Aml Ameen On Making UK Cinema History With Black Holiday Film 'Boxing Day': 'I Wanted To Uplift Black Women'
Photo Credit: Warner Bros. UK
Interviews , Film

Aml Ameen On Making UK Cinema History With Black Holiday Film 'Boxing Day': 'I Wanted To Uplift Black Women'

After hitting UK theaters, the new holiday film Boxing Day is now available stateside on Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Aml Ameen, The film is headlined by the actor/director, Aja Naomi King, and Little Mix's Leigh-Anne Pinnock in her feature debut. It also stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Tamara Lawrance, Sheyi Cole, Samson Kayo, Joshua Maloney, Lisa Davina Phillip, Claire Skinner, Stephen Dillane. Ameen also co-wrote the screenplay, which is inspired by the diary of Ameen’s life, with Bruce Purnell.

In the film:

Melvin, a British author living in America, returns home to London for the holidays to introduce his American fiancé (Lisa) to his eccentric British-Caribbean family. Their relationship is put to the test, as she discovers the world Melvin left behind revolves around his ex-girlfriend (Georgia), who is now an international pop star!

Ameen spoke to Shadow and Act about the film, making his directorial debut and telling such a personal story. He also talked about what the holidays mean to him and gave a scoop on his upcoming project Rustin, where he will be playing Martin Luther King Jr. alongside Colman Domingo and Chris Rock.

How did it feel like pursuing making this since this is one of the first, if not the first Black British rom-com?

There’s never been anything done like that in the UK, that’s what the pursuit was about. For a lot of Black British people, we looked to America for many years to get the diversity of storytelling…I was a part of the franchise Kidulthood, and obviously, Top Boy, but that tells one side of our story, which is the streets more than anything. And for us, we grew up on The Best Man, The Wood, Love Jones, you know…all these different films, and now my film marks the entry point into that type of genre, and so it’s very monumental. And to do it with Warner Bros. in the UK and released by Amazon Prime [Video] in the United States, it’s huge because our culture has been localized, like who we are. So Boxing Day is our film showing Black British opulence, showing successful middle-class people, so it means the world to me to have done it at this high level and have the audience really appreciate and love that they are being seen, and not just seen but that the film is dope that its a film they can visit every year. And that’s what I’m about generally, culturally as an artist, I want to create moments for an audience, so I felt honored to be able to do that with this. 

It seems the past few years, Black British culture has kind of crossed over into American pop culture with stuff like I May Destroy You, which you starred in. We're seeing a slice of Black British life, and seeing a culture that’s familiar but that’s so distinct and unique from what I know as a Black American. How does it feel going forward seeing that push and more Black British stories being told? 

It feels amazing. I think we're in a globalized world right now, we're all severely connected for better and for worse, and more for better than worse, to be honest. And what that means is that because of the internet and because of the platforms like Amazon [and] Netflix, people are searching for the truth of culture, and they're no longer being…like spoon-fed, just one particular way of seeing the world. So I feel really proud of that. I would even say [this is] the first time you’ve seen [everyday Black British life] internationally, you know? And so that's the reason I joined Michaela Coel’s [I May Destroy You] cast, because…she had a really good run with the first thing that she did. And this is going to really sing in terms of subject matter, but also just in terms of like the everyday life. People's everyday normal life is quite revolutionary. And so it feels amazing...I'm a part of that conglomerate of people that are really pushing the culture forward and taking chances and big swings.

There's a moment in Boxing Day, where the uncles are playing dominoes. And that was one of the most effective parts of the film, just seeing that, because, I could easily walk in one of my family functions and see that.

Yeah, man, it's crazy. Black culture is the same around the world, it’s just a different spin on it. I love that s**t.

It really hit me, but also, the differences, like the music that's playing in the background and what they're drinking.

Red Stripe.

Exactly. Can you talk about what went into getting all the authenticity represented and what it meant to put those little things like that in the film?

Yeah, man, it just demanded extreme specificity. You know, specificity becomes universal. I heard Denzel Washington say that recently. And I was like, 'That's real true.' Like, someone doesn't know you, before watching a film. You see Irish people drinking Guinness, you might go, I understand that I drink Corona, Jamaicans drink Red Stripe, but the specificity of it becomes alluring. Because you're like, "Oh, wow, that's what they do, that's what y'all do." And so to me, specificity was really important. And then even making it more granular with like, my specific family. So all of that's reflective of my home...the brown dominoes table, the Red Stripe, the Wray & Nephew rum, the debates about which rum is better--St. Vincent Sunset rum or Ray and Nephew, which a lot of other Caribbean people consider it like water…you've got the thing on the wall with the [passenger ship] Windrush--there's a poster on the wall...that's my homage to my culture. I believe it was in 1949, a lot of Caribbean people came over from the Caribbean to England, having been told the streets are paved with gold. So there's a shot of me and I say, "The streets are paved with gold." And that's kind of it's ironic and it's a little bit of a slight political statement[.] To have all of that messaging within the frames of the film was really important to me. 

And even down to the costume, I wanted to show Black people looking swaggy because mostly… when we export our British black culture, we're exporting us looking [stereotypical], us not looking like who we’ve become. [And we're] young professionals...they've got loads of money, all the rappers are making money... the actors are finally making money...we have risen as a culture. And we're kind of penetrating global culture as well. So it was very important to me to represent that for sure. And represent those specifics and the conversations. It's like the diasporas in the film. You got African American, you got West African, you've got Black British, Black British mixed race, and all of these different components that come into it...I love all of that sort of stuff and I'm a Pan-African person by nature. I love Black culture around the world, period.

The authenticity and how varied the diaspora is really comes off in the film in an effective way. What was it like directing and starring at the same time?

My focus really was, on directing. I thought to myself, "Have a real plan," so we didn't shoot into the wind. The film was constructed with a real plan attached to it. I knew the music that I'd be choosing, I knew the type of opening that I wanted. I would study old movies like Rear Window, [so] there's a shot of Aja Naomi King when we first introduce her, where she almost looks at the camera, and I've studied things that tell me that if a person looks at the camera, we kind of fall in love with them...And then tonally wanting to oscillate between humor, everyday life humor and, real conversations, [romance]…so there was definitely a lot of planning in it and a lot of pre-thinking. I studied a lot of films that I like. I mentioned Love Actually a lot because script-wise, the multi-generational love story aspect was an influence…another big influence on [Boxing Day] was Spike Lee's Mo’ Better Blues in terms of color and the moodiness and how [certain characters are]...there's a jazz cafe scene that I really kind of love in Mo’ Better Blues, so I kind of drew inspirations from that.

Having my vision from my mind from writing, going from the mental world into the written world and back into the physical world is an amazing experience. It's probably the closest thing I can do to giving birth, right? [laughs]. So I loved it. As an actor, it was fun for me to play something a bit light. A lot of the time when I'm asked to be called upon as an actor, it's like a role that has a lot of gravitas. It's good to have fun. Right now I'm playing Martin Luther King Jr. in Rustin with Colman Domingo and Chris Rock for Netflix and again it's quite a demanding role so it was really fun having fun with the other one.

I'll get you to expand on Rustin in a bit. I want to touch on the different characters in Boxing Day outside of the main two, your character Melvin and his fiancee Lisa (Aja Naomi King). For instance, the little brother Josh (Sheyi Cole)...His scene really reminded me of, Friday After Next with him getting chased with the Christmas music and then the 808's start. That instantly reminded me of that.

I love the fact that you caught that man. I love that. Thank you.

Also, Marianne Jean-Baptiste's character Shirley and Stephen Dillane's character Richard [have] their own space. It's funny like you said, the humor is there but then it's real conversations as well, so can you speak on their relationship and what you're going for there?

First of all, hail Marianne Jean-Baptiste. She's a legend and in the true sense of the word. She's one of the pioneers of Black British people ever being seen in the world. And I love her and she did me a good [favor] by being in the movie man, so I appreciate it forever. With her character and Stephen Dillane's character, it was beautiful. It was my desire to speak to love happening at three different stages of the human existence. So you have the young love [and] infatuation, right, which is kind of just like the butterflies, cloud nine, very dramatic. And then you have the stage of love where…you're having to grow up as a man or woman, and face responsibility, but also starting a future together, which is myself and Aja Naomi King. And then you have the love [from] what happens when it hasn't worked out, you know, when divorces ensued, or when you're a single woman, a single black woman specifically… and, how that materializes, and what you do with that love in your heart, and that desire to still be in a relationship, still have a partnership. What you do when you fall in love with someone from another culture, or another race and how it brings complications? There's a beautiful scene with Marianne and Stephen Dillane, and she's saying to him, "You know, I raised my kids in a difficult time, and during the '80s, in London, and you know…it was a very, very hard time in the '80s and '90s, in London with, you know, the National Front, we have the Teddy Boys, people getting killed, kicked...it was a really volatile time in the UK, where they just didn't want us there. And we're an ethnic minority group. [W]e're like…a small group. And so, you know, there's 60 something million people in the country and we make up two to three million people. 

And so, that moment in the movie speaks to all of that, too. She's like, under this pressure cooker, and she's hiding her relationship. But then there's Stephen Dillane, and he was just saying…“I love you,” And it's as simple as that. Life does get down to those simple things and I just wanted to speak to that. I wanted to uplift Black women that I know that been through that…where they've chosen a partner from another culture and it's been challenging for them. And so I wanted to just kind of say to them in this film, I see you and we love you.

About the holiday Boxing Day, can you explain how important is it to your family? And why it means so much?

When I moved out of the UK, I would come home every Christmas. My family is full of all the different religions so no one really gets together on Christmas Day. But Boxing Day man…we just have wild Boxing Day parties at my mom's house. It's just like, all the family comes there, the house is flooded...like 60 people. And then it's grown to like 70 people, and we listen to all the classic tunes and the new tunes and the young ones and it's just a vibe, man. It's just such a vibe. And to me, it's just a representation of that time where family comes together, and just goes "Yo, I missed you, man. How's your year been, man? How's life? What's the future looking like?"

I love Christmas time because it's the one period of time in the year where the government kind of gives the world off and goes "Yo, go to your families, and focus on that." I love that man. I'm a family man so that's what brought about [Boxing Day]... it was like me dancing at one of my family's parties and the vibe was just kicking off and I was like "This should be a movie!" And then when I started to develop it I was like..."As an actor, I've always played characters kind of distant from myself. Let me do something about my family, about my friends, about my culture. And let me be as raw and personal as I can be."

So, Boxing Day...if you wanted to get to know a bit of my story, it's kind of convoluted and fables and the timing is off and all the rest of it and names have changed-- but then as a personal story. I've been through quite a few of the things in the movie. I'm just not married yet. 

The movie gets at what you said, the joy of the holidays, seeing family, and all of that. But also the anxiety, the build-up. And then, you finally get there, and you see your family, then everything just kind of washes away, and you're just in a moment. So just directing that, and being able to show that to your family, what does that mean to you?

Well, we've had the premiere and it was amazing...it was special man. And it's forever in my life--no matter what I do, I've given that gift to my family for generations. And that's amazing. It's like [can say], “Yo, that is the story of your great uncle Aml Ameen.”

That's a very special feeling. Just one last thing. You talked about Rustin earlier. Can you talk a little bit about that? And your role is Martin Luther King, Jr.?

Yeah, I mean, I've learned so much about Martin. I knew quite a bit about him. But I've learned so much about the true weight of his impact. I learned that he was a genius. I learned that he was active in his genius. So there's a saying when he says, “To judge not by the color of skin but with the content of someone's character.” I've always heard that and I was like that makes sense to me, but it's more active than that. What he means is to delay judgment in life, period. So us as human beings walk around, and it's natural to judge. In fact, judgment some often is linked to survival. But to delay that judgment of any person and wait until you know the spirit and character of the person is such a profound experience. And in practicing that experience, I felt very euphoric [and] amazing. George C. Wolfe is brilliant. He's up there with my favorite directors I've ever worked with. Coleman Domingo is a fantastic leader. His performance is sensitive, raw, honest, and I'm just doing my thing to keep up man and just be a cog in the wheel of this beautiful story of Rustin.

Boxing Day is streaming now.

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