There are certain things that are a given when conveying ones thoughts on film in a public sphere. The most common one being that not everyone will agree with your view. Being able to take what you dish out comes with the territory. So it was not a surprise to see an email from director/producer/writer Kiara C. Jones pop up in my inbox a few days after I had posted my review of her feature film Christmas Wedding Baby. Jones offered a passionate rebuttal expressing why she thought the film had more to offer than my review gave it credit for. Raising some intriguing points in her email, Jones agreed to meet with me, while she was in town to screen the film at the Toronto Black Film Festival, to discuss the film further. While I was expecting a tongue-lashing of sorts, I was met with a friendly hug and treated to a frank and engaging discussion about genre filmmaking, the struggles of being an independent filmmaker, the portrayal of black people in the media and why diversity within film can be achieved through familiarization.
Cinema Axis: Thank you for meeting with me today to discuss the film.
Kiara C. Jones: I really appreciate you taking the time as well. My husband said “are you going to start emailing every critic that says something bad about your film?” I said “No. I just think he misunderstood something.”
This one struck a nerve.
Kiara C. Jones: Just a little. It wasn’t like it was a bad review. It just strikes a nerve because, from the inception of the film, that has been my argument. How do I make something that is palatable for the masses and delivers the information I am trying to get out there, in a way that doesn’t get ignored? The path for independent black films is a tough lonely road. So yes, I put a “bow” on it. I did that consciously. It was not an unconscious thing that it was a holiday movie. It was not an unconscious thing that it had a wide cast. In the design of the script I had a myriad of things that I wanted to talk about, things like womanhood, sexuality, partnership, society, and parenting. So I designed these people to deliver these messages for the things I wanted to say. It was like I got to a place in my womanhood where everything I had been told as a child was a lie. I was like “okay…how is it that nobody has said any of this?” So yes, I did consider the commercial viability of the film in its packaging.
Which is not a bad thing, I guess my critique was more that, because you where playing within the romantic comedy genre, there were a lot of beats that were familiar. At times it took me out of the story. So it’s possible I was focusing on the medium rather than the message. When I revisit the film I will try and look at it with different eyes.
Kiara Jones: Do you generally like romantic comedies?
I do. I tend to have a diverse taste in film. I think it was the fact that I have seen a lot of romantic comedies that made certain tropes standout…take the character of Tad for example…when he was referenced earlier in the film my mind automatically went “he’s going to come back and play this particular role”…and that’s what happened. So that’s why it felt very familiar to me. Others may have a completely different take on it. My mother, for example, did not see the film in the same way as my wife and I did.
Kiara C. Jones: It’s funny, different audiences respond to different things in the film. Mature women see it entirely different than young women. Men see it very differently; people who don’t normally like the romantic comedy genre see it differently. Yes there is a structure, but that’s why there are so many romantic comedies, people like that structure.
Kiara C. Jones: So understanding that this is the format which I am playing with, I did consider a lot of things structurally. This was my thesis film at NYU, so I was able to work with some really talented people in designing the script. They were like “if you are doing a genre film and you go too far away from the genre people are going to be angry.” If you say it’s a cake, and you make a bean pie, they will say it is not cake.
So when you were writing, knowing this, was it a struggle to balance your ideas with the tropes that need to be included?
Kiara C. Jones: The way I did it was to figure out the characters first. The characters were driving everything. It was originally going to be the bride, her friend and the mother. Then I realized that the sister thing, this intimacy amongst them, I was not able to get across with the bride alone. When I added one of the sisters I wanted to separate a woman who had a great life, doing all that she wanted to do, and now is choosing to have a child; from a woman who had a child very young and feels like, even though it looks like she has everything from the outside, she didn’t get to do what she wanted to do.
I then figured out what their individual paths were and the timing. I think this is where the genre helped me, because I was able to go “oh, I need to catapult over here and this is how they do it in romantic comedies.” It help to break out the individual stories of the three sisters, even the mother has her own arc. A lot of people don’t assume that the mother is going to comeback in the end and do a great thing. They are very pleased to find that she does.
In your email to me, you referenced that you were inspired [to write the film] partly by the fact, at the time, there weren’t positive roles for black women where they weren’t being raped or abused. Why do you think that has become such a prevalent theme, especially in films from black directors?
Kiara C. Jones: I think initially it is about telling a story. Everybody has a story to tell because they have something they want to say. I want to say that a lot of those films come out and they are often by first-time directors, because it is their story or they have a relationship to it. A significant intersection with it that makes them want to put that information out there. I have trauma in my life too, but I specifically chose not to make a trauma film. That story is being told and there are plenty of people showing that facet of the experience. I would like to show another facet of the experience.
One thing I noticed, looking over my review again, is that I neglected to delve into the character of Isaac. I quite enjoyed him. Although this film is very much about the story of these three women and their experiences, why was it important to you to have individuals like Isaac and Gabriel in the film?
Kiara C. Jones: I love men. People will say that a film about black women will bash men, but I adore black men. I really think they get a bad rap. People often miss the thing about Gabriel. They keep saying “he ain’t shit”…that’s what the mother says. He drives a Mustang, lives in a beach house, and is a freelancer, what more do you expect from a black man? What more do you expect from a black man that makes everything he does not good enough? I could have hit on that point somewhere harder, but I trust the audience’s intellect to pay attention. In the next film I will do it in a way that is more on that note, but it is all there for you.
Stephen Hill [who plays Isaac] is an actor who has been in all my films. When I first met him, he auditioned for my short film Basura, I just loved his performance. When I went to look up his other work, he was always playing the heavy, the thug, the abusive boyfriend. I said to him “Stephen, stop taking these roles,” he was like “how am I going to work?” I knew I was asking a crazy thing, but I said “you have to stop being the big scary black guy in movies.” So I wanted to make him the loveable, huggable, touchable human being. Even in the moment when he punches the guy out, which is a very violent thing to do, you understand where it is coming from and you forgive him because you feel that he is trying. Black men are trying so hard to meet society’s standards and expectations, and society keeps telling them that they are not doing good enough. I love Isaac. He is my favourite character in the film. People always ask which character are you most like?
They probably assume it is one of the female characters.
Kiara C. Jones: They do, but I am most like Isaac. I am an artist. I struggle hard to both work and keep my family together. My business takes me away from my family a lot; and sometimes that gets misconstrued because you see the red carpet pictures like I am having a good time. I am really hurting not being with my family. All of this work is to ensure that we can be together.
You talk about using Isaac to show a different side of black men that is not often seen in film. There are tons of conversations right now about the subject of diversity in film, but most of it is focused on the Oscars. What needs to be done as a culture to get more positive and diverse roles for black men and women on the screen?
Kiara C. Jones: That is part of the reason I made this film. We need more visuals. I call it the “Jay-Z effect.” I remember when Jay-Z came out and people [mocked him], but we have seen him for so many years, over and over, now with Beyoncé and a beautiful baby, and people are now like “Jay-Z is alright!” He is still the same dude he was when he first came out, but you have now become familiar. So we need more of a familiarization. I cannot tell you how many times, and I am sure you know this experience, I have been the only black person in the room.
This is especially true within the realm of film culture. Going to film festivals, for you as a filmmaker and me as a film viewer, you can often be either the only one or one a small handful.
Kiara C. Jones: They just don’t get it. They don’t get us. They are unfamiliar. We need more familiarization. Where we get [a slightly better chance to play diverse roles] is on television. I strongly believe that having a black president on 24 significantly helped Barack Obama. Just hearing such a voice in a commanding way gave people a tiny piece of information in their head that it was possible. That is the secret; it is not about making “black films” to perpetuate the acceptance in the general landscape. You don’t have to write a “black character” you just have to cast a black person in the role.
If you look at Christmas Wedding Baby, and I have been beaten up about this, there is nothing uniquely black about that film. The entire film can be done with a white cast. We even considered that. The reason the film is black is because I am black. I feel that if I don’t give those opportunities to actors of colour then who will? Who is giving Kimberley Drummond the lead role? Who is giving Stephen Hill that chance to play a father who loves his woman? I felt it was my responsibility, but if you look at the script there is nothing that says it is inherently black.
That is actually one of the things I really liked about the film. When I was viewing it, I was simply looking at it with the same eyes that I would for a Gwyneth Paltrow romantic comedy. It just happened to have black people in it. I felt the same way about Creed and Tangerine last year, you could have had anybody in those roles. However, people still feel the need to categories and put in boxes, even within our own black culture. When do we get past this silly notion of the “authentic black” film?
Kiara C. Jones: I hate authentic black. I hate it. I was talking to my sister recently about the authentic black experience, and not being black enough. The thing is it is a lie. The things they are telling you about what defines black is the lie. Your experience is not the lie. My experience is a 100% fully realized black experience. So is yours and every other black person. The thing the media is trying to corral us into is the lie. They are trying to tell us we don’t raise our children, there are no fathers, we’re all impoverished, we’re all oppressed, we don’t have dreams. They are trying to tell us these things by design. It’s not an accident that this is how we are portrayed, and I feel so sadden that this is the way we feel we need to portray ourselves. I get that it makes money, but we don’t have the privilege of perspective. If we had enough films on the other side that were exalting us and showing us in a different light, that would be fine.
Lisa Arrindell Anderson [who plays Lori in Christmas Wedding Baby] put it like this, imagine if someone was to tell you [the black experience] is an orange, but they only let you taste the rind. There is so much that’s deeper than that. There are the layers, sweet juices, textures and other colours. Yet they give you this tiny little rind and tell you that’s all it is. That is the lie. As much as I liked The Martian any of those five astronauts could have been played by an African-American.
That is true.
Kiara C. Jones: I had this argument often while at NYU when they would talk about how to write ethnic characters. I was like stop writing ethnic characters. Whatever the thing is that you think they’re supposed to do, don’t write that. It’s offensive and unnecessary. Why do you need to “blacken” it up? Do you think people are going to miss the fact that your character is black? If you cast a black actor people will notice that already. It’s going to be alright.
What bothers me about that line of thought is that it is coming from a film school student. So that means it travels all the way up to people who become casting agents, directors, producers, studio executives, etc.
Kiara C. Jones: Exactly. They truly believe that a white man can play anything, but when it comes to minorities they feel like they need to justify why they are in the film. The same conversations we had in the 70’s we are still having today. If you notice in my film I don’t justify any character. They don’t talk about what they do unless it is relevant to the situation in the movie. If you can accept that Matt Damon is supposed to be wherever you drop him, then I am not going to stop my storytelling to explain to you how this black character got to where they are unless it is relevant.
Which is one of the reasons this #OscarSoWhite discussion is so infuriating at times. Everyone says change is needed but, by time summer blockbuster season rolls around, we forget and are content to simply go along with the status quo.
Kiara C. Jones: If change was to happen today, you would not see the effects for another three years. That’s how long it takes. Even if an executive decided to embrace diversity, it would take three years before you see the final product. So the question is what were we talking about three years ago? You know there is a problem, but there is no action.
That is my thing on the production side. I am here to be your option. I was picked for the Sony Diverse Directors Program this year. I went to film school, made my first feature on my own, and sold it by myself. You cannot say you did not have anyone else to consider. I am going to continue to work to be an option. My next film, very different to this one, is a drama about a stock broker. It’s going to be sleeker and look like it is from a different director, and that is by design. I have been told “you shouldn’t do that. They are going to think you don’t know what you want.”
But is sounds like you are simply trying to show range as a director.
Kiara C. Jones: Do you see what I am saying! This is the type of conversations I am getting in Hollywood. I am going to the people who passed on the first film and saying “here’s what I am doing next” and they are telling me I should write another holiday film. You know what? I am just going to do what I feel in my heart. I have a passion to tell this next story and I hope you guys like it.