#BonfireStories — Welcoming Filmmaker Martina Lee

Martina Lee | Photo Credit: Unknown

Q: When it comes to storytelling, where do you get your inspiration from?

I am inspired by the people and experiences that have shaped my life. The two shorts I directed are very much about father relationships with their children. Growing up without a dad myself and a pretty unconventional mother, it definitely influences the stories I tell.

Q: Martina, What set the gears in motion to finally make Black Boy Joy?

I was accepted into the Project Involve, a film independent fellowship that focuses on supporting emerging filmmakers from communities underrepresented in film and entertainment. Black Boy Joy was one out of six films produced during the 2019 year.

Q: How did Black Boy Joy come about?

Black Boy Joy was written by a Project Involve writing fellow Michelle Sam. This was a story close to her heart and I felt drawn as a director. We wanted to explore this idea of Black male vulnerability. There are so many situations in life in which black men feel like they can’t express their feelings. We wanted to tell that story through the lens of a grieving family that also is dealing with a son who is on the spectrum. When you have Otis, a father figure who represents a very old school method of parents and a young boy with autism who processes emotions differently than other kids, it makes for an interesting conflict and conversation about what it means to raise black boys in America.

Q: When you have William Catlett and Evan Alex in a scene, is there something that’s unique about what is going on in that room from your standpoint?

One of my favorite scenes is Miles trying to get Selim to pick out his clothes. Both Evan and Will are such dynamic actors that a lot of those lines were improved. There is an ease about their performances that makes you believe them. I worked with Evan before on my last film Blueberry so we were really comfortable together. Will also brought this emotional maturity to him that was just really beautiful to watch.

Q: Martina, you were an Emerging Director at the 2019 ABFF Award for your film “Blueberry”. Now, you’re back with “Black Boy Joy’’ for the HBO Short Competition. How important is this to you personally, and to your career?

Being apart of ABFF two years in a row is a great honor for me as a filmmaker. Festivals and awards are important for young filmmakers like myself to reach a large audience. It is especially thrilling to be a finalist for the HBO Short Competition for Black Boy Joy because I worked with such a talented group of filmmakers and it feels really wonderful to feel like our hard work paid off. With that being said, the path I walk as a filmmaker is a spiritual one. At the end of the day, the most important thing for me personally is staying connected to my own purpose as I navigate my career.

Q: What hidden part of the film are you most privately proud of and why?

There are two paintings in the film that hang on the wall of the living room painting by Henry O. Tanner. “The Banjo Lesson” and “The Thankful Poor” hung in the living room of the house. I specifically picked those two paintings because of their portrayal of black fatherhood. I also picked them because Henry O. Tanner is a distant relative of my family. “The Banjo Lesson” hung in my grandparents’ house as a child. My grandfather was one of the few positive black male relationships I had growing up and truly one of my favorite people in the world. It was important to me as we honor black fatherhood I also honor him.

Q: In your point of view, how did the title “Black Boy Joy” perfectly depict the storyline of the film and how did that title come about?

The writer, Michelle Sam, came up with the name, always thinking it would be a placeholder for something else. I am ashamed to say I wasn’t aware of the hashtag before we started the film. I quickly realized that it is really about redefining the image of black male masculinity as being angry or tough. As we went through production, I kept on thinking about changing the title since the film isn’t really about joy. However, the film is about allowing black men to be vulnerable in ways society won’t allow them to be. In that sense, Black Boy Joy feels like a form of protest. Black men can express sadness, love, grief, forgiveness, hope, and yes, even JOY.

Q: When did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker? Was there an exact moment, or was it more gradual?

I have been an artist my whole life. When I took my first video class in undergrad, I remember thinking to myself, “moving picture AND sound seems really complicated…” I flirted with the idea of being a filmmaker throughout my 20’s. I knew I loved watching and analyzing films, but the idea of making them seemed intangible. Around that same time, I had at least five people in the span of a month tell me I should watch Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. When I finally watched it, I saw myself truly represented for the first time. I knew at that moment that black women were going to have their moment in Hollywood soon. That belief in myself took me across the world to Singapore attending NYU Tisch Asia MFA program. I was directing an actor on the kitchen floor of my apartment when I saw a performance come alive through the monitor that moved me to tears. I felt the euphoric high that directors get when a moment is PERFECT. I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, but it was THAT moment that I knew I had to be a director. I have been chasing that high ever since.

Q: What would you say is your unique responsibility as a filmmaker?

Unique? Hmm… that’s a good question. I could say, “as a black woman, it’s important to give a voice to the voiceless.” Although that is true, I can’t say that is unique. It is our job as artists, to tell the truth, and hold a mirror to society.

What is unique is using art as a form of spiritual practice. I recently learned that the work that I do, doesn’t just come from me, but rather through me. I think my personal responsibility is creating and protecting that flow for myself and to continue to search for collaborators that operate the same way. Being an authentic truth-teller will automatically be the product of that process.

Q: What’s next for you?

I am working on directing the next short film that I plan on shooting this summer. I am also in the process of writing what I hope will be my first feature.

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