Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

The Trove: Eisa Ulen Richardson & Ralph Richardson
July 2, 2011

On the Fundy Trail. On each other: “He is my rock…She is wonderful, loving, giving.”

Capricorn hip-hop heads Eisa Nefertari Ulen and Ralph Richardson, Jr. lived parallel lives near to, yet unaware of each other. Born in the city of Brotherly Love, each eventually moved with their families to idyllic Columbia, Maryland in the 1970s. As young adults, they both lived in the Nation’s Capital. For years, their worlds hovered close, threatening to collide–their cousins were good friends; they attended some of the same memorable events; they both considered law careers until the Muse called and each followed her to Brooklyn. In 1999 at the junction of Fulton and Flatbush, defying the laws of physics, their parallel lines converged.

“He saw me walking ahead of him and he liked my posture,” Eisa says. They did a bit of a dance — he walking alongside her then dropping back in the cut when she failed to notice. Undeterred, he finally strode forward offering a bright smile and a hello. “We started talking and he told me he was a filmmaker,” she says. “I was like yeah and everybody else in this neighborhood.

“No, no, really I am,” he said and dashed into his nearby apartment emerging with a VHS tape of his first film, a black and white short called Kharja which they promptly viewed in the local video store.

“Absolutely, stunningly beautiful,” Eisa says. “Very well-done. So we talked about that and I told him I was a writer and he walked me home.” Since she’d just met him on the street, she was initially hesitant to give up the digits when he asked for her phone number.  “He said, ‘You know you’re going to give it to me’ and actually I did know. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, when I looked at him, he felt really familiar. I gave it to him and about 10 minutes later he called and read me a poem he’d composed about our meeting.”

“Off the top…I only make fresh-baked bread,” Ralph laughs. From that day on, every day they were in the same town, they saw each other. There was no singular moment when it crystallized for either of them, “other than just meeting,” he says, the infinity line touched in Fort Greene. “Things evolved organically,” Ralph says and they married July 5, 2004.

“We are committed to each other as loving partners but both having divorced parents we’re even more committed to the institution of marriage,” Eisa says. And now since the 2009 birth of their son, Ralph Everett Hooper Richardson III, their entangled roots grow deeper.

“Ralph is the one I knew was out there. I had opened up a space in my life for my husband to walk in and that’s when he came…and gave me a son.”

When I visited the Richardsons in their Fort Greene home last week, Ralph talked time theory while Eisa readied herself in the bedroom. “Time drags for the young. The older you are it seems that time quickens. I think it’s because you’re denied things when you’re young: I can’t wait to be this, I can’t wait to do that.  Anticipation elongates time and I think adults need to incorporate that anticipation to extend time.”  Two-and-a-half-year-old Ralphie popped out to give me status updates on Mommy. Astrology buff Ralph explained that their son is an Aquarius, the water bearer, “he pours the water into the river, conducting the flow.” When Eisa emerged she thanked her baby boy for keeping the communication fluid.

As I sat down with the writer and filmmaker to chat life, books and movies, the ridiculously cute Ralphie (a.k.a. Hoop) shared his artwork: mixed media on paper and a Cheerios butterfly which I awkwardly broke “Ooh Miss Sharon destroyed the butterfly,” Eisa laughed and quickly reassembled the pipe cleaner-clothespin-breakfast cereal creation.

Eisa holds dear the sense of place, lineage, history, being. She is fiercely proud of her stunningly elegant “Grandmom,” Carmelita, “the Philly fashionista,” and first black woman to become a nurse-anesthetist at the University of Pennsylvania. There are traces of her in Eisa’s graceful comportment. She is grateful for her bright, beautiful mother’s staunch support. She knows she stands on the strong shoulders of remarkable women (and men) and revels in “who I am as a woman right now.  The identity of being a mom, a wife, a writer… that’s really special to me.”

Ralph is a take-it-as-it-comes guy moving through life’s triumphs and challenges in good humor with an open mind, hearty laugh and belief in the power of dreams and embracing the fortuitous moment.

Not surprisingly, womanist Eisa’s favorite films are black woman-centered and directed, Daughters of the Dust and Eve’s Bayou. Ralph’s top three are The Godfather, 1 and 2, (“bar none, together they are my number one,”) Blade Runner and Scarface.

“I used to think of The Godfather as a gangster movie and what my husband taught me is that it’s a narrative about immigration,” Eisa chimes in. “And so it got me thinking Scarface and Godfather are really rich immigrant tales. Scarface had a lot of exploitative elements but it was riveting; that opening montage with the Mariel boatlift anchors the film in a powerful way. Ralph helped me differentiate between these immigrant tales and narratives of containment like Boyz in the Hood or Menace II Society. My favorite in that category would be City of God.” 

“Yes, awesome film, awesome,” Ralph agrees. “Probably my fifth favorite, with Alfred Hitchock’s Notorious at number four. I’m all into the conspiratorial, claustrophobic, paranoia-type thing. I’m a big fan of noir and it has those elements. My favorite books are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for Blade Runner. Ellison has those elements of claustrophobia and being oppressed …gravity, tremendous amounts of gravity.” Of his two favorite authors he says, “I’m gonna make a movie combining those two sensibilities and smashing them together.”

Eisa’s favorite books are all seminal works written by black authors: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Jean Toomer’s Cane and South African writer, Bessie Head’s Maru. Her own first story–written at about age four–on tipis and tulips, remains in her mother’s library.

 The gorgeous Ulen family in 1970s ubiquity: the Olan Mills portrait.

Eisa’s activist parents, Tony and Cheryl Ulen met as students of historically black Lincoln and Cheyney Universities.  They raised their infant daughter in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, they’d divorced and Eisa’s grandfather admonished, “get my granddaughter the hell out of there.”  Her mom, ready for a fresh start, took her ten-year-old to the relatively new planned community of Columbia, Maryland.

A proud alumna of Baltimore’s all-girl Western High School, Eisa “always did well in English class, contributed to the literary magazine and even wrote for the city youth newspaper.” Though black literature was prominent in her own home and her granddad was a journalist, she planned to become a lawyer. When a friend explained that she wanted to attend Oberlin College because they had a great writing program, she “opened a door of possibility for me,” Eisa says. “It was like ding ding ding ding…you can make a career of being a writer.”

A presentation at Western on Sarah Lawrence College (which also has a stellar writing program) sold her. “I was in love. The recruiter talked about the philosophy of the school, the culture and the school community.” The location,”right outside New York was ideal because I knew I didn’t want to be in the city, but I wanted to be close. I got the best of both possible worlds.” She wrote throughout college, contributing to school publications. She spent her junior year at Howard, “when DC was the murder capital. We lived at 111 Bates and I was sitting on the stoop when these two girls walked by who were about my age. I overheard them talking: ‘I’m gonna just go on and have this baby before he gets shot up or locked up’ and that stayed with me. It’s not like I went inside and started writing but I held onto the line,” she recalls.

During her senior year, she wrote her first nationally published story, “a remix of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for Urban Profile magazine.” She went home for a couple of years and taught school until she returned to New York to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and education at Columbia.

Upon examining the lives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston she realized that she didn’t have to be pigeonholed into one genre of writing. “I knew Langston as a poet and Zora as a novelist,” she says. “But there was so much more, especially Zora. She did the Bohemian Fire Dance; she studied anthropology, so she created scholarly work; she was writing essays; she did some freelance journalism; she taught; she worked on the play, Mule Bone; and her fiction, so many short stories and novels. It became very clear to me that I didn’t have to limit myself. Instead of saying I’m a fiction writer or I’m a poet or I’m a journalist I could just say I am a writer. I could be free to do all that.” And so she has, contributing to everyone from The Washington Post to Ms. to The Source to TheRoot.com while keeping her eye on the fiction prize. As a former fellow of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center’s Young African American Fiction Writers, she will be “eternally grateful to Fred Hudson, may he rest in peace for establishing a place for black writers in New York to really nurture creativity in black literary art.”

Her beautiful debut novel, Crystelle Mourning is not autobiographical yet it is imbued with the sensitivity of collective generational experience. “Even though I grew up pretty much middle class and had normal teenage stuff in my life, Baltimore had the highest assault rate then. It was the eighties and I’d go to parties and somebody would get shot and killed; I’d go to the Inner Harbor and somebody would start shooting in the air and everybody would be running.  I’ve had those physical experiences with what was going on statistically all around me. Our generation is not so different from generations before in that we had to learn to process terror.”

The response of the Afrocentric movement was, she explains “very male-centered, there was a gender-specific way of looking at what was going on, which makes a lot of sense because it was boys and men who were killing each other.  Girls weren’t out shooting each other, so I get that, but what became an interesting question for me as a feminist and black woman, a womanist was Well what about the girls and women left behind? How does their pain get expressed?

When she started writing Crystelle Mourning, Eisa thought it was a short story collection. She’d won the fellowship and joined a writers’ group with Brooklyn writer Grace Edwards. “Grace was the one who told me that what I was writing was a novel,” she says. “What became clear is that I was writing about the experiences of my generation and I thank that woman whose name I’ll never know from Bates Street that night because her voice guided me to this work. It’s really about these women: Crystelle, the title character, her mother and the mother of the boy she grew up with who lived across the street. It’s about what happens to these women after he is shot and killed their senior year in high school.”  

The story resonates deeply: “I’ve had women cry and come up and hug me after readings.”

In anticipation of Ralphie’s birth, Eisa quit her collegiate gig teaching English at Hunter. She’s now focused on raising him and throwing herself headlong into writing. Keep abreast of her insightful, incisive work at EisaUlen.com.

Boys to men: the Brothers Richardson, Ralph and Anthony with mom Diane and dad Ralph, Sr.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Diane Richardson sowed the seeds for life-long passion in her first-born. “My mom used to take my brother and me to the movies every weekend.” His first memory of seeing a film is from age three: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “That was the time of double-features for a buck. So I’ve seen all the blaxploitation movies in the theater, when I was like three, four, five-years-old– Shaft, Blacula, Rosey Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, Mandingo,” he says.I saw Jaws at seven.”

“I saw Bad News Bears,” Eisa interjects. She recalls loving the wholesome ET, Ralph has a different take: “Spielberg’s a great filmmaker. It’s cute, but I was like there’s no black dudes in the cul-de-sac and yet everybody loves this strange creature, I don’t see Julio from down in the schoolyard in there. About his adult-themed viewing he says, “it didn’t blanket my innocence, but it made me astute. I had an acute sensibility about what I did like.”

Although he and Eisa aren’t likely to allow their child to watch movies with mature themes, Ralph “wouldn’t change a thing” about his childhood. He was in no way traumatized, in fact he is ever grateful to his mother for the weekly cinema ritual. “It had to have inspired me,” the Widener University grad says. “I didn’t realize until I was 25 and had decided to go to Georgetown Law School that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I asked myself if I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I do? And this voiceless voice inside said film. Then all this stuff started pouring out. It was a very latent talent I hadn’t realized I had. I never hesitated, I packed up and rolled to New York.” Learning by doing, the self-taught filmmaker began his quest.

His roommates were all Philly transplants: stylist Debra Ginyard, model Belinda Sawyer and actress Yvette Ganier. “I was like Jack Tripper up in that piece,” he laughs. Debra suggested he get a headshot for acting opportunities while trying to establish himself.  On the day Tupac Shakur died the hip-hop fan co-directed his first film with a cast of friends, roommates and himself in the male lead from a script he’d written in 20 minutes (“it flew right out.”) His partner, a film school grad backed out of the project in post production, leaving Ralph to his own devices. Serendipity would have it that he found an editing bay made available for free during certain hours. By immersion, the novice learned to cut film the old-fashioned way, on a flatbed Steenbeck. The film won a New York Short Film award and ran for six months on Starz. “So I knew I could do this,” he asserts.

Shortly after moving to New York he had a vivid dream. “It was so visceral. I was in China. I was really there and had the greatest time.”  Two weeks later he heard from a casting director, We have your headshot. We want you to audition for this part shooting in China. “I don’t even know how they got the headshot,” he says.  He went in of course, to audition and when he blurted out about his dream he got the part. “The Chinese are very into fortuitous luck, so if you dream something like that, it means something.” Off he went to China, shooting for four months. “It was one of the best times of my life, it was incredible, I loved every moment of it,” he remembers.  “By six weeks I didn’t need an interpreter because I love people and being able to communicate with them.”

“Then I worked with RZA on this film I wrote, When Tyson met Tyra. It was my first feature, an urban Bonnie & Clyde.”  He has since directed and/or edited numerous filmed projects and additionally he covers film, television, and popular culture as a freelance writer for TheGrio.com, TheDefendersOnline.com and Time, Inc.

Posted today on theRoot.com is Ralph’s article on Video on Demand (VOD), the game-changing approach to film distribution he’s utilizing for his latest film now available via Amazon as well as VOD.  Sex, Drugs and Comedy, “is a wonderful trip on the road with some of the most brilliant comedians in the country.”

He runs down the first day of production: “I’m shooting on the bridges getting b-roll stuff for the road and this cop at the toll booth wants to confiscate the camera… on the path of the hero there’s always an immediate obstacle to overcome. Then we run out of gas and literally push the car to the gas station.  Then the car breaks down completely. We borrow a car, get lost and finally make it to the place with 15 minutes to get set up. We put the key card in the door to our hotel room, it opens, but it’s bolted. The promoter is having sex with a groupie. You can’t write this stuff…and that was the very first day.”

It’s a rough journey to the A-list. “The crux, the core of being a comedian is the hustle,” he says. “They’re like truck drivers, it’s a hard road.”

“They are the funniest comedians you never heard of,” says Eisa of the comics-on-the-cusp in the film.”Sex Drugs and Comedy is funny, but it also has a real heart and soul that’s poignant and makes it special,” she says proudly of her husband’s work. “Comedy is a brutal art.”

Before I left them to settle Ralphie into naptime, they shared a few favorite things: for Eisa, the stuff of memory, reflection and nostalgia and Ralph’s all kinetic energy: moving pictures, moving sound, moving the body.

Eisa’s Fave Five:

1.Old Family Photos. Represent, represent. Ralphie will know from whence he came surrounded by the faces of  family adorning the walls.  Years ago Eisa discovered a cache of photographs — from snapshots to formal portraits in a bag at her grandmother’s house which she painstakingly mounted for her in a leather-bound archival album. Now that Carmelita has passed on, she treasures the collection.

A few of the many priceless photos: Ralph’s mom Diane in her confirmation portrait; Eisa’s grandmother Carmelita in 8th grade; Eisa’s Bermudan kin evoke Daughters of the Dust; Ralph’s paternal grandparents, Doris and Gene Richardson; Ralph’s maternal grandparents, Cat and Sonny Jones and the treasured album.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God. She cherishes her dog-eared copy of fellow Capricorn Zora Neale Hurston’s classic.

Notes scribbled in the margins are clues to the person she was when she first read the seminal text.

3. The Blue Chair. A touchstone from her mother’s childhood home, it is one of many pieces of heirloom furniture which now grace her Brooklyn apartment.


It’s a Ralphie fave as well, a place to sit with his mom and drum on the djembe.

4. My Paternal Grandmother’s Portrait. Millicent Hooper Ulen was a cellist and pianist and like her father before her she was for many years the proprietor of Hooper Memorial Funeral Home. Her husband, Eisa’s “Pop Pop,” was a writer, the Capital Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier with an office at the Capital dome in Harrisburg. “I used to like to visit there with my dad, it was very exciting to me.


Millicent’s son, Lance now runs the family business and created this painting.

5. Composition Books. The classic ruled notebooks with their black and white mottled covers have housed her words from childhood on.

When writing non-fiction, Eisa types directly into the computer, but for her prose, it’s pen to paper.

Ralph’s Fave Five:

1. Great Underground Movies. Two that he likes are Shanghai Triad.  “Awesome, awesome movie, like The Godfather but set in 1930’s Shanghai. Beautiful!”  And Layer Cake, the British film with a pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig. “It wasn’t as popular, but just as good as Snatch.”

2. Snowboarding. “I love it because it makes me feel like the Silver Surfer.”

Via Lindsay Fincher.

3. Hiking. The self-described “transcendental mountain man” enjoys a good hike.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

4. Music.  Specifically, “this mixtape I’m still bumpin’ from last year called Radical by OFWGKTA , Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All…The essence of the music stems from an anarchists’ upheaval, Odd Future embodies that.”

“They’re like The Clash-meets-Wu Tang-meetsOnyx. Incredible. They’ve got gnomes as part of their staging. Gnomes! and a lot of smoke and zombies…totally cool.

5. Adventures with Ralphie. We just walk around and observe things. We don’t go to the playground, we don’t have any stress.  So he can not be on the same path all the time, we mix it up, find new things and explore ’cause kids love to explore. I’ll carry a ball, a basketball or a soccer ball and we’ll run the whole time, kicking it along the street.  But then we’ll stop at a sculpture garden…Look at flowers, identify them and I’ll put caterpillars in his hands… He’ll watch people play tennis at the park.

He enjoys the vicarious thrill of the excitement of being two. “You get to relive what you don’t remember.”

Advertisements

The Trove: Reed Morano Walker
June 7, 2011

Shooting the Oscar-nominated, Sundance hit, “Frozen River.”

The year 2008 was a busy one for cinematographer Reed Morano. In January the exquisitely shot Frozen River (starring Melissa Leo who scored an Oscar nom for her performance) premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance (Reed’s first festival entry.) In June she gave birth to her remarkably beautiful first son, Casey. In September she married her “true love,” fellow cinematographer and gaffer Matt Walker.


Reed and her “lighting soulmate,” Matt.

Just days after their Fire Island beach wedding, Reed and Matt reported to set for the first day of shooting on Closet Cases. As wardrobe supervisor of the Lloyd Boston makeover show, I was excited to learn that a woman headed the camera department. Over the course of several weeks I saw first-hand the focused yet easy-going Reed balance the demands of work and new parenthood with aplomb.  The beloved baby–welcome amid a tight-knit crew that included not only his dad but his Uncle Justin—was a frequent set visitor allowing mommy the opportunity to nurse on breaks.

Since we wrapped in late 2008, Reed has continued at a frenetic pace, shooting steady TV work between feature films. Yelling to the Sky (Victoria Mahoney, dir.) was her first feature post-Casey. She shot the films For Ellen (So Yong Kim, dir.) and Little Birds (Elgin James, dir.) during her next pregnancy and shot Free Samples, starring Jesse Eisenberg and “Hitchcock Blonde,” Tippi Hedren, a few months after the August arrival of second son Fletcher–another cutie–last year.

I caught up with the busy Bed-Stuy resident to talk about her influences and her trajectory. We share a love of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the grit of Charles Bukowski. Marquez’ “writing is so visual and really immerses you in another world. And I love Didion and Bukowski for how authentic/honest a picture they both paint,” she says. With the naturalist lighting and hand-held camera work she often employs, she brings an authenticity and honesty to her work.  Cinematographers Conrad Hall, Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubeszki, Wally Pfister and Rodrigo Prieto are on her shortlist of influential Directors of Photography.

She looks forward to tonight’s New York première of Yelling to the Sky, a film she’s quite proud of. Of star Zoë Kravitz she says “Zoë is not only an amazing actress, she is an amazing person.” Reed calls director Victoria Mahoney “an absolutely brilliant writer/director with an infectious enthusiasm for film…Zoë, Victoria and I really bonded on this film.” The trio got tattooed with tiny hearts crossed by a line, a nod to the heart-shaped doorknocker earrings bisected by the name “Sweetness” and worn by Zoë’s character in the film.

Reed has been lovingly inked before. On her right wrist are the initials of her beloved dad, Casey, for whom her first-born is named; on her left elbow is “Lyn” scripted in her mom’s signature and commemorating one year of marriage to Matt is a how-to diagram for tying the only nautical knot named for a man (a sailor)—the Matthew Walker Knot.

The body as homage: dad’s initials, on “tying the knot,” a sorority of three, mom’s signature.

Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the first of two children (she has a brother, Justin) to Lyn and Winslow Mankin and the family soon moved to Minnesota. When Reed was three-years old, Lyn divorced Winslow and moved the children back to her family in Long Island where she’d meet, marry and have three more children (Jordan, Morgan and Ali) with Casey Morano of Fire Island (who had 2 older children, Lana and Cos.) When it was suggested to the entrepreneurial Casey that Albuquerque might be a good place to live, he packed up the wife, kids and extended family and caravaned to a new life in New Mexico.  They spent a few years there before returning to Long Island, then off to New Hampshire and Vermont.  Of her nomadic upbringing Reed says, “It was great because it taught me about all kinds of people and taught me to be adaptable as well as open to new things. If I had grown up in the same house all my life, I wouldn’t have nearly as much material in my brain for storytelling.”

The Moranos.

She clearly admires her parents.  Her mother, “a perpetual scholar” studied anthropology and archaeology variously at the University of New Mexico, Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard as she raised her children. She now heads the history department at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. “When I was young, I watched my mom study and get her PhD all while raising 5 kids!  I remember her writing 20-page papers while breastfeeding my youngest sister and all of us other kids running around wreaking havoc on the house,” she recalls. Though her father’s entrepreneurial endeavors yielded mixed financial reward, she is impressed by his bold pursuit. “My dad was involved in every kind of business you can imagine. He opened restaurants, he had a landscaping company at one point. He even opened Long Island’s first head shop back when he was in his hippie years. He had an international mergers and acquisitions company before he passed away and he was also developing a TV pilot for a travel/reality show.  He definitely dabbled in a little bit of everything. When I was in high school, he turned our barn and property into a horse farm with a horseback riding school.  He always had a new idea and always dreamt big.”

“I was a nerd.  I read a lot.”

As a child, “I was always making books, even before I wrote I drew pictures and would staple them together,” she says. “When I finally learned to write, I wrote every day until I entered high school. Everyone thought I’d be a writer.”  Her father took note of her leanings and presented her with an early video camera (with VHS tape) upon his return from a business trip to Japan, remarking that she should be the family documentarian. And so it began, she shot footage of her siblings, made small films and commercials and when the time came for college, Dad again intervened to suggest film school since she’d embraced a visual form of storytelling.  Off to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she’d eventually receive department awards for cinematography and later serve for two years as an adjunct professor.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a spiritual person, she believes there was a mystical connection with her father surrounding her career choice. On the very first shoot she worked on, she took note of the DP.  She “became fascinated with what he was doing and I knew that was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to look through the viewfinder and create the world the audience sees. I consciously decided to pursue cinematography.”

Post-shoot she returned to her dorm and to several phone messages from family. “My dad had had a heart attack. I rushed up to New Hampshire to be with him in the hospital where he was in coma and the next morning, he passed away.  He had been so obsessed with what I would do and what path I would take in life and I still find it interesting that right before he passed was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she reflects.

“I never considered myself a technical person, in fact I used to joke that I couldn’t set the time on a VCR! But once I put my mind to this craft, it seemed I actually had a knack for it. I do approach shooting in a very creative way that revolves a lot less around technical information and more around the feeling I get in a particular moment.  Everything I do, I usually take a cue from my gut. As a DP, you’re an artist, but you do have technical information you need to know in order to achieve whatever look you’re going for. So I absorb the technical stuff I need and then I just kind of go with the flow and rely on the emotion in the story to inspire my shots and lighting.”

Reed on the sets of “Megafauna,”  “Frozen River” and ” Little Birds.”

When the Coen Brothers’ (now a Reed fave) released Raising Arizona the pre-teen Reed took note. “It was the first film I can remember really noticing the cinematography on. That was when I realized the power of the camera as a tool for storytelling.  Everything about it, the camera moves, the lenses that were used all served the story and enhanced the tone of the movie.  It’s a huge part of what makes the film so memorable.  It was the first time I became aware –in a good way– how much a lens choice or a camera position could affect the way the audience reacts to the story.”

From the 2007 documentary, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa to today, she is garnering major recognition for her work. Earlier this year she was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch. Next week she’ll head to Los Angeles for the Women In Film Crystal + Lucy Awards (other honorees include Annette Benning and Katie Holmes) to receive the Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography.  “All the women who have previously won the Vision Award have really paved the way for female DPs like myself. It’s pretty amazing to be in the company of my idols. The thing I am most proud of, though, is the fact that I am able to make a living doing a job I absolutely love at the same time as being a mom.  I never knew how I was going to pull that off!  Like everything else, I just jumped into motherhood headfirst (right when I was getting really busy at work) and I was forced to make it all happen.  It’s not easy, but it can be done!  Between my mom and my dad, I guess I had some really good training from a young age on how to multitask and how to follow your dreams. Being with Matt was really the key to making it possible–he keeps me going and is so supportive of my working.”

A gorgeous mom, a handsome hubby and two beautiful boys: one stunning family.

In meeting Matt, a gaffer and DP years ago, she found her “lighting soulmate.” He knew what lighting she wanted in each scenario before she spoke a word, they “shared the same aesthetic and his style of working was exactly what I’d been looking for,” she remembers.  So she began working with him exclusively.  Professional admiration eventually became personal. “We both realized we wanted to be together in every way, not just at work.  I never thought I’d find someone who matched me so well and that’s who Matt is.  He definitely exceeded my expectations for who I would spend my life with.  He is the smartest person I know. He is brilliant, creatively and otherwise and he takes such care in every task he does, big or small.”  Her Aries impulsiveness is balanced by his Aquarian intellectual approach. “He continues to amaze me every day and there’s nothing he can’t do. I have never met someone so devoted to the ones he loves. I can’t believe that he chose me.”

She is feeling a tremendous sense of good fortune these days from marriage and motherhood to a recent reconnection with her biological father and “discovering a whole new side to my family” to a career in full blossom. She’s currently in pre-production on her biggest project to date, the Rob Reiner-helmed Summer at Dog Dave’s starring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen and shooting in Rockland County next month.

Before heading upstate for pre-pro, the gifted and grateful visionary shared some of the things that bring her joy:

1. Kisses from Casey & Fletcher. “They are a constant source of joy and amazement. every day, at least once I stop and think, in awe, how did I get so lucky?”

Bussing baby Fletch and big boy Casey.

2. Dancing.  “All night long in a flowy dress in Fire Island with my girlfriends.”

“It’s the feeling of freedom.

3. Steel Pulse. “Especially the albums Tribute to the Martyrs or True Democracy. It’s one of the bands I have listened to since I was in elementary school. It’s great music to have echoing through your house with the windows open on a warm day.”

Live in Germany, “Babylon Makes the Rules,” from “Tribute to the Martyrs.”

4. Reading a new script. “When I work I get to go on a new adventure each time and all these new visuals and ideas fill my head. I get super excited whenever I see an attachment in my email…”

From the Frozen River script.

5. Estee Lauder Tom Ford The Body Oil.  “All my life I was looking for my favorite smell, the smell of your skin after a day on the beach. Finally, I found it in 2006 and it is now discontinued! However, I still have several bottles.”

The coveted fragrance.

6. My Uncle Matthew’s Lobster Bisque. From the family-owned Matthew’s Seafood House in Fire Island,  “it tastes like my childhood and it’s still my favorite soup.”

Tucked away on Ocean Beach, the restaurant feels like home.

7. My Light Meter. “When I’m using it, that means I’m shooting film and when I’m shooting on film, especially 35mm, I’m happiest.”

Photo: CAGATOTA

8. My Sister’s Morgan’s Gelato. “Her stracciatella gelato mixed with her strawberry sorbet is incredible. She has her own shop in Hanover, New Hampshire, Morano Gelato.”

Gelati in raspberry and egg cream flavors.

9. Scuba Diving. “It’s as close as I’ll probably get to walking on the moon.”

“It’s another world!”

10. Cocktails with my Husband. “Preferably a Bloody Mary or a Cava on a beach somewhere far away.

Salut!

ImageNation Revolution Awards
December 1, 2010

I have looked delightedly forward to the ImageNation Revolution Awards lauding luminaries Tom Burrell, Chairman Emeritus of Burrell Communications; Lisa Cortes, President of Cortes Films (EP of Precious;) Ruby Dee,  Actress & Activist; Debra L. Lee, Chairman & CEO, BET Networks; Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) Civil Rights Hero and Iris Morales, Activist & Filmmaker.  This Thursday’s festivities at Lincoln Center, hosted by Jamie Hector of HBO’s The Wire fame, also include a screening of the must-see Stanley Nelson documentary, Freedom Riders. 

Trailer for “Freedom Riders.”

It promises to be a wonderfully inspiring night benefitting  ImageNation and ImageNation Sol Cinema Capital Campaign.  The private gala reception begins at 6pm.  The awards show and screening begin at 7pm with tickets  a mere (and tax-deductible) $25; $20 for ImageNation members. Moikgantsi Kgama and Gregory Gates’ “little engine that could,” ImageNation has grown tremendously since its 1997 inception with a mission to establish “a chain of art-house cinemas, dedicated to progressive media by and about people of color. Through a variety of public exhibitions and programs, ImageNation fosters media equity, media literacy, solidarity, cross-cultural exchange and highlights the humanity of Pan-African people worldwide.” 

Events like the Revolution Awards bring the organization closer to realizing the goal of opening the Sol Cinema. My uncle’s passing will now prevent my attendance, but I encourage everyone who can to attend.

*Congrats to ‘Kgantsi and Greg on both getting this baby off the ground and becoming parents to G. Kgari Kgama-Gates last September.

The Trove: Nnenna Ogwo
September 16, 2010

Radiant and surrounded by fragrant rosemary and blossoming chives.

Though the brilliant concert pianist Nnenna Ogwo recently completed her doctoral studies in Musical Arts at SUNY Stony Brook, she is “going ‘back to school’ in such a delightful way,” losing herself in the pages of Larousse Gastronomique. “I like to fancy myself a cook of sorts.” I can vouch for her intensely fruity mixed berry pie–scrumptious!  The gracious host enjoys sharing good food and libation with friends. We met a couple of years ago over glasses of wine with friends Sonya and Susie at their ultra femme shop, Winkworth. When Nnenna spoke of her upcoming recital at the venerable Steinway Hall I promised to attend. (She was kind enough, soon after, to allow me to use her recording of a Brahms’ sonata on my costume design reel.) Now I am first to admit my knowledge of classical music is limited, but I was mind-blown by her immense talent, a talent nurtured carefully with intensive training.

Born to a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father, Nnenna was raised just outside of Washington, DC (we’ve discovered that our mothers live within blocks of each other.) She has played piano since the age of six. A student of Washington’s elite prep school, Holton-Arms, she studied also at the Peabody Conservatory Preparatory of Johns Hopkins University, graduating with honors in piano and composition.  She received a baccalaureate degree in Music for her undergraduate studies at the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory, the oldest music conservatory in the United States. As a Fulbright scholar, she undertook graduate study at Hungary’s most celebrated conservatory, Ferenc Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, Hungary and returned to the states in 1995.

From her bio:

Ms. Ogwo currently serves on the piano faculty at Third Street Music School in Manhattan. A gifted teacher, she also maintains a private studio in New York City and has successfully prepared students for admission to conservatory.  She regularly works with composers, performing and premiering their work in order to help ensure the vitality of contemporary music. She is the founder of Working Projects, a works-in-progress venue for artists and musicians as well as the City Chamber Music Collective (formerly the Brooklyn Chamber Players), a group of international musicians committed to bringing exceptional chamber music to diverse audiences in non-traditional venues.

Inspired by her childhood photograph, Nnenna has dubbed her classical music label the gratifyingly unexpected Cantankerous Afro and has recently released Issue One, solo piano music composed by Bach-Siloti, Beethoven, Debussy, Scriabin and Piazzolla.  Visit her relaunched website, Nnenna.net to join her mailing list, enjoy her listening library, and purchase her virtuosic music.

The ‘fro that launched a label.

Nnenna speaks with admiration of her mom, Carmen Hague, who as a single parent raised her and her brother Charles, with grace and strength. The women graciously welcomed me into the family home for dinner recently. The soft-spoken Ms. Carmen’s unlined skin suggests a woman much younger, only her silvery corona of glorious hair hints that she could be the mother of a thirty-something. Both women swear by octogenarian esthetician (and “lovely pianist in her own right”) Simone France, whose “own ageless face is a testament to her work. She was quite the legend in the day and now only works by referral. After a couple of hours with her, you emerge with the perfect glowing skin you were born with.”  Though there is a luxury skin care line, that bears her name, the true Simone France experience, Nnenna asserts, is with the woman herself. Ms. Carmen makes the trek to New York for her “exquisite” facials. (to schedule a consultation, dial 212-371-6458)

As her mom busily watered her charmingly sprawling garden,  Nnenna and I enjoyed alfresco drinks, chatted and watched the cats devour their manna from kitty heaven, a fresh piece of fish. When in conversation, the feline fancier, in cat-like gesture, takes intermittent pauses to moisten her lips with a delicate sliver of tongue.

We spoke of things from comportment and dignified bearing in Teenie Harris’ photos to the frenzied rush of sports.  “I hate the gym,” she says, “but I’m all in for playing sports.”  You name it, she’s been on the team: basketball, soccer, volleyball, track, field hockey, lacrosse (men’s and women’s), diving, ice skating, even ultimate frisbee. Ballet and gymnastics figured seriously in her childhood until she had to narrow her commitment. “I’d always get to this point where the coach/teacher would say, ‘she could be really good.  I want her to go train at fill-in-the-blank’ and it would be far away, not financially viable and crazy and I didn’t want to stop playing the piano to do those things, you know?”

Though she bemoans the fact that she didn’t inherit the long, tapering fingers of her mother’s side of the family, she did get the broad, expansive hands of her father, which give her reach pianoforte perfection and, perhaps, great grip on a ball.

How could Brooklyn not forgive her recent defection to Harlem?  She still shows the BK mad love.  She’s a loyalist to its small businesses as evidenced by her trove.

1. My Mother’s Garden. “It’s an amazing spectacle that changes every single day.  I love how disorganized it is and love how wild and unruly it is. I love eating out of the garden, I love the fact that we have to fight the birds to get to the raspberries and beat out the squirrels to the peaches.   I love having an excuse to dig in the dirt with my bare hands…watching the cycles of the blooming plants and arguing with my mother over every little thing in her wild green space which I insist that she loves more than me.”

Fuschia, magenta and pink proliferate in Ms. Carmen’s garden.

2. Football. Before there was piano, there was football.  “My dad taught me to hate the Cowboys’ silver and blue and love DC’s burgundy and gold by the time I was three years old.” At her very first game she “saw the Eagles get shut out 20 – zip…I wanted to be the first woman to play in the NFL.” Fanaticism set early on, a fortuitous friendship with the daughter of team physician, Doc Collins, would fuel the love. Through the Collins’ she attended “a ton of great games at the old RFK stadium: playoffs against Dallas, the Giants, Atlanta.” During the down years, she “settled for the fact that being a football fan hurt sometimes. I always thought firing [Coach Marty] Schottenheimer was a big mistake — but you know how fans are, tons of opinions — which is why we play Fantasy Football.”  note: our initial sit-down for this post was pre-empted by the FF draft.

The would-be gridiron great loves the team, but refrains from using the politically incorrect team title.

3. Winkworth. She relies on the purveyor of fine Ladies’ Goods in her former Red Hook neighborhood for girly staples. Her newest favorite, The Love Balm from the Costa Rican retreat, Osa Clandestina is an organic “heavenly scented concoction of beeswax, coconut oil and vitamin E that does incredible things for skin and hair.”   Of her Lisa B. slingback, peep-toe espadrilles, she exclaims “they feel like bedroom slippers!  They are so comfortable and they are so sexy that people stare at my legs when I wear them.” She adds modestly, “trust me, it’s the shoes.”

Lisa B. eco-friendly, buckle espadrilles.

 4.  Pearl necklace. “Made for me as a birthday gift by Allyson Smith— she knows it’s my birthstone and that I love to wear pearls–I am continually amazed by how her painter’s eye affects her jewelry design.”

Freshwater pearls on 14kt gold.

5. HTC  HD2. “I’m a technophobe whose Palm pilot finally died and I had to make the leap into the 21st century.  The HD2 does it in style and with the most ginormous screen ever.  Every day I am stunned by what it does.”

HTC’s HD2 is available through T-Mobile.

6.  “Teenie” Harris Photographs. “Years ago I had the opportunity to buy a couple of prints by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris, aka ‘One Shot’ Harris.  This incredible African-American photographer never thought of himself as a serious artist but his unending rolls of beautifully shot film chronicled black American life in Pittsburgh.  After finally investing in framing his work and hanging them in my new apartment, I am blown away by them every morning when I walk into my living room.” The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased the archive of 80,000 negatives of the late photographer’s work in 2001.  Click the link to learn more about the artist and Documenting Our Past: The Teenie Harris Archive Project.

One of Nnenna’s two treasured “One-Shot” Harris photographs.

7. Cupcakes. “Those who know me well, know that I have been on a quest for the perfect cupcake in NYC for quite a while.  I have two current favorites.  For simple delicious homemade goodies like the kind mom made for your birthday, try Sugar Sweet Sunshine downtown…for something more of a gourmet confection, a bit of heavenly light perfection, ChikaLicious is rocking my world.  I’m not mad at their shortbread either….”

Old-fashioned goodness from Sugar Sweet Sunshine.

8. Little Luna. “Entranced by the goodies” in the jam-packed curiosity shop in the surprisingly quiet shadow of the BQE, Nnenna has “spent many an afternoon gabbing about this, that and the other,” with owner Dee. “I wouldn’t trade those hours for anything.”


A favorite Little Luna find is this vintage GE beauty.

9. Freebird Books and Goods. Freebird brought me back to reading.  Something that I had seriously stopped doing if it wasn’t related to grad school. It became my home away from home for a while and I miss it still even though I still attend monthly Post-Apocalyptic book club meetings there.”  Her favorite store purchase is a “huge coffee table book called the NYC Museum of Complaint,” filled with the various grievance letters written to city mayors over the years.  “It is a wonderful catalogue of the people and personalities and neuroses that make this city what it is.”

A young patron of Freebird Books and Goods.  “Like” them on Facebook.

10. Nina: Nina Simone. In the 1969 documentary short “Nina Simone talks about her music making in terms of ‘trying to wake people up and make people feel something.’  I actually listen to and love a lot of different kinds of music and a lot of different artists.  The one thing they have in common is that they make the musical experience a visceral one.  If and when you do that, I think you have done something truly worthwhile”

Peter Rodis’ 26-minute look at the legendary artist.

“Freedom Riders” in NY & LA
August 18, 2010

If you haven’t seen it yet, there are two days left to see Stanley Nelson’s magnificent documentary, Freedom Riders. The official Sundance selection has been screening in New York City and Los Angeles during DocuWeeks in order to qualify for the Oscars (fingers crossed!)  The film is scheduled to air on PBS’ acclaimed American Experience series in May 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the seminal 1961 Freedom Rides.

Friend the film on facebook.

See it in New York at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street today at 1:45pm and 7:30pm and tomorrow at 3:30pm and 9:30pm.  My friend, Lewis Erskine, one of the film’s editors, will along with Producer Laurens Grant speak after the 9:35 showing.

In Los Angeles, catch it at ArcLight Hollywood, 6360 West Sunset Boulevard today at 1:40pm and 7:35pm and tomorrow at 5:20pm and 9:50pm.

The Trove: Henry Adebonojo
August 12, 2010

With the same great love for capturing the moment through the moving image as for distilling the essence in a single frame, cinematographer/ photographer Henry Adebonojo is “happiest when I am making pictures.” I met the courteous and quiet Henry in passing many moons ago as he, fan of foreign cinema, was headed to Tower Records on 66th Street, home of “the best collection of foreign films in NYC hands down,” as his colleague in the film biz (my then-beau) and I left the self-same place in a round of music shopping.   Our paths would cross here and there but it would be years later before Henry and I had a “real” conversation and his other “twin” emerged in Gemini glory: erudite and given to animated conversation about literature, music, film, politics and racing.

Henry spent his Lagosian adolescence during the rise of Afrobeat, leaving in 1978 to complete his A-Levels (college qualification exams) and continue on to university in Great Britain, where his interest in photography was sparked in earnest. He completed his undergraduate degree in Law at the University of Buckingham and went on to study International Law at the graduate level at University College, London.

Returning to the city of his birth in 1984, he entered the film business the following year with a production assistant gig.  Working his way up the through the ranks, he became a cinematographer in 1993. He has enjoyed a career which has taken him across the United States and as far away as Mozambique, South Africa, post-genocide Rwanda and Italy, where he traveled with Spike Lee to shoot behind-the-scenes footage for the film, Miracle at St. Anna. Poignantly, James McBride’s fictionalized account of the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre in World War II Tuscany and the sacrifice of African-American Buffalo Soldiers brought Henry to the hilltop village of Sommocolonia, the very place, he’d learn that his own uncle, the 21-year-old PFC Macleon Johnson, gave his life in service of the US Army in December 1944. Visit his blog, Fewer Words, for the moving account.

Henry Adebonojo and the Uncle he never knew, the heroic Buffalo Soldier, Macleon Johnson

Shooting the likes of the late Gordon Parks, (for his Emmy-nominated work on Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks) George Clooney, Chuck D, Marisa Tomei, Dave Chappelle and the POTUS, Barack Obama, he’s cut a wide swath across the mediums of music videos, commercials, promos, documentaries and short films. The one position which has remained elusive is the Director of Photography spot on a feature film, but he’s up for the challenge, and looks forward to its inevitable occurence.

Though motion pictures are his bread and butter, he is making a concerted effort to shoot the still photos that he too loves.  His images, even those which depict atrocity, reflect his inherent empathy. He brings a tender humanity even to inanimate objects.

A glimpse of the sacred amid the rubble of the most unholy, the skulls of the murdered faithful in a Rwandan church, 2004.


“Esperanza Spalding,” May 2009. A quiet moment for the jazz bassist.

“Waiting for Wesley,” Ilha de Mozambique, 2005.  On a location scouting trip in Africa for Danny Glover’s intended feature, “Toussaint,” star Wesley Snipes “was like the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Wherever we went a crowd formed and people followed on foot behind the car that carried him around.”

View his work, both moving images and still photography at his website, HenryAdebonojo.com.

Because I’ve rolled with Henry to some wonderful jazz performances (such as the Heath Brothers at Birdland and Sir Ron Carter with his Juilliard colleagues, Dr. Eddie Henderson, Carl Allen, Ron Blake and Benny Green in a super-tight set at Dizzy’s), it comes as no surprise that Jazz should figure prominently in the aficionado’s trove.  Read on to discover his other treasures.

1. The Masters of Jazz. Henry has completely immersed himself in the world of Jazz and though he is well-versed in the music of many artists, two stand out for their bodies of work: Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. “Any thing those men produced is a soul-stirring emotional ride for me.  I recommend the lesser known Milestones as a landmark album for Miles.  And for Sir Duke, I recommend one of his later works from 1967, Far East Suite, which is rich in the complex orchestration for which he is famously known.  I especially love Ad Lib on Nippon.”  The bibliophile adores Geoff Dyer’s self-labeled work of “imaginative criticism,” But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.  “It merges beautifully my love of Jazz music and stories with my tendency to daydream.” As for jazz films, the 1988 documentary, Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser is it. “There is a moment in the film where Monk is at an airport in Europe and he is briefly separated from Nellie [his wife] as she is handling passport stuff.  He stands staring at people to-ing and fro-ing through the airport and in his typical mad mathematician methodology he breaks out in a spin and a brief jig – the kind he is wont to do on stage. It’s a personal moment, a moment of release.  When I am in a particularly stressful moment or situation, my mind wanders to Thelonious.” (Skippy and Crepuscule with Nellie are favorites.)

“Epistrophy,” sets up the airport scene about seven minutes into this clip. It is the perfect composition for Monk’s ecstatic whirl.

2. Compact Cameras. “I’ve been enjoying the miniaturization of my personal visual tool kit.  Sometimes I don’t feel like lugging around big cameras and dealing with the attendant attention.” He purchased an Olympus EP2 in January. “It has a lower profile than my Canon camera and accepts a plethora of lenses via adapters.  It is more discrete than the beloved Leica of many a photographer and the image quality while not quite up to the Canon, serves my purposes very well.  I love to use my Voigtlander 58mm 1.4 lens on it.  Great resolution on that lens and tack sharp.” A birthday gift from his “beloved friend, Kevin Ladson,” Henry’s Flip video cam, with its diminutive size allows him to “enjoy shooting those candid moments that a larger camera would destroy.  I don’t have to worry about things like focus and exposure. I just shoot and have fun with it.”

Mighty minis: Olympus PEN EP2 and the Ultra Flip HD video camera.

3. Auto Racing. “Nothing provides the kind of adrenaline kick for me like I get when I am behind the wheel of a fast car.  That car may be a Go Kart or a race car, but the feeling is the same.  The purposeful direction of aggression with a host of other people who are guided by the same principle and all happen to be heading in the same direction.  I don’t get that feeling from anything else I do.  For Go Karting I head up to Mount Kisco to GPNY (a modestly priced experience). For race cars I go to Skip Barber Racing School (a ruinously expensive experience).  I plan to do Skip Barber before the year is out.”

H.O.A. in the driver’s seat.

4. Wrist Watches. He owns several and keeps them in rotation. “They are my jewelry and change with my moods.  I love all my watches, but I have two ‘favourites,’ both have black dials and were bought to mark trips abroad.”  An aviation chronograph from Russian watchmaker Poljot “is the only manual winding watch I own.  I love having to wind it the way I used to do the watches I had as a kid.”

Henry was drawn to the “interesting combination” of steel case and gold numerals and hands in the square-faced watch from the La Carrée collection of French watchmaker Louis Erard.

5. Fountain Pens. “I enjoy process and although I don’t use them often, I love to fill a fountain pen with ink, write on some fine absorbent paper and watch the ink settle in the way my mood or emotion might do on a particular writing.  I occasionally pop into the Fountain Pen Hospital in downtown Manhattan to see what’s on offer.  I have a Parker I love and a Conklin that I picked up there.  I’d love a Namiki-Pilot, but the ones I like are too rich for my blood.”

Photo, PressSmart.com.

6. Francis Coppola Claret. Though he claims “an unsophisticated palette,” he knows what he likes in wine: good, red and affordable. Until he celebrates an Academy Award or Grand Prix win, the $20 range suits him fine. “I find I cannot go wrong with the Coppola Claret.  I can only imagine his wines are made with the same attention to detail as his classic films.”

“Never had a bad bottle of the stuff and it does not break my bank.”

7. Busboys and Poets. “In our fast changing world where process and tactile experience is being steadily replaced by a virtual one, I hold on for dear life to those of my past.  I miss record stores – even the ones that sell CDs.  Bookstores are going the same way.”  The D.C. cafe and bookseller,  “Busboys is a reminder of what it really is like to sit back and smell the rose or coffee depending on your preferred metaphor. In the case of Busboys, it’s more like smell food and touch books.”

The Busboys and Poets Bookstore is run by Teaching for Change.  Photo, Susanna Raab for the New York Times.

8. Contemporary Nigerian Authors. “Emerging Nigerian Writers like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Half of a Yellow Sun) and Chris Abani (GraceLand) are rocking my world right now.  They are brilliant story tellers who owe a great deal to the writers who came before – Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe – but have an up-to-the-minute, romantic, free style of writing.  They are essential to an understanding of Nigeria’s past, present and future.”

Exceptional prose from two of Nigeria’s finest contemporary writers.

9. Fela Ransome Kuti and the Koola Lobitos “are important to me because of the well deserved popularity of Fela Anikulapo Kuti, but they are equally important.  The two are inseparable.  I urge anyone interested in the latter to acquaint themselves with the former. I was a kid growing up in Lagos when Hi Life music was all the rage and distinctly remember the transformation Fela went through and the long journey to embrace he endured (especially by the class from which he came – little known but he was seen as a kind of class traitor because of his embrace of common folk).  It’s a more profound story than the musical could ever encompass.”

Soundtrack to a Nigerian childhood.

10. Passing Strange. The musical, the film, the cast recording have particular resonance to his life.  “I lost my mother when I was 14 years old.  My life has had a certain un-balance to it ever since.  I have not begun to reckon with that until fairly recently, to grasp some of the dimensions of altered states resulting there from.  I think boys who lose their mothers at a young age have particular stories, unique stories.  Passing Strange also resonates because of the awkwardness of career choices that remain unsettled in us and the ways we are required to embrace that in order to move forward.”

Henry was overjoyed to serve as camera operator on the Spike Lee-helmed, filmed version of the Tony-award winning musical.

The Trove: Amy Linden
July 23, 2010

Over wildly tangential brunch conversation at Le Gamin, reminiscing about old Fort Greene with and enjoying the rapid-fire wit of Amy Linden, she remembered our introduction at the long-gone Albee Square Mall. “I met you at Toys ‘R’ Us, rest in peace. You were looking for a black Barbie.” Recalling too, a recent interview with a gospel singer, she says, “when she called herself a ‘prophetess,’ I was like is that with an f or a ph?” My crêpes finally delivered to the table she mockingly exclaimed, “Oh two perfect little Hot Pockets!” She can get a lot out without taking a breath, but it’s natural to her, she says “I’m a writer, I get paid by the word.” 

Born in Queens and raised on Long Island, Amy went to an alternative high school “which meant I did nothing but read a lot of feminist literature and smoke a lot of pot…In high school I wanted to be a rock star.” So how did she become a music journalist? “I lost a bet,” she says wryly. “I actually came to hip-hop through punk.” A post-high school stint in Jonestown massacre/Harvey Milk assassination-era San Francisco led to writing for a local punk fanzine. 

Back on the East Coast in the 80’s, she worked at infamous after hours spot, A7 in the East Village and toured the northeast corridor with bands, Dead Kennedys and DOA.  She got her first Spin Magazine piece when she and an editor friend took in her punk clips and pitched a “Celebs with Tattoos” story back when getting inked wasn’t so ubiquitous. “We really had to think about  it. Usually it was circus freaks and maybe Billy Idol.” She got hers “when it was still illegal in New York. I mean, that was the point.” When I commented on the lasting vibrancy of her turquoise tat (the first of three) she said, “Yea, those guys really knew what they were doing. I charged this one to a record label on the per diem.”

Her second piece for Spin was her first on hip-hop. “I felt like I didn’t deserve it, yes I was a fan, but I didn’t know it, live it. My scene was the Lower East Side punk scene and the artsy spillover, yeah I’d see Basquiat riding his bike around.” Nonetheless, a friend at BAM introduced her to Boogie Down Productions.  Off she went to the South Bronx to pickup a 12″ for a listen. “I thought I’m a white girl in skinny black pants and skips…I don’t have any cool sneakers.”

“Then I became the girl who wrote about the schlocky R&B, but I wasn’t doing it with irony.  I was sincere.  Miki Howard? Loved…Labels were really segregated then: the pop music over here and the black music waaaay over there.” The divorced mom appreciated the camaraderie. “You could go hang out all day and eat.  I’d have my kid, they’d order food…And back then, people in the industry loved music. Everyone listened to and talked about music, real music.”  She’s written her share of liner notes, including those for the late Keith Elam, Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Vol. 3: Streetsoul.

“I’ve spent a good portion of my career being the only white girl in the room.” People find it hard to ‘place’ her though. “I’ve escaped some Anti-Semitism because of how I look.  Are you Greek, Italian, Armenian?”  Try Hungarian-Polish.  Her father was “born at the kosher hospital in Canarsie back when it was still farmland.”  For all her non-observance, Amy found herself delivering her only child at the same hospital and though now called Brookdale and servicing a largely African-American population, still kosher. Fitting for a woman who says, “I learned how to be Jewish from Black people. Sorry I don’t fit the cultural stereotype.  I’m actually not good with money and I don’t know the slang.  I know a schmear, a schmuck and a putz, that’s about it.”  And seltzer.  When I mentioned I’d never had an egg cream, she said they were great, “my father made them at home, he had the seltzer bottle and the CO2 cartridge, I mean he’s a Brooklyn Jew.  If you ask for seltzer and they give you club soda, you know. Where there’s no seltzer, there’s no Jews.”

Amy Linden: “I’m a Stones person, rather than a Beatles person.”

A staff newswriter for VH1, Amy became on-air talent when she joined fellow music critics Anthony DeCurtis, Scott Poulson-Bryant and JD Considine for Four on the Floor (1994-1996)a roundtable talk show likened to The McLaughlin Group for rock criticism. “It was a blast! We would always have a celeb guest: Peter Frampton, fabulous! Cyndi Lauper, Robbie Robertson, Vernon Reid, the Blinded Me with Science guy, uh, Thomas Dolby.” 

She’s since covered everyone from James Brown (“It was like talking to the Tasmanian Devil. I couldn’t understand anything he was saying”) to the beleaguered Amy Winehouse to Q-Tip, whom she adores, for performing without fanfare at a benefit for her son’s school years ago. Lucian, now 21, used to call him “Uncle Ear Wax.” People magazine brought her aboard when it became clear that hip-hop couldn’t be “ignored anymore. It couldn’t be marginalized. The Fugees were #1 in the country.” The New York Times, Rolling Stone, Vibe, People, Entertainment Weekly, The Source and the Village Voice, she’s written for them all. Just last week she interviewed Bobby Womack for SoulSummer.com, where she is a frequent contributor. 

On her own blog, Not for Nothin,’ she culls the music landscape, “making the world safe for bad music and pointless culture since 19**.”  In her “plan for world media domination,” she’s rolled out the Not for Nothin’ podcast, where she channels her inner DJ and kicks it with the likes of Pharoahe Monche and Corey Glover (with whom she kicked off Black History Month spinning Bryan Ferry, Wendy & Lisa, and the “blackish” Alison Moyet.)

We celebrated her recent graduation from the New School (3.8 G.P.A., thank you very much) over sticky toffee pudding and people watching. Though she loves Brooklyn, BK hipsters and their fedoras work her nerves. “It’s all too precious now,” referring to the nostalgia trend.  “Soon we’re going to have a restaurant where you can eat everything your Mommy said you can’t.  People will be drinking from large milk cartons.”

So we know that terminally hip hats and haunts get under her skin, but let’s check what the straight-shooting Lady Ames loves…

1. Bryan Ferry. She names, without “even a moment’s hesitation” the glam rock frontman of Roxy Music her absolute music crush. “In a just world, he would be mine…I’d blow up a building for him.” She met him, in passing, at VH1, “Thank God I was dressed like a human being that day.” Of a 1972 performance clip of Virginia Plain, the band’s first hit, she muses, “just sink into the dreaminess of Bryan’s glittery eyes… somewhere a young David Bryne is thinking hmmmmm…”

8 min doc on Bryan and the effect of Roxy Music.

2. The First Taste of a Great Dessert. There’s nothing like the first time. On a road trip with her best friend, Candice in Oregon a few years back, Amy noticed a sign for Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant in Albany.  “I had to stop…made me feel connected to my roots.” One bite of the poppy seed strudel, and it was love. “It tastes like sweet dirt, gritty,” and that’s a good thing.  Back home in Brooklyn, a current rave is the sticky toffee pudding, the only dessert offered at the Oz-inspired, Sheep Station on the fringe of the Slope. Two upended wedges in a delectable caramel sauce with dollop of vanilla ice cream to round it out, “heaven!”

 

Poppy seed strudel. 

3. Hanging with the Little Ones. “I love the energy I get being around little kids…that somebody is glad you’re there, you know, ‘Miss Amy, Miss Amy’… and kid logic is hilarious, they crack me up.”

Photo: Rachel Titiriga.

4. NY Basketball. “Back when the Knicks were good…I was obsessed during the Larry Bird-Patrick Ewing-Magic [NBA] era.”

Though the Celts prevailed, Ewing scored a career high of 51 points in this game.

5. Love Me in a Special Way. Rendering Boo-hoo Brown’s performance a simpering mess, El DeBarge’s redemptive comeback –“He looked great, he sounded great.”– on the 2010 BET Awards reminded her of just how much she enjoys his falsetto on the 1983 release.  Yet true to her exalted place in Ferry fandom, she dreamily queried, “Can you hear Bryan Ferry singing it?”

…and a Stevie harmonica cameo!

6. Loafing with the BFF. “We just lay in bed all day, watch TV–asinine, juvenile stuff– and eat crap.” And they’re always minimally dressed, “just t-shirts and underwear, with our hands in our pants like little old men.” She contemplates the visual then in true Lindenian self-deprecation says, “this is why I’m going to die alone with my cats. I’m not girly. I like being goofy. I’m always looking for material.”

“I lived in Cali, I know my Mexican.  It’s gotta be 3 steps from the health department.”  Photo: Molly Awwad.

7. Community.  Where everybody knows your name “I love walking down the street and being detained, being part of a real community.”

Amy was at an election night listening party with Q-Tip in Manhattan when the 2008 decision was called and she realized she wanted to be back home in the community.  Looking up on the TV screen, she sees the NY1 coverage of Ft. Greene and her son celebrating his first voting election…on a lamppost with a forty. Photo: Andy G. Hatch 

8. Foreign Product Packaging. Amy enjoys perusing the aisles of drugstores in other countries.  The riotous colors, the often indecipherable language…

 

 Japanese chocolates.

9. Richard Price.  Among her favorite authors, she’s read all of his books. She passed on seeing the film adaptation of Clockers after “Spike got his grubby little mitts on it.”  She laughs and adds dryly, “Who am I punishing?  Is Spike Lee like, ‘Oh no! Amy Linden didn’t see Clockers?”

Novelist and Oscar-nominated screenwriter, Richard Price. Photo: Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times.

10. GoodFellas. The 1990 Scorsese film, not the pizza.  She watches it every time it airs on television.  An early role for Ray Liotta, he “held his own with that cast.  There is not one thing wrong with it, not a bad scene, not a bad line… I love the scene where he’s driving, helicopter overhead.”

Amy’s favorite scene, when a helicopter hovers over Henry Hill in his Caddy, driving in utter coked-out paranoia.

 

Africa in the Picture IX
May 29, 2010

The Memorial Day weekend in Brooklyn becomes a family reunion of sorts with BAM’s longest-running program, DanceAfrica, “a vibrant celebration of Africa and the diaspora through dance, art, film, and an outdoor bazaar.” Check the calendar for the various goings-on, but if you can squeeze it in today, grab the kids and go to see Azur and Asmar, from Michel Ocelot, the director of the delightful Kirikou and the Sorceress (a personal favorite). Set in North Africa, it tells the tale of two boys, white and black, raised side-by-side and their subsequent rivalry as young adults.

This is the Tree, a poetic story about the baobab tree and the wildlife of the African savannah is one of many multicultural books offered at Nairobi’s Knapsack, a delightful Toy and Play Gallery in Crown Heights … On exhibit through July 9 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is the wonderful Artful Animals, displaying animals both real and mythic as represented in the arts of Africa. With an emphasis on interactivity, the exhibition is decidedly child-friendly.  Even the online exhibition is designed to engage the kids. Here the gomtogo of the Dogon people begs the question, “what is it?”

A representation of three animals, the antelope, the aardvark and the pangolin, the mythic Chi Wara of the Bamana people of Mali has become one the most identifiably African silhouettes.  When commissioned to create a sculpture to commemorate the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan, artist and educator Dr. Lorenzo Pace drew inspiration from the Chi Wara, the Malian “champion of agriculture.”  Soaring 6 feet above Foley Square, the resulting 300 ton black granite monument, the largest outdoor sculpture dedicated to Africans and the African-American community bears noble tribute to those stolen from their African homelands whose unpaid labor was instrumental in creating the United States as a superpower.  Poignantly entombed at the base of the sculpture is a replica of the lock which shackled his great, great-grandfather, Steve Pace.  The original lock –seen here —  remains in the family after having been passed down through the generations and is the inspiration for Dr. Pace’s acclaimed children’s book, Jalani and the Lock.  The book has been “performed” around the world, most recently in France and will be presented in Lima, Peru in conjunction with an explanation of Dr. Pace’s work.

Standing sentry before the Nigeria House, Zuma, by sculptor and designer Billy Omabegho is another treat of African-inspired public sculpture in Manhattan to share with the family this Spring …  Though I missed it during its series run on HBO, I snapped up The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on DVD and was enchanted by the world of the optimistic Precious Ramotswe (Jill Scott) her good-hearted but tightly wound secretary, Grace Makutsi (Anika Noni Rose) her endearingly shy gentleman caller, JLB Matekoni (Lucian Msamati) and her fellow entrepreneur, the flamboyant BK (Desmond Dube.)  Based on the highly successful series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, the series is a refreshingly charming look at the sweetly comic adventures of this Kgale community.  Though grave subjects are interspersed (the AIDS crisis, for one) the episodes are devoid of the heaviness depicted in most Western tales of African life.  I am sorry that the series, the first shot entirely on location in Botswana, wasn’t picked up for subsequent seasons.

The Kenyan coastline was once tragically littered with garbage and untold discarded rubber flip-flops.  By gathering these cast-offs and repurposing them as works of art, toys and accessories, UniquEco, is clearing the waste while creating jobs and practical merchandise.  The website offers a veritable menagerie of colorful indigenous African animal toys from rhinos to hippos, graceful gazelles to the giraffe seen here.

In Powder Necklace, the debut young adult novel by the lovely Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond, Londoner Lila is sent away to boarding school in Ghana in an honestly crafted tale of identity and belonging.  Author Eisa Ulen provides a spot-on review in the Defenders Online.

Africa in the Picture III
May 17, 2010

In This is My Africa, the first production of Zina Saro-Wiwa’s AfricaLab, the filmmaker set out to use “the memories and perceptions of 21 Africans and Africaphiles to weave a very different view of the continent.”  The widely screened dcoumentary showed at the Brooklyn Museum last year and aired on HBO in February.

Chef/Restaurateur Pierre Thiam of Clinton Hill’s popular Le Grand Dakar has crafted a wonderful cookbook and food memoir of his home country, in the well-designed Yolele! Recipes from the Heart of Senegal. (I received it as a gift from a friend and I love it!) … Inventive chef Abdou Gueye at the intimate A Bistro in Fort Greene, where everything on the rotating menu is delicious.

The “Binta” chair at Moroso is available in various colorways …  From the venerable Vlisco, purveyors of “dutch Wax” fabrics for over a century, a striking image from their May advertsing campaign.  Their glamorous boutiques are found in Benin, the Congo, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Togo and the Netherlands.

Paul Smith’s Spring womenswear collection was inspired by the dapper gents of Congo-Brazzaville,  La SAPE, La Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes … So taken by their dandyism, he provided the preface to photographer Daniele Tamagni’s book, Gentlemen of Bacongo, with its in-your-face shot of sapeur Willy Covary on the cover …  A feminized stiletto brogue for women and a slick magenta oxford for men  (PS by Paul Smith) are available on the British designer’s website.

The Sartorialist, Scott Schumann snapped a little sape swagger on the streets of the Lower East Side … Flipping the script on colonial dressing and making it his own, the sapeur uses his clothing as a symbol of rebellion as well as hope.

In a fresh homage to stacking bangles, the men of Casely-Hayford adorn their Spring collection with multiple silk squares tied on the arms … Rebecca Lolisoli’s Umoja Uaso Women’s Village, in Kenya, provides safe haven for Samburu women fleeing violence and an opportunity to make a living creating beaded accessories.  Her story caught the eye of Designer Diane Von Furstenburg who featured Umoja Village jewelry in her Spring show … Ebony Bones! (returning to Southpaw on June 6, 2010) with her fierce, eclectic style, piles it on.

Africa in the Picture II
May 16, 2010

This blog series on the reach of Africa on global culture gets its name from an annual African film festival that I had the pleasure to attend in the early 90’s. There I was introduced to the films of the  Senegalese writer and “Father of African film,” the late Ousmane SembèneAfrica in the Picture began in 1987 as a small retrospective of African cinema in Amsterdam and has grown to become the largest African film festival in Europe.  The esteemed leader of all African film festivals, though, is FESPACO, the Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou.  Held in Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta) since 1969, the mission of the festival is “to contribute to the expansion and development of African cinema as means of expression, education and awareness-raising.”  Sadly, one of the founders, Senegalese filmmaker, Mahaman Johnson Traore, passed away in March.

The New York African Film Festival continues through the end of May with programming at the New Museum and at BAMcinématek (in conjunction with DanceAfrica.)  The last film to be screened in the series, In the Genes (Lupita Nyong’o, dir.) chronicles the effect of albinism on the life of Agnes, a Kenyan woman living without pigment in a predominantly black society.

For more information on African Film Festivals worldwide, check the comprehensive list featured on the website of Portland, Oregon based Cascade African Film Festival.

Though the pool of projects is vast, I’ve included just a few of the inspired bits on my radar right now.

I am delighted for and proud of my longtime friend Saki Mafundikwa on the release of his debut filmmaking effort,  Shungu: The Resilience of a People.  I found myself welling up at the NY premiere at Cooper Union last month.  The moving documentary, with great compassion gives a personal glimpse into the lives of his fellow Zimbabweans, giving “voice to the hopes and challenges of ordinary people.”

Zimbabwean-born, Brooklyn-based dancer/choreographer Nora Chipaumire is the subject of the 35-minute, Nora by Alla Kovgan and David Hinton. The award-winning film has screened around the world and is showing, appropriately at BAM Rose Cinemas during the Dance Africa festival on May 28.  Also catch the former member of  Urban Bush Women as she joins Thomas Mapfumo in performance at 651 Arts on May 21 and 22.

The web leads from one wonderful discovery to another. While checking out a lovely post on thinking-in-tongues, the musings of Audra Dosumnu, I noticed a mention of her multi-talented husband’s forthcoming film, Restless City.  A look at IMDB led me to the site of the film’s Director of Photography, the Louisville, Kentucky born, Brooklyn-based Bradford Young. I was taken by the poetic beauty of the clip from the film Secrets in the House of Myrrh (Jackie Smith, director), as was, it seems, Filmmaker Magazine of his work. They recognized him as one to watch in 2009.

Restless City. “You are a young, vibrant West African immigrant. There is music in your blood and fearlessness in your heart. The streets of New York are your home, where you can do anything you want. What you gonna do?…” Andrew Dosumnu’s at the helm, his frequent collaborator Mobolaji Dawodu holds it down with the costumes and Anthony Okungbowa acts as Executive Producer and acts in the role of Bekay.  I look forward to the release later this year.

Revered filmmaker and Howard University professor Haile Gerima has been a mentor to many (he gave one of my besties, Tracey White, her first costume design gig on his acclaimed film Sankofa.) Winning the top prize at FESPACO, the Étalon de Yenenga (Stallion of Yenenga) and a New York Times Critics’ Pick for his new film, Teza, the independent filmmaker may finally get the larger audience his work deserves.  Set in Ethiopia and Germany, the film examines the displacement of African intellectuals  both at home and abroad. It is in the last week of its New York run at Village East Cinemas before moving on to Los Angeles.

Kenyan director Wahuri Kahiu’s futuristic Pumzi, (“breath” in Swahili”) is an exploration of Africanist Sci-Fi through a woman’s post-apocalyptic journey to restore life to a world ravaged by war 35 years prior. Well-reviewed at Sundance, it premiered in New York at the New York African Film Festival in April and screened soon after at Clinton Hill’s Le Grand Dakar.

In the monograph, Nollywood, photographer Pieter Hugo recreates striking, sometimes disturbing images of the many characters/archetypes featured in the second largest film industry in the world, after India’s Bollywood. (the debate now rages over the third place spot, the US or Hong Kong).

Nollywood opens with a short story, Omar Shariff Comes To Nollywood – A Storyboard In 10 Frames by author Chris Abani, and two essays: “No Going Back”, about the history of the business that is Nollywood, by filmmaker Zina Saro-Wiwa, and “Nollywood Confidential”, by writer and artist Stacy Hardy – of dis.grace fame – which is a fascinating exploration of her reactions to, and interpretations of, Hugo’s images.

– Book Southern Africa

Born in Bamako, Mali the multi-hyphenate writer, scholar and filmmaker Manthia Diawara has long pondered African politics and culture.  His latest book, African Film: New Forums of Aesthetics and Politics, which includes a dvd with author interviews is on pre-order at Amazon for a May 25 release.