From Sundance 2020, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with filmmakers Elegance Bratton and Jovan James about their beautiful short film Buck which had its world premiere at the festival on Sunday night.
Partly inspired by the deaths of two young black men under suspicious circumstances in Los Angeles, Buck follows a young depressed gay black man, Lynn (Malik Shakur) on his pursuit of some joy in today’s USA.
Bratton and James graduated together from New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts just last summer, but they are already making major waves in the industry with a raft of festival hits to their names such as the short films The Jump Off and Tadpole. Bratton’s feature documentary Pier Kids is still touring festivals and they both have a number of projects in development including a narrative feature and television series.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on your beautiful short film Buck. I found it impactful and deeply moving and I loved how it was shot; the colours you use and there’s a great central performance by Malik Shakur. This is your third film together, what makes it a successful working relationship between you two?
Jovan James: “We met during the first few days of orientation at film school at New York University’s Tisch and our chemistry was really immediate, we were instant friends. I think what led to Elegance being a valued collaborator for me is that we were in an environment where we would put out our ideas in front of the class and honestly the kind of stories that I was telling in particular a lot of people were not responding to. And I learned through knowing Elegance that he could speak to the stories that I wanted to tell. Another thing I saw early on was that he was extremely talented. When we were in a process of getting to know each other I was fascinated by the life he’d had and that he’s a photographer and he was in the Marines. This is my friend someone who has my back creatively, so working together was simple for me. But I would say as black gay men in the program we were not always supported and that made it difficult at times. It might’ve been easier for both of us to work with a white DP or co-writer. That might’ve given us more acceptability within the program, but we both chose to not do that.”
Elegance Bratton: “I instantly felt connected to Jovan. First off, this journey to higher education for me has been one where I have been the only black gay guy in these rooms; at Columbia University, perhaps not all the time, but very often. In those big transitional moments of my life where I was confirming a decision to be aspirational and the path was actually opening up I ended up being surrounded by people who were so different from me and that’s been a blessing to be honest. It’s taught me how to talk to anyone and it’s given me the ability to think about all sorts of people and to understand the human condition better. But meeting Jovan…and I don’t know why I knew he was gay by the way when I first saw him…?!”
Jovan James: “Yeah, I have some thoughts about that too!”
Elegance Bratton: But anyway, right away I felt a kinship with him and I didn’t want to be in as situation where we were pitted against each other. I thought ‘who better to partner with than someone who intimately understands what I’ve gone through and will go through as I navigate this program?’ Then I was grateful that Jovan is such an open and just a good person. He accepted my initial insistence on friendship and from their it continued to develop.”
“On our first film The Jump Off, I was the DP and Jovan wrote it. It played about twenty festivals in the United States and my husband Chester Algernal Gordon was costume designer and makeup artist on it and he produced our second film Tadpole which Jovan wrote and directed and I produced. I guess to sum it up, what I enjoy about our collaboration is that Jovan reminds me to be patient in how I get across the messages that I do in the films. For me it seems so obvious that people shouldn’t be homophobic and that people should care about their neighbour and be kind. I get so frustrated and irate, and sometimes I want to just push people where they’re supposed to go, but Jovan always reminds me to nudge, and I like that.”
Could you tell me a little about where you each grew up and what life was like before NYU?
Elegance Bratton: “I was born in Jersey City to a single mom, she had me when she was sixteen. Then from Jersey City we moved to a town called Philipsburg when I was very small and to our knowledge we were the only black family in the town. Then we moved to Rahway New Jersey and my mother worked in the prison there. Rahway is the town I ended up graduating high school from and I actually ended up getting kicked out of at the same time when I was sixcteen.”
Jovan James: “I grew up in Balitmore, also to a single mom. I was the youngest of three boys, so she took care of us working as a correctional officer for over twenty years. I was the only artist in the family, so I grew up with the idea of becoming a doctor.”
Elegance Bratton: “His mother made him take Latin so he could become a lawyer or a doctor!”
Jovan James: “Right, I was in a sort of pre-med program at high school and then when I was about to gradtuate I said ‘I’m going to pursue screenwriting.’ I didn’t think about directing back then. I was the first one in family to go to college and they couldn’t stop me from going to school to study what I wanted. I’ve just been going at it ever since, all the way from community college in a small suburb of Baltimore county to Tish in New York City. I’ve had a great mentor along the way and I’ve had a lot of help from people along the way, I didn’t do this alone. I had people who really helped me out, but obviously there were times when I had to do a lot for myself, it’s been a crazy journey.”
So both your mothers worked in prisons?
Jovan James: “Yes, it’s a coincidence, but I would say that there are a lot of black women who work at these prisions.”
Elegance Bratton: “I mean, it’s not called the prison industrial complex for nothing you know what I mean? What other businesses in America are booming with liveable wages?”
Jovan James: “Right. And the benefits, which is why my mother got that job.”
Elegance Bratton: “My mother used to drive a bus before she got her job with the correctional facility, a women’s prison. As I said that’s why we moved to Philipsburg, for her to get that job, and I ended up going to Catholic school as a result. That education that I got at Catholic school, baby, that thing came in handy! In fact it’s still coming in handy to this day.”
Jovan James: “I don’t know, I’ve met some people who were messed up by Catholic school.”
Elegance Bratton: “I’m messed up, I’m totally messed up!”
Let’s go on to your short film Buck which just premiered at Sundance. I know there was real life inspiration behind the screenplay. How did hearing about the Gemmel Moore’s story affect you and why did you want to put it on screen?
Jovan James: “It was a really personal thing for me because I first heard about Gemmel Moore’s death while I staying in West Hollywood, so I was in the same area where it’d happened. I read this news story and I wondered why such a major story was only being reported in the local news. As I read more about it I learned more about Gemmel and his fetish, his M-O and basically his life, how he came to be on the street. But what hurt me the most is that this was so ignored by the media, this was ignored by black media, you know the woke black sites that I was following that are always quick to call people out for bias and overlooking and identity politics. You have this homeless black gay youth who’s dead at the hands of this white man in a very sick way and it’s just not getting any coverage. At the time of reading that I was already working on a story about a gay depressed man and his life was in one night in the story. So when I read more about Gemmel Moore I thought ‘I want people to pay attention to this. Can’t I do something so people will actually hear about this aside from just sharing it on Facebook?’ I have this platform as a filmmaker I can at least try.”
Elegance Bratton: “In addition to the lack of coverage about what’s happening with Ed Buck, which is reprehensible, I have a very complicated sexual history, one that has taught me to some degree that sex is an exchange of power and things that make us oppressed in our day to day life, often those things can follow us into the bedroom and sometimes those things can become aphrodisiacs in their own way to some people. That’s OK, it’s your own life, it’s your own body and I would never want to come across as being sex-negative or drug-negative or any of that. To me whatever people do to cope should be celebrated because it’s really really hard to live. That being said, these power dynamics in the Ed Buck situation really spoke to us, and our experiences as black gay men trying to understand ourselves, the intersectional identity. Gay almost always automatically means white and when you’re black in America there’s this relationship to whiteness, now there’s the sexual piece to it. I feel like for there to be actual care for the fates of people like Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean that mainstream culture needs to have more language and vocabulary to engage in the complicated meanings that their sex lives bring to them. In this very difficult time that we’re living in, Trump America, it would seem that people are struggling and they are turning to drugs and sex to find happiness and I’ve done that in my life and I think it’s important to contemplate a generation of black gay men for whom the Congressional Black Caucus predicts one out of two of them will be HIV positive. The other thing is, black press is not covering the depression that this fate is causing a lot of young black gay men. And we wanted to make this film together to show people that you can walk a minute in our shoes and learn about the power of your vulnerability in the hope that it generates empathy.”
You’ve just touched on this, but I wonder if you could expand on it on further; when it comes to Lynn’s story as we see it in the film, what particularly resonated with you personality?
Elegance Bratton: “Well, I grew up terrified of HIV/AIDS, as I mentioned my mom worked in prisons in the 80s and 90s and I grew up highly stigmatised and bullied for what people perceived to be my sexuality. So on an ideological level the fear that I have of contracting the virus is real to me and it’s a fear that’s complicated by the nature of my desire. Technically, you’re in a pool of people where it’s more likely and that generates a certain kind of paranoia and drugs help to ease that, so I’ve definitely done that before.”
Jovan James: “I can absolutely identify with all of my stories up until this point and with this film we see a black gay man in his twenties deal with mental health issues, but also this is just the sexual life of a black gay man, being sexually identified and having difficulty with intimacy, you know these are things that people are really dealing with and that’s something that I can certainly speak to, just the people around me in my community, so it’s beyond autobiographical, it’s just that I know that these issues speak to multitudes of people. And where do these drugs come into play on that…how do you socialise as a black gay man?”
Elegance Bratton: “Or how do you socialise in a black gay culture where sex is the currency?”
Jovan James: “And then when you can’t offer sex what happens to your value in that place, when you say ‘no, I am actually not going to give up my body to you?’”
As well as recreational drugs, there’s a scene where Lynn and another man are discussing the prescription meds they are on. Could you tell us about the significance of that scene?
Jovan James: “I think a lot of us are reliant on pharmaceuticals for different reasons. When people are dealing with depression, the antidepressants that people take, you know they often have a tough relationship with them, whether it’s because of the side effects, or whether you even want to take it or if you believe that they are actually really working for you. Honestly, you are taking these dugs and you are hoping for the best but it’s not really a fix-all, a cure, it’s just something to help you cope and I think it’s understandable to look at it with a bit of suspicion and I think that comes across with Lynn. He’s taking antidepressants and he does believe in it, but it’s not a sure thing, he hopes that it works because that’s all he has.”
Elegance Bratton: “And that statistical reality of the contemporary HIV/AIDS crisis in America, of black gay men specifically, and people of colour overall, being are over represented in these categories. So we have a generation, Gen Z, who are depending on pill regimens to maintain their moods and interest in life and there are also black people who are dependant on pills to maintain the suppression of the HIV virus. This is an interesting parallel because it speaks to a lived experience that no one has acknowledge yet. No one has said out loud that these two issues are converging with one another and that this a part of figuring out what the future will be. These young people are our future, they have value and it’s important that we contemplate the world that they live in so that we can figure out how better to support them and make the future better for all of us.”
The sex party scene on the boat is very striking, quite confronting, but intriguing too. Could you talk a bit about the vibe that you wanted to create and how that scene affects your central character Lynn?
Elegance Bratton: “The first time you go to one of these things, especially when you’re not expecting to end up at an orgy, you know it’s kind of like a fight-or-flight syndrome that kicks in and we wanted to depict that, we wanted to make that tangible to audiences. Sometimes when people talk about gay men, so much energy is put into promiscuity without understanding that behaviour, without understanding that there’s fear in that behaviour too. That we’re navigating so many levels of fear as gay men. That feeling of the thrill of the illicit and the overwhelming nature of the illicit is something that we wanted to play with.”
“From a colour point of view, it’s this notion of the red light district and how maybe in the 70s and some of the 80s men would go out into the shadows of the red light district and find ways to be with one another and because of technology that has been brought into people’s living rooms. So we wanted to pay homage to the history of public gay sex but also suggesting how that behaviour has manifested itself in the contemporary moment.”
You mentioned the colour scheme there, could we talk a bit more about the cinematography. What were some of your guiding principles for Zamarin Wahdat for the look of the film as Lynn is moving form place to place?
Jovan James: “Well first of all Zamarin is an incredibly talnetd DP and was someone that I dreamed of working with and she has had an incredible year, not just with Buck, but she also worked on an Oscar nominated doc Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl). She’s really killing it and she really has an incredible sensibility for emotions and imagery and I think for this story we were looking at trying to have elements of horror and suspense, particularly in that boat scene. So when we were going over how to shoot that we definitely wanted it from Lynn’s point of view, that he’s scared, he’s overwhelmed, this is such an intense moment for him, so the light had to reflect that and the cinematography had to feel claustrophobic. It had to feel like he’s trapped in there. So she was able to translate these emotions into a visual language.”
Elegance Bratton: “And also the notion of using the camera as a character to express feelings of isolation and despair in public, in a situation where it seems so easy to feel connected to others Lynn is unable to connect. I think what Zamarin did beautifully was to help us use the shot composition to be able to place the him in frame in such a way where it feels like you’re all alone yet there are still people around you. I think that the nature of how gay men have historically gotten to know each other even through the discotheque and raves and public group sex, you know what I’m saying, a lot of tribal gatherings and yet we can still feel so alone. And I think the use of the colour blue in contrast to the red really communicates that and really speaks to the sexual identity of this character, in that these are the blues – in America this type of despair has been communicated that way. So we were trying to use the colour to not only put us in the head of the character, but also to comment on the world around us. I don’t think most people are really going to pick up on these things, but hopefully it changes the way they see their every day lives after they watch the film.”
Buck has a running time of around 14 minutes including the credits, what does the condensed timeframe of a short allow you to explore as filmmakers or what does it force you to focus on?
Jovan James: “You can pack a lot in. I think short films are really about a moment and you can really invest in putting so much time and energy and resources into them and the performance, you can really focus on small details. Of course you want to do that on a feature as well, and we will, but for this project having us both of us there and putting our energy into a short we were able to explore so many ideas, put so much heart in and strengthen our collaboration.”
Elegance Bratton: “That’s for sure. When you’re making a short film, and you don’t really have any money to speak of, you have to be resourceful in all of these ways you don’t expect and you end up learning so much that feeds into your feature work. I have a feature right now that I’m close to getting made and I know for a fact that there are lessens that I learned on the Buck set about how to write movies, how to direct actors, how to deal with crises on set that have helped me. Every film is a classroom and with short films the stakes aren’t as high. Some people spend hundreds of thousands and I would say whoever is reading this do not spend $100,000 on a short, ever, but that’s a side note. Because the stakes are lower on a short, it allows for experimentation, you can say ‘OK, this isn’t working in the script, why don’t we just throw this thing away and find it right now?’”
I’d like to see more of your lead character and his life, would you be interested in or do you feel like there’s scope for a feature film adaptation or even something episodic ?
Jovan James: “Yeah, in fact we are already working on an episodic rebirth of this material. This will return as a series, we are working on it now! We did have a discussion about how this story could grow and we did discuss a feature film, but I feel like episodic is a great way to expand upon the character and his world, like what he does in the day time.”
Elegance Bratton: “Yes, we’re really interested in episodic because you get eight to ten hours with the character rather than the ninety minutes you’d get with a feature film. One of the cool things, and Javon brought this up earlier when he was talking about the difficulties we faced at Tish and that is all true, however it’s given us an impetus to find new talent and to introduce audiences to our stories and stories from our communities. It’s really given us an opportunity to be able to expand out into the world and that just has been an incredible experience.”
Is this your first time at Sundance?
Jovan James: “Yes, it’s my first time here.”
Elegance Bratton: “It’s my second time here, but this year I have two films in the festival. I have Ship: A Visual Poem by Terrance Daye, which I’m a producer on along with my husband Chester Algernal, and then Buck. Last year we had Fran This Summer which Chester and I produced, directed by Mary Evangelista.”
What does it mean to you to as filmmakers have this particular film, Buck, world premiere at Sundance?
Elegance Bratton: “This is my first time at this festival as a writer/director and this is something that I have wanted to happen for at least the last five years. I’ve been rejected many times, I’ll probably be rejected a couple more times, hopefully not any time soon. It means a lot to me, I’m very proud of us and our team and our lead actor Malik. I’m really grateful. Fifteen years ago I was in a homeless shelter, now I’ve had a TV show, I’ve got a doc, Pier Kids, and I’ve got a movie at Sundance with my two best friends in the world, my husband and Jovan. I can’t think of any better way to start a new decade.”
Jovan James: “It’s very emotional for me. I’m not someone who expresses that stuff outwardly, but pour so much into all your projects and this one was really the culmination of so much hard work. You face so much rejection in life anyway, so for me, when I make something I do wonder ‘are people going to care about this? Are people going to be into this? Did I make a mistake?’ It’s special to me that I put a story out there that’s very personal to me and it’s connecting with people in such a way. I have to take some appreciation from that and feel that love from people. It’s allowed me to grow and to see some things about myself and just coming out of film school with this, it’s really powerful, and I know it’s a once in a lifetime experience, so I’m just really trying to be in the moment and to be grateful that’s all.”
Malik Shakur gives a brilliant lead performance. Tell us about the character he plays, Lynn, why you cast Malik and how you felt about his work on the film?
Jovan James: “Sometimes it can be tricky to find actors for the kind of story that we wanted to tell. When they told me about Malik I was unsure because this is his first film and I wasn’t sure that this was for a first time actor. But then I was sent a minute and a half tape of his audition and for me the decision was just so quick. Sometimes it’s not so much about them reading the script, you just want to see their presence, their energy. Can they actually inhabit this person? I need to see that and this was just so effortless and I said ‘that’s it, it’s done, it’s cast!’”
Elegance Bratton: “Malik is super super duper talented. He’s one of a kind, but I would kid him and tell him that he reminds me of Lakeith Stanfield and James Dean mixed together. Chester and I met him through a family friend and Malik’s a musician and he’s played Coachella and the O2 Area in the UK, he’s a bassist for the artist Raury. When you talk to him he’s super smart, he’s super sensitive. Some actors have an other worldly quality and Malik has that in spades.”
“We built the rest of the cast around Malik. Bruce Jackson is internet famous through the website OnlyFans. He’s built a name for himself on those sites. Malik was so dynamic that we were able to complement his personality and his gifts with these other actors who brought their own considerable talents to the table, like Biko Eisen-Martin.”
Jovan James: “Who is wonderful. He did a lot with a little bit of screen time.”
Finally, you have a lot of irons in the fire, which is very exciting, are you able to crystallise the kinds of stories each of you are drawn to tell right now in your work?
Elegance Bratton: “I have a feature film called The Inspection that’s loosely based on my life, it’s about a homeless man who joins the Marine corps to change his life, but then has to conceal his attraction to his drill instructor in order to survive boot camp. It’s set in 2005 during “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’. Through working with Jovan, and writing this film as well, I’ve realised that I like talking about and talking with and through people who are the least expected to succeed. I like to talk through the eyes of the underdog, only I like to see the underdog win. Maybe that’s a uniquely American thing I don’t know. I like seeing stories that remind people of their personal power and inspire them to draw on that power instead of what’s easy to do. So in terms of genre, this feature film I’ve written is a military romance action film. I’m interested in every type of movie. I have docs, a TV show, I want to do all of it, as long as I’m able to show people the power they have within.”
Jovan James: “I feel that what a lot of my stories have in common is that they are about an outsider or someone who feels they are an outsider, or how society has made them an outsider and how they interact with the world. Being outside the world you still have to deal with it. How can these conflicts affect you when you’re black, when you’re gay, when you’re poor. There are many topics that I want to get into with my films in the future like racial and sexual issues, but I think living in this country we are obsessed with class and so I definitely want to go into that with my stories. And in terms of genre I’d like to try everything. I love superhero movies and I want to bring more black queer characters, not the typical kind of people, to a superhero film, why not? This is why people like us are going into the industry we are there to change it up, shake it up, that’s what I want to do. I love ation films like Mission Impossible. I want to make those films, but I still want to always keep my core values in terms of honouring my people and our place in the world. I think that’s an opportunity that both of us have in our futures, so I want to take advantage of that. I’m also working on a feature, so after the Buck TV show, I’ll be putting all these ideas into my new work.”
Buck, written and directed by Elegance Bratton and Jovan James had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday January 26th as part of Shorts Program 4. There will be further screenings this Friday January 31st at 10pm and Saturday February 1st at 9pm. For more information on the film and screenings at Sundance head to the Buck page on Sundance website.