When you are choosing a project, are there certain qualifications or characteristics that a film must meet or have?
I don't do films that desecrate what I believe. That's number one. It doesn't have to be a faith film but it can't desecrate what I believe.
I have struggled to define my own role in life. I am an author, I'm a minister, and now I'm doing a talk show. I am a film producer. In order to figure yourself out, you have to find a common thread that is true throughout all the roles that you play and for me that is communicator. I don't like to become involved with a film that has nothing to say. If it is purely just entertainment and not edification, I ignore the opportunity. [Black Nativity] and my reason for being apart of it is that it has so much to say. It has so much to say about how gifted we are musically and artistically and interfuses it in a way that we have seldom seen, particularly in this generation, where music and drama rarely comes to life on the screen. It has something to say about families that I thought was important. Throughout every movie that I've ever done, there has always been a message that I walk away… thinking about this fed me on some level. They are not all faith films but on some level as human being, I have invested 8 bucks and I walked way with some nugget for life through which I can nurture my life from years to come. I think that is a great investment and I like to be apart of those investments.
Do you think that Hollywood is increasingly including faith in films?
I think that Hollywood has discovered the world that exists between Hollywood and New York and that the world is filled with people who survive everyday not by the strength of their hands but a strength of their heart. As they discovered through things like “The Bible” and “The Passion of the Christ” and things that are overtly filled with faith, they also discovered that faith at its best is mixed in the concoction of life. I think that there is a birthing of an idea that you don't have to segregate spirituality in order for it to be integrous—that you can put it in the mix of humanity. [Black Nativity] is a picture of that new message, a functioning faith. A faith that as the bible says has feet of clay and a head of brass. It's got its feet on the ground. It also has the lofty aspirations of we can be what we want to be if we believe. That is faith at it's best.
I do not see a genre breaking out that is exclusively faith-based. It's film with faith. And not a faith-based film movement. I think what we bring that is fresh. As opposed to our other contemporaries that do faith-based or regular films is that in an endeavor to tell the black story, we do not segregate the black experience because all of us know regardless to our belief system and our background that our history would not exist without faith enabling us to survive the vicissitudes of the American experience.
Would you call "Black Nativity" a faith-based film?
I really don't think this film should be relegated as a faith-based film. I think it is a film that has faith in it, but I don't think it is a faith-based film. I think in order for to be effective it has to be true to life. When it comes to the black experience, you cannot extract faith from the black story. With other groups, you can relegate faith to it's own section and strike it and say you sit over here. You cannot discuss civil rights and not discuss faith. You cannot discuss slavery and not discuss faith. You cannot talk about the black experience whether you are living in the ghetto or are living in a mansion and totally extract faith from the black experience.
To say that “Black Nativity” is a faith film, I think it discredits the power that faith infiltrates the black experience. I think that “Black Nativity” is a film about black film and black life. Interwoven in that is faith.
Can “Black Nativity” appeal to white audiences and can “Heaven is for Real” appeal to black audiences?
Anybody who walked into a screening of “Black Nativity” or a screening of “Heaven is For Real” would think that they were totally different movies, because one cast is predominantly black and one is predominantly white. But they are very similar. They are both about families struggling in a lifetime and trying to figure out a way to survive it.
We make a mistake when we do not ask other people who do not look like us, we do not invite them into the room. Anything you don't market to you will not reach. Even though they will not turn out in the numbers of the majority of your audience that does not mean you should neglect the invitation. It is the invitation that turns the table.
One of the great mistakes among black artists as I travel to Europe and you walk in the theaters filled with white people… it is who we forget to invite that do not come to dinner.
How was it working with younger black men on “Black Nativity”?
It keeps you young. What you see here is three generations of black men. I think that is a great depiction of what you see in “Black Nativity.” You see different stages of in the lives of black men and the women that love them and the struggles that you encounter in life in all that you hope to become.
I think it will impact people from every perspective. In my faith as a Christian I really think that Jesus is the answer. What gives power to the answer is understanding the question. In his character we see the question of youth and ambiguity.
How did you get involved with the movie "Winnie"?
I came on as a producer largely to help market the film and to be a bridge and a conduit for the film entering into America. Those were my two contributions to the whole artistry of the film. I think the trailer needed to be changed differently. I think the movie needed to be shorter but by and large we left it largely in its original form.
What attracted you to the film?
I love South Africa for its beauty. I've been to South Africa many times. I almost bought a house there. I love South Africa for its beauty, progressiveness. I love South Africa because it's been sister for American in it It's apartheid was our civil rights movement. I first attempted to bring African Americans to the continent when I did MegaFest over there. And then through the film I thought that maybe it's easier to bring South Africa to America in the film.
How have you been able to be as prolific as you’ve been, in an industry climate that's seemingly uninterested in any projects that don't guarantee huge box office profit, and one that's come under fire routinely for its lack of diversity, especially in the position you are currently in - a producer.
First of all, I do it because I want to. I'm not saddled with the responsibility of doing it because I have to. I'm in a space that I want to be in. I enjoy it and it's fun. I don't have to do a high dollar batman film in order to make a contribution for the public's consideration. I can do it because I want to do it. I've been given the relationships and the opportunity through Sony and other ventricles to express myself. It's not my day job and I'm doing it on the side. I don't want to do it so often that it overwhelms what I want to do. I do want to continue to do it because to me it's synergy with my day job because they are both instruments of communication through which I am having a conversation with my generation.
Is there one person who showed you the way? Someone who, 10 years ago, took you aside and said “here’s how this business works…”?
I didn't know the industry and there are certain things about the industry that I'm still learning. What has been an asset to me has been a fairly decent business acumen. I can approach it both as an artist but primarily as a business person and understanding the value of business has alleviated some of the other mistakes I’ve seen others make where they have fallen into the quagmire of poor business decisions. Poor business decisions among people of color has often terminated some of the most gifted people we have in our culture because we do not lack talent or gifting or passion but often we lack the business skills that protect those passions.
As it relates who taught me the most. I don't think I've been mentored by anyone person in particular. I look forward to that and I would like to have that.
So who would you want to be your mentor?
As it relates to film—Steven Spielberg. I'm going to go right for the top. His career is amazing. It's legendary. Any time you get an opportunity to sit at the feet of someone whose done amazing things and transcended all barriers, you should do it. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't learn from Spike Lee a lot. There is a lot to be learned from Spike Lee. There is a lot to be learned from Tyler Perry. Anybody who shattered a glass can teach me how to wrap up for the impact what went right and what went wrong.
I think you can learn something from anybody who broke through what is so difficult for people of color for business. Even if it’s a business far removed from who I am, whether it is Diddy, or Jay-Z or whether it's Beyoncé. Anybody who broke through knows something that you can translate and use even though they may live in a different world from you. I think anytime you get a chance to be around anybody who made a noise that the world turned its head to hear… even though it may not be the noise you would make, you should turn your head because it's something that they learned that would help you with you.
After a decade in the film business, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned over the 10-year period?
I have learned that the golden rule of Hollywood is that he who has the gold makes the rules. If you give the funding over to another, you give the power over to another. I have learned that the devil is in the details. Read the fine print. I have learned that the back end is way further back than you might expect. When all of your profits are on the back end of the deal, and the person controls the whole deal, they control how far the back end is away from you. I've learned that. I've learned not to be afraid to do what you want to do and not to give up on doing it because it’s not big. It doesn't have to be big to be wonderful. Sometimes you can make a big impact with several little punches.
We have not done a major film, a big budget major Hollywood film. We have gotten a lot of attention doing a lot of strong little punches constantly. There is in a boxing match somebody who can knock you out with one punch. There is also someone who can knock you out with 50 series of small punches. I'm too new to determine what out what type of fighter I am. But once I suit up and get in the ring, big or little I am going to get in the punch.
Anyone reading this to keep punching on whatever level you are on. If you don't do a knock out, do a series of small punches. At least you are in the fight.
Derrick Williams is your go to man for managing your work in the film business. How did he become “the” man?
When I met him, he was facilitating and managing and directing the place. He has the relationships and this is a relationships business. He has the kind of work ethic that I do. It's hard to call Derrick and he be sleep. He works around the clock and I like people with strong work ethic. You can't work with me and be lazy. He's bright. He has a strong work ethic. He is wise enough to know what he doesn't know when we need to bring in other people and attorneys. He is a leader by nature. But he is not such a leader that he is a maverick out of control from those who he submitted to. To find a person who can be in authority and under authority, who can have relationships and still be relatable. Who has a work ethic that mirrors my own were all as
Because I have a multiplicity of interests, I cannot micromanage my interests and be successful. What I do is manage my people who manage my business. I have found that to make my life much more manageable.
So can you give Shadow and Act a hint of what might be coming up in the future?
I'm working on a lot of stuff. I'm seriously considering doing some plays again. Maybe off-Broadway, maybe Broadway. I'm not sure yet. That's a little hint of something I might do. Both on stage and on screen. I think it's great when you can take one message and project it through different ventricles. Like theatre and cinema.
“Black Nativity” opens on November 27. “Heaven Is for Real,” hits theaters next Easter on April 16, 2014.