Tama Hamilton-Wray: Telling the Untold Stories

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Tama with her film making equipment/ Photo by Lisa Twenter

Some people walk into a movie theater, watch a film and leave. Sure, there may be some conversation regarding the movie after the lights come back on, but for most, once they arrive back home, thoughts of the movie are pushed aside. And then there are people like Tama Hamilton-Wray and her husband Jeff. While in the Peace Corps the couple saw a movie that changed everything. Growing up in Akron, Ohio, Hamilton-Wray had what most would consider a pretty normal upbringing. One of six kids, she said her hard-working parents were good about exposing their children to as much culture as they could, despite living in a less-than-diverse place. “They both encouraged us in whatever we wanted to do,” she said. Thanks to a summer vacation cross-county and many trips to visit family in the South, Hamilton-Wray was bitten by the travel bug early on. Pair that with her love of films and books and she knew Akron, Ohio was only the start of the places she would go. “I’ve always been intrigued by people of other cultures,” she said. “I was intrigued through film or novels about other people.” After studying French in high school and college Hamilton-Wray traveled to France for a study abroad program during her undergrad years at Hiram College in Ohio. While in France she met a number of people from Africa and became interested in visiting. It was also during her undergrad years that she met her husband Jeff. After graduation the two married and enlisted in the Peace Corp together, landing in East Africa from 1983 to 1985. It was during this time that the two took in a movie — Love Brewed in the African Pot — that changed everything. “The film portrayed an Africa like the one I had met,” said Hamilton-Wray. “It was just something that rang so true.” The film is a love story that follows two people from different backgrounds, struggling to make their relationship work. “It portrayed a clash of tradition and modern life,” she added. Jeff, always a film lover as well, had planned to attend law school when the couple returned to the states, but when their time in the Peace Corps ended, he had different plans. He decided he wanted to start a film production company. “One thing about going abroad,” said Hamilton-Wray, “you realize the sky is the limit.” And so the couple — who was also starting their family and living in California —started Jazzy Tam Films. Jeff returned to school to study film and produced the first Jazzy Tam Film — The Beautiful Ones — which also served as his thesis film. The film, written by Jeff, is about a young man becoming a father and coming to terms with the fact that his father was absent. By the end of the early 1990s the couple moved back to Ohio where Hamilton-Wray returned to school and received her master’s degree in International Affairs from Ohio University. They also expanded their family. Sons Kimani, now 19, and Elijah, now 18, joined the couple’s daughter Jasmine, who is now 26. The family moved to Michigan in the late 1990s when Hamilton-Wray was offered a job in the African Media program at Michigan State University. Along with working, continuing their education and raising a family, the couple continued to produce films. In 2003 Jazzy Tam Films released China. The movie was entirely filmed in Michigan — totally shot and produced in the Lansing area. China, which follows an unhappy, middle aged man who finds a new hobby in martial arts, was produced with the help of $300,000 grant from ITVS (Independent Television Service) which receives funding from the Corporation for Public BroadcastingPBS. It aired on PBS for nearly two years nationwide. As one might imagine, producing films is no easy feat and as a family-owned and operated business everyone is involved with Jazzy Tam Films. “I’m the critic,” said Hamiton-Wray with a laugh. But she’s also much more. “Since we’re a small production company, you wear a lot of hats,” she said. One of her roles includes cook. “I like to cook,” she said. And so before early morning shoots or after a long day of filming, Hamilton-Wray has been known to prepare meals for the cast and crew. Working in Michigan has been a plus for Jazzy Tam Films. “It’s been really great, we always get a lot of support,” said Hamilton-Wray. In 2006 Jazzy Tam Films began to shoot Soul Searchers: Three Stories, and they recently wrapped production on another film —Songs for my Right Side —also shot in Lansing, using local talent. Of course, there are challenges. Jazzy Tam Films has worked hard to secure grants for the films they produce, but money doesn’t always come easily. “This is art and it’s hard to get money for art,” she said. “It’s a risky business … for that reason it’s always going to be hard to find money.” Currently Hamilton-Wray, who received her doctorate in American Studies from MSU in 2010, teaches in the African Studies programResidential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH) and Jeff is an associate professor of film studies also at MSUa professor in the film department. Their close ties to MSU give the couple an opportunity to mentor budding film makers. Outside of teaching and film making Hamilton-Wray enjoys spending time with others. And as much as she enjoys seeing what is outside her front door, Hamilton-Wray said spending time with people is top on her list of things she enjoys, especially those closest to her. “I love my family,” she said.

Tama and her husband Jeff/ Photo by Lisa Twenter

Jeff and Hamilton-Wray have won a number of awards and have been featured at a number of film festivals across the globe since they started, but for Hamilton-Wray, film making is about so much more. “Our main goal is to tell stories we don’t feel are being told,” she said. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction, and Jeff and Hamilton-Wray often pull from real life experiences and people they know when writing their movies. Although there are films featuring African Americans in Hollywood, Hamilton-Wray said they are limited. What she and Jeff want to do with Jazzy Tam Films is tell about the ups, the downs, the many facets of life. In addition, Hamilton-Wray said it’s important for people to know that film making is a tangible goal. “(We want) to dispel the mystery around film making,” she said. “It is accessible to people. It is accessible to kids of color … We all have stories. We all write, and more and more you can pick up a camera … I think that’s really important.”
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Tags: film making, Jazzy Tam films, msu, Tama Hamilton-Wray

Emily Caswell

Emily Caswell is the Managing Editor of CAWLM. She has a passion for fun, family, friends, shopping sprees, cold drinks and Lansing.