The American Question is a decisive snapshot of American values in 2017 and how they impact the way our society, and in turn the world, operates.
According to The New York Times, I grew up in one of the poorest counties in America, both economically and in terms of education. Within my Title I public school, 90% of students were on free or reduced lunch, and out of 150 high school graduates only a fraction went to college – even fewer have a diploma. There are not many from my graduating class who live outside of the state of Georgia; most are residing within a fifty-mile radius of where we grew up.
Where I was raised, no one has rich uncles or family members who can provide them with economic mobility. In Georgia, they don’t realize that the $50,000 house they are able to buy would cost over a million in my LA neighborhood. They don’t have to compete with an international marketplace in a cosmopolitan city. In many respects, they also don’t have to live in a world with diverse cultures, faiths and backgrounds. The local job market only provides you with limited options most likely in the prison system, school system, agriculture, or various low level roles within the private sector. I am an exception, not the rule, and that is why I have joined this team to tell this story.
“How can any of us begin to expect one side to understand the other when no one seems to be able to speak for both sides?”
The insider/outsider perspective that frames my entire worldview is a unique understanding of the other half of the coin that my hometown friends cannot see. On the flip side, I also ask how can someone who grew up in Los Angeles or New York can begin to understand the struggles of my friends and family? How can any of us begin to expect one side to understand the other when no one seems to be able to speak for both sides?
Thus, directorially, I have a voice and deeply rooted passion that can speak to bridging the gap that our film will expose. To clarify, the gap is only perspective and not reality. Americans have similar goals in pursuit of what our culture has constructed to be the American Dream. We all want a house, a car and to create a life that is better than our parents. While how we arrive there can vary, we ultimately are working from the same foundation of values.
This film will attempt to showcase those shared American values, established by the Constitution, and how those values connect to current events, such as globalization, immigration and communal decay. We will do it through cities in every sector of the country, rural, suburban and urban, places that represent and are connective to all parts of America, that serve as microcosms for broader societal shifts that have brought us to where we are today.
To tell a story this ambitious, I have sought out expert storytellers with years of experience for advice. David Tedeschi, co-director of Martin Scorsese’s The Fifty Year Argument and editor of his George Harrison: Living in a Material World and Shine a Light, Tedeschi directed me to consider the story the same way the New York Review of Books approaches written narratives. Through exploring these vast topics with intellectual openness and curiosity, we eschew our preconceived notions, and indeed life experiences, by putting ourselves in the shoes of the subject to understand how they arrived at their conclusion. Approaching this material from a journalistic perspective, similarly to my recent film Digital Edition, we are able to examine these value systems critically, while knocking down preconceived notions about the root of societal division.
Ava DuVernay did this recently in her film The 13th, which examined the root of minority mass incarceration in the United States as defined through the thirteenth amendment. Through constructing the narrative with a mixture of stock content, animation and talking head interviews, DuVernay’s work inspired me with several clear tonal ideas on how to approach our material.
“Modern values systems are derived from cultures dating back to the Torah and Old Testament with The Ten Commandments.”
First, I will deploy shadow puppet animation, popularized en masse through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II, to illustrate the shadows of past societies and how they impact our present. Modern values systems are derived from cultures dating back to the Torah and Old Testament with The Ten Commandments.
Removing the religious aspects, many of these ancient values remain a code for society; don’t lie, don’t steal and respect your elders. We will examine how the shadows of those roles influence how we are expected to behave through dynamic shadow puppet animation throughout the film giving the viewer context for how numerous societies have shaped our values. This unique style of animation, which isn’t often seen, will give the viewer a framing device that showcases the shadows of the past within the present.
Second, expert authorities in this film must come from backgrounds that can relate to audiences within our international city-states and outside areas. Again, it is impossible to know how someone lives if you don’t have specific experience in their lives. Thus, I will only work with academics or a media figure that has roots in both urban and rural America. Without a toe in both ponds, it would alienate one audience or the other, negating their authority on the topic we’re exploring.
Third, pacing is critically important to the success of this film. A movie like The 13th gives us a clear roadmap for the precision and clarity that we must give to the viewer. This film cannot move slowly; it has to be fast, in line with speed our culture moves. But in that speed, we must ensure that the viewer gains an in-depth understanding of how the various issues connect to each other.
In order to evoke a sense of Americana to the subconscious mind – music being the glue that holds a film together – I intend to have full orchestration that utilizes strings, piano and tones. As musical styles have evolved over the decades, there is an American sound that defines the American experience. Comparatively, listen to the score from Ken Burns’s The Civil War, a piece that clearly covers a specific period of American history, but clearly connects to Mark Isham’s work from October Sky, the story of West Virginia teens dreaming of rockets in the 1960s. That is the sound that we must embrace within this film, which marries the scope of the narrative with the subconscious imagination.
Visually, in conjunction with the director of photography, I am striking a cinematic tone that is high in production value. I want to transport viewers to these places through saturated color palates and vivid representations of the towns that they once were and what they currently are.
For example, shooting in Hazelton, PA, I was struck by an old bank that was opulent in its marble façade. It was once a place of great commerce and is now abandoned; a testament to the past that the city once had. Yet, as retailers like Amazon, American Eagle and others have setup their distribution centers, a new future is carving its way through the city.
To implement the tone of the past and its influences on the present, we will strike a centrist tone that is very similar to my own personal background, permitting the audience to see things through both lenses that is neutral. Through our journalistic approach, informed by The Fifty Year Argument, we will neither demonize nor praise different parts of America, permitting the viewer to understand their issues, identify the common values that our culture collectively feels is different, and provide a cautionary tale framed by cultures past if ours cannot find a way to come together.
These goals might sound lofty, and they are. We want to start a conversation, so that people can remove their own personal politics from the equation to understand their fellow Americans once again.