The latest offering in streaming services started the way most great things do: on a couch during an easy, slow day. KweliTV founder Deshuna Spencer was trying to find something to watch. Flipping through channel after channel, she quickly realized she was failing to find any kind of show or film to relate to.
“I was watching and I thought, where are all of these awesome independent films that I read about on these blogs?” Spencer told Digital Trends. “Even premiere and normal streaming services had the same problem: While there was some content there, it wasn’t the vast amount of content that I was looking for.”
Founded in Spencer’s home of Alexandria, Virginia, KweliTV was created as an answer to streaming services’ lack of Black content.
The streaming service is home to over 400 indie films and television shows, with over 35,000 registered users and growing. But it’s more than just a “Black Netflix.”
Rather than try to compete with larger services that boast millions in revenue and funding, KweliTV wants to thrive in the gap, by being deliberate about the content it hosts. Spencer considers KweliTV’s list carefully curated, and maintains that the service is purposeful about only hosting movies that don’t just feature Black characters, but also feature Black directors, writers, and producers.
As of 2020, 98% of KweliTV’s films were official selections at film festivals.
“One of the challenges I see when it comes to available Black content is that it’s very monolithic,” Spencer says. “The stories tend to be the same. We are not a monolithic community. We have a vast amount of stories to tell. For KweliTV, our goal is to show authentic stories. We don’t shy away from realities, but we want to show the other experiences, the ones viewers don’t typically see.”
That experience doesn’t just prevent viewers from seeing different films.
It also prevents newer and more subversive works from being accepted into the classic canon. According to a report from The New York Times, the Criterion Channel, a streaming service attached to the famed Criterion list, has a famed blind spot for Black content and creators. Out of the 1,034 films released, only four were by Black directors, four were from Black directors outside of the U.S, and only one of the films was by a Black woman of color.
While Netflix’s new Black Lives Matter film collection features films and shows from people of color, the list contains less than 100 offerings, most of which are centered on the African-American experience.
“I feel like black stories can sometimes be an afterthought, even now when people are definitely more focused on representing the Black community. And I hear people say, ‘Well, it’s for your community.’ And yeah, that’s true but it’s for other people too. And there’s a missed opportunity there. There are services, like Criterion or Netflix, who will say ‘we want to have this little segment for them,’ but the reality is everyone can enjoy Black content.
While its content is made for everyone, it is the particulars that make KweliTV so specific. Careful for its audience, Spencer refuses to add a plethora of movies that depict Black suffering, citing the fact that Black people are already inundated with that kind of footage. But her careful curation of indie films that can disappear after festival circuits is what makes KweliTV such a special service.
“The bigger platforms are focused on bigger name talent, celebrities who are well known and can draw viewers. But KweliTV hosts award-winning filmmakers who just haven’t had the same opportunity, who might not have that big studio attached, or 20,000 followers on Twitter. So I think that we’re really giving Black filmmakers a chance to showcase their work, a way to have their films showcased whereas before, they could’ve disappeared,” says Spencer.
While Netflix and Criterion have recently taken a larger interest in showcasing a plethora of Black films, that current interest might be a temporary occurrence. Spencer isn’t concerned.
“When things die down, the other platforms might take down Black Lives Matter from their Twitter accounts, but our mission won’t change,” says Spencer. “That’s what makes us different.”
KweliTV is available on Roku, AmazonFire, AppleTV, and Google Play. You can subscribe to KweliTV here.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Deshuna Spencer’s first name and misidentified her hometown. The article has been updated.