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NPR Arts & Life

In Fantasy Short 'Forever Tree,' A Black Heroine Learns To Stop Playing Small

Director Alrick Brown and actress Olivia Washington on the set of <em>The Forever Tree</em>.
Director Alrick Brown and actress Olivia Washington on the set of <em>The Forever Tree</em>.

A short film that's filled with big Hollywood names premiered Tuesday in Bentonville, Ark. The Forever Tree ,a black historical fantasy film, stars Wendell Pierce and Olivia Washington. It made its debut at the third Bentonville Film Festival, which aims to headline creative works by women and filmmakers of color.

Set during the Harlem Renaissance, The Forever Treetells the mysterious, magical story of Tawny Bennett, an antiquarian's apprentice. The film is just 18 minutes long, but co-writer and producer Chrishaunda Lee Perez says she hopes someday they'll find the resources to tell a longer version of the story. Her star actress agrees. "It's like an adventure really is beginning," says Washington. "So I love the idea of seeing where it goes."

The filmmaker is streaming the entire film for free this Saturday and Sunday.


Interview Highlights

On how the film came to be

Perez:A dear friend of mine, Stephen Hintz, called me about seven years ago, so this is a long time coming. He brought a story to me and said, "Hey, let's collaborate on an idea that has a black girl at the center of the narrative, that mixes fantasy and reality with history." We both have daughters and we wanted to create an opportunity for them to see themselves, and other people to see black women, in areas that are not commonly seen in film.

On how Washington's character, Tawny, starts out "playing small"

Washington: I think it's something that I worked through as a young child. You know, as a young female you want to make sure you're polite and you do what you're told, but when you start growing up you have to realize that you have to live to your fullest potential. And I think when you play small, when you kind of hide behind others, you're selling yourself short.

On whether Tawny is in a role of servitude

Perez: Tawny seemingly is in a space of servitude. ... She is an apprentice, if you will, but because she is black and because of the time frame, she doesn't have the opportunity, she doesn't have the open window, to really be herself.

She really has been told in so many ways — many people of that time frame were told — "Be happy that you have this experience and don't ask for more and don't expect any more." I think Tawny falls into that space.

<em>The Forever Tree</em> debuted Tuesday at the Bentonville Film Festival. (Pictured: actress Olivia Washington, art director Ntokozo Fuzuzina Kunene, co-writer and producer Stephen Hintz, co-writer Marc Novak, Perez , cinematographer Danny Vecchione, actress Natalie Carter and director Alrick Brown.)
Joel Plummer / Courtesy of Chrishaunda Lee Perez
/
<em>The Forever Tree</em> debuted Tuesday at the Bentonville Film Festival. (Pictured: actress Olivia Washington, art director Ntokozo Fuzuzina Kunene, co-writer and producer Stephen Hintz, co-writer Marc Novak, Perez , cinematographer Danny Vecchione, actress Natalie Carter and director Alrick Brown.)

You know, she realizes later on that she doesn't have to stay in this bubble that's been created for her and she has a sort of accidental encounter with two people who give her sage advice: "Don't play small. Come with us. Here's an opportunity to not only embark upon something that you've never seen before, but you will discover who you really are as well."

On Tawny's pride

Perez: We wanted to portray Tawny as a complex character who — there's a big part of her that is playing small, obviously as you would see in the film — but then there's an underlying piece of her that's very prideful and that feels proud of her heritage. And so you have these little sort of nuanced moments where you know that it's there. ... You realize then that, OK, this girl isn't as small as she is portraying herself to be. There's something very big inside of her and it's just a matter of time before that comes out.

On whether this will ever be a feature length film

Perez: We first wrote this as a feature and couldn't get it made. We pitched this for two years, three years and, you know, many filmmakers can attest to these journeys of not getting anybody to pay attention. So we raised a shoestring budget ... and made something very special and very big out of almost nothing.

We absolutely have the intention of doing a feature-length film for this because, you know, this is America and we've got lots of different kinds of people here. Black people are integral to our history; black people are integral to the building of this nation. And the Bentonville Film Festival, part of their mission is inclusion and we're just happy to be, grateful to be, I'll say it again, included.

Radio producer Sarah Handel, radio editor Stacey Samuel and Web producers Nicole Cohen and Beth Novey contributed to this story.

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