INTERVIEW WITH: Yolonda Ross
Interview by: L. Kasimu Harris
Yolonda Ross’s eyes seem incapable of batting in the face of fear. They are as piercing as Dirty Harry’s, but as soft and sensual as Billie Holiday’s. I first saw Ross on screen in the 2002 movie Antwone Fisher. She played the role of Nadine, a teenager who sexually abuses the younger Fisher while he lives in a foster home from hell. As an actress Ross has thirty-six titles to her credit, but she recently made her directorial debut with Breaking Night, the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl in the 1970s who escapes abuse at home and discovers inner strength in the company of her boyfriend and their small town. The short (only ten minutes long) has minimal dialogue and is driven by nonverbal communication, strong visuals, and a song, "Blinded By the Light," that supports and drives the narrative.
While on screen Ross’s eyes convey a range of emotions, in person I received only one dispatch: extreme seriousness. Like a boxer weighing in, she stared me down and dared me to challenge her when we met during the recent New Orleans Film Festival. As she posed for photos, her eyes softened. Ross agreed to an interview and wanted me to ask the hard questions about her first attempt behind the camera; she said hard questions help to improve her craft.
PARISH CHIC: What inspired you to make this short?
YOLONDA ROSS: Last year when I was at the New Orleans Film Festival with Yelling to the Sky, I was really taken with the camaraderie of all the filmmakers, especially the shorts filmmakers. I loved how they were so supportive of one another’s work. I had just come from the Sundance Director’s Labs that summer, where my co-producer and I had worked together on a project, so all of that mixed with working on Treme that year and loving the beauty of New Orleans helped me decide I’m gonna do this.
From there, I started thinking about what I wanted to make a movie about. I had been listening to "Blinded by the Light" and had always loved that song. I started thinking of the images that came to mind when I would listen to it. I couldn’t tell you the words of the song except the chorus, but there was always the feeling of the kids at school, and a certain look that went along with it—the ’70s, the time period when the song came out. I started writing and getting the pictures out of my head and the story did actually evolve and become a tight narrative.
PC: As a writer, how hard was it to let the images do the talking?
YR: It was very easy—I actually wish there was more communicating in that way. It might teach people to listen and pay attention to others rather than just spewing out words all the time. Don't get me wrong, I do love good dialogue, but images stick with us more than words do a lot of times.
PC: By not using much dialogue, do you think that this short showcased your directing abilities more than your writing abilities?
YR: No, I feel like this short showcases both abilities. There are very few people that actually have seen this script, and while there is not a lot of dialogue, there is a lot of detail. Any one of the crewmembers could pick up the script, read it, and understand what these characters were feeling, how they would be filmed, where everything is in the scene. I'm sure there are people out there who can pull a bunch of footage together and make it work, and we could have done that, too. But in this case it was a thoroughly written script with a very clear vision of the finished product. There is not a shot in that film that does not have some sort of significance.
PC: You've mentioned wanting to tell a universal story. Why was this important to you?
YR: I wanted to tell a story that most anyone could relate to: a young girl running away from home after having enough of a negative situation. In telling that story I wanted to use a family of color. Though this kind of situation can happen anywhere and to anyone, I felt that most times when you saw black characters in the ’70s in film we lived in urban environments and there was always the problem of drugs, or we lived in the South and had to deal with racism.
I wanted to show a slower pace of life in a small town and still have tension but not in a conventional way. I also wanted race to be a non-issue. Though racism is still very real, it's not the issue I was tackling in this film. I guess I could also say that growing up in Nebraska, with races mingling together, influenced my storytelling.
PC: How has working in the movie industry impacted your style?
YR: I would say my personal style, which is always changing, works hand in hand with my roles in film and television. I have always seen each outfit/garment that I wear as an individual with a background. So with acting and developing characters, outside of them having music taste, which helps me create a living character, they have their own fashion sense that helps flesh out a two-dimensional idea into a real person.
For the characters in this short, style was an important element. People were more creatively free, I feel, in the ’70s, based on films and clothing from that time. Now people are complacent—there's a lot of "follow" in our culture and even the "risks" are somewhat bland.
Style on the Spot: Four and Breaking Night Premier Party
Wendell Pierce, Yolonda Ross, Frederick Johnson, one of the still photographers for Breaking Night, and Nelson George. Ross also stars in Four, a feature length film that was shown in tandem with Breaking Night at the New Orleans Film Fest.
Pamela Davis-Noland, media coordinator, is wearing a dress with a ticket print that she purchased from a shop in the French Quarter.
Style on the Spot: Brooklyn Boheme Premier Party
(Left to right) DJ Soul Sister, writer/filmmaker Nelson George, composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and actor Wendell Pierce, talked about some of their Brooklyn experiences after the showing.
DJ Soul Sister presented Brooklyn Boheme, Nelson George’s documentary about the African American artistic community who learned from each other while living in the Fort Greene and Clinton Hill neighborhoods of Brooklyn during the ’80s and ’90s. The short list of residents during that period include: Spike Lee, Chris Rock, Branford Marsalis, Rosie Perez, Saul Williams, Lorna Simpson, and Talib Kweli.
Wendell Pierce talking about sharing an apartment with Branford and Wynton Marsalis in Brooklyn.
Style on the Spot: New Era Store Opening on Canal Street
Will Smith, a defensive lineman for the New Orleans Saints and the tallest guy in the store, dropped by to autograph some products.
Rashad, the lucky winner in New Era’s bike giveaway.
Rashad, sporting his old school Jordans and a tattoo inspired by Terrance Osborne’s artwork.
Braden Dahl, NFL marketing manager for New Era, and Jordan Sullen, a store employee.
Style on the Spot: Around Town
J. Samuel Cook, III, is a journalist, activist, educator, and founder of Restore. Rebuild. Reinvest. He was recently named in Gambit’s 40 under 40.
Terry Demesme, here at Café Treme, is a merchandizing coordinator for Gap.
Courtney Cola, an account executive with Peter A. Mayer Advertising, is wearing a cropped Banana Republic jean jacket, a tank from Urban Outfitters, midi heels from a New York thrift shop, and a vintage shirt.
A second-line band passed through Treme, celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of the oldest black neighborhood in America.
Kelishia King was named second runner up in Alabama’s Top Model competition in 2012. King is wearing a dress from Prom Girl, Steve Madden shoes, and the earrings are from Jamaica.