Countless films have examined the pain and traumas of black, male adolescence. From Moonlight to Menace II Society, these stories have woven stunning tapestries, which unpack what it means to come of age as a black male in America. However, few films have provided a space of healing for their characters, allowing them to work through their pain to overcome their past.With her lush, 19-minute short, Feathers, director A.V. Rockwell presents Elizier’s (newcomer Shavez Frost) story. A new student at The Edward R. Mill School for Boys, Elizier must learn to release the anger and grief of his past, to press forward in his life and become the person he was always meant to be.
Tucked in the corner of a restaurant in the midst of the Toronto International Film Festival, Shadow and Act sat down to chat with Rockwell about her love letter to black men and what inspired her to capture Elizier’s story on screen.
“I am definitely frustrated. Generally speaking, there is just so much going on, and it’s not even anything new. Looking back over the decades at our relationship with officers, with the police force — this is a recurring thing. The proof is right there, but even that doesn’t feel like that is enough. It’s like the world doesn’t seem to give a damn about us, and that feeling is what Feathers is about,” Rockwell said. “Society doesn’t give a damn about you — whether you live or die. Our lives aren’t valued, and it definitely doesn’t feel like your life shares the same value as your non-black friend.”
“I thought, ‘I want to do something that addresses that.’ How does it feel to move through the world from such a young age, but already have that awareness or see a parent die?” she continued. “I thought about Philando Castile’s daughter; how does she feel to have seen her dad die viciously that way? Now she has to go through the world without a dad. Those images will be in her head with her for the rest of her life. Now she is being raised by a single mom. What is that going to mean for them, and in carrying all of this, what is that going to mean for her children, her grandchildren? How is that going to travel through the generations? I was frustrated by that, and thinking of their point of view,” the director explained.
“Using their story as an allegory experience, I really wanted to lift them and push the message: Lift each other. When the rest of the world seems to have let go, that doesn’t mean that you still should not care about each other,” Rockwell implored. “The black community should continue to push society to change, but we can also take steps among ourselves. We need to take a look at our traumas and the way we deal with them — and the way we can find a way out of them.”
In Feathers, as the boys play and fight in the background, the school’s headmaster can be heard making cold calls for funding. It was interesting to note that many of the people who answered his calls were pretty dismissive. When we asked Rockwell why it was so necessary to include those calls in the film, she explained how this played into her overall aesthetic.
“I think it was important in a few ways,” she said. “This is a young program — an experimental program. I really wanted people to see how this space — for these kids to be amongst themselves — was being created. That’s why he’s calling people to try to get money through whatever means,” Rockwell said. “But then, skepticism is coming from so many directions. I definitely feel like people might be initially defensive and apprehensive about it, whether it’s out of ignorance, or whether it’s out of a feeling like, ‘What is this about? What you’re doing sounds crazy.’ For me as the filmmaker, it was an indirect way for me to ask, ‘Who cares for black boys?'”
For The Gospel director, the setting and location of the school in Feathers was just as important as the message she wanted to convey. Shot in blue and green tones, the boys appear to be on some Caribbean island in the midst of rich greenery.
“I always thought it would be somewhere sweltering and tropical. That was always a very strong vision for me. New Orleans captured that scene for me. I was really nervous shooting around there, because it was my first time shooting outside of New York. But it really worked out. The weather was an issue, but it was on the lower end of the totem pole of issues,” Rockwell expressed.
“Creatively, I still wanted it to feel somewhat ambiguous, but I’m happy with how it turned out,” she said. “I definitely think the artwork represents the mood of the characters. For example, we used red when they were at the beach; I was very adamant about that, because I wanted to represent the rage and anger of black pain.”
Rockwell also discussed what motivated her to select Shavez Frost to play the main character, Elizier.
“I actually found him through our wonderful casting director. It was tough because I don’t know the community, and because, for them, just leaving their neighborhood was [like], ‘Oh, I can’t do that,'” she said. “Shavez specifically stood out, because I felt like he had such a strong, intense presence. It just felt like he had this grown manness about him. He had maturity in the way he handled himself. He also seemed so indifferent about being there — so disinterested.”
Everyone else was so eager or shy or whatever. He just had this aura about him like, ‘I have other things to do. I got to go out of here and get this money.’ He was very mannish. I was intrigued by the fact that he didn’t even care to be there. The way he answered certain questions, I was so impressed by him. Even during my time making the film with him, he made a ton of acting choices and techniques that were so sophisticated. I was pleased that there were certain things I could ask of him that were a little bit more mature and a little more challenging and he was able to get what I was going for and even take it further.”
Along with Feathers, Rockwell’s body of work consists of poetic, humanizing depictions of black urban life. We wanted to know what other stories she was interested in telling.
“For right now, I would say that I do feel a sense of urgency in the issues that we face. I’ve done a lot of stuff that is related to the black male experience. I really want to dive into what our experiences as black women, creating something that empowers us in a way I haven’t seen yet,” she said. “I am excited to dive into that. There is such a deep well of things to pull out. There are things related to our experience that I feel need to be addressed. It has been on my mind, and that’s what I want to do over the next couple of years. But once I feel I’ve gotten enough off my chest, I’ll feel comfortable stepping away.”
“I grew up reading people like J. K. Rowling,” Rockwell revealed. “So being able to bridge that with the world I’ve grown up in to create a new set of cinematic experiences is what I look forward to. I have a very child-like imagination, so being able to dive into that really excites me. I can’t wait till I have the opportunity to create something like that. It couldn’t be further from the work that I’ve done, but it’s very true to my heart. It’s the type of story I want to tell in the end.”
Source: YouTube: TIFF Trailers
Feathers premiered Sept. 13, 2018, at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.