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A Black filmmaker creating on his own terms

The full episode for (Not) Chasing Oscar Gold.

Transcript

Into America

(Not) Chasing Oscar Gold

Trymaine Lee: (MUSIC) If you watched the Academy Awards this year, you may have noticed the ceremony looked a bit different.

Regina Hall: I'm still excited to be hosting, representing Black women who are standing proud and livin' out loud. Yes.

Wanda Sykes: Yes, yes.

Amy Schumer: And I am representing unbearable white women who call the cops when you get a little too loud. (LAUGHTER)

Lee: Two Black women, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall co-hosted along with Amy Schumer. We saw young HBCU students handing out the trophies to winners, and the show itself was produced by director Will Packer who was Black and an HBCU grad himself who also hired an all-Black production team for the event. (MUSIC)

But while the show was Blacker, the actual nominations were not. Last year, a record-breaking six Black actors were nominated with Daniel Kaluuya being the only winner for best supporting actor. This year, just four of the 20 acting nominations went to Black people. Now there were some big wins on Sunday. Questlove took home an Oscar for best documentary features in his directorial debut for Summer of Soul.

Questlove: But this is not about me. This is about marginalized people in Harlem.

Lee: Will Smith was awarded best actor for King Richard, although the moment was overshadowed by his altercation with comedian Chris Rock. And history was made.

Daniel Kaluuya: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: Ariana DeBose took home the Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in West Side Story. She's the first Afro-Latina and openly queer woman to win an Oscar for acting.

Ariana Debose: So to anybody who's ever questioned your identity ever, or you find yourself living in the gray spaces, I promise you this. There is indeed a place for us.

Lee: The Oscars have a long troubled history with racism. Even when Black people are winning, it can be tainted.

Archival Recording: Hattie McDaniel. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: Like in 1940 when Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to receive an Oscar.

Hattie Mcdaniel: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, fellow members of the motion picture industry and honored guests, this is one of the happiest moments of my life.

Lee: She won best supporting actress for her role of Mamie, a character in the Civil War epic Gone With the Wind, who in many ways epitomized the harmful stereotypes of a person who loyally served the people who enslaved her. McDaniel's own parents were born enslaved.

Mcdaniel: For your kindness, it has made me feel very, very humble. And I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry. My heart is too full to tell you just how I feel.

Lee: After her tearful acceptance speech, McDaniel returned to her seat at the edge of the audience, where she was segregated from her white peers. In the Oscars' 94-year history, just 48 out of 3,000-some Oscar trophies have gone to Black artists.

Anne Bancroft: The winner is Sidney Poitier. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: And in the big acting categories, fewer than two dozen Black people have been honored.

Sidney Poitier: It is a long journey to this moment.

Archival Recording: I never thought this would happen.

Whoopi Goldberg: Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted this. You don't know. (LAUGH)

Halle Berry: Oh my God.

Poitier: I accept this award in memory of all the African American actors and actresses who went before me in the difficult years.

Archival Recording: Denzel Washington. (APPLAUSE)

Denzel Washington: Forty years I've been chasing Sidney. They finally give it to me. What do they do? They give it to him the same night.

Berry: Thank you. Okay, wait a minute. Seventy-four years here, god, I gotta take this time.

Lupita Nyong’o: So much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's.

Berry: This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. (APPLAUSE) It's for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. (APPLAUSE)

Lee: Just six have ever won an Oscar for best actor or actress in a leading role, with Halle Berry being the lone Black woman among that number.

Berry: I am so honored.

Lee: In 2015, every single actor nominated for an Academy Award was white. April Reign, a lawyer and activist fired off a single tweet, hashtag #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. Oscars So White became a powerful movement, and the Academy said they would diversify its membership.

In 2016, just 8% of the academy was made up of people of color. By 2020, that number had increased to 19%. So while they made progress, there's still a long way to go. And to this day, no Black person has ever won the Oscar for best director. That includes my favorite filmmaker of all time, Spike Lee.

Spike Lee: Everybody in here probably voted for Obama, but when I go to offices, I ain't see no Black folks.

Lee: Here's Spike Lee in 2015, accepting an honorary Academy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

S. Lee: So we could talk, you know, yaba, yaba, yaba, but we need to have some serious discussion about diversity and get some flavor up in this. This industry is so behind sports, it's ridiculous. It's easier to be the president of the United States as a Black person than be the head of studio. (APPLAUSE) Honest. It's easier to be the president of the United States than to be head of a studio or head of a network. Let's leave Oprah out of it. She doesn't count.

Lee: But if Spike has taught us anything, it's that the most meaningful validation has always come from outside the white power structures. Do we really need the academy to tell us who is worthy or which Black art or Black artist are deserving of high praise?

Do we need them to tell us how phenomenal icons like Ruby Dee or Ossie Davis were, or how impressive actors like Angela Bassett and Denzel Washington remain? The answer of course is, "no." And that idea is shaping a new generation of young Black filmmakers.

Stefon Bristol: Of course, like, who wouldn't dream of chasin' an Oscar, but I don't look for validation for the Oscars personally.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today in the wake of the 2022 Academy Awards, we hear the story of one Black filmmaker on making his way in Hollywood on his own terms.

Bristol: All right, recording's in progress. Should I slate?

Lee: No, we're good.

Bristol: Okay, good. (LAUGH)

Lee: Stefon Bristol has been a filmmaker for more than a decade. He's best known for his first feature film, 2019's See You Yesterday, a sci-fi movie on Netflix about two Black teenage scientists who build a time machine to try and undo a police shooting.

Bristol: Thank you for havin' me, man. (LAUGH)

Lee: First of all, it's a pleasure, 'cause unlike a lotta times when you deal with material, I actually liked the movie. (LAUGH) The original genre, I actually liked it. So it's great to have you.

Bristol: Thank you man. (LAUGH)

Lee: That's not always the case. Sometimes it's, like, "You know what I'm saying?" I enjoyed it.

Bristol: Oh, thank you man. I'm very humbled.

Lee: A child of immigrant parents from Guyana, Stefon was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. Growing up, Stefon loved watching movies, but he remembers the exact moment he fell in love with the art of film. He was 12 years old watching Jurassic Park.

Bristol: I had the DVD. I went to a special feature section where you, you know, The Making of Jurassic Park, and you see Steven Spielberg, trying to figure out all the dinosaurs and whatnot. And so I really loved that, but I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do with my life until I saw Do the Right Thing when I was 18 years old.

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). My favorite movie, Do the Right Thing. There's somethin' special about it, man.

Bristol: Yes, yes. (LAUGH) I mean, literally the first time I saw that movie it was showing on HBO or somethin', and as soon as the credits rolled, I went downstairs and told my mom. I said, "Ma, I know exactly what I want to do with my life." And she was, like, "I'm not paying your ass to go to school." (LAUGH)

Lee: To play with a camera.

Bristol: Yeah. "You're not gonna study no flim." (LAUGH)

Lee: What is it about Do the Right Thing that so inspired you, and you said, "You know what, I wanna do this?"

Bristol: Oh, I was living on Long Island during that time. I had moved from Brooklyn, I was 13, to Long Island. But I missed Brooklyn so much that the film really resonated with me on, like, oh my God, I've never seen Brooklyn like this before. I remember this growin' up.

And also, when you live on Long Island, it's predominantly white when you go to school. And no one really teach you Black, you know, culture or Black history really at my public school. And I was trying to figure out, you know, what it means to be Black.

And that movie was just, like, so raw and honest, I never seen a movie like this before. You know what I'm saying? Like, that's my first time watchin' a Spike Lee film knowing that Spike Lee made it. But at the same time it was, like, "Yo, what? This is amazing, you know, showin' a real Black life that's very honest that I'd never seen on film before." And plus, I lived on Long Island and just missed Brooklyn so much.

Lee: And so speakin' of, you know, again, Do the Right Thing is my favorite movie. Spike Lee is my favorite. I love the visual language. I love all the cultural cues, the Jordans, and just everything about that. The long cuts. Like, they talk and they act for a long time with long, rich, you know, scenes.

But he's a brother who has been snubbed time and again at the Oscars. Spike Lee I would say hasn't gotten his proper due. And I wonder, as a filmmaker yourself, do the Oscars mean validation? Is it something that you think Black, you know, creatives and filmmakers should be trying to break into?

Bristol: You know, many of the films that we see in the Oscars, nobody in my close relatives know half the goddamn movies. So it's, like, with The Revenant, I never heard of Revenant before. What's that? You know, like, nobody really watched those films at the Oscars, which is fine.

Like, you know, it is what it is. But for me personally, you know, on side of course, like, who wouldn't dream of chasing an Oscar? But I don't look for validation for the Oscars personally. It would be nice, you know, if it happens, but if I try to make movies just so I can get an award statue, then I'm not focused on what's more important.

Why am an artist in the first place? For me, it's distracting and doesn't really lend me to be focused on why I wanna make stories. I just wanna build my own audience and have somethin' very strong to say. So, you know, the older I get, you know, yeah, the Oscars fine, but that's, you know, for me it's, like, if I'm not nominated or close to nominated, it's distraction.

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I think part of the point of contention is, like, us as Black people in this country anyway, like, we don't need to chase white validation, see ourselves through the white gaze and white eyes. On the other hand, we know that we, our art, our creativity can stand toe-to-toe with anyone.

Bristol: Easily.

Lee: And so on one hand, it's, like, well, why isn't it able to compete? Why isn't it being entered into these contests, we'll say, and winning? And so we've seen this lack of representation, right, at the Oscars. And why do you think even for filmmakers like Spike Lee, what do you think the problem is? Why aren't we seeing more still, even after the movement, right? Why haven't we seen more?

Bristol: Folks in the industry are still not viewing our work as equal. If we make films based on our point of view, our own experience, it's deemed as not universal, which is false. It's very false. The more culturally specific your film will ever be, the more universal it is, because you're creating work that gives a strong point of view and a lens to an experience that people never thought of seeing before. And people somehow will try to relate to it.

Lee: You know, with that I think some of the best films give you a lens into a different culture or one that you're familiar with. Representation could also just help give people, you know, a better connection to the art. But I wonder if structural solutions like having more, you know, voters in the academy of color, if that helps. Or is there still such a disconnect? Even though people might enjoy it, we're still operating with not just white supremacy but operating in different universes.

Bristol: Man, you know when the George Floyd protest was happening, you have all these businesses saying that, "Yo, if we support Black Lives Matter and we promise to put more money and whatnot into Black businesses, Black art" and whatnot. And then we see that that is never the case? (LAUGH)

Lee: Right.

Bristol: Same thing happening in the film industry. We're saying there's a mandate for diversity, there's a mandate for this. And I'm seeing, you know, certain novels and books being picked up. And I'm just, like, "Where is it?" You know, and I've heard you guys picked up this novel that is Black sci-fi or fantasy, but I'm hearing there's a quote-unquote "struggle" on makin' that film. Where is it? I've hardly seen any of these films or TV shows bein' made. Only a few, only a fraction.

Lee: Uh-huh (AFFIRM). It's easy to get on board and say, "We're allies, we care." But then put your money where you mouth is. We're not seeing the product. Like, you said it, then where is it, right?

Bristol: How the hell are you advocating for Black artists and filmmakers if you're gonna give them (BLEEP)-y contracts? I was gettin' that, dude. It was nuts. And not only that, "Oh, we love Black talent and everything. But here are some scripts that I wanna give you."

Lee: And you can't say anything about it. Like, none of your input, right.

Bristol: Oh, I'm gonna tell you right now what those scripts were. One script my agent gave to me, I'm glad he left, because I had to tell my other agent, "Yo, you need to check your boy." Just one script my brother about, check this, about a mummy on a slave plantation. (LAUGH)

Lee: You're playin'. Stop playin'.

Bristol: Dude.

Lee: Not a mummy on a plantation.

Bristol: Dude, I'm not lyin'. (LAUGH) And it's not only that. I was amazed how this person who wrote it took time to write it, and he did it in a fashion as if he's Quentin Tarantino.

Lee: So it wasn't a comedy? It was a slasher? What kinda film was this? I'm just curious, not to go down this rabbit hole, but what was this?

Bristol: It was, you know, supposed to be serious like Get Out.

Lee: Wow.

Bristol: I was, like, "Man, I mean, get outta this, man. What the hell is wrong with you?" Here's another script. A zombie apocalypse set during the events of Hurricane Katrina.

Lee: Wow.

Bristol: These are the scripts I'm gettin' from Hollywood. I had to call the producer who's obviously white, so you can't make this (BLEEP) up. What's even crazier, you know, that script was comin' from a Black-led production company. You know, so I'm still navigating, man.

I'm still fresh in the industry. There's a lotta things that I don't know and I'm still trying to figure out. And another frustration I have in this industry is all these sports scripts gettin' shoved on my desk. And I have to yell at my team, my agent and manager and say, "Stop sending me these mother (BLEEP)-in' scripts." Excuse my language. I don't like sports. I don't like 'em. It's not for me, and I want to see other types of films. So that's why I'm tacklin' sci-fi.

Lee: When we come back, Stefon talks about the advice he got from Spike Lee, and the importance of seeing ourselves in the sci-fi world.

Lee: When you think back to, you know, that young man who watched Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, and here you are collaborating with Spike, that list of characters, like, can you? (LAUGH)

Bristol: It's crazy. Dude. I'm, like, still pinchin' myself. The amount of things that this man has done for me in my life, it's astronomical.

Lee: Like his mentor, Stefon went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, and then NYU for graduate film school where Lee was his teacher. What advice has he given you?

Bristol: Don't fuck up. (LAUGH)

Lee: That's the best advice. Just don't. You can think about it, but don't. But that wasn't Lee's only advice. In 2017, Stefon was making a short film about a kid convincing his friend to rob a bodega to help his father get out of debt. He showed it to Spike Lee who was his professor at the time, but it didn't go so well.

Bristol: He saw the film, and he sat me down. And he said, "Stefon, this ain't the movie. You know, this is not it. If we keep seeing images of ourselves like this, it just leaves our culture stagnant. We've already seen Boyz n the Hood, already seen Menace II Society. You know, what kinda filmmaker do you really need to be? I don't think that you really know these kinda actions that you're showing."

And of course I left the meeting crying and everything, but he was right. Even though I grew up in the hood, I grew up on Coney Island. If anybody knows about Coney Island in the '90s and early 2000s, Bloods and Crips are everywhere. So the scenes are always in our face, but I don't know of it.

What do I mean by that? My parents, Guyanese immigrants, super Christian. My ass was in the house every time the street lamps go outside, right. So there're certain things about the hood I still don't know, so why would I make a movie like that, if I don't have a strong understanding?

So I had to really take time to really do a deep introspection of myself and figure out what kinda films I wanted to do. And it was, like, you know what? I always loved Jurassic Park and Back to the Future, all those kinda films I loved growin' up. What can I do to create that kinda fantasy element and marry that to the images of Black lives that I know and love, and figure it out? So that's when I came up with the idea of See You Yesterday.

Lee: So See You Yesterday, your debut film on Netflix. If you all haven't seen it, go check it out. But it was a story. It wasn't just, like, you know, I came up with it and boom, here we are, we've arrived, right? Where did the first seeds of Sea You Yesterday come from, the initial kernel of an idea? When was it, and what were they?

Bristol: It was 2014, right. I was home on Long Island seeing my family. My family was there, and I had a family member, my father. My father was an alcoholic during that time. It was bad. I mean, he would drive drunk. We'd try to stop him almost every night. And to cope with that, I was watching Back to the Future on repeat. And I just wrote a script about this kid goin' back in time to stop his father from doin' a drunk driving accident, which ultimately killed his best friend.

Lee: But that summer of 2014, Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protests and unrest spilled across the country.

Bristol: That bled into my script, and a professor saw, "Hey yo, you have a police brutality scene in this script. Yeah, this kid's testin' out the time machine to save a friend from being killed by a cop in the script, and the rest of the movie's not really about that. It's distracting. It's either you take out that scene, or make that the movie." Thank God for my professor.

Lee: See You Yesterday became a story about two Black teenagers who build time traveling backpacks to save one of their brothers who was shot and killed by the police.

Archival Recording: If we just go back, get them outta there, then he's saved.

Lee: See You Yesterday started as a short film. Spike Lee signed on as a producer. Stefon raised $30,000 to make the film, and he submitted it to festivals across the country.

Bristol: We sent the short film to Sundance, Tribeca, South by Southwest, Atlanta Film Festival, Slamdance. All rejected it. American Black Film Festival rejected. And it's through American Black Film Festival was able to get that short film to HBO. But it was almost like eight months of trying to figure out which festival would take it. No festivals were gonna take it, so I was really worried.

Lee: The money from the deal with HBO helped Stefon as he turned See You Yesterday into a feature-length script with Fredrica Bailey, a Black student he met who was in the dramatic writing program at NYU. And after a long five-year struggle, he finally got his big break.

Bristol: My luck (PH) came through and said, "Hey, you know, Netflix is interested in working on your movie."

Archival Recording: We only have so many times to get this right. Everything's gonna need to be perfect.

Archival Recording: What's today's date? June 28th.

Lee: See You Yesterday hit Netflix in 2019, and the audience loved it. Stefon felt a huge sense of validation after so many people had doubted that a sci-fi movie firmly rooted in Black culture and not the typical hood film could be a success.

Archival Recording: Where is the justice?

Bristol: You know, it's funny, 'cause people can compute and understand Back to the Future, but when I'm talkin' about two teenagers building their own time machine, it broke my heart people couldn't fathom a vision for that. You know, white folks been travelin' back in time all the time. You know, that's easy to concept. But it was also a hard concept for me, because it's, like, (BLEEP) you know, Black folks traveling back in time, where can we go? (LAUGH)

Lee: Right. Where are we goin'?

Bristol: Where we goin'? You know, my (BLEEP) will not go anywhere past the '70s. But, you know, every time Black science fiction happens, it's very much a novelty, you know what I'm sayin'? Or something that's very convenient. Of course Will Smith in Men in Black, that makes sense.

That's convenient 'cause it's Will Smith, you know what I'm sayin'? For me, it's for Black sci-fi I'm tired of it being a novelty for us. I needed to have a sense of agency for us. You know, what are we tryin' to say about our own lives through that sci-fi space to help people who do not know or understand the culture or not appreciate our culture and our people to see somethin' new and different in it?

Lee: You talk about not seeking validation in institutions but your audience and your fans. How have fans and appreciators and lovers of your work responded? Like, give us an example of people responding to the work.

Bristol: They say, "I've never seen Caribbean people on film like this before." "I can share this with my young nephew, my son, my daughter, as a means to show an opportunity of what they want to do with their lives or what they can do with their lives."

Lee: And so representation does matter. Havin' work like yours out there matters in a real-world kinda way, regardless of what the institutions say or the old gilded gatekeepers say. It matters in, like, a real-world context.

Bristol: Also, not only I'm hearing this from Black folks, but some white folks come to me and say, "Yo, I've never been in the hood, never known what it is to live your life and whatnot, but it definitely helped me see it." You know, especially when you're dealing with the topic of police brutality, "it helped me see how it affects the family" and whatnot. And I was, like, "Well, that's the reason why I made the film. How does it really affect the family?"

Lee: And they might not watch a hood genre film, but they'll watch somethin' like this.

Bristol: Yeah, because when they saw the film, they expect one thing, you know, and they was thrown by the next.

Lee: If we don't find representation at the Oscars for Black filmmakers and artists and, you know, actors, what spaces do we find validation with each other? Like, it seemed like the Black Film Festival was the one that gave an opportunity, but where else is it happening?

Bristol: Man, for me that's personal. For me I didn't have my shine until American Black Film Festival. You know, I'm just not trying to worry about validation with these institutions. I'm worried about validation with my audience, how much of an audience I can build off my film.

When somebody, you know, stops me on the street or emails me or calls me and say, "Yo, I saw See You Yesterday, I saw your movie" this, that and the third, that for me is validation. When Netflix opens up their numbers to me sayin' that "Within one month, you got 12 million views on your film," that's validation enough.

Lee: That's crazy. (LAUGH) That is a validation, that sounds like it.

Bristol: Yeah, that's it for me. You know, I'm not lookin' at these award shows anymore. I mean, don't get me wrong. The movement needs to happen, but I'm not pressed.

Lee: For now, Stefon has a few movies in the works, so he's gonna keep on grinding. And just like Spike Lee, he's gonna keep trying to do the right thing. Follow us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook using the handle @intoamericapod, and you can tweet me @trymainelee.

If you want to write us, our email is intoamerica@nbcuni.com. That was Into America at NBC and the letters U-N-I dot com. We talked about the fallout from the Will Smith, Chris Rock moment on our show earlier this week, so check out that episode if you want to hear more. We'll put a link in the show notes.

Into America is produced by Sojourner Ahebee, Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, and Joshua Sirotiak. Original music is by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Aisha Turner. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next week.