your own production company. Not a lot of 11-year-olds are doing that. So, how did that come about?
Kelley: So, 2019 was the year I knew I wanted to do film, for real. I began writing my own scripted series that’s called Back Row. I originally wrote Back Row as a short film, and the story focuses on a group of seven kids who, from sitting in the back row of class together, have grown a very tight-knit bond and have become more than just friends, but a family.
(After experiencing film producing through working on Back Row) I did my research (on the business side of film). ‘How can I continue to tell stories like this?’ And I learned about what a production company was. I was like, ‘Oh, I could have my own production company that works to create scripted and non-scripted content to represent the underrepresented.
At 11, I was talking to my parents and was like, “Hey, you think this is something that we can make happen? We have to figure out like LLCs and corporations.” My parents, they’re both educators. They aren’t in the film space, and there’s not really people in my family who are either. So, this is all something we were Google searching.
We were able to have it as an LLC, and we were just able to make something happen.
S2S: How does it feel to have these accomplishments at such a young age?
Kelley: It feels surreal to think that so much has been accomplished in such a short amount of time. It has me feeling so appreciative. One, to God. Two, to my family and everyone around me who is constantly supporting me and pushing me to tell these stories and be the best I can be.
In terms of being one of the finalists and winning an award for the Cannes World Art Festival, it’s something that’s insane for me to believe. Also, to be the youngest director and filmmaker to ever be a part of the Black Film Festival Atlanta has me feeling like people are seeing it.
It’s a huge push to be like, “Okay, you’re doing something right. Keep going, keep running, keep pushing ’cause you got this.”
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S2S: You started the Love Carries On Drive to help foster children as they move from home to home. I know you collect carry-on duffel bags and tags, but could you explain that more to me? And where did you get the idea?
Kelley: The Love Carries On Drive I started last year works to raise duffle and luggage bags for foster children.
Often, foster children, when moving from home to home, are forced to put every single belonging into trash bags when moving from place to place. There was a woman who was on my mom’s Facebook that was like, “Hey, I’m in need of clothes to donate to two girls in the foster care system…anyone have any clothes?’ I had a lot I wanted to give back, but then, from doing that, I did some research. After learning that part about the fosters (trash bags), it’s not okay because it can portray false imagery that foster children are less than or not worth anything more than trash, and that’s not true. Everyone deserves to have something to call their own, even when in a circumstance when you’re moving from home to home.
I wanted to change that. Through the drive, we have been collecting and donating duffle bags (and luggage tags) to local child welfare agencies in Chicago and now, as I live in Atlanta. We are working on expanding to a national level to help many foster children. This year, we’re hoping to raise over 1,000 duffel bags to donate, which isn’t even close to the amount of children who are in the system, but every bag helps.
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Like any teen, Kelley is sometimes overwhelmed with balancing her studies, extracurricular activities, film stuff, charity organization and social life. But, by prioritizing and remembering her admiration for everything she does, she prevails.
The 15-year-old left some words of encouragement for those who are hesitant on making their dreams a reality.
“You’re never in a place where it’s either too early..or too late to start,” she said. “Just starting is enough. You have to sometimes take that bet on yourself.”
This year, on Dec. 2, 2023, her Love Carries On Drive is hosting a “Give Love & Carry On” event in Atlanta to raise items for foster children.
Eventgoers can expect music, food, merch, selfie stations, swag bags and more. Admission is duffle bags.
Those interested can click here for the Amazon wishlist to donate five duffle bags. Please ensure a name is on the order under the gift section to account for a ticket.
Those who can’t attend can still donate to support foster children.