By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
As she readies her first film, “Summer of Violence” for the American Black Film Festival in Miami Beach, Florida, later this month, actress, writer and director Nicki Micheaux recently chatted with The OBSERVER about her latest project, her love of film and preserving time for self and family.
“I’m really excited about it,” Micheaux said about screening the film at the festival June 14-25. “It’s been on my bucket list, my dream list of some things that I want to do. So I feel very, very fortunate to be able to share my film there.”
Nicki Micheaux’s credits include appearances on such series as “In the Dark,” “Shameless,” “Good Trouble,” “S.W.A.T.,” “Animal Kingdom,” “Lincoln Heights,” “The Shield,” “Six Feet Under” and the television version of “Soul Food.” She also starred opposite Halle Berry in the TV movie “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and opposite Kate Beckinsale on the silver screen in “The Trials of Cate McCall.” She previously wrote, directed, executive produced and starred in the short film “Veil.”
Q: I always wondered, are you related to the famous Black filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux?
A: As I moved to L.A. many moons ago, when I was first getting started, I was shocked that there’s this similar namesake and I thought, “Ah, this must be a sign.” But I have really no idea. No clue.
Q: You need to go on that genealogy show with Henry Louis Gates and find out if there’s some cosmic connection that led you into films.
A: I know, it’s funny. It’s just so interesting, because he was a trailblazer. What are the odds?
Q: You’ve got a lot of credits under your belt. Which do you prefer, television or films?
A: I love them both for different reasons. I love TV because you come into everyone’s home and you can really tell such a full story about so many characters. I just love that. And I love movies; I love that you can get in there and tell this big, epic story. I love going into a dark theater and just being able to immerse people into your world. It used to be a time back in the day, where film was more elevated than television, but those days are long gone. I mean, TV is just so good.
Q: There are so many options now to tell bigger or, as you say, elevated stories, and tell them in a different kind of way.
A: I really love the theater experience and I think there’s something about getting a couple hundred strangers or even 100 strangers in a dark room and having them all captivated at the same time. I love the collective experience of a film. I guess you can kind of duplicate it with people online, with something like Twitterverse, but I still think being out there together, there’s something special about that.
Q: What were some of the movies that you enjoyed coming up?
A: I’m all about “Thelma and Louise.” That was back when it was the only girl power movie. One of my other favorite films is “The Dark Knight.” And two things recently that really just were amazing movie experiences were “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman.” When “Black Panther” happened in the theater, it was just really phenomenal. And I remember “Wonder Woman” because I took my daughter and all of her friends. It was something to see. To see “Wonder Woman” really, fully realized and all those badass women. I got chills.
The reason why I make movies is, I want to create films that give someone else that experience. I just go into movies and lose myself. That probably has been one of my favorite pastimes since when I was a kid. I saw “Indiana Jones” at the Fox Theater, which was one of those big, old-fashioned theaters with the chandeliers. I remember just being captivated by that experience. I’ve been a moviegoer my whole life. To me, it’s like a gift; to give someone the gift of, “We’re going to let you escape for two hours and lose yourself in this world.” I want to be able to give that to someone else. I just think it’s amazing.
Q: The new live-action version of “The Little Mermaid” is doing extremely well, but filmmakers are seeing a lot of racist backlash for casting a Black actress in the lead role and for some of the other colorblind casting. What are your thoughts?
A. What we’re trying to do, all of us, as we make these projects, as we tell our stories, is a reset. A reset of what’s OK, a reset of what beauty is, a reset of whose story matters. It’s a massive reset. Let’s look at sort of the timeline of how long certain stories have been acceptable to tell. We’re days – minutes, really – into the process of telling our story. From a Black perspective, from a female perspective, from other races’ perspective, from the LGBTQ perspective, we’re just in the baby phases of telling these new stories. So, yeah, there’s pushback. But the important thing is that we just keep going. We keep telling our stories. We keep delivering our product to the marketplace because the people want it. The people want it and there’s room for all of us.
Q: What stories do you want to tell?
A: I’ve always liked those superhero, popcorn movies. I really do like sci-fi and thriller movies, but I really love telling stories about women in ordinary situations, women in fantastical situations – just all the different ways that we get to live our lives and show up. Stories where women are the central characters and tell the good, bad and the ugly of being a woman. That’s the stuff that really interests me right now as I learn more about myself and as I grow, I think it’s just telling stories that have moved me or that have taught me things.
Q: What have you been learning about yourself?
A: How not to be crazy. How to keep going. I’m a single mom of two kids and I’ve been very, very fortunate to have been able to make a living as an artist, gosh, most of my adult life. Being an artist, you’re up and down, there’s no security, it’s just all over the place. It’s crazy. Just being able to really learn who I am and be authentic to myself. I don’t mean for public consumption. I just need to be able to look in the mirror and be good with me. My main lesson is just being able to really, truly love myself in a healthy way.
Q: That’s a journey in itself.
A: Every day I try to think, “How can I be better? How can I be my best? What does it mean to be my best?” It’s this constant balancing act, particularly I think for women; we do everything, everywhere, all at once. If you have kids, you’ve got your kids, you’ve got your career, you’ve got yourself. If you have a relationship, or even if you want a relationship, you have all these buckets that you’re trying to manage. I always feel like as women, we just have way more on our plate than men. That’s just my opinion. So what happens is we end up shortchanging ourselves. It’s the age-old story where we put ourselves last. It’s about understanding and working out how to move ourselves to the front of that list, to take care of ourselves in a way that’s healthy and balanced and still be able to contribute.
It’s harder for me to be able to make this film at this point in my life. I don’t want to say it was difficult, but it just requires a certain nimbleness. Because my kids are in school, I’m still doing homework, my daughter’s graduating – I’m doing all those things and launching a production company and creating films. To get where you have to be, you have to figure out how to craft your life and your day to be a lot of different things. I know I’m a big fan of mindfulness, to be able to be my best throughout the day, so that’s the thing I’m always learning. I’m always practicing to be the best person that I can be. No, it ain’t easy living.
Q: Tell us about “Summer of Violence,” your directorial debut.
A: “Summer of Violence” is my first film. I wrote it several years ago. It is about this young girl graduating from college, trying to do her own thing, pursuing her dreams of being a poet against the wishes of her very controlling father, who has planned her life and she’s supposed to be going to law school. When she doesn’t do what he wants her to do, he essentially says, ‘OK, well, you’re on your own. I’m cutting you off financially.’ It’s about her trying to get through life. When she moves to Denver, it’s during the ‘Summer of Violence,’ which was the summer in 1993, when there’s this rash of gang violence and murders. She was living in this neighborhood in the middle of all of this violence. It’s about how you keep going forward, when the world is literally kind of crumbling around you.
I lived there in Denver during that summer of violence and it was a very traumatic summer, and I kind of created this fictional story inside of this real time period. I want to talk about it because at first I felt like, “Oh, it’s been so long, no one will care about 1993,” but as I watch what we’re all going through today, where you don’t know if there’s going to be a school shooting or someone shooting in somebody’s parking lot, or at the grocery store, or going to church, that I feel like we’re all still living in the Summer of Violence, because we are still, and how living in a culture of violence fractures the soul and what it does to you.
Q: You’re touching on themes that are still pretty relevant. And with all that Black people go through, we need to focus on healing.
A. I’m hoping we can find a way to a culture where we don’t have this type of violence, this type of stuff we all have to live with. I just wanted to share the story of, “Look what we’re doing to each other.” And for all the hell and craziness that life can throw at you, life is still beautiful. When you were dealing with racism and gun violence and the things that we’re all dealing with every day, it’s in our face a lot more than you think, and we’re still triggered. In spite of all of that, there’s still a lot of beauty and I want to try to highlight where the love is.
I feel like love is still powerful. Don’t count out love. I think that even though the story is talking about terrible things that can happen, there’s still room for hope. I think it’s important. That’s what’s carried me through. In the midst of all the things that I’ve been through in my life, it’s always bittersweet. It can be the saddest day, but then there’s still life happening. I’m a busy person and probably one of the things that I work at the most is stopping. Just sitting with my son watching TV and hanging out. You know, let’s eat this meal together. I’m so used to being go, go go. It does take effort to stop and appreciate little things.
Q: Remaking old TV shows and movies is popular right now. “The Jeffersons” was remade, “Steel Magnolias” got a Black cast, “The Little Mermaid” is earning a new generation of fans, and a new version of “The Color Purple” hits theaters in December. As a writer and director, are there any shows or movies that you’d like to put your own twist on?
A: It would be something like “Moonlighting,” the show back in the ’80s with Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd. I would love to remake something like that and I could play Cybil Shepherd’s role. I think it would be really, really fun to do. Who do you think could play the male role?
Q: Russell Hornsby. He played your husband on “Lincoln Heights,” but he’s also been in “Creed II,” “Grimm” on NBC and currently stars in “BMF” on STARZ. “Lincoln Heights” was a good show, but only aired four seasons. Not all good shows last. As you move into writing and directing, do you feel that you have more control?
A: That actually points to why I chose to partner with my partners Brian Mitchell and Johnny Wimbrey and the Wimbrey family to launch Three60 Films, so that we would have a production company so that we could create content, own the content and get it out there into the world. I think it’s really important that Black folks own our stuff.
We are not big enough players in the pipeline, and what I mean by “pipeline” is the studio system that gets the stuff out there to the TV. They determine which shows get picked up and which movies get seen and how broad and whatnot. If you don’t create your own media pipeline, you’re always going to be kind of seen through someone else’s lens and at the mercy of others. We need more of us making decisions financially and also on what gets put on the air. We need more of us in more positions of power. It’s about taste. Same thing for women: you need people who actually think these shows and movies are cool to say “yes” to them and get them out there into the marketplace. “Lincoln Heights” was a wonderful show. The network supported it for four years and that was all they wanted to do, but that show had legs like you wouldn’t believe. People loved that show.
Q: I know you’re focused on films now, but will fans still see you on TV?
A: I’m always trying to get TV shows off the ground, so don’t count me out.