Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Radical Intellectuals: Tanya Hamilton on her Black Panther movie

I spoke to Tanya Hamilton, the director of Night Catches Us, by phone earlier this month. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Your movie seems to be partly about what you owe your immediate family versus what you owe your community. I’ve been thinking about this lately in light of Malcolm X’s family – the family feud over his estate that is dragging on, and the sad stuff about some of his daughters that it’s bringing to light. Malcolm left this huge legacy for the world, but for his own family, he may have been just another absentee father. Was this kind of mixed legacy something you were thinking about in making your movie?
Absolutely. In terms of the kid’s story and her arc, that’s a huge part of it. We want people we admire to be uncomplicated. The complicated parts are left out, because we like archetypes, especially in this society. But the reality is that people are layered.

The Iris character in my film has grown up in the shadows. She had these two parents who were the kind of people who exist like bright shining lights – people gravitate toward them. But the people who love them have to compete with that, and how can they possibly compete with adoring fans? I think Pat [Iris’s mother] gets a lot out of being needed. She gets more out of being needed by the people in the neighborhood than she does out of her own kid.

The movie also poses some pretty tough questions about the legacy left by the Panthers. You show their good works, and you have Pat say that they weren’t really about violence; they were about helping the community. But at the same time, there was this violence, which wound up killing her husband. Were you trying to make some comment about America in general, or the Panthers in particular, about how our infatuation with violence and militaristic imagery can wind up overshadowing the good things about us?
I don’t think I was necessarily making that comment on the Panther movement. I think the Panthers were incredibly savvy. They were intellectual guys, and they were forward-thinking. They were radicals in how they looked at the world and how they employed their visuals, and they knew how to manipulate and basically get a rise out of white people. They were grassroots advocates, and that combination was really wonderful and shouldn’t be taken for granted, given the time that it happened. Their message, I think, was pretty beautiful.

But I think they have been maligned in that same kind of simplified corporate way that we get information and ingest information. I wanted to try to find the truest pieces of what they were in that duality. They employed the violence that permeated the time. The ‘60s and the ‘70s were really emotionally raw and violent times. I think now people are being destroyed financially and emotionally, in much more sophisticated ways. There was an interesting kind of rawness to that time. People were just taken out.

You had a pretty amazing cast. Not only Kerry Washington and Anthony Mackie, who was great in this movie, but also Wendell Pierce Jamie Hector from The Wire.
I don’t think I was able to sit back and realize how nice a cast it is until well afterward. We had [another] cast attached for quite a while, and when we finally got the financing for the film, we ended up having to redo the whole cast And what seemed at the time to be the worst thing that could happen turned out to really be the best. The cast we had originally was extraordinary, but it would have been a very different film.

You said you had to cut your script way back in order to be able to afford to make the movie. How different would it have been if you’d been able to shoot the whole thing?
I don’t know. That’s a great question, actually. I think our first 15 minutes would have been better. We would have spent more time trying to make Jimmy a more full character. I think Affonso [Gonçalves], the editor, really did miracles with the little pieces of footage that we had. But when I look at the film, that dogs me still. I think Jimmy is the one line I kind of pulled away from, because I felt like I was using him partly as a teaching tool, which I really didn’t want to do. But also because he wasn’t a main character, and I had to get rid of something.

My intention was to craft the character of Jimmy as someone who means a lot of different things. He’s young, and [the Panthers] marked him indelibly at some point in his life and then they disappeared. What happens to a kid when someone comes into his life and makes such a mark? It could be a father, it could be a mother, it could be a community leader, whatever. They were there and then they weren’t. And he was at his most vulnerable place. He doesn’t have a safety net, because he’s part of the working poor. And he doesn’t have a family. I wanted him to be a reflection of what happened when the Panthers were destroyed – both when they destroyed themselves and when external governmental forces destroyed them.

Can you explain what the title means?
I’m Jamaican, and so there’s a thing in Jamaica, don’t let night catch you. I’d go out and my grandmother would always say, ‘Don’t come back after dark and don’t let night catch you.’ We were sitting around when we were about to wrap and thinking about it – cast and grips and everybody really chiming in – and my husband [Michael W. Pollock], who is a great fiction writer, came up with the title. Night is obviously a metaphor for one’s past, and the whole movie is about these people trying to run in all these directions, trying to escape their pasts, which is always going to catch up with you.

You were trained as a painter before you went to film school. How did that training inform your work as a filmmaker? And did you learn something from being a figurative painter about how to study people or how to create a character?
One of the things that I was taught as a painter — and I think in many ways it’s how my brain is set up — is that you have to deconstruct in order to reconstruct, in order to find your work. So when I’d do a painting, I’d step back and look at it and even my favorite parts I would rip apart. In fact, maybe especially my favorite parts, because you’re not allowed to have parts of the work that you fetishize. So everything I’ve done has gone through the same thing.

Same thing with writing. I can’t do outlines. I have no interest in them, in part because I just start writing and then I sort of discover what the thing is about. Well, that’s not a very efficient way. It doesn't make getting hired as a writer all that easy. They want to know what the message is.

I really put myself into directing this film. On the acting level, I had to learn how to work with people. But on a visual level, I knew what I wanted. I would say: ‘Let’s do this. I want that shot. I want that flower.’ And then in the editing room, I had to figure out where that flower went and why. I am interested in how I can place that flower in a way that speaks to the structure of the film but also is a metaphor for something else, and I can’t define what that metaphor is until I’ve pieced it together and ripped it apart.

You told Indiewire that shooting brought up a lot of things you hadn’t been aware of before about being a female filmmaker. Can you elaborate on that?
As a brown person in the U.S., being brown is always my priority. I just feel the world through that lens. But I, very foolishly, never thought of gender. I think white women can inhabit a more treacherous space as a woman. For instance, black women are often left out of advertising so, for instance, the need to weigh 90 pounds is not a pressure I feel, because it’s not geared toward me.

If somebody challenges me, as a brown person, I always think, what was the racial component of that? And sometimes there isn’t one. In the last year and a half, often I would find there wasn’t one and then realize, ‘Oh my, I think that moment was all about gender.’ And then I had to contemplate my reaction to it. Which was, at first, sort of wide-eyed. Because I am a little bit of a fool in that way. I live in a little bit of a bubble and kind of do my own thing.

But I have learned things about myself and about how society works, and about my Jamaican-ness. I learned about my own personal aggression, which is not something I was ever willing to take a look at. I think about my mom, who was the kindest, most gentle person in the world until you messed with her. I found my Jamaican, ‘Do not get in my face' attitude.

I think I really understood in the past year, year and a half how the world is really defined by gender – in ways that are I think are really wonderful and ways that I think suck. And I think I’m very capable of navigating it, not thinking of myself as a victim but just saying, ‘Don’t cross my line.’

You say race is the lens through which you look at the world, and it’s obviously a huge part of what this movie is about. Do you have a kind of grand plan for your filmmaking in terms of what you say about racism in America, the way, say, August Wilson executed this plan of doing a play about every decade in the 20th century?
That’s really cool, actually, what August Wilson did. But I think that, for better or worse, I’m just really interested in people. I’m interested in how and who people are, and I’m interested in worlds. Maybe I’m a little bit of a misanthrope, frankly. I’m not all that interested in hanging out with people. But I am interested in what motivates them, who they are. There’s just something very compelling about that.

When I painted, my paintings were always really huge and abstract, but they were always about people and they always had some kind of emotional narrative going on.

I don’t want to make movies about my own personal angst. I think that stuff’s cool, and it should exist. But for me, personally, I’d like to find a way to internalize my angst into something that’s a little more broad, a little more relevant to other people.

Can you talk a little about the look of the film? How did you talk to your cinematographer about what you wanted the film to do visually?
In a way, I think I wanted a little piece of my childhood from the ‘70s – the blues, the spots of red here and there, the yellow. I had a lot of photos from my house as a kid in the U.S., a specific light I didn’t want anything garish. I didn’t want it to be primary colors. I wanted the film to be very layered and subtle, about subtext, and I wanted the visuals to be the same way. I wanted to be able to capture what I remembered visually as a kid, which was these working people who lived in very modest homes were kind of saturated with layers that dulled the world a little bit.

Is filmmaking your medium now, or do you think of yourself as a painter, or both?
Even in undergrad, I made films –not with professional actors, but short avant-garde films, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. I think I’ve always been a filmmaker as well as a painter. I don’t think that’s going to change. Both are things that I really need. And writing [screenplays], but that’s the odd man out part. Directing makes sense for me. It comes very naturally, and painting is easy for me too. Writing is the thing I’ve had to learn. It’s the thing that is a struggle and the thing I really love. I feel like I have to write and make myself a better writer and then better than that. I’m not even halfway there.

Being married to a fiction writer, what I’ve learned from him is that it’s the details, the small things and the small moments, that matter most.

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