Danièle Watts is a multi-talented actor/writer/producer and one of the liveliest, most engaging, and purely delightful performers I have ever interviewed. I could have talked to her all day. Audiences may know her best as Coco in the Oscar-nominated “Django Unchained.” I had a fascinating conversation with her about her research into her family’s heritage in preparation for her role and her work in developing Black History Month presentations about important women who are too often neglected or misunderstood.
Here is an excerpt from a blog post she wrote for Indiewire:
There is a West African word that keeps coming to mind when I think about the movie; “Sankofa” – which essentially means that one must go through the past to move forward. In this context, I appreciate the clarity that I’ve gained from my subsequent research. My curiousity took me beyond slavery to rediscover a young America that rebelled against its parent country, and in trying to prove its independence from Great Britain, developed its identity through material wealth – the verifiable bragging rights of success. I can recognize how the institution of slavery was born of this materialistic competition, and why the slaves to this society have developed self-concepts based on their own pursuit or denial of material independence. The psychological conditioning of American slave times has set off a chain of events pushing an entire country, both black and white, into a competitive modality.
When I finally attended the cast and crew screening, after months of these ideas marinating in my subconscious, it was thrilling to experience a film that activates history on so many levels! It was also the most brilliant artistic reflection of the scope of American violence that I’ve ever seen in a film; evoking fascinating shades of grey, or ethical ambiguity, which is often sidestepped when movies are pandering, and easy to swallow. The film takes us through the volcanic emotional arch of what happens to a ‘dream deferred.’ And in the carefully placed juxtoposition of hard hitting rap music against scenes of retribution, the film draws parallels to how the dark side of the America dream has found a voice in the ‘any means necessary’ mentality of urban gangs and today’s power hungry hip-hop. I found myself enraptured by Django for the same reasons that I was attracted to my father’s stories of the Watts riots; Instead of encouraging an impulse to do something violent, it gave me a deep feeling of release – even celebration – to have my feelings acknowledged through a masterful story.
As uncomfortable as this journey has been at times, I now see the value of tracing through these unexamined parts of my heritage.
I thought your essay about your family history on Indiewire was fascinating and so well written.
It was something I felt like I had to do to get my feelings out and have the whole thing because you know, nobody’s really hunting me down, asking for interviews so it’s kind of like I had to express myself somehow because the whole experience of working on Django had such an impact on me.
I basically found out that my great, great grandfather was a white man in Mississippi who fought the Confederacy and openly had a black wife or wife is a debatable word but openly had a black lover. They had several children and he honored them as his children in that he owned up to it and the community knew that they were his children. I found this out because I was trying to find a way to play Coco who feels special, who has the attention of a white man and how that psyche might have developed at that time. So I was like “let me see if I have any white in my family” not expecting to find this very crazy legend that they have written books about it and made movies about and which was a very atypical story at that time compared to the ones that we usually hear which are more about rape.
Wouldn’t you love to sit down and talk to him? What a remarkable person he must have been.
Yeah! Both of them and that’s interesting that most of the research in the story is around him, right but I actually, I think it would be really fascinating to see what my great grandmother was feeling about all of this. Would she be excited to be helping him? Was she grateful for the movement or was she obligated to him? How did that conversation happen? Is it like “help me get supplies and hide me out while I fight off the Confederacy” or did they fall in love or was it the hazards of survival in wartime?
He didn’t have to say much. What he did tell me that was very helpful was that it wasn’t that my character was a slave, she was actually working a job at this place, obviously not with the same type of freedoms that someone would have today but, it was a non-stereotypical situation. It genuinely does feel special to be able to sit at the table and talk to the rich gentleman that come in and out because it’s a lot better than having to be out in the field picking cotton. I’m a comfort girl when they’re out on the field. Yes I feel a little bit more special than if I had to be out sweating and hurting myself all day. It’s a different dynamic, trying to find the layers in there and not just play it as a stereotype. I read the original script over and over and over again, figuring out my place in it.
Your character was in a very delicate position with relation to both the white and black characters in the film. Did she feel superior to the slaves or sympathy for them?
I think a little bit of both. Just to be really honest, it’s not far off from the way that for example, it may seem like a little bit of stretch but I’ll go in there — someone like me who has a college education and has certain privileges may feel sort of split feeling when everybody starts talking about the black community. I’m not exactly part of that community but I still feel connected to it in some way because in American society when you’re talking about the black community, it seems like sort of this monolithic thing. There’s that inequity, in-between feelings that Coco probably felt but at the end of the day it’s survival and if you have a nice warm bed then you’re going to feel like a little bit better about yourself maybe than somebody who doesn’t, possibly.
But also conflicted, I would imagine.
You are working on trying to share the stories of lesser known historical figures out into your new project — what does that involve?
It’s really exciting. The reason I began in the first place is I did this play called “Neighbors” where I was in blackface. They had minstrel characters and it is very provocative. I made friends with this guy who does this black history show called “Portraits of Courage” and he said, “one of our girls backed out, we need somebody here.” I just happen to feel called towards this research because of “Django Unchained” and the stuff that I found out. It’s perfect because one of the things that happened when I wrote that essay on Indiewire is a lot of people commented things like “why don’t you discuss more of your black history?”
I was trying to speak to people’s frustration with “Django Unchained” being made by a white director and I was trying to highlight how black people and white people had historically worked together throughout history and it may not all have been oppression and victimization. So when my friend Chris said “we’re doing this black history show” and I was like “how great to look at the other side of it” sort of the black hero side but also the way that these people worked together with white people in a way that we might feel to be surprising, not what we expected from the typical civil rights leader. One of the characters, Lucy Parsons, was actually married to a white Confederate soldier and did all these things for women’s rights and rights for the homeless. She’s the one who fought for us to have an 8-hour workday so that people could be at home to take care of their family and kids. But it’s a dichotomy issue, it’s a black woman at that time married to a white man and she just couldn’t fit in to what the society wanted to do. I think that people who are brave enough, who have the courage to love who they love despite what the world thought and stand up for what they believed in — those stories can really empower us today. We have so many issues, there are the gay rights issues and there’s still a lot of oppression that is unresolved and racial tension that people could really stand up for. For example our President right now is mixed race but for most of the world, he’s the first black president. They totally denied a whole part of our mixed race heritage.
We live in a country where people are expected to pick one box. I read an article that said about 85 percent of black people in America have some white in them, in their heritage. That’s not even considering all of the white people who may have black heritage but don’t know about it because their black ancestors were passing as white to avoid oppression. Our heritage is so mixed but we have to still keep opening these boxes. That is one thing artists can help to do.
You have also recently branched out into producing. How did that come about?
I’m really grateful to have lots of really amazing friends from theatre school, and from being in LA for a while, and one of them is a brilliant actor and director named Brian Jordan Alvarez. He wrote about a very personal experience he had where he sort of got un-healthfully obsessed with another guy and didn’t know what to do with himself afterwards and felt just that shame and humiliation. It started as a gay story but those feelings apply in all relationships. He ended up casting me to play the part he wrote based on himself and I was like “how can we produce it?” … I liked the fact that it became a story about an average middle class black American who experiences humiliation… A lot of time we see stories of black people who stay in ghettos as a sort of example, or extraordinary stories like “Scandal” with Kerry Washington. We just had a lot of fun and didn’t expect to do a lot with it. Then when it was finished we’re like “the world needs to see this” so I started submitting it to festivals. People are saying “That reminded me of when I was in my 20s and I’m so glad I’m not that desperate anymore.”
What is some of the best advice you got about acting?
First try and focus. Really listen to something that challenges you or engages you in the world in some way. If you’re sitting with the awesome Leonardo DiCaprio or Jamie Foxx who are just like amazing talents, instead of focusing on “oh these are the famous actors,” this idea I have in my head about them, focus on the moment, on something that’s really right in front of you and trying to see the humanity in the other. Maybe you’re missing out on the experience of them if you’re only paying attention to the idea in your own head.