Film
Coodie & Chike at the premiere of 'A Kid From Coney Island.' Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival.

In Conversation with Coodie & Chike: The Celebrated Director Duo on Authentic Storytelling & Their New Documentary About the Life of Stephon Marbury

We chat with Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah on their diverse backgrounds and how they impact the purpose of their mission.

Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah are an oasis of calm in the intense energy of the Tribeca Film Festival. Simmons, a veteran comedian who hails from Chicago, effortlessly works comic relief into conversation. Ozah, a motion graphics designer born to a Nigerian father and a New Orleans-native mother, breaks down and makes sense of the purpose behind the work they've produced over the past 15 years. As we talk, it's clear you can't have one without the other.

You might be familiar with Coodie & Chike, as they're known, through Kanye West's iconic music video for 2004's "Through The Wire"—where the pair incorporated documentary footage they captured of West with mixed media elements. They eventually transitioned into producing impactful documentaries under their production company Creative Control, including the critically acclaimed ESPN 30 for 30, Benji and BET's Muhammed Ali: The People's Champ, which took home the 2016 NAACP Image Award for 'Best Television Documentary.'

Coodie & Chike's latest came from an unexpected opportunity—to direct and write A Kid From Coney Island—a documentary on NBA notable Stephon Marbury. They say it came to be after an initial reach-out from Emmy Award-winning broadcast news and documentary producer Jason Samuels. At first, they were hesitant to hop on the project due to their preconceived notions about Marbury that the media at the time perpetuated before the star left the NBA to play professionally in China. Once they learned that Nina Yang Bongiovi and her producing partner Forest Whitaker were involved, there had to be an amazing story ahead of them.

A Kid From Coney Island is a raw account of Marbury's life and career. You see and hear from Marbury himself in the film through Coodie & Chike quintessential use of archival footage from his past to the present. The duo was also able to tap his family, former teammates, community tastemakers and hip hop icons—who genuinely encapsulated Marbury's impact on the world.

In our conversation below, we learn more about challenges the duo faced while making the documentary, how their diverse backgrounds impact the purpose of what they do and more.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.


Photo by Andy Chan.

Antoinette Isama for OkayAfrica: Can you touch on what it was like being able to collaborate with Stephon directly, especially since we hear from him quite a bit in the film?

Chike Ozah: It was awesome. We had to meet with him to build a rapport and that interaction was going to determine what was happening next. But when we met up with him, it was like meeting a brother from another mother—it was all super spiritual. We all had backgrounds from underprivileged neighborhoods, so there were just certain things we all had in common. He felt so comfortable telling his story with us that he never checked in with the whole process. Some people would normally be in the back worrying about how you're going to make them look, but the first time he saw the film was the premiere at Tribeca.

Coodie Simmons: He told Chike, "Y'all got this."

It's not often that a subject entrusts you with their story so easily.

CO: Especially from someone who endured the kind of backlash he received from the media—I don't see why he should trust anybody.

What were some challenges you both came across while putting the documentary together?

CS: Researching and getting footage was a challenge at first. Jason Samuel used to work at ABC and had a relationship over there—he had access to all of this footage of Stephon while he was a student at Lincoln High School. We got to go through boxes and boxes of beta tapes and that was it right there.

CO: Filmmaking is always going to come with its challenges regardless, in this case you're happy when the challenges are only filmmaker challenges—technical challenges. You're never going to be able to license everything you want to license. You're never going to be able to have all the time in the world to compose a soundtrack or be on post. You're never going to have all the time you need to edit the thing you want. You thank God when those are just the only challenges that you have. And they really aren't challenges because they come with the territory.

How would you describe your dynamic?

CS: I am more the present and Chike is the future. Sometimes he can go way in the future and I have to bring him back halfway so I'm still in the now, so I bring him back halfway and that makes a great dynamic for a film that is progressive and yet people can still relate. That's our dynamic.

CO: Outside of that on a personal level, he's like an older brother to me. I can look to him for wisdom and advice and a lot of personal life situations. I'm definitely check with him before I check with anyone else except my mother.

CS: And he keeps me young.

A Kid from Coney Island | Deadline Studio at Tribeca 2019 www.youtube.com

There has been a steady increase of unapologetic black representation on a global scale in the film industry as of late. How have your respective upbringings and cultures influenced how you two work together and how you both approach each project? How does that in turn speak to the cross-cultural collaboration that needs to continue to manifest in the black community?

CO: It has 100 percent influenced our work; it is our work. We recognize it just makes us unique as individuals. What makes Coodie, Coodie and what makes Chike, Chike is everything that the environment we were brought up in, how we were brought up, the zeitgeist of things that happen in your life that make you who you are. From being a black kid on Jackson Avenue and born in 1978, if I'm born in 1979 I am a different person—same for him. And when you bring those two [worlds] together, now there are these two unique identities forming one identity. Because we know that's a point of differentiation, nobody can duplicate that; then that's what we decide to use as the backbone to all of our work comes from that space.

CS: I was a standup comic and had a TV show in Chicago called "Travel Zero" and Chike went to art school. I didn't do any of that I barely graduated high school; he is the brains—

CO: I wouldn't say that, definitely not the brains. We draw from that space—like right now I am obsessed with Ancestry.com because I'm tracing back my family because that's all part of who I am—that's all going to become subconsciously intertwined in the stories that we make like being part Nigerian and that's a thing for me. Going to my aunt's house and eating fufu. My father went to boarding school, I get a lot from my father—the type of person he was.

But also coming from my grandmother who was born in 1920, but in the 30s and 40s she didn't work for anybody—she was self-employed, her husband passed away—so raising six daughters working in the shop, she was a true entrepreneur, when I thought that I got my entrepreneurial spirit from my father, it was my grandmother this whole time. I saw her from a young age hustling on her own, nobody telling her what to do but making ends meet, and now that connection to her legacy comes into our stories. And Coodie has certain instances he can pull from growing up in Chicago.

Photo by Andy Chan.

CS: I was the only boy amongst three girls and my father worked really hard to take care ofus with my mother being the housewife. I've seen that hard work that he put in, and they didn't pressure me to do anything. With my pops, he would always say, 'It was always a money thing' which I took from him, but I was like 'No dad, it ain't a money thing all the time.' But turns out it was, but rather it's how you look at money. Some people look at money like it is the root of all evil, but it's definitely a necessity that you need but learning that, I think of my pops all the time—was telling me something that was real.

What are some pieces of advice you would give filmmakers who are interested in getting their work into the film festival circuit?

CO: I can say what we learned from what we did do, would be don't think about the film festival, think about the work. Any film festival we've been to we never think about being at the film festival. That just comes with it, it's the spice and the sugar on top. Your focus needs to be on telling the best story you possible could tell, and if it's good, it'll get to where it's got to go.

CS: All of our stories that we've been telling, we don't tell for the festivals or the public. When we did the Mohammad Ali doc, we told that story for him, that was his story and everybody watched. Beji was for Chicago—we wanted to make the thugs cry, that was our focus we didn't focus on anything but that. For Stephon, we did it for his family, and it shows.

CO: Narrow your focus down to something you can actually control, you can't control getting into a film festival—it's totally out of your control. What you can control is making a story to create the impact you want it to have. Put your heart into that and you'll make a good product. Know who and why you're making it for and stick to that.

Popular
Photo courtesy of Sam Soko.

Interview: Sam Soko is the Kenyan Director Behind Sundance Hit, 'Softie'

We meet filmmaker Sam Soko who has made a stirring documentary about the Kenyan protest leader Boniface Mwangi

Filmmaker Sam Soko didn't intend on making a documentary about Kenyan photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi.

The original idea he had was to make a manual of sorts, a short video guide, on how to protest, the do's and don't's. Soko, himself an activist artist who cut his teeth convincing friends to let him create political music videos for their apolitical songs, knew Mwangi's experience on the streets both photographing protests and staging them meant he had a lot to share with others.

But then came the blood. A thousand litres of it, to be precise. And the pigs. Dozens of them, with words like MPigs written on them. Like the graphic photos Mwangi had become known for taking—it was a sight you couldn't look away from. It was a protest Mwangi organized, in 2013, to decry corrupt members of the Kenyan parliament who had decided to increase their salaries, 2 months after taking office. And at his side, through the thick red liquid of it all, was Mwangi's wife, Njere, ready to be arrested with him.

"Once I was witness to his relationship, I started seeing him as a family man," Soko tells OkayAfrica. "Because he's planning a protest and all, but when you look at the footage, you start seeing the kids and you start seeing Njere. That's when it started hitting me, in the sense, that she was with him in such a crazy space."

Soko formed a creative and activist hub, called PAWA 254, with Mwangi, as they became part of the groundswell demanding democratic reforms in a country still left scarred from the division sewed between Kikuyu and Luo people by British colonizers. "We had a new Constitution at the time, and there was this hope that we finally could picket without being tear-gassed or being beaten, Like, our civil liberties could be held up." Instead, the government strengthened its police force into a notorious organization condemned by human rights activists. "That's very salient in the film," says Soko. "If you see how the police dress, for instance, at the beginning, it's very different; they become more militant towards the end."

Soko's debut feature-length documentary, Softie, which became the first Kenyan film to ever premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, earlier this year, is at once a love story between Mwangi and his wife and their three children, but also between Mwangi and his beloved Kenya, under president Uhuru Kenyatta. Central to the film is the tussle between how these different loves bump up against each other: what comes first — love of country or love of family?

We spoke to the Nairobi-based director about making the film, which opens in virtual cinemas, starting this Friday, September 18th.

Boniface Mwangi with his wife Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


OA: Early on in the film, we learn how steadfast Boniface Mwangi is — he talks about being willing to die for the ideals he believes in, which made me think of Nelson Mandela and his Rivonia Treason Trial speech. Boniface is someone in the present day who still shares this belief?

When we were working on the edit, and kind of crafting and thinking about what the story was going to be, something that we found that was really, really interesting is, with a lot of the stories, like the story of Nelson Mandela, you'd never see the other side. That's something we see later, up ahead, as a retrospective. We'd hear about Martin Luther King and then we'd read about Coretta Scott in, I think, 1990, like, 'Oh, this his was her struggle.' That sort of thing. But for me, Boniface and Njere represented a present day reality struggle that showcases what Mandela was going through, what Martin Luther was going through. That was kind of like unravelling the curtain; when you see Martin Luther marching, Coretta's at home, trying to help their kids do their homework. And this is the reality.

OA: And the film poses that question of love for your country versus love for your family, and which one should come first?

Exactly. They see it in different ways. Boniface sees it that if you improve the country, you improve the lives of those who you love. Njere's like, you have to have your family's back first. And that means everything else comes second. And she's right; she's not wrong. And he's not wrong.

OA: The film really is privy to some really private moments in Mwangi's life — how did you gain his trust?

When we started filming the short video, he was really involved with the protests, and we started doing the protests with him. So we were—quote, unquote—in the trenches with him in the protests, and somehow that's how he kind of welcomed us to his home. When you've been with someone in the streets, and you're tear-gassed together more than once, you already have a common bond. But then I started developing a relationship with him that was beyond the streets. Just checking up on him and asking, what's going on, what's taking place? That sort of thing. I think it took a while. And I think even from Njere, we kind of developed a kind of camaraderie that was separate from my relationship with Boniface, because I would actually be like, 'Hey, he said that, how does that make you feel?' And not necessarily on camera. But over time, he kind of accepted us to be there with a camera. At some point, I kind of felt like they were talking to me, and not necessarily the camera; like, the camera is kind of this thing that's there, but not there. That kind of trust, again, was built on a respect that I have for them and their values and what they're doing. I think that's something they saw. It made them trust me with their story and trust me with their family.

You're the director of the film, but you're also producer, writer and cinematographer. Did Boniface's own style as a photojournalist influence you in any way?

The film has three cinematographers, and a lot of my cinematography is within the intimate moments, because that's when they would only engage with someone they trust. But him being a photographer actually, to a point, made the work a bit hard because he's constantly looking at how you're doing it. He's in your face about the angle. He's like, 'Hey, why are you standing there, you should be there.' But in some places he did help 'cause he's been filming in the streets and filming protests for a very long time. So when you're there filming, he'll easily tell you, 'Dude, don't stand there. They're about to start tear-gassing. Go to the other side.' And it's weird, when you're on the other side and you're filming, and all of a sudden you see tear gas, you wonder, 'How the hell did he know?' You do that 234 times and you start knowing yourself, 'Oh, this is how,' and he was really helpful in that sense.

I can imagine that filming during the protests must have been one of the big challenges of making this film but what else did you struggle with? There were death threats for Mwangi, did that happen to you as well?

It's so funny, when you're filming and when you're in the protests, it's adrenaline talking. So you're not really thinking about whether you're going to be okay. This one time, I got arrested because the cop said I was a spy for the protesters. [We had everything] from cameras breaking to sound equipment messing up, but when it became a more political story, with death threats, it became scary even for editing the film. Because you don't know who's watching you. This one time, I was with him in the car, filming, and we were being followed. So we kind of had to be very careful who we are telling about the story. It was a very deep secret that we were making this film and there are people who are watching it now asking, 'How could you keep this from us from all these years?' Because we had to do that. Especially when the family was in the US. We had to do that for the sake of safety for him, Boniface, for his family but also the film team. I remember doing the pitches with different names. But then we were also lucky that we had our co-producing partner in Canada, Eye Steel Film, so they were able to house the edit there. I went to Canada to edit and that kind of also gives you a kind of freedom to think and work and create. That was the reality, and now I think we have PTSD from the film. I can't film another protest. I'm sorry. I'm out. Like, it tapped me out.

There are similarities to the Black Lives Matter protests here in the US, against police brutality and violence but the slogan takes on a different resonance in places like Kenya, where the police force is particularly heavy-handed. How do you see these protests as being similar but also different?

There are two things that you learn with the film. One, our voices can never be silenced. They will try, but I think humanity is like a pressure cooker. The more you boil us, the more you put that heat, the more explosive we become. And through people like Boniface's life, you see that there are human beings who exist, who do extraordinary things.

The other thing is the idea of activism doesn't necessarily just speak to the person who's on the street. It doesn't necessarily speak to the person who's holding the placard. An activist is someone like Njere and her life, and her family. And Khadija [Mohamed, Mwangi's campaign manager]. She's such a strong and powerful activist in her own right. She was Boniface's campaign manager for free. The work they did was so powerful. And you have these other people in the background who are doing such incredible things. The sum total of what they've done is [to] instigate… We have an election next year, but I am so sure that we are going to have so many candidates who are going to be like, 'We want you to donate to our campaign. We have these values and beliefs; this is what we want to do.' That is how we need to go about change or add on to the conversations of change.

The same thing that's happening with the Black Lives Matters movement. Yes, there are people going to the street and we should keep going to the street. But we need to push people to engage in policy and make sure these policy changes are made.

We need to stand for what we believe in, as filmmakers in spaces where we feel oppression exists. Like the rules that have come out with the Academy Awards, these are rules that should be celebrated because they add on to that conversation of diversity and representation. All these things—that sum total—is what makes the difference. It's going beyond the streets and going beyond our Tweets, going beyond our Facebook messages, making films and sharing films. We just need to keep pumping up the volume, keeping the heat up, keep pushing. It's gonna take a while, but we'll get there.


Photojournalist-turned-politician Boniface Mwangi during a protest in Nairobi, Kenya Photo courtesy of Sam Soko


That's where you as a filmmaker come in—this film was the first Kenyan film to get into Sundance, where it won a special editing prize.

There's another film I'm producing and, and, yes, I had my film at Sundance, that's great. But there's this other filmmaker who's making another film, and it's so cool, and this is the thing—we need to keep bouncing off this energy and this light and this vibe, and just keep pushing and making sure that the wheels keep turning. That's what we're all about.

How do you renew your strength, as a filmmaker but also as a Kenyan and as an African?

Being a Kenyan is hard. I think being an African is hard. Like, it's hard. There's a line I heard Boniface say once: 'I love my country, but I am afraid of my government.' But the way in which, personally, I find energy is when I meet new filmmakers, or you know, people who are like starting out and they want to make films that sound totally crazy. And they believe that they can do it. And I'm like, 'yes, yes, keep going!' We are planning to do a premiere. We have not confirmed the date yet but we're thinking it's around going to be early October in Kenya, because Kenyans haven't watched it. The government gave us an adult rating. They're putting us on the same level as porn.

This is the same government that banned Wanuri Kahiu's Rafiki because of its homosexual theme…

Exactly, that's what we're getting but the lemonade that we've made out of all this is, 'Guess what? This is cinema!' We're going to take it to a cinema. People are going to come to watch it in a cinema or watch it at home or watch it in the best way possible. And the people who've watched it have appreciated it as a film and a story, and their story. They've seen a reflection of themselves. That gives me so much joy because the Kenyans who've watched it, when they give you feedback, they say, this is truth; this is our truth. And they don't see just an activist. They see a couple struggling with love. They see our history in the last 10 years. And they're like, 'What the hell, we lived this?' and they see the things that are unresolved — and many things are unresolved. Seeing that reaction gives me so much strength and hope. But it's hard. It's very hard. Because, you know, you have to wake up and see the policeman getting a bribe. And you're like, 'Homie??'


"SOFTIE" Movie Poster



Watch the trailer for Softie here.

Softie | Official Trailer | A film by Sam Soko www.youtube.com

get okayafrica in your inbox

popular.

Whoisakin Channels His Love For Anime In the New Video For ‘Magic’

The single, featuring Olayinka Ehi, comes off his latest EP Full Moon Weekends.