Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Emmy Award-winner Dante
James is an independent filmmaker who has produced and directed numerous award-winning
documentaries as well as a critically-acclaimed dramatic short film. In June
2006 James, accepted an appointment as Artist-in-Residence instructor/filmmaker
at Duke University, and the following year he conceptualized, produced, and
directed The Doll, based on a short story by Charles W.
Chesnutt. The Doll subsequently screened at film festivals around the
world, including the Pan African International Film Festival in Cannes.
In 2006, Dante received three Emmy nominations for his work
on the PBS series Slavery and the Making of America, for which
he was awarded an Emmy for his work as series producer. He has also been
recognized as a distinguished alumnus by Grand Valley State University in 1994,
and in December 2007 when he delivered the commencement address the university
awarded him a Doctorate of Humane Letters. In addition, he has earned a Masters
Degree from Duke
In 2010, James plans to turn his creative efforts to the
production of an independent feature film, which will be shot in Detroit and in
his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Here, Dante discusses his latest
offering, Harlem in Montmartre, a Paris Jazz Story for
PBS's Great Performances. The documentary tells the story of the jazz age
in Paris between 1920 and 1945. It explores an abandoned but crucial aspect of
the African-American cultural experience and its effect on the international
stage. The documentary will air on PBS at 8 PM (ET/PT) on August 26, 2009.
(Check local listings)
KW: Hi Dante, thanks for another interview.
DJ: Hi Kam, it’s always great to talk with you and I want
you to know that I appreciate your interest in my films.
KW: What interested you in making Harlem in Montmartre?
DJ: When we were working on the Slavery and the Making
of America series in 2004 my friend Charles Hopson brought the project to
WNET. Charles had acquired the rights to the book and Tammy Robinson, a
brilliant black woman who at the time was WNET’s V.P. of national production
had the vision to see the potential and the importance of the
project. Tammy took the project on and she and Charles asked me to direct
KW: It is based on a book by the late Anthony Shack, a
professor of anthropology at Berkeley. What challenges were involved in
adapting it into a documentary?
DJ: That is a very interesting question. Actually, it
took some time to figure out how to make the book come alive. My Duke
University class was involved in analyzing the script, suggesting storylines
and visual approaches. They were very creative and several of their ideas
did end up the film. But the biggest challenge was figuring out a way to tell
the story by using the music as the spine of the film. We wanted to have the
music take us through the history as opposed to having the history take us to
the music. The other huge challenge was determining what would make it
into the film because there were so many great stories.
KW: In the screen version, you focus on a handful of key figures,
including Josephine Baker, bandleader James Reese Europe, clarinetist Sidney
Bechet, nightclub owners Bricktop and Eugene Bullard and gypsy guitarist Django
Reinhardt. What made you settle on their stories?
DJ: As you know the best films are character-driven. The
idea was to cast the film with interesting characters who could take us through
the history with music as an essential part of the storytelling. For
instance, Sidney Bechet was an incredible musician but he also represented many
other things. He represented the strength and independence of black people
during that time period. As a matter of fact, all of the characters were
representative of our struggle for social, political, economic and artistic
freedom in France and in this country. Django Reinhardt was the person who
pioneered French jazz. Early French jazz musicians attempted to
imitate American jazz. Django was essential to the development of a French
style of jazz. One of the ways he did this was with drastically different
KW: Why did you decide to mix in live performances of jazz
classics with archival footage? And by the same token, why did you employ the
technique of having actors impersonate some of the leading icons from the era?
DJ: There were specific musical story points that were
essential to telling the story and to interpreting the history. The live
performances gave us the flexibility of featuring those points and they were
also essential to the pacing of the film. We did not want to rely solely
on the archival footage, as that would have been very limiting. In terms
of musicians representing musicians of the time period we wanted to have our
band directed by the brilliant Victor Goines simply capture the feel and the
spirit of the musicians in Montmartre during that time period. I did not want
them to attempt to become actors.
KW: What I found fascinating was learning that
African-Americans first discovered Paris during World War I. How many black
expatriates lived in Montmartre?
DJ: First of all, I want to say that we had the opportunity
to work with an incredible group of scholars. They kept us on track and helped
us understand the complexity of this history. But to answer your question in
spite of all of the activity and all of the accomplishments of the black
expatriates in Montmartre the total black expatriate population never reached
more than several hundred.
KW: To what extent did Jim Crow segregation in America
contribute to the exodus?
DJ: There is a moment in the film when Brent Edwards talks about
the idea of freedom and how after black Americans experienced freedom and
respect in France during World War I. They began to see possibilities and could
no longer accept the segregation and degradation of American racism. But
it is also important to note that we do not frame France as a utopia for black
people. We spend quite a bit of time making the point that France was a
colonial power and while they were welcoming black American expatriates they
were exploiting and oppressing people of color in the Caribbean, West Africa,
and Vietnam. This is an example of what I meant in terms of exploring the
complexity of this history.
KW: The film also focuses on the fact that the bubble began
to burst during The Depression when Paris started enforcing an ordinance
limiting the number of foreign performers.
DJ: This is really interesting in that the10% law, which
limited the employment of foreign musicians to10% of any band, had been on the
books for many years. But with the onset of The Depression, the French began
enforcing the law. So it was not a matter of race, it was more a matter of
French capitalism and the tighter money supply. This is something we see
happening in this country as resources become sparse people take action to make
sure that they are going to be financially stable. We often interpret
their actions as racist and sometimes race is a factor. However, this is also
one of the characteristics of capitalism.
KW: And then what had been an oasis of tolerance turned into
a nightmare when the specter of Hitler invading France forced all the blacks to
run back to America where they not only had to readjust to segregation and
second-class status but where they received little respect as
DJ: It is ironic and sad that in World War I black Americans
were not allowed in U.S. combat units because the U.S. military did not want
black soldiers killing white enemies. It is also ironic and sad that while some
segments of American society referred to jazz as jungle music, the French
recognized it as an art form. But this is the dichotomy of the black
experience. Yet, through it all, we continue to define ourselves and assert
our humanity and our dignity.
KW: What do you want viewers to come away with from Harlem
DJ: The film is really about finding common ground as human
beings and in Montmartre that common ground was black American jazz. We
must begin to think not in terms of race, color, language, religion, or
political persuasion but in terms of humanity. The common thread of
humanity is more powerful than all of the things that divide us.
KW: How was it working with PBS again? Do you ever feel
constrained by the limits of public television?
DJ: To be very frank with you it was difficult. Too often in
television, film and publishing there are those in positions of power who have
the final word on the interpretation of our history and our culture, but it is
not their culture and they do not understand it. In general I’m happy with
the film, however, there were changes made after I left WNET that I am not
happy with. Here is an example. In the opening of the film Josephine
Baker is described as scandalous. I think that description far too narrow. Her
act might have been scandalous at first, but the French patrons who paid to see
her were just as scandalous if not more so. Josephine Baker was complex
and extremely talented so I have a problem with reducing her to scandalous at
the top of the show. Clearly this was copy that was written by and approved by people
outside of our culture. Things like this happen far too often.
KW: What’s your next film project going to
DJ: I really enjoyed making my dramatic short film THE DOLL
and it has screened at film festivals nation wide and internationally so I
decided to make an independent feature film in my home state of Michigan. The
Michigan Film Commission is offering incredible incentives for filmmakers to
shoot films in the state. I have identified a story and I’m working with Mike
Wiley, an incredibly gifted actor and screenwriter, on the script. It’s
wonderful to have the opportunity to work with a brother in an atmosphere of
mutual respect and support. My attorney, Lee Jenkins, and I are in the
process of seeking investors, so Kam, if you have an extra two million dollars
to invest in this project we’ll even give you a cameo role! Lee is
another brilliant black man who has been supportive of me and my work for many
years. With a team that includes Lee, Mike and of course my wife, Delores, I
know we will be
KW: Will you also be teaching at Duke this semester? What
DJ: As of today I’m scheduled to teach a course on planning
the documentary film. However, like every other university in America, Duke is
experiencing economic challenges and there could be changes. In the meantime,
I’m also exploring other opportunities at Duke. Whatever happens, it is a great
university and I’m very proud to have a masters’ from Duke and I’m appreciative
of the opportunities I’ve had there. They made the production of THE DOLL
possible and by the way the film is still available at www.dmdfilms.com.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you
wish someone would?
DJ: No not
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you
DJ: I’m happy but I’m also very concerned. I’m troubled by
the poverty, unemployment, and homelessness that is so prevalent in American
society. I’m troubled by the expanding gap in wealth between the rich and the
poor and I’m troubled by crime and violence in our communities. So, I suppose
one can say that I’m happy but I’m also very concerned about a number of
issues. But overall, I’m happy; I have a great life, a great family, and
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever
DJ: I’m afraid about something everyday. There is so much
conflict in the world. But it’s important to overcome fear and try to make a
positive contribution to society
KW: Teri Emerson would like to know, when was the last time
you had a good
DJ: I’m sure that I have a good laugh everyday. Laughing and
having fun are very much a part of being fully
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music
are you listening to
DJ: I have XM radio in my car, in my home and on my
computer. It’s usually on and it’s usually tuned to the real jazz channel.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last
book you read?
DJ: I’m rereading From Slavery to Freedom and various other
works by Dr. John Hope Franklin. He was a great man and a great mentor. Reading
his work is as close as I can come to re-living the great conversations I used
to have with him. I really miss him but I’m thankful for the time I was able to
spend with him.
KW: What has been the biggest obstacle you have had to
DJ: Realizing that there will always be challenges. And
understanding that life is not about a destination it’s about the
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero
DJ: I don’t know that I have heroes but there are a number
of people that I have a great deal of respect for. They include Henry Hampton,
Che Guevara, Malcolm X, C.L.R. James and of course Dr. Franklin along with many
of the people related to my films, Marian Anderson, A. Philip Randolph, and
Charles W. Chesnutt, just to name a
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help
DJ: I’m not sure that I have fans, but support for my films
is always welcome.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you
DJ: An individual who still has much to
KW: What is your favorite meal to
DJ: I’m a terrible cook.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow
in your footsteps?
DJ: There is no substitute for hard work. Booker T
Washington said, “Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having except as a
result of hard work.” I can’t believe I’m quoting Booker T.
KW: How do you want to be
DJ: As a man who loved his children, his family and
KW: Thanks again, Dante, and best of luck with Harlem in
Montmartre and all your other
DJ: Thank you, Kam.
To obtain a copy of the book from which Harlem in Montmartre
was adapted, visit: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0520225376?ie=UTF8&tag=thslfofire-20&linkCode=as2&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0520225376