Welcome to Conversations with Black Creators! This month, we're chatting with LA-based director, Jonathan Aubrie Lewis.
Editor's Note: The Conversations series is intended to highlight Black creatives’ work in various fields. At Tako Agency, we are really proud of being creators--people who pour creativity and skill into beautiful projects that add value to the world--and we want to make sure that all creators have a platform from which to make every corner burst with life.
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-- Grace, Creative Director
Every time I conduct one of these interviews I say, “OK, this is my favourite one so far.”
I’ve come to realize that I can’t pick favourites. Every interaction is so unique and special. I’ve laughed with and learned from so many incredible creatives during the production of this series.
Still, Jonathan’s interview stands out.
The moment he entered the Google meeting room I felt like I was talking to an old friend, so there’s that...but I’ve been staring at my computer screen for a solid six minutes trying to conjure ways to describe him to someone who wasn’t in the interview. I could talk about his tender* demeanor or his (extremely fucking cool) Kiss Land-era Weeknd-esque hair.
*Tender should not be confused with shy. The boy ain’t...that.
I could gush about his staggering vulnerability, eloquent and colourful communication, or unique spirituality. I could fangirl over his incredible work, which is ridiculously well-composed, deeply meaningful, and--somehow--simultaneously subdued and avant-garde.
I could say all these things (and...I did), and I still would not do him justice. Jonathan Aubrie Lewis is a deep, beautiful soul and I am beyond pleased to know him. Sit down and hold tight; this interview deserves to be read carefully.
Hey Jonathan, introduce yourself to the folks hanging out at the Stand!
Hey, my name’s Jonathan Aubrie Lewis and I’m a director living in California.
Thanks for joining us. Alright, first question: do you think creativity is innate or learned?
I think both are true. I think everyone has been placed here by a higher power of some sort--whatever you believe in--with innate creativity.
Conversely, a lot of people--especially in America--experience a lot of suppression of creativity.
Kids are inherently creative. You know what I'm sayin’? They're always creating. But something happens between ages 5 and like, 15. There's a dampening that begins to happen. With school, parents, church, friends...you become uber aware of yourself [in a negative way] and that creative freedom starts to diminish.
I remember making my first film when I was 10 years old. By the time I was 15, I didn’t have as much interest in directing my “little” films anymore because--I don’t know--maybe people had said negative things that weren’t constructive and made me question myself.
So I think creativity is innate, but we, as a society, have to cultivate and protect it.
That totally makes sense. So, instead of learning it, like you would learn a skill, it's more like it’s inside of all of us--we just have to keep it safe.
Yeah, you have to protect it like a little flame. Very few parents are knowledgeable enough to really do that. My parents were never like, “Oh, wow. My son is very creative. Maybe I shouldn't try to make him do this or do that [non-creative thing],” you know? I'm one of the lucky ones who sort of inserted myself head-first into creativity, on my own.
I come from a long line of pastors. My grandfather was a pastor. My father is a pastor. So what I'm doing is sort of like a revolt because it’s so completely different. There’s no blueprint for me. I’ve had to cultivate [art and creativity] within myself, which, like...how do you do that when you don’t even know what you have?
So...I feel like I'm gonna send us into a black hole here, but --
[interjects] I love it, let’s do it.
At what point did you identify, “I don't know what this is, but it's something that I have to cultivate in myself?”
It was probably after undergrad, so I was about 23 years old. I had just enrolled in film school to continue my education and I was figuring myself out in general. I got my nipple pierced. [laughs] I started dating guys more. I started getting more comfortable with being a part of the gay community. That’s also when I was working at this bougie European clothing store in Santa Monica, called All Saints.
Ah, All Saints. Yes, I am familiar.
Yeah, it's kind of commercial now, but I worked there when it was like, grungy and just super fucking cool, right? I think that was the first time I heard alternative rock. I grew up on R&B and hip hop, but working at All Saints I started listening to Interpol and Gold Panda and stuff like that.
All Saints really helped me discover my creativity. Beyond the music, it was the first time in a long time I’d been around such a diverse group of people. My undergrad school is an HBCU--so, historically Black. [At All Saints], I really started to kind of be like, damn...the world is big. That made me feel like I could be who I wanted to be. [My creativity] grew from there.
That totally makes sense. If you were in a space that made you ask questions and explore all the possibilities--that's a firecracker for creativity! It's amazing you got that experience working retail. Who gets that? [laughs]
Yeah! I worked there for three years, man. I was just a sponge--absorbing everything.
Image: John Roney, DP
That's awesome. Love it. In your opinion, what is art's place in the grand scheme of things? Why does it matter?
I look at everything through a very spiritual lens--family of pastors and all that--I just can’t shake it. (And you know, I love that about me, actually.) I think when art is firing on all cylinders, it’s prophetic. The artist is like a prophet in that they have insight on present times and also foresight to be able to make commentaries on where we’re headed--the future.
It’s an important act of service, too--[another concept adopted] from my history in church. When you’re doing art the right way, you’re doing it in service to other people. Art has the power to help people see what they need before they need it. It takes all kinds of issues--places people are afraid of or don’t know how to explore--and creates a world [that’s] just more accessible. It’s like going ahead of humanity and helping them understand and tackle their problems and [curiosities].
Speaking of using art to tackle difficult issues, I'm very excited to ask a few questions about your short film, Sojourn. It's so, so good.
Image: Sojourn | Drew Daniels, DP
Writer’s Note: I had a short preliminary call with Jonathan before he agreed to do this interview. During that call, we immediately connected and I accidentally started interviewing him. Realizing what was happening, we put a pin in the conversation until the actual interview. Before we paused, though, Jonathan mentioned he was a flight attendant with Delta Airlines for about a year.
Context acquired. On we go...
You mentioned that there would not have been Sojourn without Delta. What did you mean by that?
OK, so that was like, 2014. That was a weird time in my life. I had just graduated from The LA Film School and it was time to go be a director...I guess? I remember thinking, “I actually do not know how to do that.” [laughs]
It’s like, OK, so I'm supposed to go like, make a movie now? Where do I get the funding? How do I get people to believe in what I’m trying to do? I was scared shitless.
I had a friend who worked as a flight attendant for Delta Airlines. Every time I talked to him he was in some exotic, amazing place. I didn’t have all this [gestures to hair] at the time--I was sorta bald, more clean cut. I probably wouldn’t get hired these days. [smiles] So I had the look and my friend coached me through what they were going to ask me and everything. It was a huge interview process. They flew me down to Atlanta and got me a hotel and everything and I got the job!
There is no Sojourn without Delta because the year I flew for them was a lot like my time at All Saints. It was a pivotal period. I felt free. I felt-- actually, let me rephrase. As a Black man, I felt boundless--like I could go anywhere and do anything. Especially not being constrained to America--that was empowering. I had time to think and write. I met amazing people...Ivy League professors, basketball players, celebrities, entrepreneurial people you’d never guess are millionaires, cool things like that.
Anyway--Sojourn is a term that references migration from place to place. Webster’s definition is a temporary stay. That’s all my life was during [my time with Delta]--not just physically, but mentally too. I was really confused about where I stood in the world. Like, I was supposed to be a director, but I was a flight attendant. That’s not even close to the same thing. In my mind, I was Sojourn [the main character in the film].
Entering foreign environments, literally or even metaphorically--like your experience at All Saints--can be really destabilizing for a lot of people. Did you ever feel that way?
I’ve always just been invigorated by it. I've always been curious about the way other people experience life and I live for those nuanced moments when you're experiencing something for the first time. That's why I love travel so much--it's an endless opportunity. You’re not bound by circumstances--or, when you are, you just have to figure it out. You say, “OK, we’re stuck at Heathrow [Airport] for the next 24 hours. How do we make this fun?” I long for that shit.
I have this running joke that I'm going to be one of those directors who’s very much a part of Hollywood but like, doesn’t even live in the United States. I’ll probably wind up moving to Italy or Kenya or someplace. No idea, but it won’t be America.
I believe travel is a “way out” for young Black people--just being pulled out of our experiences in the States and seeing how big the world is. Being thrust into that expanse [during my time at Delta] grew me as a person and informed me as an artist. I just wish travel was more accessible to the people who need it most. It can change everything.
So this next one is kind of a big question, but we can unpack it in chunks. I'm really curious about how Sojourn came to be--like from your inspiration to conception, forming the team, production, post-production--all that.
You want to start me off with 1a, and go from there?
Yeah, let's do that. 1a: inspiration. Tell us more about that.
OK, so I worked at Delta for one year and then I quit and started at Panavision as a personal assistant to an executive. That was a hard job because I’m a very creative person and they were telling me, like, “Yeah sit at this desk and type.”
Oh god, that sounds awful for someone like you.
Yeah. It was very difficult, but I was like, “Look, either you're going to get out here and give this director thing a go, or you're gonna go back to Delta and just travel the world as a flight attendant.”
I'm totally fine with being a fucking flight attendant! It was fun and it was definitely less stressful than being a damn director. So it was good to have that as a backup, but I really felt like, I’ve gotta give the directing thing a shot--I’ve gotta do this for myself.
When I got to Panavision, I knew I was going to settle in and be there for a few years. I thought if I could spend all that time there and leave with no films or prospects, it’d be time to move on to something else. One of the incentives to work at Panavision is that you’re allowed to use the cameras and equipment at will, so...
Wow, really? Shit, that’s crazy.
Yeah! Anamorphic lenses and all sorts of amazing stuff I’d never used. Anyway, about a year into being at Panavision, I had an epiphany. I started seeing all these young white boys coming through--like age 23, 24, 26--and they're like, “Yeah, I'm shooting my feature” or “I'm DPin’* this or that,” and I was like...if these white cats are coming in here and-- [pauses] you know what I learned from white guys? They don’t give a fuck.
*DP = Director of Photography
Well, they don’t have to!
Exactly. They just come in and say, “I should get that because I'm me.” When I started at Panavision, I was really shy. After watching a few of these white guys come through, I was just like, oh, so this is how they get stuff. They just make you believe they deserve it. They shake your hand, look you in the face, and say, “I’m Tucker and I’m a director.” So I kind of started mimicking them --
”Hi, I’m Jonathan and dammit, I’m a director.”
Image: John Roney, DP
If I was really going to say that with conviction, though, I needed to make something. So I started thinking about what I wanted to make. Sojourn started forming when I was spending time with my little cousins and, uhh-- [thinking] I forget which Black man had just died, to be honest with you. I'm sure I could figure it out by the year it was, but we die so much, I don't remember off the top of my head.
Anyway, a Black man had died and I asked my cousins, “How does that make you feel?” They were just like, “It makes us scared.” They were 6 or 7 years old and they’re telling me, flat-out, no hesitation, they’re scared. I'm like...gotcha.
So from there I really started to investigate this idea of like, what happens when Black men have seen too much trauma? What does that do to the psyche?
Just looking at my little cousins’ faces, hearing what they were saying, made me start thinking about my own mental health. Like--am I even OK?
That reminded me of all the times in college I'd be walking on the street and have this visceral reaction--a gut feeling, goosebumps, everything--that someone was going to walk up and shoot me in the back of the head. I was 21 years old and I’d just brush it off like, “Oh yeah I don’t know why I just had this big, morbid thought...oh well.”
Looking at my cousins, I started investigating that: why was I having that feeling? Why did I feel like someone was going to kill me? I realized, for me, it's twofold:
First, I come from a very, very large family. My dad is one of 16 and my mom is one of 10. Our family reunions are ridiculous. Like, 200 people deep. The downside to having a big family is that people die more frequently. I remember growing up and hearing about my cousins being shot and killed.
As a kid you don't really realize it, but that's super traumatic. You know what I mean? It got so bad that in college my mom would call me and I'd pick up the phone and be like, “Who died?” And she'd say, “No, no, not this time; it's OK.”
So that’s the first part of why I had that sense [of foreboding]. The other is just seeing Black men being murdered on the news. It’s constant. I always felt like--eventually that’s going to be me; almost like I was ready to die at all times.
When I was at the beginning of Sojourn, I went through an old journal of mine from 2012 or so and I just broke down crying. I couldn’t believe my state of mind [at that time]. A lot of the voiceover at the beginning of the film is straight out of that journal because--reading my own words--that's when it really started to sink in: “Wow. Something terrible happened to my psyche and I had no idea.”
That’s why the film is like that--all internal; it’s all in Sojourn’s head.
Writer’s Note: you’ll have to watch the film to understand what he means--and I encourage you to do so.
Well, you did it absolutely beautifully because I obviously didn't have all of the specifics, but the essence of everything you explained comes through in spades. It's absolutely phenomenal.
Thank you, thank you. I appreciate that.
I saw a caption on one of Sojourn’s Instagram posts--for the Pomona college screening--that said a theme for the post-screening Q&A was “a critical conversation on how we frame black masculinity within a discourse of care and vulnerability.” It seems like if your life is constantly threatened--literally and metaphorically--vulnerability is a very, very bad idea, even just from an evolutionary standpoint. At the same time, it’s absolutely necessary to live a full and balanced life. In the context of all of that, how do you initiate impactful conversations around Black male vulnerable masculinity?
Ooh, that’s...a doozy. I want to address that first part of the question first--about how does one allow vulnerability when it’s so dangerous. Yeah, you have to self-preserve or whatever--so I get that. But I want to challenge your question because it sort of shifts the focus to protection from what’s out there.
What I try to do in my work, when it comes to Black men, is convey that we should start with what’s inside. Let’s remove everyone else from around us and think--am I really OK? If we approach it that way, vulnerability isn’t about anyone else. It starts in you.
I remember in one of the infant drafts of Sojourn (God, there were so many drafts), I thought, OK, so Sojourn’s out driving with his cousin and he gets pulled over by a white cop... We all know what happens next, you know?
Ultimately, I decided against [that narrative].
[pauses] I'm going to just go ahead and say this: white people are put at the center of everything--the good that happens to us [Black people], the fucked up shit--everything. I feel like white people take up so much space, even in art that’s supposed to be about Black people.
I am way more concerned about Black men looking at themselves than I am about them looking at who they are in the context of this [Black/white narrative]. So that’s why I wanted to challenge the idea that vulnerability is a dangerous thing. In my work, it’s just not about what’s out there--for once, it’s about what’s within.
Wow, thank you so much for reframing my question. I obviously don’t intend to ask questions that are maliciously white-centric, but, at the end of the day, I look like this [references self]. I’m still unlearning a lot. I’m sorry.
No, I can tell you are someone who is doing the work. You’re thinking critically and it shows.
I really appreciate that [encouragement], thank you. OK, next part of the question: How do you, just in everyday life--i.e. not in film--initiate conversations about Black male vulnerability?
Ah, yes. Damn. That’s a tough one. [long pause]
A lot of the vulnerability I focus on is about being who you are. I’m a walking double whammy because, you know, I'm Black...so there’s that. But I'm also queer, and I’m dealing with the fact that I grew up super religious and pretty conservative...not politically, but just lifestyle-wise. I didn’t have anyone modeling the kind of person I felt like I was. So what I’ve learned over the years is that sometimes just showing up and being yourself speaks volumes.
Some young Black kid may look at me and be like, “Wow I didn’t know I could wear my hair like that.” Sometimes it’s not about starting a verbal conversation; it’s just how you show up to the cookout, the family reunion--whatever. How you move, what you wear...just being unapologetically you.
Also, I tell everyone to go to therapy. I was just [in therapy] last night. You gotta do the thing.
Image: John Roney, DP
Yeah, for sure. Speaking of young Black kids--what advice would you give to young Black creators, specifically?
Hmmm. It's gotta be good advice; let me see… [long pause]
I would say that creatives...man, we get rejected a lot. And so many times our first thought is, “My pitch wasn’t good enough,” or “I was probably awkward when I shook his hand,” or whatever. We immediately start self-deprecating, assuming that rejection happened because of something that was within our control.
So the first bit of advice I’d give is that most of the time, it ain’t you. There’s a season for everything, and this just wasn’t your season. There’s a reason there’s night and day--it may be night time right now, but morning is coming.
Another thing I want to say is for my “unicorn” creatives. Like, there are “regular” creatives and then there are folks who are creating some weird type shit. We have it the hardest.
I believe the world is inherently unconventional, but humans put all these boundaries and things in place to make it more uniform. So there's this illusion of convention, and when you naturally create things that are kind of off kilter, it can feel like you’re not meant to belong.
If you’re trying to put your really interesting film into Sundance or whatever, they might not “get it,” you know? They’re looking for very specific things. I’ve really struggled with that.
My therapist said the other day, “You have to realize that if you’re going to be 'someone' in the industry, it’s going to be because you changed the industry in one way or another.” She didn’t mean that in a cocky way--like, I’m so great I’m going to do xyz--but just like, I make weird shit. If this works for me, it’s going to be because I remained myself all the way through, and a facet of the industry changed to fit me.
We've seen that happen many times--Steve McQueen, Barry Jenkins, Quentin Tarantino...all these genre-bending directors who said, “This is how I made my story and this is how I'm going to do it. Either y'all get on board or I guess I'll just make movies for cheap for the rest of my life.”
All the people who have done great things--they stood their ground. So I implore all those unique artists out there to stand your ground. Your time is coming.
Good advice for us all. What’s your favorite thing you've ever created?
Ahh, well I kind of want to just blurt out Sojourn, but I want to dig a little deeper and see if there's something else. [long pause] Hmmm...OK, I've got three things.
Sojourn is definitely one of the three. I'm also really excited about my next film, called We are THE BEAT. It’s already written and we're going to be shooting it this year. I'm really stoked. I think it's going to do some great things. You’re actually the first outlet I’ve talked to about it, and I believe in the power of manifestation, so I feel like saying it out loud is really important.
[spoken with emphasis to express intention] It’s gonna do great things.
The last thing I would say, and this might be kind of corny, but like, recreating me--it’s a great ride. I find it very powerful and interesting that I'm always finding new nooks and crannies within myself. I dunno, it's nice to sit back and daydream about where I want to be in five, seven, ten years, and creating that.
I love that! I’ve asked this question of so many people and nobody's said “me!”
Yeah man, yeah. Hopefully it doesn't come off too, uh, like--”this motherfucker really just said himself.” [laughs]
[laughs] No, no, no. That's so important. The re-creation of ourselves...you have to be imaginative and brave to do that shit. That's a great answer.
We’ve reached our last question! It’s incredibly complex. So mind-blowing. Are you ready?
[look of anticipation]
Do you like tacos?
[laughs] I do!
Excellent. What’s your favorite taco filling?
Well, I'm vegetarian, so kind of boring probably.
Hey I’m vegetarian too! We can be boring together.
OK cool. [smiles] There’s this vegetarian place on Melrose called Sugar Taco, and I like [everything they make]. I just tell them to throw a bunch of stuff in there and then they have like, imitation beef, imitation chicken type stuff. It's really, really good. They can season it really well. I eat their “beef” tacos a lot and they have this one with like, sautéed jackfruit? It’s so tender. That’s good eatin’ right there.
Good deal. Well, thank you so much for hanging out with me for...holy shit, almost two and a half hours.
Really? Wow. OK.
I so appreciate your time and your wisdom and the conversation; thank you so much.
No worries, thank you!
You can learn more about and connect with Jonathan here. Sojourn is streaming for free on Vimeo and Prime Video.
Don't forget to check out the rest of our Conversations series here.