Kasi Lemmons is known for her writing and directing debut, Eve’s Bayou (1997), which was the highest grossing indie film of the year.
But her passion for film came at an early age, Lemmons was a child actor, and she said she knew even then becoming a director was her goal. “I wanted to do something more meaningful than going to auditions.” As a young kid, she got her first TV role on a local soap opera called You Got a Right, a courtroom drama on which she played the first black girl who integrated to an all-white school.
She performed with Boston’s Children Theater and later, attended NYU’s Tisch School to study acting, but transferred to UCLA to major in history. Finally, Lemmons transferred to the New School to attend their film program. “I went to film school to study cinematography. I really believe in film school. I feel very strongly about it, and I’m always telling people, when they ask for words of advice, to go to film school. It was some of the most fun I ever had in my life, and most people who go to film school will tell you that. It’s a fun place to experiment, and you get to crew all your classmates’ movies, which I think is really important. You get to experience different jobs—you know, “Hold that boom up!”—and when you get to the professional side, you won’t dismiss that person,” Lemmons said in an interview from The A.V. Club.
Eve’s Bayou, a Southern Gothic film set in 1960s Louisiana, not only received accolades when it premiered in 1997, but has grown to become a contemporary classic.
However, because Lemmons is an African-American director, some critics have wondered if the film was marginalized and not recognized by awards shows, specifically the Academy, because it was considered to be a “black” film.
In an interview with The A.V. Club from 2001, Lemmons gets into a discussion with the interviewer about whether there are films that are harmful to African-American filmmakers.
“The pressure of being an artist is that you feel you have to be brilliant. Every single thing that comes out of black film is not going to be brilliant, but the more variety there is in the marketplace, the better it is for the industry, and the better it is for the future of African-Americans in film trying to make different kinds of movies. And every once in a while, you’ll get something great or truly successful. I think that in the movie industry, you always have to look at success as being a good thing, whether or not you or I might like the film, you know? You have to look at success as being a good thing, especially for an African-American director, unless it’s reprehensible,” Lemmons said.
“Eve’s Bayou is a successful art film, but Scary Movie is a successful movie, and I think all of those things are important. You don’t want to downplay the significance of, say, Soul Food. Soul Food was a tremendous movie, a tremendous accomplishment for African-American filmmakers. I think it takes all of those films. We can’t all be making Gothic art films.”
She’s also a firm believer in incremental change in the number of African-American filmmakers. “I feel like I’m at the brink of a huge wave, and that we have to look at progress as incremental. There are more of us directing, even African-American women, so progress keeps getting made. But it’s never as dramatic as you think it’s going to be. It’s never a loud trumpeting, followed by a big huge wave of folks. I also feel that sometimes we have no choice but optimism. How can you go on if you don’t believe you’re changing things? Or that there’s even a possibility?”
In 2001, Lemmons returned with The Cavemen’s Valentine and then in 2007 with Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Talk to Me is a biopic of 1960s radio personality Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene. While serving time for armed robbery, Greene (played by Cheadle) became the prison disc jockey, which made him popular and well-liked by his fellow inmates. After being released for good behavior, in 1966 producer Dewey Hughes (Ejiofor) hired Greene to work as a DJ at the Washington D.C. AM radio WOL. Rapping with Petey Greene aired in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Greene told it like it is to his radio listeners and that’s what made him so attractive to audiences. A grandfather to today’s radio shock jocks, he influenced the likes of Howard Stern. Talk to Me’s first half is funny, but just as Petey is getting ramped up, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. takes the film in a more serious direction. In a stunning scene in the movie, Greene and producer Hughes leave the radio station together only to find chaos outside: mobs rioting in the streets and vandalizing storefronts. Greene and Hughes save a white store owner from a group of black men and that’s when Greene realizes he has to go back inside and use his power of speech to quell the rage in his community.
Taraji P. Henson is another great addition to the cast in the role of Petey’s girlfriend Vernell Watson. As the movie progresses, Hughes pushes Greene towards bigger and better fame, but Greene, who suffers from nerves and self-doubt, struggles with alcoholism and addiction. At one point, Greene admits that he would rather be back at their little radio station, WOL.
Ultimately, the film is about Greene and Hughes and the bond they share. Hughes starts out as the strait-laced corporate type and Greene the outspoken ex-con, but by the end of the film, those roles have almost reversed. Hughes becomes a disc jockey at WOL and after diagnosed with cancer, Greene steps out of the limelight, spending time with Vernell.
Lemmons wanted to tell the story of Petey Greene because, “it represented a way of speaking loudly. I was going through a period of frustration with what I was seeing both in my industry and in the greater world in just cautiously speaking, measured speaking, people scared of being labeled “un-American” or “unpatriotic.” I struggle with this and we all do. [Petey’s] voice was so spontaneous, which is one of the things I liked about it. I thought that was really appealing. Also, there’s the activism of that time, which I don’t mean to romanticize. I wanted to show how devastating and alive the 60’s were. Also, Talk to Me, is a statement about friendship and how we all have to fight our instincts to try to change people.”
Lemmons has said she mostly writes for herself. “Nowadays, I write for myself to direct, but I’ve done a lot of studio writing, writing for hire. So I write for myself first, because it’s bullshit to try to second-guess what other people might think of something.”
She is attached to direct the adaptation of Marlene van Niekerk’s novel, Agaat, set during the Apartheid, and attached to the adaptation of Zadie Smith’s On Beauty.