An Interview with Canaan Kennedy

During the 1989-1990 school year at Stanford University, I took Adrienne Kennedy’s playwriting class. We’ve been in touch ever since. Now, her grandson Canaan has written a book on his family, and I’m not only helping with the Kickstarter campaign, but I asked him a few questions about the project.

What’s the name of your book, and what is it about?

The title of my book is Struggles to Victory – Over Racism in America. This book is about my family’s experiences with being black in America and dealing with the racism that came with it. Ever since I was little, my family would tell me stories of the difficulties they faced in life because of the color of their skin. This book contains interviews from my father, my grandmother, and my grandfather. My father’s story explains his incident with the Arlington Police Department, when he was unlawfully beaten outside of his home in Arlington, Virginia. The interview explains this traumatic event and how he overcame this to write the play Sleep Deprivation Chamber, which went on to win the 1996 Obie Award for Best New American Play.

My grandmother’s interview tells her stories of attending Ohio State and traveling the world as she began her journey of becoming a playwright.

My grandfather’s interview explains his life and his co-founding of Africare, a non-profit organization committed to aiding people of Africa.

At 17 years old I wanted to record their lives into the form of a book so that people could gain insight into being black in America. What makes these stories so great is the fact that they were able to overcome racism and achieve their dreams. I’ve always been interested in how people overcome difficult obstacles and situations in life because ultimately overcoming obstacles, turning struggles into victories is what life is about. Understanding how people overcome adversity to achieve greatness is what I want to be able to mimic.

What was your process for creating it?

Well, I had this epiphany one day that made me want to sit down and write a book about my family. It was during the summer, it was a hot day, and this idea to write a book just came to me. I can remember writing about the process actually and on one occasion I wrote, “Well I’m writing a book and I have about seven pages.” It was a long process. I spent hours reading, researching, and conducting interviews and then transcribing them. Many hours were spent editing the transcriptions because they didn’t come out that well. I really immersed myself in the book because I really enjoyed doing it, and creating something of my own about something I care about was really wonderful. I can’t wait until it’s finished because then I can start to work on my next project.

Who’s the audience?

The audience is young adults who are trying to navigate life. The stories can teach me lessons about how to overcome difficult times.

What do you hope people take away from it?

With everything going on from Michael Brown to Eric Garner, I hope that people can get a better understanding of being black in America. I just want people to know about my family and what they had to go through. I was always proud of my family stories and found them very interesting, and I hope that people will be intrigued and fascinated too.

Who are some of your influences?

In my room I have posters of Malcolm X, Patrice Lumumba, Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy, Mahatma Gandhi, Julius Caesar, Ramses, and Alexander the Great. My father taught me about these people who strived for greatness, who wanted to change the world. These are my icons because I too want to be great. These were all great men and their ability to command and lead people is why I respect them. All of these people understood that greatness is not built in a day, it is about the amount of everlasting effort you put into it.

Check out the Kickstarter project at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mbreauxsia/struggles-to-victory-a-book-by-canaan-kennedy, and share your own stories of victory on social media using the hashtag #StrugglesToVictory.

 

In Search of…Mars

Rest in peace, Leonard Nimoy. As Spock, you brought us all over the galaxy, dealing with tribbles, recovering from the hazards of the planet Neural, jamming on your Vulcan harp. Those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s also knew you from In Search Of…, where you introduced us to the legends of Bigfoot and the incorrigibly coy Loch Ness Monster.

Perhaps this was all sociocultural groundwork for the Mars 100.

In honor of your stature in the intergalactic In Crowd and your never-ending ability to terrify, provoke, and mystify, Cinemulatto is doing a bit of its own celestial discovery. Assuming that someone, somewhere, will eventually make it to Mars—several someones, most likely—we’re examining the question: why the hell do you wanna go there? What if, like Obi-Wan, you’re our only hope? Is this the next major evolutionary step for humans? What weighty objectives will our intrepid trailblazers of Martian Manifest Destiny tackle in the name of humanity, morality, and scientific advancement? This is your chance, humans—don’t screw it up. Also, I have a few more questions.

Questions for People Going to Mars

  • Will you propagate the species?
  • Will there finally be equality?
  • Will you not screw up the environment? Is that even possible on Mars?
  • Does this mean an end to poverty?
  • Will you establish more than a two-party system? Or have none?
  • You’ll have to share resources; will your society be socialist, communist, or other?
  • With lower gravity on Mars, will you evolve into an average height of 10 feet?
  • Will there be an LGBTQIA community?
  • Will the incarceration rate for black men disappear?
  • Does this mean an end to warfare?
  • Will you have the arts? Science? The search for truth?
  • Will you have schools, museums, and libraries?
  • Will there be guns?
  • What are you looking for, exactly?

Despite the questions raised by the possibility of the next phase of human evolution, our Martian counterparts are definitely escaping some of the more egregious things we have here on Earth. Just to provide a different, more positive perspective, here are a few things they’ll no longer have to think about.

Things Humanoid-Martians Won’t Have to Think About

  • Home refinancing
  • Locally raised food
  • Pesticides
  • Bad credit
  • Terrorist threats
  • Westboro Baptist Church
  • Online dating
  • Gym memberships
  • Free shipping
  • Finding a parking space
  • Flash flood warnings
  • Dense fog advisories
  • Crowd control
  • Broken escalators
  • Being mauled by a mountain lion

Whatever one thinks of the Mars One mission, space exploration is here to stay. I know I’m with Neil deGrasse Tyson. Fare thee well, sweet species, fare thee well.

 

7 Thoughts for the Beginning of 2015

Cinemulatto’s mind has been all over the place—still tracing my family history (yes, someday I may even participate in an Acadian reenactment), reading a lot, breathing a bit after some big work deadlines. I’ve faced a few film festival rejections, leading me to wonder why I bother submitting to film festivals (and spending way too much money on submission fees, travel and housing costs in the event of an actual acceptance, and moving-target distribution opportunities).

I’ve had many moments where there’s been “just a little question in my mind,” to quote Arthur Lee. Here are the resulting thoughts.

Obama. A friend and I once had a debate about Jungle Fever and the gist was this: he felt Spike Lee could do no wrong since he’s the most radical African American filmmaker who’s ever hit the mainstream. Although I wouldn’t consider Obama radical, in many ways his presidency is a deviation, one mixed with inspired moments of governance—becoming “the LGBT president,” giving us Obamacare, pushing for immigration reform, reaching out to Cuba. I recognize there’s still work to be done and that he’s not perfect. Still, Obama has had an active and relatively progressive tenure, and this is why I find myself forgiving some of his political transgressions. After all, just about all of the “bad” things about his time in office predated him; things like wiretapping, drones, and detainees at military prisons were started by others. Obama hasn’t stopped them, for sure, but he also inherited them and likely stepped into an already well-established culture that predated him by several decades. So, I’ve been thinking about this. I’ll keep defending him.

Progress. The universe is almost 14 billion years old. Astronomer estimates say there are over 100 billion galaxies. What’s the nature of progress?

Democracy. In writing about Jane Austen’s female leads, Azar Nafisi states in Reading Lolita in Tehran, “They risk ostracism and poverty to gain love and companionship, and to embrace that elusive goal at the heart of democracy: the right to choose.” Does this mean that the second episode of Black Mirror has a happy ending?

Vaccinations. Why are we debating this?

Compassion. My brother David is in San Antonio, Texas, continuing his year-long compassion tour. Meanwhile, I’m making arrangements to visit the child I sponsor in Jackson, Mississippi, and the number of impoverished public school children has risen. Compassion is doing whatever one can to help at least one other person.

Films of the imagination. Have things like reality TV and the John Cassavetes Award inured us to creativity? Does make-believe only exist in the realm of science fiction? Can’t I pull a story and fictitious world out of my ass and have it be believable on its own terms?

Athanasia. My short film got accepted into this year’s Queer Women of Color Film Festival! The story is completely fabricated. It looks at how death affects an aunt who loses her nephew and her relationship with her partner. Everyone has their own way of dealing with death. More details to come once I have them. (By the way, there are no submission fees for this festival, it’s local, and all films are free.)

What are your current thoughts?

 

A Few Notes on Forgiveness

Eva Kor

Happy 2015. It’s been awhile. I haven’t posted to this blog since November 26th, but I took a much-needed, end-of-year break to recuperate from multiple film productions and the ongoing physical and emotional demands of parenting.

However—I’ve been thinking about history, my own past, and my place in the genetic cosmos. In the process, I’ve also been continuing to contemplate the nature of forgiveness. When I studied abroad at Stanford in Oxford in the spring of 1990, I dated a young man whom we’ll call Peter (since that was his name). Whenever I stayed over at his place, he’d be up bright and early, and would leave way before I woke up. I finally asked him about this and he said his early morning trips were to the library, to “look for answers.”

I thought he was weird.

Now, so many years later, I’m in the middle of my own search for “answers.” It seems this has been accompanied by a mid-life crisis that’s been going on for about the last 20 years—or maybe not so much a crisis as an awakening. Or maybe I’m mistaking it for my Peruvian ayahuasca experience.

Whatever the cause, I find myself living life not necessarily as if each day is my last, but definitely with an awareness that each moment is filled with its own poetry. It’s a hyperawareness, a need to stay calm most of the time so that I don’t overwhelm anybody. I asked my psychotherapist wife recently if there’s such a thing as low-level bipolar disorder. She said yes.

I’ve posted here before about both my mother and my father, and about how I’ve largely forgiven my father for cruelties to my mother—hitting her, throwing water into her face, subjecting her to daily invective. Since then, I keep having flashbacks to moments of my father’s kindness I didn’t recognize as such at the time:

  • I used to collect aluminum cans in a bag, and every so often, my father would gather them, roll a cement block over to them, and crush the cans flat. We’d travel together to the local recycling center, where he’d give me the cash from my saved cans.
  • A staple for kids growing up in the 1970s was the Scholastic Book Club and their paper order forms jam-packed with a wide variety of children’s books. Whenever I brought the flyer home, my father would let me order whatever books I wanted (there must’ve been a limit). On book delivery day, he’d be there in the classroom, cash in hand, with a wide grin.
  • The first memory I have of my mother’s schizophrenia probably dates back to 1971 or 1972. I didn’t understand why she was standing on the other side of the room, acting so strangely. I know my younger brother wasn’t born yet. My older brother and I sat on our couch, our dad in the middle with an arm around each of us. I felt scared and protected at the same time.

The media would have us see things as clearly black or white—this or that, good or bad, either with us or against us. We’ve largely become a society of very little gray area, uncertainty, or “it depends”. We’d rather argue in absolutes.

I used to have absolute hatred for my father before maturing to the point of absolutely understanding he was a human being.

There have been far greater acts of mercy than what I’m going through with him. Eva Kor and The Forgiveness Project come to mind. If someone can forgive the men who, during the Holocaust, used human beings as lab rats, then I have no excuse for not making peace with my father. The memories that keep rolling in make it much easier.

Like Eva Cor, I haven’t forgotten, but I’ve forgiven.

 

Let Us Now Praise
Michael Brown

Like so many others this week, I feel angered, saddened, and almost defeated by the non-indictment of Darren Wilson for his murder of Michael Brown. People are taking to the streets, to social media, to workplace and public debate.

At the same time, Bill Cosby shares race-fueled headlines. Party People—a play about the legacy of the Black Panthers and current questions of solidarity, the sociopolitical climate, and “armchair activism”—continues at Berkeley Rep to sold-out, mostly white audiences. I saw it with my wife last Friday night. I’m also in the middle of reading
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, James Agee’s 1936 poetic exploration of the lives of three poor, white Alabama sharecropper families that he conducted with FSA photographer Walker Evans. They never told their subjects their intentions or that they were media men; they didn’t provide them with a copy of the completed book, much less payment or royalties.

In sum, I’m a big mess. But if we’ve learned anything from suffragettes, the Civil Rights Movement, the Student Movement, and any movement geared toward leveling the playing field for the disenfranchised, it’s that we can never give up. If we do, “they” win.

As a parent of two who’s admittedly afraid of getting hurt and otherwise a big old large-crowd wuss, I’m not protesting in the streets. There is a vital need for loud, large-scale protest, even if I don’t and can’t participate. Activism comes in varied forms.

I can at times be that armchair activist, who, after spirited polemics on social media and carefully considered arguments with friends and co-workers, signs petitions and calls elected representatives. These efforts seem in vain after another brown life has been lost. What else, I ask myself, can I do?

Martin Luther King said, “I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for the minds and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.” So, I commit to working from the ground up, to greater action in the ways I best know how. Here’s my plan for trying to affect change in small ways, with the understanding that progress is often the sum of its parts.

  1. Create a documentary that examines the lives of three contemporary families living on the margins, but pay the participants, self-distribute, and have all proceeds go to the families. Hire people from the communities in which the three families live.
  2. Periodically go through my possessions and give them away instead of taking them to places like Goodwill or Salvation Army.
  3. Volunteer to read books to underserved kids.
  4. Hire an intern from an underserved community to work on my films, and pay them.
  5. Organize healthy food drives (see http://www.superfooddrive.org/resources/healthy-food-drive/).
  6. Donate to causes that provide food, educational opportunity, cultural engagement, and avenues of dignity to underserved youth.
  7. Subsidize a youth’s trip to go see a socially relevant play, movie, or art exhibit.
  8. Take a family in need out to a meal.
  9. Take another family in need clothes shopping.
  10. Stretch goal: Raise funds to sponsor someone’s health insurance premiums for a year, preferably a family.
  11. Other stretch goal: Go through the list again and again. Add to it, refine, and grow it into something that’s part of who I am and how I exist in the world.

I’ll quote Johnny Rotten: “Anger is an energy.” The powers that be may have riot gear, but we have the incessant and unwavering energy—and ability—to be in many, many places at once, whether it’s online, in the streets, or behind a camera. There aren’t enough tanks for that, are there?

I’ll report back.

 

#Funcle, #Socorro, and a Resolution Check

It’s been quiet. After major deadlines at my day job that meant a bunch of late nights and even more early mornings, several colds, and non-stop short film production, I’m now going to bed earlier. And sleeping more. And spending time not doing much as I prep for post-production on Socorro, the last short film of this year. It’s about a traveling musician in a semi-futuristic world in search of love and companionship (and his quest to take out a bad guy). Another of the 2014 shorts, Funcle, had its premiere on November 8th at the San Francisco Transgender Film Festival and I’m sending it out to meet a few more submission deadlines. It’s about the two genderqueer buddies pictured above.

Although there are still a couple of months left in the year, it seems as good a time as any to check in—how did I do with this year’s resolutions?

  1.  I made four shorts instead of six. This is fine by me. (Or, using active voice: I’m fine with this.) The four are Winter’s Eve, Athanasia, Funcle, and Socorro, and I had a private screening of the first three to a small group of good friends and my family. These were a blast to make and share. If nothing else happens with them I’m content. The main reason: throughout it all, along with the pressures of work, I battled a bout of mild depression and seem to have won. Note to creative types who get bogged down easily by life at moments: read, rest, eat well, take walks, drink tea, and get some sunshine.
  2. I’ve got two feature scripts in decent shape. Not perfect, but not bad. My major goal for next year is to pick one (not six) and run with it.
  3. I’ve been mentoring. As I mentioned in an April post, mentoring is so much more valuable than being a mentee. I’ve confirmed this as true. I’ve been guiding three actors on their quest to hone their skills, and although it’s a long process, I feel I’ve been able to provide the right amount of encouragement and guidance, as desired and requested by my mentees. A good start was casting them in my short films.
  4. I’ve lost track of my movie retreats. Being the mother of a two-year-old at age 45 is damn hard. What I’ve learned in this process: patience grows thinner as you get older, or perhaps during middle age. As I’ve said before: read, rest, eat well, take walks, drink tea, and get some sunshine. Do this with your two-year-old and it makes things a lot easier.
  5. I got out more! I’m happy to have made several new friends in 2014 (I hope you know who you are!). Life is good.

The gist of the above: despite Republicans now controlling Congress, bees dying, drone attacks, and bad things generally persisting, life and creativity go on for the artistically minded. Find time to relax. Then start all over again (at a slower pace, as needed).

 

I’m Black, I’m White, I’m Neither

James Weldon Johnson

“I cannot repress the thought, that after all I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”–James Weldon Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man

It’s been over a century since the publication of James Weldon Johnson’s novel in which a bi-racial man passes for white in post-Reconstruction America. He shares first his experience of living as a black youth, then as a young man who passes for white in order to become successful and avoid persecution. He goes from a continual sense of doom and danger to a life of safety and security.

James Weldon Johnson lived during a time when it was perhaps understandable why someone would want to shed one’s skin, so to speak, and be done with social ostracism or culturally sanctioned murder.

Just when it seems as though things and times have changed—along comes Trayvon Martin. And Michael Brown. And John Crawford. And a list way too long, with statistics way too skewed against black males in America’s prison industrial complex.

The novel’s lead character, Ex-Colored Man, passes as white. One wonders why anyone wouldn’t still want to do the same thing, if possible, to secure a fat slice of the American, upper-crust pie. Well, no self-respecting bi-racial person, or at least not a socially conscious one, would do that today. (Right?) Still, perhaps she’s found herself in situations where she’s assumed to be a certain race and has to act accordingly.

What has this looked like for me? What does it mean for a mixed-race black and white person to experience blackness, whiteness, and something outside of either?

My father was told not to marry my mother because she was Jamaican. (We know how that turned out.) Once he went ahead with it, he was told to not have kids. (Ditto.) As a young girl, I experienced racism within my own extended family. I was never expected to do well, never encouraged to even speak at social gatherings, and always assumed to be, in the words of one of my aunts, “dumb.” As I got older, I learned what it’s like to be invisible in groups of mostly white people (especially in upstate New York). I’ve gotten side eye, up and down eye, glare eye, and annoyed face. In college, I started understanding and returning “the nod” when walking by a black person, as if I was part of a secret club.

I was also the first in my family (and I believe hometown) to go to a prestigious college. I’ve always—knock on wood—had good job karma, usually landing positions after one or two interviews, if I’ve even had to interview. I grew up being ridiculed for loving The Beatles. I’ve been told, “Oh, I thought you were white.” I’ve heard the N-word uttered, with no black people in sight, when no one thought I would care. I was often told as a child that I had “good hair.” I’ve gone to clubs with black friends who were turned away at the door after I was told I could go in (followed by me yelling at door guy, my own “annoyed face”, and leaving in a huff).

I’ve experienced both racism and privilege. Is this what it feels to be black and/or white? Is this the mixed-race experience?

Mixed-race, as it turns out, is a whole different beast, an alternate reality that takes elements of both white and black, and everything between, outside, and around. The puzzled looks of people trying to figure out what I am. The conversations with other mixed-race people that can only happen after such incidents as a recent trip to the grocery store. An older white man came very close to my mixed-race toddler, exclaimed, “The hair!”, and tried to give her a high five. She cowered and I interrupted with, “Hello, strange man, I don’t think she likes that.”

The mixed-race woman in the next aisle saw the whole thing. Thus came the post-game commentary: eye rolling accompanied by a discussion of how annoying it is when that happens. She told me that it wasn’t until she was 25 until she realized she had “good hair.” On the one hand I thought, great, maybe all the comments my daughter gets about her hair or indeterminate race won’t affect her all that much and she won’t even think about them until she’s older. On the other hand, I thought, wait, this woman spent two decades of her life thinking she had awful hair? Is this what it means to be mixed race—existing in a no man’s land created by society’s need to peg someone definitively as something, until such time that the someone finds her own sense of pride, identity, and self-respect? And what forms of suffering happen until then?

Ours is not a tragic mulatto!

Like any identity, mixed-race is a culmination of life experience, some good, some bad, and some uncertain. It’s refusing James Weldon Johnson’s “mess of pottage.” It’s taking the best of two worlds, processing the rest, and offering a unique perspective that can only come from seeing the larger world in different ways.

On a train in Italy back in the late 1980s, three Canadian guys mistook me for German, talking about me openly behind my back and not realizing we spoke the same language. My Italian friend said something to me and blew my cover. Being racially ambiguous has its more entertaining moments.

 

Types of Roles Black Actors Never Get

I saw Boyhood this past weekend and loved it. I loved it for the same reason I loved The Tree of Life: it was a meditation on all the moments that, in sum, make up a life, and it presented the most mundane situations with a simplicity, tenderness, and unaffectedness that rendered them poetic. There were hardships—parental alcoholism, divorce, uprooting and moving to an unfamiliar new town—but nothing like the struggles we’ve come to expect of movies that feature black characters.

The Help. Fruitvale Station. 12 Years a Slave. All important movies, for sure, but what if black characters were afforded opportunities to self-realize and experience “normal” challenges in ways that are mostly reserved for whites in films? What would that look like? And how odd would it sound to audiences so used to seeing white people in these roles?

Boyhood. A young black male, Otis Kennedy, suffers through the pain of his parents’ divorce. Visiting his father often enough to learn the ins and outs of camping trips and bowling alleys, he continues his self-discovery through manhood and into college, where he experiences an enlightened drug trip while hiking in Big Bend State Park, Texas.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Alvin Rogers is bent on escaping the memory of Loretta Smith, his ex-girlfriend. He enlists the services of Lacuna, Inc., who promise to erase all recollections of his painful relationship. When he decides he no longer wants to go through with it, he must race against science and memory fragments to reconnect with Loretta, his true love.

Her. In 2025, Devon Williams, an introvert whose job is to write personal letters for those incapable of expressing deep emotion, purchases “Clarice”, an artificially intelligent girlfriend. Eventually learning that her love interests include 641 other people, Devon goes to his roof to watch the sunrise with his good friend, Eileen.

Angel Heart. Mark Brown, a private investigator, is hired by enigma Louis Cyphre to track down a singer, Johnny Favorite. Mark’s travels take him to the clinic where Johnny was last seen, Johnny’s former lover, and Johnny’s former musician friend, Toots Sweet. What Mark finds out about Johnny, and himself, causes a revelation of identity and terror.

High Fidelity. Ronnie Washington, who owns a record store, recounts various breakups, attempting to find out what went wrong with each one. His fun-loving, oddball co-workers, Andre Youngblood and Ronald Jackson, spout obscure music trivia as Ronnie tries to win back an ex, Ruby.

Winter’s Bone. Seventeen-year-old Rhianna Davis is the head of her family, who live in the rural Ozarks. To protect them, she embarks on a mission to find her father, who put the house up for collateral to pay his bail and has gone missing. Knowing he’s involved with the local crystal meth scene, she questions shady characters, only to find herself in dangerous situations with no answers. Not believing her father’s been killed, she continues her perilous search until she finds out the truth.

Perhaps Winter’s Bone, with its underprivileged characters, absent father, and drug motif, is the closest this brief list comes to what black actors are usually offered in the way of mainstream roles. In the year 2014, there has to be more. Think of our most beloved characters from cinema. Can you imagine if Willy Wonka had been black? How about a black Tyler Durden, or Jack Sparrow, or Jessica Rabbit?

Where all the fun, non-stereotypical characters at?

 

Filmmaking Lessons from
The Beatles

The Beatles have been my favorite band since I was probably in 1st or 2nd grade. My first album was Meet the Beatles. From there it was a years-long and still-current obsession involving things like bootleg purchases, Beatles A-Z weekends on local radio, Beatlefest in Los Angeles, and lyric memorization. I once started a childhood religion based on the worship of John Lennon. But that’s a different blog post.

I know all the trivia involving Paul being dead and Adrienne Kennedy’s adaptation of In His Own Write and John having various threesomes and Eric Burdon being the Eggman.

The obsession, of course, includes films. I’ve visited the sidewalk at Marylebone Station in London where George fell down in A Hard Day’s Night and I can tell you that when it was first broadcast, Magical Mystery Tour, an improvised movie, was in black and white (leading to poor reviews by critics who may have been otherwise swayed by psychedelic colors). These aren’t the most lasting bits of information involving movies, however. My love of everything Beatle (peace and love, peace and love, peace and love, says Ringo) translates into filmmaking lessons based on how they navigated through their bandmate years. It goes something like this:

  • Continually try new things. Stop touring and hit the studio. See what it sounds like singing while lying down. Try making movies in different genres, or spending no money, or based on things like inner city black men who don’t get shot.
  • It’s fine to not make sense sometimes. John Lennon purposely wrote I Am the Walrus to confound school teachers who’d started analyzing his lyrics in classrooms. Don’t worry about what people think, and if they happen to like what you’ve made, all the better.
  • Discover your best way of working. Paul wrote every day. John wrote during moments of inspiration. Ringo created drumbeats after reading lyrics. Find your own way of working instead of listening to what other people say you should do.
  • Work with people smarter than you. This is also called “find your George Martin.” When recording Tomorrow Never Knows, John Lennon didn’t understand the technology behind Artificial Double Tracking so called it “the flange.” Don’t worry about knowing the name of every single piece of grip equipment (unless you’re a grip). Focus on vision and big ideas.
  • Never be afraid of failure. Decca didn’t sign the The Beatles (famous instance of kicking oneself in the ass). For every 10 failures there has to be at least one success. Some successes are larger than others.
  • Put in the hours. Malcolm Gladwell’s now-iconic statistic of The Beatles playing 10,000+ hours in Hamburg, Germany is a great example of how you have to do the work. Keep going. Get behind the camera, spruce up your editing station, and watch thousands of films.
  • Give peace a chance. If you’re always arguing, break up. Filmmaking has many solo moments, but it’s essentially a community effort. If you can’t get along with someone or if someone’s treating you with disrespect….
  • Find your dream team. Fire your Pete Best. Surround yourself with people who support you and whom you respect. There’s no need to work with assholes. Keep at it until there’s chemistry and things click.
  • Provide an environment for new ideas. Yes, The Beatles were loaded. They were supported by a manager, producer, sound technicians, studio heads, and the like. Still, create your own comfortable environment where you know you’ll do your best work. Build your support network.
  • Support your team’s preferences. Lead by example and admit when there’s something you don’t know or would rather not do. Ringo let John, Paul, and George decide who went on the Sgt. Pepper cover, because he didn’t care.
  • Stop if it’s no longer fun. Life’s too short to waste it on something you don’t absolutely love doing. Cut to Abbey Road rooftop as needed.

Bonus anecdote: I cried when John Lennon died. I was in 6th grade and Howard Cosell announced it during Monday Night Football. My mom started crying, too, until she realized it was John and not Paul. “I thought it was the other one,” she said.

 

Robin Williams: Touched with Fire

Cinemulatto had to take a break for a couple of weeks. Too much death, too much hate. I’d started writing about Robin Williams right after his passing, so I feel compelled to finish what I started. Here goes….

“You need to take your wife out of the house more, she’s depressed,” Doctor Gunther told my father. I was around 14 years old. I knew she was sad but at the time didn’t understand the clinical explanation of depression. That is, not until experiencing my own highs and extreme lows around leaving home, coming out, and later dealing with the ebbs and flows of success and failure. Still, I knew this was nothing compared to what my mother had to endure.

It’s with this small insight into the depressive state that I tried to fathom what Robin Williams must’ve gone through. My mother had reason to be depressed. “How can this possibly happen to someone as famous and hilarious as Robin Williams?” we collectively ask, fulfilling denial’s part as the first stage of grief.

In her book Touched with Fire, Kay Redfield Jamison examines past artists who likely suffered from bipolar disorder, and the connection between this disease and creativity. How many more artists, actors, singers, dancers, and other creative people are out there, quietly wrestling demons, contemplating how to cope?

Stars have a mythical quality. We associate them with certain characters they’ve played, or songs they’ve written, or headlines they’ve made, or whom they’ve divorced or married. It’s too often that we find out, after it’s too late, how tortured some of them are. I don’t know how many fan letters Robin Williams received on a regular basis, and I certainly can’t say that such letters would’ve made any difference in his decision to take his life.

We do know, however, that there was an outpouring of love after his death. So, I say to all of you who changed the way I exist in the world, even if it’s just in small ways: thank you. You’re appreciated now and you made an impact.

Viola Davis. Octavia Spencer. Benicio del Toro. Cate Blanchett. The Wachowskis. Mark Ruffalo. Denzel Washington. Dustin Hoffman. Al Pacino. Laurence Fishburne. Catherine Deneuve. Halle Berry. Pam Grier. Prince. Joaquin Phoenix. Morgan Freeman.

The list can go on and on. But, as the passing of someone like Robin Williams gives us pause to reflect on issues of mortality, longevity, creativity, and suffering, let’s also give thanks to those heroes—famous and not so famous—who made us who we are.

Who would you like to thank?