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Roger Ross Williams, the First Black Oscar-Winning Director, on “Life, Animated” & #OscarsSoWhite

StoryJanuary 27, 2016
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We speak with Roger Ross Williams about his new project, “Life, Animated,” which just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Williams was the first African-American director to win an Oscar, for his film “Music by Prudence,” which won the 2010 Academy Award for documentary short subject. He also directed the critically acclaimed feature documentary “God Loves Uganda.” “You feel the weight of history,” Williams says of his recognition. “The Academy just reflects Hollywood,” Williams says as he discusses why he will not be boycotting the Oscars, but instead plans to continue trying to improve recognition and diversity by mentoring young filmmakers.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Roger, you’re here at the Sundance Film Festival with this masterpiece, with Life, Animated.


AMY GOODMAN: And you won an Oscar for Music for Prudence [sic].

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: Music by Prudence.

AMY GOODMAN: You won an Academy Award. You were the first African American to win an Academy Award for documentary short. This year there is the whole controversy at the Oscars, which isn’t just this year, but, you know, no actor of color was even nominated for an Oscar. People are calling for boycotts. I’m wondering what you feel about this?

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, I was the first director to win for directing a film, period. African Americans had won in the acting category, but never in the directing category, which was shocking to me. I’m in the Academy, and, you know, I think the problem starts with Hollywood. Hollywood has to diversify. The Academy just reflects Hollywood. And until we break those barriers, until we have African-American or minority studio executives, ’til we have people who are greenlighting movies with African-American actors—the Academy is not going to change until Hollywood changes, so we have to start with Hollywood.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you endorse a boycott of the Oscars this year?

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: I think we have to work with Hollywood. We have to work in the system and change it. You know, I don’t think boycotting is the answer. I think the answer—and I’m in the Academy, and I’m leading a push in the Academy to diversify the membership. The Academy and the Oscars are iconic, and that’s not going to change. So, let’s try to make a difference, and let’s try to have a voice as African Americans, as minorities, and change it.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what the Oscar meant for you, because the significance of getting this award, what has been deprived—what so many have been deprived of—what did it mean when you won the Oscar for Music [by] Prudence?

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: You feel the weight of history. You feel responsible. And I’m a mentor. You know, for me, it’s about mentoring young black filmmakers and talking to them. And I go out across the country and, well, working with the Sundance Institute mentoring people. So it’s about, like, that you can do this, too. You know, I came from nothing. I came—my mother was a maid, and my father pumped gas. I came from a very poor family. And I was able to rise up and actually win an Academy Award. And if I can do it, then any kid can do it.

AMY GOODMAN: Owen, did you see Music [by] Prudence?


AMY GOODMAN: Do you want to see his short, see Roger’s other movie?

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: [inaudible] Music by Prudence.

OWEN SUSKIND: Yeah, maybe sometime I might.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: I’ll show it to you.

RON SUSKIND: Owen’s unlike any other interview you’ve had recently, Amy. Owen can only tell the truth. Absolutely, there’s not a choice. It’s like Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: Yeah, and, Owen, you know, it’s like a fairytale, so I think you’ll really like it.

OWEN SUSKIND: Wow! Amazing!

RON SUSKIND: I think you’ll like it.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Roger, just very quickly, so how did you end up getting into films and making your way onto the Oscar stage? And what did you say in your acceptance speech?


ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: OK. Well, I was journalist, and I was working for CNN, I believe, at the time. And I realized that what—the real honest stories, real journalism was happening in documentary film, and I wasn’t satisfied working for the mainstream media. So I quit. I took—I had $5,000. I flew to Zimbabwe and took a chance and made my first film. And it just—you know, luckily, it went all the way. So, you know, for me, it was about—it was about telling the truth and telling—and truth was coming from documentary.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you a last question. Life, Animated, is it going to be showing at the movie theater you work at?


RON SUSKIND: The Regal Cinema in Hyannis.


RON SUSKIND: Well, who knows? Sometime soon, I hope.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: That’s what we’re here to work on. This is a market, so we’re here to sell the film. And hopefully it’s going to be in Regal Cinemas. And Owen—

RON SUSKIND: A celebration of cinema, Owen.

ROGER ROSS WILLIAMS: And Owen and his whole community—

AMY GOODMAN: So, Owen, you’re going to go from punching people’s tickets to get into the showing of the film—


AMY GOODMAN: —and then you’re going to go up on the stage afterwards?

RON SUSKIND: Will that be fun?

OWEN SUSKIND: It will be.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I really appreciate you taking this time.


AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask: Is there anything I forgot to ask you or that you’d like to say?

RON SUSKIND: Hey, Owen, why don’t you finish with your favorite line from Merlin. Go ahead. Sit up straight and tell them.


RON SUSKIND: You want to do the one you did at your graduation?

OWEN SUSKIND: Yeah. “Knowledge and wisdom is the real power, boy!”

RON SUSKIND: Knowledge and wisdom.

AMY GOODMAN: Is the real power.


AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much.

OWEN SUSKIND: You’re welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Owen and Ron and Roger, thank you for being here, and thank you for a magnificent exploration of life. And thank you, Owen, for sharing your life with all of us.

OWEN SUSKIND: You’re welcome.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Owen Suskind and his dad, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind, and the Oscar-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams, talking about their new documentary, Life, Animated. It premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival.

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