Jul 12, 2008

Afro-Punk interview: James Spooner & Ayinde Howell

By Evan Louison

James Spooner's second feature and first step into the world of narrative storytelling is called White Lies, Black Sheep. Filled with jagged video imagery and rapid pace score and source music, the film is as much a document of the LES / Williamsburg party scene as it is a critique of the subtle racism that lies implicit white bohemia. AJ (or Ajamu as his father calls him) helps to promote a popular weekly party on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, lives in Williamsburg, and feels more at home with white women than those of color. As he says when asked if he ever even thinks about being with a black woman, "Man, that would be like kissing my mom...". Largely concurrent in theme with Spooner's first feature Afro-Punk, Spooner tells the story of someone taking a role and fashion in a scene that will never truly be their own. Not everyone is so accepting of AJ's punk style and implicit white self-identification, including his Black nationalist father, and even many of those in the rock scene he considers his friends. He becomes disillusioned in the world he sought refuge within from his original disillusioned state.

Cinema Echo Chamber spoke with James Spooner and the star of the film, Ayinde Howell, after their final screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

CEC:It seems like you [James] have defined a problem with both your films, and in this film [White Lies, Black Sheep] it is no mistake that you are quite literally stepping into the frame of this problem, both with surrogate characters like AJ [actor Ayinde] and your interview subjects in Afro-Punk. In this film you appear as the first person in frame and also the last person in frame in the story. How does this kind of decision play into your choices for directing a narrative, making it so personal?

JS:You're absolutely right to say that both of these stories were about identifying problems that were personal to me and to come up with a solution whether it appears on screen or not. With Afro-Punk, I wanted to tell my story through these kids...I asked the questions knowing the answers already. I went around and talked to all these kids and knew the protagonists I was looking for before I found them. I knew I was going to find someone who was very political but was still struggling with their identity, their racial identity. You know, I know you exist because I was you at one point. So I did do that with Afro-Punk certainly.

CEC:You break the fourth wall for various reasons throughout the narrative of White Lies, Black Sheep, and this overstepping of that boundary between the filmmaker and the audience serves as both a source of humour and also a very intense, borderline confessional statement to make.

JS: Right, well with White Lies, it started out as a more comical thing. I wanted it to be like I was making this documentary, and when you're making documentaries, people are always coming up to you and going, "Hey what kind of camera is that man?," and you're like, "Dude, I'm shooting something right now!" So I thought it would make for comic relief and make for things like having a sex scene in a documentary because I set it up beforehand that I would put the camera down and leave the room.

CEC: That's a pretty intense scene because you see nothing and are told all the information of what plays out [AJ, the film's protagonist, sleeps with a girl he meets at a bar without using a condom, after going on at length to his friend Josh about always using them] without us ever seeing anything, it is all just shadows and sound.

JS: I wanted to let that happen. [When the girl's roommates go out to "get beer"] I say, "You know, I'm gonna go too, but can I leave my camera here?" And then when it was over I came back in the room and picked up the camera and said, "See ya later."

CEC: Right, you come back in the same time as the girl's roommate, who says "Not again, in my bed again! You said you just needed to talk to him"

JS: It's just a funny New York thing.

CEC: Something that happens all the time...

JS/AH: laughter.

CEC:In the film's conclusion the character of AJ undergoes a serious transformation physically, tearing off his clothes, wrecking his bedroom, cutting his hair. It is a scene so serious that he actually breaks down and collapses. At this point you enter the frame again, and actually help him to his feet, and help him to complete the transformation. This again, is a very telling action and role for the director of the narrative to take on.

JS: When I [went over to Ayinde in the last scene of White Lies], that was real. He was doing this thing on camera and you can't really hear it, but he sort of stopped and said, "I can't do it..." And the whole crew was sort of looking to me like, "When are you going to stop this?" What was great was I said cut, I said, let's give him some room to breathe, and that was when I stepped in to say just, "Are you ok?" We still had B-Camera rolling. It was only the good sense of my DP to run in with the other camera and turn it around on the rest of the crew watching us play this last scene out together.

CEC: Did you shoot chronologically?

JS: No, it was all over the place. We shot stuff after the end where he cut his hair with a wig that was supposed to be a year later, we just didn't end up using that stuff.

CEC: Was it difficult for you [Ayinde] to go back and forth in the worlds of the character and play the part of him one day that was growing and learning more about who he was as a black kid in a scene made up of white kids and then back to the part of him that didn't notice or care?

AH: What I tried to do was to have AJ before and after, I gave him two different ways of speaking, just changing him a little bit. I shot blind and just let James direct me, I didn't watch any of the dailies, which was what he wanted and it was very interesting and challenging but very new to me. It would just be James saying "Ok, now you're this..." and my voice would be this way, and then we would do him before and he would be back to this cocky, asshole type. You know, theatre stuff. So it was good to shoot it kind of blind, cause I could just focus on the acting and in that way it wasn't difficult, not being concious of the frame. It was so raw. It was the first time I was in a lead role number one, and then it was the first time I was so exposed.

CEC: That's a good way to describe it. The image of you in the bed at the end, which is very vulnerable and naked looking, says alot about what you're doing in the film: You're wearing certain clothes, that don't necessarily fit, and you are surrounded by different outfits and styles of things that people put on, that people dress up in, that make up the world around you, the worlds you want to be a part of and those you don't. When you remove the clothes, a large part of the identity of the character disappears, and he appears very exposed and weakened.

AH: Alot of that was just the last day of shooting, we had a really good crew, and the energy just came together into one moment. It was what it was.

CEC: You really have Ayiende put himself in a place there that can only bring out extreme emotions in a person, especially a performer. Those feelings of wanting to tear down everything around him, from the posters on his wall to the clothes on his back.

JS: Some people ask the question, "Why did you make the answer to his problem just throwing away all the rock and roll, why can't he still be that person?" For me it was just a physical, beautiful, metaphorical statement about rebirth.

AH: Purging.

JS: And that wasn't the original ending either, but the way that he performed it, we didn't need anything else. In the script it just said, "AJ trashes the room, cuts his hair, lays in bed." I was afraid of doing too much, because of this movie Gleaming the Cube, [1980s skateboard Christian Slater classic] and not wanting people to think it was a rip-off.

CEC: Like American History X.

JS: Yeah. Thankfully because of the way he played it, it became its own thing.

CEC: The film is so powerful that one doesn't have to be taken in by all the characters, in fact an audience member could not have any sympathy for certain characters, and it still manages to give something very affecting to the viewer. It has a lot to do with the cliches of a lot of these characters, and these cliches playing themselves out in people's behavior. AJ is very adamant that his whole life he has been different from other black people, but the white LES or Williamsburg rock kids he runs with are largely the same superficially to each other, so it becomes a situation of running from one cliche to another. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

AH: Right. James and I had discussed making people hate the character for the first half the story and then making him more real for the second part, really pulling that emotional response out of people. So I was just trying to be either the best AJ or the worst AJ I could be at any given time. I mean, it got to the point where we were on set and the DP had to stop and say to James, "Look, I can't shoot that boy anymore, cause he's making me want to beat his ass."

JS: Yeah, it would be like, I know that's how Ayiende feels about AJ, but I'm not sure if that's what AJ feels about AJ. I didn't want people to hate him because he was arrogant, or a cocky guy, but more because there were things in him that they didn't like about themselves. Some of these cliches, after it was all done I realized, I did hit them kind of hard. I think someone at the screening said to me, "You said all these things and made white people look so bad..." And someone else spoke up and said "I've heard white people say all those things." You only get so long to build a story. You condense things and put them into one character. For better or for worse, you do ultimately understand why AJ is who he is, and don't dislike him just because of the things he's saying, like when he says something about kissing black girls and says it's like kissing his mom.

AH: There's a little piece of the character you're drawn to, but you take a little with you when you leave.

JS: When I met him [Ayiende] he had dreads, facial hair and baggy clothes, you know, straight hiphop style, and I said we have to flip your appearance. Next time I saw him his pants were tighter and he had a mohawk. I was like, are you living AJ?

AH: I immersed myself in it.

JS: Going to the parties, flirting with the girls. I remember he was like, "These girls aren't so bad!"

AH: I had seen AJ around before, but I was always the other guy, you know, laughing at him. So it was hard to figure out what made him tick. But it was really fun to disappear into it.

CEC: Someone at the Q&A mentioned the racial stereotypes being divisive, but that wasn't what I felt. It seemed that the stereotypes were a part of the conceit of the film.

JS: I think if someone watches the film they see it one of two ways: They either identify with AJ or Josh [AJ's white friend] or they don't. They're either laughing at the right parts or not.

CEC: I felt closer to AJ's transformation than to his friend Josh who always seemed to say the wrong thing unwittingly, especially in terms of what he has to say about race in general.

JS: Ultimately, identity is identity. Granted, racism and sexism aren't the same thing. But the issues of feeling like you don't belong or feeling like you want to be a part of something that you might not be welcome to, those feelings are universal. I like it when I'm able to hit an audience who might not normally get it.

AH: James gets a lot of flack for that, like "Oh, you use these stereotypes..." But from an actor's standpoint, a movie standpoint, you have to use certain stereotypes to tell the story, and there's only 84 minutes. You're never gonna get the whole person. What you have to get is the character trait in that person which then you identify with a person you know. I know this person, that person, you also know the good parts about them. You have to know the base things. You don't have a whole backstory and then one moment of story.

CEC: There is something pure about AJ wanting to be a part of something beautiful that he can't be completely apart of.

JS: Yeah I mean, punk rock evolved. It was a reaction to something else. Kids said we don't want to go to lazer-light shows and listen to Boston and now it's thirty years later and you can buy the aesthetic at the mall. With anything, it grows and splits. It didn't take long for the National Front to become a part of it, for people to be like, "We don't do drugs, and you do..." and once you start getting into all that, there's not 200 kids anymore. There's hundreds of thousands. So race does matter. It doesn' t have to, not like it's every day, but for this whole event to exist, there has to be plenty of people who are sick of being the one black kid at shows, or being afraid to go to shows because they are so sick of it.

CEC: And it draws a great deal into question that way. Whether or not it matters that AJ is black or something else that separates him.

JS: When I lived in California, in the desert, the first show me and my friend Travis went to when we were in 8th grade, we were in the mosh pit having a great time, and all of a sudden it was like, "Where's Travis?" He got jumped by a bunch of skinheads, and we were victimized by a lot of that 80s white power stuff. When I moved to New York, it was like, "Yo, there's fucking brown kids everywhere! Race doesn't matter!" Then I started going to shows in Jersey and Connecticut and it became white privilege and not white power.

CEC: Right, and that's what these party kids represent. A more implicit threat.

JS: Yeah. They enjoy blackness as an idea. And that's it.

CEC: They don't actually bond with it as they would think they do. They trivialize it.

JS: I don't think most of them are the characters who quote unquote, "...want to be black." I just think that when it comes to things we deal with everyday, it's a hassle to talk about it. But if they're the DJ at the "raw-funk" party, then they'll be the first person to tell you about this piece of classic "BLACK" culture.

CEC: Do you feel like it's hurtful the amount of novelty that can be placed on certain parts of black culture, for instance the hairstyles and the clothes?

JS: I mean, it's just passing comments around. Our film is a film of passing comments.

CEC: There's a scene in the film where the AJ character discovers just how uncomfortable he feels in the white rock show scene of Brooklyn at an Antibalas [NYC internationally renowned Afro-beat ensemble] show. The show itself is used to portray a larger part of the problem you define throughout both films: That those who largely benefit from black culture and black influence in culture are for the most part, not black, and that young people who are black can subsequently feel very out of place in these scenes.

JS: Those are all true experiences. Everything that happens in that segment is an amalgamation of several things I observed in seeing them [Antibalas] a lot over the years. And we did it in their presence, so...

CEC: I couldn't help but wonder if the guys in the band had any idea of what they were representing in the course of the film, what part they were playing in the narrative, one of disenchantment for the protagonist...

JS: I am a little nervous. I tried to be clever about it, and obviously the character of the girl who works their merch tables is the most out of touch character of them all... [No one in Antibalas has any dialogue in the film or acts at all, they simply appear in performance onscreen] I do think that some day I will hear about it.

CEC: I don't think they come across negatively, I just think it's interesting to use a group of people who do that in real life in a fictional story playing themselves but clearly being present in the story for one specific purpose and meaning. They mean something very specific to the AJ character's experience.

JS: It's one of those things when you have this band that's an Afrobeat band, but only one guy in the band is Black, and that's what they do, they've blown up off ot it. They're good musicians and I didn't have the intention of disrespecting them, but when I was writng I wanted to ask myself, "Where could I place AJ, where he'll see all of this for the first time even though he probably has seen it many times and not been in a place where he could realize what it meant to him?" And if it means anything at all, none of that crowd there in Zebulon [Williamsburgh cafe/bar in film] were cast. We just said to them, "Bring all your people," and they did. If it had been a room full of brown people, that would have been a different thing. But that wasn't what it was, and that's important too. It's important to show that.

AH: That was the most extras we had.

CEC: Shifting gears, you had a background in visual arts as a sculptor originally.

JS: Yeah. Filmmaking came out of this necessity to reach a black audience, which is what I wanted to do. Not to just have people of color up on the wall and then an all white crowd in the gallery. Being a fan of artwork, I would always growing up be like, "Minor Threat saved my life!" To hear someone say, "Afro-Punk saved my life!," or, "I thought about suicide every day my whole life before I knew there were other people like this..." I realize, "Oh shit, I can make a difference." Filmmaking is what I can make a difference through, so I'm like, "Fuck it, lemme make another film." I mean, this one just happened.