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Filmmaker Richard B. Pierre On "An Uninvited Guest" and the Emotional Weight of Depicting Racism and Police Brutality On-Screen

Filmmaker Richard B. Pierre On "An Uninvited Guest" and the Emotional Weight of Depicting Racism and Police Brutality On-Screen

This summer was scorching. I cannot seem to remember an August that clung onto my skin as this one did. It was not a sunburn nor the heat of the sun. It was the fervor in which millions came together, holding hands and joining voices, fighting for justice as one. 

The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims at the hands of police ignited an awakening. An awakening that finally forced people to talk about race, educate themselves and others, look within, and consider the action needed to end the cycle of violence against the Black community.

Richard B. Pierre is a filmmaker known for making short films about race and racial injustice. Pierre is an award-winning director, editor, and writer hailing from Toronto. Premiering at the 2020 San Diego Black Film Festival, Pierre’s most recent short film, “An Uninvited Guest” gained traction in a climate that paralleled the film. “An Uninvited Guest” is the recipient of the Best Thriller award from the 2020 HollyShorts Film Festival as well as the Impact Award at the 2020 CaribbeanTales International Film Festival.

The short follows guests at a dinner party as a Black man is assaulted by police right outside their window. Only one dinner guest responds to the attack outdoors, while the others are numb and/or indifferent to the brutality taking place outside.  This numbness and willful ignorance plagues reality all too often. As a multiracial filmmaker, Pierre could not stay silent about these issues. 

Richard B. Pierre on Being a Multiracial Filmmaker and Diversity in the Film Industry

Your work ranges from zombie Doritos commercials to romantic comedies, but your expertise lies in films that tackle race and spark awareness within your audience. How did you find yourself making these films?

I’ve always been interested in race as a topic. When I initially got into filmmaking, I wanted to make what I referred to as “racially agnostic films.”

However, in recent years, I’ve felt a stronger pull to make a bolder statement about my subject matter; this is why I’ve made films like “An Uninvited Guest” and why similar projects will be part of my repertoire.

You’ve stated that your goal is to “tell stories that depict the lives of diverse individuals and their cultures while making films that are deeply personal.” Could you touch on the significance of this goal as a multiracial filmmaker?

My mixed-race makes me hyper-aware of race because at times it feels like I am caught between two worlds. I think a lot of multiracial people go through identity crises.

For me, it’s trying to understand where I fit into the world as a Black person. It entails asking questions like, can I call myself a Black person? Can I address issues like racial profiling in my work? Am I the person who should be telling these stories? I think there’s a lot of that [questioning] in there. 

Where else do you draw your motivation and inspiration from?

I always try to find some personal connection to the material and my work. Even if the film is going to be a science-fiction comedy, I’ll integrate a personal aspect into the material by drawing on a childhood memory or naming a character after a family member. This makes me feel excited and passionate about the project. 

Considering “An Uninvited Guest” as an example, I have never experienced police brutality, but I’ve certainly experienced racial profiling aw enforcement. I see myself as a part of the Black community, so, when I see these videos it’s more than upsetting—it’s something you feel in your core. I will always draw on subjects that make me uncomfortable. 

You’ve been making short films for a little over a decade now. Is filmmaking something you have always wanted to do or were you drawn to it later on in life?

In high school I was torn between choosing film school or business school. I was always good with numbers, so business school excited me. I always loved film, but I wasn’t sure how I could make a career out of it. 

I didn’t know anyone that worked in film, however, I was surrounded by successful people who built their own businesses. Yet, filmmaking felt intangible; I didn’t know if I could get in the front door. I’m still not sure if I can get in the front door in many ways but nonetheless, I persist in making short films. 

Could you speak to the slow progression of diverse casting in the film industry and typical roles such as the “ethnic sidekick?”

We see so few Black-focused shows that are mainstream, as opposed to niche.

The benefit of diverse casting are huge. When viewers see Black people on screen in roles other than the the typical drug dealer and the sidekick, it broadens their perceptions of Black people. Consequently, when people see a Black person walking down the street, that person is no longer just the bad guy. They are a multidimensional human being with needs, wants, and desires. Cinema has immense power to change how everyone sees the world. 

What other changes would you like to see in cinema?

Casting is a huge aspect of the change I’d like to see because what people see on screen is so impactful. Ultimately, I think Black filmmakers need to be able to tell any kind of story, but particularly Black stories. Having those stories told from a white male lens—which is typically what we see—is not helpful. 

The more voices we have at that table, the wider range of experiences we see, the richer the stories are. Black filmmakers and diverse crews are integral to attaining that level of authenticity. 

Filmmaker Richard B. Pierre on the Making of “An Uninvited Guest”

 

an uninvited guest, film
Image: Richard B. Pierre

How would you describe “An Uninvited Guest?”

I generally describe “An Uninvited Guest” as dinner in the Twilight Zone by way of police brutality and racial profiling. Basically, the story is about guests at a dinner that witness police brutality but do not react to what’s going on outside, except for one of the guests who takes a stand, and things take a bizarre turn from there. It’s a three-minute film, so it’s pretty short and sweet. 

You’ve spoken about how the idea for the film came to you after watching the 6 o’clock news report on the murder of a black man by police. How did the video manifest into an idea for a film?

At that point it was 2015 and we had just seen so many of those videos that—I’m not going to name specific people, but there were a lot of names on that list—every single viewing felt as shocking as watching the Rodney King tape. When you watch these videos, you question, why are we still here? Why is this still happening?

I’m not sure how conscious it was, but I sat down and wrote the script from that initial inspiration.There were some minor changes but the script really didn’t change much through production.

I needed to make something that would spark a conversation or at least open one viewer’s eyes to what was going on. Luckily, in 2020, the world woke up collectively, and moved towards broader awareness. Hopefully, the movement continues and isn’t just a social trend that doesn’t last more than six months. 

Did you find the process of making the film emotionally draining?

The film’s initial release in San Diego was prior to George Floyd and all the other incidents overwhelming our collective conscience.

Even before then, the film itself was psychologically challenging to me because of what it’s dealing with. Those videos are embedded in my DNA. I see those videos even when I’m not watching them. So, writing the script was emotionally challenging. As I was writing the grant application to obtain money for the film, I questioned, should I be making this? Is there any value in it? 

The process was draining. Dealing with it a film festival in 2020 was at times very challenging. During the first couple of interviews about the film, I couldn’t talk without breaking down. I had to say, “I can’t talk about this right now.” The film is not a documentary by any means but when you start digging, it feels like one,. 

Which part of the filmmaking process did you find most enjoyable?

I really enjoyed the audition process—again, it was challenging, it was emotionally draining, but I think I’m always excited to watch Black actors participate and see what they’re going to bring to the table. I also enjoyed working with crews of color. Hopefully, my crew reflects a little bit of what you see on-screen.

I certainly enjoyed those parts of the process. However, some aspects of the filmmaking were so emotionally taxing that it made me never want to make a film again in a sense. 

Do you see yourself making similar films that depict such raw portrayals of racism?

Yes, I’m still so drawn to telling these stories because they’re important and they mean something to me. The fact that they’re emotionally draining and challenging to create is reason I want to make them. Writing a script and crying simultaneously is not the best feeling in the world but it tells me I’m doing something meaningful.

“An Uninvited Guest” did really well  in the festival circuit. Shortly after, I was contacted to make a feature-length version, and my initial reaction was, “Oh my god, I don’t want to do, that’s going to kill me.” But my goal is to reach a wide audience and change people’s minds or at least shift their perceptions ever so slightly.

So, if is costs me a little bit psychologically then we’ll pay for the therapy. I’ll keep working and make some fluffy films in between. 

Are you turning “An Uninvited Guest” into a feature?

Yes, I’m actually working with a writer to adapt it into a feature right now. We have a couple pages so far. Hopefully the script reaches the whole 90 pages. If not, I have a trunk full of other ideas in the same wheelhouse that will be challenging to write but hopefully also very rewarding.

If audiences could could take away one message from the film, what would it be? 

Ultimately the film is asking viewers to think about what role they play in this cycle—because I think we all play a role—and to reflect on what they can do to change that. 

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a wide gamut of things. On the documentary front, I’m working on a bunch of mixed-race identity doc projects for which I’ll hopefully obtain funding.The web series are lighter, more fluffy.

I’m working on some sci-fi ideas. I have a couple of supernatural comedies I’m working on as well as a few more race-related concepts. 

 In terms of features, I’m thinking about a revenge film set in the Black Lives Matter era. It’s probably going to be an emotionally draining script to write but I’ll have to channel my inner Spike Lee. I don’t know how filmmakers like Spike Lee tackle race all the time and still manage to keep it together, it’s heavy stuff. 

 

“An Uninvited Guest” is currently an official selection of the Toronto Black Film Festival. The film is available for screening here