Lanre Olabisi is a Nigerian-American writer and filmmaker who has made two feature films, ‘August the First’ and ‘Somewhere in the Middle’.
Combined, his films have screened at over 75 film festivals around the world, including the SXSW and the Karlovy Vary.
His work has won the top prize in ten international film festivals and has also been nominated for an IFP Gotham Award as well as a Black Reel Award.
His latest short film, ‘A Storybook Ending’, is based on his feature film screenplay of the same name which is currently in development.
Most recently, he was selected as a fellow for the 2020 HBOAccess Directing Program.
Here, he talks about his latest offering, and more. Excerpts:
Weekend Magazine: How did you feel about ‘A Storybook Ending’ after you completed the script?
Lanre Olabisi: I clearly thought it was the best thing that I had ever read in my entire life.
WM: The film is a picture of how devastating it can get for black folks, particularly in a country like the United States known for police brutality based on colour, when they find themselves in a tight spot where they have to choose between reporting to the police or hiding a crime. What felt most important for you to achieve in the directing process?
Olabisi: Years ago, I read something by Brandon K. Thorp in The New York Times that struck me: “In the history of the Oscars, 10 black women have been nominated for best actress, and nine of them played characters who are homeless or might soon become so.
“Black men have been up for best actor 20 times.
“In 15 of the 20 films, the nominated performances involve violent or criminal behaviour.
“What they’re not full of is characters who resemble ordinary people.”
I think of this quote every time I am about to make a film.
I grew up in a middle-class African-American community in New Jersey that was free from drugs, violence, and poverty.
My father has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering and my mother is a medical doctor.
Growing up, I was bothered by the fact that I rarely encountered a black character like myself – an ordinary person facing ordinary problems.
With each film, I grapple with how to represent people of colour in the most authentic and truthful light possible.
When I wrote and directed my first feature film, ‘August the First’, I was determined to move beyond cliché renditions of African-Americans in cinema.
‘August the First’ showed a middle-class family in the suburbs of New Jersey, dealing with surfacing family secrets.
The characters in the film consisted of a nuclear family – half Nigerian, half African-American – challenged by the unexpected return of their estranged father.
The goal was to depict an honest portrait of an African-American family during a difficult period.
In my second feature, ‘Somewhere in the Middle’, I expanded my vision and examined the modern American city as I know it – full of people of all backgrounds: African-American, Latino, Asian, Caucasian, heterosexual, bisexual, and gay.
Even though the film was a radical stylistic and narrative departure from my first, my mission remained unchanged.
With ‘A Storybook Ending’, I wanted to place people of colour in a situation that I have never seen on-screen, inside of a neo-noir dark comedy, with some action sprinkled in, that’s also part social satire.
I thought that in and of itself would be an interesting commentary given the dearth of these types of stories in the marketplace.
I think that subverting stereotypical depictions, stories, and characteristics of people of colour was important for me while directing this film because it influences how we as humans view the world.
My personal mission is to show people of colour in ways that we have not seen portrayed on film, by not resorting to the usual expectations.
How we present people on-screen absolutely has an impact because it ultimately gives us richer stories.
I love seeing things that I have never seen or thought of seeing before. ‘Tangerine’ is one of the best films I have seen in years because it was such a truthful and honest portrait of a world that I never even knew existed.
I love that stories like this are getting made and I want to see more of them.
WM: How would you describe your experience directing the movie?
Olabisi: It was a rush because it was a culmination of what I had been working on for so many years in terms of both the feature and the short.
It also made me relive some of my own past experiences with the police.
When I was 14, I was riding my bike down the street and a cop pulls me over and frisks me because he said that I “fit the description” of someone he was looking for.
I grew up in a very quiet suburb in New Jersey, so that moment always struck me as odd.
Then when I saw what happened to James Blake back in 2015, all of those memories started to rush back.
For those who are unfamiliar with the story, James Blake is a retired black tennis star.
In 2015 he was standing in front of the Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City waiting for a car to take him to the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.
All of a sudden, and for no apparent reason, a plainclothes police officer tackled Mr. Blake to the ground without ever announcing himself.
The officer later claimed that he “fit the description.”
I’m 6’2, 240lbs. I wrestled at the University of Michigan. I practice jiu-jitsu. I know how to defend myself.
This incident actually scared me because I have always been acutely aware that I may just “fit the description” once again someday.
This led me to ask myself a slew of questions that all started with: what if?
Exploring these questions in the film was wonderful and it is interesting to see the response that people who have seen the film are having.
WM: What would you say were the major challenges you encountered in directing ‘A Storybook Ending’?
Olabisi: The editing was probably the most difficult challenge.
It took a long time for us to find the right tone.
Sometimes we would veer into territory that was way too serious and other times it would be too comedic.
We wanted to strike the right balance to keep the audience on their toes.
At the end, I think we accomplished that, but it took a lot of work to get us there.
WM: What are you working on at the moment?
Olabisi: The short is actually based on a feature film screenplay. I was looking to raise the profile for the feature film script.
I saw what Damien Chazelle did with the short film for ‘Whiplash’ which ultimately led to an amazing feature, so I was hoping to follow in his footsteps and I cut the feature script down to a tight, compelling short.
I am excited about actually making the feature.
This screenplay is the most personal story I have written to date, which may seem odd, given that my first feature, ‘August the First’, is highly autobiographical as well.
However, everyone in ‘A Storybook Ending’ is based on real people that I knew while I was bartending in NYC many years ago.
I also have a couple of other projects that I am developing as well, but the feature to ‘A Storybook Ending’ is where my focus lies right now.