The fantastical narrative, which stars Saul Williams and Aissa Maiga, follows a man named Satche (played by Williams) during the last 24 hours of his life.
Saul Williams, who most will likely recall from his work on the 1998 film Slam (as both writer and star), last appeared as himself in a series of documentaries - most recently Nelson George's paean to the city he loves, Brooklyn Boheme.
On Aujourd'hui, Williams adds, "The film is not set in Dakar, we never say where it is taking place... [Satche is a] man of great intelligence, with little ambition who is not interested in the American dream and returns to his country after 15 years in the United States, to the unpleasant surprise of his family."
In my interview with Saul, we discussed his career as an actor, from his introduction to the art form, to his transition into music and poetry, meeting and working with Alain Gomis on Tey, as well as the challenges and beauty in playing Satche, shooting in Senegal, and more.
Steffan Horowitz (SH) - Tell us a little about yourself: your upbringing, how you got into acting, previous roles, etc.
Saul Williams (SW) - So my mom and dad: minister, teacher – into the arts. I started acting at one of the first magnet schools in New York state in the very early 80s. A magnet school called Horizons on the Hudson in Newburgh, New York. And so they had a class for the gifted and talented called Shake Hands with Shakespeare. It was responsible for all the school plays. I was 8 or 9 years old. The first play I did was Julius Caesar and I was cast as Mark Anthony. From that point forward, that was my focus. So I first wanted to do everything that every kid wanted to do: be on TV, be in movies, etc. My parents weren’t crazy about that idea because, you know…Drew Barrymore was in rehab at the time…And so they were like ‘We do want to support you, but not by taking you to auditions. What about acting classes?’ So they signed me up for HB Studios when I was 12. And that’s when I started venturing into city every weekend on my own to take acting classes. And that’s when my focus shifted from wanting to be famous to wanting to be good.
SH - So what about music and poetry? How did you transition into that?
SW - Well music was simultaneous because the same time that we’re talking about – the late 70s, early 80s – was the birth of hip hop. So I was here listening to the radio, going crazy about this new art form coming from our community, defending it against kids who were like ‘It’s not even music!’ And wanting to rap. I was rapping – rapping at lunch tables and break dancing. The only difference was that at that time, you could study theater in school, but you couldn’t study rapping or breakdancing – you could only do it at recess. So rapping was a hobby, but theater was something I could take seriously. And so from there, I was rapping, breaking, acting all the time. My parents were very supportive of all of it. So they’d have drug rallies – it was the 80s, ‘Say No To Drugs’ was big. So they were like ‘We’re having a drug rally at the church on Saturday. If you write a rap about why you shouldn’t smoke crack, I’ll let you do it.’ There would be 1,200 people there or whatever. I was like 12 or 13. It was special because of my dad’s church and stage and I watched my dad on it every week. And so from there I went to Brazil as an exchange student when I was 16 and pretty much gave up rapping when I was there. I came back and went to college at Morehouse in Atlanta and grad school for acting at NYU. When I moved back to New York for grad school at Tisch at NYU I was turned on to the poetry scene and that poetry scene was very connected with the underground hip hop scene. So as soon as I started reading poems, people from Wu Tang, De La Soul would be like ‘We’re putting together a new album. Would you want to be on that album?’ And that brought me back to music. Essentially, going to Tisch, they required us to keep a journal. It was the first journal I ever kept. And when I kept that journal and went to poetry readings, I realized that a lot of the stuff was seeing at these poetry readings was just like the stuff in my journal. And so that was the mid-90s. It was immediate. I encountered it first maybe in October of 94 and I did my first poetry reading in March of 95. By the following April of 96, was when I was a Grand Slam Champion at Nuoyorican.
SH- How did you first meet Alain? What was it like to work with him?
SW - So that was a really strange connection because I had just moved to Paris, somewhat spontaneously. I was questioning whether I had made the right decision or not and then I bumped into a guy on the street who told me that he had a friend that had just written a project for me. I didn’t know whether to take him seriously, but that guy was Alain. I gave the guy my number and that night I got a call from a film production company in Paris saying that the producers would like to meet with me the next morning. And that night I got a call from Alain who was in Senegal doing pre-production and he told me that he had written this film for me. In fact, he told the financers of the film that I had already been cast to get funding. He was supposedly going to New York to find me, but I was already in Paris.
SH- Tell me this story about the Basquiat exhibit.
SW - So Alain was in Senegal and he told me he wouldn’t be back for another 2 months, but I could read the script. Meanwhile, I agreed to the project and met with the producers and all that stuff. He asked me if I wouldn’t mind meeting with the people he had in mind for the other parts when he got back to town. So he came to town and there was this Basquiat exhibit in Paris and I had met Basquiat’s assistant, Steve Torton. Basically, Steve told me to the exhibit and bring anyone I wanted and he’d give me a real tour since he had been there for the making of these paintings. So I asked Alain if he wanted to meet me at this exhibit. So he arranged to meet me there and arranged to bring 2 people with him and those 2 people were Djolof [Mbengue] and Anisia [Uzeyman].
SH- Can you tell us a little about the process of making a film like this? Are there any interesting stories that you can think of off the top of your head about the making of the film?
SW - Well, if I look at Slam, which was really important to me in the world of my history and relationship to filmmaking and creativity, and this. Slam was in 98 – there’s 12 or 13 years between these films. Which is to say that these sorts of situations don’t pass you by everyday. Ok. There’s been of course tons of things in between, but it’s not everyday that you encounter something that you feel is some sort serendipitous, synchronistic, synergistic connection to what you’re doing. It’s meant to be. So that takes a bit of patience and when it comes, you better recognize it. It felt right from the beginning. So from there I knew that it was the key to help me one, learn the language; two, spend some time on the continent; and the most important thing, three – the thing I could never guess – meeting Anisia.
SH- What was is it like shooting in Dakar? Tell us a bit about the experience.
SW - I think that overall African Americans, in general have some sort of romantic relationship with Africa. So we’re always like ‘This is it! This is where you’re from!’ Which can be interesting, to an extent. But I’d been there before with my mom in 94, right before I moved to New York. My graduation gift from college was a trip to Senegal, the Gambia, and Mali because my mom was over there teaching. So this was my second time and this was my first time being there not as a tourist. This was my first time going to peoples’ houses to eat, hanging out with people from there, participating in more of the like Senegalese way of life. But I was still the star of a movie, so that comes with…something. But it was easy for me to just slip into a bus, taxi…As long as I didn’t open my mouth, people didn’t know that I wasn’t from there.
I think the brilliance of what Alain did is that he knew that the camera would be focused on this character’s eyes and the fact that he was going to be saying goodbye to all these things. He knew that as an American, with my eyes, technically I’d be saying hello to a lot of things that I was seeing. And he knew that in that world that if you don’t know the context or reality, the audience will believe it. So my hellos to the marketplace and all those things I’m seeing for the first time is reads like goodbye.
So in that first scene when I’m walking down the street, I’m an American thinking ‘If my friends could see me now. This is the dream. I’m out in a village in Senegal’…The American dream may have something to do with money. In a politicized sense, the African American dream would have something to do with that: some sort of homecoming. And that’s what that felt like. So what was great were those moments in the film where there was a synergy between what the character was supposed to be portraying and what I was actually feeling and what Alain wanted.
SH- What was it like to be in Senegal during the protests and ouster of their president, Abdoulaye Wade?
SW - You know, when you’re in one of those synchronistic zones it’s like, when Anisia arrived from Jamaica last night and as soon as we arrived, the government shut down. It was just like ‘Of course!’ (Laughs)…So for me, those moments are about not tripping. So yes, on every level I was in a film where everyday I had to focus on the fact that I was going to die, I was 3 million times in love with the woman I was acting opposite, I was afraid to death that I was going to overplay my part and actually die while I was in Senegal. You know? Like a good actor should be. So I’m trying not to think about Heath Ledger or Aaliyah, you know? (Laughs). That was the number one thing on my mind: ‘I don’t want to die while acting like I’m going to die!’ Then there was African American thing about being in Africa, spending time, feeling like this was the dream. The music, the food, the culture, all of that. And then the Y’En A Marre thing is happening, like: ‘Fucking hell! They’re burning cars right there!’
SH- Were you following what was actually going on?
SW - Yeah! Of course. It was impossible not to follow what was going on. We knew exactly what was going on. We had been schooled from the moment we arrived in Senegal. During the late nights we stayed smoking and drinking with our friends there, hearing the low-down on what was really happening.
We were there shooting and we went to that concert – that Y’En A Marre – a crazy concert! And then we did a concert with them later on, after the film.
SH- What was the most challenging part of playing Satché?
SW - Honestly, the most difficult part was facing death – method acting death – everyday. That’s the scariest part: it’s such a beautiful story, that it’s dangerously beautiful. I was just like ‘Stay alive!’
SH- What was the best part of playing Satché?
SW - Alright, well a year before I ever acted in the film, I met Anisia. So it starts there. After that, you know, the preparation was fun. I met with Djolof once a week, for like 7 months. He just wanted me to learn Wolof, mannerisms, pronunciations – we’d have some rum. It’d be like ‘Meet at this Senegalese restaurant, Cameroonian restaurant – we’re just going to hang out and watch people.’ It was casual, you know? But for me, that was a nice thing because also I’m living in a city where I don’t have any friends, so that film brought me friends. I’d been in Paris for a year at that point, I think. And then I met cooler people even in Senegal. We got introduced into Alain’s family and clique of friends. So hanging with those guys off camera was super fun.
SH- Did you have to learn much Wolof? Can you discuss the challenges and your approach to playing a role with very little dialogue?
SW - Ironically, I’d gone to France to study mime…(laughs)…No, but the first thing I bought when I got there was a red nose.
I shot a video before we started on the film and in the final scene, I acting as a mime under the Eiffel Tower. As stupid as that sounds, I was already interested in what I could do without words. The album I was doing while I was there was all about what type of album I could make if poetry and language weren’t the driving force – if music was the driving force. So I was already in that zone. So the movie was the third thing like that to come up.In addition to the above-announced play-dates, Bellemoon Productions is also attempting a hybridized, community-driven distribution model for the film, and would like to work with entities who are interested and equipped with the right tools, to co-host community screenings of the film as well.