“Creating the Historiography”: An Interview with Curator-Filmmaker Shola Lynch

I’ve just been delighted by so many people. Is that just something you know when you’re in the theater? Is that intentional? One of the things I really enjoy is that your vote actually matters. It includes emotion. If I did something steeped in enslavement I’d see it the same way. You also have sense of yourself which is deeper, more nuanced; personal. It’s an undue burden. We don’t know our story for ourselves. to moments of levity and joy. I think so. That would be privilege. It’s not believable. Now, you don’t get candid media. I don’t think it’s possible to do it by committee. I just downloaded the Black Panther soundtrack and my throwback has been — I’ve been listening to this over and over again — Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul. Precisely. How do you want to be seen? Specifically, black women and how we walk through the world. Though she had always had her eyes set on being an archivist of black history and culture, her earlier path led her to work with legendary documentarian Ken Burns and to fall in love with filmmaking. We’re stolen people. I have several documentaries in the works. Nobody was being handled. I want to make films.” I worked on Frank Lloyd Wright, about the architect, and the Jazz series. Black cinema ebbs and flows. Think about prison. It was grappling, earnestly and very openly, with ideas around race and gender. I’m in prison! They’ve always been star-driven. That’s what this period is about. It is about organized forgetting. Working on Jazz was really instructive. Last movie you saw? You can see the difference over the last few years. Politically, socially, right now, is there a necessity for a distinct black female cinematic voice versus a black cinema in general that encompasses women? It is the constant acknowledgment that other people’s opinions are important. Lynch has also directed, written, and/or produced stories on topics as disparate as the wealth gap, music, and sports history for HBO, CNN, PBS, and ESPN. Okay, so what are we waiting for? When I made Chisholm ’72, people were like, “Who’s gonna watch it? It ranges from, Aww! Broadly it’s related to history. Nobody was dressing Shirley Chisholm. MAY 13, 2018

SHOLA LYNCH KNOWS a good story when she sees it. And, you know, you wrestle with the people you work for, and it gets to a point where it’s like, okay smarty pants … go out and make your own film. I listen to their album. They build their teams, they take advantage of opportunities. I love true stories. What’s cool about being inside is that you can open up the field. What’s your dream doc? So, I’m going off to make a film. It’s gotta be authentic to who you are. You can’t be an amazing jazz musician without knowing all the people that came before you. Absolutely. We can’t sell that. It’s the paradox of our time: we’re the most recorded generation, but how much of that information can you trust? People were not media savvy. B. I guess you’re thinking: Well, of course they are! Authenticity. I’m talking about the narrow cultural construction of who we are, which is not who we are. And people are like, “Wow it sold overseas!” It wasn’t hard to cast that way because it was their point of view. It’s not like there haven’t been black male leads in films before, but the POV of the films and filmmakers have not been so black or certainly not pan-African. I just need to find me. First of all, she still holds world records. I do. Most of it is not accessible. When I got out of graduate school, I couldn’t find a job to do that and I got a job with Ken Burns. I particularly felt that in the case of both Chisholm and Angela. We might be past the age of movie stars to some degree. I may not like it, but if it’s authentic, I can respect it. That said, I most recently finished Donna Brazile’s Hacks. I love the composers who created the soundtrack for The Revenant. It’s really important to be the lead character at some point. A diversity of directors and opinions related to black history and culture across the board. Take your script, take your idea, and see if you can get it out there. We’ve always been there. I don’t have a favorite. Otherwise, what are we doing? The point of view matters. In this moment of political, artistic, and social upheaval, Lynch is a maker, a curator, and an observer. 
In our interview, much as in all of her work, Lynch celebrates how far we’ve come, reminds us of the sobering truth that there’s far more work to do, and teaches us to find joy in the journey. Giving them their own jazz back? One was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s idea of inverting the main story to drive and shift the lens. Is it like the Vonnegut story, “Harrison Bergeron”? Last book you read? The story is about the story. What are you doing next? I’m doing one about Flo Jo for ESPN. This is human nature. That is what I do. That’s a good parachute. It’s not history. So many people, even Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm, their stories are not believable, but they’re true. But voice is something that gets thrown around in Hollywood a lot. She’s directed and produced two stellar documentaries: Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed, chronicling Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm’s historic presidential run in 1972 (for which Lynch won a Peabody Award); and Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, a Tribeca Film Festival award winner about the young, outspoken college professor Angela Davis and her fight to attain justice during a murder trial after she landed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. We have 5,000 square feet of materials. When I was in grade school we did plays. That’s such a Shola answer … Isaac Hayes. To take them off these historical pedestals and make them relatable. Why people and projects get greenlit is complicated. It’s about relationships, not just talent. Right. Never content to rest on her laurels — the former college track star was keen to compare the trials of filmmaking with the road to becoming a champion athlete — Lynch is working on her first narrative feature while developing new documentary projects in addition to her work as curator of the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture — her “dream job.” It gives the New York native the opportunity to preserve and elevate the achievements and artistry of people of color. Is that what you’re doing historically and artistically, as a filmmaker and an archivist for the people? It’s ironic that filmmaking brought me full circle to the job I wanted to have, being curator at the Schomburg. I can’t help of think of the concept related to blackness and black history. Black Panther. It’s up to us to go back and reclaim people that we may have overlooked, that we may not have seen, that didn’t have the opportunities that are available now. Listen Leon, I’m the lead character in my life. Culture is a part of every circumstance. What’s on your playlist? Isn’t that what social media is? There was space for authenticity in the storytelling. To train yourself to look deeper at the picture. It really depends on how the business responds; whether there are opportunities beyond the individual. Come with who you are. Since I can’t make films fast enough, I want to create a place, make the materials accessible so it becomes a platform for us. What have I read for fun? There’s a certain violence in that. Somebody told me when Roots came out people were saying, “It will open all these other opportunities…” and it didn’t quite happen. They each had tremendous senses of humor. I’m not the buddy, I’m not the sidekick. People vote for the films they think should win. SHOLA LYNCH: [Laughs.] My god, no! I guess that’s what differentiates Disney and Black Panther in this moment with Ryan; they aren’t kind of black, or sort of African. Oh, it’s crazy. Don’t try to sell me some stuff. To the tune of $100 trillion …
Think about it: other than blaxpoitation films, and those are problematic, this is one of the only films within the American cultural film establishment where there is a breadth of black characters; not just the good guy — not Mr. If everything becomes equalized does it compromise our ability to go deeper? We were stolen. And that’s what we want …
Exactly. Trying to engage you. It’s not just about celebrity. For publication? So is the revolution being televised right now: #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein. We’re never there. Second, she was, I believe, the first black woman to financially reap rewards from her [athletic] endeavors. I’m currently reading on my phone, Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. Art is about going deep inside and finding something that’s true to you and manifesting it in some kind of cultural artifact. A certain amount of anger comes out of it. She was one sentence in the bigger political story during the ’72 convention and election. They are connected. The willful omitting and minimizing of black accomplishment is a form of violence that is done to us, but that we also do to ourselves. That’s how we survive. Are you kidding me? Yeah. Without her, you don’t have Venus and Serena. It’s apparent in your work that the voices of black women in cinema are very important …
[Laughs.]
You’re laughing. Black Panther. But even that’s work in a way. If you’re just a black person propping up someone else’s point of view, I’m not that interested. Trying to ask you. That’s the world I live in, and my art will reflect that. One of the things I notice about your film work is that it’s rooted in the ’60s and ’70s — the most turbulent time in US history, and you’re dealing with black women in that era. You know there’s so many of us that walk around thinking, “Oh my god, I’m the first person to think of this or do this” … It’s bullshit! Through your work, what are you trying to tell us? How is it shared and distorted. With all the alt-facts out there, where does documentary sit in this space? What I love about the ’60s and ’70s is that American culture was opening up in a way. It’s important to not always be concerned about what other people think. Right. My slate runs long and deep, baby. I think it’s a revolutionary act for black people to see one another wholly. What is happening to us without that background? There’s culture. Just be true to it. We haven’t always been able to gain access to wider audiences or to distribution but the impulse has always been there. I think that’s what the world is responding to. It’s in the script. It’s really easy in this culture to take that on and not really see each other. All the characters are complicated. It gives more opportunity to craftspeople. We just don’t know about our foremothers and fathers. I get to come in and pull together the team to make it accessible. Little old black lady runs for president.” She was considered an afterthought. You know I never quite thought of it that way, but it’s true. Wouldn’t it be great if the way the outside saw me was closer to how I see me? So much of it for black folks across the diaspora is also about the past. Absolutely, unequivocally. I don’t need to make shit up. And I think it’s antithetical to art. But in that one sentence in that paragraph there was a whole story, you just have to shift the lens to see it. And both of those characters are complicated. How does your work as an archivist help us reclaim that identity? Nobody was giving her sound bites. Is it a revolutionary act to show these women in the height of turmoil still having a sense of humor … friends and family —
Yes. But nobody in Black Panther was a really a star, not like Wesley at the time, not like Denzel Washington, Will Smith. ¤
Leon Hendrix is an award-winning screenwriter, filmmaker, and teacher living in Los Angeles. When you see these moving images reflecting back, it changes the culture. I have to say as a new-ish Academy member and getting the screeners I’m like a kid in a candy story. I think about that all the time. I’m trying to show you. I think Black Panther is proving what many of us knew: there’s an audience for good stories with lead black characters, period. I think that’s how we live. To me that’s what the archives are about. I got into filmmaking because I wanted to be a curator at a historical institution. In other words: Ryan Coogler is set for life, but I don’t know if that means independent black voices who are coming up are gonna benefit in the same way. To me, it’s not the same as lightness. She has since developed an impressive body of work. Right now I’m reading Michele Faith Wallace (Dark Designs and Visual Culture). It’s up to us to create the historiography and our lineage, whatever our craft is. The people at the forefront — Ryan and Ava — have those talents in abundance, right? It’s how people cope and survive. Lynch’s work has been nominated in various categories by the Independent Spirit Awards, the Sundance Film Festival, and the London Film Festival. We want complicated characters — and it’s still fun. They’re all obviously very talented. Broadly it’s related to black history. It wasn’t a marketing tool. They’re not probable, not likely. Part of it is the curiosity and the process. You have to be in conversation with them. I think that’s part of the goal. That’s what we as black people have been living through for a very long time. This is a different moment, and it seems more possible. To frame this as violence is pretty deep. But I don’t know. It’s still pretty narrow; within Hollywood, certainly. Even The Fast and the Furious reflects the maker’s world. That’s an improvement. To only show one part is to dehumanize the character. As Chisholm said, “Vote your conscience.”
What do you want from the next generation of black filmmakers? Well, Wesley Snipes did, ’cuz he always “bets on black.”
[Laughs.] Well, you bring up a good point. If you look at black history and culture it’s filled with optimism. You can’t tell me I wasn’t there — I was there! But I think you approach your work with a lot of lightness and joy. It’s a matter of dimension. I worked for [Burns’s] Florentine Films as a researcher, then as an associate producer for nearly five films, and then I was like, “I love it. The way I figure it is this: I may not be the youngest person, but I’m gonna live to be 100, so I have decades of making ahead of me. Free Angela came out before #OscarsSoWhite and nobody watched it! No way! Cultural depth used to be only represented through one people and one voice and one dimension. It’s hard not to be angry. How do I make it great? That’s not how I saw her. But it’s like you said, there’s something else going on. Within the community of black creators, is it narrow? That’s propaganda. Who are your favorite filmmakers right now? With the breadth of our individual humanity. But this is the opportunity to try. We’ve lost our sense of self in history. Tibbs — not the bad guy, but both. This is the time for no half measures. I’ve been listening to David Axelrod quite a bit. We’re seeing a lot of thing breaking open …
I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know nobody thought Black Panther would do as well as it did. W. Are we there yet? If this moment holds true and blossoms, we are gonna be in a really spectacular moment. You can have diverse casting and dimensional characters. ¤
LEON HENDRIX III: I’m gonna throw you a softball to start: Is this the golden age of black cinema? You need the palliative to keep going through everything you go through in this country. If you look at the history, there are people who start it, the older generation; then the young people say, “I want to do my own thing,” and that’s how you get bebop. Cinema is super powerful. And I don’t mean any of that in a negative way. E. If I told you the details of Angela’s intellectual life, yeah, not probable. American law and culture doesn’t see us as whole. When somebody like Assata Shakur writes in her autobiography, “I didn’t know black people did anything or fought back…” If you don’t know that, you have a certain sense of shame or loss that is not the truth. People always think exploration is about the future. I think about that in my own work. You are cognizant how you are seen — in business, in the culture, the history — when you walk in for a job interview. So when I look to culture, I curate to reflect me. It was taken from us. Yes. But I have to say the book that has had the most impact on me recently is Henry Giroux’s The Violence of Organized Forgetting. No, it never really has been. Du Bois’s words ring true: “Two warring souls.” You see yourself in two different ways.