A year out of Northwestern, Keith Miller ’10 was working at a youth mentoring organization and moonlighting as a model in New York City when he wrote a manuscript focused on Jay, a queer African American young man coming of age in the Deep South in the early 2000s.
Now that manuscript is the basis for an animated short film, Pritty, and a two-book deal with Harper Collins. Miller has completed the first novel in the series. Since completing a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $115,000 in spring 2021, Miller has worked with fellow filmmaker Terrance Daye and Powerhouse Animation Studios on the 20-minute rough animatic, the final step before having the film animated.
“The original dream was that it would be a live-action film like Moonlight,” Miller says of the 2016 Academy Award–winning film directed by Barry Jenkins. When Daye, the film’s director, proposed shifting to animation, Miller was perplexed. “That’s not Moonlight,” he thought. But when they looked for comparative examples of animated films, they couldn’t find any. Miller knew then that they had to do it.
“Oftentimes queer-centered narratives solely focus on the trauma of rejection, isolation and pain, but Pritty takes a more holistic, healing-focused approach and focuses on what is often overlooked: the journey of loving and relationships,” Miller says. “There is pain; there is harm. But through his community and his relationships, Jay learns to love himself. It is the opposite of what many would expect a young, Black, queer boy to experience.
“Nowhere in the novel will you actually hear any character identify as queer — or as anything. That’s on purpose.” Miller adds. “And, yes, we need to know all the letters: LGBTQIA+. We need those because to name a thing is to show it exists. But over the past nearly 10 years, I've learned that the generation under me, they’re beyond that. They’re trying to understand, ‘How do I live now that everyone knows I exist?’ So Pritty ends up showing what living can look like on the other side, where the sole identifying experience isn’t ‘coming out’ but ‘inviting in’ those who are trustworthy, compassionate, and understanding of who we are —if we choose to name ourselves at all. Pritty pushes us toward a new possible, where we can simply live, love and be human, without consequence.”
Since graduating from Northwestern, Miller has worked as an award-winning community educator, cultural organizer, artist-researcher and consultant. He specializes in the development of healing literacies in the lives of boys and young men of color to support their healing, growth and thriving through trauma. He earned a master’s degree in educational psychology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. More recently he rewrote the original Pritty manuscript into a novel while completing his master of fine arts at St. Francis College in New York City. In 2016 he moved back to his hometown, Savannah, Ga.
Miller first discovered his love for the arts at Northwestern. He came to the University as a Gates Millennium Scholar, intending to major in chemistry.
“I learned very quickly that chemistry was not what I wanted to do. So I ended up going on this really interesting journey,” says Miller, who double majored in dance and gender and sexuality studies. “I remember being blown away in [professor emerita] Nicola Beisel’s Gender and Society sociology class as she talked about topics that were considered taboo, ranging from homosexuality to gender politics. I remember looking over my shoulder like, ‘Is someone gonna come in? Can she say that?’ ”
Miller also studied Race, Gender and the Politics of Beauty with Tessie Liu, associate professor of history, and Intro to Queer Cinema with Nick Davis, Alumnae of Northwestern Teaching Professor and associate professor of English. Miller also recalls watching School of Communication dean E. Patrick Johnson’s performance of Sweet Tea — a collection of stories about gay Black men living in the South — five different times.
“All these experiences created the language of possibility that turned into this storytelling project,” Miller says. “All those buds came from everything I learned at Northwestern and the space that was made for me to push and understand what it means to identify as queer and to move through space as an artist. Pritty is a powerful manifestation, a germinating hope from the seeds that were sown at Northwestern.”