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Austin Film Festival: Exclusive Interview with Director Nicki Micheaux

Nicki Micheaux’s A Summer of Violence has been gaining a ton of buzz as it makes the festival circuit, and for good reason. Along with its endearing story of a young woman discovering the power of organizing and poetry, two ways for her voice to be heard, it’s gorgeously shot with a strong sense of control in every frame. I was lucky enough to sit with the director in Austin to talk about her process in this film and more. I hope you enjoy the conversation!

How’d you develop this narrative?

I developed this movie with the Sundance Collab. I was taking a course there and I brought this script in. They ripped it up, twice—y’know, it’s just a process. Taking it apart to put it back together. But I had been writing scripts, trying to get something that made sense. By the time I started working with Sundance, it was like that lightbulb went off. That was where the film really found its cohesion and started to become something people responded to.

You mentioned the importance of wanting to capture the bad and the good in this movie. How was it developing that aspect of this script?

Life is hard. Being a black woman is hard. Being a person of color is hard. There are certain struggles that exist in this country, in this world, there are certain dynamics that are set up that are challenging, and I wanted to show the power of love in spite—or, through these challenges. Love powers us to keep going. I wanted to show difficulties with the father and the daughter, how sometimes that can be controlling. I wanted to show how a young person navigates that, especially as a woman. Not only is she getting it from her father, but the world is not giving her a break. But what’s the thing that makes you keep going? I know it’s all happening–I’m living it, too—but how do we keep going? And that’s why, for me, love was the thing. It’s funny, because a friend of mine was like ‘Nicki, no one cares about some stupid love movie,’ and I was like, ‘Why not?’ [laughs]. It felt very soft and very feminine, but really, it’s the most powerful thing because without it, you don’t get up in the morning. You don’t do the uncomfortable thing. That was why the light was so important. That was why I wanted it to be a beautiful film. Because in spite of all the darkness and ugliness in our world there is still beauty, and that’s what I wanted to shine a light on. I think if we hold onto the beauty, hold onto the love, we can make more of it. That’s my hope.

Has your background as an actor shaped the way you write or direct?

I’ve been an actor for thirty years. I can’t get rid of it. I wouldn’t even know how to be. I tend to act out all the parts in my head. Each character is separate, which is fun, and I think it really helps to help actors on set. You can walk them through the process—well, through your process—and try to help them understand their process. I really love working with actors, and I loved working in this kind of deep emotional work that we had to do in this film because it lives and dies on their performances, honestly.

Was that part of your process even with your short film, Veil?

Veil was much more ambitious in some ways. It was sci-fi action, and I was trying to take this whole movie and drill it down to ten minutes, and we had a crew of three, so that had its own challenges [laughs]. I got to work with the great Richard Roundtree, and other amazing actors. That was so long ago, I was still a little green, and I was also acting in it with so many other budget constraints. I don’t think my command of story was as good as it is now but part of my ability to do what I do now is because of that: because I tried to do something so ambitious in ten to fifteen minutes. Like, okay, let’s see if we can tell a character-driven story that doesn’t have time jumps, doesn’t have special effects, but just get people to love and follow this character.

How long were you developing this script?

I finished the script in 2018. I had written and come back so many times. By the time I worked with Sundance that was the last iteration of it, but then I put it away because I couldn’t sell it. I was a little defeated as a writer because I couldn’t win any contests, I wasn’t able to get anyone to buy my script. So, when I went to Sundance to perfect Summer of Violence and I did the course and rewrote the script, I submitted it to a bunch of contests then I forgot about it. I didn’t even worry about it. I was moving on trying to pitch a TV show. I hate reading feedback because it’s nerve wracking. Months and months later, I was like ‘I should read the feedback on Summer of Violence since I submitted to all those contests.’ I went back and finally people were saying it was good. I still hadn’t won anything, but no one had ever said my scripts were good, so it gave me hope. Those contest and coverage readers are a tough audience. That was why I picked it up again. I was focused on my kids through the pandemic, but when they were back to normal with school I was finally like ‘okay, now I can make this movie,’ and then an investor showed up. That was why I resurrected the script, then we went into production August of ’22 and we shot for 19 days. Team no sleep!

Poetry is such a big part of this movie. You’ve also talked about loving theater. I’m wondering how you see this film in conversation with other artistic mediums or, if I can go broader, how you see art as a whole as one big dialogue.

It’s amazing to me when people compare this to Poetic Justice and Love Jones. That is an amazing compliment. My goal is to market the film and get the word out so it has a chance to be seen and have an impact on people. If it can exist, then it can start to have those bigger conversations of what is possible with art and what you can do with your words. One person, at ABFF, told me she’d never seen a sex scene the way I’d portrayed it. A lot of times, females are very objectified, it’s all about the orgasm, but what I tried to focus on is what does a human connection look like that becomes physical in times of trauma, and how important it is to be seen. The intimacy of it was really what my focus was, and I think for black characters—I haven’t seen everything in the world, so I can’t say it’s never been done—but I haven’t seen a whole lot of it and I wanted to see more of it. So, it is my hope that when we make art like this that woman goes ‘wait a minute, so this is how I can be treated?’ and I can say ‘yes!’ How else are we articulating what love, sex, intimacy, friendship look like if we don’t reflect them in our art? Men have a wonderful time doing what they want to do in films, showing women how they want to be seen. Cool, whatever, I’m not mad, but what we do in our art does impact how we see the world. Look how women are objectifying themselves. Wigs, you know, that shit is not automatic. It takes time! So, in our art, if we can reflect that women can show up as they are and be loved and accepted—that’s why I cast Kasey, which still isn’t fair, ‘cos she’s gorgeous. But I purposefully didn’t overdo her makeup. I wanted her to be as natural as possible, to shine through, because if we don’t do more of that it won’t exist. So, art is powerful. I think so.


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