With no film degree, director T.J. Martin wasn't always confident that he would win an Academy Award. In fact, just the thought of being nominated for an Oscar came as a complete surprise. "I'm not used to people saying that; it doesn't sound like they are talking about me," he told The Root.
The Seattle native made history on Feb. 26 when he became the first African American to win an Oscar for a best documentary feature film, Undefeated. (Martin had a memorable moment during the ceremony when he dropped the f-bomb while accepting the award. He later apologized.) Martin co-directed the film with Dan Lindsay. The pair also shot and edited the film. Undefeated is a beautifully told story of underprivileged African-American football players from North Memphis, Tenn., and their white coach, Bill Courtney.
In a pre-Oscars interview with The Root, Martin describes the hardest part about being a director, what he has in common with the players in North Memphis and the lack of diversity in Hollywood.
The Root: The similarity that Undefeated shares with films like The Blind Side and Hardball is that a white coach is sort of the savior for African-American athletes. What do you say to the critics who disapprove of this pattern?
T.J. Martin: Some of those critics actually [have a point], and I think it is unfortunate that they don't understand that — that's not a critique of the movie, that's a critique of the world of Hollywood. It's really unfortunate that these are the only types of stories that we see.
I know for a fact that there are thousands of other individuals like Bill. Maybe it's an all-Latino team with a Latino coach, or an all-African-American team with an African-American coach, that is doing the same exact things Bill did, but we are just not seeing those stories.
As Bill puts it, it's completely circumstantial [that his] business happens to be in North Memphis, and Manassas High School happens to be right down the street from [his] business. [He] happens to be white, and they happen to be an all-African-American team. So if it wasn't a big deal to our characters, then [there] was no need for us to make a big deal out of it. It was not a big deal to the community or the kids.
TR: As you previously stated, Hollywood only shows those kinds of tales. Why did you feel it was important to tell it again? What separates Undefeated from the other, similar stories?
TJM: When we first came to North Memphis, I personally had never seen poverty on that level in the United States before. When we kind of discovered the community, we thought it was imperative that we tell the story and we tell it with a human interest. So if we do our jobs right, it will make it more of a coming-of-age story. Then hopefully it will inspire people to talk about issues regarding race and class or at least start that conversation.
Also, when you have a media presence in communities like North Memphis, they tend to do really sensationalized pieces about how violent the community is. We had no interest in doing that at all. We saw this as an opportunity to celebrate the community and show not just the bad but also the good.
TR: What was the hardest part about being the director of this film?
TJM: I think the hardest part was trying to get people to actually go see the movie and actually get them in the theater. It's hard accurately telling people what the film is about because it sounds [boring] on paper. "A sports film called Undefeated about an inner-city high school football team" — it's not exactly something new.
TR: As an African American who grew up in Seattle, can you relate to the inner-city kids in North Memphis at all?
TJM: Yes and no. Yes in one sense, that a lot of the struggles that the kids go through are very universal to other people's youth. The only difference is, the stakes are a lot higher. They learn to develop a hustle in the world of North Memphis that isn't necessarily the same type of hustle that you grow up with in your normal working world. So they are totally wise beyond their years. Once you get them out of that community, they have to start over and figure out a different mode of operating.
So I could never say my own experiences are similar. My upbringing was vastly different than most people. My mom was an African-American lead singer of a punk rock band, and my father was a guitar player in the same band, which was a complete recipe for disaster. [Laughs.] But I can relate to being broke, though. [Laughs.]
TR: What do you think we are missing in African-American filmmaking?
TJM: In all honesty — and this is not specific to the black community or film — the thing that gets me is how ethnocentric everything becomes. Latino cinema is for Latinos; black cinema is for blacks — to me it is so compartmentalized.
Why isn't there more diverse casting in Hollywood films? Why isn't there a more accurate reflection of society? It's not really a critique of black cinema but of the world. There is a lack of diversity in the types of stories that get funded.
Lathleen Ade-Brown is a freelance writer in New York City. Follow her at Twitter.