After our recent launch of the well-received “Life’s Poison” narrative short, we caught up with director Malcolm D. Lee for a brief phone interview to talk about his experience making the project. Known for both comic and dramatic features with predominantly African American casts like The Best Man, Roll Bounce, and Undercover Brother, this narrative short written by Angileece Williams, a high school sophomore from Cleveland, Ohio was seemingly a departure. However Lee expresses the connection between this project and his mission of bringing forth more diverse portrayals of blackness to the screen.

What was it like to interpret the work of such a young writer?
The writing was much more mature than you would think. It was originally a short story but very visually written, of course it took some adjustments but that happens with every new writer. Especially a young writer, they don’t really have an ear for dialogue yet, but the idea is there and the idea was strong. Of all the screenplays, no matter who ended up directing it, I felt it should be made. The mainstream perception is that these kids aren’t all that thoughtful, but these scripts were insightful inspirational and very thoughtful. Plus the story spoke to me being a father of three black boys myself. I’d hold “Life’s Poison” up with any of the other movies I’ve made.

The story of “Life’s Poison” is such a moving and personal one, how did you approach getting the right tone of performance from such young actors?
I really tried to get at the tone of the original writing. What was great about it was that you got to hear this kid’s internal monologue, his conflict, he was strong and thoughtful but also gentle. And he was constantly judging his behavior by what his father would think, he’d call him weak. It’s ironic because he’s not really aware he’s living a lie. We found great performers in the Cleveland area. We were fortunate to grab some young and old talent that really embodied the roles really well. As for the tone, there’s a lot of images we shot that helped set it; and that’s thanks to a very good crew, and I knew what I wanted from Angie’s original story. I didn’t want it to be too preachy.

Speaking of preachy, of course I now have to ask you about the recent back and forth between Spike and Tyler Perry. On the one hand Perry is criticized as focusing too much on stereotypes, but on the other he is quite celebrated and successful too. Where does the responsibility of the storyteller come in?
The responsibility is to the story you want to tell. There used to be a whole big hubbub about “hood movies,” how we need to stop glorifying this life, etc. And some people actually don’t feel like Tyler Perry is glorifying [stereotypes]. But the main thing is these images tend to replicate themselves. I think we could all do better. I think that you can’t really argue with Tyler Perry’s success. He’s not making these movies because people don’t want to see it. Every kind of filmmaker would like to have the kind of cycle he’s in right now. We all wish we have an audience as loyal as he has. Could it be better?…Hopefully it does get better but why should he change his formula? If people didn’t show up this weekend [for Madea’s Big Family Reunion] he wouldn’t make another movie like that. If it makes dollars it makes sense. You can’t really knock his hustle, and I think he’s telling the stories he wants to tell and that validates the people in those movies. To each his own. The thing that concerns all of us is that, and this is not just Tyler Perry, the business of hollywood is tough right now, and he has become the standard in terms of African American movies. His films have almost become defined as the African American movie, where in the late 80s to early 2000s we had a much more diverse depiction of African American life, and filmmakers, different story tellers. Now besides Denzel Washington and Will Smith there’s really not that many actors you could say I’m putting this actor in a movie and it would be green lit. [The trend] will probably go on and on until someone features a predominantly African American cast and does well at the box office.

Did you find any personal connection points to Eliyah’s journey?
The Eliyahs of the world have an adopted machismo, an adopted persona, they learn from their own family, through the neighbor hood, music videos, but they learnt that there is one way to be a man, particularly a black man, this cool, this bravado, this ignorance, this loudness, this tough exterior, like nothing can penetrate, “you cant read me and if you do all you will read is [a threat].” They feel like they can’t be vulnerable. I grew up around that, and it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s more complexity us as human beings and certainly us as African Americans can display. My production company is called “Blackmaled” because Black men have been hoodwinked to think this is how we have to be and we are perceived that way within and without our community. Our community doesn’t really buy into mental illness but mental illness is as real as cancer, as real as diabetes. Now Eliyah is not mentally ill but he’s damaged, not receiving nurturing and love, and that is hard and confusing for a young mind.

What are your thoughts on the Scenarios USA program?
When I was asked to do this it was an easy decision. I believe in their mission, empowering children to express themselves through the arts. I’m proud that I am a part of the Scenarios USA family, it’s a great organization and I hope they can expand their program to more cities. It’s a fantastic way to have youth express the things that are concerning them today so we can have open and honest dialogue on race, poverty, gender relationships, whatever is on the mind of the youth.