Director Rick Famuyiwa is no stranger to storytelling. Bursting onto the scene with his first feature film The Wood in 2000, Famuyiwa has become a fixture in the galaxy far far away with his contributions to The Mandalorian, directing three episodes of the Disney+ series: “Chapter 2: The Child,” “Chapter 6: The Prisoner,” and “Chapter 15: The Believer.”
In a wide-ranging interview with StarWars.com in celebration of Black History Month, Famuyiwa expounds on his background, his filmmaking origin story, and how his experiences as an African-American child of Nigerian immigrants influences his point of view as a storyteller.
StarWars.com: Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
Rick Famuyiwa: I was born in Berkeley, so born in the Bay Area and sort of spent the first eight, nine years of my life in and around Berkeley, Concord, San Jose, California. Then my mom and I moved, along with my little brother, to North Carolina for a few years while she was doing her postgraduate work. And so we spent a couple years, like three years, in North Carolina, but ended up settling in Los Angeles, Inglewood, California. So the bulk of my sort of formative years were formed in LA and Inglewood. And that’s primarily what I call home, even though I was born in the Bay.
StarWars.com: I grew up in the middle of nowhere Indiana in a very small town. There’s one thing I’ve reflected on in my life as a biracial person — my dad’s Black and my mom’s white — is that the “Black experience” is really a collection of many experiences.
Rick Famuyiwa: Yeah, exactly.
StarWars.com: And so for you, how would you describe your ethnic background and your relationship to your identity as a Black person?
Rick Famuyiwa: I always say I’m literally African American because my parents were Nigerian. And so both my parents were Nigerian, came to the US to study, and then that’s why I ended up being born in Berkeley. My dad was going there to go to school, and my mom was at Cal State Hayward. I considered myself Black, but my background is that I’m a first generation American. So I’ve also had sort of differing views and experiences around race, both as a Black person in America, but also as a son of immigrants and that immigrant experience that happens. I was witness to that and living in between two worlds: between what was African and clearly from my name to how I looked and everything else, but being very much American.
I was also born in the Bay Area in the ‘70s at a time where I recall my experience of Blackness — just the images I remember were just so varied. So there were lots of like Afros and beads and dashikis and different kind of things in my experiences growing up.
Then I had a very sort of literally other-side-of-the-country view of that when I moved to North Carolina in like the early ‘80s. And that was a completely different experience in terms of being Black, because it was the South. It had all of the history and implications and only a decade or so removed from everything that had been going on with civil rights in that area. So it just gave me a completely different perspective on things, because I was this kid from the Bay Area and had a different kind of identity around race. But because of the very overt racism and institutional system that the South was, you certainly felt that even though many things had progressed, there was this large Black community that hadn’t experienced that at quite the degree as I had when I was in the Bay Area. So that was very unique.
And then Los Angeles has its own thing. [Laughs.] So I feel like all of that experience kind of brought something to my point of view, and it did give me that very clear picture that what you say Black, or what that experience is — it’s completely buried, and there is no one experience. And I actually had the chance to really live that by being in these different areas and different situations. You could see that there’s such a wide cross section of what that means. And so that’s always been something that stuck to me, even as I became a storyteller.
StarWars.com: I hear that for sure. Being Black in different places, in different contexts, and having all those different layers — son of immigrants and being literally African American. You said that that influenced your point of view as a storyteller. And I wonder if you could say more about that? How do you see those experiences reflected in who you are as a creator and storyteller?
Rick Famuyiwa: I think I’ve always been able to see things from different perspectives, and I’ve always been curious about how a story or character changes based on the point of view. I think my own experiences, knowing how someone might look at me in one area versus another, how I might look at myself, how the community that I’m a part of in terms of race looks, it all sort of shifted depending on the point of view. And so I’ve always been curious at these sort of stories that have those different perspectives. Because of knowing that there is this kind of wide cross section, I’ve always been really interested in what are the point of views that aren’t necessarily the dominant ones that we see in mainstream popular culture and entertainment?
I’m always trying to find that out, whether it’s through a character or through a story. I think there’s something about that experience that allowed me to kind of be in my own skin, but also step out of it, because I had to look at things, not just as an American, but as an immigrant. I saw things through the eyes of my parents and that culture and community. I saw things through the eyes of what it’s like to live in the South. And then that was a different point of view from when I came to Los Angeles. And many people, even though they had a lineage that could trace back to the South but had grown up in a certain type of area that didn’t have to deal with that. But then I also had a different perspective that that brought, being from LA versus somewhere else. And so I’ve always tried to do that.
And in my films, particularly my last theatrically-released feature, which was Dope, that was really interested in this idea of how perspectives and point of view changes how the audience sees a character, how the characters see themselves, and how the story changes and shifts based on that. I like things that are messy in terms of their point of view. I felt like my upbringing, and just always having to be in these new environments where I had to discover things, or always had to navigate the point of view someone might have of me versus what who I felt I truly was, I think, are all the things as a filmmaker and a director you’re doing. You’re constantly having to shift point of views as you tell a story. And I felt growing up gave me, unbeknownst to myself, that kind of experience.
StarWars.com: It’s amazing how those things that we don’t really see being super important to us end up influencing our careers. So how did you get your start in terms of filmmaking and storytelling?
Rick Famuyiwa: I’ve always loved film, and it’s insane, because the first film I saw in the theaters was Star Wars. I remember that experience, and I think that the storytelling that happened in that film, and then happened with my friends, and happened with my toys. [Laughs.] I’ve always been someone who had this imagination about storytelling, and I was surrounded by a lot of storytellers and s***-talkers. [Laughs.] That’s kind of a cultural thing, too. But I never thought that I could make a living as a filmmaker as much as, “I love movies and go to movies,” and how much that’s sort of shaped my experience.
Growing up, I wasn’t one of these kids who looked like I was going to be director. I loved playing sports. I was a sort of dutiful, immigrant son. And I went to college as a political science major, with aspirations of going to law school and becoming a lawyer. I went to USC and took a film class as my art elective. And at the same time, I was doing my freshman composition and writing. The professor of the writing class came up to me after he had read one of my pieces, and he just pulled me aside. I didn’t know what the hell it was about, if I’d messed up somehow or whatever. [Laughs.] I’m just trying to figure things out with college. He said that he had read my work and had I ever thought about pursuing a career in writing? And of course, I never had. I never thought that that was a serious pursuit. I never grew up and had writers or filmmakers or directors around me. Even though I lived in Los Angeles, that still felt like another world to me.
Something about the seed of that idea of possibility, along with me taking this film class, there was a kind of chemical reaction that happened in my brain that just went like, “Why aren’t you doing this?” And so it was one of those things of fate that brought me to this place where I was at USC, and they had this film school that I didn’t really know about before I got there. I was sort of hit by lightning and felt like I’ve always wanted to tell stories. And now there was this avenue that I could possibly do it. After taking a couple more classes and really diving in, I changed majors and applied to the school and got in after a couple of attempts. And that began the process of really saying, “Okay, I’m going to do this.”
And then a short film that I made my senior year, I entered into a bunch of festivals, and Sundance Film Festival was one of them. And Sundance accepted it. Through that, I met a bunch people who ran the Writers and Directors Workshop, which they call the Screenwriting Lab and Filmmaking Lab now. That’s how I started really workshopping an idea, which eventually became The Wood, my first feature film. It was one of those things where it felt like I was put in a place at the right time and given that just right amount of a seed being planted. You realize that oftentimes, especially growing up in the communities that I did, that that seed never gets planted. And there’s so many opportunities out there that don’t grow just because no one ever thinks they can do it. Somehow just the idea that someone said, “Hey, you might be able to do this,” and it was the first time I’d ever even heard something like that, it sort of lit something in me that I guess I’m still trying to quench to this day.
StarWars.com: That’s one great story. So thank you for sharing it. But it’s so funny that you talked about being a political science major, with ambitions for law school. I was a history major, who also had ambitions for law school and sort of turned and took a different path.
Rick Famuyiwa: Lord knows we have enough lawyers and not enough writers and filmmakers and artists. [Laughs.]
StarWars.com: [Laughs.] That’s true. When I think about one of the things that contributed to my own desire to embrace this like, latent drive I had as a writer and storyteller, one of my favorite films when I was younger was [your film] Brown Sugar. I loved Sid Shaw.
Rick Famuyiwa: Wow.
StarWars.com: Reflecting on that, I think it was really important for me when I was younger. And for you, as somebody who has spotlighted Black voices and Black perspectives in so much of your filmmaking career, how do you reflect on the importance of representation on the influence that those stories can have?
Rick Famuyiwa: It’s one of those things where I think I had just sort of a personal desire to tell these stories, because I just hadn’t seen them on screen. And I loved all aspects of cinema. I would watch films like Star Wars and Ghostbusters and Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I’d watch When Harry Met Sally or Moonstruck or all these films. I would go to the theaters and get transported into these worlds. And I never saw myself. I loved films like American Graffiti and Diner. And those were the things that I started saying, as I thought about the stories that I wanted to tell and the stories that I liked. It was like, look, these are the stories that I sort of really responded to growing up, but they certainly weren’t being made [with people that looked like me].
At the time that I was even thinking about telling stories, it was a very different sort of phenomenon happening around Black cinema. Many films that were coming out were dealing with a very real and very true experience of growing up in poverty and around gangs and drugs and a lot of things that were certainly very much a part of the overall, very diverse experiences of being Black in America. Yet it was over-represented in media and culture. And so I just wanted to tell, with The Wood, just a story about some friends, quite literally based on me and my friends. And in the spirit of Stand By Me and Wonder Years and Diner, I just wanted to tell that story, even though it certainly didn’t fit what was being told at the time. And it was the same with Brown Sugar, which it sounds weird, but it’s like I wanted to make my Nora Ephron films in some ways [Laughs.], but bring the point of view and culture that I had, because I grew up with hip-hop, and that shaped me both in terms of the music and the culture.
It was a script that existed, but I wanted to sort of take that and say, “We can still tell these stories and be that coming-of-age story or a romantic comedy or a drama or action-adventure, but I’m not going to come with the same perspective that Nora Ephron’s going to come with. But I do think that I could tell this story in my voice and still have it reach people. And even if they don’t completely get the culture, they get the humanity and heart that’s underneath it.” So it’s been interesting to see that film and The Wood and since they’ve come out, how they’ve managed to define new audiences, because at the time, both were sort of moderately successful. They did okay, but they certainly weren’t the films that everyone was talking about when they were released. There were much flashier things and things that became way more successful, but it’s been interesting to see how I run into people like yourself and others who say that they saw one of those or both of those films and how much it spoke to them in terms of the truth of it, or just seeing something of themselves they hadn’t seen.
It really makes you understand the importance of people being able to see themselves. There’s an experience of that with those who obviously look like the characters, but I think it also becomes a bigger, universal experience when you talk about what it is to be mainstream and what it is to be American. So I’m glad to have a small part in that. And it really kind of hits you when I do meet people who say how much those films and others have meant to them. But it always starts from just a purely selfish place of like, “This is what I’d like to see and I hope that other people do, as well.” But I think that’s what we need, is to have more artists who have the ability to do that with whatever that slice of experience that they want to bring to the table, because ultimately, I think that’s what’s going to make the art form sustain.
StarWars.com: Given that Star Wars was like, the first film that you saw in theaters and you spent so much time engaging with these sorts of films that sort of transport you to a different place, and not always feeling represented in those universes, or galaxies, as it were, what does it mean to you to be among the first Black Star Wars directors?
Rick Famuyiwa: When I first started making [my first] film, it was an ambition I never would’ve thought could happen. It was hard enough just to get the small films I was trying to get made, financed, and distributed and supported. So the notion of this, it just didn’t seem like it would ever be possible. I’d never even put my brain into to what that might mean. And so on one level, it’s really exciting, and there’s a responsibility and a pride in that. On another level you go, “It’s still something that’s pointed out.” That just shows that we still have so much more to go in terms of really finding the kind of representation behind the camera, particularly around these properties and films that people consider the biggest mainstream entertainment, because they need a perspective in order to really stand the test of time.
So I pinch myself as I run around and get the chance to do this. And then I hope that as I continue, that that door that was opened to me stays open and continues to see the kind of filmmakers of all races and backgrounds coming into the world and being able to tell the stories, whether that’s in Star Wars or other similar properties. There’s still work to be done there, but I’m happy that I could sort of represent for those many kids like me, who grew up watching Star Wars and still watch it to this day and might see me and get that seed planted in them that says, “I can do this.” And if I’m a part of that, then that’s exciting. Hopefully you get to a point where they see it and go, “Yeah, that’s just the norm.” It doesn’t stand out in any way.
StarWars.com: So for folks who come from more diverse backgrounds, when it comes to storytelling, I feel like the specificity in our stories can be viewed as somewhat limiting. And for you as someone who’s navigated the creative world, creating content that spotlights Black voices and perspectives all the way to more mainstream stuff like Star Wars and Back Again, how do you really navigate those systems as a Black director?
Rick Famuyiwa: My point of view is counter to that in many ways, in that I’ve always felt that it’s the opposite. I don’t think the specificity that comes from my experience, or even speaking about or having kind of characters or stories that are told through the lens of a Black character, limits it. And in fact, I think that point of view expands cinema. But I do think that for many, there is this sort of continuing idea around those experiences, be they Black or Latino or Native American, First Nations, or from women or the LGBTQ community, that somehow these stories are somehow not as big or mainstream as anything else, or those perspectives are limiting. And so I’ve always approached it in the same way, because I felt like the heart of the story I’m telling is universal. The perspective I’m bringing is just the flavor that keeps the stories that we tell over and over from becoming stale.
I wouldn’t want to eat the same meal every single day. I’d want to have a change of ingredients. I want to have a change of flavors. And even if the foundations of that meal are very familiar, there is something that comes with a little pinch of this and a little pinch of that that makes it new and brings a different perspective on the same meal. One culture calls it one thing, and another culture calls it another, but there are universal things that go into how human beings live and sustain themselves. I find it more interesting when I can and see that story told in different ways. I’ve just kind of stubbornly kept that as my point of view, knowing that that’s not how everyone sees the business that I work in, but always feeling that the audience is there, and if you just make it, then eventually that’s what’s going to happen.
I think many stories we tell and want to tell are sort of the stories that we’ve been telling from the beginning of time, but the new points of view give it just that amount of new flavor that it makes it seem new and interesting. So I would say that my perspective is what’s allowed me to come into Star Wars and see and bring a different kind of point of view, and also be very much honoring the thing that came before. And I think I can only do that from my point of view, and someone else would do it from theirs, but I think this galaxy and others like it are big enough to tell those stories. So, yeah, I think I’ve always felt that stories I’ve told were big and mainstream, so I think now I’m just in a place where I could put those to the test.
StarWars.com: I hear that. I had the opportunity to interview [actor and screenwriter] Lena Waithe once. And one of the things that she said to me that I think about a lot is that the specific is universal.
Rick Famuyiwa: When I watch The Fighter, it’s an experience that’s very different from my own in terms of how I grew up, but when I look at the relationships, whether it’s between the brothers or the mother or the family or the dynamics, I go, “This is something that feels very familiar to me, even though these specific people are not.” And that’s the specific being universal. I find the more specific I am, the more people come to me and say, “That’s just like me.” I had that after Dope, where this older white woman came up to me after a screening and said how much this movie reminded her of her own grandkids, and her son. And this was after Sundance, and so she’s from Salt Lake City. And so it’s like, I know that my experience with these kids in Inglewood, California, was probably not exactly like your kids and grandkids, but the fact that she saw something in them that so much reminded her of her own kids and grandkids, that was the thing that she connected to, was how specific these lives were. And she could find the corollary in her own life. So that’s where I feel like the more specific I’ve gotten, the more times people come up to me and say, “This is just like me.” And I’m always amazed how different those people look and how different their backgrounds are.
StarWars.com: When you think about your place and influence in the Star Wars galaxy, what effect do you hope that you’ve had so far?
Rick Famuyiwa: One of the great things about The Mandalorian in particular was there was this group of filmmakers that came together, and kind of brought together by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni and Kathy Kennedy. But each of the filmmakers were from different perspectives and had different point of views. And so I’ve always felt that what makes The Mandalorian resonate so much is, of course, we got a very cool lead character that lots of people love, but I think also it’s that there were stories being told from a perspective that, even though it was in the world of Star Wars, it was new. It was different. It felt like what I was saying and my point of view was different than what Dave Filoni’s or Taika Waititi’s point of view were, than Deb Chow, but that they were all part of the same storytelling. And it kind of opened up what storytelling in Star Wars could be. If you just bring in different perspectives, you find those little elements that make things new and really exciting.
So I think the future of Star Wars is continuing to sort of open up those doors and continue to tell these stories from a point of view, because that’s not what we’ve seen before. I want to continue to be a part of that storytelling, because I do think, as I was saying before, that the audience today and coming up and growing up with storytelling wants to see a different kind of thing. And I think Star Wars and other franchises have to speak to that, or they become like artifacts — museum pieces that we study — and they’re not living and breathing. You have to be where the people are. And the people right now are a global community that has perspectives that are varied, but at the same time, a kind of universal thing binding everything together. And honestly, that’s what the Force is. That’s what the galaxy of Star Wars has always been about, represented through different alien species and droids and disparate sort of lands that both look familiar and not. But all of it was sort of shaped by one universal thing.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Katie Barnes is an award winning journalist for ESPN. Follow them on Twitter @Katie_barnes3.
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