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From Harvard Heavyweight Crew to the Boston Film Festival

Devin Adair portrait
Devin Adair, director of "Grace" (2018) and Harvard's first female coxswain.

Harvard alumna Devin Adair ’86 premiered her first feature film at the Boston Film Festival on Sept. 23. Adair’s “Grace” tells the story of a famous author, Charlie Ellison, struggling with writer’s block until a writer named Dawn enters his life. Audiences are privy to Dawn and Ellison’s respective stories as they grapple with their art, the publishing industry, and their relationship. Already, “Grace” and Adair claimed the Best First Time Director award at the London Independent Film Awards.

Before leading her film to success, Adair led Harvard Varsity Men’s Heavyweight Crew to a victory against Yale as the first ever female coxswain on the team. Adair compares her experience in the male-dominated sport to her experience trying to break into the film industry post-Harvard. “Being on the men’s [crew] team at Harvard was a lot easier than being a woman in entertainment,” Adair said. “In crew, I was accepted because I was talented. No one really cared whether I was a man or woman. It was a much more pure environment than film, where it is very relationship-based and subjective.”

Expectedly, crew and entertainment are completely different worlds, and Adair struggled to navigate her transition. “I really didn’t know how to break into the film industry. It’s a very difficult process to find traction, so I can relate to someone who feels like there’s no way they can figure out how to do this,” she said. “For a lot of my career in entertainment I got paid a lot of money to promote and help male directors go forward because male directors get established a lot faster.”

From the beginning of her journey, the entertainment industry proved to be a male-dominated scene. According to Adair, her experience in making “Grace” alongside her female financier, Laure Sudreau, further exposed some of the hidden biases toward women in the field. “It’s been interesting for me as the producer and the director of this movie that when I’m talking about my financier, she is subject to a certain amount of assumptions of who she would be,” Adair said. “There are all sorts of blanket assumptions about [women in entertainment]. But we’re in this moment now where we are starting to question what that means.” And Adair does indeed question the perception of women in the entertainment industry in “Grace.”

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By drawing from her own experiences within the industry, Adair uses “Grace” to counter the common narrative of male success in entertainment. “Grace starts with two men and it ends with two women sitting at a conference table together. And there was a real reason why I tracked the movie and the story [this way]. It is a wish-fulfillment story I have for every girl out there who is like Dawn,” she said.

Post “Grace,” Adair hopes to continue telling stories that challenge stereotypes and turn common narratives onto their heads. “I really want to tell stories that go beyond that first layer of assumptions. I think that I will always want to tell character-driven stories,” Adair said.

Her next project is called “Motor City,” a television series that she spent two years doing research on. “It is the true story of a guy named Nicholas Dreystadt, who was a German immigrant. He came to the U.S. at 16 without a dime, and rose from being an assistant mechanic to being head of the Cadillac division for General Motors,” she said. “During WW2, he hired a group of illiterate black women to make a top secret weapon for the British.”

Until then, Adair is celebrating the premiere of “Grace” back in the familiar neighborhoods of Boston. “It’s so strange to drive by the Charles River and think about Harvard,” Adair said. “If you ever thought that I thought that I would be going to the soundcheck for my film here… [it’s] totally mind-blowing.”

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