A woman of substance like Kasi Lemmons is hard to miss because the fruits of her hard work precede her. I have been a devout fan of her work ever since I watched the movie, Eve's Bayou, which began with the words, "Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old. My brother Poe was nine, and my sister Cicely had just turned fourteen." Then the mesmerizing story eclectically told, unfolded like poetry in motion before my eyes.
While at the time more masculine oriented movies with edgier plots such as Boyz N Da Hood, New Jack City, and Clockers filled the African American movie landscape, her unique woman's touch delivered via her uniquely crafted movie added a welcome feminine perspective to the African American movie landscape and drew a larger Caucasian than African American audience.
I was impressed by the mind of the woman who conceived and birthed the unique story that was delivered in such a visually impressive and unique way by using dreamy imagery and a carefully chosen choice of words that only a person who invested a large amount of time and effort could create. To me, her work is truly inspirational.
When I finally met this gifted story teller who is also an actress, filmmaker, director, and screenwriter at Howard University Department of Communication where she had come to selflessly teach a free master class and receive the Paul Robeson Award named for the screen, radio and concert hall star who displayed dignity and unwavering courage in the face of racism as an academic, artist and human rights activist, I seized the opportunity to speak with her.
• While speaking with her, I realized that the award celebrating her creative excellence for her outstanding work and being an inspiration and activist in the entertainment industry is true to her essence. I was also pleasantly surprised by her positive and easy going disposition. However, I shouldn't have been surprised as she has not always been in "Hollywood." She was born in St. Louis, Missouri and raised in Newton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where her mother enrolled her in the Boston’s Children's Theater at the age of 9. This was a turning point for her because it ignited a passion in her for the arts. She later enrolled at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, then she transferred to University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) to major in History because she wanted a more academic major.
Kasi Lemmons receiving her award. •
Before graduating she returned to NY, where she attended The New School of Social Research's Film Program. While there, she made her first movie, Fall From Grace, a documentary about homeless people. After that, she began her acting career appearing in several productions including The Cosby Show, Silence of the Lambs, Hard Target, Candyman, Drop Squad, Vampire's Kiss, Chop Squad, School Daze, Fear of a Black Hat and The Five Heart Beats.
When she became tired of acting the "regular female black roles," like the best friend, the girl next door or the cop, which paid the bills, but didn't provide artistic satisfaction, she took time out of her busy schedule, reflected and wrote the script of a story that had been brewing in her heart for years. Her actions which many would have considered career suicide, resulted in Eve's Bayou, the titillating story of the Batistes, a powerful middle class African American Southern family, set in the 1962 Louisiana Bayou, which is loosely based on her family's experiences.
This was her first feature length movie and her directorial debut. It was the highest grossing independent film of 1997. It won the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature, and received 7 NAACP Image Award nominations including the Best Picture Award nomination. She received a special first time director award, created for her by the National Board of Review. She also won the Director's Achievement Award at the 9th Annual Nortel Palm Springs Film Festival.
Apart from fast tracking her career, Eve's Bayou reinforced the careers of established actors such as Lynn Whitfield, Debbie Morgan, Diahann Carroll, and actor/co-producer, Samuel Jackson, and also launched the careers of up and coming screen starlets like Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett. The Los Angeles writer, Kevin Thomas said, "Eve's Bayou is inspired achievement appreciation of intricate aspects of life."
Her directorial follow-up to Eve's Bayou, a mystery drama titled, The Caveman's Valentine also starring Samuel Jackson based on the novel by George Dawes Green, which was a co-production with Danny Devito's Jersey Film, opened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival to audience and critical acclaim and earned actress Tamara Tunie an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Kasi directed a touching tribute to renowned actor, Sidney Poiter that aired during the 2002 Academy Awards and was involved in an exploration of the roles and representations of black women in film for the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival. She also directed Talk To Me, a movie about DC ex-con turned radio "talk jock" personality and community activist, Petey Greene, which stared Don Cheadle and won the 2007 Best Esemble Gotham Award, while earning Chiwetel Ejiofor an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actor and earning her the 2008 NAACP Image Award for outstanding directing.
Recognized as leader in her field, in 2009, she was one of four American scriptwriters chosen by the Writers Guild of America to attend a six week residence program in France organized by the Franco - American Cultural Fund and the Ill de France Film Commission. The completion of the fellowship was another addition to her long list of achievements.
She is also a mentor, encouraging aspiring filmmakers and teaching many filmmaking classes at various schools around the country. She is an executive board member of Film Independent, home of the Los Angeles Film Festival and The Independent Spirit Awards, and she has contributed to the Film Independent Filmmaker Labs as a speaker and moderator. She's also an advisor to the Sundance Screenwriter Labs in Utah and has participated in screenwriter labs in Spain, South Africa and Jordan, and The Native American Lab in New Mexico.
As an educator, she has taught at Yale University, Columbia Film School, MIT, UCLA, The Los Angeles Film School, and The University of Pristina Film School in Kosevo. She was Vassar College’s 2008 Artist in Residence and an adjunct professor at the USC Film School, where she taught Directors: Mise-En-Scene. In the 2010/2011 academic year, she is the UCLA Regents' Lecturer in the School of Theater, Film and Television. She is also the leader/moderator of AFI curriculum's core class, Narrative Workshop. She was awarded an honorary degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, from Salem State College in 1998.
Artistically, she is at the pinnacle of success. She has had and is still having a long and eventful career. In addition to that, contrary to popular belief of the impossibility of combining such a non-traditional career with a family, she has managed to do so. She is happily married to Vondie Curtis-Hall and they have two children.
After the award ceremony, I was opportuned to talk with this inspirational filmmaker. Below are excerpts...
Q & A
With a mother from Georgia, a father from Louisiana and spending summers with your grandmother in Alabama, you can't be more Southern, so what did Eve’s Bayou mean to you in terms of your heritage?
I can sit in a bar with you and tell you the story of Eve's Bayou. My southern roots influence me and it shows in it. It was fantasy, some reality and family folklore. For example, some of my relatives actually met the voodoo lady depicted in the movie at a fair in the South. It doesn't matter where they are, if your people are from the deep south, they take it with them where ever they go.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
I chose to ignore conventional wisdom of getting a 9-5 job. I made a decision to strive for greatness. It sounds like a lofty goal, but I thought, even if I miss, I'm still better off than not trying at all.
What is your advice to others who want to follow in your path?
It's not the goal that matters; it's the act of striving. Being uncompromising and doing your best work is what it's about. We must think, in this time in a divided country, how do we justify being artists and filmmakers? Art informs us about humanity, including our differences and similarities. With film, you can recognize the plight of people you have never even met. You can travel in time and to different places. It's tedious to make movies about the world we live in, so you must justify why you're an artist to yourself and the world, but be playful, be joyous, and never take no for answer. The world and your country need you to be courageous and confident.
How did you get your start in the industry?
I was about 9 years old when my mother signed me up for acting classes at the Boston's Children's Theater, which was not only a theater, it was more like an agency. While I was there, the theater was contacted by the TV show, You Got A Right, with their need for an African American girl. There were very few black girls in Boston at the time, let alone in the arts, so I was recommended for the opportunity and I got it. Then I starred in commercials for a while.
I was later cast in the play, Balm of Gilead written by playwright, Lanford Wilson, which was produced by the prestigious Steppenwolf Theater Company because they needed to replace a character and I was chosen for the part. The role was a different character than what I was used to playing. It was an aggressive, dikey, streetwise and tough character, but it was an opportunity to stretch myself artistically in a different direction. I played the role well and because the company had clout in the industry, I was taken seriously by others and received more opportunities.
What was your first film you acted in?
It was Spike Lee's School Daze.
How did you prepare yourself for what you do?
For acting, I was part of the Circle In The Square Youth Program, and I also studied at The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in New York for 12 years. I read books and attended master classes. For script writing and directing, it's the same. I was also at The New School Film School.
Who are your mentors in and outside of the industry?
I never had what you'd traditionally call "mentors," but I have always had some brothers in my corner such as Warrington and Reggie Hudlin of the Black Filmmakers Foundation. Spike Lee also encouraged me. After seeing the first film I produced in film school, Fall From Grace, whenever he'd see me, he'd ask me about my current projects. After Eve's Bayou came out, he called to congratulate me. Bill Cosby also definitely helped me. Also, Samuel L. Jackson who signed on early, and acted as the principal actor and co-producer in Eve's Bayou, helped immensely in getting it made.
What advice do you have for people especially women of color aspiring to be like you?
I would advise them to be prepared to bring their "A" game. I'd tell them to work at the highest level of their ability. If they work hard and they are prepared, luck will come their way, because luck is the love child of preparedness and opportunity. Whatever they do, they should do it well, so if someone opens an opportunity for them, they are ready and prepared to take it. Also, I'd say they shouldn't give up because I find that many women of color are easily discouraged, sometimes even before they start.
How do you view rejection in the filmmaking business?
It's easy to say after some rejections, "This is too hard and quit. However, you have to be strong and get better at your craft. Keep the negative voices behind you. Ignore the noise and believe in yourself.
How was the Ill de France experience?
It was an incredible opportunity. They had high expectations, but it was an enriching experience. It included meetings with potential French partners, including producers, directors, and actors and visits to locations described in our scripts to build bridges between the French and American Film industries and to further develop my script, Strangers in Paris.
What is the movie about?
It's is a love story about a young African American woman in Paris who went to scatter ashes. She meets this infamous graphic artist who doesn't speak English and she doesn't speak French, but they fall in love. The film depicts love without verbal communication. The moral of the story is that love transcends language barriers.
Apart from movies, other kinds of creative works would you like to create?
I'd like to make a documentary on Nicaraguan experience.
What else are you interested in?
I'm interested in politics, human rights, investigations into past occurrences and stories of human struggle.
The image of the black family is often underrepresented and misrepresented in the mainstream media and in your own way you are correcting this, but why don't you produce more movies?
Filmmaking isn't easy or fast. The phrase "Cinema War" was coined because the movie making process is said to be similar to an actual war. Sometimes it's about give and sometimes it's about drawing a line in the sand. Also, movie making is about good scripts and writing good scripts takes time.
Do you maintain a crew to have consistency?
I can work with different Directors of Photography, but I use one editor and sound editor who are geniuses.
Movies educate and inform and filmmakers make the choice of making culturally sensitive productions or not. What advice do you have for filmmakers on the choices they make?
As an artist, I don't like the idea of people being bound to political correctness because it is stifling. I don't want people holding back on a story because it will depict people negatively. I'm interested in imperfect people. It's important to see and portray people often as neither necessarily good nor bad because people are complex. Human beings are flawed people who struggle within themselves and are somewhere in between good and bad. So more real and multi-dimensional, not stereotypical movies should be made, which goes back to the need for better writing. Writers must make their stories stronger and truer while sometimes making painful changes.
What do you think of diversity in the movie making business?
The key is that a variety of images and films should be made. The problem is the narrowness of stories being told and films being made where there's no richness of characters. Black stories don't have to be "hood experience” stories. We need a diverse field of writers, especially women of color to portray the real richness of the woven tapestries of life. It's hard to get films where African Americans are the subject matter made, unless it's a really funny comedy or a really edgy film. It's hard to get a black drama made because the systems in place don't support it.
How do you believe studios can tell more diverse array of stories via movies?
First we must realize that we can't force them to change and that this is a business with executives focused on the bottom line in terms of financially, marketability and award winning ability. They know good quality when they see it. However, they may also want to be more open to different voices and quality of filmmakers.
The Blind Side was perceived by different groups of people in different ways. Some felt it was the often told and glorified story of a Caucasian "hero" saving an African American remade. This may have been what made the story appealing to the studio executives thinking of box office receipts, the movie getting made, being promoted heavily, receiving high box office receipts and the numerous awards it did. What are your thoughts on it?
The Blind Side was directed by John Hancock who is a super producer. His clout in the industry not his race had to do with the resources made available to make the movie and ultimately the success of the movie.
Financing is an issue for many filmmakers everywhere including Hollywood especially for filmmakers of color. What advice can you give them on getting financing?
It's a miracle to get a film made in Hollywood. It was hard to get the story of a middle class African American family made. It is rough. Other models are needed even in the independent arena. It's really hard to get projects green lit in independent studios or even in the independent arm of the major studios.
With your track record and at your level what amount of power do you wield in Hollywood?
For most people it's hard to get meetings. I can get meetings, but then getting a movie green lit (made) is a whole different story. There's an A list of producers and there are very few women in the industry. I still have 15 year old scripts I'd like produced. I have 14 year old scripts I'm trying to make with two European women.
What is the current status quo of getting films for people of color made in Hollywood?
Right now there are few people of color who are "green lighters," which are people with the power to approve a movie in a studio. There are no gate keepers for black filmmakers at the studio level. However, there are people like that right under that level and they will move up in time. There are a few brilliant women of color on the scene. For example, Zolla Mashariki, Senior Vice President of Production at Fox Searchlight is heading in the direction of being a powerful person in the industry. There are many more on the cusp as well. However, the environment is dynamic, so faces change, but one must persevere.
What can you tell people, especially women, about the work ethic required to thrive in your field?
A director is responsible for the look, feel and effect of the film. The hours are long and it's not an easy job, but hard work is a prelude to success.
Have you made artistic choices you would rather have not?
Yes. For example, the Uncle Tony Character that I was very passionate about was removed from Eve's Bayou. We compromised and it was included in the director's cut.
What different styles do you use in your filmmaking process?
Storytelling is about the shots and the story. I've shot with special lenses generating distorted images. Eve's Bayou is very artistic, more like an art film where each shot is fluid like a painting and there's less camera movement, while Talk To Me is more of a musical movement of the camera and has less movement of the camera.
What challenges do you face in the process?
Filmmaking is often likened to a war, but it's now easier than ever to make films. However, with the distribution and marketing model, it's hard to make money. Filmmaking is now cheaper, making it more accessible to people. You and your friends can make a movie and send it to a film festival. Festivals let films be seen by an audience who otherwise may not see it, but in the same vein film festivals like Sundance and others are overwhelmed with submissions. Most films they receive are mediocre, occasionally it's a very good job done.
What are your thoughts on the current distribution model?
Distribution is tricky. For example, out of 800 films at Sundance, 8 get distributed, so good content is essential. A different model other than the release in theater model is part of the future. It's very difficult to get theater release. Films in theaters isn't about the film, it's about selling popcorn and snacks. There are fewer venues to hold and run a movie. I try to be flexible and modern in a lot of ways, but I'm still a dinosaur who needs film and a dark theater. The future will have a different model, which will be a way people can get their films seen.
What would you like to do in the future?
There are so many things I want to do. I want to direct an opera, an arboretum, write a novel, and run a film festival.
What are you working on now?
A gospel musical titled, The Black Nativity. It's a film adaptation of the very slender book Langston Hues wrote in 1961. At the time it was very controversial. The story is about a kid from Baltimore whose mother has to send him to live with her estranged parents. He's dealing with people he didn't know including his grandmother who is a preacher; he falls in a deep sleep at church and dreams of the black nativity. It's going to be dope.
Why did you choose that theme?
Growing up in Boston, annually my mom took me to see the black nativity which is a black gospel musical on the birth of Jesus. About 500,000 people see it annually, so it's a really popular theme all over the country. It's ultimately a celebration of the black church, and I feel it's a great time for such a theme with an African American president in office.
What is your legacy that you would like to be remembered for?
I'm so not done, so I wouldn't use the word legacy. I have a long way to go before I feel satisfied. However, I want to be remembered for raising the bar.
As Kasi has shared, few women of color exist in the film industry, causing few minority movies to be made and when they are made, they often depict negative stereotypes. Therefore, people of color especially women need to know what they're diving into when thinking about becoming filmmakers.
However, as she stated, we need more women especially of color to add to the current monolithic Hollywood tapestry because the way women view and tell stories is different from how men do it, as women have a peculiar way of viewing the world often through emotions.
By nurturing new talent on and off camera, Kasi is doing her part to increase the low numbers. Although filmmaking isn't an easy fete, she has also shown that even a story based loosely on one's family and childhood can be made into a successful movie if written and shot in a unique way.
So to women desiring to become filmmakers or assume powerful positions in the entertainment industry, I say, thoroughly research what lies ahead, but know that it can be done. To movie viewers, I say, support movies made by women of color during the opening weekend if you want to see more of such movies and make sure the ticket stub you receive shows the actual movie you paid for. Don't accept being told to just go in with another movie title on your ticket stub, because it counts when Hollywood executives are making decisions about what films to make.
Paul Robeson, the man the award she was in town to receive is named after was praised and dammed for his devotion to the African American struggle. His motto was, "Get them to sing your song and they will wonder who you are." I watched Kasi's movie and wondered who she is. Many others watched and gave her awards. When I met her, I came to even appreciate her more for the woman of substance she is, and although she shared that filmmaking is challenging, she also said that it is very fulfilling for her, so I know greater projects lay ahead for her and I can’t wait to see them.