Michelle Jackson is a writer and independent filmmaker, with her second film Another Slave Narrative, Michelle decided to discuss the history of slavery in America from a very different and personal perspective, by giving us the thoughts and emotions as shared by former slaves themselves. In March 2017, Michelle won first place at the African-American Women In Cinema Film Festival (AAWIC) for Another Slave Narrative.
Carolyn Hinds: Michelle can you give us a little background about your life and career as a director?
Michelle Jackson: I first began storytelling when I was in graduate school at Harvard, because I became a slam poet at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that was my first experience learning to tell stories. Some of the stories were about myself, I began to gain a better understanding of what my own voice was like, and what it was at the time. And through that, I was able to get into screenwriting. So for the last seven years, I’ve been writing stories, whether it is through screenwriting or whether it is short stories. When I moved to Brooklyn in 2011, I had a friend, Herman Jean Noel, who is the DP [Director of Photography] for Another Slave Narrative, I met him, spoke with him and he and I started to collaborate on projects together for the film. We worked on a project in 2013 with our other friend John called Supposed To Be First, that was the first I had the experience of working with an independent writer, as well as a DP. So that’s really how I got started, it was my first introduction to filmmaking and the film festival circuit.
We worked with really wonderful actors, and I remember when I was at Harvard Divinity School part of the program you got to discover for yourself what you were called to do, what you were created to do. You go through these meetings with an individual on campus, and you got to also have classes as well that are very intentional about that question of purpose and meaning. A good portion of my life I’ve asked that question, throughout college, even as a teenager I was curious about why might have been created, or brought into the world. I’ve had certain ideas about that over time, particularly early college years I had different opinions about what I was called to do. I think at times it been really challenging, you apply for certain programs, you go for jobs and you don’t get them or you do get them and it turns out to not be a very good experience, so that question remains of “What am I supposed to be doing with my life”?
When I was working with Herman on a project, he was present for casting and he took me aside and said “You know Michelle I think you might be created for this”, and it was important, it was strange that Herman would say that because that’s not something that he and I would have discussed, but the fact that he had pulled me aside and say that “I think this is what you should be doing, this is why you’re in the world”, it really meant a great deal to me. So I have taken that very seriously and taken the experience of filmmaking and what it feels like to be a filmmaker, and what it feels like to work with actors, what it feels like to be able to push actors to do to a different place perhaps beyond where they had plans on going to. Being able to work with the DP and think about “that shot” or work with the writer and think about how to manifest the Writer’s vision.
It’s all very magical I would say, it does very feel very much like a privilege and so as difficult being a filmmaker can be, because you don’t have funding or you don’t have time or you actors might back out at the last minute because something else came up, I think there are a few things that could compare to the sense of home that I experience as a filmmaker. Or the sense of belong or purpose I would say as well, and so I’m very grateful to be a storyteller, and I’m very grateful to be able to understand how certain narratives can be told.
It has been a zig-zagging journey since I was in college having to end up at this place of filmmaking, I think looking back when hindsight is 2020 as they say, it seems that I have been put on a path to this place and I’m very grateful for that. It has been very hard, sometimes very painful and sometimes it’s not always been clear if this was the right journey, but I think as it relates to Another Slave Narrative, in particular, I certainly feel that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
Carolyn: It’s interesting because your first film was a short about a young couple dealing with loss, but for your second project you decided to document the stories and experiences of slaves in a series called Another Slave Narrative, what gave you the idea to do this, and why now?
Michelle: There is a book by Norman Yetman, called When I Was a Slave, a couple of years ago I was writing a feature script about slavery, so in order to do some of the research for the film I got that book. When I Was a Slave is essentially a compilation of the federal interviews regarding the WPA Project (Work Progress Administration Project), in which ex-slaves were interviewed by the federal government. So the original transcripts of those interviews are published in that book, there are perhaps maybe 20 – 30 interviews, and when I was reading, some of these interviews were especially painful to read.
Two things were happening as I was reading, one was that I felt compelled to go to my colleague and friends and tell them about the interview I read with Mary Reynolds and the things she went through as a slave because someone had got to know about this. So I had a strong desire to share these stories with other people, I certainly could believe that these individuals went through these horrible situations, and the trauma. But it also felt unbelievable that human beings could do these horrible things to other human beings, so I wanted to share those stories with my friends. But at the same time, I was also aware of this perspective that some people feel that we shouldn’t even be talking about slavery anymore, especially as it relates to the film or in general. People feel it was so long ago, we should move on and talk about other things.
I’m a part of a writers group, and there are other Black writers there who will say “I can’t get this feature script that I’m writing on another aspect of the Black experience whether it’s related to jazz or baseball, and I can’t get this script made”, but what scripts are being made are scripts about slavery.
There is a perspective that some of the only stories that are being produced right now are relating to slavery, which was the case a few years ago, or there is the perspective that we should stop talking about slavery because it’s time for us to move on, because again “it was so long ago.” So there are two things that were happening; this desire to tell a story, share someone’s story with people I cared about, but at the same time this sort of compulsion from others to say, “Well don’t tell anyone anything else about slavery, they don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
Personally, I do not think that that is fair. I think, particularly, for those of us who are descendants of slavery, the least that we can do is continue to tell those stories. I think it is particularly offensive for those who preceded us, those who were enslaved, for their very descendants to be embarrassed, ashamed or exhausted from talking about what they went through. I don’t want to be that kind of person individually, I don’t want to be that kind of filmmaker, so I said that someone has got to do something about telling these stories, and I’m a filmmaker so I can do something. It wasn’t so much a “why now” because I thought it was relevant to any particular sort of real-world events. This preceded Charlottesville, but it was more, “I’m reading this book right now and I’m compelled to tell this story.” So it’s August 2016, what can I do about creating this story?
Carolyn: Why did you decide to create a series, rather than feature film or documentary, where we see you take the journey of going through the research? Because to me, it [Another Slave Narrative] is more of an anthology series.
Michelle: A series is helpful because there are so many stories out there that need to be told, at least 200 interviews that are currently being held by the Library of Congress, so it would be very difficult to put all of those interviews into one film, that will take years. One way to get around that is to produce those interviews in different parts, part 1, part 2, part 3, etc.
All I wanted to do was connect viewers with the interviewees, with the men and women whose stories we’re trying to honor. I think what a documentary ends up doing is that in addition to highlighting the interviews it highlights the filmmaker, the research, and I think the filmmaker and research can get in the way of telling those stories. There are certainly other documentaries that have highlighted the importance of these WPA interviews, and that’s really important, but I know there isn’t anything out there currently that really focuses just on the words that were said.
I think it’s important for the actors to get out of the way, for me to get out of the way, so the viewer can connect as quickly as possible with the actual story. Because at the end of the day it isn’t about the research, the filmmaking process or the actor’s process, this is about what did Mary Reynolds go through, what does Fanny Moore have to say about her life, what did Lewis Jenkins say about his mom when he was asked. The sooner we can get to that, the better.
Carolyn: I found the way the film is directed to be very similar to a stage play, in that it’s told in one setting with the actors speaking directly to the audience. To me, it makes it more personal not only for those watching, but also the person reciting the experiences of former slaves. What also intrigues me is that the actors are not only different genders but also ethnicities, can you tell me why you decided to do this?
Michelle: I wanted to do a couple of things, all of the actors in the film are people that I know personally and they this did this film sort of as a favor, and nothing more, because they cared about the project. There certainly wasn’t a lot of monetary incentive to do the project, and as a result, I wanted to make the memorization of this project as easy for them as possible.
Each of the monologues are very long, at least five minutes and that’s a long time to have an actor speak. And so one I wanted to eliminate having my friends having to memorize a lot of material, but also whenever you see a historical narrative and you have an actor representing a historical figure, I think one of the things that can get in the way of the story is the viewer trying to determine “is the actor portraying the individual appropriately”.
When Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln, there’s a question of “Is Daniel Day-Lewis a good portrayal of Lincoln or not”. Then it becomes more about Daniel Day-Lewis than about Lincoln. One way to get around that is by having more than one person portray the individual. So if I only had Ingrid Walters, she’s the first person that we see in Another Slave Narrative who plays Fanny Moore, it was only Ingrid playing Fanny Moore five minutes in you’re going to start focusing on Ingrid and her reactions to certain parts of her monologue. But if you use seven or eight people, because it’s so confusing for the viewers to figure out “Who is this person again?”, they have to start focusing on the words, so eventually, the actors start to get out of the way, again which is the point, and it becomes about the stories that are being told.
One of the reasons why I wanted to use non-Black actors which I’ve gotten some criticism about from viewers who don’t appreciate that, which I respect, but one of the reasons why I did use non-Black actors was because there are some Black actors that I approached to do this project, who expressed real fatigue at doing slave narratives as an actor. And one of the actors was my friend Latarsha Rose, was one of those individuals who were really resistant to doing this project, she’s from Being Mary Jane, and there was a time in her career, where she said a good deal of the auditions she was getting were relating to slave narratives. She said she was tired of it, it’s really painful to go through, and she has a lot of integrity as an actor and put herself through an awful lot of work in order to portray the slave that she was being asked to portray.
In order to have integrity, she put herself through a lot of trauma, whether it’s emotional, whatever her method is as an actor. It’s just a lot to ask of anybody, but that’s the gig when you’re playing a slave, and if we’re going to have integrity, we’re going to have to go through some pain as well.
My point is “Why must it only be Black actors who have to go through this emotional trauma, in order to carry these stories forward?”. To me it is not fair, it’s not reasonable, particularly because, for many Black actors, this is the only thing that they can get. Why can’t it be the case that a non-Black actor who cares about the community, who cares about Black people, who cares about racial justice in the U.S., why can’t they also do the work of an actor and memorize their lines and try to go through the work of portraying this individual? So to me, it’s an issue of justice, Black actors should not have to be the only ones to experience trauma in order for us to make slave narratives a reality.
I don’t think that this can work for Twelve Years A Slave or for Django, I think it makes perfect sense for Black actors to portray Black slaves in features and TV, but in this case where we already have more than one actor themselves portraying more than one individual, I say “Why don’t we throw some more people in the mix, why don’t we throw men in the mix for females narratives, and why don’t we throw females actors in the mix for male narratives”. Now when we do that it becomes a community telling the story as opposed to one actor telling the story.
One of the benefits as well of doing multi-racial casting is that there are viewers who have said that they didn’t really feel empathy for Fanny Moore, or Mary Reynolds or Lewis Jenkins in the film until they saw an actor that looks like them. Namely, someone who was white, or Asian, they didn’t feel sympathy until that person came on the screen. I think that is helpful for engagement as we try to move forward in this country, regarding racial equality and racial justice, that there are people who are finding out through watching this film, that they have their own racial biases that are in their being.
Now that they are aware of that and are uncomfortable with that bias, we can start to have more open conversations about why we care, and why we do not care about certain people who are experiencing trauma in this country. So all of those reasons are why I’m very grateful to not heed the discouragement I received from Black filmmakers and white filmmakers alike, who said “Please don’t use white people to tell these stories.”, I think because I’ve used white actors, in particular, it has reached more audiences, and it has forced more audiences to say “Why do I feel bad when the white girl cries, why don’t I feel bad when the Black girl cries?”. It’s really important for us to move forward.
Carolyn: Have you already started production on part two of the series, what is the next step for you with Another Slave Narrative?
Michelle: I haven’t already started, I am trying to get Another Slave Narrative through the film festival circuit, so that’s where my energy is being put, and currently I am looking for funding and partners who would like to partner with me in producing the subsequent series. So right now the main priority is getting Another Slave Narrative to as many people as possible.
We’re working with professors at Georgetown as well as other universities who are teaching these narratives, and I am working with high school teachers who would like to incorporate those same narratives into their curriculum, regarding U.S. history. I am really trying to make sure that this first series is exposed to as many people as possible, and to help as many people as possible, prior to taking on the second series.
To watch Another Slave Narrative click here to watch the first film in the series.
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Carolyn is an aspiring film critic, Bajan nerd living in Toronto and an avid Jane Austen fan. I enjoy speculating on plot theories for my favorite TV shows, such as The Walking Dead, The Expanse, and black-ish. Oh, I will do karaoke anytime, anywhere. Follow on Twitter @Carriecnh12