An Artist's Manifesto: 2017

At the start of last year, I gave myself not resolutions, but some goal posts I wanted to steer towards and keep in mind as I moved through the year, and 2016 ended up being one of the most gratifying and busy years I've had since I began directing. In lieu of the New Year, I thought I'd try it again.

So this is my artist’s manifesto, if you will, for the Year of our Lord, 2017:

This year for me is all about time. What's worth my time? I want to continue to push myself to work as often as possible on material that deeply resonates in me--to forget what's socially, societally, or career-wise expected of me, and to work on what I love--because that's what creates the best work. Barry Jenkins said once your voice is your "true currency", and I believe it. It’s only the work that starts and ends with you that will reflect who you are to the world and develop your voice. This year, I want to confront the hard truth that as a filmmaker, writing is where I need the most growth. I’m realizing 8 years of directing hasn't taught me much by way of writing, and why should it have? Writers write, and if it took 8 years to even begin to grasp the notion of what directing really is, it’s very likely it may take me 8 years of writing, if not more, for me to become a competent writer. But that’s okay. I’m in it for the long haul. There are no shortcuts, and if you love the work, does it really matter how long it takes, anyways?

I've also realized recently that strong writing is without question the best directing technique there is, because if you give a great actor a complex character with a clear objective, the truism holds water that the only direction you need to give them is, "a little faster” or “a little slower”. Their job is to bring it to life. My job isn't to know the Meisner technique backwards and forwards, or to know that buzz word that sparks an actor’s instincts on the day, my primary job is to have a story to tell; to create a world where characters move through a sequence of events that are inevitable and yet surprising, vibrant and yet authentic, personal to me and yet universal. That’s it. I say again, that’s it. Starting out, it’s good to just be as busy as possible. Ten thousand hours is a long time, and experience yields the most wisdom. But at some point in the trajectory of your path as a creator, it’s less about having the work ethic to say “yes”, and more about having the courage to say “no”. Because yes, sometimes it’s the right thing to say no. And certain people may take that as arrogance or laziness or whatever, but that’s their problem and not yours. Your objective is to know yourself, and to use that as a lightning rod to attract the work that’s emblematic of your values as an artist—or better yet, to sit down and write that project that you think the world is lacking. To be the originator of it. To not wait for it. 

But I’ll be damned if that wasn’t the hardest thing of all to do. And of course it’s the most difficult. Society and culture in many ways haven’t provided us the tools to do it for ourselves. They’ve essentially done the opposite. School is nearly twenty years of being told what to do, and most occupations in the world operate under a similar set of rules. Finish this test (or you’ll fail this class). Do this work (or you’ll be fired). But what repercussion is there for an artist that doesn’t create? Nothing. Who’s telling you what to do and how to do it? No one. But the working artists of this world have somehow through sheer discipline and countless hours rewired their brains and overcome this lifelong conditioning of do-this, do-that. And how did they do it? Not through fear, that’s for sure. Fear of failure is the worst place to start as an artist, and rivaling that is the desire to be famous. Remember that less than one percent of your time as an artist is actually spent receiving praises, and the rest of it’s spent working. So why not learn to love the work, and not the recognition?

So where should an artist start then? In my humble opinion: love. Create out of love. Do it for the same reason you liked finger painting when you were a kid, or why three hours of making a stop motion film with your brothers was worth the ten seconds of footage you got in the end: because it’s fun. Or because it’s how you express yourself—how you say the things that you can’t say in the everyday world using everyday language as a medium. Every person in this world, whether they make art or not, has a desire to express themselves. To be understood. Those that don’t make art look at paintings, read books, watch movies, listen to music, etc. They find their deepest secrets and most intimate feelings miraculously articulated in these things, and through stories, images, words and sounds, they’re reminded they’re not alone. Or some people, like me for instance, instead author these expressions. And when a stranger—even just one—responds to it, I come to the same exact realization the experiencers do: I am not alone.

So much of life is spent learning things, but a significant portion as well is spent “unlearning” things. Recognizing bad habits that have crept up on you, or reaffirming and refocusing your values that have incrementally changed without you noticing. So for me this year is about getting back to square one. Finding the love. Doing it for the joy of doing it—and not because I think at the end of the process there’s going to be affirmation from others. I alone want to define myself—and not let other peoples’ opinions, current trends, or fear define me as they so easily can. 

If I can do that, it doesn’t matter what’s in my checking account, or how many followers I have, I think I’ll be happy. That’s enough for me. That’s a start.

Dear Barry

Dear Barry Jenkins,
Thank you.  And I say that thank you loud enough so that Tarell, James, Trevante, Mahershala, Andre, Naomie, Adele, Jeremy, Dede, and the honest folks at A24 can hear it, but first and foremost, thank you.  As a young filmmaker, I've tried to make movies that were personal to me and were an exploration of who I was and what I knew and understood, and sometimes those results have fallen (expectedly) on deaf ears.  And I get that.  I'm young, I'm learning, and that's the way it goes.  But in today's climate of film, it's hard, man.  And I would be willing to bet you know that better than anybody.  It was a long road to "Moonlight" and I'm certain it wasn't always red carpets, Q/A's and award shows.  I bet there were dark nights.  There had to be.  Because you wonder--and not always--but you do wonder:  Do people actually give a shit?  Do people want to hear what I have to say?  Am I shouting into the void?  It's no surprise those big budget, bang-up movies have an audience, and that's fine, but is there a place for personal film in America?

And "Moonlight" answered that question for me. And Lord knows, it couldn't have came at a better time.  I watched it as two different people, and it moved me in two different ways: as an audience member, but also as a filmmaker.  You pointed your lens at this little corner of an overlooked humanity, and you made us pay attention.  And I remember standing in the parking lot on a chilly night after seeing this film with my filmmaker friend, and we were just buzzing.  We kept saying to each other, "Man, fuck, this is the kind of movie I want to make one day."  And that's a very rare phenomenon nowadays.  In a world where cinema seems to be in two completely separate and exclusive camps of large-scale franchises and tiny, slice-of-life indie films, your film hit the target for me.  It sat at that glorious intersection of being impressionistic and cinematic and yet personal and intimate.  You showed us how cripplingly high stakes inner conflict can be.  I think of "Taxi Driver", I think of "A Woman Under the Influence".

And I think for the first time in a real way, I have hope about the future of American film.  I'm optimistic.  Because look at the love "Moonlight" is getting.  How can you not be hopeful?  People are responding.  They're awakening.  They're remembering that sometimes you go to the cinemas to feel, to examine.  Not just to escape.  Not just to remove yourself from your emotional sensitivities, but rather to embrace them.

So that's why thank you.  Because now I know that even though the road is long and hard and takes decades of dedication and persistence, at least I know there's a chance.  There needs to remain a place for personal films in America.  I'm not talking about toppling the system and staging some revolution where no one can watch a blockbuster again, I'm just saying give us that place.  Give us that one screen out of the fourteen at the theaters.  It can even be the small one on the end.  I don't want to be relegated to watching a film like "Moonlight" on my laptop or my TV.  I couldn't have experienced that collective silence and oneness with the strangers around me as the credits rolled in "Moonlight" from my couch.  We deserve that place.  

And that's where I'm going to be.  In that place.  For now watching films like yours or "The Witch" or "Whiplash" or all the rest of the outstanding films A24 is putting out.  And then hopefully with luck and time and dedication, one day making something of my own for that screen.

Thank you Barry,