Black Voices Matter: An Interview Compilation

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Shola Lynch, credit: Sally Montana; Oscar Micheaux, credit: Kino Lorber; Taylor Russell, credit: A24; Ashton Sanders, credit: Variance Films; Lucia McBath, credit: Participant; James Baldwin, credit: Magnolia Pictures; Kasi Lemmons, credit: Glen Wilson / Focus Features; Amandla Stenberg, credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation; Effie T. Brown, credit: Project Involve.

Last week at RogerEbert.com, I joined the site’s publisher, Chaz Ebert, and my fellow editors in sharing articles both new and republished to express our allegiance with the #BlackLivesMatter movement. You can find the full round-up of reviews, interviews and essays in our annotated table of contents, as well as a list of resources and ways to donate here. Preparing this coverage has inspired me to put together my own compilation of interviews I’ve conducted over the yearsboth at the Ebert site and here at Indie Outlook—with extraordinary actors and filmmakers whose insights and artistry are essential in their relevance.

It’s been such a joy watching the careers of the young people featured below flourish in the years since I spoke with them. Ashton Sanders was the first person I interviewed for RogerEbert.com, and he biked over from his classes at DePaul to discuss making his feature debut alongside Tishuan Scott (who joined him for our conversation) in Chris Eska’s Civil War-era drama, “The Retrieval.” I was so taken with Sanders’ performance that I included him on my list of 2014’s most underrated achievements in acting. Two years later, he brilliantly portrayed the protagonist during the middle section of Barry Jenkins’ Best Picture Oscar-winner, “Moonlight.” Jovan Adepo was another exciting talent I interviewed about making his big screen debut, which happened to be in Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning “Fences.” This past November, he starred in the sixth episode of HBO’s “Watchmen,” a stunning commentary on the whitewashing of American heroism that is one of the finest hours of television I’ve seen.

I encourage you to check out all of the films highlighted below, as well as learn more about such undervalued trailblazers as Shirley Chisholm, Oscar Micheaux and Cathay Williams. Click on the name of each interview subject, and you will be directed to the full conversation…

“Whether it’s your blackness, your gayness, your trans-ness or whatever it is, I think it is always so important to acknowledge the components of self that make us us. The premise of ‘I don’t see color’ is one that rests upon the idea that we live in a post-racial or post-identity society, which is not true. When we relate to one another and see, hear and regard each other, I think it’s really important to be inclusive of all the different facets of self that contribute to one’s own experience. You have to make sure that when you are seeing someone, you are seeing them not despite of who they are, but including and because of who they are.”—Amandla Stenberg, star of George Tillman Jr.’s “The Hate U Give”

“We’d be crazy to just act like issues with diversity don’t exist, not only in film and in television, but in our academies as well. […] I love that the dialogue is happening. I think the root of the issue is so much bigger than any one person’s opinion. It’s more of a collective thing. We certainly all have to look within ourselves and find the root of the issue, as well as find the things that bring us together rather than separate us. It’s really not just a black and white issue. The diversity issue is so much bigger than that. There are females that are struggling for roles and there are issues with ageism too.”—Stephan James, star of Stephen Hopkins’ “Race”

“We don’t see black people resisting the marriage of a black man to a white person in the overt ways that we see here. I’m married to a white woman myself, and I’ve seen how there’s very real resistance to these sorts of films getting made. It’s tough to make a film about a black man and a white woman who are married without it being in a historical context. There’s still resistance to it, even though it happens all over this country every day. This prejudice is unfortunately still with us and hopefully films like this will help in breaking that down. Film is such a powerful medium in how it shapes our culture. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it shapes people’s thinking, but it points people in certain directions and helps them resist certain prejudices.”—David Oyelowo, star of Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom”

“I love telling stories about people who are ‘the other,’ residing outside of dominant culture. Whether it be a Latina coming-of-age tale like ‘Real Women Have Curves,’ a black girl’s coming-of-age in the prison system as portrayed in ‘Stranger Inside,’ or an exploration of what post-racism means in America such as ‘Dear White People,’ the stories are all universal. I just executive produced a Disney Channel movie, ‘Z-O-M-B-I-E-S,’ that’s all about the integration of zombies at a normal school for kids. Even though the perspective may be different than what you’re used to seeing onscreen, you don’t have to be the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation of the characters in order to find them relatable. I want to tell stories that build bridges between people, that show how similar we are in a very interesting way.”Effie T. Brown, producer of Justin Simien’s “Dear White People”

“There’s a high level of enthusiasm for this project, and it’s a very important story about a historic person. Coming out of slavery, Williams disguised herself as a man and was the first woman to join the peacetime army in our history. It’s so important to tell this story, but at the same time, it’s not just a historical document of a person’s life. It’s about a person who chose her own destiny and my approach to this film is to make it like an action-filled western with a superhero bent. Sarah Bird’s script won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab Screenwriting Competition, and at one point, Spike Lee had optioned the story. But Hollywood won’t make a story about a black female protagonist who is a badass.”—Christine Swanson, director of the Cathay Williams biopic, “Buffalo Soldier Girl” (which was in pre-production and deserves to be made stat)

“We wanted her to be a woman and a superhero. That’s what I set out to do. In the research and in looking at her life, I saw that she was loved, she loved deeply, she was heartbroken, she suffered loss and she had moments of great pain. I was very interested in how women, especially black women, are able to use pain to make them stronger. I thought that was very accessible and very female, and I wanted to capture femininity and grace with strength. Cynthia is so good at portraying that, and she just got it immediately.”—Kasi Lemmons, director of “Harriet”

“It’s fascinating that an African-American would make a film in response to what was looked on, at the time, as the greatest film ever made. [‘The Birth of a Nation’] was the most profitable film ever made and was considered a towering achievement of cinema. For an independent filmmaker to take a shot at it and call it out on its—I wouldn’t call it a racist undertone, but an overtone—and turn around the formula by portraying the hooded Klansman as a gang of crooks and thieves rather than an embodiment of justice is remarkably brave. It’s hard to imagine someone trying to topple something that was so highly regarded, but Oscar Micheaux was that kind of guy. He was willing to criticize things that other people held holy.”—Bret Wood producer of Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema” set, which includes Oscar Micheaux’s “The Symbol of the Unconquered”

“Churches and theaters are spaces where many people will be at one time, and I think a lot of what we see happening with these shooters is that they are looking for attention. They are looking for spaces that will attract the greatest numbers of people. It’s so despicable what’s happening in the country. I’ve lately been putting out some really strong tweets to our legislators, asking, ‘How much more gun violence do we have to have before you do something about this?’ People know that things need to change, but a lot of them either don’t know what to do or they know it exists and they just keep hoping and praying that it doesn’t happen to them.”—Lucia McBath, subject of Marc Silver’s “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets”

“There was something anticipatory about Vatican II in how it reflected the massive changes that occurred throughout the ’60s. In terms of social issues, our world is rapidly changing at a pace that can’t be stopped. I think that the current Pope has a sense of visionary anticipation.  He knows that in order for the church to survive, it will have to adapt. Any institution that isn’t keeping pace with the changing realities of our world will lose a lot of people and not get a lot of new recruits. […] Anytime an institution has to change and adapt, there are always going to be casualties. It is inevitable.”—Margaret Betts, director of “Novitiate”

“I think it’s a politically left statement to not have stupid people in our work. We are existing in a world where there is this normalizing of ignorance, which is dangerous and actually untrue. That’s not how people are. I don’t know very many stupid people in my life, certainly not among disenfranchised people because it is hard to live that way. This normalizing of people being uninformed is dangerous because it presents it as okay, whereas that’s contrary to our survival mechanisms. You have to be smart to survive.”—Daveed Diggs, star/co-writer of Carlos López Estrada’s “Blindspotting”

“It’s the act of turning a blind eye to someone else’s truth. […] I can rewrite the book myself based on my experience and what I want to see and how I identify with it. So I can latch onto a character, one character, and identify with their experience without even considering anyone else in the book. I don’t have to acknowledge anyone else’s truth or humanity, and I think that parallels what happens particularly in the Deep South, so that no one else exists. When you think in terms of the fact that we, as African-Americans, live in a country where we historically have not even been considered whole human beings, how do you recognize the humanity in someone that you don’t consider human? So it’s easy to dismiss someone’s experience, rights, privileges—it’s easy to not even see them, not even consider them.”—Karan Kendrick, star of Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Just Mercy”

“The truth is that family will sustain you. Knowing your family, warts and all, is akin to knowing yourself, warts and all. If you know, appreciate and accept yourself, you can make it through any political climate, any particular individual injustice. That sense of self, that sense of belonging, can help you get through any period that we happen to be going through in the country. Family sustains, family fortifies.”—Stephen McKinley Henderson, star of Denzel Washington’s “Fences”

“I would agree completely with that, but I also think this film is important even for the younger generation to understand the relationship between themselves and their parents. You may not understand your parents’ interpretation of love and what they think is best for you, but you have to trust it. Like Rose says in the movie, your parents are doing the best they can with what they know and what they got when they were your age.”—Jovan Adepo, Henderson’s co-star in Denzel Washington’s “Fences”

“I think Ronald is speaking on behalf of the older generation about the struggles that they had to go through to get to where they are, how grateful they are for this moment and how they want to share it with the next generation. But they don’t understand that the information and the burden that they’ve been putting on these kids are sometimes too much. They’re 17, their parents didn’t like dealing with this burden when they were 17, but they had to deal with it anyway, and now they think that their children are reaping the benefits. Yet Ronald’s parents did this to their children so that the following generation could just be kids—so that they could just live and exist. They should have the freedom to be whomever they want to be.”—Kelvin Harrison Jr., star of Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves”

“I’m doing scene work now at DePaul on a play written by Horton Foote called ‘Convicts,’ and it reminded me of our film. When my teacher was talking to another actor about smiling and whether it fit into the characteristics of his role, I raised my hand and spoke from personal experience. Black people during that time didn’t have much to smile about. We were always thinking about what was going to happen to us next and whether we were going to live tomorrow. Our characters do what they have to in order to get by. That’s the harsh reality of it.”—Ashton Sanders, star of Chris Eska’s “The Retrieval”

“One of the things that art allows you to do, and in some ways, forces you to do, is change and evolve, or else you’ll be making the same film or repainting the same picture over and over again. It’s almost like art, in itself, makes you try to evolve. What can I do differently, how can I do something that’s better? For Miles Davis, it wasn’t that he had a drive to change. It’s not like he sat there and said, ‘Let me try to do something different.’ He just had to.”Stanley Nelson, director of “Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool”

“The question now is who dictates the narrative. We didn’t own that Hollywood narrative, the narrative was put upon us and was using us. Now you are starting to see all these filmmakers and writers who are capturing their own narrative and looking back and criticizing everything that has been made before, while unearthing the skeletons. As Baldwin would put it, ‘all your buried corpses are now beginning to speak.’ In order to keep doing that, we need to also have the power to decide what is being made. That’s where this whole discussion of #OscarsSoWhite falls short. You cannot just make a very limited and superficial change. You need to change the power structure.”—Raoul Peck, director of “I Am Not Your Negro”

“Progress has to happen, and to be honest with you, I believe ‘Get Out’ is going to bring about some big change. I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t get Best Picture. I never understand how a film can win Best Screenplay and not get Best Picture too. What does that mean, man? Were the actors bad? The Golden Globes put ‘Get Out’ in the comedy category, and I couldn’t get mad at that because Jordan did put comedy in the film. At the same time, I was like, ‘If you all thought this was a comedy, then I should be up for Best Actor!’ [laughs] I’ve learned a lot about the little nuances and rules that guide the awards season. It’s very outdated.”—Lil Rel Howery, star of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out”

People want to see themselves and their own images on the screen. That’s it. When I was six years old, it was very powerful for me to see Ms. [Cicely] Tyson for the first time in an autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman, because she was someone who looked like me. It’s like the saying goes, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t believe it.’ Art has got to reflect life. It can’t be a filtered, watered-down version of what life is, and people need to see female empowerment in movies. They also need to redefine what empowerment means. Empowerment doesn’t mean just getting up and beating the crap out of someone, holding a gun and shooting them in the head. As this film illustrates, empowerment is gaining ownership of oneself, one’s authenticity and autonomy.”—Viola Davis, star of Steve McQueen’s “Widows”

“There are a lot of parallels between Emily and me. My grandpa was a preacher, and there are other particular instances where Emily’s life syncs up with my own. She is going through one of the biggest things that could happen to you in your life that doesn’t happen to everybody, and at the same time, she is at a tender age. Emily naturally cares about the people around her, and I don’t really know how I was able to portray that. I just tried to listen as much as I possibly could, and I put the focus on how the people around me are doing, what’s going on in their lives and how I can help make it better. I think if you are fully embodying that character, you also find yourself having those same qualities in real life, perhaps because you cannot really act them.”—Taylor Russell, star of Trey Edward Shults’ “Waves”

“Watching the film overseas, I felt a little embarrassed for us as Americans. It was interesting watching the film in other countries, seeing and hearing how people were responding and reacting to it. Going back to that idea of language, this film illuminates how people think and talk at their family barbecues. It shows just how divided we are. Audiences at the festivals I’ve attended have been so passionate about the film. During one Q&A, someone asked me, ‘How do we solve racism?’, and I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know, but I’m glad that the film got you to ask that.’ [laughs] It seemed like people really cared, and I’m not going to say it woke people up, but at least it fired them up in wanting answers to a question like that.”—John David Washington, star of Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman”

Black Lives Matter is a continuation of the conversation that has happened since Emancipation. It is about overcoming the missing two-fifths in the equation of equality and the ‘American’ perspective. That’s been very difficult to overcome, and what that means is that you are always suspect. Black people understand that because they have been subject to it. […] I think if [Shirley Chisholm] were in Congress today, she would be active and voicing her opinion regardless of whether or not it was the popular opinion. She would also take heart in the protests and the young folks expressing themselves. […] With the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests and George Floyd being the tipping point of so many people who have been killed by police officers, if we can take this moment and create change, she would be for that. That’s why she got into politics.”—Shola Lynch, director of “Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed”

For the growing resource list provided on RogerEbert.com with information about where you can donate, connect with activists, learn more about the protests, and find anti-racism reading, click here

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