New Doc, ‘Tangled Roots’ Reveals How Hair Can Be Used As A Political Weapon

Director Samantha Knowles turned a personal crusade into a work of art.

Earlier this year, Queen Latifah announced the 2020 winners of the Queen Collective, a talent development and mentorship program launched with Procter & Gamble ​and T​ribeca Studios to support new, visionary women of color filmmakers who are committed to telling personal stories that focus on a social issue and inspires positive social changes. 

One of those directors is ​Samantha Knowles​ whose short film, ​Tangled Roots​ is an introspective documentary that follows several activists and lawmakers including ​Ashanti Scott and her mother, ​Attica Scott​, the only Black woman in the Kentucky State Legislature. The two find their voices as influencers who are fighting to dismantle a system of discrimination against Black people penalized for something seemingly innocuous – their hair. Their story explores their efforts to get a bill signed that will ban hair discrimination statewide in Kentucky.

Knowles, a graduate of ​Dartmouth College,​ spoke to ​​ about her process as a filmmaker, why this story of hair discrimination quickly became a personal crusade, and what it’s like to be championed by Queen Latifah.

RELATED: Why Haley Anderson Is Obsessed With Creating Stories That Are Grounded In Truth Tell us more about ​Tangled Roots ​and why you were so interested in telling this story?

Samantha Knowles​:Tangled Roots​ is a film about hair discrimination. Like a lot of my films, it was really inspired by an experience I had when I was 15 and in high school. I went to a predominantly white high school in upstate New York. I was flipping through my school’s handbook and noticed that they had a rule that said men couldn’t have cornrows or dreadlocks. I obviously wasn’t a man and it didn’t directly affect me, but I did have braids. It felt discriminatory, but I was 15 and didn’t have the language that I have now. I remember feeling awful about it. It always bothered me.

Then 10 years later (five years ago,) I was reading an article in the ​New York Times ​about hair discrimination in the military and how a lot of Black women were waging that fight and it reminded me of the rule at my school. So, on a whim, I went back and checked the handbook, which is now online, and there was the same rule and I was outraged. Ten years had passed and they had the same rule. Back then I said I wanted to make a film about this and bring attention to this issue, but I didn’t have the resources to make it.

So, when I saw the Queen Collective’s call for entries I felt like this could be a perfect film to make for them. I did my research and found an op-ed by Ashanti Scott who is now a freshman at the University of Louisville. Her story was almost an exact experience as mine. She was 15 and noticed the rule in her school’s handbook that banned [African American] hairstyles. She got together with her mom to overturn that rule. Her mother had just been elected state representative in Kentucky and was trying to take this fight state wide by introducing legislation in Kentucky that would ban hair discrimination. I just knew this was going to be a great story because there’s a mother/daughter component and an active narrative unfolding. How long did it take you to film ​Tangled Roots​ and what did you learn about yourself in the process?

Samantha Knowles​: We filmed over the course of two months. It was a very accelerated timeline. Things got cut short by COVID-19, but I was lucky to find a story that’s actively unfolding because those are the hardest kinds of films to make. It can also be where you really flex your muscles as a filmmaker and can learn a lot. I learned about how to respond to things, being able to pivot and go with the flow of where the story is taking you, and being smart about what to film and when to film, what will be useful and what will make it into the edit. My last film was also an unfolding story. It’s the hardest kind of film to make, but you learn a lot in the process. Since your film involves a topic that is still evolving, how do you know when the story is done?

Samantha Knowles​: What’s great about certain films is that it will have a built-in narrative. This film had a built-in deadline. A legislator will introduce a bill at the beginning of his or her session and basically have until the end of the legislative session to get it passed. So, we had a built-in deadline and knew something was going to happen before April 15.

At a certain point in filming, you know if it’s going to happen or not. Sometimes, you have to pivot and that’s where your partners really come into play. You’re filling your editor in on how the story is evolving and he’s weighing in like, ok, this would be great to get. And you’re talking to your DP about can we depict the struggle that these women are going through right now? That’s what’s really exciting about an unfolding story; having to really be smart being flexible through everything. How does it feel to have your film highlighted as part of the Queen Collective?

Samantha Knowles​: It feels great. When you’re a woman of color filmmaker, it’s hard to stay inspired because you hear a lot of nos. You get used to it, but you do a lot of pitching constantly. So, to have someone say yes and we’re going to give you money and support you is really exciting. What other projects are you working on that we can look forward to in the future?

Samantha Knowles​: I’m working on other films about people of color and about the ways in which the world affects them very specifically. It’s too early to speak on them. I’ve been working in documentary film for like 10 years now and I’m really lucky to have this balance where I work in film as a producer and I get to work on a lot of different projects and documentary series for HBO, Discovery Channel and Netflix. That’s my 10 to 6 job. In those environments I’ve encountered a lot of women of color who have mentored me and given me the opportunity to direct in the field and fill in for them when they can’t be there. That has informed a lot of my knowledge of the industry and filmmaking and also my work.

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