It’s no secret that Atlanta is becoming a hub for film, with big names like Tyler Perry choosing the Southern city over the traditional Hollywood life. But Atlanta also plays a huge role in nurturing the careers of countless young creatives.
One of them is on a mission to make black men smile.
His name is Jabari Payne, a 31-year-old who has worked on film projects for brands including Chick-fil-A, BET, Black Enterprise and music-streaming platform Pandora. Recently, the Miami native has shifted his focus to Black men in Atlanta.
Payne’s film journey spans fifteen years, starting when he was just a 15-year-old theater student at Miami Northwestern Senior High School, the same school that produced Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins, known for directing and writing the Academy Award-winning film Moonlight. After winning a few local film festival awards for the first short he directed, Payne says he was hooked.
The vision for his most recent project, See Us Smile, began with work he was doing on a commercial. “I saw my friend smile during the shoot, and it made me realize how rare it is to see Black men smile outside of laughter,” Payne shared.
While still on set for the commercial, he set out with the goal of capturing the smiles of 32 black men in Atlanta.
The director says he’s gotten pushback from several subjects, but once he explains the premise, they usually hop on board. Payne says once he gets a yes, the challenge is avoiding forced smiles.
“I always let them smile first just to get the pose out of the way, then we have a one on one conversation. I ask them about love, family and anything else they care about. Then I ask them to smile again. The second smile is always the best — that one is genuine.”
Payne says he’s most impressed by the feedback he gets from those who come across the See Us Smile page on Instagram. “I started the project as a way to improve my own consistency, but it’s turned into so many people asking to be a part of it.” Payne says once he captures 32 smiles, the See Us Smile project will be moved to a gallery. Take a look at @see.us.smile while you can.
Next, Payne says he’s already started working on a five-part music docuseries to be released next year. Who knows, it might end up on the Hip Hop 50 project from Showtime and Mass Appeal.
Payne offers this advice for filmmakers starting their journeys: “It’s simple: Don’t give up.”