Documentarian Duo “Uncode” Black Seattle

by Marcus Harrison Green

The wife and husband duo call it storytelling, but it’s really Black love on film. More accurately, their love for Seattle’s at times misunderstood Black community.

The camera scans the interior of Columbia City’s Royal Room as an early 90s era hip-hop instrumental slowly builds. Beyond tables topped with chairs and a bar stocked with premium liquor is a kitchen known as the hallowed sanctum of South Seattle-based Chef Tarik Abdullah. 

Your view then catches the Hillman City resident hard at work chopping kale, stirring coconut sauce, and seasoning yam fries. “The people’s chef” is prepping brunch for Morning Star café, a pop-up dining experience that draws a crowd of hundreds every other Sunday.

Abdullah, his dark skin vibrant against the backdrop of the light blue kitchen, explains why in the most liberal of liberal bastions he felt the need to create a dining experience tailored for Seattle’s People of Color.

“I remember when Seattle had a true black community,” he intones.  “With times changing and gentrification I just wanted to create a space where we could all hang out.”

For the remainder of the four and half minute short vieo you’re treated to intercuts of polish sausage, potatoes, and prime beef being prepared and joyous patrons savoring the delicious food.  The directorial flair reminds you of a prime-career Spike Lee, infused with a restrained Michael Bay.

What’s captured on screen in the brief film “Feed The People” will leave you salivating.

The short documentary is just one of six features in the initial storytelling series UNCODE launched last October by Uncoded Media, including a feature on Black drag queen competitor Amora and painter Aramis Hamer. All the features range between 4 and 10 minutes and are focused on a member of Seattle’s Black community.

UNCODE is a labor of love from husband and wife duo Myisa and Ali Graham, both Columbia City residents and southern transplants to the Emerald City.

“We really didn’t know what to expect when we first got here. I was like, are there any black people here besides the Seahawks?” jokes Myisa, as she sits next to her husband at the Columbia City Starbucks.

For the couple, the route to the 206 was somewhat unexpected -including their romantic relationship along the way (at least for Myisa) – transforming the photographer and her technologist husband into the premiere storytellers of Seattle’s Black Diaspora.

Myisa and Ali’s relationship began like most great unions do with one person completely oblivious to being courted, while the other felt they were exuding every tell-tale sign imaginable to underscore that fact.

“I kept telling myself that this is going to happen. There is no other option,” says Ali about the early stages of their courtship.

Myisa was completely ignorant of this courtship after the two initially met at a party in Ali’s native Atlanta.

 “Once he left Atlanta to work for Warner Bros. in LA, I seriously thought we were just friends. I didn’t think anything of it,” she says, almost incredulously.

But long hours talking on the phone, and letters back-and-forth – she in Georgia and he in California – soon collapsed the gap between friendship and love.

Once the long-distance relationship was cemented, Myisa joined her now husband in the City of Angels. Though their time there wasn’t always heavenly.

“Los Angeles was different.  Being from The Bay Area, it took some time to grow on me” Myisa says with a smile.

“It’s a big fast moving city, which can be overwhelming at first, but my career took off in LA and I’ll always think fondly on that time.” her husband says of their years in southern CA.

While there, Myisa’s passion for videography and photography manifested in the founding of Annie Graham Imagery, culminating in her working at The Hive Gallery & Studios a performance space and artist’s showcase in downtown Los Angeles.  She soon transitioned to work as a photographer and graphic designer for Blu Pony Vintage, a retro-style girl’s dress company.

Meanwhile, Ali found himself quickly rising through the ranks of Verizon, after a successful stint as a music and film rights expert at Warner Bros, managing their media services division during its $325 million takeover of Edgecast Networks.  He appeared to have the Midas touch as just a year later he was a working as a legal specialist for Beats by Dre when Apple acquired the company for $3 billion.

Riding the lucrative wave, coasting from one tech company to the next, he was soon snatched up by Amazon – managing their global legal contracts which landed the Grahams in Queen Anne.

“Seattle definitely had a different feel to it when we first got here,” says Ali of the culture shift from the “walking billboard” Angelinos to the easy going, if relatively passive, Seattleites.

Though set financially, as one of the thousands of new tech migrants the city has attracted to it over the past decade, Ali and Myisa had a gnawing sensation that there was something missing from their life.

It literally took a blow to the head for them to come to grips with what it was.

“I hit my head after I slipped, and had to take time off from work,” says Ali, “and I’m thinking, what are we doing?  Yes, we’re cool monetarily, but there was no contentment with what we were doing in life.”

They realized they yearned for an infusion of passion in their lives, for something that satiated their compulsion to create; but they also longed to find Black community.

Ali says the tech industry’s reputation for a lack of racial diversity was well-earned in his time in it.

After some careful deliberation of what a passion pursuit would entail, they launched UNCODED Media in February of 2016.

It’s an open secret to most members of Seattle’s Black community that at times it’s more of a demographic than it is an actual community.

That’s the experience the Grahams initially had settling here.

“It was kind of like, where do all the Black people go and where are they all at?” says Myisa.

Answering that question became paramount in their first video venture, UNCODE. The video series featured Black Seattlites from the culinary, activist, and Transgender scene that both illuminated and challenged perceptions of Black Seattle.

It also brought a move to South Seattle, which both agree feels a bit warmer than their former residence.

“We love it out here. It just feels more vibrant than other spots of the city,” Myisa says. She and Ali currently live in a Columbia City apartment, and hit the pavement pretty hard in the first year of their new home, stopping inside every Black business, and media organization they could find to promote their venture.

They cold-called and knocked on the doors of KUOW, KCTS 9, The Seattle Weekly, The Seattle Times, and anyone else they felt had access to a platform for the duo, neither of whom had gone to school for filmmaking or directing.

“I’m actually more a self-taught artist,” says Myisa.

The grassroots blitz eventually paid off, impressed by the early drafts UNCODE, the couple soon established contracts with KCTS 9 and The Seattle Times locally.  But they landed their biggest haul last November when Ebony Magazine partnered with the duo for  their “Feed The People” short featuring Chef Tarik Abdullah, which was featured on the renowned Black publication’s website and was given the big screen viewing at the Langston Hughes Theater in December.

“When I first met Ali and Myisa, and saw their work all I could say was ‘I’m definitely going to work with them!’ And sure enough, we linked up and did a project with many more to come! To create a video platform showcasing folks of color that are the movers and shakers and up and comers in a city like Seattle is well needed!” Abdullah.

The Grahams hard work continues to pay off as they have expanded their storytelling to Chicago, Oakland, San Francisco and their former cities of Atlanta and Los Angeles.

They have also added on additional artists, journalists, and documentarians to the mix, forming the UNCODE Collective, which is currently searching for new members to join in Memphis, Detroit, New Orleans and Miami, amongst others.

Additionally, they’ve  launched #BlackPeopleCallNow, a telephone number where members of the black community can phone in and share their personal stories and history with the UNCODED team that might end up as a feature.

 A few months ago, the duo became a trio after bringing on Crystle Roberson, an executive producer and film advisor, who was named an Emerging Woman in Cinema last year by the American Black Film Festival.

While they’ve barely had time to catch their breath during their meteoric climb the past year, Myisa and Ali are taking some time to celebrate their accomplishments this Thursday, Feb 23 at the Northwest Film Forum, where they’ll unveil their latest cinematic opus of Seattle’s Black community that they intend to be inspirational, profound, and entertaining- a successful recipe so far for the pair.

“We want to continue to show positive depictions of the Black community that continue to be lacking,” Ali says. The event will also serve as a fundraiser for their production company.

While their production company has expanded at a rate they could only dream about during nights spent racked with anxiety, wondering if they had made the right decision to leave the certitude of a high-paying tech position to follow their dreams, they remain focused on their mission.

 “We want to continue to shed light on these stories that go untold.”

Lights, Camera, Action…

mhg-colorMarcus Harrison Green, is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of the South Seattle Emerald, a former Reporting Fellow with YES! Magazine, a past- board member of the Western Washington Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and a recipient of Crosscut’s Courage Award for Culture. He currently resides in the Rainier Beach neighborhood and can be found on Twitter @mhgreen3000

Featured image courtesy of UNCODED Media