The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation’s “The Unspoken Curriculum” PSA
What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?
In 2018 I directed a branded doc film for my hometown chapter of the YWCA. We told the story of a Black mother, Penny, who at the age of 34 gave birth to her third child and shortly thereafter had a heart attack. She survived, but her road to recovery was incredibly difficult. She struggled in every aspect of her life and deeply despaired at her inability to live the radiant independent life she lived before the heart attack. Then the YWCA stepped up and gave her the tools and support she needed to become whole again. It was a beautiful story. And for me it was the first time in my independent filmmaking journey that a production company approached me and said “Hey we think you’re the perfect person to tell this story.” And I’ve been fortunate to just keep going ever since.
How did you get into directing?
Carefully. I’ve always been interested in storytelling but it took a lot of exploration and experimentation to discover precisely how I could translate that desire to tell stories into a career. Fresh out of college I started as an editor before learning how to express myself through camera operation and lighting. Before long a local production company saw what I was doing and offered me a position as their in-house cinematographer. Once there it really opened my whole world up. I always say those three years at the company became my film school because I learned to do nearly every job – from pitching to finishing. This process helped me realize that directing was for me.
What is your most recent project?
The most recent project I can talk about is the PSA for which I’m being featured. The Boris L. Henson Foundation, started by Taraji P. Henson, ran a campaign in Spring 2021 raising awareness about the unspoken and often harmful lessons black children learn in schools and subsequently carry with them for the rest of their lives. My friends over at Windy Films in Boston reached out and got me involved. For many reasons I really wanted to work with real youth spoken word poets and performers from the region to bring a real sense of honesty and urgency to the project. Shout-out to my lovely New Orleans film community because somehow we made it work!
What is the best part of being a director?
The world building. And I’m not just talking about mis en scene. I’m talking film sets as an ecosystem that actors enter and hopefully feel secure enough to do their best most vulnerable, honest work. There’s that saying, “Build the world you want to see.” By being intentional in the collaborative process, I build a microcosm of the world I want to see on a film set. Curious, thoughtful, efficient, fair, equitable, enjoyable, harmonious. It’s about bringing the right artists and filmmakers into the mix. Folks who believe in that way of living and working. I don’t have enough power to make the entire world work that way, but if I can create that world on film sets, project after project…hey that’s a start.
What is the worst part of being a director?
The waiting. Being in between projects and figuring out how to get the next one off the ground always feels like starting over at square one. Most of my career has been as an independent filmmaker and it sometimes feels like I’m waiting on circumstances to line up to be able to create something that’s been in my head for months. Or years. But I think having to wait builds patience, which definitely comes in handy once I’m back in production. So even though waiting doesn’t always feel great, it’s still a valuable part of the process.
What is your current career focus: commercials and branded content, television, movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre–comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
I’m directing commercials and short narrative projects with every intention of adding feature narrative into the mix soon. I gravitate toward interpersonal human drama, comedy, grounded sci-fi. Things that really speak to the human condition and our souls.
Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates with you?
The first industry professional who really took me seriously when I was transitioning from cinematography to directing was an accomplished local director named John Haynes. He told me, “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Own up to them. Learn from them. And just keep going.”
Who is your favorite director and why?
Impossible choice for me these days. I admire so many aspects of so many directors’ filmographies; Sidney Lumet’s intentionality in every choice, Wong Kar Wai’s sensitivity, Kurosawa’s atmospherics, Kathleen Collins and Charles Burnett’s courage in fully humanizing Black people, Paul Thomas Anderson’s ability to guide actors into the most jaw dropping performances, Garrett Bradley’s genius, Bresson’s focus on the individual as universal, Claire Denis’ blocking, Aronofsky’s editorial rhythm and timing, Barbara Loden’s boldness in telling the truth, Steve McQueen’s absolute wizardry in making audiences feel discomfort, Barry Jenkins’ ability to manipulate time. Asghar Farhadi’s social anthropology. I also love Jeff Nichols and Dee Rees’ unique ability to do so much on limited resources. I could go on forever.
What is your favorite movie? Your favorite television/online program? Your favorite commercial or branded content?
Another difficult choice! Hard to say. But if I happen to walk past a TV and There Will be Blood, Training Day, Beau Travail, Moonlight, or The Two Towers happens to be playing… I’m probably dropping everything to watch.
Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I’m a Louisiana born and reared son of a preacher and a Creole homemaker. Not coming from wealth. Never had an uncle hand me a camera at age eight or anything. I was just a lil Black kid who loved stories. I was always reading a book or watching a movie. I did theatre. I wrote sermons, poems, plays. In college I found myself majoring in broadcast journalism where I worked with cameras for the first time and that’s what woke me up. The next six years after college became my film school. I worked as an editor and cinematographer at local production companies and really got to do every job from pre-production to postproduction. Somewhere along the way I figured out that directing was for me. It’s where I feel most purposeful and engaged. I quit my job in 2016 and the rest is history.
How has the pandemic impacted your career, art, craft, shaped your attitudes and reflections on life which in turn may influence your work, approach, spirit, mindset?
COVID wiped away the illusion that I have any control over anything at all. For us directors, aka control freaks, that can be a harrowing thought. But the pandemic era has lingered so long that I’ve learned to find that notion freeing. I’m more comfortable leaning into the uncertain and unknown.