“This is America”

“This is America”

“This is America,” acclaimed sushi chef Atsushi “Art” Hayakawa said with emphasis a second time. “This country gave me a life. A wife, a family, a restaurant. I want to give something back.”

I’ll reveal as to what was that gift back to the country he now considers his home because it was one of the many surprises of an unforgettable night in Atlanta, GA. Like the glorious meal of Japanese sushi delights my camera team and I enjoyed with relish and smiles, this chance dinner at a sushi restaurant tucked away in a strip mall off Buford Highway had all ingredients of a dish you never forget.

It was the manner in which Chef Hayakawa said “This is America” that made me listen with such respect. In an era where our elected leaders are determined to dictate as to whom they feel should be deemed an “American,” this accidental meeting nearly brought me to tears. It was that emotional.

Chef Hayakawa’s journey began at the age of 14, when he shared a sushi meal with his father. Like the potent wasabi that burned his nostrils and other senses, he knew sushi would be his life, a culinary art that would be his passion. At 15, he left school to study with a sushi master and for nine years, he studied and refined his craft with commitment and drive. At 24, he left his native Sapporo, Japan for the United States, much to the chagrin of his sushi master, who chose not speak to former student in response to his departure.

In 1991, Chef Hayakawa landed in the southeastern part of the country, beginning a new journey in Atlanta. He paid his dues, earning the sponsorship that would lead him to a green card, that time-honored golden ticket to the American Dream. In 2008, Chef Hayakawa opened his own establishment, Sushi House Hayakawa. In 2017, as the restaurant hones in on its 10th anniversary, the affable Hayakawa, is now considered to oversee one of the 12 most authentic sushi restaurants in the United States. And tonight, several cultures clashed in a communion of conversation, laughter and happy tears brought on by his trademarked wasabi bombs. (For the record, we ate three orders. He gave us one with an extra layer of that potent green goodness as a gift.)

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I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room tonight to document this evening in some fashion. And while I know this reads like, “Dear Diary, guess what happened to me tonight?” I don’t really care. Today was a good fuckin’ day to be alive, despite the current events on Capitol Hill as we enter a new political era that was only on view on “House of Cards” or “Veep.” I can’t help but burn with anger over a coterie of privileged “leaders” determined to turn their backs on the many men and women from overseas who have contributed mightily to the American Way. How can we disavow what is the true face of the American, a nation built on the backs and with the blood of so many immigrants?

But I digress…

How did we find Hayakawa? It was chance. We had wrapped a great day of interviews on the set of a film in its last days of principal photography. It was nearing dinner time and I declared sushi was in order. My audio tech conferred our digital oracle, The Google, and Sushi House Hayakawa was deemed the closest place. Little did we know we’d be heading for Tokyo, Japan in the process.

Instead of the usual Sapporo-fueled meal of spicy tuna rolls and tempura, we were treated to an experience that has a devout cult of loyalists, from Japan and elsewhere. An intimate dining spot of few tables and modest bar, Sushi House Hayakawa is an expert study of tastes, flavors and a near religious adherence to the art of sushi. Cell phones are not allowed. Reservations are requested. This is meant to be a personal experience to savor and enjoy without distractions or noise.

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Photo: Men’s Journal

Chef Hayakawa’s crisp white uniform was punctuated with a red terry cloth slash of read from the towel wrapped around his head. His hands had the delicacy of touch reserved for piano masters or surgeons, so skillful was his preparation of each piece of sushi. Our incredibly knowledgeable waiter, young, precise and absolutely American, treated us with respect and care. Yet, it those damn wasabi bombs he recommended that made us reach out to Hayakawa with a boisterous “Thank you.” His response? In addition to telling us the now-trademarked menu item was borne out or a prank, he gave us one more round with even MORE wasabi. Once dinner was over, I asked our waiter to see if Chef Hayakawa would pose for a picture with us. And this culinary master, who promised not to break my camera phone, posed and laughed and opted to stay with us for nearly an hour after closing time.

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I love telling stories for a living, but the narrative Hayakawa shared with us had us wrapt in attention. That wonderful crooked smile. His self-deprecating wit. His not knowing that he was serving Harrison Ford one memorable night. Or the bittersweet encounter with a smiling Paul Walker one week before his untimely death in a car accident. He was a trove of anecdotes, all delivered in a heavily accented, but warm voice that had us in his thrall.

Our meeting Chef Hayakawa reaffirms the incredible fortune one is gifted when they take to the road for work. We see and hear so much as we move from location to location, meeting a gallery of folks that represent all that can be wonderful in this world. Chef Hayakawa’s loyalists go back to his restaurant because he endeavors to give them an experience unlike any other. The demands of populist sushi cuisine were excised nearly two years ago from his menu. Gone are the California Rolls and other Americanized offerings found elsewhere. (And no, the spicy tuna roll is NOT a Japanese tradition.) Tucked into this mini mall, surrounded by Korean-owned establishments in the traditional American south, we found a true Japanese experience. It was a rare chance to be part of a narrative that was spun organically and without expectations.

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As we prepared to leave, Chef Hayakawa asked us to offer our support of his new, full-time sushi chef, a southern American named Terry. We noted that we were surprised to see Terry behind the bar. He told us he’s worked with several different Asian apprentices from all over, but Terry was truly unique. He “got it” and after a year and a half, he’d promoted him to full time not too long ago. But it was his saying, “I don’t see race” that caught our attention, too. Because “This is America” and he wanted to give something back. It would be Terry who would now benefit from his teachings, taking his art further into the world in a new way.

What a privilege meeting Chef Hayakawa tonight. I’ll never forget how he ran out to us in the parking lot with cold bottles of water. He was worried since beer was consumed, we would be subjected to the strict DUI laws of the area.

Now, about the sushi master in Japan who refused to talk to Chef Hayakawa for over 20 years? The former student, who makes a point to go back to Sapporo every two years, would call on his master each time to no avail. But five years ago, on one particular trip, master and student were reunited. He showed at the appointed hour and for 45 minutes, no one spoke. They sat in total silence…until the moment the master pulled out a bottle of sake and poured two glasses. “Drink,” he said in a gruff tone. Drink they did. And then he said to his former student, “Good job.” He’d been made aware of Hayakawa’s success in the U.S. The student cried, nose running, tears flowing. He was overjoyed. As for his master, he merely added, “Drink” in the same gruff tone. And drink they did.

I think of my father and mother, Mexican immigrants who also designed and curated their own version of the Dream. far from home and without the resources of family or government assistance. I think of the many immigrants who continue to work their guts out to ensure a better life for those in their care. I think of our often painful history in treating those we have labeled “The Other.” How can we reward these legacies with walls, internment camps and ideological terrorism? All we need to say to those who have made such a difference in so many lives is simply, “Good job, my fellow American.”

None of us know what’s in store as we venture into dark and uncertain territory. But tonight, four disparate lives were brought together in the name of friendship. New loyalists were born and we hope to bring back friends and family to Chef Hayakawa’s restaurant without hesitation. As to those ignorant many who need to be reminded of the beauty of such occurrences, I say:

This is America.”

 

“Ugly”

“Ugly”
And now for the news…

Leading media outlets reported that for the second time in a week, nooses have appeared on the Smithsonian grounds in Washington, D.C. For the second time in a week. Let that marinate for a moment.

One was found on hanging off a tree, which was located outside of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The second noose was found inside the National Museum of African American History, purposefully left in an exhibit area illustrating the era of segregation in the U.S.

This pissed me off to no end, to say the very least. It is a defiling and cowardly act.  I spoke to the great men and women of the National Museum of African American History last summer. It was inspiring and heartening to discuss the purpose and direction of this new museum. It is hateful what has happened here. More, it is hateful to see what we keep discovering happening on the daily in terms of racially motivated crimes in this country.

It doesn’t end there, either.

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Given our current media cycle, I can’t help but wonder:

So, Kathy Griffin offended you? Hmmm. Granted, I’ve never been a fan of her “shock and awww it’s funny at your expense” humor. Yes, the photo of her holding Trump’s bloody head did go too far. But, if we’re going to denounce tasteless opportunism and cry “Foul play,” I ask that you take time think about what it feels like to be Barack Obama or LeBron James right now. Dare to remember some of the shitty and menacing things Ted Nugent would spout when President Obama was in office.

Don’t let the double standard hit you in the ass on your way to pontificating how it isn’t the same thing.

When current press secretary Sean Spicer was asked to comment on the Nugent tangent, Spicer just deflected the question and moved. Meanwhile, CNN has opted to disassociate itself from Griffin. Nugent, however, gets to pose for pics inside the Oval Office with glee.

Sorry, not sorry, Snowflakes for the above pic. But politics have never NOT been an ugly business. Yet, somehow, the ugliness could be tempered in the past by leaders who have given their lives to promote civility, truth and equality for all. That’s the pain of progress and many have benefited from their legacies.

But today?

Screaming pundits are elbowing for attention in the same, bizarre way as our president. Yet, we decry “fake news” or whatever hashtagged rallying cry set to undermine those people and institutions who rightfully stand tall as a beacon of truth by pointing out the insanity and troubling reality of the Trump Era. The tragedy is Trumpism stands firm and is not abating in the way it should. If anything, it is getting worse.

We stand to lose so much under #45! Why isn’t this getting through to people?  I have to be certain that many Americans are not like the monsters of the GOP and alt-right who have sold out this country’s best interests for their own greed. We all can’t go down that stoney end because some loud-mouthed, drunk on power fool sold you a falsehood that immigrants, Muslims, gays or whoever just doesn’t fit in your archaic vision of what it means to be an American! These Bogeymen, women and children are NOT the root of all your problems!

If you think Obama left this country a burning wasteland of trash, devoid of “greatness,” then I pity you. With the reversing of anything and everything that our former president dared to accomplish in the face of some bullshit partisanship, we will see a wasteland alright. The greatest threat is not ISIS or even the Russians. It turns out the homegrown “patriots” who are now ramped up on Trump Juice are our biggest enemy. Make no mistake. They are the very definition of terrorism, lethal and devastating because they are one of our own! It is time to call these criminals exactly that: Terrorists.

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We can continue to hide in our safe bubble worlds of artificial reality and escapism, making fun when #45 has another bout of Twitter diarrhea. But, do you think none of the viral videos illustrating the rampant racial hatred in this country affect the rest of us in the least? (And that’s just one example of the hatred that is spilling over into all walks of life.) You’re wrong. It does affect us. More than you know.

Some folks on my social media feeds have voiced to me that my negativity is just “bumming them out.”

Well, too bad.

I don’t want to be anyone’s gay court jester anymore, giggling over the red carpet reportage, celebrity driven gossip, film industry bullshit or keep those snappy retorts flowing just to make people feel good. This ain’t “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and I refuse to play the role of Rupert Everett.

Shit is getting real and I am determined to contribute to this dialogue of “What is wrong with us?” until something or someone starts steering this ship in a direction that benefits us all as great Americans, not only the ones #45 chooses to lead because they look or sound like his ignorant ass. Only when we restore our good standing in the world as a moral and just country, that is when joy will return to our lives. I’ll be the first to lead that dance.

As for the incidents at the Smithsonian, which are being investigated by the U.S. Parks police, this final word:

In the article written by Sebastian Murdock for Huffington Post, Secretary of the Smithsonian David Skorton issued this missive via internal E-mail to museum staff:

“The Smithsonian family stands together in condemning this act of hatred and intolerance, especially repugnant in a museum that affirms and celebrates the American values of inclusion and diversity…We will not be intimidated. With new urgency, we will tell the story of our nation and all its people. We will continue to fight this sort of ignorance with knowledge. Cowardly acts like these will not, for one moment, prevent us from the vital work we do. We will remain vigilant and, in spite of these deplorable acts, we will become a stronger institution for all Americans.”

Mr. Skorton, I stand with you and other citizens who firmly believe in this fight to restore the moral fortitude and decency that all Americans — and the world — deserve.

#resist

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — Day 4 — “Resist”

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — Day 4 — “Resist”

Day 4

End of Protein Days

257.7 lbs.

Glucose Reading: 199

Despite booking first class, luxury passage on the Love Train yesterday, I was a bit reluctant to get out of bed this morning. Maybe it is the fear of knowing what democratic pillar #President Babyhands was going to decimate next. Perhaps it is the effects of four protein days messing with my head. I wanted to write some pithy little riff on how Lindora protein days are a privileged, overfed person’s descent into hell, but I lost the desire. Instead, I’ll let this little clip of an otter happily chowing down take its place. That’s going to be me tomorrow when I get to switch back to a regular menu of poultry, fish, vegetables and fruits again.

The notion of living in a parallel universe is starting to grow in my brain. I have these moments where the only thing I can do is shake my head. I joke to myself that all those years of reading post-apocalyptic fiction, watching nuclear war films and those dystopian epicsof yore like “Logan’s Run” and “Soylent Green” are actually going to pay off! I’m ready for whatever happens next! Then this fear grows in the pit of my slowly shrinking stomach. I have to remain and fight back the fear of letting it spread  further so I don’t just lock the door and never leave the house again. .

Today, #PresidentBabyhands basically unleashed a round of “Mextortion,” proposing a 20% tax on all Mexican imports. Comedian that I am, one thought that flashed in my mind was, “Since I am in the process of losing weight, this could be a very good thing!” But really, it is not. Crushing an economy because they won’t fund your windmill from hell, Don Quixote, is tyranny at its worst.

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Political cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz (of “La Cucaracha” fame) posted this image promoting a “California Resistance,” which is the lead photo of the diary entry. “Resist” is a powerful word for us all right now. It has taken root in my mind, from resisting the urges to consume things that can hurt me to resisting the urge to go full Howard Beale in public with rage. I can tell you this. I am losing one battle and it isn’t with food.

Restraint has never been a word I’ve been able to incorporate into my lexicon for living. Not as a kid, even less so as an adult. I am finally aware that “more” can kill. As we try to process the events of this week, more challenges will be brought to the American public in a way that will divide us and conquer other principles that must be defended to the bitter end. So, what does any of this have to do with a diet diary, you may ask? Plenty.

We are what we eat, people. And I am not going to subsist on a steady diet of lies and tyrannical chaos just because so many Americans hated having a black president for eight years. You ingest in trash food, you get toxic refuse that leaves your body in shock and prone to diseases that can kill you. The same applies to the Democratic process. We are what our elected officials represent. It is no coincidence that President Babyhands is an orange-colored menace. Cheetos are just as bad for me, too. Neither requires my attention to be healthy and strong, all the better to fight back.

#resist

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Why the Bully Pulpit will not make America great…

Why the Bully Pulpit will not make America great…

I firmly believe that America is great, but it is also a shining example of the best and worst of human nature. The Bully Pulpit has its demagogue and that many are left in its thrall shouldn’t surprise us anymore. The Trumpian Dynamic has tapped into a populist rage so great, even the great writer Paddy Chayefsky (”Network”) would be shaking his head in sadness and regret.

I know this New York Times video currently making the rounds doesn’t reflect the nation as a whole. However, that these images have been captured and unleashed makes me take pause. We are a broken nation and the divisiveness is only going to get worse before it gets better. Sometimes, I wonder if the “United” in “States of America” is just a fever dream. But, we have to try. We have to be better. We have to be stronger together before we destroy our place as the greatest nation on Earth — and become a smoldering, toxic wasteland  of chaos, ignorance and hate from which nothing positive can grow.

Watch and strive to be proactive. Vote. Don’t let Trump and his woeful disciples dictate your future!

We will rise up or #StandWithUs

We will rise up or #StandWithUs

When the silence isn’t quiet
And it feels like it’s getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we’ll take the world to it’s feet
And move mountains
Bring it to it’s feet
And move mountains
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again
For you…

I, like many, woke up on Sunday morning with the news of another mass shooting. And, like many, I was moved to tears. As the news of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida dominated the media, those tears mixed with absolute rage. I am angry over the loss of humanity, the loss and wounding of so many of my brothers. More, I am furious over the continuing loss of sanity and compassion in a world that refuses to let people live their lives in peace. We don’t deserve the ground we walk on or the air we breathe if the evil few continue to have to no regard for the greater good in a world that houses us all.

The truth is I don’t fear the terror of a group determined to keep us in fear. I actually fear the ignorance still to be heard and felt in so many other ways in my own country. This just didn’t happen at a “gay club.” This event happened to all of us. We must stand together, even if others prefer to keep us apart.

My heart is heavy now, but my mind burns with rage. As far as I am concerned, organized religions and groups promoting an agenda of “traditional values” are just purveyors of organized hate.

I am not losing sight of the families and loved ones left behind. I know I am not alone in saying that we hold you all in our hearts. We are with you in spirit. You are not alone in your sorrow.

However, as race-baiting, hate-mongering blowhards like Donald Trump have the narcissistic gall to make this tragedy about themselves, I can only make room for more rage. We are now hearing a call to action to stop those so-called arrogant, bilious men and women in certain sectors of privilege that dare to think of themselves as being worthy of leading this great nation. They all have blood on their hands…again. How dare you appropriate the Pulse Tragedy in Orlando as validating the very agenda that makes us all targets of hate. How dare you disavow their sexual orientation, or worse, citing being gay as reason for such an act in your toxic rhetoric!

Fuck the terrorists. They will meet their fate. A special place in hell exists for those who believe in Donald Trump as being our great deliverer. When will they all realize that focusing our hate on one group or groups is not the answer? When will they realize that easy access to weaponry that belongs on the battlefield, that arming ourselves against a neighbor doesn’t promote true freedom? It promotes cowardice, violence and a final outcome that will rob of us hope.

And here’s one sobering reality — the thing about walls is that they can be climbed. Walls can be brought down. Walls keep nothing out, but keep paranoia, fear and ignorance woefully in place.

We cannot be rendered afraid or silent by the sins of the few. We must not let those who dare tear us asunder, at home or abroad, to render us powerless or apathetic anymore. Countless innocent men, women and children have met their bloody fates thanks to arms purchased in THIS country.

So many thoughts and feelings are running through my mind right now. I stand with the victims of the Pulse nightclub tragedy. Their lives, like those lost at Sandy Hook, Aurora, San Bernardino, Virginia Tech, Umpqua Community College and every innocent soul unleashed by a police bullet in this great land of ours, all give us strength to protect all lives. It is time for good people to rise and join in unison in a song that does not promote isolationist values of intolerance and retribution.

We have a choice. Either we rise up and stop this violence and pandering to the special interests of groups who are the antithesis of freedom and peace. Or, we allow ourselves to devolve into a police state that makes further mockery of what it means to be the United States of America.

The choice is all ours. As Andra Day sings with pride and love, “All we need is hope, and for that we have each other.”

We need each other. Now.

In spite of the ache
I will rise a thousand times again
And we’ll rise up
High like the waves
We’ll rise up
In spite of the ache
We’ll rise up
And we’ll do it a thousand times again
For you

 

Why I’m proud to be a Mexi-can in Hollywood

Why I’m proud to be a Mexi-can in Hollywood

While we dissect the Trumpian phenomenon ushering in the era of Idiocracy in America, the New York Times published a stellar think-piece on the struggle for diversity in Hollywood. Written by Melena Ryzik, the article was a welcome respite from a news feed clogged with Trump’s latest example of “hoof in mouth” rantings. We are living in serious times and we need to keep our focus on the issues that are seriously undermining our identity and modern culture.

I know I am not alone in thinking that America still leads the world by example. Imagine our disappointment in knowing we are now the biggest reality show ever produced, where racism, ignorance, vulgar excess and rampant egoism has been given a platform — and worse — validation. I refuse to allow this Age of Idiocracy to take further root. We all bear a responsibility to not just elevate the whole of society, not our specialized interest groups. That is why Ryzik’s article resonated so strongly with me. We ALL need to take the country back.

I can only speak from my small corner of the entertainment industry, but it is a powerful group with which to be associated. We are the ones charged with creating the narratives for the general public to enjoy. What we project on screen has impact and can shape popular thought. If we are to beat Trump at his own game, then we need to educate everyone as to why we need the media to curate a national image that is representative of the nation as a whole. As it stands, we are still woefully deficient in having the infrastructure to even contemplate such a shift in image. As Ryzik’s writes in her lead:

The statistics are unequivocal: Women and minorities are vastly underrepresented in front of and behind the camera. Here, 27 industry players reveal the stories behind the numbers — their personal experiences of not feeling seen, heard or accepted, and how they pushed forward. In Hollywood, exclusion goes far beyond#OscarsSoWhite.

Reading this article was empowering and frustrating at the same time. Frustrating because eliminating the racial/gender bias of Hollywood is still like chipping away at an endless wall of concrete.

I still have people assume I don’t speak English at junkets based on my name. Sometimes, these same people will address me in a slower or louder tone, even AFTER I’ve already spoken to them in what I think is a very educated, American English voice. Or, I’m referred to as “Jose” or “Javier,” even in a city like LA. I guess being “Jorge” is the most foreign name ever.

For a time, I would only be considered the “best” choice for certain projects because these films had an “ethnic” theme. It was a lot harder to get the “event” or “mainstream” films. That isn’t the case anymore. But it took the support and encouragement of a handful of studio executives that were my bosses in publicity to make this happen. They saw beyond my ethnicity and realized that I had a unique perspective as an interviewer that wasn’t just dictated by gender, orientation or cultural background.

Today, I can safely say I’ve interviewed some of the best and best-known figures in entertainment, as well as cultural and political figures that have shaped our modern world. (Take that, Oprah and Charlie Rose.) Few Latino (and even fewer bilingual) producer/interviewers exist in the studio content industry. I wish that wasn’t the case, but I think the advent of social media will refine this reality.

It is important to recognize the roles we all play in proving why the “norm” is not acceptable. As long as we continue to encourage and be part of the dialogue, we will be the designers of the solution, too. More, we need to encourage future generations that they have every right to dictate the narratives realized on screen. We need to inculcate in our children that they have no reason to fear not being seen, heard or accepted within industries like entertainment and media. Their face is the face of the new America.

No matter what Trump says, we don’t need any new walls. If anything, we need to bring them all down and end this Age of Idiocracy before it destroys the very things that make this country great.

Click the link below to read Ryzik’s article now:

 

 

Why Nate Parker is an agent of change in Hollywood

Why Nate Parker is an agent of change in Hollywood

If there was a lesson to be learned from filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, Spike Lee and John Singleton, don’t wait for Hollywood to help tell your narratives. Do it your damn self. And based on the firestorm of media support for actor Nate Parker’s Sundance sensation, “The Birth of a Nation,” it appears the torch is being passed anew.

Parker’s ascent could not have been timed better. With the issue of diversity in Hollywood at a feverish pitch, the actor-filmmaker has made good on his passionate advocacy for preserving the black experience without stereotypes. And the success of “The Birth of a Nation” proves yet again that the art crafted by next generation filmmakers such as Parker, Steve McQueen, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay are not anomalies in a studio system woefully in need of a reality check. We are witnessing a moment of reckoning that goes beyond the hashtag politics of #OscarSoWhite. We will need more than just validation from one voting group. We need the audience as a whole to say #MoviesAreSoUs…All of us.

I’ve had the privilege of interview Parker twice. The first time was in 2007 for the EPK for “The Secret Life of Bees” in Wilmington, North Carolina. We sat down again at the junket for “Beyond the Lights” in Los Angeles in 2014. That Prince-Bythewood was director of both films was no coincidence. Following is a Q & A piece written for the release of “Beyond the Lights” on Parker, with the actor not only offering some keen insights into the film, but a harbinger of things to come in terms of his artistic life. In a society obsessed with labels, his final thoughts to me in that interview ring powerfully true today:

“It only becomes a “black film” when we say it is.”

Here’s the original piece on Nate Parker in its entirety. (Special thanks to Tom Parker.)

Their connection happens in an instant. Noni is a rising pop star, but she is also starting to lose her grip due to the pressures of her growing fame. Kaz is a young police officer, seeking to honor a family legacy that serves and protects the community. They meet on a balcony under an L.A. sky, where he talks off the ledge, admitting he sees her for who she really wants to be. What happens next reveals their truest selves as they attempt to live a life “Beyond the Lights.”

In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new romantic drama, love is presented as a complex reality in an era dominated by a fishbowl media culture. Despite the glamorous illusion of celebrity, money and success, sometimes the demands can prove a trap. It takes someone of great depth and soul to set people free. That is how Prince-Bythewood envisioned the role of Kaz, a positive force with which to balance out the chaos that surrounds Noni.

“A love story is not as interesting to me if it’s focused only on one side of it and I wanted to show both sides,” Prince-Bythewood said about writing “Beyond the Lights.” “These are two characters who have parallel lives, one is this father and son relationship that is much healthier than the mother-daughter, but they’re both struggling with trying to their authentic selves.

If the filmmakers had a tall order to fill in finding the right multi-faceted actress to portray Noni, discovering her “counterheart” was just as challenging. Yet, sometimes, the answer can be right in front of you. For Prince-Bythewood, her perfect Kaz had already walked in front of her camera: Nate Parker.

Since being part of the acclaimed ensemble of Prince-Bythewood’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” Parker has gone to enjoy great success in films as “Non-Stop” and “Red Tails.” With “Beyond the Lights,” he enters the realm of being a leading man, something the filmmakers have predicted since their first collaboration on “Bees.”

“Nate’s dope,” Prince-Bythewood said. “He just needs that one great role to propel him to leading man status. He’s very giving, and focused and specific. It was great to put him and Gugu together and immediately see the chemistry.”

Audiences have been quite taken with Parker’s grounding presence in films, a quality the actor exhibits off-screen, too. In talking about his role as Kaz in “Beyond the Lights,” he was eager express not only how much he wanted to re-team with Prince-Bythewood, but to take on a role that had the potential to resonate with people in a positive manner.

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QUESTION: This is your second collaboration with Gina Prince-Bythewood. What proved the strongest motivating factor to be part of “Beyond the Lights?”

NATE PARKER: It was Gina. I knew that if she would be making a film, it would be challenging and thought provoking. It would say something that reached further than the thematic elements of the film. When I read the script my suspicions were confirmed and I said, “Yes” immediately. I always say she has a green light to my career because of her sensibility. She’s a pioneer, she’s a visionary and she doesn’t compromise. She takes her time with her projects and you know that you’re going to get something that you will be proud of.

QUESTION: Noni is as much a vivid character as Kaz is as calming soul. How did you work with Gina in making sure you weren’t overshadowed by Noni’s emotionally complex arc?

NATE PARKER: A lot of it it’s in the script. There is a complexity that is within Kaz that is quite congruent with Noni’s. Here you have two people that are projections of someone else. I would say that it’s even more dangerous for Kaz because there is no negative connotation. At some point, you have Noni’s character looking at her mom saying, “Enough is enough.” But, Kaz has a father that has demonstrated nothing but love. His whole thing is, “I want you to have a better life than I did and I will support you and I have supported you. And in the absence of your mother, I’ve stood in the gap and I’ve sacrificed for you and I love you.” That’s not him pointing his finger or having any kind of negative overtones. It’s him saying, “I just want you to be great” and Kaz saying, “That’s alright by me.” I say that’s dangerous because he accepts it as his life without really internalizing the fact that it isn’t what he wants for his life. It’s not until he meets Noni and looks into her eyes and says, “Wow! She’s going on a different level, she’s going through exactly what I’m going through.” They actually grow together. It would be a blow to Gugu’s character to say that this is a film about a guy that saves his girl. It’s not. It’s about two people that, through a series of events, save each other.

QUESTION: Both Noni and Kaz are living very public lives with varying degrees of scrutiny. Is the film saying we are we putting too much pressure on our kids to become “someone?”

NATE PARKER: Absolutely. I think that, being a father, the best thing you can do is cultivate. It’s like a rose bush. You prune it. You make sure it grows in a way that is healthy. You hope that by instilling a sense of identity, morality and responsibility into your child, they’ll make the right decisions. We can’t make decisions for our children because it’s only a matter of a time until they resent us and shut us out and that’s the danger. It’s fragile because you want to be involved enough that you can facilitate positivity in their lives. But, you want to be far back enough that you allow them to do it and grow on their own.

QUESTION: Despite the progress we are making in depicting a diversified culture, films like “Beyond the Lights” are still being referred to as a “black film.”

NATE PARKER: I think we can agree when we say love is universal. What are we dealing with in this film? We’re dealing with love, we’re dealing with mental illness, we’re dealing with suicide, and we’re dealing with identity crisis. These are things with which everyone can identify. We tested the film in Toronto with an all white audience, standing ovation. We tested it at Urban World with an all African American audience, standing ovation. It speaks to the power of the film, the power of love, but the power of obstacles and attaining that love. There are love stories that come out and it’s just about love. It’s just like they meet each other and there’s tears and they cry. To get to the love in this film, you have to go through a lot of stuff. We deal with hyper-sexualization. None of these things are completely specific to any color, which is why I think so many people enjoy and identify with the film. You can take an element and say, “I’ve lived that,” “I live that now,” “I’m still living a projection of my parents” or “I don’t talk to my parents because I finally was able to break away” or “I know someone who committed suicide because they couldn’t find themselves in time,” “I know someone who saved someone from committing suicide.” These are themes that we find in our lives that are so important, that are so relevant. It can change a conversation about love, about loss, about women, about men, about relationship. That’s a global thing. I challenge people to see this film and see it for what it is. It only becomes a “black film” when we say it is.