If you talk to any artist, they will tell you their influences and inspirations are many and varied. I can easily say the same thing. When I think of a pivotal person who influenced me and my career, I can only think of one person, Wynn Thomas.
I had been watching Wynn’s work for years before I discovered the person behind the design, from Eddie Murphy’s “Raw,” Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing” and “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and Tim Burton’s “Mars Attack!” And so many others.
Let me go back to 20-year-old me, who was embarking on what could only be described as a rock ‘n’ roll grindhouse cult classic (or so we thought). “Grrl Possy” was an epic black and white film made on 8mm cameras from St. Vincent’s Thrift Store in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the mid-’90s. My friends and I wrote, directed, costumed, filmed, edited and composed the music for the film. But I was in charge of the “stuff” in the scenes. I didn’t have the language to articulate what I was doing, but I knew I was creating a place that fit the characters. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever done, creating a world that lived inside the story. I had never really thought about that particular aspect of filmmaking being separate from the things I already knew about production. Did people do this for a living? Was this something I could do? And what was it called?
Fast forward 10 years to film school. I finally set out to pursue filmmaking in hopes of a career. At film school I was learning about production, cinematography, editing, lighting, but not really production design per se. Again, I got the stuff to put in my short film projects and soon I became the “stuff getter” for the other students’ short films. I was the only one with an apartment and a child, so I had plenty of stuff. One day one of my professors said to me, “Your art direction is very intricate and provocative, you should think about going into the art department.” Art department? What in the world was that? I researched, and researched and researched, and discovered all these masterful, older white men production designing the movies I loved, the movies that moved me, and the environments that made me swoon.
I couldn’t soak up production design enough, reading about the teams that put together films that changed filmmaking, pushed aesthetics and raised the bar each and every time. But not one of them looked like me. Not one of them made me believe that I’d ever have the chance or opportunity to take that path in the film world. I just didn’t believe that was a wall I could break down all on my own, even though I knew it was something I would love. And then came Wynn. I was looking at who production designed my favorite films, and Wynn Thomas was the designer behind most of them. I looked him up, and there he was, someone who looked like me, doing the thing I didn’t think I could do, or was supposed to be able to do. I saw Wynn moving with, what seemed to me, ease through a very complicated world and not only that, working on big movies with big directors and making a life out of the thing he was most passionate about. I followed every little thing he did, watched every movie he designed, took notes, got inspired and got the confidence to believe I could do it too, seemingly with ease.
Five years went by and I never stopped thinking about Wynn, when I was at my lowest, struggling to find work, I’d think about Wynn, pick myself up and keep going, hoping one day that I could find a way to talk to him.
Nearly a decade later, and I felt like maybe I had gone as far as I was going to go, and maybe I should stop. And I remember as clear as day the thought that traveled through my head, “just give up,” and at that moment, as I was driving in the hot New Orleans summer, my phone rang. On the other end of the phone was Wynn Thomas, telling me exactly what I always thought he would, “do not give up.” We talked for about an hour, he imparted his knowledge, his encouragement, his strength to me, a complete stranger. That phone call changed everything about how I moved through the industry, how I approached projects and how to trust myself as a creative.
Three weeks after that call the script for “Fruitvale Station” landed in my inbox, and a whole new journey began. A journey that led me all the way to the Academy Awards and being the first African American to be nominated and win in the category for achievement in production design for the Marvel/Disney feature “Black Panther.” It took me a long time to wrap my head around the idea that this little girl from Ohio had made it all the way to the Dolby Theatre stage on Oscar night. And my thought that week, that night, and today was and will always be that Wynn Thomas is the first, he is the one that held us all on his shoulders and showed black production designers that there is a path, that there is a way through, and to never give up. I will always be grateful to Wynn, who is still an active member of the Academy, and a prolific production designer. I will always believe the Oscar for “Black Panther” is going to be a bittersweet achievement. To be the first in anything after decades is bitter, but to earn the acknowledgment and honor from my peers is sweet. So I leave you with this, representation matters, and it inspires and influences as much as anything else does in this world. I am the proof.