The Movie Obama Wants to See, Made by the First African American Director Ever to Win an Oscar for a Full-Length Film (and He's From Seattle)
by Jen Graves
on Tue, Feb 28, 2012 at 2:22 PM
Yonnas Getahun (my fiance) and TJ Martin (right) at the St. Felix Hotel in West Hollywood.
I did not expect to be at a winning Oscar party this Sunday night in LA—but that's exactly where I found myself when, two seconds after my fiance and I walked into the St. Felix Hotel in West Hollywood for the Undefeated party, GWYNETH PALTROW AND ROBERT DOWNEY JR. ANNOUNCED that Undefeated won Best Documentary on the big screen in the bar.
It was unreal. The place erupted. The place was so uproarious—grown men were crying on each other's shoulders, coiffed women were covering their mouths—that we couldn't even make out the acceptance speeches. I'd only met the filmmakers once before, and even I was over the moon. Undefeated was directed by Dan Lindsay and TJ Martin. TJ is an old friend of my fiance (see picture). Friends don't win Oscars! Except they do! (Turns out, TJ dropped an F bomb during his acceptance speech. I still don't know what he said exactly.)
And then within a few minutes, I heard another piece of astonishing news, reported on The Root and elsewhere: TJ is the first African American director to win an Oscar for a full-length film. So TJ made history Sunday night. Sean Combs, one of the executive producers of Undefeated, was yelling about it on his Twitter feed: "I am buggin," he wrote. "Holy Sh*t!!!!"
The news got even better: The New York Post reported that Obama had ordered a copy of the movie to be screened at the White House. TJ is a Seattle native; he grew up in the Central District and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1997.
His father, Tommy Martin, is a legendary musician in these parts. His mother, Tina, is a singer; she lives in Las Vegas. Tommy is white, Tina is African American.
Aptly, Undefeated is a tangle when it comes to race (and class). I saw the movie in LA on Sunday just before the Oscars: It had a one-night screening as part of SIFF's documentary series a few months ago but currently is not scheduled to play in Seattle theaters. I hope that will change.
I'm interviewing TJ tonight. In the meantime, here's what he had to say about his historic designation in an interview with The Skanner a few months back:
KW: How do you feel about the possibility of becoming the first black director to win an Academy Award?
TJM: First and foremost I’m extremely honored for such recognition. At the same time, I would have a hard time claiming such an achievement since I’m half black. My experience navigating the world is night and day different than that of someone whose parents are both Black. I personally, identify much more with being mixed race. It would be hard for me to accept such an achievement without also acknowledging my Native American, Scandinavian, Chinese and Jewish roots as well! I definitely think it warrants a greater conversation. I wonder if there’s some kind of designation for being the first mixed race director to win for best documentary? Probably not.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
TJM: Do you identify as being Black?
On the surface, Undefeated looks like that stupid-ass, white-people-saving-black-folks Sandra Bullock movie, because it tells the story of white coaches who volunteer for an all-black football team in North Memphis, Tennessee. But it's a real story. It's more complicated than a concocted, controlled fantasy. Combs reportedly wants to make a feature film out of it, which raises tons of questions for me: Why? How? What do you want to change?
There's a scene in which the (white) coach tells a young (black) player, Money, that if he works hard, things will go right, and then he gives Money some good news—Money is being rewarded for years of hard work. But the scene is uncomfortable because while Money has earned everything he's gotten, plenty of kids from poor black families will work hard and get screwed—and plenty of kids from rich white families won't earn what they get, either. And if you think that's an exaggeration, that most people live in the middle and not at the extremes, just look at North Memphis. Just look at Undefeated. Nobody in the movie, even the coach, is trying to hide the realities. They're trying, rather, to figure out their individual narratives in the midst of these sweeping historical tides. That's what's interesting about the movie, that tension between small stories and big ones. It's fitting, too, that it's called Undefeated—it's not really a triumphant story. It's not about the edge between winning and losing, it's about the edge between losing and not losing.
I'm going to try to get some time to talk with TJ about some of these issues in the next few days, in the hopes of writing a longer piece for the March 8 paper. (Maybe I can finally ask him the question he wants to be asked.) He graduated from Western Washington University, where he's coming to talk after a screening of the movie on Thursday night. The event is already sold out.
Oh: No, I didn't hold the Oscar. I know; I should have. I heard it was heavy.