When I turned 36, I put together clips from films that I felt represented my life at that moment in time, and I broke it up into six parts. I gave every segment a title, and for the last part, I titled it “wisdom”. It’s comprised of a clip from “Under the Tuscan Sun” where Diane Lane’s character sees that her dreams have manifested around her, as articulated in the film’s last line, “Unbelievably good things can happen. Even late in the game, it’s such a surprise.” I turned 40 at the end of last year, and at the tail end of my 30s, I’ve been meeting some incredible inspirational women of a certain age who are seeing their dreams manifest. One of those women is Luchina Fisher who has been kicking off a stellar directorial career in her 50s, and she is just getting started. Since premiering her feature debut in 2020 with “Mama Gloria,” she has directed a short that has become a game changer for her: “Team Dream”.
“Team Dream” is about two women: Ann Smith, who is in her 80s, and Madeline Murphy Rabb, who is in her 70s. After they had retired from their careers, both women decided to take up competitive swimming. Their coach is Derrick Milligan, founder of the Chicago-based organization Team Dream, an international community of women of color who connect via shared experiences of training and competing in multi-sport events including triathlons, marathons, road races, open water swimming, cycling, and adventure racing. “Team Dream” is not just a sports movie, it also dives deep into issues of social justice. We learn a lot about the history of Black people not having access to bodies of water where they could learn the basic skill of learning to swim. Luchina Fisher shows that this goes all the way back to slavery, and before slavery, how African people lived in the water and made a living from what they found there.
Like Luchina, this short inspired me in showing that there is no expiration date on our dreams. The film was launched through Queen Latifah’s cohort Queen Collective and has been receiving many awards during their festival run, including being the recipient of the Best Documentary Short prize at the Pan African Film Festival. “Team Dream” will air on BET, Friday, March 24th, at 9pm EST.
How did you come to this project? I’m interested to hear about your connection with Queen Collective.
The Queen Collective is in its fourth year and I’m part of the fourth cohort of filmmakers. The cohort is designed to elevate the voices of Black female directors, and to really promote us in the industry. It’s really about widening the lens through the stories we are telling and to give a full picture of the Black experience.“Team Dream” does that.
Ann and Madeline are so amazing. I came to know them through my good friend, Derrick Milligan, who is the founder of Team Dream, and is Ann and Madeline’s swim coach. Derek is one of my closest and oldest friends. I knew him from when I lived in Chicago. He is the one who inspired me to run the Chicago marathon. He’s the kind of guy who helps you see beyond what you think you can do, and really taps into that competitive part of you, that athlete inside of you. He’s done that for thousands of women through Team Dream, which is a Chicago-based organization. He’s really helped a lot of Black women learn how to swim.
From my own personal experience, I knew there was this history with swimming and Black folk. I did not know how to swim until I took a class in college. My experience was not that uncommon within the Black community. But it wasn’t until the making of this film that I became fully aware of the impact that not having access to pools, beaches, and bodies of water had on Black people’s ability to swim. That history goes back to segregation, and even earlier, during the times of slavery, when there was a fear that slaves would escape.
During my research for “Team Dream,” I learned that Africans have a much fuller history with swimming than what we’ve been told. Before Africans were brought to this country and enslaved, they were the warriors of the water, and they were making their living on the water. That was how Africans lived. They were master swimmers and divers long before Europeans really took to the water.
I love how you dive deep into these stories, like I saw with “Mama Gloria” and this film. Can you talk about your process?
It’s really about leaning into the story and diving deep beneath the surface. I think the first aspect of doing any documentary is gaining trust from the people who are participating in the project. You really need for them to be able to open up to you, to share things that you might not know when you begin the process of making the film. Over the course of time as they are feeling more and more comfortable with you, they share more about their lives and who they are. That’s where you find those gems.
I love grounding my stories in history. Many of the stories that I tell are about people and voices and subjects that we don’t see often on the screen or haven’t been heard before. It’s really important to place those people in history. It is important to show that we are a part of the American story and the American experience, because our history has been taken out. And it’s not just about grounding it with archiving and other supporting material, but really connecting our history to today and showing why it matters. Why does it matter that Black people have been historically denied access to swimming in water? It matters because of the disproportionate number of Black kids who are the ones drowning every year, and that swimming is really the only sport that can save your life.
It also matters in the context of Ann and Madeline’s stories. They are contemporaries and people of a certain age. We know that in the Black community, there is a disproportionate percentage of Black elders who end up with diabetes and hypertension, who fight all of these diseases and cancers. What would it look like if there were more Black elders like Ann and Madeline who were moving their bodies every day, and felt they connected to something they were passionate about and they were still part of a community? Those things have shown to improve aging and life expectancies.
“Team Dream” is a competition film and it’s a sport film, but beneath it is really a social justice film. I love that you’re rooting for Madeline and Ann and coming away with a deeper awareness of these issues.
There was a time that I was dreading my 40s. Last year I turned 40 and I’m finding more and more women that I’m looking up to, which has now made me excited about this decade in my life. Can you talk about these inspiring women, Ann and Madeline? They did some incredible things when they were younger, but now they’re starting a new chapter, and a new sport. Can you talk about the effect these women had on you?
Absolutely! Welcome to your 40s! It keeps getting better. Somebody told me this when I was in my 40s or about to turn 40. At that time, I had two young kids and I was just feeling worn down. She told me, “Wait until you get to your 50s, you’re going to be so free and so happy.” And she was right.
It just keeps getting better. Madeline is in her 70s, and Ann is in her 80s, and these women are not slowing down (laughing). Ann just traveled to Jordan as a guest of the Queen of Jordan. She learned how to dive in her 70s. Both of them started competitive swimming in their retirement. They’ve already had full careers. In Madeline’s case, she had raised a family. Her first husband passed away, and since then has found love again and remarried.
It’s just remarkable. For me, it’s inspiring to see that you can constantly reinvent yourself. You can make new goals and you can find new connections with people. They are having the time of their life. They are like, “we are movie stars now.” They weren’t expecting to have that happen. I just think that they are open, and the one thing that Madeline has said is that when you reach a certain age, you do not fool around. If you want to do something, just do it. It’s not, “should I or could I?” You just do it! Because why not? I think that in some ways, it gets easier to go into the unknown and take risks. Look at me, I’m a full time filmmaker in my 50s.
That is awesome.
I didn’t direct my first feature until I was in my 50s. And now I have so many ideas. I have two new films coming out this year. “Team Dream” will go to BET and I’m working on new stuff. And I’m about to teach Introduction to Filmmaking at Doc Filmmaking at Yale.
Wow, that’s great!
I’m just open to whatever. Things are coming and they are coming much quicker. As my daughter likes to say, I’m manifesting much faster.
What do you hope people see in this film?
I hope they see themselves. Because again, it’s so much more than a sports film. It’s really a film to me about dreams. I actually didn’t make that connection until I had finished the film. We screened it for an audience at Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival in August. We had just finished the film two days before. I had my head down working on this film for weeks. I wasn’t even prepared for the response we were going to get. From that first moment when Ann and Madeline said how old they were, the audience went crazy. There was applause, and when the lights came up, everybody stood up and we got a standing ovation. It was like, “oh my god, what just happened?” The next week, I had to drop my daughter off at college. My first child was heading off to college in California. After I got her settled into school, I just took a night to decompress.
It’s a lot.
Yes, it’s a lot! It was so much that I was sobbing, and I was just like, “What just happened to me the last week?” And I just realized when I was my daughter’s age (pause), I’m going to try to not get emotional about this (pause), but when I was her age, I had a scholarship to Stanford and I turned it down because my mother had cancer. She asked me if I would stay closer to home. I had another scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill which was only an hour and a half from her house. I gave up my chance to go to California and stayed. I’m grateful I did that because my mother died two years later, but I realized as I was dropping my daughter off that she was pursuing her dream to go to California, and that had once had been my dream. I wondered how different my life would have been if I had gone for it? It wasn’t even that I got stuck there, it was more that I had a dream then, and I still have that dream and I’m fulfilling that now. I never gave up on my dream
For me, I recognized that this was the reason I connected with Ann and Madeline’s story. It was deeper than what I had thought on the surface. And that’s the beautiful thing about film: there are all of these unconscious things that happen, and you don’t even realize why something has come to you, and why you are the person to make that. Sometimes it’s not clear to you until the film is finished. And I strongly connect with this message that really, there is no expiration date on dreams. Never give up on your dreams. You never know how it’s going to manifest. In my case, it was years later. But if you hold on to it and stay open and you keep moving towards it, it will find you.
Can you share a little bit about what is coming up for you?
I have another short that is coming out and it’s going to be announced on Wednesday (announced in January 2023). It is called “The Dads” and it builds on “Mama Gloria” It’s about five dads of trans kids taking a weekend fishing trip with Dennis Shepard, who is the father of Matthew Shepard, the young man who was killed at the University of Wyoming. The short will be at SXSW making its world premiere.
And I have a feature that will be released later this year. We just don’t know where it’ll premiere yet. It’s called “Locked Out” and it’s about the barriers to Black home ownership. I co-directed the film with Kate Davis, who directed “Say Her Name” “Traffic Stop” and “Southern Comfort.” We’re really excited about that film because it’s very timely. There is such a housing crisis right now, and I think there are a lot of similarities to Chicago. The stories that we focus on are those of the Black women who are fighting for Housing Justice in Detroit.