Christian Detres: First of all, it’s really nice to welcome an RVA-raised filmmaker back home to the Richmond International Film Festival. Tell our readers about your journey from being a production accountant to a filmmaker making the festival rounds.
Anthony Davis: So, I started my journey when I moved back to New York from Richmond after school. I was working at Def Jam, which had just merged with Island, so it was Island Def Jam. This was back in the mid-’90s. I had my first child in ’99, so that brought me back to Richmond. I started working as a production assistant at CBS6 WTVR and worked my way up to be an associate producer of a new television program called Virginia Morning. I was the first associate producer for that show. From there, I left and worked at the ABC affiliate in DC, WJLA, in their operations department. And then, from there, I went to Atlanta, Georgia, and started working as an office production assistant in the film world.
While working in the office, you get to see all the departments, and I was attracted to the accounting department. I started working as an accounting clerk on American Reunion and then worked my way up to assistant production accounting. I’ve been doing that for the past 13 years. I’ve worked on a lot of shows, features, and episodics, but mostly Marvel features like Captain America 3 and Guardians Volume Two. I just wrapped out of Ironheart on January 25 of this year. On the side, I have a creative partner, R. Shanea Williams. We met at WTVR as production assistants. I produced four of her short films. I also have another creative partner, Brandi Payne. I executive produced two of her short films, one of which is actually screening at the Richmond International Film Festival along with my film, Yogurt Raisin, this year. So, I am an assistant production accountant in the film world, and on the side, I produce indie projects.
CD: That’s beautiful. I was a line producer on a project last year—closest I’ve ever been to being an accountant. That was my first time having that specific title. I was totally focused on logistics and money, and I did not enjoy it. It is a skill bordering on magic to keep all the plates spinning, on time, and under budget. I gained new respect for the money people. It’s funny because when you come up in the indie world, you’re the producer, the line producer, the production manager, and the production coordinator. You’re all of it, you know. But that’s usually when your budget is a sock drawer you’ve been saving your bartending tips in for a year. It’s something else when you’re on a massive franchise vehicle and need to move around a couple hundred million dollars. The intricacies of movie financing, or any entertainment financing, keeping track of everything in such an inherently chaotic business—it’s challenging, to say the least.
I don’t want to talk about just the nuts and bolts of all this. I do want to delve into your short film, Yogurt Raisin. After watching it and churning it around in my head, I finally got the joke in the title. It cracked me up. There’s so much cringe. I watch these kinds of scenarios that you depict in the short between two fingers with my hand in front of my face—peeking at the cringe. It’s just so painful to see. Yogurt Raisin speaks to a conversation that has gotten more ink in the last decade or so than it ever has before. The thin line between appreciation and appropriation. You lay it out so well in your film. A quick side note: I’ve got to compliment you on the building tension. It was evident that you put a lot of attention into that. The squirming doesn’t stop, really, until the end. Tell me about your take on that issue and how you guys developed this film. What feelings did you bring to the screenplay personally on this issue?
AD: I had produced other people’s projects for a while and decided it’s time for me to do my own. I always wanted to tell this story. So, to start, Yogurt Raisin is loosely based on me. My childhood friends are all caucasian. To this day, we’re still tight; we take guys trips every year and just hang out. They all love, appreciate, and embrace African American culture. When we’re together, we talk music—hip-hop, specifically. They go back like they know the origins and impacts of these things. They love and appreciate black women. But if you were to close your eyes and just listen, you would think these guys were black.
So, I had that thought in my head since 2014. I said, “I’m going to make this happen.” I contacted a good friend of mine, William Roebuck. He’s a screenwriter who produced an award-winning documentary, 2020: Year of the Nurse, which was on the film festival circuit last year. We went on our notepad app on our iPhones and just outlined what we wanted to say. When we got it to a good point, William wrote the first draft. I gave the first draft to my creative partner, Shanae Williams. She’s a script doctor and producer. She redlined the heck out of it and got us to a point where we had a solid script. From there, I contacted Stella at Nova Casting. They were the casting directors for the recent Oscar winner, Two Distant Strangers.
CD: Okay, I haven’t seen that one.
AD: Yet. They were the casting directors for that short film and that short film won an Oscar. So I hired them to be the casting directors.
CD: Great job, by the way, pass along my high five to them on that one. Everyone seems a perfect fit for their roles in your film.
AD: I had a stellar cast. I love the guys. When we had the table read, you would have thought they knew each other. We got Q Parker, Grammy Award winning artist from the R&B group 112. He’s a good friend of mine. He comes from the theater world. I’ve seen some of his productions and he wanted to tap into features and film work. I told him I think I got a spot for you. And he was like, send me the script. I sent it, he loved it. I gave him his shot to get his acting chops up. Yogurt Raisin has been screened obviously in other film festivals this year. The heavy majority of the audience has loved his performance. He’s the arrogant, fire starter friend of my friend group who likes to talk shit, and instigate stuff, and then walk away.
CD: I think every friend group has one of those.
AD: So yeah, again, it’s loosely based on us. We had to add some fiction in it but yeah, that’s that’s how Yogurt Raisin came to be.
CD: I want to speak more directly to the context, or the controversy I should say, in the film. I want to cover the film as an artwork for sure, but you raised a lot of questions that I’d be hard pressed not to ask about. The dichotomy of appreciation and appropriation for one. You speak of your experience of growing up with five caucasian friends. You’re still tight. You know, skin and culture boundaries never held anyone back from appreciating one another. Have you had to contemplate a proverbial line that shouldn’t be crossed within that group, or is this something that you feel lucky that you haven’t had to face but intrinsically know that other people do?
AD: I haven’t had to face that within my friend group. That’s where the fiction comes in. They embrace my culture, African American culture, but they don’t take it as far as what you see in the film. I’ve observed other people try to act like African Americans with the I guess me you know, the type of clothes we wear. Were my friend group. Like I said, if you were to see them, you wouldn’t assume they embrace the African American culture by their outward appearances, but they do. Respectfully.
CD: I think if I get my two cents on it, this is why I appreciate what you did with Yogurt Raisin. Appreciation becomes appropriation when people take it too far. Their love of black culture compels them to put on a pantomime of the most superficial aspects of what it means to be black in America – it just never rises above the mockery of a minstrel show. It’s hard to put your finger on just where that line is, but when it’s crossed, you know.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this too. I’ve had to break ties with a colleague because of it. It’s a distasteful situation where I just couldn’t handle it anymore. There’s a certain amount of selfishness and arrogance in that behavior. Putting on a fly outfit and adopting an “urban” patois does not grant you footing in a culture that’s been carved up, repackaged in white, and served cold right back to the people who made it – for centuries. I believe the intent is innocent most of the time, but innocents can still learn tact. The way you bring this controversy to a climax in your short is very telling. You hit a clear, high note in describing that a pretender to this world always has a back door. They can disappear into the majority by simply changing their clothes. They carry none of the burden of the African American experience. They obviously choose that back door when confronted with the realities minorities have to go through all over the world. I don’t know that there’s a question in that. I’m just showing my appreciation for your narrative. Speak to that a little bit more. How do you digest that whole thing?
AD: I think some it is just trying to fit in. One example, I’ve observed other friends of other races in conversation with African Americans drop the N bomb. Not to be jerks, but because they feel that that is something that we do when we speak. I don’t like dropping the N bomb. Not all African Americans do that. That’s a no no. Also, the way we dress is a costume to them. It’s not, it’s a culture. Again, we don’t all dress like that. Of course not. I used to get picked on when I picked on and teased in high school because I was a black man wearing Abercrombie and Polo shirts.
CD: Just out of curiosity, what high school?
CD: Ha, I went to Freeman.
AD: Oh, nice. Yeah, graduated ’93.
CD: Oh, get out of here. Really? That’s crazy. Me too. I don’t know if you hung out down on Grace Street and that whole area back in the day. Richmond had a bit of a skinhead problem. I saw my fair share of getting picked on. Thankfully, there were enough real punks with pretty wild knuckles too. I did get to live the dream of punching a Nazi in the face a few times. I’m happy about that.
AD: I was in the khakis and Tommy Hilfiger. I wasn’t in the starter jacket. I guess what was popular? I don’t remember anymore. Didn’t have my pants sagging?
CD: That wasn’t quite the thing back then. Not yet. I don’t think it was quite there yet. Gangsta rap, gang bandanas, West Coast styles, NWA and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t quite the dirty south style like pants around your knees sort of thing. Which I laughed at a little bit, but whatever.
AD: Yeah, when I see guys today still doing it, I just don’t understand, and you know what, that’s okay. We don’t have to understand, and I think that’s part of the beauty of the diversity of a culture. Not everything being a monolith is good. Let me backtrack real quick. Remember “Nipplegate” with Justin Timberlake?
AD: With Janet Jackson, yeah. You know Justin is down with African American culture. I could tell by looking at him. I could tell he appreciates us. He had swag too. My guys don’t really have that. They’re just, if you saw them, they look like corporate America. But I looked at Justin, well, let’s go back. He had given plenty of interviews proclaiming he has always loved Janet Jackson. He finally got the chance to perform with her at the Super Bowl. That was true; you could see that. Then Nipplegate happened. She got blacklisted by CBS and he was invited to the Grammys a couple of weeks later. When that went down, he went silent. He didn’t apologize. He didn’t make a statement. He just now, within the last couple of years, showed any remorse for his silence.
CD: But then, when he did come out and apologize, I was like, “Wait a minute. Wait a damn minute. He’s just coming around to this now?” My thoughts? He was a fucking coward. What a goddamn coward. That just hit me the wrong way.
AD: I’m pretty sure his PR team was controlling him and telling them what to do, or say, or what not to say. But that was his back door. And he took it. He loves Janet Jackson in interviews. He loves her, blah, blah, blah. Then when shit went left, his ass went silent, you know. He should have supported her and said it was an accident, whatever. It wasn’t on purpose. His shit went silent. Yeah, that stuck in my head when William Roebuck and I were trying to get an outline for the screenplay.
CD: Gotcha. Yeah, and I think that it did hit me pretty hard. I’m really glad to have this conversation with you for many different reasons. But I wanted to thank you personally for putting that on the screen. For making that point, or at least putting a finer edge on that point. History is rife with Caucasian people of a certain time who have trampled through black spaces that they created by segregating African Americans from their own spaces. It’s absurd; they created the need for black people to have these spaces. An alternate America. A whole different timeline. Then they’d peek over the fence and notice, “Hey, they seem to be having more fun than us,” and then crash the party. There would be no power to stop them. I don’t think I’ve ever rolled my eyes harder than when ‘appreciators’ don’t understand the resentment for the costumes they wear. I think America has been good at patting itself on the back for having made so much progress, when a lot of it is still hypothetical. But honestly, man, I love the kids these days. They’re better than us. The teenagers and the young 20s are living in a completely different world than what we grew up in. And thank God for that. You know, I wouldn’t want them to have to go through the shit that we had to go through, and we wouldn’t want to go through the shit our parents went through. Or, worse, their parents.
AD: Think of the Kardashians.
CD: I honestly try not to.
AD: I think about all the lip injections because you want thick lips like African American women. To me personally… shit looks crazy. It’s too much, haha.
CD: I know we’re both in our late 40s. We have enough experience in this world to have seen beauty standards change and fluctuate and back and forth. Before Sir Mix A Lot, if you walked out onto any sort of model runway and with a butt at all, you weren’t the one, son. But we’ve seen things change. Then you see things swing in such wild ways, to the point where you get the Kardashians. Maybe they pull it off just a little bit better, or pull it off just enough to where it leads other people to believe they could, and even should, do the same thing.
The commodification of the African body. I mean, that’s been around for hundreds of years. The way that it’s being applied now is more of a positive aesthetic, to be sure, rather than a negative. It still seems like it’s being played for rebelliousness sometimes, and not just as pure aesthetic. Like there’s something edgier to portray yourself within the Black Beauty sphere. If you’re not already black, of course. It’s eye-roll-inducing, kind of makes you sigh for humanity a little bit.
But, Yogurt Raisin kind of goes into, not so much the beauty standards or whatnot, but I did notice the way the lead character speaks of his girlfriend speaks to a particular issue in interracial relationships in America. It’s been used as a prop towards proving your own chill, for some sort of cool points, or some validation, armor if you will, against any accusation that they harbor any legacy of racism. That somehow this relationship confers upon you blackness. That’s certainly not indicative of the vast majority of interracial relationships. I’m pointing out the ones this does apply to, of course. As a topic brought up in the film. You can’t ever call it out because you don’t know what’s in someone’s heart. It’s a very sensitive subject. But sometimes it’s just so obvious it’s painful. Could you speak to that just a little bit?
AD: In the film, the character Jacob, a white guy, is about to marry Darrell’s sister, a black woman. Jacob’s oblivious to how he talks. Well, he’s oblivious to the easily-crossed line he’s tripping over. He doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong by the culture with the things that he speaks about. This creates some difficult conversations throughout the film. You see tension between him and other people in the film. But he’s just very oblivious in what he says, and how he says it. Because he’s about to marry Darrell’s sister, he feels he has his “black card” now. He’s about to be in the family. He’s one of us. The pose is just too much for Darrell to take. Darrell wants him to just be himself. He wants him to know that he doesn’t have to try to be down. You know, he’s talking innocently, but to people that are African American, it’s offensive.
CD: I could expand the conversation to “people of color,” but I think even that would be disrespectful. The African American experience is unique. All cultural experiences are, of course, but this particular one looms large in the very character of our nation. You have a character that’s trying to buy into an experience that he has not earned at all. You can’t earn it. No amount of dating black women, no amount of having black friends, no amount of listening to hip-hop. None of that matters. None of it. It doesn’t even get you closer to mattering. It doesn’t matter at all.
AD: We wanted to have the core group of guys in the film have these difficult conversations within the relationship of this brotherhood. A real interracial brotherhood. And see what comes out of it, you know, how can this be resolved?
CD: Man, you did a great job with it. You had me engrossed and I really can’t wait for the rest of the city and everyone that’s showing up for the festival to see it.
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