Chicago native, Salli Richardson-Whitfield emerged onto the silver screen in the 1991 film “Up Against the Wall”. She later lent her talent in films such as “Posse”, “A Low Down Dirty Shame”, “Antwone Fisher”, “I Am Legend”, and “Black Dynamite”. The married mother of two has also graced the small screen in television shows like ‘CSI: Miami’, ‘House’, and ‘Eureka’, on which she’s recently had the opportunity to make her network television directorial debut. The huge supporter of black film is no stranger to such, having had the opportunity to work with directors like Mario Van Peebles, Scott Sanders, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and more recently feature film newbie Ava DuVernay. With a bubbly spirit Salli eagerly talks about how important it is to support black cinema, directing her television show ‘Eureka’, and the indie film “I Will Follow”(directed by Ava DuVernay) she recently starred in, which will be released to DVD tomorrow.
Why did you choose to work on “I Will Follow” ?
I’ve been doing this TV show (Eureka) for the last five years. My manager and I made a pact. What I really wanted to do during my break, were indies. I wanted really cool roles where I could challenge myself with the opportunity to do something interesting. I was really lucky that Ava DuVernay came to me with this film. She had done documentaries but, this was the first feature that she was planning on doing. It didn’t have a big budget but, it was written well. When I met with her I thought, “This woman is going to do this right.” I just really lucked out that I made a great partnership with Ava. It turned out better than I ever could have imagined.
That was a small production compared to most of the films on your resume. What did you to do prepare for this film and specifically for your role as “Maye”?
What’s funny is that I literally had a week to make the decision. We had a few days of rehearsal. I talked with Ava. This was a personal story about her aunt. She had showed me a picture of her and her aunt. For some reason that picture helped me connect to the part. I just trusted myself ,memorized the words, and got there. I gave them what they gave me and went with the reality of the that situation. It worked out. Sometimes over preparation isn’t the best. Sometimes you have to be in the moment. Being in the moment really worked well for it.
What was your experience like working on the film?
It was really magical. Everyone was there for the same cause. You’re not there for money. So you’re there because you love it. Down to hair, make-up, and everything. Everybody was there because they believed in the project. That’s just a different kind of experience. We didn’t have dressing rooms or trailer. We all became a family because everyone had to pitch in to make it special. We didn’t have anyone acting “Hollywood”. This was down and dirty guerilla filmmaking.
How often do you usually get roles that you’re really drawn to?
Very few. I’ve been doing this a long time and this was the first time I got to do it. As African American actors and women there aren’t that many roles out there for us. That’s why indie film is so important to support and do. It’s the only way we’re going to have opportunities to do more work. To do work that matters and not just the same old girlfriend of a guy in a comedy.
How important to you is it to support black cinema?
I tell everyone sometimes we even have to see films that necessarily aren’t our cup of tea. When it comes to black indie films a lot of people think, “Eh. I’m not going to like that film.” We have to start seeing other films besides Tyler Perry. And that’s nothing against him because he’s opened up some doors for us. But we now have to see everything that comes out because that makes them make more of those films. You have to go out and support smaller films. The films that are about black relationships so that they’ll make more of those films. If you only go see the comedies that will continue to be the only thing we get. I don’t know why people just don’t get it. I know there are many more problems in the world that people have to deal with. But it’s about getting ourselves out there in a different light. It’s important. It changes how people see us in the world and it changes our perspective. We have to support ourselves as a community in our art form.
What type of black films would you like to see on the silver screen?
I want to see more Love Jones films again. Remember that?
Yes! So do I.
What happened? That film was good.
We have to see stuff like that. Even back when I was first starting. I want to see another “Low Down Dirty Shame”. What happened? There was a time when we were moving. Now it’s gone.
Right. It’s just not the same.
You know what. It’s our fault. We have to stop blaming everybody else. We’re not going on and continually seeing films.
What type of black shows would you like to see on television?
I want to see the same thing they have for everyone else. Just different kinds of roles. I don’t think it has to just be these comedies. I want ‘The Good Wife’. I want that to be a black woman.
Working on “I Will Follow” with Ava DuVernay has gained you an opportunity to direct a short that’s also written by her. Tell me about that.
I haven’t done it yet. I’m just about to finish my show. During my break I plan to do that. I don’t want to say what it is yet. But it’s a 10-15 minute short. It’s something I want to do for the festivals. Last year and this year I’ve been directing my TV show, ‘Eureka’. I have that under my belt, directing networking TV but, they need to know what your direction is as a director. They want to see how you would shoot your own film when you don’t have to do someone else’s style.
In addition to that, what type of films would you like to direct in your future?
I think I gravitate toward dark things. That and fast moving type of action films. Something along those lines but, at the same time I definitely know how to direct TV now. I get it. I know what that genre is. I really want to continue doing more network TV. There are literally a handful of black women directing network TV. It’s a hard thing to get into. I’ve been given the opportunity that most women don’t get. There are millions of dollars on the line. Now that my foot is in the door I want to continue.
With the opportunity to be behind the camera do you plan on playing a part in keeping black actresses employed with diverse roles?
The last time I directed on ‘Eureka’ there was a role of a scientist on the show that normally would have been played by a nerdy white scientist. You know the same one we have all the time. So I said, “Why do we have to do that?” So I said how about we get a nerdy black guy. Then I cast my friend Eugene Berg. I was really happy with the opportunity to open their eyes to something different. On my show we have a wonderful diverse staff and wonderful people. I don’t think it’s something that they were doing on purpose. It’s just they’re not thinking about it. If you’re Asian, Hispanic, white, or whatever you’re going to gravitate towards hiring someone who looks like you and who is your friend. So now that I’m in there I can hire my friends. So that’s why the more we get in there the more it will work because that’s just how it works.
As far as there not being a lot of black women directors in television. Do you feel like there’s not a genuine interest?
No. It’s just hard to get in there. It’s hard to get in there as a white man to direct. It’s just a hard place to get into. Women directors in general, they just don’t really truly believe that we can do it yet. Let alone now you’re a minority. So it’s really just about breaking those walls down and getting an opportunity to get in there.
How was it working with Ava DuVernay?
She has become a great friend. She is going to be a powerhouse in this business. You would have never known that it was this woman’s first time shooting a feature. She’s on it and she knows what she wants. Not only does she know how to direct it she knows how to publicize it. That’s what’s going to separate her from the other directors.
What did you learn from working on “I Will Follow”?
It’s really helped me gain a new confidence in my work and in my life. I’m ready. I can do anything you give me. I know how to carry a film. I took what Ava gave me as a great responsibility. Those were her words and her money she was investing. I don’t want to let myself down or anyone else down. What I took from that job was that there isn’t a role that you can give me that I can’t do.