Exclusive Interview: Timothy Ware-Hill & Arnon Manor on their powerful Netflix animated short film Cops and Robbers “Black Lives Matter can’t just be a saying it has to be an act”

The gut-wrenchingly powerful, deeply moving and ultimately hopeful animated short film, Cops and Robbers, directed by Arnon Manor and Timothy Ware-Hill, was written and performed by Ware-Hill in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery earlier this year. Ware-Hill had initially filmed himself reciting his own impactful poem and posted the video to social media which quickly went viral. Filmmaker and visual effects professional Arnon Manor was among those who saw it and immediately got in touch with Ware-Hill to suggest that they collaborate on animating it. An established Broadway and television actor, Ware-Hill recently received an MFA in Screenwriting from National University, while Manor has overseen the visual effects on countless feature films as an artist, supervisor, producer and studio executive.

Timothy Ware-Hill

Ahead of today’s global premiere of Cops and Robbers on Netflix, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Timothy Ware-Hill and Arnon Manor about their collaboration, the importance of working with Black animators and post production professionals on the film, how Jada Pinkett Smith became involved as an executive producer, and what the platform of Netflix means for the film.

James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Timothy, firstly could talk a bit about your background in poetry and the origins of Cops and Robbers?

Timothy Ware-Hill: “I’ve been writing my entire life. One of the oldest poems that my mom still has is from when I was seven-years-old. It was one of my outlets and my way of expressing myself as a little Black boy in Montgomery, Alabama, which is where I’m from and where I grew up. Of course, I had no idea that my poetry would eventually lead me on this journey to be able to say that I have a film premiering on Netflix on December 28th! Cops and Robbers, the original non-animated version was something I created in response to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery which outraged me, but sadly did not surprise me. I just needed a way to express my frustration and to let my voice be heard about the perspective of Blacks in America, what we have to deal with, and have always had to deal with since the inception of this nation. So I took my iPhone and recorded myself reciting the poem while jogging through my neighbourhood and released that video on to Facebook and Instagram. That’s when Arnon Manor got in contact with beautiful words about how he was moved by the piece and with a brilliant idea to animate the poetry. His idea was to divide the lines up into segments and invite animators and visual effects artists from all over the world to give their interpretation of those lines, and then stitch it together into what we like to call this beautiful quilt of artists and animators which is now the short film Cops and Robbers.”

Arnon, what impact did Timothy’s original non-animated video have on you and how immediate was the idea to have so different animators work on it and bring their own unique styles to their segments of the film?

Arnon Manor: “First of all, I’m not originally from this country. I came here twenty years ago for work and stayed, so I’m an immigrant and an implant here. Through the years, and especially obviously over the last four years, I have been appalled by the racial divide and injustice that takes place in this country in a violent way. I’m Jewish and I’ve experienced my own bout of anti-Semitism growing up in England, very different thankfully than the violence that occurs here, but still, I’m very sensitive to it. When the Ahmaud Arbery video emerged I was outraged and appalled by the audacity of these white supremacists chasing this guy down and shooting him, and by the audacity of the police and the judicial system in doing nothing for a few months, just sitting on it and trying and hide it until this video came out. I was already enraged about that, and it was during Covid so we were at home and the environment that we were in was very tumultuous politically, and I saw Timothy’s video randomly on Instagram and it just hit a chord. It was so powerful in both the words that Timothy wrote and the performance that he gave, running in a neighbourhood similar to where Ahmaud had been jogging when he was killed. My reaction was immediate. I saw it. I heard it, and I said, ‘I need to animate this’. I knew that I needed to do something more with it in order to amplify his voice and the words that Timothy was saying. Straight away I envisioned an animated version in segments and I did some research about it to see who I could bring on board and then I pitched the idea to Timothy, and thankfully he responded to my Instagram DM. It was all pretty quick.”

Arnon Manor

When it comes to the wide variety of animation styles that we see in the film, how much of that was the individual animators ideas or your own suggestions? How did those collaborations work?

Arnon: “Once we’d split up the poem into short segments we asked the animators to choose the sentence that spoke to them. This was during the pandemic of course, so we had our conversations with them remotely via phone calls, Zooms or Google Meets. The animators would brings us their ideas and we would massage them or perhaps direct them down certain avenues that we thought were more powerful. The process was a constant evolution. It wasn’t a continuous production like a normal animated movie where you have the script and you draw it out and then fill it in. With Cops and Robbers we had different people working on different segments at different times, so it was filling in the blanks as we went along.”

Timothy: “We didn’t direct them in terms of style, but more in terms of how to tell the story in an authentic way. It was really important to us that they all brought their own individual animation styles so that they felt like it was a part of them.”

I understand that around 50% of the animators and post production professionals who worked on the film were Black. How important was that to you and how did you make that happen?

Timothy: “Yes, in fact more than 50% of the team are Black. It was important that we had that because although we have some beautiful allies from other backgrounds on this film there’s a difference between creating art from observation versus from personal experience. It’s through that personal experience that we were able to bring an authenticity to the way that we chose to tell this story. We have a historically Black college and university (HBCU) called Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland involved which has a visual arts animation program called SWAN. The students there were able to animate a segment within this piece. Another important reason that we had to make sure that we had many Black animators working on the film is because when we say that Black lives matter, it can’t just be a saying, it has to be an act. The act is to give these artists, who otherwise probably would not get the exposure that they deserve, an opportunity. The hope is that people from the animation world, when they say, ‘We just can’t find Black candidates to hire’ or ‘We can’t find Black post production people to hire’, I’ll say, ‘Well, start with Cops and Robbers, because if we can find these people, you can find them as well’. The hope is that other opportunities will come through this for them as well.”

In the sequence where we see the protest march I noticed a rainbow flag with the Black Power Fist, could you talk a bit about how that moment came about and also the importance of intersectionality when it comes to Black Lives Matter movement?

Timothy: “Well, I’m a gay Black man so I live in that intersectionality and I’ve lived there my entire life. In the section that you’re speaking of, with the Black Lives Matter, Black Power fist in front of a rainbow flag, all of those posters in that sequence are of Black women and Black trans women who have been killed by police. It’s very important that we shine the light on them because often in this movement the focus stays on the Black men who have been killed, which is important, but women and trans women have suffered by the hands of police as well. Black trans women and LGBTQ+ Black people in the community often have to face both aggression and discrimination from two sides of their life, their ethnicity and their orientation or gender identity, so it was very important that we had a section in this piece that honoured them and gave them some time in the light, so that other people are made aware of their journeys, their struggles, and their plight in life.”

Every element works so well in this film and combines to make something really powerful and the music is an important aspect. Could you talk about what you wanted from the score and also the beautiful song that’s in the film, both of which enhance things without overwhelming or distracting.

Timothy: “The score is thanks to a good friend of mine named Jerry Compere. He was able to take our visual piece and elevate it through his music. The way that it seamlessly dances with the piece, without taking over is amazing. It’s a delicate balance to make sure that they partner up in the proper way. There’s also a song in the film during one sequence that is a Negro Spiritual called Soon I Will Be Done and it was sung by the multiple Grammy Award winner Brittany Howard, who we were so honoured to have as part of the film. We reached out to her manager Christine Stauder with an earlier version of the film, and Brittany watched it and within a matter of a few hours she said yes.”

Arnon: “In terms of the music, obviously with the original non-animated video it was just Timothy reciting the poem and it was strong and powerful. For a long time we were working without any music at all, but I remember the first time that we put Jerry’s score to the animated film, and it was just overwhelmingly incredible. It was just a sense of, this is it, now it’s complete.”

Timothy, what are your thoughts on how different this animated version is to your original video, what does it bring out in the work?

Timothy: “You know, it’s always weird watching yourself on screen. It’s a bit like recording your own voice and then playing it back, you’re always like, ‘Who is that?! That’s not me! That’s not how I sound!’ So, as grateful as I am that the original piece had the life that it did, I would say that the animation enhanced it because it became more of a collaborative piece. There’s something beautiful about collaboration because people get to share those moments with you and you get to converse about shared experiences as well as different experiences, and you find common ground and learn to appreciate ground upon which you’ve never tread before. Also, the animation was able to bring to life images that run through my head when I write, but when shooting raw film of just my face I’m not necessarily able to show those things and I have to allow those who watch it to interpret it for themselves. Even though with animation everyone’s still going to see it differently and take away from it differently. That’s the beauty of art. But to have this amazing group of partners on the animated film just blows my mind! I’m not a visual artist. Ask me to write my name in cursive and if I can keep it on the straight line then I’ve done a good job that day! So to see people be able to take a picture from inside my head and bring it to fruition for others to see is astounding to me, so I’m so moved by this animated version.”

Arnon: “In terms of interpretation, there were moments where Tim wrote a sentence thinking of it in a certain way, but then talking to some of the artists their takeaway from that same sentence made Tim think about his own writing in a new way.”

Timothy: “Yes, absolutely, and that’s exactly what it should do. As artists, when we put our work out there we have our own perspective and point of view, but other people’s perspectives should make us go back and look at our own work again and go, wow, that’s not what I was trying to say, but I guess I did say that didn’t I?! That’s part of your growth and art is always that bridge that unifies different perspectives. There’s something magical about it. I think about the gay community as a bunch of artists, whether we are professional artists, or whether it’s being an artist by putting on drag, they’re artists, and through that art, through drag, we’re able to bring other people into our world and to see our point of view and change their point of view at the same time.”

Jada Pinkett Smith came on board as an executive producer. How did that come about and what has her involvement meant for the film?

Arnon: “It got to Jada through some people who we knew and she came on when we were already in production. Initially it was just Timothy and I. As we were making it we sent it out to different people, just to get opinions and see if we could get any traction with it, but we certainly had no idea would go to Netflix. Our best bet was that we would put it out on social media and it would hit another viral moment and be seen by a few people. Lawrence Bender came on board as a producer first, Timothy had a relationship with him. He was blown away by it and when Jada saw it she was moved by it, obviously because of the subject matter and as a Black woman and as an artist. What she brought to the table was her voice and the message that we could create together. Timothy and I, we could create a beautiful movie that might only be seen by 500 people, and the difference of bringing somebody like Jada in and offering us her voice and amplifying the film is basically to spread the message in a way that we could never do on our own. Again, that’s the power of collaboration. There was no ego involved, it was basically Jada saying, ‘How can I help?'”

The film will have a global audience through Netflix, what does that mean to you?

Timothy: “Netflix is the perfect platform for Cops and Robbers. Even my mother has Netflix, and if she has Netflix in my book that means everybody in the world has Netflix! Netflix has been leading the way in giving a platform to a diverse group of people to tell their own stories. For instance, the holiday movie Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, I didn’t get that kind of movie when I was a kid. I didn’t get to see holiday movies with people that look like me as a child and now there’s a whole generation that’s going to grow up watching Jingle Jangle every Christmas season from now until to the end of time! With Netflix’s reach around the world they are able to amplify and spread the message of our film of bringing hope and the possibility that we as a nation will some day make right this original sin of racism and maybe someday there won’t be another hashtag of another Black man, woman, or child. Maybe there won’t have to be another march on the street just to say that my right to exist shouldn’t warrant any violence and that I should have space amongst my white brothers and sisters. So being on Netflix I think will help us get a step closer to spreading that message, to building our allyship and to continuing to march forward to a better nation.”

Barry Jenkins’ Oscar Best Picture winning film Moonlight (2016). Courtesy of A24.

One final question, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ culture or person? Someone or something that’s made an impact on you and resonated with you over the years?

Timothy: “One of my favourite films is Moonlight because for me it was the most pivotal moment where I got to see the story of Black men loving Black men. So often in our stories whenever there is a Black gay man that’s a part of relationship on screen it’s usually with another white guy as opposed to Black on Black love. We love to talk about Black on Black crime, but we don’t talk about Black on Black love. One of my favourite TV shows is Pose starring my dear friend Billy Porter. I was his standby in the original cast of Kinky Boots on Broadway, so I’ll also say Kinky Boots my favourite gay musical! My inspirational artist who I’m proud of is Lil Nas X for coming out and being true to himself. My favourite lesbian is Wanda Sykes! Favourite drag queen is Bob the Drag Queen!”

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994). Courtesy of MGM Studios.

Arnon: “One of my favourite movies is The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I love that movie so much, it’s just beautiful, it’s emotional, it has everything. My own connection to the gay community stems from when I was a child growing up in the 1970s in London. We were part of a hippie community and it was incredible. One of our family’s friends was a gay man, Jonathan Walters, who was like an uncle to me. He lived with us and he was openly gay at a time when it wasn’t popular to be out. I remember being eight or nine-years-old and my brother and I would go marching with him on gay pride when it was a smaller community. Then when I went to college, I didn’t have a place to stay and he was a lecturer at Cambridge University and allowed me to stay in his apartment, which was part of the London gay housing association that he founded. Unfortunately, he died about 10 years ago from complications due to AIDS, but he is a person that is very close to my heart. Marching for gay pride when I child is still part of who I am as a straight man who is an ally, because for me it’s all about allyships.”

By James Kleinmann

Cops and Robbers, co-directed by Arnon Manor, written, performed and co-directed by Timothy Ware-Hill, premieres globally on Netflix on Monday December 28th 2020.

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