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Cheyenne Ewulu’s Shades of Cosplay Is a Beautiful Documentary That Encourages Black Cosplayers to Do the Damn Thing

"You can do this, too."

Cheyenne Ewulu

Shades of Cosplay, a short documentary film that focuses on four Black cosplayers, was released back in 2015 by filmmaker Cheyenne Ewulu. Shades of Cosplay was Ewulu’s very first film, and she’s decided to re-release it because she felt that the conversations were still relevant today.

She’s right, which is rather telling since the film touches on the racism in the cosplay community.

The documentary isn’t just about the hurtful aspects of the community

When I sat down to watch the film I realized that Ewulu had done more than address the ongoing issues. The way she films the documentary has the conversation going while the cosplayers take part in what they love: dressing up as their favorite characters. You get to see Black cosplayers putting together their looks, talking about the materials they used, competing on stage, and admitting to the nervousness one feels before they stand in front of an audience to perform a skit.

This documentary is more than just our exhaustion over negative comments, it’s a showcase of pure Black joy that serves as a way to remind the audience that, at its core, cosplay is about having fun and that’s all Black cosplayers are trying to do. You get to see Black cosplayers coming together, crafting together, doing panels together, and encouraging each other to go out there and cosplay if that’s what they want to do.

There’s a part in the documentary where a plus-size Black girl talks about how she thought she couldn’t cosplay because there weren’t many characters that looked like her, and that part took me back to my younger days of cosplay where I felt the exact same way. I’m sure plenty of others have either felt that way or feel that way right now. This girl goes on to say that seeing others in the community cosplay encouraged her to do it, and she’s passing that mindset onto younger people in her family.

It’s amazing that hearing that can still mean so much even if it was said so many years ago.

The way the racism is framed illustrates how frustrating it really is

Photo by HellorHighWater Photography

The way the disparaging comments are talked about in the film really hit on the fact that the discrimination in the community is exhausting and, frankly, total nonsense. The tone is conversational, as Ewulu is speaking with Black cosplayers as they are preparing to get ready for a convention.

Basically, you watch as someone is just trying to vibe over something like My Little Pony, so there’s a level of anger you feel when you see this person minding their business and trying to have a good time suddenly get told that a fictional pony isn’t Black.

Like. Think about that for a second. Being told that a cartoon PONY isn’t Black. Later in the documentary, the same thing happens with Beast Boy, who is green.

The documentary really hammers in the point of how frustrating racism is. All these cosplayers want to do is dress up in a big Sailor Moon group and … that’s it.

It really shouldn’t be this hard.

An interview with Cheyenne Ewulu

Cheyenne Shades of Cosplay
Photo by Mike Garcia

After watching the documentary, I got the chance to interview Ewulu about the film itself, her own experiences with cosplay and being a Black creative in the geek community, and how it feels to look back at the work she created.

TMS: This is one of your earliest films, how does it feel to be re-releasing it?

EWULU: It feels kind of surreal, and also scary because it is my first film ever. But I think it’s good to have it up for myself personally, to remind myself, as I move forward in my career, where I started. You don’t see Issa Rae locking up Awkward Black Girl, right?

TMS: What inspired you to create this documentary? What inspired you to rerelease it after so many years?

EWULU: I was an avid cosplayer when I was in college and even out of college. Even in the film, you can see clips of me cosplaying as Sailor Uranus. I had always wanted to make a short film about something I could relate to. I didn’t see any content on Black cosplayers at the time, so I decided I was going to make that my first project. I had already been in the community, was a cosplayer myself, and had friends at the time who were coming up in the cosplay world, so it just made sense.

I feel it’s important for us to get out there and try to tell our own stories, you know? Because if we don’t, someone else will… and they’ll get it wrong. I wanted to re-release it because I don’t think I really gave it the time to marinate when it was out. I may not cosplay anymore, but there are so many people who still do who could really resonate with this film. They deserve to see it.

TMS: Do you think the issues addressed in the documentary are still issues in the cosplay community today? 

EWULU: Oh, they are very much still relevant to this day. It’s sad. Every other week, I see a post on Twitter about something racist happening within the community.

TMS: What changes have you seen in the cosplay community (and the geek community in general) over the years? Has it become more inclusive? What improvements can be made to create a better experience for Black cosplayers/nerds?

EWULU: Well, for starters, there are so many more Black women cosplaying openly now, and it’s amazing. I see the girls getting brand deals and things like that, which is great. Now we have anime companies featuring Black cosplayers on their platforms. And while they’re great and create exposure for those creatives, it sucks to see that 90% of the time, the comment section for those posts with Black cosplayers is filled with trolls.

I think the first step to creating a better environment for Black nerd creatives, specifically online, is to make sure we’re not letting negative comments be so visible on these big brand pages.

TMS: Since you used to cosplay, what’s it like going from someone who cosplayed to someone creating important videos that document the experiences of Black cosplayers?

EWULU: It’s kind of crazy. I feel like my cosplayer past will forever be a part of me. I’m still very much a nerd, creating nerdy content.

TMS: What I like about your documentary is that it doesn’t just focus on the racism Black cosplayers have to face, we also get to see them having fun in cosplay, winning competitions, and even giving details on how they make the costumes and the props. Why did you think it was important to show this side of the Black cosplay experience, too?

EWULU: I feel like many times, as a person who watches documentaries on a DAILY basis, a lot of docs that discuss traumatic events, especially racism, leave the viewer feeling defeated at the end. I didn’t want that with this. I wanted to show whoever is watching that even though these bad things happen, there still is a light for you at the end of the tunnel. You can do this too. I wanted this to be informative but also fun and inspiring.

TMS: Do you have any advice for Black creatives who are looking to do work that focuses on the experiences of the community?

EWULU: Just go out and do it. I made Shades of Cosplay with a DSLR camera in hand and a studio light in the other just chugging them around that convention. No camera crew. No nothing. Ava Duvernay and I believe Ryan Coogler both made their first feature films with iPhones. Start somewhere and don’t be afraid to be seen trying.

I’ve done a couple of interviews with some talented Black nerds who are looking to make films of their own and let me just say, it sounds like there will be some amazing Blerd content coming down the line. I’m excited to see what people create. I hope my film will inspire others to share their own stories in whatever way they feel comfortable.

TMS: If you were going to cosplay again today, what character would you do and why?

EWULU: Fran from FF12 has always been my dream cosplay, man. Maybe a more modest version of her. She’s one of my favorite video game characters.

(Image: HellorHighwater Photography/Mike Garcia/Cheyenne Ewulu)

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Briana (she/her - bisexual) is trying her best to cosplay as a responsible adult. Her writing tends to focus on the importance of representation, whether it’s through her multiple book series or the pieces she writes. After de-transforming from her magical girl state, she indulges in an ever-growing pile of manga, marathons too much anime, and dedicates an embarrassing amount of time to her Animal Crossing pumpkin patch (it's Halloween forever, deal with it Nook)