Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting, Dui Jarrod, an ultralight beam of optimism, infectious laughter and radiant passion for creating media content. I was so impressed and heartened by Jarrod’s pure love for his craft, but also his desire to share his love and knowledge with as many black creatives as he can possibly reach. Upon further research, I found pure gold — a recording of a talk he did for Bric Media Arts, a Brooklyn based media organization, in partnership with New Voices in Black Cinema and the ActNow Foundation, Inc. This quite honestly should be required viewing for every working/aspiring filmmaker or media content creator.
Jarrod has all of the makings of a star. Everything I’ve learned about him through our conversation, his work, his sage philosophies about creativity and navigating the industry all have one thing in common—their authenticity. It’s no wonder his work stands out and caught the attention of BET, who smartly picked up his award-winning web series, brooklyn. blue. sky, (which he co-created with Rhavynn Drummer) in an effort to expand their presence into the interactive digital space. He will soon begin production on a new web series called King Ester, which tells the story of a transgender woman pursuing acting aspirations, set in New Orleans on the cusp of Hurricane Katrina. It was a treat talking to Jarrod about both the creative choices for brooklyn. blue. sky, as well as a bit of what we can expect from King Ester.
brooklyn. blue. sky tells the story of two estranged exes, Blue (Michael Oloyede) and Skylar (Jenelle Simone), who decide to put their complicated tangle of past issues aside to create a script together for the "Netflix and Chill" TV pilot competition. Inevitably, tricky past issues arise. Jarrod's filmmaking history serves him well, as the series feels cinematic in tone and visually well-conceived. The characters are rendered with authenticity and have amazing chemistry on screen. The casting process caused Jarrod and Drummer to closely examine why they were making the choices they were making. Having to consider whether a character is “best for the role, or do we want her to be that representation, so we’re not giving apt criticism?” This issue is unique to filmmakers of color. Ultimately, Jarrod knew he had to simply cast the actors who were best for the roles.
According to Jarrod, this is an exciting time to be creating content in the web series medium, for several reasons, "It gives you the creative freedom to do whatever you feel like you want to do, while still being able to maintain a relatively inexpensive budget in which to do it." In addition to the creative freedom web series' engenders, "they are beginning to be monetized," explains Jarrod. He used to perceive feature filmmaking as the only way to make money from his art and now recognizes the web series as a potential lucrative means of creating media.
He is rapidly ascending to the ranks of the black creative community he’s been so inspired by—a movement in which folks like Ava Duvernay, Kenya Barris, Issa Rae, Donald Glover, Jordan Peele and many more are masterfully reclaiming narrative control of black stories and how (they) are portrayed on screen. I know that at the end of the day, l cannot help but write from my heart and my talk with Jarrod affirmed that no matter what category of creativity we occupy, it behooves us to fully inhabit that space with all of our heart for this is what brings forth the most authentic and necessary work.
The In-Depth Discussion (which has been edited and condensed for clarity):
Nella Fitzgerald: One thing that stood out to me about brooklyn. blue. sky is that it's so engaging and it feels so real. I just got really absorbed in the storylines and almost forgot that I was watching a show. I’m really interested in how you were able to create so much authenticity in such short episodes. There was really quick character development, and a lot of it, in a short period of time. But you kind of have to not make that seem forced or contrived. What was the process for you of creating these characters?
Dui Jarrod: I just took a really different approach in creating their psychological issues first and constructing all the stuff around who they were to figure out who they are and what I wanted to say in the story. So, I wanted to talk about a woman who has been dealing with cancer. I started doing research on cancer patients and some of their psychological issues, because that's what you're really seeing at work...the psychological arc of their journeys. So it was totally different as far as how I constructed it. I'm glad that it feels authentic to you.
NF: I love that you're showing so many different aspects of the experience of being black in this country. It's not just poverty or struggle. It's not always socio-economic struggle. We deal with other things. So I noticed in this first season, there are a lot of interior shots, like in an apartment or a kitchen. Do you think that going forward is there a vision of Brooklyn being more of a character in subsequent seasons?
DJ: That's absolutely the plan, the problem is, we were shooting in the snow. (laughs). It's just too damn cold to have this conversation outside, so let’s move it back inside. That was really what the issue was, but we really wanted to make Brooklyn a character as much as Blue and Sky. So hopefully in the second and third seasons, we will been able to do that.
NF: So my 50-something-year-old uncle had mentioned BBS to me at a Christmas party over the holidays and that got me thinking about demographics. Did you have a vision of what the audience would be for this work?
DJ: There really wasn’t, in my mind. I think with all of my previous projects, I plotted everything out, and I thought about everything from such an analytical place. A human story, it doesn't matter what age you are, you can participate, so I just decided to throw everything out the window, create the series for what it was and just see what came of it. So that was the biggest challenge to me on this project, but that was also the way that I wanted to approach it.
NF: I think one of the things that works best for the series is the acting. It seems like you've pulled together a group of really versatile actors. They do drama very well, but then they all seem funny as heck! So what was the casting process like? Did you work with actors you already knew, did you call in a casting director and have them handle that end of things or did you do the casting yourself?
DJ: The co-creator Rhavynn Drummer is also a casting director so she did it. We did it in tandem of course, right in NYC. We did this in the beginning of 2017, and it was part of my process for the year to have full on openness and just receive whatever comes to me. So that's how we did it with the cast as well. We just totally put it out there and those were the actors that came and auditioned.
NF: There are three episode in particular that really affected me. In, "Writer's Room," Blue and Sky are having this debate and at one point Blue says, “We have to create in this vacuum of the white gaze." It felt very meta to me. It almost felt like I could see you and your co-writer having a conversation in which some of these feelings came up. I wanted to know how much you identify with what the characters are saying and on what side of that do you fall? Were actors serving as a mouthpiece for your opinions on what it means to be a black creative and in this current media climate?
DJ: One hundred percent. YES! I wrote that episode specifically, and you know, as creatives we are always fighting with ourselves. We are fighting with ourselves about what we want to do as well as what we know is to come. And then in that same moment, we will talk ourselves out of it . The only time we get a chance to get that forward movement is when we talk ourselves in and don't give ourselves a chance to talk ourselves out. Then of course, we are dealing with the errors and the mistakes that goes along with it, but usually you are very satisfied on the other side of it because at least you did it.
I wanted to really construct a narrative and a counter-narrative, where both characters absolutely make sense in the varying arguments, but the answers to the argument were that we still have to make the work that want to create.
NF: There was an episode that felt like it was straight up out of Black Mirror. It had critical eye on technology and social media that made me feel uncomfortable and squirmy. It was the episode when Giselle was on Facebook Live and she was just letting her life be seen in the public sphere. It felt intentionally unclear as to whether Giselle (La Rivers) was acting for her Facebook audience, or whether she was sucked into the matrix of the social media. I wanted to hear what you had to say about the development of that episode and what the criticism or commentary on social media is behind the episode.
DJ: I'm so glad you liked that episode because I did want to take a detour and had found Black Mirror after I created this season. So I connected those two dots as well after I watched Black Mirror. And I personally, I think the actors’ choices were very similar to the way I constructed that episode. I wanted it to be how we consume media. So Giselle, if you look at her the entire series, she's always inside her phone. But the one moment when she's truly having a sincere and serious conversation, she's still in the process of sharing it. I think has its own separate problems and issues to come as far as that's concerned, but I did want to do an episode about how we overshare on social media and everything is not for the public's consumption. Then that's also when you get to see that Blue is pretty much kind of an asshole and you get to see an honest conversation. So then you can exactly see what Skylar has to go through with. When it's serious and it's time to talk, Blue walks away. I hate throwing back, I always like to throw forward. So this was saying that Blue always walks away when he's challenged, which a lot of black men do. We hate to be challenged and we walk away.
NF: Women, often times, are willing and ready step up to the task of communicating and hashing things out. That is when we are met with silence and abandonment.
DJ: Nothing is constructed without foreshadowing, so the first season is just a foreshadowing to the possibilities of the second and third and while we are in control of that, that is what we are really going to deal with. So we are showing all this behavior, all these psychologies, all these emotional rifts in these characters and then we are going to actually explore them in seasons to come so that's one thing. I can't wait for people to know exactly why Blue is the way he is, because black men have been conditioned to be like that. Because we've been told to be strong to be men, to not have emotions. So when we are emotional with the women that we love and she does something to challenge us, we see it as a threat or competition, if it's a competition and you can't win, you leave. That's what we do. That's how it goes.
NF: That's so interesting. I'm really looking forward to next season and beyond. Did BBS start off as a web series from its inception or were you thinking of doing it in a different format and then decided it would be better as a web series?
DJ: Nope, it was always going to be a web series. So I made a feature film back in 2011, and I just had a lot of challenges with that and really didn't do anything for like 4 or 5 years. because of that feature film experience. I also was at a place where I wanted to affirm to the universe what I wanted to do. I started seeing so many black creatives doing such amazing work and I was like, I want to be a part of this industry. And so we decided to go into the episodic space by creating a web series in order to show people that I could construct a story, that I could really flesh out characters, that I could show you a beautiful creative vision, you know from nothing. So that was the goal to really just try to affirm my career as far as being able to tell episodic stories.
NF: I’d like to shift gears to talk about your latest work, King Ester. Ester is such an interesting character! Can you tell me a bit about the process of creating her? Why did you decide to make her a transgender woman?
DJ: She is an extremely interesting character. The process of me creating her was really as a result of another play that I had written called “The Inevitable Sadness of all Things Good.” Whenever people would read the play, or whenever we would do live readings, people always talked about Ester. They thought she was such an interesting character. So I really decided to write her story as merely an exercise. It really wasn’t anything other than me trying to exercise my skills and abilities as a writer to write a story that was completely unfamiliar. From it, I found this emotional truth that I couldn’t deny. I was forced to then deal with my own bias. I was forced to deal with my sexuality in a way that I had not before, to deal with myself in a way that I hadn’t before and realize that even I personally had to do some things in order to grow. So the evolution of that character was a lot.
NF: Why do you feel it’s important to tell this story at this time?
DJ: One, because I really am afraid to tell it. I never felt fear in telling anything, but a part of that is I have written everything within my own lens, so when I take the lens off of myself and I have to go create someone else’s truth, that really just bred a lot of fear in me and I think that’s 100 percent reason why I should tell this story. Also, when you look at it (these are) daunting statistics for transgender women...black women, especially transgender, black women. If I don’t help add to the narrative, I feel that very few will.
NF: There has been some controversy about the NBC show, Rise, which is an adaptation of the book, Drama High. Do you feel that King Ester will have any similar controversy?
DJ: Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about how King Ester is going to be received. Black Twitter is real and you ain’t doing shit if Black Twitter ain’t coming for that ass. think there is and has been a persistent outcry, of ignoring themes. Black people are quiet when things become uncomfortable. And we don’t know how to voice comfort and openness. So I think in one sense, this is going to be very well received, that people are going to support it and be open. But I think in another sense, people are be absolutely challenged to be able to see Ester for her absolute truth. I do anticipate some kind of controversy from it, whether it comes from the trans community and their reflection or them even feeling like I have (or don’t have) the ability to even tell this story. The potential for that is always there, but criticism is inevitable and I recognize that. When you make work, you’re also going to be challenged with that work, but you have to make it in absolute truth.
NF: The producers of Rise released a statement saying that they worked with GLAAD to create authentic LGBTQ storylines. What was your research process like to create an authentic transgender female character?
DJ: I’ve done a lot of research, I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve watched a lot of documentaries, but also in the process of making this, I’ve consulted with a lot of transgender groups. I’ve gone and planned to more meet-ups have more conversations, I’ve let them read the piece. So I didn’t do this without them in the lens. And I think that is partially probably what the reason is with Rise. So, I’ve really involved the transgender community in the telling of this story.
NF: I love that you set it on the cusp of Katrina in New Orleans, which has become a tragedy that is forever embedded in the fabric of the story of America. I read that you create stories about the power of human connection in the landscape of modern America. King Ester is exemplary of this overarching theme of your work.
DJ: I feel that New Orleans is where I first met transgender women. The first time I ever even knew what transgender meant was an experience I was having when I was in New Orleans. Even then at that time, New Orleans was pretty violent towards the transgender community yet at the same time, there was a space for them to do sex work on Tulane Avenue. So I thought just that in itself was just this crazy dichotomy that I didn’t understand and so when I wanted to tell Ester’s story, the only story I could tell was through the side of the overall New Orleans story. So I think that’s the significance of her being from New Orleans.
A large part of what drives Jarrod’s creativity is his commitment and drive to add his narrative voice to the canon of black media content creators and have complete control over that narrative. This deep sense of empowerment has enabled Jarrod to make bold creative choices always rooted in authenticity and truth. Armed with anecdotal and industry examples of how black content creator can be successful powerfully tell their stories in an industry that for too long, chosen to ignore or erase them, Jarrod will take to the stage for a one-man show. “I’ve got some stories I want to tell on the stage," he said.
After talking to Jarrod and experiencing his work, it is clear that he will be telling important, soulful, thought-provoking stories for many, many years to come.