Lisa Cortés knows "it's not about broccoli." As a Black woman in the entertainment industry — first in music and now in film — knows better than anyone that inspiring change is not always about lecturing. "It's not about feeding to people," says the filmmaker.
"I like stories that you walk in and you think you know what it's about," she adds, "and you leave just learning so much organically... It is the revelation of dynamic characters who are affecting culture on multiple levels."
For Cortés, movies are that much more powerful when they highlight social and political issues through lens of a character that the audience can emphasize with. She did so as a producer on the Oscar-winning film Precious, and again with the documentary, Little Richard: I Am Everything, which marks her solo directorial debut. It is the "intersectional approach" to storytelling that drew her to the latter.
"It's not just the music, it's not just the pompadour," she explains. "People often talk about, Where was Little Richard during the civil rights movement...? But in his own way, through his performances, he was bringing together Black and white teens, and taking the gospel of rock and roll to other countries. He was building bridges and he's changing perceptions. And that in itself is liberatory. So, I like characters who have that ripple effect that we still feel today, who are in conversation with contemporary themes that we have relegated to the past."
Below, Cortés shares with A.frame five films that inspire her as a filmmaker.
Directed by: Bob Fosse | Written by: Jay Presson Allen
I'm a big fan of Fosse as a director. I love how Cabaret brought the tragedy of the story and the true history and the seamless incorporation of musical performances [together]. It's a dark story. It's not a happy musical. The people who are supposed to stay together don't, and there's a great tragedy looming in the background with the rise of fascism. So, there's really complex, true, historical storylines happening. But of course, with the incandescent Liza Minnelli and Joel Gray, who's mercurial and complex.
Directed by: Raoul Peck
It's such a beautiful use of archival to center someone — James Baldwin — who's been very important in my life and my scholarship and in the definition of my voice as an artist.
Directed by: Michael Roemer | Written by: Michael Roemer and Robert M. Young
Michael Roamer was one of my professors when I was an undergrad. He was a documentarian, but then he made this narrative film with Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. It's black and white, it's set in the South. It is about love, it is about class, and it almost has the eye of a documentarian in telling a narrative story.
A lot of the stories that I am intrigued by are with characters who are misunderstood, who are outliers. When seen from the outside, you would not think that Precious would contain all of the worlds that she has within herself. Over the course of the story, we discover that that character is rich and poetic and has big dreams, as opposed to a young girl on a bus who society has a lot of projections about who she is and who she can be when her interiority is so rich. That's a narrative film, but it gave voice to this concept of outliers who are more than what our natural framing of them would be.
That's the thing with Little Richard. You think he is just about "Tutti Frutti" or "Shut Up," but he is such a central figure in our history, in rock 'n' roll, in transgressive [and] intersectional conversations. There's a richness there. I am interested in the richness that beautifully complex humans have, whether they're real people like Little Richard or a character like Precious.
Directed by: Lee Daniels | Written by: Geoffrey Fletcher
I worked for so many years to bring that film to the screen. It was such a joy to work on as a producer, to be there when the incredible Gabourey Sidibe was cast, and to see the love that went into telling the story of an incredibly complex character who I believe at the end of that film has found their voice and their agency and is able to break a cycle that had been so debilitating in her life.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola | Written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
Of course, it's full of classic moments, like the horse head in the bed. But there's something universal about complex families. It is commentary on capitalism, entrepreneurship, the immigrant experience, but through this very unique lens. In many ways the stereotypical Godfather could be a caricature, but it interrogated all of the things that went into this story of coming to another country as an outsider, staking a claim and the consequences of choices. It is so masterfully told.
By Doriean Stevenson