Vincent Martell’s thrilling show follows four young Chicago-based friends, navigating the obstacles of modern life
Back in 2007 when it first burst onto our TV screens and into our lives, Skins captured a whole generation of teens – perfectly illustrating the messy and sometimes fucked-up experiences of growing up in the late 00s. Despite featuring characters of colour in all three of its generations, the focus of each of their storylines often focused solely on being a POC, rather than the gritty side of growing up their white counterparts were afforded.
Over a decade later, Chicago-based filmmaker Vincent Martell – the mastermind behind Drag Race’s Shea Couleé’s “Crème Brûlée” video – is debuting his own version of the successful show in the form of web series Damaged Goods. “I was first introduced to Skins when I was studying abroad in Barcelona and I fell in love,” Martell tells us. “I thought: ‘How cool would it be if there were people of colour that got the same kind of representation and we saw them just being free’.”
The new six-episode series follows the story of four friends and flatmates – Sanazi, Ezra, Marlo, and Caleb (played by model Chufue Yang) – each dealing with their own problems of modern-day life: sexuality, racism, rising rent payments, drugs, social media, workplace harassment, and more. Without spoiling it, the episodes bounce from underground queer club nights to white-filled workplaces, interspersed with drug-taking and sex scenes, showing how each character navigates these obstacles.
Though these aren’t new or groundbreaking topics, seeing a POC-led cast fronting them is strangely long overdue. As a queer person of colour, it was important for Martell to authentically represent both of his communities, giving audiences a chance to see themselves at the forefront of the narrative. Something he does via his production company – VAM Studio – that spotlights and finds work for underrepresented groups (POC, trans, and women) in the filmmaking industry.
Damaged Goods itself is written in collaboration with fellow men of colour – Zak Payne and KB Woodson. Elsewhere, the LGBTQ+ community was represented via the director of photography Hannah Welever and editor Jordan Phelps. “It was a beautiful experience to see all of these artists from marginalised communities to come together and make something dope,” Martell says. “I really wanted to tap into communities I love and am a part of.”
Here, we speak with Martell on what to expect from Damaged Goods.
How did the idea for Damaged Goods first come about?
Vincent Martell: The idea came about two years ago after a production I worked on called Brown Girls – a web series created by Fatimah Asghar and Sam Bailey. The production was really moving because it was created by an inclusive group of filmmakers. It highlighted to me the lack of representation we see and I wanted to tap into that community. In media, we don’t see people of colour being messy, nuanced, and flawed whereas we see our white counterparts getting those opportunities time and time again. Skins is the perfect example of that.
How did you come up with the storyline for the series?
Vincent Martell: I co-wrote this series with two other gay men of colour – KB Woodson and Zak Payne. We all agreed that we wanted to touch on the rawness of the queer community which meant we had to tackle drugs. We also wanted to push what it looked like to be a person of colour in a white-dominated workplace, which is so important and something so many of us can relate to. We wanted to portray it in a way that highlights how awkward and uncomfortable it can be for us in those situations.
What did you want to portray with each of the four main characters?
Vincent Martell: Each individual character is really personal to me, I only want to create what I know and it’s very difficult for me to create a character that I can’t relate to in some way. With each of them, they’ve all got something they’re dealing with and I wanted to show the spectrum of what marginalised communities deal with. It’s not so much about the tragedy the characters experience, but how they learn and deal with them.
Some of the specific issues include racial microaggressions, something POC experience on a daily basis. There’s also the difficulties or navigating social media as a person of colour and how consuming and draining it can be. It can often lead to isolation, which we see via Marlo’s character. As a whole, there’s a hustling and making ends meet mentality that we don’t always see and I wanted to bring that to light. Especially within the Chicago creative community, there are so many people hustling and doing all the work behind-the-scenes. I wanted to show that as much as possible.
“I’m so tired of seeing people of colour portrayed in a negative or dim light, I want to celebrate us being free and alive” – Vincent Martell
Why do you think POCs are not often shown in this messy way you describe?
Vincent Martell: It has everything to do with plastic representation in Hollywood and not being given the reign to tell our own stories. What we’ve seen in the past, is our stories being told by white filmmakers which aren’t authentic to what we actually go through. We’re starting to see a small push for directors of colour telling their own stories but there’s so much work to be done.
Although we, as POCs, deal with a lot of bullshit, there’s a beautiful sense of celebration and just by living in this world we’re revolutionary. I wanted to counter the tough moments with incredible scenes shot at gay parties or smoking a joint at a dinner party. These rituals are important for us and should be seen on a mainstream level. I’m so tired of seeing people of colour portrayed in a negative or dim light, I want to celebrate us being free and alive.
The series as a whole features a variety of different camera styles and oversaturated colours. What did you want to portray with that?
Vincent Martell: I didn’t want this to feel like a dark and dreary series, I wanted it to be vibrant, saturated, and really in your face. With the colour palette, we pushed really bright tones to show how colourful and beautiful our world is. Even though we explore some dark issues, there’s a massive explosion of colour in those scenes to counter that. The colour itself is telling a different story and I’m really proud of that.
With the different kinds of camera styles, we wanted to amplify the drug and sex scenes. It was important for me and the editor – who is also my partner and boyfriend – to experiment in a way that filmmakers of colour don’t often get the opportunity to. The experimentation was a way of bringing the audience into the world of these characters, whether they’re taking drugs, out at a gay nightclub, or having sex.
As well as the cast, the team behind Damaged Goods was also diverse. Why was that important?
Vincent Martell: It’s important for white filmmakers to step aside and give the people who can actually tell POC-focused stories the room to tell them. For a lot of people of colour, all we need is access and resources and we prove that we can fucking kill it. It’s just important for us to get into the room.
In addition to Damaged Goods, I run my own production company to support people of colour and LGBTQ+ filmmakers. With that, I want to do justice to the kind of people who brought me up over the years. That’s important for me to be authentic to myself and then to support the communities who can relate to what I’m going through. I’m really speaking to that community first and then anything else is extra. I know I’m not going to please everyone.
What do you hope viewers take away from watching the show?
Vincent Martell: I want people to take away the fact that people of colour can be nuanced; we can create characters who have different levels. There’s so much to tell within each of these stories in Damaged Goods and allowing us to be free and to express that is all I’m asking for. I’m excited for people just to experience what people of colour living freely looks like – this is the first step for me personally doing that.
Don’t get me wrong though, this series is not for everyone and it’s probably going to piss a lot of people off – I’m totally okay with that, I welcome it. What I hope it does, is spark a conversation about the lives and issues we face as people from marginalised communities.
Where do you see Damaged Goods going next?
Vincent Martell: For so long I was nervous about dreaming too big, but now it’s important for me to visualise how monumental a series like this could be and I can totally see it ending up on a network or streaming service. Although the story is about marginalised people from Chicago, it’s a story that can resonate worldwide. What we did was on such a small scale that if given opportunity and access, we could make something that would stand in culture for decades. People of colour are tired of waiting for that kind of representation. More recently, I’m seeing POCs not waiting for Hollywood or network executives to give them an opportunity, they’re just doing it themselves. That’s brilliant and so important.
Watch all six episodes of Damaged Goods here.