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Who Am I to Tell This Story?: On Race and the Making of Welcome to Pine Hill

01/18/2012 01:03 pm ET | Updated Mar 19, 2012

For some people, someone like me should not have made a film like Welcome to Pine Hill. It's the story of a young black man directed by me -- a not-young white man. Those some people look at me as if to ask, What gives me the right to tell this story? Mixing fact and fiction, which this film does amply, already draws up a lot of discussion -- but mixing a white man's story with a black man's reality?

The question is worth considering and, along with the relationship of facts to fiction, it is one of the central underlying themes inherent to the movie.

Shannon Harper, the movie's star, and I crossed paths one night in the fall of 2009 when we fought over a dog I had found two months before and, apparently, had accidentally stolen from him. After that night's hour and a half argument (we didn't physically fight: he's a bouncer... I'm not), subsequent discussion the next morning, and conversations over the coming months, we focused on a pretty deep sense of the meaning of that night's interaction and the implications for each of us. Whether it was the initial impression we each had, the way that impression changed through subtle acts, phrases and gestures or how we each viewed the love of a dog and how to treat it, our argument opened up a lot about us, class and race in our society and love. The morning after we met (a sleepless night for me), I asked him if he wanted to make a movie about the whole thing. He was suspicious but finally agreed. That became the short film Prince/William and then the first scene of Welcome to Pine Hill -- unbeknownst to both of us.

When race is central to a story and a white person is the director of a narrative with a black protagonist, there is a lot of bad history there. Just hearing Newt Gingrich cluelessly offering to "help" the people the NAACP represents is enough to make most white people want to shut up about race altogether. It's a topic that gets people into trouble more often than not, if only for the reason that despite its ubiquity, it seems to be one of the unexamined yet immense forces in many people's lives. Yet this kind of tension is exactly what pushed Pine Hill into being.

As we developed the story for that first movie, we worked through the complexities of race in a supposedly progressive place like Brooklyn -- well, Park Slope. Early on in that first conversation, while I was still desperately denying the possibility of losing this dog I had come to love, I asked him a simple question: if you loved the dog so much, why didn't you knock on doors looking for him? When I found the puppy with no collar and needy eyes he was ten pounds or so and about four months old. Why not look for him? Why not post signs? Shannon is 6'4". He didn't even have to say it because I knew it as soon as I asked the question: the unanswered doors would most likely be followed by a Q & A with NY's finest. "When you lose something you consider it lost," he said -- I was convinced.

Prince/William premiered at Rooftop Films in the summer of 2010 (on the roof of Shannon's high school alma mater on the Lower East Side). We both saw the same thing: the opportunity to do more. I saw that Shannon had a great on-screen presence with an emotional clarity that I'd never seen in actors I've worked with. As a director or a viewer, I think he's one of the most unique actors I've seen on screen in a long time. I can't speak for Shannon but I know that he was as engaged with the whole process as anyone and we talk often about the process, how much fun it was and all it meant to him. At the same time, we both felt confident in the working method and the possibilities to develop it into a larger project. Scenes were developed through conversations and follow up conversations, molding them based on a, very unique, mutual trust.

When my friend and fellow filmmaker René Peñaloza Galván passed away that summer it unified our fellow members of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. I felt if film could serve a purpose, it might be to work through real issues, both personal and political, in almost real time. I reached out to Shannon, talked about the idea, and we began shooting in August of 2010.

For some, our working process was chaotic and even opaque. But the fluidity and openness allowed for little and big doses of reality to drip and sometimes pour in. The three cinematographers worked together moving as a single unit, seamlessly catching small glances of poetry while never intruding upon it. Their grace facilitated the flow of reality in front of the cameras, especially through the extra-long takes of up to 45 minutes. Before any of that, I sat down with the cast and discussed the situation, and worked to create an open environment within which they could explore who they were in front of the camera. Once the cameras were rolling they found moments of real and true beauty, comedy and pain. Whether it was the years of mistrust etched into the mother's face as she talks to Shannon or the moment of joy as he raises a glass in a toast, this was not an emotion 'granted' by anyone but them.

None of this may seem to get to the questions of representation, storytelling and power. But it does. All through the process I was aware of the challenges inherent in the balance of power and the relationship that balance has with history. The potentially explosive nature of that proximity, the 'don't talk about it' element, was one of the main reasons I made the movie. Sitting in conversations with white folks who speak in standard tones and then drop the volume of their speech just a bit when they mention race, is one of the things I see that exacerbates the problem. For me, the use of language in general is a minefield. White college students from the suburbs suddenly break into a black slang when talking about Tupac, or assume a black woman knows and cares about Jay-Z (as my friend Salome mentioned to me): isn't this just shy of blackface in today's language?

Welcome to Pine Hill covers racial and class differences -- yes -- but, in the end, I hope it is more complex than that alone. It is, perhaps more than a movie about race or class, a movement through the intricacies of personal confrontations with experience and questions of mortality and what it means to define oneself in terms that are created by you and no one else.

The challenges inherent in the political nature of representation are still as powerful as they have always been. In the world of independent film, and especially the ghetto called art house film, this is just as real as it is elsewhere, if not more so. Who is allowed on the screen, decided not by censors but by the supposed whims of the marketplace, is as limited as it was in popular movies 50 years ago. Welcome to Pine Hill is not my single-handed and quixotic attempt to adjust this score. It is a story that had a sense of urgency to it, had happened to me and which I am lucky to have been able to be a part of telling.