Roger Ross Williams, Director / Producer / Writer
8.28.14 Roxbury, NY
Roger Ross Williams is a prolific American director, producer, and writer. He is the first African-American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film, short or feature. As we sit down with him at his beautiful Upstate home, we learn that his past is just as thought-provoking as his work.
Interview & Photos: Kate Orne
UD You are one of my favorite Documentary filmmakers, Thank you for having me. What’s your story Roger?
RRW I grew up in a very industrial town in Pennsylvania, a sort of depressing town with Bethlehem Steel, Pfizer, Sunbeam Bread, and Crayola Crayons. It was also inspirational, because it was so industrial and working class. I grew up in a black Baptist church, and my uncle was the minister. My mother, who came from the Gullah community in South Carolina, was married and had an affair with the lead deacon of the church, who was also married with kids. I was the illegitimate product. I found this out when I was 13 or 14 because one of my best friends heard her parents gossiping about me and then she told me.
UD Did your stepfather know?
RRW He knew, yeah. They got divorced pretty early on, but he was still like my father. Later when I found out my real father, it was very tough for me emotionally to deal with because his family had leaders in our church, and I sang in the choir. It was a secret that I carried around with me. Then I made a film for PBS, called Secret Son, where I go back to the church; I go find my father. I confront my past.
UD That must have been difficult.
RRW I used film-making as a way of dealing with the past. It was more difficult than I ever imagined because, naively, stupidly I thought, "I'm going to use the camera to protect myself emotionally." I ended up crying many times on camera. I found my father living in a trailer in Georgia, and we took a 14-hour road trip to meet my brother, my half brother, sister and their families. Forty members of the family were waiting for me. We sang gospel songs, and he led everyone with his cane. He was dying of cancer; he had a colostomy bag. And at the very end of our trip before I walked out of the door, I said, "I have something to tell you."
He said, "What?" And I said, "I'm gay." Then he said, "It's ok; everyone has something wrong with them, look at me, I have cancer. And then he said, “I'd like to talk to you in private, off camera." Once alone, he said, "I'd like for you to give me money. You know, the only reason I agreed to see you is because I know that you're a big television producer and so now you have to pay me." And I said, "I thought you were seeing me because you were my father?" And he's like, "No, I want money from you. My two kids — they send me money and take care of me." I said, "Well, I take care of my mother because she raised me, but you didn't raise me." Then I went outside, and I cried.
Two weeks later after it aired on PBS, he sent me a letter saying that he had gone to his lawyers and they were going to sue me. Because knowing that he had a gay son ruined his reputation in his church, and I cried again. So it was very painful.
UD What was your first time in Africa like?
RRW When I made Music by Prudence, I went to the rural countryside to spend some days with Prudence's family in their mud hut. I remember driving there, and I started to weep, because it was so beautiful seeing these ancestors of mine who were barefoot and working the soil. They just had such closeness to the earth, and it was the most beautiful experience for me, living in a mud hut with no electricity and no running water. We sat around the fire every night and sang songs and told stories. They have it right. Like all this stuff we have, but I felt like their life was so much more grounded and beautiful than mine.
UD I didn't expect that answer. And that led you to make God Loves Uganda?
RRW I think having experienced Africa from making, Music by Prudence, I was not only aware of the hold that Evangelical Christianity had on the country, but also, that everyone was vehemently anti-gay. At first I really wanted to explore religion in Africa, because I had seen that there was a church on every corner in Zimbabwe and that people were just so deeply religious.
When I got to Uganda, I was just blown away how American Evangelicals had completely taken over the entire country in every way. The first person I met there was David Kato, the slain activist who came to my hotel. He said, "This is the cause of our problems, and this is the story that needs to be told." And a few weeks later, he was brutally murdered. That's what motivated me, and I said, "I have to help. Help not only the LGBT community, but women who are suffering."
UD It sounds like you needed to stand up for something. So, what went on inside of you when you were interviewing these people who, in fact, wanted to condemn you to death? Regardless of how very polite and nice I have heard you say they were.
RRW Yeah, they were very polite. When I'm making a film, I try to embody the person I'm interviewing and think about them and how they're thinking. So when they were saying the most horrible things like, "Gay people are worse than dogs, they should be just slaughtered, and they're not human." What I'm feeling honestly is, "Yes, you're getting it, you're capturing on film hatred and evil and you're exposing it and this is really great." So I turned it into a very positive thing.
I ended up not hating them because of it, and I actually liked and understood them. I'm still friends with Joanna, the confused lesbian. I think unless we have a conversation, nothing’s going change in Uganda without the dialogue between the two sides. As I toured Africa, we brought Pastors and the LGBT community together, and it was amazing when they started to talk. The Pastors who were so angry in the beginning and I saw many of them change their minds. I realized that if people can talk and try to understand each other, there wouldn't be all this pain and war and killing.
UD Do you feel a sense of responsibility being the first ever African-American to win an Academy Award for directing and producing a short or feature film, Music by Prudence?
RRW Yes, I do because there were no role models and not even a lot of opportunities for me to get into film coming from a poor working class community. So I think it's really important that I give back, and I help mentor young black filmmakers because we need diversity in the types of documentaries and stories that we're telling. If it's just a bunch of privileged white people telling stories, we're not getting a clear picture. I'm on the board of Sundance, and one of the things that I really try to stress is that Sundance and organizations like that need to develop initiatives for minority filmmakers and different voices.
RRW Yeah, well God Loves Uganda was like putting on the armor and going to battle, and you had to wear the armor in order to protect yourself from a very poisonous, very negative sort of subject. There were people who would protest the LGBT community or protest gay people by saying, "Fags deserve to die." That's a very negative thing that I would come home sometimes and I would — having absorbed a lot of that negativity — I would be just wiped out. I would have to tune completely out and binge-watch something on Netflix. I don't know; I would just have to do things or work in the garden or — I felt like I had to cleanse myself of all the negativity. It was emotionally tough.
And Music by Prudence was just pure love. The struggle of Prudence was serious and tough, but Prudence triumphed over that struggle in the most beautiful way. It was a very positive and uplifting film and people walked away happy and feeling good and wanting to help and do positive things.
UD What drew you to Upstate from New York City?
RRW I'd lived in the city for 20 years, and I just love the country and I wanted a place where I could just breathe and be in nature and think and be creative. I had had enough with New York City — with the struggle and the stress of the city. I think that I would definitely never have won the Oscar, I would never have become a filmmaker, if I hadn't moved Upstate and gotten away from the city and gotten space and time to think about my life and what I wanted from it. I think that was because of Upstate. I would like nothing more than to make a film Upstate, and I am constantly trying to find something that inspires me.
UD Your place up here is stunning!
UD Thanks Roger, its been a real pleasure!