Travels With The Prep School Negro: An Interview With Filmmaker André Robert Lee
“Nothing else in life matters when I walk in that room except the work we are doing.”
Filmmaker André Robert Lee has spent the last few years taking his documentary The Prep School Negro to almost 300 schools and colleges throughout the country, conducting workshop showings of the film, and leading discussions with students about his work. The Prep School Negro is an intensely personal film about Andre’s experiences growing up in the ghettos of Philadelphia, and then at fourteen, receiving a full scholarship to attend one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country—both a golden ticket and what would become source of emotional hardship, disconnect from his family, and questions of identity. In the film, André revisits the events of his adolescence while also spending time with current day prep school students of color and their classmates. The film explores poignant and unapologetic truths about who really pays the consequences for yesterday’s accelerated desegregation—and today’s racial naiveté.
Wait, here’s the trailer:
Currently André is working on a theatrical version of the film with Nathaniel Kahn (who made My Architect), preparing the new and extended version for a potential Oscar run. (Contribute to their major kickstarter campaign to help them finish! and if you need convincing here’s Lance Reddick of The Wire and Fringe fame endorsing the film.) FringeArts Blog caught up with André to discuss his success in both showing his art and having meaningful discussions surrounding it, and how these elements work together to form a complete experience for audiences.
FringeArts: What were you doing the week I sent you these questions?
André Robert Lee: I was leading a Civil Rights tour with students from Carolina Friends School. CFS is a great school in the woods of Durham, North Carolina. It was one of the first schools I visited when searching for students to work with for the project [The Prep School Negro]. I drove down Meeting House Lane for my first meeting with the kids a few years back and fell in love right away. This is the second year I have taken part in the tour. We drove from Durham to Montgomery to Selma to Atlanta to Greensboro and then back to Durham to visit and study important Civil Rights movements and landmarks. It’s rather incredible to revisit this history through the eyes of junior high school students.
FringeArts: Obviously you have seen the film many times now—has the meaning of it changed at all for you? What is your experience watching it now?
André Robert Lee: The meaning changes each time I witness an audience participating in the workshop. The film is very emotional. I cannot sit through it every time. I learn something at each screening. I truly do. It is powerful and encouraging seeing people witness your art, respond, and transform. As the artist, you go through the same process with each presentation. Making this film changed and even possibly saved my life. I had major issues to deal with. Each workshop was a chance to use my story as a vehicle to help thousands deal with their existence. As an artist, this is what I most desired.
André Robert Lee: I have done nearly 300 workshops—I have not called them screenings as I am still in the pre-release period with the film. At a workshop, I do a quick intro to the film. That ranges from doing a reading of papers other students have prepared about the experience to sharing stories or anecdotes. I feel out the crowd and move from there. I have been to nearly 300 high schools, colleges, universities, institutions, and conferences around the country. The type of schools range from Exeter (Massachusetts) to Crossroads (Los Angeles) to Greenfield Community College (Western Massachusetts) to Colgate College (Hamilton, NY) to Vanderbilt University (Tennessee) to Harvard University (we all know where that is!). We watch the film. Afterwards, I conduct the workshoppy part of the evening. I don’t walk in with a lecture. I conduct a questions and answers session. We then have a challenging conversation about issues raised in the film. The issues tend to gather around race, identity, and class. The general notion and discussion of “other” is a big one. My workshops have ranged from twenty-five minutes to six hours. The six-hour event took place at a rather conservative, small private college. I was challenged to the core and loved every minute of it. I had them bring me dinner on stage! I am still surprised at each workshop by the conversations and the possibility for growth for all in the room.
FringeArts: Did you have a model to follow?
André Robert Lee: I had no model to follow whatsoever. It just started. I spoke from the heart and it seemed to work. The moment I knew there was something special was during a workshop at Head Royce School in Oakland, California. Afterwards a 65-year-old white woman fell into my arms weeping. I was taken aback, but I knew I had to deal and take care of this new audience. By the one-hundredth workshop, I started to see that I got in a zone when up on stage. I am never nervous. I am excited. This work taps into the performer in me. I have always been afraid of that performer. Doing this work that is so personal and allows me to be so vulnerable on stage has affected my existence.
FringeArts: Can you take us through some of the basic steps of how you conduct your workshops?
André Robert Lee: What happens: I introduce. I always try to get a few laughs to loosen up the audience. I am very concerned with connecting with my audience. We are about to go on a journey together. We do not do any marketing for the workshops. The majority of our bookings have come from word of mouth.
Logistics: I have a team that stands behind me to get things in place. I have a director of programming that handles all logistics related to setting up a workshop. I had to agree early on that I would only function as the talent. I show up and do the workshop. I never discuss any logistics with groups.
Physical: I can screen the film in any room that has a projector, a surface to throw the film image, a sound system and a place for audience members to sit. I have been in places where it’s two teachers holding up a sheet and auditoriums where they have the latest technology. I treat each as equals. I give everything I have at these events.
FringeArts: What’s the best advice you have for others who want to achieve a similar level of discussion, especially with high school students?
André Robert Lee: You have to be honest and present. Do not work too hard to impress. I find that high school students don’t respond well when you try too hard. Speak directly to them, not down at them. Accept your role as teacher first and friend second. I also believe you have to find your target audience and go right to them first. My success came from schools sharing the story about my visit. We did not do any aggressive marketing.
FringeArts: You’ve achieved a very effective marriage of showing the art, having meaningful workshops, and speaking about the how and why of the film. Can you give some advice/pointers on being able to achieve this?
André Robert Lee: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sam Shepard, and countless others have said it is important to write what you know. My tale is a very personal story. I allow myself to be very vulnerable. This feels a little strange to type, but I give everything I have at these workshops. Nothing else in life matters when I walk in that room except the work we are doing. I listen to questions intensely. I never tell someone they are wrong without offering support as I answer their questions. People need the opportunity to share their stories.
FringeArts: What are some of the most interesting or surprising responses that you’ve encountered?
André Robert Lee: I have experienced all kinds of responses from the film. Some folks accuse me of claiming to tell the story of every single black kid going to private school. Some see the film and believe it is their story. Some see the film and connect with and at major points. Some only connect with minor points. I do feel comfortable saying that 85% of the time something magical happens during the watching of the film. In my introduction I ask audience members to think about where their hearts and minds meet when watching. How does the intellectual self interact with the emotional self? I encourage the audience to think about where these two meet when watching.
I have also had a lot of people say ask what they can do. “How can I help?” “What can I do differently?” I always try to share any limited practical advice where applicable. But I think the best advice I give is for folks to think about the intention behind their question. When they can explore exactly why they are asking the question, I believe the answers will come.
FringeArts: Hey, what’s this about a theatrical release and DVD?
André Robert Lee: A member of the Oscars approached me soon after the completion. He thought The Prep School Negro had a chance to go for the gold. I agreed right away to work with him. We agreed to cut a new version of the film that might meet the Academy Awards qualifications. I worked with a new edit team to make a theatrical version of the film. It was a major challenge to go back into the edit room, deconstruct my 53 minute first version of the film and make a new version. We created at 71-minute long theatrical version. I now have two versions of the film. The 53-minute long one is the Educational version. The 71-minute long one is the Theatrical version. We have one theater in New York City and one in Los Angeles that will release the film this summer for an Oscar qualifying run. We will then start selling the educational version of the DVD this fall and the theatrical version on DVD in the spring of 2014.
Thanks Andre, looking forward to following the film’s continued progress!