After last month's celebrated premiere screenings in New York and LA, the winner of the third Shadow & Act Black Filmmaker Challenge, writer-director-actor Ka'ramuu Kush's short film And Then... made its online premiere this Wednesday here on Shadow & Act.
Kush and Diandra Lyle star as August and Isis, a couple on a quest for sexual fulfillment and trust with the assistance of friend Baybee, played by Vanessa Williams. The artfully shot film is described as a "coming of womanhood" tale confronting issues surrounding body image, communication, and the psychology of sex. The short is co-written and production designed by Aisha Hinds and produced by Kush, Cheryl Bedford and Sean O'Halloran.
Ahead of the online premiere, the filmmakers and cast spoke with S&A about their creative process and what audiences should take from the film.
On first impressions and what attracted the cast to the project:
DIANDRA LYLE: The piece is intense. It's great. For me it was definitely stepping into new ground when it comes to craft. I had my insecurities and I actually was the character Isis in a lot of ways. But I trusted Ka'ramuu's direction and vision. I knew it would be very tasteful and it serves a purpose, and I knew it would be a beautiful project. I think it's great that Ka'ramuu and Aisha are putting this kind of stuff out there.
VANESSA WILLIAMS: When you look at Ka'ramuu's work it's evident that he knows how to tell a wonderful story and he really loves black women and they're a primary subject of the work that he does. So I was really attracted to getting in front of his lens because I knew that we'd look good and that he was really careful about the kind of story he wanted to tell.
Working on Soul Food, we got to really explore our sexuality and our full humanity as black people. Because it was on cable, because it was written and crafted by African American men and women who wanted to show this full experience, sexuality contributed to the whole picture of us, which hadn't been explored. So I felt like this project was taking that to the next step. For me personally, I've played somebody's mama on a lot of projects and I really wanted to do this other kind of character that you've not seen me play that in many ways is closer to my own self and my own sort of sexual freedom. And then to work with beautiful people like Diandra and Ka'ramuu, it worked aesthetically and it worked in terms of my trajectory as an artist.
On creating the look and feel of the film:
AISHA HINDS: I always thought of it as a piece of artwork or a series of images that you might see in a gallery. And so to me, it was always moving images. One of the ideas that I threw out was that they have these pictures that you see in an art show and so that got woven into the piece and became part of the story. In terms of the art direction, when you're creating your own tapestry you pick up the brushes and you've just got to start to paint. That was a fun experience for me to tap into within myself.
KA'RAMUU KUSH: The film is an extension of Aisha in that way, I would say. To know her in her personal life you see that she's very artistic, very detailed. So it's less about putting on the filmmaker hat and more so an opening of self. I think in particular for us as black people there's a function for art and it's oftentimes a manifestation of who we are. It's that much more important for the work to reflect us, because we have some reparation to do in terms of how we love and depict ourselves. Historically we've been denied the mirror to even see ourselves, so it's a wonderful thing now where we've been given that platform to do so.
On Aisha Hinds' first time writing for the screen:
AH: It was incredibly scary, because when you're just writing there's not very much censorship or judgement, but when you're writing with an intended audience you try to make it as "perfect" as possible. So it was daunting, it was way out of my comfort zone, but at the same time it was very liberating. And once you see those words on screen you're lifted to another place and all of that judgment goes out the window. Whether it's received as good, bad, or anything, you've looked those fears in the face and conquered something pretty significant.
On multitasking as lead actor and director:
KK: I find it's more organic for me to be acting and directing simultaneously because that's how I came in the game, even back when I was doing theater. Preparation is key. I exhaustedly think about the material and the characters and what I'm doing and how many ways I can do it so that I can be available if they have questions or find themselves to be stuck. And then a rule of thumb for me is that I wouldn't ask my actors to do anything that I wouldn't do myself. I feel like it's empowering for an actor to see a director put themselves in the line of fire in that way. It's another way of engendering some sense of confidence and mutual respect.
On filming one of the most powerful scenes in the film:
DL: The scene toward the beginning between myself and Ka'ramuu, Isis and August, when they're talking about a delicate matter and she's trying to express her thoughts about something that took place the night before. There were a lot of layers and that was probably the scene that really stayed with me, my most challenging scene as well.
VW: The film really talks about speaking up about what you want and what really works. So that we as women are empowered to say, "Honey put on a condom," "Honey I don't like when you do that," "Honey I want more of this." To really be able to ask for what we want and expect to be serviced in a way that's pleasurable to us. It's a mutual kind of thing and I think it's a testament to what Ka'ramuu thinks about women. [August] is a man who's listening, who's vulnerable enough to say, "I care and I want you to be happy, my thing is about pleasing you." It's an example of a wonderful kind of lover that we look for as women, the kind of man who's open to explore and say that your pleasure is my pleasure. That's what's radical to me, to have that out there.
On the character August as the only male in the movie:
KK: He's written in a way where he can either be a manipulator or be a bit more sincere and loving. To establish his truest intentions I wanted to create an environment where you see him surrounded by beautiful women but it's the last thing on his mind, so it's not a sexual deviancy thing. What's most important to him is communicating and connecting with this woman on a deeper level. So aside from just an appreciation for the multiple hues and sizes and shapes of black women on screen, I think it feeds the idea of this character being informed by something deeper.
On experiencing the film online versus seeing it in a theater:
KK: I feel like the day of having post-film conversation is gone. I can't recall the last time I sat down with somebody after a film and just had a debrief on the movie. I feel like that should be the aspiration for making a film.
AH: Unless it's to reference controversy, which this could spark.
KK: I don't think this film will be as polarizing as the next so-called "controversial" film, but if so, so be it. The idea is that I would like to see cinema that's worthy of a post-film conversation over dinner or drinks. That's a wonderful dynamic that I think we've gotten used to not having anymore.
AH: What's great about the film is that it gives whoever is watching the permission to not be alone in whatever their thoughts or curiosities or fears are. Though the people who watch with an audience may not drop their poker face, they still go home being empowered having sat in a room full of other people who have also downloaded this message.
I think those who watch alone at home may or may not have an advantage because they get to have an inner dialogue with themselves, and then if they want to engage with somebody else then the opportunity's available to them. But whether it's a dialogue within yourself or with someone else, at some point it's going to inform how you conduct yourself in a relationship or with yourself and your body.
What audiences should take away from the movie:
KK: I would want men in particular to walk away with at least an impulse to have those tough love conversations and be accountable. I feel like in our relationships men aren't as accountable as we should be. It's really unfortunate because there's so much coming at us from so many different places - from media, from our dysfunctional relationships, from our upbringing. By no means do I think being a black man today is easy, but it's work that we must engage in.
VW: I think it's a really wonderful conversation to begin so that we're telling more than one part of our story. It's wonderful to have those strong corporate black women [on screen], but I'm really interested in investigating the softer side of us and the more sexual side in the context of real grown-up adult conversations. Those are things that the movie is really pointing to in a very beautiful, concise kind of way. And so we can start that dialogue, which is what good art does I think. I also want people to be entertained, intrigued, tantalized and titillated. Not just on a gratuitous level, but to say "Wow, this could be a part of the expression of our humanity on the whole." It can live with all the other kinds of images and ideas about black people.
AH: To me, there's quite a bit of perversion in our community when it comes to that. There's quite a bit of abuse when it comes to the images of our bodies and us being sensual and sexual with each other. So I want people to walk away with an empowered, beautiful image of us and the expression of us sexually.
Thanks to Aisha, Ka'ramuu, Diandra and Vanessa for participating in this conversation.
You can next see Aisha Hinds in CBS' Under the Dome and Gina Prince-Bythewood's Blackbird. She's also working on a narrative film called Knewd and the documentary The Best of Enemies, inspired by the book and play of the same name. Ka'ramuu Kush is working on Solomon, a pilot project with John Singleton, Die Enormous, an action drama inspired by the life of Assata Shakur, and the script for The Freak Takes You, a feature crossing the intersection between sexuality and spirituality.
Diandra Lyle can next be seen in the independent drama Hogtown and the film C.R.U. Vanessa Williams can next be seen in the film Men, Money & Gold Diggers and her one-woman show, Feet on the Ceiling.
You can see And Then... below: