DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter Take Off Again with "Lift"
by Anthony Kaufman
lift (lift) v. 1. to direct or carry from a lower to a higher position; raise: lift one's eyes. 2. to uplift; elate: Your telephone call really lifted my spirits. 3. to steal; pilfer: A thief lifted my wallet.
All three definitions carry significant weight in DeMane Davis and Khari Streeter's "Lift," which premiered in the 2000 Sundance competition and screens again tonight and Saturday at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York. It's a repeat performance by the directing duo; in 1997, they accomplished the same one-two punch, unveiling their much-heralded debut "Black & White & Red All Over" at both festivals. (The film is one of this year's ND/NF buzz pics: a third screening was added on Saturday after its two scheduled shows sold out).
Once again, the Boston-based filmmakers complicate the conventions of the "urban drama" with a smart new take, surpassing the stereotypes of Yo! MTV Raps and "Boyz in the Hood." The only gunplay in "Lift," for example, surprises and devastates, and is over before you know it, while the real power comes not from bullets, but the impact of its performers; particularly Kerry Washington as Niecy, a self-assured woman from the low-income neighborhood of Roxbury who sashays -- and shoplifts -- amidst Boston's chichi boutiques.
"Lift," like its title, conveys many things. It's a family melodrama, a materialistic critique, and a heist movie all rolled into one; perhaps that's why the film has eluded distributors as of yet ("We can't see the poster," one industryite supposedly quipped) -- and why Davis and Streeter continue to be a force of truly independent filmmaking. indieWIRE's Anthony Kaufman spoke with the directors about materialism, color, and the many years it took to get "Lift" off the ground.
indieWIRE: So you had a frustrating time getting this film made? You'd think that after the praise for "Black & White & Red Over," it would have been easier.
Khari Streeter: Yeah. That part sucked. We definitely were hanging on a limb, waiting and waiting. With "Black & White & Red All Over," we were much more like, if push comes to shove, we can do this completely on our own. With "Lift," it was a bigger venture, and we had to think, how can we do this?
DeMane Davis: It was particularly tough for me, because we won Sundance's NHK [Japanese broadcasting] award, so we had that guarantee, which a lot of films don't have, let alone black dramatic films that don't get a lot of play in Asian territories. We also had the validation of Cathy Konrad and James Mangold, who we met when we won the award. He showed the script to Cathy and they said they wanted to executive produce it. We developed it with them for a year prior to hooking up with Hart/Sharp, but having that validation from them -- that this was a great story and an important story -- I immediately thought, 'We're set. Someone's going to give us this money.' So when it didn't happen immediately, I started to think, okay, everything happens for a reason, maybe the script isn't where it should be, maybe some more planets need to align, so we can get the right talent, and ultimately, that's what ended up happening. But it was certainly frustrating.
Streeter: We're thinking here's Cathy Konrad, she's produced movies that have grossed over 100 million dollars, and it's like, okay, what more reinforcement do we need?
iW: You have said that there's not a lot of black films overseas, there's not a big market for that. You feel like this is something you want to change?
Streeter: The first thing we heard when we were trying to sell "Black & White & Red All Over" and get financing for "Lift" was there's no overseas market, so we can't make our money back. That was a recurring anthem that we heard. We were really encouraged by the NHK award. And wanted to do everything we could to overcome that. Basically, it's described at the industry: if you don't have Denzel Washington along with Jack Nicholson in your film, it's not going to work in Japan or Australia.
Davis: Or Wesley Snipes. They're only out for action films with big stars and explosions and predictable things you can digest easily.
iW: But you are dealing with themes that cross racial lines: materialism. It's not just black or white -- everyone's pretty damn materialistic. Though it's also just as much about mother and daughter as materialism, isn't it?
Streeter: The vehicle by which the mother and daughter communicate with each other happens to be this community that's submerged in materialism and how they have responded to it.
iW: In "Black and White and Red All Over," you had this manipulation of color verses black and white, and in "Lift," though it's not as obvious, there seems to be as much color manipulation in this film as that one.
Streeter: There is, if not more. There's color themes, basically, Niecy's color being blue. That's the color that follows her throughout the film, until she has her epiphany, and outside the blue is this warmer environment. And the warm scenes are when she's in her boosting environment, and the blue scenes, at least initially, are where she's more saddened, more blue, basically. And when she has her epiphany, the color change shifts and she sees the world differently, and now she sees what used to be cool as warm, and what used to bring her joy as cool.
Davis: So her palette changes and the world around her changes and it all culminates with her ripping down the clothes, letting the light in.
Streeter: It's also a darkness to light thing.
iW: The colors you use seem to be saturated?
Streeter: There was an [intent] to make that color palette show through, to feel the style is there.
Davis: And for you to empathize with her, like what she finds attractive is attractive to you. And then that changes.
iW: It felt very slick, overall. Were you thinking that the film had to look good, because of the materialistic world she lives in.
Streeter: I think that's right on. We wanted her to be at the top of her game when you meet her. Almost like she's walking through a runway.
Davis: While Roxbury around her looks more depressed and blue, at least, initially.
Streeter: But the stores are bright and beautiful and white and warm and shiny.
iW: Was it hard to achieve that on such a low budget?
Streeter: Our D.P. and our production designer are geniuses. It was a lot of preparation and a lot of discussions and it probably would have been easier with more money, but they did a great job.
iW: You're from Roxbury. What was it like shooting in an area that you were so close to?
Davis: It was a blast. Because you're from there, you always want to show it and highlight it in some way. And I think that was a culmination of what the film was about: people who don't want to look like they come from this particular area. It was a little overwhelming at points. I had to step outside myself, and go, I'm making a movie where I grew up. I'd wake up every morning, thinking, "I'm going to shoot a movie in my home town." When we first started to do it, the producers initially said, how about Baltimore, because it's cheaper? But Baltimore doesn't look like Boston. We were talking about these neighborhoods, like Newbury Street -- it's like a mini 5th avenue but its brownstones -- no other place has that. We couldn't shoot it in New York; it's a totally different culture there in terms of materialism.
Streeter: Newbury Street is really concentrated. It's maybe 10 blocks of concentrated materialism. And literally three blocks away, there's Roxbury. And the difference between Newbury and Roxbury is night and day. 5th avenue, for example, is far from Harlem. And these are basically juxtaposed together. And Boston is unique in that way.
iW: The heists on Newbury Street that you guys create in the movie seem like they were fun to shoot.
Streeter and Davis: We looked at tons of films.
iW: What films influenced you?
Streeter: I loved "Heat." Action films, from John Woo to Brian DePalma, that was the more fun, comic book easier stuff to go with. We spent so much time studying other movies for the core of the plot, like "Ordinary People" and "A Little Thief" and "East of Eden" for structural things. But then we'd have these boosting moments where there are no scenes like this in "Ordinary People."
Davis: We basically looked at any film with a father/son or mother/daughter relationship and any film that anything to do with stealing or had thief in the title.
iW: Did you ever think of "Pickpocket"?
Davis: Yes, it was really beautiful, wonderfully orchestrated. What Niecy does is make her abysmal world beautiful, so there is a dance to it and a poetry to it, which we tried to convey.
iW: So where did your interest in the materialism come from?
Davis: I remember when In Style magazine started, and it was like "Wow, it's just about style." This is unbelievable; this is 600 pages of stuff. It's massive and it's overwhelming and if you want to look at the effect that it has, look at any of my nieces and nephews -- 3 year-olds running around with Addidas that they're going to grow up out of in a month. And it's like you paid $80 for those shoes and there's no food on the table.