Tonight at Dawn and our crew are working on the third phase of filming for The Nigerian School Project documentary. Here are some images from filming at founder of The Nigerian School Project Dena Grushkin’s home with the talented Michael Scotti and Neil Grabowsky (Jersey Nerds). Kickstarter video coming soon!
Mavis Staples often starts out a performance with a whisper to bandmate Rick Holstrom, “I don’t have much tonight.”
But a few songs later she’ll turn around to him and exclaim, “I got it back!”
Staples didn’t need to get it back on Friday at the Wellmont; she brought it.
After cheering her performances on screen during the documentary, Mavis!, the MFF audience gave her a minute long standing ovation. She and Colbert then jumped right into a lively, crowd-pleasing banter.
Through interviews and performances, Director Jessica Edwards created a tribute to the master of soul, R&B, jazz, gospel, rock and blues. Mavis! tells the story of the Staples’ tightly woven family and their progression singing gospel for congregations and then follows their evolution through multiple generations of music. On screen, music industry heavyweights such as Bob Dylan and Bonnie Raitt praise the Staples’ influence and Mavis’ transformative voice.
And everybody loved ‘Pops’ Staples. Even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mavis’ father had experienced the brunt of segregation in his southern upbringing and on tour during the Civil Rights Movement, his family also endured it. After hearing King speak, Pops was inspired to write freedom songs and told his children, “I think if (King) can preach it, we can sing it.”
Today, Mavis carries his inspirational spirit in her voice and his familial love in her heart, “Pops taught me that the family unit is the strongest unit in the world.” These are not just words to her; older sister Yvonne always travels with her. Moreover, Mavis has expanded the definition of family to include her band and dear friends. She holds a similar sentiment for Wilco’s Tweedy as he has become a close collaborator in her renewed solo career.
Thank You For Being.
Stephen Colbert warmly welcomed Mavis Staples into their conversation by simply thanking her “for being.” Having worked together in the past, there was an easy affection between Staples and her “friend and brother.” Over the hour, they fluidly transitioned from serious themes to cracking each other up to an impromptu duet of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walking”.
After a spout of laughter from the audience, Staples teased, “What’s the matter with them?”
“They just love you, that’s all. They’ve never seen anyone make me quiet for this long.”
As few people can, Colbert broached topics with a mix of humor and reverence. He apologized when he brought out notecards for his questions, “I’m afraid I’ll forget because I’m too enchanted.”
Staples spoke about growing up with other musical greats like Sam Cooke and Curtis Mayfield in what they called Chicago’s “Dirty Thirties” between 33rd and 35th Streets. Colbert followed up, “Can you do gospel and be bad? Were you bad for gospel people? Because you sure were sexy; was it okay to be sexy and do gospel?”
Even on a more serious subject, Colbert made Staples giggle. He asked her how she had once “accidentally integrated” a laundromat in Mississippi, “Did you do a load of colors and a load of whites at the same time? That’s bold.”
Staples laughed, “Col-bert!”
It’s Still the ’60s . . .
Colbert and Staples spoke more about her having to walk a “fine line” in the South during the Civil Rights Movement. He paraphrased her father’s guidance to “not stir up any trouble,” but to “not let anyone push you around.”
At Colbert’s prompting, Staples also reflected on their freedom song’s contemporary relevance, “All the songs that I sing fit today . . . it’s still the ’60s as far as I’m concerned.” Staples continued, “When we first started singing protest songs . . . we thought we could change the world. Man, we did pretty good, but not everybody got on board.”
From freedom songs and gospel to the blues and rock n’ roll, Mavis Staples sings across genres without a day of formal
training. She said that when she works with a new producer she always tells them, “if it’s too high, bring it down; if it’s too low bring it up and eventually it’s right in there.”
Colbert quipped, “That’s the Goldilocks method of singing.”
Perhaps Staples crosses genres so easily because she doesn’t see a big difference between them. She demonstrated as the audience clapped along, “Jesus gave me water, Jesus gave me water,” and then she switched it up, “My baby, he gave me water . . .”
But even Staples had once resisted going to clubs because her hero Sister Mahalia Jackson did not perform in them. As always, though, Pops had a way of changing her mind by giving her purpose; “Ok, Daddy, I’ll take the church to the club.”
In appreciation, Colbert responded, “You’re taking the church to us.”
Sex can be a taboo conversation as it is…so how do you get people to open up about their experiences in a sex industry fraught with illicit activities, shame, denial and fear?
Director Jane Wells shared a bit of her approach and experiences in interviewing prostitutes and pimps for the documentary, Tricked.
3generations tells vulnerable people’s stories by encouraging them to tell their own stories. Allowing folks to be the “authors of their story” along with maintaining ongoing relationships has helped the nonprofit to build trust and mitigate exploitation.
For instance, Wells has known Danielle, a former sex trafficking victim, and her family for 5 years. In Tricked, Danielle details her experiences from the time she was trapped into the life by a man who had “boyfriended” her into it just after she started college. She explains that 2 weeks after the man had wined and dined her, “he pulled (her) into an alley and beat the shit out of (her) and said ‘get in the f…ing car and make my f…ing money'”.
“It’s like being raped over and over and over”.
Because of the relationships 3generations builds, Danielle willingly engages 3generations’ mission, “HEAR THEIR STORIES, DEMAND CHANGE”.
One of the film’s anti-heroes allows himself to be taped face on, “We can duck the question, but all women are either a prostitute or a whore”. The pimp goes on to draw a simple line between those who engage in sex for money and those who engage for free.
Whether they conceal their identify or not, the pimps profiled in Tricked are forthcoming.
They speak frankly about how they seek out women for their trade or the price of “pussy”. A Chicago pimp is so bold as to reframe his work with his prostitutes, “I just considers myself as a good person to these girls…cuz I’m gonna help with their babies, I’m gonna help these girls out with so much stuff you wouldn’t believe”.
Although Wells admits to some bias in editing footage on the pimps, yet, in allowing them to also be “the authors of their story”, 3generations enables us the opportunity to hear what is implied in many of their circumstances. Though Wells does not excuse their crimes, she does recognize that many of them have carved their existence out of poverty and a lack of opportunity.
I believe she would agree that she was surprised in the “compassion” she found for these disenfranchised men.
Speaking to one pimp, a man of color, off-camera, Wells casually asked him if he felt good that there was an African-American President in the White House. He looked at her and told her he doesn’t vote. As a Brit, Wells was not aware that convicted felons in the States are officially barred from the democratic process that we take for granted. “That’s tragic,” she lamented. And, so, the “Obama presidency means nothing to his daily existence”.
An “Endless Sequence of Story”
3generations even finds dimension within the antagonists in their documentation, and, many other narratives beyond each film.
“There are many, many other stories in a film like Tricked,” Wells told me; it’s an “endless sequence of story that I think needs to be told.”
In fact, 3generations has already shared the next story, Native Silence, which focuses on the “legacy of forced adoption on Native American children, torn from their tribal communities and placed in foster care and boarding schools”.
Whatever their subject they document from here, 3generations will be sure to help break the silence and “demand change”.
3generationsis a non-profit organization whose mission is to amplify the story of survivors through film “…as an act of healing and a call to action”.
It may seem as though Tonight at Dawn is on a bit of a hiatus, but I am feverishly working on new posts. This weekend, in addition to covering the festival for Millennium Magazine, I am also a proud member of the Montclair Film Festival photo and blog teams and am running around the town to cover incredible films and fascinating conversations. Here are some of the posts that you can expect over the next week or so:
-Reposts of my photos and blogs on the Montclair Film Festival from conversations with new late night host, Stephen Colbert to Kevin Smith to an incredibly diverse array of inspiring documentaries and entertaining films.
-Interview with my colleague, Dena Floyrzk, who is an incredible photographer and now the founder of two schools in Nigeria.
-Interview with Indian author, Vinay Rai, on his book, Think India, and the state of his country’s progress as a developing economy.
-Interview with a New Jersey chef on his beautiful and ecologically inspired restaurant, Pig & Prince, as will be printed in Millennium Magazine.
Interviews to be slated for the rest of spring:
-Dr. McCabe, graduate professor and autism expert.
-Australian author of proposal for the rehab of orcas in captivity
John Lugizamo at the Opening Night if Montclair Film Festival 2014.