USC alumna wins a Student Academy Award

Image of a woman looking directly at the camera.
De’Onna Young-Stephens served as an assistant for “Hidden Figures” stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe. (Photo courtesy of De’Onna Young-Stephens)

Most students can’t say that they’ve been a part of a film with three Academy Award nominations, a Screen Actors Guild Award for best cast in a motion picture, two weeks on top of the box office and over $80 million in gross ticket sales — but De’Onna “Tree” Young-Stephens can. 

A 2021 School of Cinematic Arts Master of Fine Arts graduate from Winston-Salem, N.C.. Young-Stephens’s love for the arts started from a young age at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she studied ballet. 

“The school that I was actually dancing at had filmmakers,” Young-Stephens said. “I really never knew that making movies was a real thing. I saw movies, and I was like, ‘Where do they come from?’ Had I never danced, I probably don’t know if I would be doing this, because people aren’t exposed to filmmaking where I’m from.”

Although she ended up pursuing a bachelor’s degree in public relations from North Carolina A&T, Young-Stephens would, with professor’s permission, often miss classes to make a 4.5 hour drive down to Atlanta, Ga., where she worked jobs as a production assistant, actress and an assistant director. 

On the last day of a shoot where she was working in the art department as a set dresser, a man named Wynn Thomas came up to her as she was packing up and randomly offered his business card. After a quick Google search, Young-Stephens discovered that Thomas was the first African American production designer in film history, known for Academy Award winners such as “A Beautiful Mind” and collaborations with Robert DeNiro and Spike Lee, to name a few. Young-Stephens immediately called him back and scheduled an appointment. 

Initially, Thomas wanted to bring Young-Stephens onto an independent film he was working on as a set decorator. She reluctantly agreed but, in the spur of the moment, explained that she actually didn’t have an eye for draping blankets over chairs or propping pillows to make the environment come to life — instead, she wanted to be behind the camera. Thomas got up and walked out of the room. 

Afterward, Thomas came back in with a producer who offered her a job as an assistant to Hollywood heavyweights Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe on the set of “Hidden Figures.”

This turned out to be an invaluable opportunity, as she was able to network and learn from all the roles on set, from the camera crew to the cinematographers, all the way to director Theodore Melfie, who eventually wrote one of Young-Stephens’s recommendation letters for admission into the MFA program at USC.

Despite receiving offers from other prestigious institutions such as American Film Institute and New York University, Young-Stephens hopped on a plane to LAX and subsequently started at SCA.

“She wants what she wants, and she’ll get what she wants to get. She does not settle for anything. She has very high standards of excellence,” said August K. Burton, a fellow MFA graduate.

Burton and Young-Stephens were collaborating on a short film for a class early in their MFA journeys, and Burton said that he remembers shooting lazy shots and being resigned to failure as the sun was going down. 

“I remember De’Onna, she pulled me to the side and said, ‘August, stop filming right now. Stop doing this. You’re not doing this. You’re going to have to shoot this again later on because I’m not letting you do this mediocre stuff.’ And I really admired her because she wouldn’t let me settle and not live up to my own potential,” Burton said.

While preparing for her senior thesis, Young-Stephens was in a documentary class trying to pitch ideas, but nothing seemed powerful enough.

Young-Stephens stumbled across a peer’s Facebook video, which explained the pronunciation and significance of her Pakistani name. In the clip, Young-Stephens’s peer details her decision to stop shortening her name just to make it easier for people to say.

Young-Stephens, who had been going by “Dee” or “Tree” at school, resonated with this and the video brought up past memories of having the apostrophe taken out of her name or testing documentation rejecting her name because of it. 

Initially, the documentary was going to highlight stories from around the world, including Pakistan, America and China, but Young-Stephens soon realized she needed to revisit her plan.

“The idea was so complex, and I didn’t want it to look like tokenism. I realized that if I wanted to talk about this, I needed to have a separate documentary for each one of these groups. I can’t have one person speaking on behalf of everyone. So then, my professors suggested making it about Black names. ‘Talk about your story and your struggle and then talk to other people with these Black names as well,’” Young-Stephens said.  

Young-Stephens’s idea for the documentary was also well-received by her peers, especially because many could relate to the story.  

“I remember she pitched her project in front of a panel of guest judges, and it just elicited such a response from everybody from so many different backgrounds and genders. Their responses ranged from ‘Oh my God, I have this funny anecdote and I used to get picked on’ to ‘I have very severe trauma and have wanted to change my name my whole life.’ And so there was a whole spectrum of human emotions that this whole topic touched on,” said producer and fellow classmate Madeline Gamero.

Young-Stephens spoke to people who have culturally Black names as well as Anglo-Black names, alongside other professionals and researchers for better insight. From there, the documentary started to transform. 

Shooting during the coronavirus pandemic presented challenges because Young-Stephens had to direct everything over Zoom. With the cinematographer and other crew members, she had to explain how to adjust the camera and mic virtually in order to get usable content.

Eventually, “Not Just A Name” was created, a piece that explores the stigma and racial bias experienced by African Americans with unique-sounding names as well as the name’s historical origins.

Produced by Gamero and associate producer Victoria Perez, edited by Sammie Moynihan and Chance Davis, and with director of photography Madison Kloeber, this project was a labor of love, according to Young-Stephens. “Not Just A Name” also turned into a learning opportunity for the crew members.

“I think it’s really important to tell because it’s a very specific story, but one of the things we talked about from the beginning was the universality of it,” said Sammie Moynihan, one of the editors for “Not Just A Name.” “Names are so important to everyone, and it’s incredibly unfair that some names are treated worse than other names. I have a very common white name and so some of it was just thinking about things that I hadn’t considered before.” 

Winning a Student Academy Award had been on Young-Stephens’s radar for a while. Every day Young-Stephens would break off into a directing class taught by Professor Mark Harris and forgo pleasantries to tell Harris that she wanted to win a Student Academy Award. But by the end of shooting a film through the pandemic, Young-Stephens felt defeated and didn’t even want to submit to the competition.

After much hesitation, she applied, and to her surprise, “Not Just A Name” won a bronze medal in the documentary category. 

“I really had no clue or no way of anticipating this [win], and so I think that makes it even more special because no one came in with the expectation that once the project was done we were actually going to get that bar, so it’s kind of crazy,” Gamero said. 

With the hopes of modeling her career after Ava DuVernay, Young-Stephens wants to produce, write and direct, not just documentary pieces but narrative as well. 

“I hope that I’m able to shift the industry a little bit because I know that sometimes people can get put into certain categories,”  Young-Stephens said. “Being a woman of color, things are a bit challenging. I hope to pave the way for other women of color and people of color in general.” 

Correction: This article was updated to correct the last name of August K. Burton and Madison Kloeber. The Daily Trojan regrets these errors.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to remove editorialized content and include additional context.