Filmmaker Kyra Jones
Filmmaker Kyra Jones Credit: Alex Hazel

The year 2021 has already been a whirlwind for Kyra Jones. In the span of just a few months, the 28-year-old Chicagoan has landed her first full-time position as a staff writer for Hulu’s Woke, made plans to move to Los Angeles, and released the proof-of-concept trailer for her upcoming feature film, Go to the Body.

“A month ago I couldn’t get any managers or agents or whatever to read my stuff and now they’re blowing me up,” Jones says through laughter over a Zoom call on a Tuesday morning from her home in Uptown.

The Northwestern grad, who is typically known for her comedy work, like her 2019 award-winning webseries about dating in the digital age, The Right Swipe, says her latest project is “a lot darker than the other things that I write.” The film follows Sanaa, a Black female organizer who is sexually assaulted by a fellow activist, and details the aftermath of the event as she tries to move on with her life.

“I’ve always seen such an unrealistic portrayal of the aftermath of sexual assault,” Jones says. “I know people who have survived an assault and don’t cry at all, or cover it up with humor . . . Everyone’s healing looks different.”

Go to the Body is Jones’s directorial debut. The project is a shorter version of what will eventually be Jones’s feature-length film, which she’s currently raising money for. She hopes to shoot in the spring or summer of 2022 and premiere in 2023. The project won The Pitch at the Chicago International Film Festival in October, and the proof-of-concept will be screened with OTV on April 19 as part of “Unpacking Intimacy on Brave Sets,” a discussion with Jones and others about intimacy coordination and hand-to-hand combat on film sets.

The film’s central relationship between Sanaa (Al Kelly) and her fiancé Kendrick (Brian Keys) explores how the effects of sexual violence can reach far beyond the victim. “The survivor isn’t the only one affected,” Jones says. “It’s hard to figure out how best to support the person you love.”

Kendrick is a boxer and pushes Sanaa to fight back, to not let her rapist “get away with it,” as he urges in one scene. In most films about sexual violence, a survivor seeks justice through reporting their assault to law enforcement. Despite experiencing sexual violence at higher rates than other groups of women, Black women are less likely to report a rape or sexual assault. In fact, for every Black woman who reports rape, 15 others do not report according to the American Psychological Association. This can often be out of fear of being stigmatized or not believed. In the case of Sanaa and many other Black women, there’s also a distrust of a criminal justice system that unfairly targets people of color—Sanaa struggles with being responsible for potentially putting another Black man behind bars. Jones’s film challenges viewers to think about what justice looks like outside of the carceral system, especially when the abuser is someone the survivor is in community with.

“It’s so hard to figure out what to do to hold those people accountable,” Jones says. “If this character does not believe in police and prisons, what are her next steps?”

One route that some survivors may take is through restorative justice, a process that focuses on the rehabilitation of offenders through reconciliation with their victims and the greater community, which may include a meeting between the victim and the abuser with a mediator. Jones herself is a survivor of sexual assault and has spoken publicly about her experience with restorative justice. The original draft of Go to the Body included a restorative justice process that did not make the final cut. Jones plans to have the upcoming OTV screening and others for the proof of concept and eventual feature film to include Q+A and workshops that discuss the themes of the film.

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“How can we support Black women survivors in a way that doesn’t further the carceral system?” she says. “What does protecting Black women actually look like?”

The film is dedicated to Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, a 19-year-old Black female activist from Florida who disappeared in June of 2020 shortly after tweeting about being sexually assaulted by a Black man who offered to give her a ride. Salau was later found dead and that same man allegedly confessed to her murder. Salau’s death prompted a wave of conversation online about how Black women and femmes can advocate for justice and liberation for Black people, but still be at risk of violence from the same men whose lives they are protesting for. The phrase “protect Black women” can be seen in hashtags and in real life: on T-shirts, buttons, tote bags.

“The phrase is overused and I don’t know what people mean when they say it anymore,” Jones says. Jones adds that oftentimes when Black women ask for protection, they don’t mean through physical violence. Go to the Body paints this picture well: Kendrick’s physical ability as a boxer may seem like the logical route for Sanaa to take after she is assaulted, but the film explores if this is what she truly needs.

“Protecting Black women doesn’t [always] just mean squad up and get your guns . . . You have to be aware of all the other types of harm,” Jones says. “You know that your homeboy is creepy? Make sure that he’s not hitting on that intoxicated Black woman in the corner.”

Following the #MeToo movement, portrayals of sexual assault have been depicted more frequently in film and media. Most recently, Jones hated Promising Young Woman but loved HBO’s I May Destroy You. Jones is glad to see more nuanced depictions of sexual violence and rape culture, but she still believes that there’s room for improvement: she wants to see more intersectional survivor stories that center women of color. She says putting these stories in the hands of Black women is a step in the right direction, something she hopes Go to the Body can contribute to.

“Sanaa’s story is just sadly way too common,” Jones says with a sigh. “Even if you don’t know about it, everybody loves someone who has been assaulted.”   v