For Sacha Jenkins, documentary filmmaking is as much an artform as it is a state of mind. The director is known for nonfiction films like Bitchin': The Sound and Fury of Rick James and Cypress Hill: Insane in the Brain (which he executive produced), as well as the docuseries Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, for which Jenkins earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Writing for a Nonfiction Program.
His latest is Louis Armstrong's Black & Blues, an intimate look at the life and legacy of the founding father of jazz. Armstrong is an artist that Jenkins was both inspired by and could relate to.
"He's a very special person — not a normal individual — who had a real foresight and real insight and was just the essence of creativity," the filmmaker says. "I play music. I do different things. And I'm inspired by seeing someone who can do it on such a high level. He was inspired by creativity. That was his fuel."
Jenkins likewise appreciates the power of a narrative film grounded in real people, places, and truths. And, when the line between narrative and documentary is blurred, those are the films that he finds most inspiring. Below, Jenkins shares the five films that have most influenced him as a documentarian and storyteller, including a once-lost film by his late father.
Directed by: Tony Silver
It's a documentary about hip-hop culture in New York City, really largely focused on subway graffiti and that movement. It just gives you a real window into what New York City was like at that time in the late '70s, early '80s. I was a huge fan of graffiti and was a graffiti artist as a kid. Graffiti was something that we all did in our neighborhoods. Everyone had a nickname and wrote their names on things. Most people got out of it. I stuck around with it for years, and today some of my friends are really famous artists who sell their paintings for a lot of money.
But Style Wars just gave you the rawness of New York City in a way that was very honest. You see that hip-hop culture was born from children. It's basically kids who had nothing else better to do, finding ways to be creative and creating names for themselves and creating a world for themselves. And next year, that world will be 50 [years old]. Henry Chalfant, the gentleman who produced the film, wound up being one of my mentors and a big supporter of my work and supporter of me. So, my fascination with that film as a kid led me to one day becoming friends with one of its creators. And, somehow, now I'm a filmmaker myself.
Directed by: Charlie Ahearn | Written by: Charlie Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy
Wild Style is not a documentary but is pretty much like a documentary. It is about hip hop during the same period of Style Wars, but it's a scripted feature. The cast features real people — not actors — so it feels like, in many ways, it was a documentary. There are moments of fantasy and creativity, but also, in many ways, it was a documentary. Seeing both Style Wars and Wild Style at an early age was really a big influence on me.
Written and Directed by: Horace Jenkins
My father was a documentary filmmaker, television producer, one of the founding producers of Sesame Street. He did a bunch of things in film and TV — mainly documentary stuff — but he shot a narrative film called Cane River, which is based in Cane River down in Louisiana. It tells an interesting story about race and class in the Black community. It's a love story. He made that film and, soon after, he died. So, the film was lost for many years.
A few years ago, I Googled my dad and I found an article in The New York Times that wrote about an organization called Indie Collect. They had found the film and were poised to release it and didn't have much information on it. So, I reached out to them and, together, we finally released the film — which I had never seen, interestingly enough.
What I like about it, besides it being my dad's film, is — because my dad was a documentary filmmaker — it has a strong documentary feel. And, because it deals with history, and culture, and real people, it feels like a documentary. Which I think, in many ways, is a compliment. He used a couple of seasoned actors, but many of the people were just people of the community. That film, to me, shows that there is a way to bring your documentary sensibilities to narrative filmmaking, which I'm soon to make a transition into.
Written and Directed by: Dito Montiel
It's set in Queens, where I grew up. And it is so accurate and true to the community and what our lives were like growing up that it also feels like a documentary. It's a very humble film. It's not a big-budgeted blockbuster, but I think the performances are amazing, and the characters that he chose to highlight and the world that he chose to unpack were worlds and people that were overlooked. It's a phenomenal film that bridges the narrative sensibilities with something that feels documentary. Maybe it only feels documentary to me because I know the community and how authentic it was, but, when you can make something that blurs the line of documentary and narrative, that's pretty powerful.
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner | Written by: Michael Wilson and Rod Serling
Planet of the Apes is just amazing. As a kid, it just touched me in ways I didn't understand until I was much older. Charlton Heston was an icon at the time. The Ten Commandments guy. He's an astronaut, and they wind up coming back to Earth in the future. They come back to a world that's run by apes and the humans are like animals. They can't speak, they're mute. You see the different levels of society within the apes; who's intellectual, who's more militant, who's making the laws. And then, the humans are just nobodies, which is really refreshing.
And there's a Black astronaut on his team. Wow, it's a Black astronaut! That was cool. There weren't many Black humans, if any, any Black humans on the planet, which I find interesting. There's a moment where Charlton Heston is separated from his fellow astronauts and he winds up in this building that turns out to be a zoo. There's taxidermy animals, which are the humans, and then, that's when you see the Black astronaut. He gets taxidermied. So, you think it's just Planet of the Apes, and it's fun and funny masks, but there's way more to Planet of the Apes that meets the eye. I was most inspired by that.