Interview: Filmmaker Lonnie Edwards to be Honored at ‘Hollywood on State’ in Chicago

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CHICAGO – Tonight is the 89th Academy Awards, and Hollywood will honor their own in the annual lavish ceremony. In Chicago, there will be a similar celebration, as the Gene Siskel Film Center is throwing a “Hollywood on State” party, and honoring four local filmmakers at the event. Joining honorees Lori Felker, Jennifer Reeder and Michael Smith is filmmaker Lonnie Edwards, whose voice has made an impact ever since his awarding-winning debut in 2014, the short film “Parietal Guidance.”

After growing up in Chicago, Edwards was an installation artist before turning to filmmaking at the age of 32. After “Parietal Guidance” won numerous film festival awards, he turned his unique eye and filmmaking sensibilities toward the Michael Brown incident and Ferguson, Missouri, in “A Ferguson Story,” a film that began as a full length quasi-documentary that garnered interest from outside studios. Dissatisfied with that experience, Edwards recut the film to a shorter length, and moved onto to other projects, including his latest intuitive short film, “Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration.”

Filmmaker Lonnie Edwards to be Honored at the Gene Siskel Film Center
Photo credit: Joe Mazza/Brave Lux

Lonnie Edwards takes his experiences as a young black male in society, and creates cinema statements of purpose and power within that perspective, whether dealing with negative, positive or judgmental elements of the spectrum. He is one of the most exciting and original filmmaker voices in Chicago, and got the opportunity to talk to him before the “Hollywood on State” event. You’ve gone from adjusting your career aspirations from artist to filmmaker in 2014, to being honored at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Oscar night. What has been the most significant part of this journey?

Lonnie Edwards: For me, what changed my outlook and focus, and made me realize why I was doing this, had to do with kids I was mentoring. Film happened to be something I was drawn to, and I got encouragement from friends and my brother to give it a try.

Initially I felt the energy was to just make good films, because I felt I could do that…but once the work was done and I experienced the positive reactions, it put a perspective on what I was doing. I feel I have a duty as an artist and a human being to create work that will make the world more intelligent, make them think about themselves and motivate them to be better people. Your latest short, ‘Exodus: Sounds of the Great Migration’ explores a lesser-known element of African American history, the journey of blacks from the South to Northern cities in the 20th Century. What does the Great Migration mean to you in the context of the new short film, and what is your personal connection to it?

Edwards: I think most black people would not be here if it wasn’t for that part of history. What connects me to the Great Migration, and what I want the short film to speak about, is what the whole context of ‘The New Negro’ means [the term is came out of the early civil rights era]. If you about pioneers like Langston Hughes or Gil-Scott Heron, these are people who wrote and spoke about empowerment. They wanted to created stronger images and ideologies within black minds. The artists of the Great Migration grew into the Black Power movement, which is totally a connection to right now. If you are a black artist today, then you are immediately connected to that history. That is not thought about enough, and the goal of the film was just to get people to recognize it. After your first film, ‘Parietal Guidance’ exploded onto the scene, you took on the consequences of the Ferguson, Missouri, incidents and aftermaths in your next project. What happened in the process of going from feature documentary to a short film with that work, and what did you learn about it?

Edwards: The biggest lesson I learned from that experience, and the film industry – which parallels life – is that it’s hard to trust anyone. I created that film with the idea that I was going to be helping people, as well as expressing my art and growing from it. I wanted to leave the piece how I made it, but others were selling it in a watered down and different form. I want a complete integrity regarding a film I create, but it became about greed from other sides. Another lesson is that you have to make sure that everything is in order legally, like contracts and rights. I got through it all, and in the end it was a better film as a shorter one. You understand a perspective of identity, as both a black man in America and an artist. How has expanding your artistic reach as a filmmaker informed your identity?

Edwards: Honestly, a lot of my experiences as a young black male has been negative. Since I have began the journey as a filmmaker, I’ve gained more positive experiences as a black male. That is based upon a status, as opposed to just being. I just want every single thing I create to express what my being goes through on a daily basis, and I’m finally starting to accumulate enough notoriety so that my voice is being heard. This actually makes me want to dig deeper. I have things that I have written that are pretty solid, but things happen in life with me or the world, that makes me want to reconstruct what I have done, to talk more into what’s going on. You have two children. In your observation – and since having a self-identified African American president became possible, and generational trends involve more knowledge about race and being together – what do you think the future will hold for their sense of identity?

Edwards: I would like to always hope there is a better future for my children, you have to become optimistic when raising kids. But I’m a realist, and I raise my kids to be the same way. I tell them everything straight up, I never even gave them myths about Christmas. I let them know what reality is. My son lives in Florida, and that state is rough on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to race. Whether that is inherent in violence in the black and Latino communities, or white people rejecting persons of color, he knows it all exists.

A Ferguson Story
Scene from Lonnie Edward’s ‘A Ferguson Story’
Photo credit: Lonnie Edwards

For me, I think I’d be lying if I told you the world was better in my observation. One of the reasons I make films the way I do, because I think things are the same in race relations. Before, I think, you could create a blind spot for kids. But the information age has provided an opportunity for a kid from Chicago – where we seem more equal opportunity oriented – to understand that there is virulent racism even close by, because of our expanded resources of social media and the web. There is all types of shit coming from every angle, and I want to create things that will make a better world for my kids. What is your opinion of the n-word as a force in nature. What was the context the first time you heard it, and how did it affect you?

Edwards: The first time I heard it was as a general term from my uncle, the casual use of the word. What remains interesting is that in and around the black community the word is thrown around like nothing. Yet in my perspective I will continue to be taken aback if somebody who is not black says it. I don’t think there is any way around that moment.

I look at it in the same sense if that someone were calling me a monkey. Monkey has been used in insanely derogatory ways toward black people. But then there are programs like ‘Curious George’ where the image can be positive. If you and I were in separate classroom situations, I think could get away with comparing a black student with Curious George, and I don’t think you could. This is what has been implanted in my head. I don’t have a problem with the word itself, because where I grew up it was part of communication, but I can tell a difference. What is most ‘Chicago’ about you, and how will you strive to keep it inside you?

Edwards: Mild sauce. On french fries. That is very Chicago of me. [laughs] That’s all I need.

“Hollywood on State,” an 89th Academy Awards viewing party, is presented by the Gene Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 164 North State Street, Chicago, on Sunday, February 26th, 2017. For more information about this event and the Gene Siskel Film Center, click here. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2017 Patrick McDonald,

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