Lei White is a writer and activist based in New York. His work lifts the veil surrounding the human condition and legacy, especially within the black community. Iris editor Lyvie Scott sat down with Lei to discuss gatekeeping in the film industry, the need for more diverse sets, and the power of storytelling.
This interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
LS: When did you first fall in love with film? Do you have any massive influences in terms of films or filmmakers?
LW: Yeah, absolutely. Gosh, I remember the first two movies I watched. Ironically it was Casablanca and, immediately after Casablanca, me and my dad watched Batman Forever. [Laughs] So it was a real “A-movie, B-movie” situation.
LS: That’s the one with Val Kilmer, right?
LW: Yeah! Y’know, you see someone like Batman on a TV screen, I think every kid wanted to emulate that and be that hero. But I was [more] drawn to Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca because there were just these amazing tropes and themes that were happening throughout the film.
I probably didn’t have the language to communicate any of that then, but I could recognize moments of self-sacrifice … Spoiler for anyone who’s never seen Casablanca — but also, you should have seen it by now — there’s a scene at the end where [Bogart] could be with the woman he loves but, if he were to go with her, he knows that they would be constantly chased. Somebody else might suffer for his selfishness, so he has to be selfless.
There are moments like that where I would ask my dad, like, “If he could just be with her, then why wouldn’t he be with her?” Then my dad explains to me what self-sacrifice is. So at a young age I was learning all these really deep themes and principles, and I think that’s just kinda how storytelling started for me. Which I know is super pretentious…
LS: It’s not! It’s an example of storytelling being used to bring up topics that you normally wouldn’t be able to discuss. I think that makes your connection to film stronger.
LW: It’s wild, I remember that moment with my dad, and I remember watching literally every episode of Friends with my mom. We were so in love with that show. Honestly, looking back on it, it’s almost like it was meant for me. The idea of storytelling has always been so rooted in my family, and I’m sure in your family as well, and heavily in black culture. It’s always been the go-to.
LS: Yeah, definitely. And it’s so nice to connect with something that resonated with your parents. My mom was really obsessed with Bruce Lee.
LW: It’s so funny you mention that, because my dad is obsessed with really any kung fu movie. He’ll always tell me stories about how he was an extra in all these Bruce Lee movies.
LS: No way.
LW: Seriously. He would go and be an extra in a bunch of kung fu movies. And so now, if ever there’s a project or anything I’m working on, he’ll say, “Y’know… if you ever need an extra…”
LS: What do you do in film? What kind of films do you like to make?
LW: I am a writer first and foremost. I have directed, but mostly I think for me, it’s about writing. The kind of movies I like to write — and this is probably one of the most “male” answers I can think of — but movies that are centered on legacy really mean a lot to me. They’re the ones that always draw me in. I always think about the things that parents will leave behind. The people who we raise, or bring into this world, or take under our wings, they unfortunately (or fortunately) will inherit all that we have to offer. Then it starts to be a question of “What are those things that you’re going to offer? What are they gonna look like?” That’s always been a fascination of mine, whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing.
LS: Are there any projects you’re currently working on?
LW: I have a feature script that I’m still working on. I’m pretty much… well, I shouldn’t say “pretty much done.” I’m one of those people that just pores over the thing that [they] work on way too much. I’ve been working on it for a really long time, and it’s just now at a point where I think it’s at a good point. I just have to get past my [inner] critic.
LS: It’s so hard. Every time I think I’m finished with a script, I’ll come back and be like, “This is garbage.”
LW: Oh my God, yeah. I’m at a point now where I’m like, “Pages 1 through 26 are golden. Pages 27 through 32… what is happening?” The pages in question are like pinned to my wall [right now] and it’s all circled and it looks like I’m tracking down the Zodiac Killer. But we’re at a point in our lives where every shot counts. And this one feels like my silver bullet. I don’t want to waste it, so I pore over each word, each phrase, each sentence, make sure everything is exactly perfect… and I just keep doing it until someone is like “Just send it!”
LS: I totally get that. Especially now, with everything horrible going on in the world, it’s definitely a privilege to be able to work on your art. But there’s also a lot of pressure to break into this industry that is simultaneously so saturated and also so gatekept.
LW: I love that phrase. I love that people are using it more often. It’s so accurate and so true. Trying to get past those gatekeepers, sometimes you have to sell yourself a bit, or sell little pieces of yourself or your culture to get past it. It’s a miserable feeling. It’s something that I’ve been wrestling with.
LS: It’s so hard. I know you heard this in school, but my professors always used to say “If you’re gonna do [film], you have to love it. You have to not want to do anything else with your life.” And I heard that so much that I was like “Yeah, whatever!” by the end, but I really get it now. It’s very rarely a gratifying career.
LW: Yes, and it’s funny because people will hear that you’re on a set and they think your life must be glamorous. But it’s brutal. It’s going to be wonderful when it’s all completed and I’m six or seven months removed from it, but you don’t realize how taxing things can be.
I went to Chinatown with a friend the other day, and we had a late lunch, and started talking about our experience on this set that we worked on. We’re in the middle of this Chinese restaurant, lots of people there, and I’m talking about this thing that happened to me that really upset me, right? And as I’m talking about it, my hands just start shaking. And I notice it, and have just a quick “two plus two” moment in my head like, “Oh, I’m still upset.” [Laughs] And here it is, I’m in this Chinese restaurant just unloading it all. But that’s how it is. You don’t know how traumatized you are by things until… you know.
LS: Is there anything specific that keeps you going through all that?
LW: I mean, we went to a very prestigious college, you and I. My entire time there, I never had a black professor. I never saw a black filmmaker really, really excel. And I think it’s because there’s a lack of resources, specifically for people of color. Not having a black mentor or professor … that can be really detrimental to someone’s mental health, to never feel like they’re seen or acknowledged. That was a lot of black students’ experience.
I’m fortunate enough to have had a really phenomenal mentor. He spoke with me, he saw me, he listened to me — I can’t tell you how important and instructive that was, just listening. That has put me in the position I am now. And I’ve told so many black people who’ve been on sets with me since, that there’ll be days when they’ll wanna quit — ‘cause there are days when I wanna quit — but we can’t.
We no longer have the luxury of saying “I’m doing this just for me now.” And I think that’s a wonderful thing. I embrace that fully. I’m happy that I’m not doing this just for me anymore. I feel like I’m doing it for whichever person of color wants to be in film and has any doubts that their stories are relevant or that they matter. Whether or not I have the most illustrious career, if I can encourage people to be in this field and really take over, keep sharing stories like we’ve always done? Job well done.
LS: This month’s theme is tradition. And I feel like there are so many “traditions” in the film industry that are just designed to suppress people. Do you think about ways to create a new path in such a rigid industry?
LW: So far what I’ve learned is, you’ve gotta play the game a little bit. You’ve gotta learn how to play it. It’s literally Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” You’ve gotta take the situation and make it work for you. That’s why I think it’s so important for black people to see other black people doing things and thinking “Oh, yeah. I can do it.”
But [there] are things I believe do ward people off from joining or being a part of something. I’m on a set right now, and the other day I was looking around. It’s funny because, as a black person, your thoughts are completely different from a white person. A white person will say “Man, this is amazing. There’s the C-Stand, there’s the camera, the director, the actors...” But as a black person, I’m having all those thoughts and I’m also thinking to myself “Man! I haven’t seen a black person yet.”
There are sets with a lot of diversity. True diversity. But more often than not, you see predominantly-white sets, and you have such a hard time being in those environments and feeling comfortable in those environments. Like, for example, when I was working on Dexter, we went to a city called Shelburne Falls. It was predominantly white, and I got pulled over. I was told my tail lights were out — they weren’t. That was a really disgusting moment. I still had to go to set. While I was on set, I had a really nasty racial encounter with one of the locals. These things happened on the same day.
That was my biggest fear: something like that happening, and not knowing whether I would have people in my corner. When you’re the only black person and no one puts the effort in to check or care, it truly can feel like your problem. That was a really hard thing for me to go through. So I feel like it’s really important for people to have their own communities within this wonderful film community. We need diversity to make things better.
LS: We talked about tropes earlier. Film can be very formulaic, especially in this “blockbuster, blockbuster, franchise, blockbuster” day and age. But is there a trope or genre that you don’t think you’ll ever get tired of?
LW: That's a tough one. I’m really such a sucker for everything. I never watch a movie just once. Even if I don’t like it, chances are I’ve seen it twice, or three times even. Movies about the human condition, like [Charles Burnett’s] Killer of Sheep, I always revisit. That’s the kind of stuff I like. Again, that’s pretentious, but—
LS: No, you like what you like! On the flip side of that, is there a movie that people consider “recommended viewing” that you just think is overrated? LW: Oh, man. It’s funny because there’s a movie that I watched last night that I thought was overrated before, but when I watched it I kinda liked it. I’m really embarrassed to say it. It’s… Love Actually.
LS: [Laughs] It’s so good, right?
LW: Such a wonderful movie. I felt that way about Pride & Prejudice (2005) too. But I’m having a hard time thinking about the ones that I confirmed are overrated.
LS: In most cases, I feel like if that many people recommend a film, there’s always something you can learn from it. Even though I still haven’t seen films like The Godfather, or Schindler’s List…
LW: Those movies are supposed to be the pillars for every film student, but those are not my pillars. Like Training Day, for me, I’m like, “You’ve gotta see it.”
LS: Anything in Denzel [Washington]’s oeuvre, you have to watch. I can’t wait to see him in Macbeth.
LW: Yeah! I gotta be honest, I was not a big fan of that play, which I know is sacrilegious. But Denzel, honestly, has a way of taking an average script and making it something really great. I’m not saying that Macbeth’s an average script, but… [Laughs]
LS: Shakespeare, to me, comes down to the lead actor. I’ve seen Hamlet so many times and I didn’t always like it. But in the right hands, it completely changes it. Interpretation is everything.
LS: Speaking of which, is there a classic film that you would like to remake if you had the opportunity?
LW: I really had to sit down and think about this, but the movie that I’d like to redo — not that it needs redoing — I’d love to do In the Mood For Love. That'd be really special. And I’d totally change it too. I might make it a Haitian love story. Like keep the same intention, but just change the locale.
LS: You’re blowing my mind right now. That’s such a good choice.
LW: I feel like [Wong Kar-Wai] has the human condition nailed down to a science. Like, it’s simple, there don’t need to be fireworks and explosions everywhere. I like that too, but you can also just have people living. Like getting those snapshots? It’s real.
LS: Completely. Lastly, where can people view your work?
LW: A film that I executive produced is premiering in Senatobia, Mississippi. It’s called Blueberries, and it is an absolute gem of a film, written and directed by West Givens. It’ll break your heart. Hopefully when it’s completed its festival circuit, we can do a little release online.