Malik Vitthal and Terence Nance
Nate von Zumwalt
For all the incessant parsing of cinema’s very real diversity problem, few voices have confronted the issues in earnest. The coverage has been pervasive, and has – if only superficially – begun to effect change. Last week on the heels of Black History Month, we gathered a pair of vibrant and urgent creative voices for a wide-ranging and pleasantly meandering conversation.
Filmmakers (an awfully restricting designation for these two in particular) Malik Vitthal (Imperial Dreams) and Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) each have an arresting and acclaimed feature film under their belt. In asking them to join in a freeform conversation, I posed a rudimentary question: What are your creative inspirations, and how do you directly or subconsciously see those inspirations reflected in your own work? As a testament to each artist’s ingenuity, Vitthal and Nance proceeded to explore the state of cinema, touching on everything from Alice Coltrane to Kendrick Lamar to Mitch McConnell and a government that is at best ambivalent towards the arts, and at worst wholly apathetic.
Sundance: I reached out to Malik about this at first to talk about some of his influences, and he mentioned you, Terence, and pitched the idea of a conversation. I want to start by having each of you talk about any concrete representations of what cultural influences have informed your craft. Not only that, but if they are subconscious or if you are very clearly in your mind integrating those influences into your work.
Malik Vitthal: Terence kind of grew up in a musical environment, and so did I. I think one of my biggest influences didn’t come from film; it came from my extended family and a lot of musicians in my extended family – namely Alice Coltrane and her work.
Terence Nance: Similarly, I was very influenced by the imagery of ‘70s funk – Earth, Wind, and Fire. I remember the album covers – the funkadelic album covers. Because I was in a very Black environment, culturally and family wise, I don’t think I was quoting it as “Blackness.” This was funkadelic and it’s Black. I think the aesthetic of the movies I saw was one thing. I remember going to see Daughters of the Dust in the theater, and Sankofa in the theater, and Do the Right Thing, and I was really young… 6 or 7 years old. I remember the aesthetic, but what influenced me more was the feeling of being in a theater and everybody being amped up, just super excited in a way that didn’t happen if I went to see Angels in the Outfield. When you go see Malcolm X or something like that, you just see that people are ready to watch the shit out of this movie.
Vitthal: Being around Alice Coltrane and my whole extended family, it was like a gospel setting with how people made their music and whatnot. The [crux] of that was to make work that was not necessarily about commerce, but work that’s about expressing yourself. The root of that really showed me how to make things in a pure way that really connects with yourself, and once you do that it really connects with other people. So there was a lot of emotion in the work; it had a lot of love in it.
Nance: Did you practice Buddhism or meditation in your family, Malik?
Vitthal: My family was all doing that, so while they were in the temple meditating and stuff I’d be out at Sunday school learning all these different religions. It was a trip because there would be all these different types of artists that would come through where I lived. This one guy came through and taught us how to do archery. It was the craziest experience ever, but these are the kinds of artists I was around as a kid so it really informed a really pure form of expression.
Nance: I only learned that stuff in Boy Scouts [laughs].
Vitthal: My Mom raised me on her own. I lived in Oakland when I was a kid. When my Mom was younger she was a militant, and then she got into Hinduism and did a 180. But when she was younger she had me go to these militant Boy Scout camps where they would teach us how to climb obstacle courses and all that stuff.
Nance: You were in the Black madrasa is what you’re saying [laughs]. You were in what Mitch McConnell thinks Obama was in.
Vitthal: Exactly. And then it just totally 180’d and I was raised as like a little Hindu kid [laughs].
Nance: I think my formative experience in life was going to this homeschool when I was a kid that all my brothers and sisters went to. It’s called the Rainbow Schoolhouse. The woman who ran it and was our teacher was named Mama Karen. And you should link to this song, it’s Gary Byrd and Stevie Wonder’s “The Crown,” and we had to learn the song and sing it all together. That song, the content of it, is one of the blackest songs of all time. The indoctrination that that song embedded in us psychologically at that young age – it was the psychological armor that we needed to not get beat up by the psychological warfare of white supremacy moving forward.
Nance: From like three to seven, or whatever age you are when you go to first grade. I know that my personhood is very much wrapped up in that experience.
Vitthal: One of my cousins is also a jazz musician, and back when they did that song “We Are the World,” he was in that video, and I used to watch that video with all the other kids on the land like 10 times a day.
Nance: Yeah, that was like ’92. “We Are the World” was before ’92. I think there’s kind of a genre of “get all the black musicians together and make a song.” I remember the first CDs I had – it was two CDs and I think I begged to get them for Christmas. It was Boyz II Men II, and the other one was the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack. I wanted the Jason’s Lyric soundtrack because it had that song “You Will Know.” And the song had like every Black male musician that existed at the time: Brian McKnight, the members of Guy, and just random people.
Vitthal: That brings up a good point of artists using movements to push forward. It’s almost like we’re kind of in one now where you have Kendrick Lamar doing his work and Flying Lotus and all those guys – they’ve got a little bit of a movement going on.
Nance: Oh yeah, definitely. I think the political leanings of all that music and spiritual leanings of all that music help it transcend and not feel disposable. I feel like I need to patronize this work, I’m responsible for the upkeep of this culture. Even Kanye, he’s misguided, but the sort of urgency of black people getting free and having basic human rights is at the tip of everybody’s tongue – no one can escape it. It’s almost bizarre. Even growing up – I don’t’ know if it was your experience, but it was definitely mine – you kinda’ get clowned on a little bit if you were on that in high school. The culture was a little more leaning towards irreverent depravity. And now it’s back in, it’s that early ‘90s moment when Public Enemy could be popular cause you could dance to it.
Vitthal: Do you feel an urgency in your own voice?
Nance: Oh yeah. When I saw your movie, it kind of exacerbated that. Everybody has the responsibility, whether you’re a janitor or a filmmaker, to contribute to the culture that birthed you and sustained you. Your movie made me feel like there is a specific way of doing it that maybe is more concrete and more explicit. It’s so explicitly celebratory of Black life. That’s my most direct and visceral reaction.
Vitthal: I guess that’s really why I’m a fan of so many artists out there, including your work. There are so many different ways to share our expression of what we’ve come from. I think that the multitude of voices is what makes that special. Oversimplification is killer. And then you go, “Ok, what’s the best version of Terence doing a full on Terence? What’s that going to look like at its peak?” And I’m excited about that. I’m excited to witness that over the next 20, 40 years. We can just keep pushing each other to be the best versions of ourselves. I know your version may not be like my Ken Loach/Kanye West mixture.
Nance: You should direct under the pseudonym Kanye Loach [laughs].
Vitthal: And you’ll be Steve McHendrix.
Nance: Whoa, who’s my mash-up?
Vitthal: Steve McQueen and Jimmy Hendrix.
Nance: [laughs] That sounds much less cool. I like Jimmy McQueen better.
But I do think it’s interesting too, because you talk about the multitude of voices… there are so many Black filmmakers who have such specific points of view, and you haven’t seen their movie because they can’t get it funded. I feel like I see this a lot – people who haven’t made a short yet, but they have a feature script or a fantastic idea and they don’t even have the infrastructure to get something off the ground. That’s the problem that I’m always turning over in my head. How do we mobilize?
Vitthal: For all artists to break through, it’s almost like you have to be developed as a fetus and be raised in this environment from an early age. There are very few people that have that support system from the beginning, and then even once you’re done with school, you get support from these great institutions like Sundance, but we just don’t have enough of them to keep supporting more artists. Like you said, in America it’s just not a priority of our government. Look at Canada, they’re dumping money into education and the arts. And watch, in 20 years their film industry and all their arts are gonna be bangin.
Nance: That’s very true. How do we model that? Whether it’s the government or record labels or movie studios, there’s always that idea of patronage. There’s a whole lot of money and then people who allocate it to kind of facilitate the work getting made. But how is that going to happen? There are the Sundance Institutes, and Cinereach, Film Independent, IFP, you know, networks that on some level are designed to supplement what our government does not do. It’s foundationally funded non-profits that are created by super nice people who have seen a need and tried to address it. But that patronage model, on some levels, can never be as moneyed as if it were funded by taxes. I always think about that: how we will change as a culture in America.
Vitthal: I think it comes back to the original thesis of this. What inspired you? And how do we as artists stay the course, build more voices out there so that it creates a larger movement.
Nance: I think we have to adopt a kind of Shaolin monk style collective – monks slash ninjas. I say that to say that artists who conduct their daily life and their affairs in a highly disciplined way and follow rules in order to bear out a result. One of those rules could be that once you make two feature films you have to take on three mentees to teach them everything you know and make sure they get one film done. It can’t happen without a strategy that a large number of very motivated people adhere to.
Vitthal: Say you make a couple more movies, and we just have our production companies build [a collective]. Basically, you have a production company, you have a building, and a TV show that I’m making pays the rent for all of that, right?
Nance: Yeah, true. I don’t think it’s impossible. I can feel that happening to some degree…
The other piece of that is audience development. The world has been starved for so long of crazy, weird, diverse, interesting, magical images of Blackness. We’re trained to see it as an anomaly, or something that you don’t’ necessarily need. We don’t’ have the appetite for it. Somehow we have to figure out strategies to let people know this is coming, like, every month. Forever.
Vitthal: It definitely is the farming principle where you can’t just strip the soil and then walk away and then hope that that next season’s crop is gonna be just as good when you’re not feeding the soil. You have to continue to build a crop of artist to come in afterward.
Nance: That is the failure, I think of the previous generation of filmmakers. Other than Spike Lee and Chris Rock and maybe Forrest Whitaker and some others, the previous generation hasn’t kept the crop alive and fed the next generation of Black filmmakers. That’s not all on them, but at the end of the day, that was the big failure of the last generation. It’s coming. The boom is gonna happen. But it’s not so much about the next boom as it is about sustaining it.
Vitthal: Somehow I believe everything is possible with the right hustle and the right conversation.
Nance: We’ve got to be able to make a whole shitload of noise about why this is terrible that you’ve got to learn calculus but you don’t’ have to learn music.
Vitthal: I know I could start on a local level. So, LA is my first goal. That’s my goal: to get as many arts programs into elementary schools, junior highs, and high schools as possible. And after you can achieve LA, you move out to California, and branch out from there. And it’s basically a lifelong thing.
Nance: You’ve got to pilot programs in places where the most media is. I think our main role is to make the work that changes the conversation because of how it mobilizes people. Someone like Tyler Perry is a good example. Whatever you think of Tyler Perry, he mobilizes people and changes conversation. I think he mobilizes people in big ways: one is that he gets people into the theater, and another way is that when people watch his movies, especially if they don’t like his movies, they’re left with [the thought], “If he can do that, I can definitely do that.” It’s empowering. Our job is to make the thing that is either so ambitious or so original that when the kids come to class they say, “I just saw this movie, I’m gonna make a movie, where’s the film class?”
Vitthal: It’s kind of like that airplane crash analogy. It’s our job to make sure we are breathing before we put that oxygen mask on the person next to us. We just have to take care of ourselves and make sure that we clearly get our voice out to the world. And at each stage we have to check in and make sure that we’re going along the same course and not forgetting some of these things that we bring up.
Nance: Exactly, exactly.
Vitthal: Let’s go do it.