Playback’s 10 to Watch 2022: Sasha Leigh Henry

The Toronto filmmaker is juggling film and TV, with the upcoming series Bria Mack Gets a Life and her first feature as a producer, the TIFF world premiere When Morning Comes.

Playback is providing a deep dive into the careers of our 2022 10 to Watch recipients. This year’s cohort were selected from 217 submissions and represent a wide array of film and TV talent as producers, writers, directors, and executives. Stay tuned for additional profiles over the next month.

Sasha Leigh Henry is ready to share her stories with the world.

The next few months will be the Toronto-based filmmaker, producer and showrunner’s busiest yet, to say the least, as she seamlessly treads the line between her film and television career.

Her New Metric Media-produced comedy series Bria Mack Gets a Life, which was greenlit by Bell Media streaming service Crave earlier this year, goes into production in October, with Henry at the helm as showrunner and executive producer.

Meanwhile, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s feature debut When Morning Comes, produced by Henry, 10 to Watch alum Tamar Bird and Iva Golubovic under Sunflower Studios, is kicking off its festival run with a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Monday (Sept. 12). The premiere comes two years after bringing the award-winning short Black Bodies, written and directed by Fyffe-Marshall and produced by Bird and Henry, to the festival.

Henry has been working with Fyffe-Marshall and Bird since they connected at the Toronto Black Film Festival in 2018, and says the experience producing her first feature with them in Jamaica was “relentless and rewarding.”

“To have been able to ride the wave of that momentum and be able to come back in so quickly with a feature that we’re all proud of, and that really does reflect the kind of storytelling that Sunflower Studios wants to be telling in Canada, is thrilling,” Henry tells Playback Daily.

The film comes from the perspective of a young boy from Jamaica whose mother decides to relocate them to Canada. It was recently acquired by Photon Films for Canadian distribution, and Henry says they’re in talks with U.S. and international buyers leading up to the premiere.

Becoming a film and TV producer wasn’t Henry’s first ambition, she says. She initially pursued acting after high school, enrolling in a drama program for theatre, but struggled to find opportunities for roles that wouldn’t reduce her to “the sassy Black friend.” She ended up switching her major to speech communication, which sparked her interest in writing her own experiences.

After graduating from the University of Waterloo in 2013, Henry joined POV 3rd Street, a media training program created to give young adults access to the screen industry. She began to build up her creative network there, including fellow POV alum Thyrone Tommy (Learn to Swim), and met her eventual creative partner Tania Thompson, who was overseeing the program at the time.

The two would collaborate on a number of short film projects over the next few years, including Bitches Love Brunch, co-written and co-directed by Henry and Maame Boateng, and Sinking Ship, directed by Henry and written by Thompson.

Mark Montefiore, president of New Metric Media, says he was “blown away” by how “bold and funny” Bitches Love Brunch was after he came across it on Facebook, and requested a meeting with Henry and Thompson. At the time Henry was in Thailand, Thompson was in Japan and Montefiore was in England, and then-New Metric exec Beth Illey was in Toronto, so the meeting became a “choppy” phone call where Henry pitched a few series concepts.

“From what we were able to hear, we were laughing our heads off,” he recalls. “Sasha has such an amazing quality about her that, no matter what she says, you’ll find it incredibly, smart, provocative, endearing and hilarious all at the same time.”

By 2018 Henry and Thompson were in development on what would become Bria Mack Gets a Life, which shows a young Black woman trying to cope with microaggressions in her work life while contending with an imaginary “hype girl” that won’t let her ignore it. Crave came on board approximately eight months later to further develop it. Additional producers are Bird and Angelique Knights, with Thompson and Montefiore serving as executive producers.

Henry says she was interested in partnering with the producers behind Letterkenny because “they understood and respected niche,” and the value of creating a series that isn’t marketed to a general audience. “I want [Bria Mack Gets a Life] to feel very authentic and specific to a young Black girl’s experience,” she says.

However, she challenges the idea that a series based around a Black woman’s life needs to be labelled as a “Black show.”

“I was a 16-year-old kid growing up in Brampton when my cousin showed me Sex and the City… These are four women that are not the same age as me, I don’t live where they live, I don’t find any of the men that they find attractive, attractive, but I could still see myself in someone like Carrie Bradshaw,” she says.

“In storytelling we like to call it a Black movie or a Black series, but we don’t call Sex and the City a white show, we don’t call it a white-led comedy. And if a 16-year-old me could see myself in 30-something Carrie Bradshaw living in the Upper East Side, what is so impossible to believe that a middle-aged man could see something in a 20-something Black girl that he can relate to? I’ve been finding myself in white characters and white leads all my life.”

While she’s currently focused on getting Bria Mack Gets a Life to the screen, Henry continues to pursue her dual film and TV paths with a number of projects in development. She has two projects in the works with Thompson, a TV series called Deep Cuts, about a therapist who leaves her practice to become a radio DJ and ends up connecting with listeners through her song choices; and an action feature titled Girls Like Us, about competitive cheerleaders who become embroiled in a dangerous situation. She’s also developing a sequel to When Morning Comes, titled Summer of the Gun.

“Sasha is a big thinker; we’re a company that is focused on building 360-degree brands, starting with television, that can lend themselves to touring, merchandise and licensing, all these fun ancillary [revenue] opportunities, and she sees the value in that,” says Montefiore. “She’s got a great business and entrepreneurial mind… I still feel, after four years, we’re still scratching the surface of the talent that is Sasha Leigh Henry.”