Q: When it comes to storytelling, where do you get your inspiration from?
My primary goal as an artist at this time is to create more content that highlights the spectrum of possible black male expression while simultaneously challenging the systems designed to restrict it. My story telling is inspired by my community, my personal experiences and the storytellers whose work has convicted me to only write with abandon and intention and a sense of wonder: Toni Morrison, Marlon Riggs, Julie Dash…
Q: How does being a poet facilities your script writing and/or directing process?
Poetry and scriptwriting actually have a lot in common. The economy of words. Reducing the most complicated and expansive of ideas into images at once recognizable yet charged. My experiences with depression led me into filmmaking. I turned to filmmaking to capture the feelings I couldn’t articulate with words. Those feelings are complex and nuanced. When I am writing and directing, I’m usually looking for a container, a form, a structure capable of holding everything I need to say. As a result, my films tend to abandon classical three-act structure for something more honest and true to my experience.
Q: -Ship: A visual poem just debuted at the Sundance film festival. How important is this to you personally, and to your career?
It’s always great to be recognized by professionals and amongst peers in your field. To do so as a person of color is a special privilege. Personally, I’ve spent a lot of years being okay with being in the background. Filmmaking in many ways has forced me to be present in ways I never imagined possible. This is a good and necessary challenge; being present. I’m learning to become more comfortable with my voice. I’m learning to value it. Not necessarily because of Sundance, but because of the people who believed in me, pushed me and got me this far. The career will come. I don’t doubt that, with or without the validation of big festivals. The mark of approval gets people paying attention for sure, but I’m also not doing anything different than I was a year ago.
I will say one more thing on this: It means a lot to me that my film, -Ship: A Visual Poem, received an award for U.S. Fiction in the Narrative Shorts program. Many times, especially as a black kid, you grow up thinking there’s only one narrative and one way to tell it. Often my work is categorized as experimental or alternative. True in ways. But this win felt like a personal validation and a public acknowledgement that my work and works like it are indeed narrative and can be celebrated as such.
Q: What hidden part of the film are you most privately proud of and why?
The mistakes. Because I can see all the areas for growth and improvement and it excites me to know that the work doesn’t have to be perfect to be seen.
Q: Is it your hope that other people will come to your point of view on manhood and masculinity and why?
No. My point of view on manhood and masculinity is my own and it’s restricted by nature. My hope is that the work opens the door for further conversation and language around masculinity and manhood, specifically for black men, that pushes the boundaries of what we currently believe is possible for black men. My hope is that in that space of possibility, we can imagine new points of view together.
Q: Tell us about being vulnerable in your work? Do you think there’s a line?
I’ve found ways to make the filmmaking process a therapeutic one for me. It’s such a massive undertaking, such an expensive profession for very little reward and very high stakes. I’ve learned to work with and rely on people who not only believe in me, but understand that when working with me, the point isn’t to be “the next big thing”; it’s not the limelight or the awards. Filmmaking for me is all about engaging the imagination in such new ways that challenges us all to be more present both in the subjects we’re willing to engage and in our own personal lives. The work has no choice but to be vulnerable as a result because it’s that vulnerability that creates the urgency and agency necessary to complete the work. I can’t ask my audiences to participate on that journey if I’m not willing to participate myself. That being said, yes, there is a line.
Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there an exact moment, or was it more gradual?
If I’m being honest, I don’t think I ever said I wanted to be a filmmaker. I’ve always told people that I wanted to be a writer or a poet. And these things are still very much true. I think in pursuit of truth for myself (reconciling things like my sexuality, my depression, my personal experiences — painful and joyous) words just didn’t capture it all. Language is so failable. I wish I could really work language like some writers do. Filmmaking is sort of helping me do that. So I don’t know. I see myself as a writer with a very limited vocabulary asking for help with what I am trying to say.
As far as the moment I decided to seriously learn the filmmaking practice; I was a senior in undergrad at Morehouse College applying to various dramatic and creative writing programs when someone gave me this advice: “Don’t let the technology stand in your way.” And I made a last minute decision. Called up some friends. Borrowed a camera. And in four days, shot very shaky visuals to accompany poems that I wrote. That was four years ago. That was my first short film. And the only visual component to my application for film school. To my surprise I was accepted and I’ve just been trying to honor that initial advice ever since.
Q: What would you say is your unique responsibility as a filmmaker?
I’ve often been told I am too nice for my own good. I used to harbor an insecurity around how much I cared about people and things. Now I just see it as a gift. I love really hard and as sincerely as the human in me allows. I try to bring that love to my work and that’s the only responsibility I give myself: no matter how much it hurts or fails me in the end, to never turn down the pitch of that love.
Q: What’s next for you?
My thesis film Pritty! I am very excited about this. I am working with someone I truly feel blessed to call my friend and Executive Producer. His name is Keith F. Miller, Jr. and he wrote this very beautiful queer coming of age novel about black boys growing up in the Deep South in Savannah, GA. I’ve adapted it into a short film and afterwards we plan to develop it into a feature. My first feature! I didn’t think I’d keep making films after -Ship. I felt drained, exhausted and decided I had had enough with film. But then one comes across stories like what Keith wrote in Pritty and I just knew I needed to respond to it. I didn’t have the words. But my imagination was blooming, blooming, blooming with images!