Rashaad Ernesto Green is becoming the change he wants to see. While this Bronx native initially gravitated towards acting as a career pursuit, it was during his time in graduate school at NYU that he realized that his calling was necessarily in front of the lens, but as a director instead.
“I needed to get behind the camera to tell the stories that I wanted to see on screen,” Green tells ESSENCE. “I could pick up a pen and write and direct those stories that I wanted to see, whether it was on stage or screen.”
As time progressed, the young filmmaker would become the winner of Film Independent Spirit’s Someone to Watch Award, and has directed features such as Gun Hill Road and Premature, along with helming television episodes for Marvel, Netflix, Showtime, Hulu, NBC, Fox, Warner Bros, VH1 and BET. Green most recently directed the mid-season finale of Showtime’s The Chi, created by Lena Waithe. In working on this highly acclaimed series, he has helped tell Black stories from the proper perspective, as opposed to the flawed point of view that has been perpetuated for so many years.
Following the premiere of the finale in September, Green discussed his journey as a director, the state of Black filmmaking, his upcoming film ‘68, and more.
ESSENCE: So I have a question. It’s always kind of intrigued me. What initially got you into filmmaking?
Rashaad Ernesto Green: Oh, we’re going to be going there, I see. I grew up watching films, but I didn’t necessarily know I would pursue filmmaking even though we had a passion for it growing up. I was raised by a single father who had to take care of two growing boys. And so a lot of our time spent off the baseball field and outside of school would be watching films, quoting films. But this was just part of my upbringing. I didn’t necessarily know how influential that would be later in life. But I did at the time become so infatuated with filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Robert Townsend, who were offering a perspective of Black manhood and perspective into the culture that I didn’t necessarily see reflected anywhere else in my education.
I formed my identity as a result of consuming art by these particular filmmakers. And so when I went away to college, for the first time I was opened to a new world of arts and humanities. And August Wilson was invited to my college – which was Dartmouth College in New Hampshire – to not only teach playwriting for the semester, but they put on one of his plays for the main stage production. And they invited a whole bunch of theater artists to the school at the same time to talk about the state of Black theater. And this is going back some time, but I just remember being so blown away by the eccentricity and the beauty of all of these black artists that descended upon Hanover, New Hampshire. And so I pursued acting as my calling, but it was because August Wilson and the artists gave me an opportunity to bring voice to my culture in a way that I wasn’t necessarily receiving from other coursework at the time.
Was it acting or filmmaking that you went into first?
I pursued acting first, and after a few years in the industry, I went on to get a Master’s in acting at NYU. But my initial invitation to it was through this August Wilson play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. But as I continued to pursue it and then actually stepped my foot into the real world, I realized that we were not in control of the stories that were being told about us and our community. It was quite a rude awakening when auditioning for Law and Order or the All My Children of the world when I was first introduced to the world through August Wilson. So I kind of would say a very unique and blessed introduction and not to take anything away from those other shows, but I did find myself auditioning for roles that I did not believe spoke to my own experience.
Whether it was having to portray drug dealers or thieves in my mid-twenties, I felt like there wasn’t much that I could offer to that. I yearned to see the complexity of our culture depicted either on stage or screen because of what my introduction to the arts were. And so in wrestling with this dilemma, I asked myself if I stayed in the industry as it was, would I become a bitter artist? And if there’s anything that I could do within my own power to change the narrative. And so I felt like I had a duty and responsibility that if I wanted to see change, not to be corny, but I needed to contribute to that change.
I wound up choosing the screen because one of my final shows in theater, I was in a wonderful play called Lobby Hero, and I was performing out in St. Louis in this black box theater. And at the end of the show I took the bow and looked out at the audience and there was… It was full of an audience that didn’t necessarily look like an audience that I wanted to address. I think I wanted to address a broader spectrum of people, let’s say. I wanted to reach the Black and Brown youth. I didn’t see any of them there. So then I asked myself who it is that gets to take part of this art? Who is it that I’m performing for? And I wanted to touch a broader spectrum of people.
How do you feel about the state of Black film and television today? Have you seen a change in the type of content that’s put out and the representation of Black filmmakers and actors?
I feel like we’re in the golden years right now. Where it’s always very, very difficult in this industry to get Black and Brown content made and seen by the masses. But I see that there’s an appetite for it now and more opportunities for actors, writers, directors of color to get their stories seen. Of course, it’s always going to be a struggle, because whatever factors exist in terms of needing to turn those stories into something that’s marketable, profitable. So you have to consider genre and you have to consider whether you have star power, et cetera.
But I would say that now is a time that’s right for any young filmmaker who’s trying to get their story told. Stepping into this particular era is a little bit more friendly and open than others. That’s not to say that it will last, but I will say that at least from my experience, it’s wonderful to see how much variety we have to choose from now. I remember 20 years ago when one Black independent film was made and everyone knew about that one or two films per year or every few years that you would go to support in the theater. And now it’s hard to keep up.
Now it just seems like we have our pick with the streamers and the studios. Whether it’s the Marvel movies or DC movies or IP that might be traditionally led by non POC, we’re seeing actors of color getting their shot. We’re seeing directors of color getting their shot, and we’re seeing our stories told across the spectrum and across the medium. So yeah, it is a wonderful time to be creative.
How has it been working on The Chi and what effect has that series had on your career?
Well, The Chi is an incredible show, as you know. Lena really, really knocked it out of the park in terms of shedding light on Chicago and issues within the Black and Brown community that she wanted to talk about, and she did it in a way that’s entertaining and that is resonant. We can watch that show and whether you’re from Chicago or New York or DC or Atlanta, there are themes that are so relevant within our community. And so directing on The Chi has been nothing but love. It’s returning to a family, and I feel welcomed. I feel embraced. And I feel blessed every time that I get to step on that set.
Because not only is there a group of wonderful performers who are giving their all, their time, their energy and their talent to portraying these lives on screen, but I’m also getting the opportunity to bring voice to something that’s important to me personally, which is seeing our communities depicted with such respect and reverence. And that opportunity is given to me by the likes of Lena Waithe, and people who really care deeply about the community and how it’s depicted on screen.
What was that like creating the mid-season finale, and how has the feedback been from that?
Directing the finale, I know, was an important episode as we were all very, very sad. It was a bittersweet moment to have to give the big send-off to Kevin as he continued on his journey to the West Coast. But the feedback has been wonderful. We’re always sad to see our youngsters go, but we support them every step of the way. But when they are pursuing their dreams, there’s part of us that has to let them go out the nest, let them escape from the nest in order to broaden their horizons. And with Kevin, his character came to its full and natural arc. And although we’re sad to see him go, we support him in this step on his journey.
Your upcoming film, ’68, why do you think it’s important for this generation to know about that story? And also talk to me about how that, I guess, film came on your radar?
It’s unfortunate because obviously there has been a lot of progress since the Civil Rights Movement and The Black Power Movement, and yet we still have so much work to do. Especially with the last administration and how we’re viewed in this country. Just shows you that every bit of progress that is won through toil and struggle is followed by periods of regression. There are people that will come out of the woodwork to suppress and deter any progress that’s made because they don’t want it to last. And that goes back to the foundation of this country, whether its period of Reconstruction, Jim Crow Era, Civil Rights Movement, Black Power Movement, every period of progress has always been followed by periods of oppression and suppression.
So, we’re at a time now where perhaps on the surface it looks like we’re playing on a level playing field, but the reality is that we’re not. And we need to turn to those stories of those heroes who stood up for us at a time when it was not easy to stand up, who showed us what real sacrifice looked like. And that’s not to say anything disparaging against the movements that we have today. But these particular men and women of that movement, were willing to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of the whole. And we need to know that story.
I know even speaking from personal experience, a lot of us know that picture and how much pride it gives us, but we don’t necessarily know what those athletes had to go through, not only before they got to that moment, but also what they experienced afterwards. And I think that’s the time in history to revisit what protests looked like and what using one’s voice and one’s platform looks like. Because history is cyclical and it’s important to not only give the flowers to these heroes that have been overlooked through generations, but also to use their courage as examples to us all.