Spotlight on a Sundance Producer: Jesse Williams
The 2012 Sundance Film Festival was not Jesse Williams’ first experience at Park City. Many years ago, while working as a teacher in Philadelphia’s public charter system, his first screenplay was a finalist in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
“Years ago I was a high school teacher, writing a screenplay during my lunch breaks,” said Williams. “I submitted it to Sundance and it became a finalist in the Screenwriters Lab. The script was well received. I knew then I needed to follow my creative desires, I didn’t want to look back at my life and say ‘What if?’”
After a bit of soul searching, Williams decided to leave teaching behind and headed to New York. While he had no desire to pursue an acting career, a chance meeting with a commercial agent he knew from his youth shifted his creative path. Williams found himself cast in a number of television spots, eventually leading to the role of Dr. Jackson Avery in “Grey’s Anatomy,” and a lead in Joss Whedon’s upcoming “The Cabin in the Woods.”
As his career in front of the camera blossomed, Williams found himself longing to have greater involvement behind the camera. He revisited his Sundance Lab screenplay and, with producing partner Aryn Drake-Lee, began developing new scripts to produce under their production company, farWord, Inc. Before long, they found their first project.
“I learned about Question Bridge from Hank Willis Thomas who is a great artist in his own right,” said Williams. “When I left teaching it really did leave a void in me. I found this project filled that void – I was missing that kind of role in my life.”
“Question Bridge: Black Males” got its inspiration from a museum exhibit created by Chris Johnson entitled “Shut Up & Listen.” The exhibit invited patrons to watch black high school students as they spoke freely and expressed themselves without any inhibitions. The patrons received a different perspective of the youngsters by listening to them voice their thoughts, dreams, and perceptions of the world. Johnson saw the potential of expanding this idea and exposing an audience to the black male experience. Working with fellow artists Hank Willis Thomas, Kamal Sinclair and Bayeté Ross Smith, they began to create a documentary. While conducting interviews they realized they wanted to create a more of a conversation between the subjects and the viewer.
Before long, Question Bridge evolved into a multi media installation piece. During the summer of 2011, Question Bridge producer Kamal Sinclair reached out to Williams and farWord to join the project.
Question Bridge features a continuous dialogue between black men of different ages, educational backgrounds, and lifestyles. Each subject is shown a series of questions posed by a previous interviewee. Then a camera is set up and the subject is interviewed, having the opportunity to answer the questions they heard, as well as ask new questions. The videos are then split into five channels which are projected on a screen imbedded into five ten-foot tall pillars. The pillars are placed in a semi-circle, and viewers are invited to gather around the screens as the videos rotate presenting a question on one pillar and an answer on another, creating a conversation the viewer witnesses.
“We don’t correct the grammar of the speakers, we just bring the camera in and let people speak,” said Williams. ““It’s really a unique. As black men, we are complex and varied in this dialogue. It’s interesting because there is a comidification of blackness in our society, while simultaneously the black male is the most feared in our society. The viewer becomes a privileged witness: they can watch, react, absorb and gain new footing on what the black male experience is all about.”
Question Bridge: Black Male appeared at Sundance from January 19th – 29th and was met with great support by The Blackhouse Foundation and festival attendees. The exhibit is also touring at various museums around the country, such as the Brooklyn Museum, Oakland Museum, and Utah Museum of Contemporary Art. As the exhibit tours, Williams is working on expanding the project through the use of social media platforms and public kiosks by the summer of 2012.
The Question Bridge production team is working with a trans media partner to build kiosks throughout the country. Posters will hang at the kiosks with a number of questions that can be answered and a QR code that will automatically direct the visitor to a social media site where they can answer the questions. An interactive map will simultaneously indicate where participants are asking and answering questions. Looking further into the future, the Question Bridge team would like to explore other social groups that are frequently misrepresented, such as immigrants, the gay/lesbian/transgender community, and high school students.
While there is still funding to secure for future Question Bridge endeavors as well as the logistics of working with institutions that want to house the exhibit, Williams has initiated new productions under the farWord umbrella. He’s also maintaining his acting career full time.
“It’s exhausting but so exhilarating,” said Williams. “I’m returning to round table conversations, and initiating a dialogue on how to build something from scratch. I’ve been meeting with such accomplished people: Robert Redford, Quincy Jones. It’s helped me learn how to be a better delegator. I’m learning way more than I’m turning out.”
To learn more about Question Bridge: Black Males, visit: