Interview with filmmaker Leslie Cunningham

Leslie Cunningham is the producer/director of M.I., A Different Kind of Girl. She lives in Durham.
How long have you been making films?

I have been making short films for a little over five years now. Under the auspices of TRIBES Entertainment Films, I have directed and produced a number of shows for the Triangle’s Friday evening public access television broadcast covering local arts and community events.


How did you get started in film?

I got started in film after recognizing a void in my creative pursuits and I committed myself to discovering my true heart's passion. I realized I wanted to make documentary film and immediately took steps to pursue the craft. While I continued to volunteer and produce for local public television, I enrolled in documentary film courses at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. At the CDS, my mission became clear and I left my day job in marketing to pursue feature documentary filmmaking full-time. The move was bold and I continue to share my triumphs and failures of the process with my arts community, friends, and my LGBT family here in the Triangle, who have come to look to me for inspiration to dare to follow a dream. 

Tell us a little bit about your film. What's it about? 

My film, M.I., A Different Kind of Girl, is about a title-winning male impersonator born on North Carolina's rural coast who struggles to find acceptance from her family, her community and the male-dominated drag scene. In M.I., we (myself and co-producer Alana Jones) enter the world of new millennium drag and pick up the torch ignited by films like Paris is Burning to investigate attitudes our own LGBT and African-American communities about women in drag. In the process, we uncover powerful ideas about female gender identity and sexuality in not only the mainstream popular culture but also within the marginalized LGBT and African American communities where the film's main subject, Nation Tyre, has made a name for herself.

Why did you make this particular movie?

I made this particular film because although I have never performed in drag, some of my good friends are the ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ I have met on nightclubs stages across the country. At times a gender-bender in my private life and ‘out’ in the community, the subject matter of drag performance and gender identity within and beyond the LGBTQ community and particularly for lesbian women of color, was immediately relevant to me. As I came to know my subject, I guess you could say it was easy for me to pick up my camera and head backstage to enter this strange and confusing world of illusion and to ultimately tell the story of Nation Tyre.


Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

The filmmakers I have been most influenced by are Michael Moore; Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. I also like the documentary work of Ramona Diaz, Jennie Livingston and Morgan Spurlock.


What is it like seeing your own work in theatres or at film festivals?

Seeing my own work in theatres and at film festivals is an absolutely amazing experience that has torn away the last of the walls obscuring my mission of being a full-time filmmaker.


What films are you excited about seeing at the NCGLFF?

I am excited about seeing Mosquita Y Mari, Cloudburst and Margarita.


What would you be doing if you weren't making movies?

If I weren’t making film, I’d be a fulltime writer/journalist devoted to independent artistry and community activism. Check out my publication, TRIBES Magazine (!


What's next for you?

What’s next is I am making the film that has become my life’s work about a "jig" show called Harlem in Havana ( which documents the legacy of my grandfather, Leon Claxton, the ‘Bronze Ziegfeld’ of Chicago, and one of the twentieth century’s most successful traveling show producers.




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