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

May 6, 2017
Originally published on May 6, 2017 10:39 am

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 Tree tells 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.

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For a third year, an Arkansas town is host to a Hollywood-style film festival started by Gina Davis, the Oscar-winning actress. The Bentonville Film Festival aims to headline creative works by women and filmmakers of color. Opening the festival this year - a black historical fantasy film, "The Forever Tree."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE FOREVER TREE")

WENDELL PIERCE: (As Dr. Willow) I'm Madame Walker's physician.

OLIVIA WASHINGTON: (As Tawny Bennett) Madame CJ Walker?

PIERCE: (As Dr. Willow) Yes. And you are?

WASHINGTON: (As Tawny Bennett) I'm Ms. Meyers' assistant.

PIERCE: (As Dr. Willow) Did she ever mention a forever tree?

SIMON: It's a short film but with some big names - Wendell Pierce and his co-star, the young and accomplished Olivia Washington. We're joined now from Bentonville, Ark., by Chrishaunda Lee Perez who is the co-writer and producer of the film, and Olivia Washington, whom we just heard.

CHRISHAUNDA LEE PEREZ: Thank you, Scott.

WASHINGTON: Thank you for having us.

SIMON: Where does this idea of "The Forever Tree" come from?

PEREZ: This is Chrishaunda. A dear friend of mine, Steven Hintz, called me about seven years ago, so this is a longtime 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 in other people, to see black women in areas that are not commonly seen in film.

SIMON: So Olivia Washington, you played Tawny. She is an art authenticator who works for an art dealer, but she's still - I guess the phrase is playing small, isn't she?

WASHINGTON: I guess she is in the beginning.

SIMON: Help us understand that phrase. I hadn't heard it before this film.

WASHINGTON: Playing small?

SIMON: Yeah.

WASHINGTON: I mean, 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 and - you're selling yourself short.

SIMON: In many ways, Tawny is in a kind of servitude, isn't she?

PEREZ: I think I can speak a little bit to that, Scott. We're looking at the Harlem Renaissance. The film is actually 1919, and so, yes, Tawny seemingly is a space of servitude, but it's more that she is an apprentice, if you will, but because she is black and because of the time frame she doesn't have the open window to really be herself. And so 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. And I think Tawny falls into that space. You know, she realizes later on that she doesn't have to stay in this in this bubble that's been created by her - for her. And she has this sort of accidental encounter with two people who give her sage advice - don't play small. Come with us. There'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.

SIMON: I do have a favorite line in this film. It's when Dr. Willow is impressed by Tawny's knowledge, and he says that the woman for whom she works must have taught her well. And Tawny says - Olivia Washington...

WASHINGTON: My father taught me well.

SIMON: Yeah. The lesson I got from it was that even Dr. Willow would kind of suggest that she must have learned what she knew from a white woman, and Tawny was was very eager to let him know, no, I learned it from my father.

PEREZ: You're on to something, Scott, because we wanted to betray 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 nuance moments where you know that it's there because when she says something as strong as - and interrupts Dr. Willow and says my father taught me well, 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.

SIMON: Chrishaunda Lee Perez and Olivia Washington, it sounds like you're determined to turn 18 minute - what we call a short - into a feature film at some point.

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 - a shoestring budget - oh, my goodness - and made something very special and very big out of almost nothing, and 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 Festivals - part of their mission is inclusion and we're just happy to be included, so...

SIMON: Olivia Washington, are you - would you like to tell the rest of Tawny's story?

WASHINGTON: Oh, of course. I mean, I instantly, after watching it, was like, oh, I want to know what happens next and this is - this - it is exciting. It's like an adventure really is beginning. So I love the idea of seeing where it goes.

PEREZ: If she would have us, we would be so grateful.

SIMON: Chrishaunda Lee Perez and Olivia Washington - their short film, "The Forever Tree" this weekend at the Bentonville Film Festival. Thanks so much for being with us.

PEREZ: Thank you.

WASHINGTON: Thank you so much.

SIMON: And you can see - forgive me - you can see "The Forever Tree" all weekend long. There's a link on our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.