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'Finding the New Black' Interview with Jesse Williams ('Grey's Anatomy,' 'The Butler,' 'Question Bridge')

Features
by Jasmin Tiggett
August 1, 2012 10:23 AM
13 Comments
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With a budding roster of acting credits that includes ABC’s Grey’s Anatomy, Joss Whedon’s Cabin in the Woods, and a string of upcoming feature films, Jesse Williams considers himself to be at just the beginning of his career.  

Through his production company farWord, he’s also set out to produce “purposeful film, literary and academic pursuits,” beginning with Question Bridge: Black Males, a transmedia art project that seeks to redefine Black male identity through a video mediated question and answer exchange among American Black males. Since opening at Sundance earlier this year, the project has traveled to several cities and venues including Brooklyn Museum, Oakland Museum, LA Film Festival, and Atlanta’s Chastain Arts Center.

Those who’ve been following the series will get why Williams was a great person to chat with for our final installment of Finding the New Black. Here, he discusses his current projects and his thoughts on how blackness is represented in the industry.

Find an explanation of the series, and previous interviews, HERE.

***

S&A: Tell me about the genesis of your production company, farWord.

JW: farWord came out of a desire of mine, since leaving the classroom as a teacher and starting my career as an actor, to find a way to bridge the gap creatively between the academic world that I came from and entertainment. So together with my partner, Aryn Drake-Lee, we started a production company to put some projects into development, whether that's scripted feature films, transmedia projects, or literary work.

S&A: How did you get involved with Question Bridge?

JW: We're collectors of Black art and became friends with [artists] Hank Willis Thomas and his mother Deborah Willis, who is also an executive producer on Question Bridge. They brought the project to us, because you could tell it would be something that we would be very responsive to, particularly with the conversations we were having about the needs of Black men and identity politics, and how I was addressing that in my classrooms when I used to teach African history and African American history in high school. So we clicked immediately around Question Bridge and I got really involved. I had no choice in the matter; it spoke to me very directly and it was exactly what Aryn and I had been looking to do. So we tackled it head on and tried to find ways we could to move the ball forward in a productive way for the project.

Question Bridge: Black Males

S&A: The project began as an art installation, but at the LA Film Festival it was presented in a movie theater setting unique to that festival. How do you plan to develop it as you continue to expand to new cities?

JW: The next step is showing it at institutions around the country. For that we’ll probably stick with the five-channel installation on five separate screens on 10-foot panels in an arc in a bench theater setting, that's a more intimate space. As we fundraise we’re looking to develop a website that can ultimately live as a 24-hour interactive hub for healing dialogue, where you can upload your own questions and answers, and watch other people, and keyword search based on fatherhood or crime or religion or sexuality, whatever you want, and see in what parts of the country people are having these conversations. These discussions are constantly being legislated based on “ghost polls” that represent what Black people are doing and how we vote, but that doesn't always feel like a real representation of us. So we’re looking to get a lot more information and data mined directly from the horse’s mouth.

We’ll also gather more new content, new representations of Black men. We’re looking to ultimately get 200,000 Black men, to be 1% of the Black population, represented in the Question Bridge: Black Males content. And we’ll play around with the formatting. We’re not locking ourselves into anything. This is an experiment for us, and we think it’s been a huge success.

S&A: You screened Question Bridge at Sheffield Doc/Fest in England this summer. What was the response like overseas?

JW: We were an honorable mention for the top prize there, and it's gotten a really good response. A friend of mine, a Nigerian from England, was also there and we had an interesting conversation about how it translates to him as a Nigerian, as a Black man living in London and how a monolithic representation of blackness affects him, and how he was surprised to what degree this American dynamic that was being explored Question Bridge related to him. So that's something that we’re looking forward to down the line, constantly exploring not just American Black males. Certainly, we’re working from a position of experience right now and will expand on that.

S&A: There’s a perception in entertainment that culturally or socially conscious projects don’t have mass appeal. Have you encountered that hurdle with any of your work so far?

JW: Not quite yet [with farWord]. So much of our energy has been focused on Question Bridge. But I do have those conversations as an actor reading material that I'm responsive to, that people say is not available to me because I'm not white. I'm kind of in a middle space, being marketed as a biracial actor. Roles are written either stereotypically Black or they’re written “normal,” which is just code for white. So I find that I'm constantly having those conversations as an actor, as somebody who's getting scripts sent to them to perform in, and I would be surprised if I don’t run into that with creative content as well.

S&A: With the scripted content you’re producing, will it have the same kind of cultural sensibility as Question Bridge?

JW: Yeah, I can't help it. That said, the three features we’re developing now are certainly not all “race movies”; they're not about something that has a racial overtone, but what I'm looking for is just culturally responsible, culturally relevant, forward-thinking material that has an element of leadership, and that is not working from a position of fear, that is not casting from a position of fear. We’re not selling toys at McDonald's - it's not about filling quotas. It's about demonstrating some creative leadership with showing the 360° of any culture - just trying to write whole human beings out of whole cloth. So that's something that's going to happen whether it's a silly New York comedy a more heavily culturally conscious piece. It's really just about being, as a whole, responsible.

S&A: Is there a lot of responsible material out there, in your opinion?

JW: There's so much material out there that’s unnecessarily racist. It takes a shot at what is "urban” or demonstrates blackness with some sassy, neck-jiving character that's not even relevant to the plot. I see it time and time again, and it doesn't move the story forward. It just kind of cryogenically freezes us in this old racial paradigm. I'm really trying to break through that and create the people that we know and love. We have these conversations a lot, especially when I lived in Brooklyn and talked to so many of our friends, who say that none of us feel represented on TV or film. Because we don't see educated Black 30-somethings on television or film, people who have degrees, people who listen to a wide range of music and go see the Black Keys perform in the same way they’ll see Mos Def perform. 

"This is a different generation. We’re not categorized by these old-school black-and-white tropes that are just not relevant in today's society."

This is a different generation. We’re not categorized by these old-school black-and-white tropes that are just not relevant in today's society. But yet and still we keep pulling from the same pool of material we were pulling from in 1989 or 1993. It's ridiculous and we can’t expect any less than that from people who are in power, if they don't get who we are as Black people. So that’s something that Question Bridge really strives to do, to show how many faces that we have, and that goes for anything I want to be involved in. That's why the role that I have on Grey’s Anatomy is important to me, because it's a human being. He doesn't have to wear race on his sleeve; he doesn't even have to talk about it. We just lead by our actions.

S&A: Tell me about your upcoming acting projects.

JW: I'm executive producing and playing a leading role in a film called Snake And Mongoose, which is about a drag racing rivalry throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s. I play drag racing legend Don 'The Snake' Prudomme, who is a Creole brother who is now 71 years old, and was the most successful drag racer to ever enter the sport. It’s a very low-budget indie film that we’re in post-production on now.

We’ve got The Butler coming up right as I go back to Grey’s. I also played a role in They Die By Dawn, an all-Black Western that we shot here at Melody Ranch in California with Idris Elba, Michael Kenneth Williams, Isaiah Washington, Erykah Badu, Rosario Dawson, Giancarlo Esposito, and Roger Guenveur Smith, a sick cast. It's a 40-minute pitch project for a long-form Black Western with an amazing director, Jeymes Samuel, out of London. He’s a really intriguing talent for both writing and directing, and there’s amazing cinematography.  

S&A: For future projects, do you plan to write and/or direct as well as act and produce?

JW: All of the above. I don't like to spend much time talking about what I'm going to do. When you live in Los Angeles, you know that everybody's “going to do” something. But I'm absolutely writing, and I've directed some small theater projects in the past in New York, and some short films and things like that when I was in film school. I know it's absolutely something that is in my future –directing, writing, and producing things that I'm either directly involved with on set, or just in a developmental phase for other people's projects. The sky’s the limit for what we’re trying to do with the production company, while also balancing the very beginning of an acting career that has me, at the moment, working quite a bit, I’m lucky to say. It's hard to juggle it all, but it's what we’re here for.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

*********

Many thanks to Jesse Williams for sharing his thoughts.

Learn more about Question Bridge at questionbridge.com.

You can also find Williams on Facebook and Twitter.

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13 Comments

  • bondgirl | August 4, 2012 3:48 PMReply

    I always enjoy your interviews, Jasmin. Keep up the good work. I wonder what school he taught, public/private, and if it was in LA.

  • Jasmin | August 6, 2012 12:33 PM

    Thanks @Bondgirl. Jesse taught public high school in Philadelphia, History and English.

  • Wayson | August 3, 2012 2:25 PMReply

    Sorry, fail. "This is a different generation. We’re not categorized by these old-school black-and-white tropes that are just not relevant in today's society. But yet and still we keep pulling from the same pool of material we were pulling from in 1989 or 1993." Generational chauvinism: does he really believe that his 30-something peers were the first to get college degrees or "listen to a wide range of music"? It seems he's bought into "tropes" that were only marginally relevant to begin with and now positions himself as heroically subverting them. A less subjective view might reveal his supposedly enlightened generation's involvement in some tropes that have also been around for a while, especially with regard to relations between black men and women (pimps and hos, anyone?).

  • FREDX | August 3, 2012 3:45 PM

    Slow down Wayson. He didn't say anything about being the first generation to get college degrees. He said that his peers shared a frustration that they are not seeing themselves reflected in media proportionally. That doesn't mean they have to be the first generation to do anything. You said that. I'm an old head, or at least that's what my kids tell me, and his point(s) seem very clear to me. Jesse is addressing the simplistic, incurious REPRESENTATION of folks. He says nothing of a generational evolution. Again, NOT that we have changed (which we have), but he is answering a question about how we are represented and the media diet that we raise our children on. They are two different things, that can be aligned at times, but different categories nonetheless. But you already know that. I wouldn't be offended with anyone acknowledging that we are experiencing an unprecedented cultural cohabitation, tolerance and blending in our younger generations. I'd bet that plenty of our 30-somethings are in fact the first of their families to get undergrad and/or grad degrees. Does saying that offend you? Did he say his generation was guilt free or perfect? Do you doubt that he'd have harsh words for the pimp-ho banner that members of his generation flaunts? The entertainment business is cranking out the same wide-eyed, criminally inclined, hyper-sexual, easily placated Black characters, and Jesse took a few moments to comment on it. Please resist the urge to attack and re-imagine what you are reading in black and white. I enjoyed the interview and I respect Jesse's choices. I wasn't even going to comment but damn. .

  • Akimbo | August 2, 2012 2:12 AMReply

    Love him.

  • Kelea | August 2, 2012 1:04 AMReply

    Enjoyed this interview and I cannot disagree with any of his viewpoints, he just makes so much sense. The more I hear from Jesse the bigger fan I become. Looking forward to seeing this be a success.

  • Kelea | August 2, 2012 1:05 AM

    ...or rather become a success.

  • AccidentalVisitor | August 1, 2012 9:11 PMReply

    I knew about "Snake and Mongoose" but I had no idea Williams was producing it. I guess that's the reason why it became a film in the first place.

  • Shak | August 1, 2012 6:01 PMReply

    I LOVE LOVE LOVE this interview. I can imagine the kind of teacher he was. Mr. Williams eloquently summed up my entire purpose as an artist. I look forward to supporting the work his company produces.

  • Muse | August 1, 2012 5:15 PMReply

    Phenomenal interview! This bears repeating: "There's so much material out there that’s unnecessarily racist. It takes a shot at what is "urban” or demonstrates blackness with some sassy, neck-jiving character that's not even relevant to the plot. I see it time and time again, and it doesn't move the story forward. It just kind of cryogenically freezes us in this old racial paradigm. I'm really trying to break through that and create the people that we know and love....This is a different generation. We’re not categorized by these old-school black-and-white tropes that are just not relevant in today's society."

  • K | August 1, 2012 4:24 PMReply

    This is the black cinema I've always envisioned. Where we could talk about the fact that black people are not just the stereotype. Even those of us who are the stereotype transcend it. If black movies could be just about people and not their skin/race issues/past I'd like to see that. And that western has a killer cast. I thought Jesse Williams was awesome but now he's really awesome. God bless those who don't just dream about these kind of things but make them happen. I hope I can be part of the movement.

  • Kelea | August 2, 2012 1:02 AM

    "Even those of us who are the stereotype transcend it" So true!

  • ALM | August 1, 2012 2:11 PMReply

    **Swoon**

    "There's so much material out there that’s unnecessarily racist. It takes a shot at what is "urban” or demonstrates blackness with some sassy, neck-jiving character that's not even relevant to the plot. I see it time and time again, and it doesn't move the story forward. It just kind of cryogenically freezes us in this old racial paradigm."

    He's correct. At the same time, African American reality stars and actors need to stop saying yes to these types of projects. If Vh1, etc. can't find people willing to take the roles, they will have to stop.

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