Rise of the Blerds

UNT alumni get Hollywood support for a new documentary series focusing on Black nerd culture.
Written by: 
Michael King
Eboni Johnson-Kaba
Eboni Johnson-Kaba ('21 M.F.A)

Eboni Johnson-Kaba ('21 M.F.A) never thought she would pursue a career in film, yet now she's both a director and producer.

Originally wanting to study lions in Africa, she found her calling in documentary film, sharing the stories of her community.

Now, with the backing of the Producers Guild of America's PGA Create lab, a program of one of the film and TV industry's most prestigious trade organizations, Johnson-Kaba is shining a spotlight on an underrepresented community with Blerd Nation. The documentary series, co-produced by fellow alumnus Barry Thornburg ('18 M.F.A), focuses on the Black nerd, or "Blerd," community in the U.S.

"This culture runs very deep in the Black community," Johnson-Kaba says. "It's really just an exploration of how Black nerds have and will continue to bring new popularity to nerd and fandom spaces."

Specialty Shift

Raised in Duncanville, southwest of Dallas, Johnson-Kaba dreamed of venturing to Africa. She wanted to see lions in their natural habitat, undisturbed by humans.

"Everybody I talked to knew that I wanted to go to Africa and study lions," she says. "Unfortunately, that didn't pan out, or maybe didn't pan out yet."

She earned a bachelor's degree from Texas A&M in Wildlife and Fisheries in 2015, but had trouble finding a job. She took an internship with the Student Conservation Association, which led her to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for six months.

"I think being away from home gave me space to think about what I wanted to do with my future," Johnson-Kaba says.

It was then that she had an epiphany: What if she combined her loves for education and film? This realization led her back home and to UNT, where she applied for the documentary production and studies master's program.

"I was nervous applying at first because I have no media background, but I got accepted and my life trajectory has changed ever since," Johnson-Kaba says.

Friends and Festivals

While attending UNT, Johnson-Kaba would meet her future partner, Barry Thornburg. While he was several years ahead of her, they would later collaborate on several projects.

"Barry -- he's fantastic," she says. "He's a great filmmaker, a great cinematographer and I'm glad that he stuck it through with me."

Johnson-Kaba also volunteered with the Denton Black Film Festival, where she helped build their outreach and education programming. She later became their director of education and outreach.

"It's a fantastic community of people running the festival," she says. "Trying to bring the industry and some of its organizations to Denton started my relationship with networking and media."

Through this network, Johnson-Kaba found a job as an engagement manager at Black Public Media, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting Black content creators.

"I'm still an independent maker myself, but I'm now working in the industry as well," she says.

Blerd Nation

After two years with Black Public Media, Johnson-Kaba discovered a special opportunity. The Producers Guild of America would be accepting applications for their virtual 2023 PGA Create lab.

After making it through the application process and a round of interviews, Johnson-Kaba and Thornburg were accepted into the program.

"I was overjoyed and flabbergasted," she says. "This was my first big industry type of recognition, and I'm really excited that it's centering around this project."

The week-long program consisted of meetings with industry professionals, discussing topics such as film distribution and impact.

"It was an intense week," Johnson-Kaba says.

The PGA Create lab gave the two co-producers the support they needed to work on their new documentary series, Blerd Nation. A Blerd in the Harry Potter and Marvel fandoms, Johnson-Kaba draws upon her own experience as well as the experiences of fellow Blerds.

"I feel like there's not a lot of media that features Black nerd culture other than YouTubers or social media influencers," Johnson-Kaba says. "We haven't had a lot of eyes pointing on us, but I think we've been here all along."

For the first episode, Johnson-Kaba and Thornburg interviewed Hilton George, the co-founder of Blerdcon, an annual convention in Arlington, Virginia.

"I've been to one convention in my life, when I was young," Johnson-Kaba says. "It was really cool to go again as an adult and to see a majority of Black nerds just having the time of their lives."

Although she has yet to see the lions, Johnson-Kaba is improving her craft every day, continuing the path that grad school paved.

"UNT definitely helped me cut my teeth as a storyteller," she says. "I appreciate that I had the time to really explore my ideas and really play around and be inspired by them."