Saturday, August 25, 2007

2007 DEAD CHANNELS: WELCOME HOME, BROTHER CHARLESThe Evening Class Interview With Jamaa Fanaka

Not for the spoiler-wary.

In his Dead Channels Diary, Twitch teammate Collin Armstrong wrote of Jamaa Fanaka's comments after the Friday night screening of Welcome Home, Brother Charles: "Clearly a born storyteller—the tale of his road to UCLA's film program (by way of an aborted auto theft) was priceless—he talked at length about the subtexts at work in Brother Charles and his goal of using it as a way to burst the myth of physical superiority in African Americans. He ended with an inspiring message to up-and-coming filmmakers, and capped things off by embracing Bruce [Fletcher] and thanking him for the opportunity to exhibit Welcome Home, Brother Charles on the big screen again."

I first saw the infamous penis strangulation scene in Welcome Home, Brother Charles earlier this year at an Oddball Cinema program on sex in cinema. Out of context, it proved shocking and I couldn't imagine the movie from which it was excerpted. Finally seeing the film in its entirety did nothing to minimize the shock of its keynote scene. Flawed as it might be in production value, as Collin has indicated, I have to concur that, notwithstanding, it is "something of a marvel."

Jamaa and I met for coffee and conversation the following morning at the Hotel Phoenix.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Jamaa Fanaka is your chosen name. Your birth name is Walter Gordon. Why, when and where did you choose the name Jamaa Fanaka?

Jamaa Fanaka: I was a student at UCLA film school at the time and I went to see a film called Cooley High. I loved that film. It reflected so accurately the Black culture. It reflected the general culture of young people but specifically the culture of young Black people. I'm always sensitive to credits. I watch the credits—especially the directing credit because I was studying to be a director—and I saw that the credit for the director was a guy named Michael Schultz. I thought he was a Jewish gentleman and I said, "How could a Jewish gentleman be that cognizant of the deep aspects of the Black culture?" I checked into it and found out that Michael Schultz is a Black man. So I said, "I want to make sure that—when one of my films come out—that everybody knows that it was made by a Black director." Because most of the "blaxploitation" films were made by White directors—they had Black casts but they had White directors—so I wanted to make sure that the public knew that I was Black.

I went over to the African Studies Department, contacted one of the professors in that department, he pulled down a Swahili dictionary, I go through the Swahili dictionary looking for words that would mean something, be my name but also mean something, and I ran into the word "jamaa." Now, there's a variation of the spelling. They sometimes spell it with a "l", sometimes they spell it with one "a"—j-a-m-a-l—and sometimes they spell it j-a-m-a-a, which is an unusual spelling but it was one of the spellings. It means "family" and "brotherhood" and "togetherness"; the commonality of human-ness. I said, "I like that." So I went further and I ran across the term "fanaka" and it means "progress" and "success." So I said, "Okay, those words together will mean through togetherness we will find progress and succeed." That's how I chose that name Jamaa Fanaka; it means through brotherhood and togetherness, we will progress and succeed.

Guillén: A beautiful choice.

Fanaka: It wasn't a renunciation of Walter Gordon, under which I was born, it was an embracing of a name that had some social significance and significance in terms of how I chose to lead my life. I'm a cosmopolite. A cosmopolite is a person who embraces all cultures, all races, all religions; he just embraces human-ness. He doesn't even put his own culture or his own race up above or before other races. He loves other races and other cultures as much as he loves his own. I'm a true, devout cosmopolite.

Guillén: I'm glad to hear that. From an early age then—because your father was a television repairman in Jackson, Mississippi and your family was one of the first to own a television in Jackson, even before there was a television station—you were brought up with an awareness of the moving image. My understanding is that you became attracted to film through the director William Wyler and his film Ben-Hur.

Fanaka: Right.

Guillén: What was it about Ben-Hur that mobilized a young Black boy in Jackson, Mississippi?

Fanaka: Ben-Hur was a film that had a deep meaning to it; but, it was immensely entertaining. I thought the merging of entertainment with education—you got an education from that film; you got a sense of the human-ness of the people—was so well-done. I saw it as a very young man.

My first acquaintance with film was when I got a Super-8 camera as a birthday present when I was 11 years old. As a matter of fact, I took the footage and on my mother's 80th birthday, I presented her with a dvd copy of an edited version of all the rites of passages of myself and my family—the grammar school graduations, the Christmases, the Easters, the marriages, the Disneyland visits—all the rites of passage we had. I recorded them with my Super8 camera. That's what really got me into liking to shoot film; but, I didn't start really thinking about being a filmmaker or the behind-the-scenes aspects of making films until Ben-Hur. Then I started to research and realized these films did not just materialize out of thin air; they came about like a building does. You don't just start putting bricks together. There's a plan there. I thought about that and said, "Hey…." And then William Wyler—The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur, Funny Girl, Friendly Persuasion—this guy could direct anything. He became—and still is—my favorite director of all time.

Guillén: At last night's screening, you talked about how you ended up at the UCLA film school and how—for your second school project—you decided instead of a short film, you would just make a full-length feature, which became Welcome Home, Brother Charles. At that time, how was the film received? You said people thought you were crazy to make a full-length feature in the first place. What did they think after they saw it?

Fanaka: They thought I was crazier even more! [Laughs.] There were things in the film that had never been done before. What I wanted to do was take a well-known lie that had saturated our culture to the point where—if you tell a lie long enough, someone said—it becomes a truth.

Guillén: A truth that captures people and robs them of freedom.

Fanaka: Right. It captures them in that falsehood and they accept it as a truth, as a given, and it's not a given; it's pure, unadulterated B.S. At the time—and still—I wanted to make a "moving" picture. I call my films moving pictures not only because the frames move through the projector but because I wanted to move people in the right direction. I wanted to have my films affect people in an entertaining way but also make strong statements. Sometimes, in order to get to people, you got to use some kind of instrument to get their attention. I wanted to debunk that myth of Black sexual superiority based upon the size of the sexual equipment.

I felt that in order to get that attention I had to do something obscene that was so outrageous; that would take the myth and blow it up for the lie that it is. It was so new and so shocking that people didn't know how to take it.

Guillén: It's shocking enough now and we're talking 30 years ago, right?

Fanaka: Yeah, '75. As the years have progressed, it's become a cult classic. It's taught in universities across the country. Take for example, Melville's great masterpiece Moby Dick was a failure when it first came out. It sold very few copies until about 30-35 years later. Then it was "discovered" by a critic, people re-read it, and—of course—it will live forever. That seems to be what's happening with Welcome Home, Brother Charles.

Guillén: It's certainly gained a cult following in recent years. I was impressed and grateful and respectful of the fact that you brought your own print of Brother Charles to Dead Channels to share with San Francisco. I want to thank you personally for that. You seem to want at this time in your life to travel with these films specifically to provide context. Is that true?

Fanaka: Right. Yes. As a matter of fact, I want to travel all over the country and even overseas, screen my films, and give Q&A seminars that inspire young people. I started making films in the covered wagon days of filmmaking. That's why, I guess, they call me a pioneer. When I was making films, what I had to pay for the raw stock to make Welcome Home, Brother Charles, you could make the entire film for now. There were very few people who were able to accomplish the making of a film, especially a feature film. It was so difficult because it was so expensive. It's the most expensive art form extant. If you want to be a writer, you can get a pencil and you can write. If you want to be a painter, you can go and buy you an easel and a canvas and paint. But in order to make a film back in those days, you had to have money and lots of it. With the advent of the computer, it has changed the whole landscape of filmmaking.

Guillén: Speaking of context then, the fact that you made Welcome Home, Brother Charles as a student project is what adds to its being so remarkable. Earlier this year I saw the arthouse revival of Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, which was created about the same time, and it's my understanding Burnett was your cameraman on Brother Charles?

Fanaka: He was my cameraman. As a matter of fact, his working as the camera man on Welcome Home, Brother Charles is what inspired him and gave him the idea that he could make a feature. See, it was unknown for a student to make a feature film. My film was like the Holy Grail for filmmakers because I actually wrote, produced, directed and got theatrical distribution for a film. To get theatrical distribution is difficult now but it was even more difficult back then. The distributor had to commit to making a number of prints and prints are expensive. I'm the only person, before and since, in the history of filmmaking to write, produce and direct, and to have gained theatrical distribution for three moving pictures made as part of the academic curriculum. Of course I got A's on them. But these were school assignments.

Guillén: So obviously your films were received favorably by your instructors, but how was the reception by your fellow students?

Fanaka: It was mixed. Some students were obviously jealous that I was able to get grants.

Guillén: Envy's an ugly beast, isn't it?

Fanaka: It sure is. As a matter of fact, the American Film Institute grant that I got? I made history getting that grant. I was the first Black filmmaker to get this independent filmmaker grant. I helped open the door for minority filmmakers with the American Film Institute and other areas. I found out that the judges who made the decisions on who got the grants had all been White. The only non-White had been Cicely Tyson and Cicely Tyson was at the time in a sense a White Negro because she had become a great success. The more successful a minority filmmaker or a minority person gets, the less inclined they are to fight for their own people. They don't want to rock the boat. They've been accepted themselves but they don't want to take those chances to fight for the general purposes of helping other Blacks because they don't want to hurt their own career.

At the time, Alan Cranston was the senator representing California and the American Film Institute independent filmmaker grant was financed by the National Endowment for the Arts, which was a governmental concern. I wrote Alan Cranston a letter and said, "Look, I'm not accusing the American Film Institute of racism—I don't think they are racist—but, the fact that there has never been a Black or minority judging who [gets] the [grants], is important because we are usually drawn to material that reflects our own culture. I'd like for you to look into this because I think there are Black filmmakers—like myself—who deserve serious consideration." [The AFI grant] was the Holy Grail of grants. First of all, the American Film Institute has such cachet to get the grant. Also, it was $10,000 that they just gave you in your hand to go make any kind of film you wanted, whatever. There were no strings attached to it. There was a lot of prestige attached to it.

So Alan Cranston writes the head of the American Film Institute an enquiry-type letter and [it] shook this guy up. He called me up and said, "We get 20,000 projects submitted to us every year and it's inevitable that some great potential filmmakers are sometimes overlooked. But we will give a serious look to minority filmmakers and we will go out of our way to try to find some minority filmmakers that wield the power to make those decisions." I said, "Okay." The very next cycle, I got an American Film Institute grant. [Laughs.] And then on the next cycle, they invited me to be one of the judges.

Guillén: Excellent.

Fanaka: There was four judges. There was 12 grants to be given out. What did we decide to do? Rather than have polemics over who we thought was best, each one of us had a choice of choosing three filmmakers to give grants to. I gave out three; the other three gave out three. I was able on that cycle to get grants for Black filmmakers, just on my rubber stamp. From that point on, they started being very sensitive to the fact that Blacks have a talent too and they need a chance. Just a chance. Nobody owes anybody a grant; but, just a chance at getting it.

Guillén: An opportunity they can seize.

Fanaka: Exactly.

Guillén: So receiving the AFI grant was the green light for Welcome Home, Brother Charles. How did you find your lead actor Marlo Monte?

Fanaka: There was an organization … a group of actors and actresses that would get together to perform skits and to network with each other about roles that they saw that were open and try to help each other out. I went there and saw some of the skits and Marlo was in one of them and I was impressed with him. Afterwards I approached him and said, "I'm making this film. Would you like to read for a role?" He said, "Oh man, would I!" He was just so happy that I would consider him.

Guillén: Did he know the story?

Fanaka: No. He didn't know anything about it. He didn't even know it was a feature. He just knew I was a UCLA student because there were a bunch of UCLA students that were with me. Those were the halcyon days of Black filmmakers at the film school. There's never before or since been that many Black filmmakers. We had about 25 of us, including Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry and Haile Gerima and Julie Dash; a number of filmmakers that went on to teach film around the country.

Guillén: Let me ask you this then, Welcome Home, Brother Charles—not only is it an incredible achievement that you got it made as a feature during your student days—but, it's almost like three movies. It's part documentary with its street realism that—along with Burnett's Killer of Sheep—has become an important, historical document of Watts in the mid-'70s. Then it's also a socially realistic drama about the plight of Blacks in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement. Then it shifts into this … I hardly know what to call it. At the time there wasn't the term "blaxploitation" and I don't really think of it in those terms; do you?

Fanaka: No. "Blaxploitation" was a term, ironically, that was coined by a Black man; an angry Black man. This is what happened: this guy was a publicist and he would from time to time get assignments from the studios as a publicist to publicize their films. But he wasn't getting the type of work assignments that he thought he deserved. There was a Black film that was up for release but they didn't call him in as a publicist so he made an appointment to go in to see the head of the [studio's] publicity department and he said, "You never call me. You don't even call me for those blaxploitation films." Exploitation films were a genre of the era of drive-ins, what they call grindhouse. Companies were set up just to make low-budget "exploitation" films on subject matter that the studios wouldn't want to make. If it was low-budget, they called it "exploitation", no matter what. [As far as] "blaxploitation", every Black filmmaker resented it because it was used in the pejorative. Now it has evolved to where "blaxploitation" has assumed the definition of a genre, like film noir.

Guillén: So you don't mind being included within that characterization now?

Fanaka: It's thrust upon me like the color of my eyes. I have no choice in the matter.

Guillén: But I want to give you that choice.

Fanaka: All right, then I don't consider my films "blaxploitation" films.

Guillén: That's what I wanted to know.

Fanaka: But I don't write vicious letters to the editor who refer to [my films] as that. I consider Welcome Home, Brother Charles a work of art of the highest order. The reason I consider it that is because it transcends its subject matter. In other words, it's a story and it has a message; but, the message is so fundamental….

Guillén: Primal.

Fanaka: Primal, yeah, that's a good word. [The film's] going to live forever.

Guillén: I look at it this way. So many movies are made and disappear just about as fast. The fact that Brother Charles is still around and kicking means it's a child that's grown up.

Fanaka: Right. And it's more influential and popular now than it ever was.

Guillén: Can that be attributed to the recent Grindhouse mania?

Fanaka: That too. Also that Tarantino, it's one of his favorite films. He's one of my greatest fans. That has helped. But also, they're teaching it at the universities; not only the quality and the artistic value of the work, but how it was made; how inspirational it can be to young film students—or old film students, everybody wants to be a film student—on how you can accomplish something if you are determined and creative. This film was made off will power.

Guillén: When you started Welcome Home, Brother Charles, did you have a finished script?

Fanaka: Yes.

Guillén: I ask because some criticism I've read imply that the last part of the film was added on later specifically to sell it.

Fanaka: No.

Guillén: That's not true?

Fanaka: No. That's not true. What happened was, there were two drafts of the script. In one draft of the script, and not only the script but one of the cuts, some of the scenes I excised for time reasons and also for artistic reasons. I dealt with the fact of the younger brother getting involved in gang activity and the older brother trying to discourage him and the confrontation between him and N.D. [who] had taken his girlfriend and had her dancing topless. I had him reconcile that. But I didn't want the main story to be predictable. The obvious thing was for him to come by and kick N.D.'s ass and take back his mama or reject her or whatever, or line up with the other woman. But I felt that I wanted to deal with the film in a more universal level, at a more fundamental and primal level. The betrayal that [Charles] suffers from his partner taking his girl and then having him beat up, okay, "I can accept that. I don't want to fight that. Let them go their own business. I'm going to go on with life the way it is." [Charles] tries to go on with a normal life. He finds a job delivering water. But I wanted to make it more fundamental and deal with the fact of how easily we can be railroaded into a situation. Although involved in illegal activities, he didn't deserve to have his penis damn near cut off.

Guillén: Or to be thrown in the slammer simply for running.

Fanaka: Exactly.

Guillén: I kept thinking, "What are they picking him up for?"

Fanaka: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. As a matter of fact, if I wanted to exploit the penis strangulation thing, I would have had him strangle the other people on camera—the cop who tried to castrate him?—you never actually saw the [strangulation there]; I only showed it one time.

Guillén: Once was enough.

Fanaka: Yeah, once was enough. I didn't want people to think I was trying to use that in an exploitive way. I was trying to use that to take a ridiculous situation and just blow it up to such a proportion that you can't miss the ridiculousness of it.

Guillén: Let me ask you this then, Charles's revenge at the injustice of being railroaded, I know that some people have wondered why he didn't kill N.D. for taking away his woman and luring his younger brother into drugs? Why he didn't kill another Black man?

Fanaka: That's what I'm saying. [N.D.] was a victim himself of the whole system.

Guillén: So you're saying that N.D.'s betrayal of Charles was somewhat a consequence bred from their mutual environment?

Fanaka: Right. If [Charles] wants to go along and change his life, he has to forget that. "That is a part of my life. She's chosen him. Let me get on and try." And he falls in love with the other girl and they get into a relationship.

Guillén: I understand the differentiation you're making between the wrongs committed against Charles by N.D., who's in the same boat, and the wrongs committed by a White system that railroads him into prison. It reminds me of that wonderful line in Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit where El Pachuco snaps his fingers, stops the script and says, "That's just what the movie needs now, Ese; one more Mexican killing another fucking Mexican."

Fanaka: Right.

Guillén: The central section of Brother Charles when he's in solitary confinement in the penitentiary is a beautifully-edited montage of his thought process in voiceover mixed with still black and white photographs.

Fanaka: Thank you.

Guillén: What motivated the design of that sequence?

Fanaka: Why I wanted to do it in black and white is [because] black and white is an actor's colors. You don't have the distraction of color. What the audience concentrates heavily on is the actor. It's stark naturalism, as they would refer to it in literature. A naturalistic approach to show in a short period of time the whole three years [of imprisonment] encapsulated in practically one shot. Actually, it's two shots. I go in and then I cut to him. But it's only two shots. I wrote the music too.

Guillén: Speaking of the "music", what is that strange foghorn-like sound?

Fanaka: That's a saxophone.

Guillén: Ah. That sax motif in the score also shows up in the beginning credits where the audience sees the ithyphallic African figurine. How I interpreted that was that it connoted an ancient African power. Is that right?

Fanaka: Yeah, right. Hey man, you are very observant! That's what it was. I was trying to show the primal instincts of Africanism, what they call the natural religion, the humanistic religion, that pervades Africa even now. That music was supposed to convey that type of primal feel, that guttural [quality]. I wrote it by recreating the sound for the saxophone player. He would keep trying it until I got the sound I wanted. For the rest of it, I would tell them how I wanted it: crescendo, diminuendo, I expressed it to them and they were able to recreate it [at] UCLA. UCLA had a four-track recording studio and that's where I did the score.

Guillén: Another thing I wanted to run by you: the film ends with his girlfriend Carmen telling him to jump. The way I took that was that she didn't want him to get railroaded into prison again. Is that right?

Fanaka: Yeah. Let's face it, his life was over. She didn't want him to become a research monkey.

Guillén: I know some reviews described her as not being very loyal; but, no, she loved him completely and knew death was his only real way out.

Fanaka: Yeah. And she loved him enough to see a lot. People don't realize that death is not the worst thing that can happen to you. A lot of things can happen to you that—living through it—is the worst thing that can happen to you.

Guillén: To wrap things up then, you clearly are traveling with the film to inspire young people. As a filmmaker, what has been your greatest joy?

Fanaka: My greatest joy is getting responses like I got last night. I had a guy come up to me and say, "Hey, we have Jamaa Fanaka nights where we get together at each others' houses and show Jamaa Fanaka films."

Guillén: I'm going to lobby for a Jamaa Fanaka retrospective in San Francisco.

Fanaka: They say a perfect place would be the Castro Theatre. I've heard that's a beautiful theater. That's the Gay area, right? I think the Gays would relate to this film too. It's a universal film. It speaks to everyone.

Guillén: Brother Charles spoke to me as a Gay man because—as a Chicano—the process of having your ethnicity fetishized is a troubling hurdle to leap over as you try to individuate and become—first and foremost—a human being. It's disturbing to have your identity usurped and commodified by erotic agendas that are in service to colonial mechanisms of enslavement through effacement. You set out to have Brother Charles be a slap in the face about such matters and you succeeded. The film provokes an embarrassed shade of consciousness and uses prurience to prove its point. It's been a great honor to speak with you today and I thank you for your time.

Fanaka: Thank you, my brother I have a lot of respect for you, my man.

Cross-published on Twitch.

06/28/08 UPDATE: Marc Savlov talks to Jamaa Fanaka for The Austin Chronicle.