Jay Ellis On Producing Horror Film ‘Black Box' And The Importance Of Championing Overlooked Voices
Let's reimagine a perfect world for Black actors in Hollywood. One where racial barriers cannot prevent our stories from being told. One where we can control our own narratives. One where we can redefine genres we’ve been shut out of. That’s exactly what Amazon Television and Blumhouse have set out to create with their new horror/thriller movie anthology, “Welcome to the Blumhouse.”
In an effort to amplify underrepresented voices and storylines in the horror/thriller genre, the eight-film series has sought out a slew of budding filmmakers and diverse talent both in front of and behind the camera. Among those recruited for the joint venture is award-winning writer and director Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., who helped bring sci-fi film Black Box to life.
The psychological thriller follows the story of widowed single-father Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) who loses both his wife and memory in a car accident. He then meets a wise neuropsychiatrist, Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who introduces him to a hypnosis-inducing device called the “Black Box.” The high-tech thriller then takes a haunting descent into Nolan’s shattered-psyche to unearth unsettling memories of his dark past that prompts him to question who he really is. Together, executive producers Lisa Bruce of Blumhouse and Jay Ellis and Aaron Bergman of Black Bar Mitzvah alongside director Osei-Kuffour Jr. developed this chilling story thanks to an early draft script written by Bronx native Stephen Herman.
Shadow and Act spoke with Ellis ahead of the film’s release, in which he shared his expectations for Black Box from a filmmaker’s standpoint, how the film is shifting nontraditional horror roles for Black and POC actors, the importance of uplifting Black voices, and more.
“It’s a whole different animal – I definitely think as an actor I take stuff less personal now,” he explained being a driving force behind the scenes for Black Box. “You see why people have to make the decisions they have to make on their side.”
Now working behind the camera, Ellis understands what it means to build a film project from the ground up. He said, “Getting to be on this side was a great educational experience. It was very uncomfortable in a way, and when I say that I mean the uncomfortability of figuring it all out and pieces not coming together exactly the way you want them to. In the moment it was an uncomfortable challenge, but I liked it. Getting to tell a story with a first-time writer of color – a young Black man – a first-time director of color – a Nigerian-American man – and this amazing cast, to help these guys tell a story and bring their vision for this film to screen, I’m honored to be able to do it.”
In regards to amplifying more unorthodox stories told through Black voices, Ellis told Shadow and Act exactly how his production company is working to open more doors for Black actors in Hollywood who struggle to break free from the industry’s standards.
He said, “Black Bar Mitzvah is my company. [Aaron Bergman and I] started it a couple years ago, and the mandate was very simple – how do we take worlds that we think we know and put them on their axis and show you a completely different point-of-view, an authentic point-of-view. It could be as small as Tulsa, Oklahoma where I’m from or as large as the galaxy, as long as we’re telling it from a point-of-view that you typically don’t hear that story from. And that tends to be people who look like us – people of color, Black men and women, Latinx men and women, Asian men and women, and so forth. We really wanted to champion those voices and give those filmmakers and storytellers an opportunity to get into rooms where, fortunately because of my work as an actor, I’m now able to bring people with me and hopefully start their careers.”
As Ellis explained, seeing Black leads in horror/thrillers is a rarity, but Black Box is proof that Black actors have the range to support such stories. With the help of Black Bar Mitzvah, Ellis and his team are making a valiant effort to be leaders advocating for more inclusion across the entire industry. “This film, bringing all these pieces together with a cast of people of color in a genre where we typically don’t get to see [us], 100% fits the bill for what we do and that’s across all genres – comedies, dramas, horror stories, etc.,” he told Shadow and Act. “When you watch [Black Box], know that you are a part of the future as well, because a lot of times we’re not in those futuristic stories. We can be in these kinds of genres of films, be entertained, and still connect to people whether they look like us or not.”
The themes weaved throughout Black Box’s plot is what makes the film concept such a complex narrative, especially as it ties in poignant messages we don’t often see from Black actors like father-daughter stories, loss, the effects of grief, and what we’re willing to do for love. “When you start talking about the story and its characters, some of the arc they go through, and their journeys, the first thing I think about is what are you willing to do for the people you love and how far are you willing to go?” Ellis shared. “That means that you may put yourself in danger or someone that you love in danger, and to see this young Black father with his young Black daughter to me was such a powerful thing. It shows me and hopefully, people will take away from it as well, that we will go to all ends to protect our families and keep our families whole like anyone else will. And any other narrative that you’ve been told is not true and did not come from us.”
Ellis revealed the many lessons and subjects outlined within Black Box as well as what viewers can expect to see from the film’s leading characters. “There’s the fun of identity and finding out who you really are in Nolan’s character, the theme of grief in Dr. Lillian Brooks and what that will drive her to do to bring her son back, and the theme of love for Nolan as it shows what he will go through to keep his family whole and his daughter safe.”
The purpose behind Black Box, according to Ellis, is to breathe new life in the thriller movie genre. The film’s directors and producers were able to accomplish this feat by recruiting familiar faces in the kind of roles we haven’t seen them in before. The most shocking addition to the cast is actress Phylicia Rashad who plays a cynical role that enhances the film’s mystery and suspense. “The choice to cast Phylicia Rashad in her role was fueled by a chance encounter between her and Emmanuel at a panel in Houston, where he expressed that he would love to work with her someday,” Ellis revealed. Prior to film production, he said “[Osei-Kuffour Jr.] wrote her a beautiful letter about what she has meant to him as our Black national treasure and telling our stories for us.” In terms of shifting expectations set upon herself, Ellis told Shadow and Act that Osei-Kuffour Jr. would “love to see her doing something that no one would expect her to do. It would flip the motherly persona that we’ve all put on Ms. Rashad.”
Over the last few months, the uproar of Black Lives Matter protests has set off a chain reaction across Hollywood where actors and executives have demanded equal opportunity and increased support for BIPOC. Much like its underlying theme, Black Box represents the radical nature in which we are defying the very expectations we are expected to live up to. The visionaries behind the film found a home for the twisted tale as it encourages a new conversation centered around the industry and how it will begin to shift to make room for the next generation of Black voices. “Fortunately for us, Blumhouse and Amazon were amazing partners because they never once questioned any of our choices in that way. They very much got it, understood it, and stood behind it. Prior to, we hadn’t truly had the support we needed to tell stories, but their support and resources helped Emmanuel tell such a beautiful story.”
Ellis hopes that the film’s message will resonate well enough with viewers that “we never hear the phrase nontraditional roles ever again.”
“As an actor that is something I’ve had to hear and read so much. Hopefully, we’ll get away from that,” he said. “It’s all fair game, anyone can be in anything as long as they’re true and authentic to that space and to that world and telling a story that calls for them as the actor. I hope that people watch this film and see themselves 5 minutes in the future, and don’t feel like we’re scrubbed from the future in this one. I hope it opens everybody’s view and scope just a little bit more into who can tell a story.”
Black Box is available to stream now on Amazon Prime.