Director Adam Kritzer’s Good Funk (2016) centres on the lives of a group of Afro-Caribbean immigrants in a Brooklyn neighbourhood on the verge of gentrification. The story emerges from a unique collaborative project with young Brooklynites in the Red Hook neighbourhood, where they experience little acts of kindness that creates bonds as the characters discover a sense of belonging and family.
The filmmaker talks with PopMatters about creating art that’s regenerative and sustainable and gives back to the community. He also talks about his experience with cultivating a conversation of racial identity amidst a multicultural coalition and how diversity is often treated as a check box exercise.
To begin, please tell us about the cultural and educational project that resulted in this unique film.
Good Funk was the product of a film training and visual literacy programme for people from the neighbourhood [Red Hook, Brooklyn] where the film is set. A huge part of making a film like this — that’s not the story of a white guy from North Carolina, but an intergenerational story of Afro-Caribbean immigrants — is I wanted to figure out a way I could be aware of those questions of representation and equity and an awareness of my own racial identity, not only in front of the camera but in how we structured the production.
I wanted to make sure a solid percentage of our crew were from this community. I knew that was the only way we could make a film in a place where many of us were not from, because everyone is so aware of what it means to have a camera in a space. Who’s in control of that, not only representationally but economically? Who’s profiting off of these things? We’re in the 21st century now, so you can’t be stupid or ignorant about that any longer.
I set out to make something in a different way, which involved living in neighbourhoods for a year before writing the script. It involved developing relationships with people and listening, getting to know not just the community’s needs, but also the goals, passions and desires, and the culture itself of the people who live there. I’m a total nerd and I love to research. This is the most wonderful window into primary sources because you’re in the place and they’re telling you what the story is, not vice versa.
The story and the connections developed out of this process. I wrote a very rough draft and I recruited apprentices to participate in the programme, literally hustling on the street with my small crew of people. We handed out flyers and went to free art work shops. It was about figuring out any way that we could connect with the people so that this would resonate with them.
We had six apprentices who went through a six week training programme. In production our professional crew wasn’t much bigger than that. Most days it was a 50/50 balance on set between our professional crew who were educated at the top film schools in the country, and apprentices from the community we’d specifically trained to collaborate with us. Simultaneously through that workshop process, we were developing the shooting script, we were scouting locations together — we were doing everything.
The apprentices each own a percentage of the film’s equity in the same way that the crew does. Hopefully, that becomes a regenerative and sustainable way to make a film. The profits go back directly to the community without any strings attached.
When we think about a film, our focus is drawn to the authors, the writer, and director, or the actors. To pick up on your point about the multicultural production crew, please elaborate on why it’s important to have multiracial representation in every aspect of filmmaking.
My approach to making art is influenced by a pedagogical essay I read. One of the mantras in the piece was, “diversity doesn’t decolonise.” A lot of attempts at “diversity” are checking boxes, and are identity based without anything to support it. It’s a constant challenge to find a balance, to have things look good on paper, but also simultaneously make sense to the story. From a multicultural perspective this story can and should be told by a Black director. I’d argue the tension of that important question is sewn into the fabric of our production, and the film is much better for it.
Spike Lee made Red Hook Summer (2012), and it’s interesting to compare these two films. Good Funk is more of a complex and nuanced, three-dimensional portrayal. Not to rib on Spike Lee, who’s an incredible filmmaker and a hero of mine, but in my method of production, my approach and attention to detail, how can I disappear into the story? If I want to be a writer and director on a project, how can I do that as a white person? How can I simultaneously make an effort to be aware of and work toward decolonising power structures? It’s essential when you’re designing any sort of production or small business.
If I took all of that and encapsulated it into a short answer, it’s that the multicultural approach is what created a unique product. It was in constant conversation about racial identity and what it means to build something with a multiracial coalition.
How can the crew — the cinematographer, the editor, the lighting technician or the costume designer — contribute to creating a diverse image of representation?
… Is there a racial version of the Bechdel test? I’ve always wondered that, but if we’re talking about what would pass that type of diversity test, you realise that putting any sort of black or brown cinematographer on a film doesn’t automatically allow it to pass.
If you put [cinematographer] Bradford Young on that film, he’s an auteur behind the lens and he’ll be able to control enough elements of it. He’ll have enough stake in it because he’s a pronounced and serious artist, and that level of collaboration creates more equity. It’s not just about, “We have six white producers, let’s bring on a seventh who’s black because the optics are going to be bad.” It’s about baking it into the initial condition, so that you’re not trying to apply whitewashing bandages to a racially problematic ship.
The broader issue, then, is creating the environment and the opportunities for artists to hone their craft. If that’s accessible to all, it improves diverse representation. It’s not something we can treat as a numbers exercise, and without creating the environment and the opportunities, improving the situation will prove difficult.
I shot this movie seven years ago, and what’s interesting is the world has changed. I had so many rejections, and it’s not coincidental that I was able to find a distributor that wanted to love and nurture, and bring it to life now. I have an incredible partner in 1091 Pictures. It took me years to find them, and I wonder how much of that is about what happened in the past year, with the rise in racial consciousness around the Black Lives Matter movement, and the murder of George Floyd. It’s certainly a connection that shows this step toward wanting to give more artists the space to tell these stories.
I’ve spent a lot more time focusing on education over the past couple of years, opening up for me what it means to make art, and the different ways art can be used to help people. In addition to making things, I also produce, and I started an art school for autistic artists. All of these spaces are trying to nurture that flame and allow it to grow in a space where it’s going to be challenged, but it will also blossom.
Director Aleem Khan, director of After Love (2020), told me, “Cinema has become a very transactional exchange. It’s normally about how you’re going to make me feel, not how you’re going to make me think. I want to make films where the audience has to take their time to feel it out for themselves.” Our transactional culture explains why films like Good Funk struggle to find distribution. With film being an expensive medium, it only complicates matters.
It does when you’re trying to figure out the relationship between art as process versus art as commodity, especially when filmmaking is the most uniquely expensive process. You have to think about it differently than you would if you were just going to get together and jam with your friends and record, or do anything that’s one-on-one, or just write. It’s far and away the most expensive medium. The more films you make, the more you appreciate the elements of why that is.
Again, behind the camera, you want to be able to pay your cinematographer enough that they can go on a vacation once a year, or have a semi-normal life so they don’t have to sleep on couches. Simultaneously, you want to keep pushing the envelope representationally. It’s a tough thing to straddle.
You allow the characters to almost pass by the camera, taking an observational approach that has shades of Michelangelo Antonioni’s cinema. You observe the characters, letting the statements that construct the themes and ideas emerge from them. It’s an approach centred on giving the audience space to enter the film.
I enjoy pure cinema, as defined by [Robert] Bresson, but then I have a pretty broad definition of it. I love [Andrei] Tarkovsky and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I love these filmmakers that allow you to have your own relationship with the images, the sounds, and the mystical thing that happens when you put these two things together, and you bring in your own personal experience and observation.
I was heavily influenced by music throughout the whole process. In particular, lots of variations of music that are piped up through the Afro-Atlantic diaspora, where more than anything else you notice polyrhythms.
I call the film a polyrhythm, and that’s another way to understand this pace of plot that you’re discussing. What’s so magical about a polyrhythm is it takes its time to add up, and it’s baked into the fabric of its design. I was interested in what would that look like as a narrative. What is a polyrhythmic narrative? What’s something that’s able to have several stories moving at their own pace, overlapping, or not, and doesn’t have to culminate in this monorhythmic western climax?
If we should take anything away from the experience of Good Funk, it’s the importance of nurturing curiosity and the value of learning and expanding one’s mind.
From a personal perspective, curiosity is what keeps depression away. The dirty secret about a lot of depression is that the best solution is to think and to learn about other people. Do things for others, learn about other things, go out and listen to see how big the world is. Curiosity is the fountain that keeps us alive and allows us to find joy in what is oftentimes an incredibly difficult and dark existence.
Stream Good Funk on Geni.Us.