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Director Rusty Cundieff Talks to Sergio About Why His New Feature ‘White Water’ Is Not Your Typical Civil Rights Movie

Director Rusty Cundieff Talks to Sergio About Why His New Feature ‘White Water’ Is Not Your Typical Civil Rights Movie

Back in 1993
writer and director Rusty Cundieff burst upon the scene with his hysterical
film satirizing hip-hop, Fear of a Black Hat, which has now achieved cult
status and he followed up two years later with equally popular urban horror
film spoof Tales from the Hood. Since then he’s been very busy comedy television
director involved with such shows as The Dave Chappelle Show and The Wanda
Sykes Show and directing TV episodes for commercial and cable networks.

Now after a
long absence Cundieff has finally returned to feature film making with the TV
One movie White Water starring Larenz Tate, Sharon Leal, Barry Shabaka Henley
and Amir and Amari O’Neil which the network will premiere on Saturday Feb. 7.

Based on the
children’s novel of the same name by Michael Bandy and Eric Stein, and on a real
incident involving Bandy while growing up in the segregated South in the 1960’s,
it tells the story of Michael and his attempts to take a drink from a “whites
only” water fountain when he mistakenly believes that the “white” water is
somehow better than the “colored” water. What follows is more than just a
nostalgic glimpse about the past but develops into a serious, suspenseful and
more adult film about a young 7 tear old boy awakening to the realities of the real
world.

Last week I
talked to Rusty about his new film, what drew him to the material, what he
hopes to accomplish and why White Water is far from your usual civil rights movie.

SERGIO: So the obvious question
first, what attracted you to White Water? It’s not exactly the sort of project
that one would associate you with.  But
then again the film is not the sappy, nostalgic film that you think it’s going
to be. There’s a lot of humor, but it does get very serious, adult and even
quite suspenseful.

CUNDIEFF: You know what I really liked about
it was that the story sucks you into it in a very innocent way. You know, a lot
of times when I watch films that deal with civil rights or slavery or any of
those historical African American issues, I always feel like I’m watching it
because I should. But of course if it’s a good story I get into it. But I never
arrive at the theater at the screening thinking “Finally! I so excited to see this!” (laughs) Because I know that
it’s going to deal with some emotional shit that I don’t want to deal with and
all of that. So with this one it doesn’t start off from a point of “This is what we’re doing. We’re focusing on
this terrible stuff”.

SERGIO: In other words things were bad,
but life must go on.

CUNDIEFF:  It starts off instead here is this kid, he’s
going into town with his mom on a hot day and you allow the events and the
cultural happenings of the time to just the happen the way they would have.
Because for the folks of this period, in this environment, not that they didn’t
realize what they were dealing with, but it wasn’t an unknown thing, an unusual
thing. It was just a fact of daily life.

And along
with whatever racism was bringing you or segregation was bringing you or Jim Crow
was bringing you, you were also just existing as a person. You had a birthday,
you fell in love, you wanted to fuck somebody (laughs), you know. You didn’t
spend your entire life going “Hey this is
fucked up! This is terrible!”
(Laughs)

It was
combination of things. And I think that’s one of the things I wanted to get.
When I watched some of films I mentioned, and they’re all good I’m not
demeaning them. But when I watch these other films I’m like “O.K. we’re hammering this one particular thing home”. But I think what White
Water does is that it gives you a sense of what it’s like just to be a person
and not only just someone who is looking at this terrible position that you may
have in the world. And that is, I think, a more accurate portrayal of probably
how most folks were back then.

SERGIO: And of course the film is
different because it’s done from a young kid’s perspective.

CUNDIEFF: Yes, because you’re seeing it from
this little seven year old boy’s eyes there are insights that happen in the
first act of the film that are accurate, but not angry. So that allows you to
get into it and, hopefully, by the time it does get darker, story wise, you
will have connected to people in a way unlike you may have in another film, say
in 12 Years A Slave and you know… (laughs) that some really terrible stuff is
going to happen to the dude. So you are protecting yourself emotionally. You
know what’s coming.

But with the
film I hoping that you will latch on our child protagonist in a way that you wouldn’t
otherwise. It’s not like watching Selma and saying “Man these little black girls are going to get bombed” or “Those people going across the bridge are
going to get jacked up!”
(laughs) You know that stuff is coming. But in
this film you can just get into the rhythm of this kid’s life and that’s what
attracted it to me. And another thing is that at the end of this I walk away
feeling hopeful and not angry. So many of these other films when they’re done you’re
like…I’m not racist person, but when I leave I’m like I don’t want to talk to
my white friends for a while. Let me chill. (laughs) I have to bring myself
back to the middle

SERGIO: But you’re sort of answered
my next question which is you hear all the time black people saying I don’t
want to see another slave or civil rights movie as long as I Iive and
especially in regards to White Water which deals that but also with a whole lot
more.

CUNDIEFF: Yeah. I understand when people say
that because I feel that way myself. Like I was saying when Black History Month
comes around and when the documentaries come on and the films come out like The
Butler and Selma the this and that I go to see them more out of sense of “I should”, It’s an obligation”, I have to uphold my blackness” (Laughs) as
opposed to going to see something because it’s going to be something that I
enjoy and look forward to. 

And I think
what this film offers is a look into that world that I would compare to Forest
Gump because in that film it dealt with a lot of historical hot points such as
Vietnam War the Black Panthers a lot of things. There are a lot of different
things going on in that film but because you’re seeing it through the eyes of a
naïve person, you’re seeing it from a different point of view. It allows you to
experience it in a way that might feel fresh. And from the feedback I’ve gotten
already by some people who have seen the film already is that there is a
freshness to it. Not freshness in terms of “we
didn’t know that some of these events happened”,
but because we play it as
a part of the kid’s everyday life and didn’t turn it into the boogeyman’s-out-to-get-you
sort of thing. It enables you to experience all of that a little bit
differently.

Therefore I
think in that regard it is a bit more entertaining and it lets some other storylines
to take place and other questions to happen beyond just the civil rights racial
issue. That goes just beyond the water that the kid wants to drink, but how the
other adults in the film deal with their issues and their dreams.

SERGIO: You’re right that film does
have several layers to it.

CUNDIEFF: I’ve always said that this film is
really about perception. And the fact that at the beginning everyone has an
inaccurate perception of the world, Michael included. The stuff that’s out
there that would be considered racist or problematic, but he doesn’t see it for
what it is. His mother and his father see his desire to drink the “white” water
as a problem, but they don’t understand the innocence that he has in the fact
that if they can look at the world differently, it would open up opportunities for
them.

But to change the subject I have to
ask you what’s it like to make a feature film again after all these years after
years working on episodic television?

CUNDIEFF: Oh man it was fortunately very
liberating. You know when you’re working on episodic television, with a very
few exceptions, you’re dealing with a show that’s been on the air for a while
or you’re dealing with writer/producers who have a very specific way of doing
things, so you’re being creative within a very small box which can be fun at
times, but very limiting.

But to take
a film, especially a film like this which I haven’t done this type of film
before, and built it from the ground up visually and the opportunity to cast
it, design it, to find the crew and work with them on creating a vision and
exchange ideas it was really just a wonderful thing. Getting to work with
producer Dwayne Johnson-Cochran who has so many great ideas it was just fun. It
was so much fun to get back to taking a project from the beginning to the end
which the other advantaged compared to working on episodic TV. 

The story arcs
in television aren’t really arcs as there are just problems that are sort of
resolved and then your characters are pretty much at the same point in the
following episode. But with this film to have these different character arcs
and to work with the screenwriters Michael Bandy and Eric Stein it was really a
wonderful, wonderful experience.

Finally do you find it easier or
harder to work on somebody else’s material than your own?

CUNDIEFF: Actually not in this case. I worked
with quite bit on this story. We probably worked on the script for a few years
so there are a lot of my ideas in the script and lot of things that I suggested
that they put in there such as the joke about the Jesus painting which I
actually had in another script that I was trying to get done and didn’t get
done and I realized “Oh this would
totally work here
!” And it would work even better. 

So I was fortunate to
work with two very talented writers who were very open to ideas and suggestions.
So I feel a very strong connection to the story because I feel that I definitely
contributed something to it. Obviously none of it would have happened if it
were not for Michael Bandy who really had this experience as a kid.

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