Director Sadé Clacken Joseph hopes Rap Sh!t makes you feel seen
We spoke with the director about breaking into film and working alongside Issa Rae ahead of the show’s release on HBO
Thursday 14 July 2022 By Britt Julious Photography by Naima Green
‘I kind of like making the mundane, beautiful,’ says writer and filmmaker Sadé Clacken Joseph. And Joseph (who has worked in commercials, music videos and on short film projects, such as 2019’s Ponyboi) recently got the chance to do just that. Last year, she joined the team behind Rap Sh!t, the new HBO Max series by Insecure creator Issa Rae. A distinct visual storyteller with a love for magical realism and fantasy, Joseph was able to bring her unique vision to the show’s first two episodes, set to premiere in the US on 21 July.
Joseph’s love of television and film began at an early age. ‘I was like that kid who always had their nose glued to the TV and you have to call her name a million times to just get their attention,’ she recalls. She was particularly drawn to fantasy films of the likes of Lord of the Rings. Commentary from cast and crew as well as behind-the-scenes outtakes introduced Joseph to the world of filmmaking, ‘But I didn’t see anyone that looked like me on those sets behind the scenes, so I never put two and two together that I could do that.’
During her senior year at Barnard College, Joseph began interning at the ABC daytime talk show, The View. The position turned into a job, one she stayed in for more than four years. In 2015, Joseph quit her role and moved across the country to Los Angeles to attend film school at the University of Southern California. The decision, she says now, was one of the most difficult she’s ever made. ‘In Caribbean culture, you are ingrained to just do what your parents tell you all the time and not question it,’ she says, ‘I lived my life, a long time, for my parents’. The moment she began film school, she knew it was exactly where she belonged.
Since, Joseph has spent time working in the commercial, documentary and music video space. In fact, it was her experience in the former that led to a chance work opportunity with Rap Sh!t creator Issa Rae. In summer 2021, Joseph was asked to pitch for a commercial starring Issa Rae, for the clothing company Madewell. Joseph nailed the pitch and won the gig. Rae was impressed with her work and later, when Rae began working on her newest show, she reached out and asked Joseph to pitch for it.
Rap Sh!t follows two estranged high school friends from Miami, Shawna (Aida Osman) and Mia (KaMillion), as they reunite to form a rap group. The series marks creator Issa Rae’s second major project with HBO after the long running success of her beloved series, Insecure. Rae is an executive producer on the show along with City Girls rappers Yung Miami and JT. Joseph later became the director of the pilot and second episode of the show.
‘In the pilot episode, there is no blueprint prior,’ Joseph explains about the pressures of getting things right. ‘Everybody is working together for the first time. A lot of the time, the writers and the network are still trying to see what works, and no one's really sure at all what's gonna happen or how it's gonna look, so it's really important.’
With so much still in formation, the pilot director becomes an integral key to the show as a whole. Joseph likes to lean on lighthearted moments, even in drama. Her creative process begins with the question of how she can portray the story in a way that’s most authentica and true to life, even if she is not a part of it. For Rap Sh!t, Joseph had to develop a visual language that could translate to guest directors in the future. ‘That was a huge challenge for me,’ she begins. ‘How do I tell this visually in a way that’s never been done before because a script has never been written before like this?’
Luckily, HBO gave Joseph and the rest of the team time to do test shoots to get things just right. Overall, Joseph spent around six months working on the show in Miami, where the Rap Sh!t is set. She cites Soho Beach House as integral to her experience in the production process. Joseph often worked from the House and, once Rae and the actors visited, it quickly became a place to both get things done and to wind down and relax.
‘Having Soho Beach House to go and just hang out, have food and be at the pool, was so important for us,’ explains Joseph. ‘Especially as Black women, to just remind each other to take care of ourselves, to relax and to enjoy life as well as work.’
Joseph says she hopes audiences who watch the show feel seen and take away a deeper understanding of the real struggle it takes to remain an authentic artist in the age of social media dominance. Many of us have moments where we feel like we’re not stepping up in a way that we can, she notes. Social media and pressures of the outside world can play a role in that. Unrealistic expectations can cause undue pressure, doubly so if you are creative. Rap Sh!t aims to tackle that, while bringing laughs, incredible music and a distinct visual language to audiences everywhere.
‘I hope people really feel connected to these characters and feel like they're real,’ Joseph says. ‘Stay true to yourself and to the people who love and support you and the real ones, that's what gets you through.’
Rap Sh!t premieres in the US on Thursday 21 July on HBO Max.