Over the course of 10 years, director Gelila Bekele recorded and filmed the upcoming documentary Maxine’s Baby: The Tyler Perry Story. The project gives an in-depth, behind the scenes look at the life of the multihyphenate, along with the personal and professional turmoil he’s faced throughout the years.
Alongside Armani Ortiz, Bekele leads audiences into a man whose story has never fully been told, as he becomes a father and a media mogul with a mission to pave his own road to the top. The product is a profound lesson on remembering where you came from to know where you want to go, and its director feels that it will resonate, regardless of who may be watching.
“I feel like this film is for everyone,” Bekele tells ESSENCE. “If you’re a fan, you’re getting to see an intimate portrait of a man that you think you already know. You’re getting a different sort of glimpse. And if you’re a critic, hopefully we’ve created a space for polarity where people’s opinion, whether they like his film or not, are included. So hopefully you will also see yourself and hear your voice.”
Following its premiere at AFI last month, Maxine’s Baby was met with high praise, building the anticipation for its streaming release on Prime Video November 17. For the seasoned documentarian, she hopes that people are “inspired by the story” of Tyler Perry, and everything he embodies.
ESSENCE: What was so interesting about this film was that it was created over the process of a decade—was that intentional?
Gelila Bekele: Well, I think with documentaries, you don’t really have the luxury of a timeline. And also that’s the beauty of it. I truly believe, personally, my style of filmmaking, time is sort of how you get to know your subject to fully understand everything that’s going on. And it is very important in this case especially, to sort of capture the day-to-day, the quiet moments that most people don’t get to see, the hard work that goes on behind the success. And of course, 10 years went on like a joke. It’s like you blink and it’s gone. And also, we shot through pandemic, all the shutdown, the studio being built, so it was a lot. And we needed it to give it that much time. It deserved that much time.
What was it about Tyler Perry’s story that was so intriguing to you?
I had the pleasure of having a front row seat of watching this man become busier than ever around 2014, acquiring the army base and turning it into a motion studio, major motion studio, if not one of the largest in America. And naturally, if you’re a filmmaker, you sort of pick up a camera and want to archive, document what’s happening. And he was on tour, he was filming the TV shows, writing, producing them on top of that, shooting multiple films, how do you explain to someone how busy this man is and how much he works? I feel like he’s a maverick and wanting to make sure that moment was not forgotten.
I’m glad that you brought up the point of him being so busy. When you were creating this project, was it difficult at all finding time for him to open up and tell some of these stories, being that his time is so restricted?
One of the challenges for us was to make sure we were not in the way. He’s constantly moving, so how do you not get in the way of his movement, get in the way of production, get in the way of his meetings, but have him to open up? I think any human vulnerability really depends on the landing pad. It’s really depending on the comfort level that we set for him. And in this case, I think through time, the people we love can share who they are with us effortlessly, because we know we love them and they’re safe, but when you turn on the camera, it’s a different matter for anyone. So I think him getting used to us and also giving him his own time to open up when he’s ready and not trying to push, gave us grace.
Also, with Maxine’s Baby, there are two directors attached to this project, you and Armani Ortiz. In terms of this collaboration, what was that process like and how were you able to, I guess, combine two visions into one singular vision for the film?
I was filming Tyler on my own in the beginning, and I was about five months pregnant. Then I became a new mom and I was getting too overwhelmed, and I needed a videographer to follow Tyler to document the day-to-day movements. Armani and I met by chance through a mutual friend, and I knew right away he was very talented. And actually, he wasn’t my co-director for a while. I realized this young man dedicated his life to believing in my dream and making this film and uprooted himself and moved to Atlanta. I felt like he should have the title of my co-director, and that’s how it came to life.
What was your experience at the film’s premiere at AFI?
Oh, wow. AFI was pretty incredible. I think for any filmmaker to have the opportunity to have your film seen, it never gets old. And also, we finished this film a few months ago, so now we got to relive it through the audience’s eyes. And it was our first time seeing it with audience, so to be in the room and watch everyone get emotional or laugh at some of the jokes, and see the response afterwards of how people felt about the film and what resonated with them, it was a lot of emotions for us because our baby’s out in the world.
So for you, what would you like audiences to take from this documentary?
I hope that they’re inspired. If you’re an entrepreneur, hopefully you’re inspired by this incredible formula that he’s created for himself and for others. And all the business moves that he’s made that have impacted an entire industry. Hopefully you’re inspired by that. And I hope that young girls who look like me, that dream about either making films or being artists, can see someone like me behind the camera. Hopefully they’re inspired. Girls who come from my country, there are not that many of us behind the camera, and it really feels good having the power of the storytelling. So I hope that people feel like this film is for them and they are inspired by his story. I think it’s incredible.
And also for me, it was important to capture a Black man, not overly a sort of portrait as gaudy or flashy, but in this natural state of being a father, telling the story of forgiveness, love, family, and also understanding his origins, giving homage to New Orleans, and also giving homage to what came before him. The whole Chitlin’ Circuit in the theater that existed in the Black community is sort of overlooked when we are talking about American history and I feel like it’s important, and I hope people recognize that and see themselves in this film.
So you partly answered my next question in your response, but I wanted to know if you can expound on it. When it comes to filmmaking, what is it that brings you the most joy?
I love filmmaking. I love storytelling. It brings me joy to see that my perspective is important and it matters in the world. I feel like we’re creating archives for the future. And when we’re looking at past archives, it’s only told from a certain lens. A lot of history is missing. I know from my country for sure, and coming from Ethiopia, we were sort of like the poster for famine, which really, it happened in one region of Ethiopia. But we overlooked everything else that happened around, whether it was climate change or communism and all of that. And it was dismissed as this poor country and nothing more, but I know we have so much richness in it as well.
So it was very important for me and my first film to tell that story. And it felt really good because, again, being behind the camera has brought so much joy for me in telling my story, how I see it, and other people’s story, that I feel has been overlooked. And also, I spent the majority of my adulthood as a model and I learned a lot. But now being behind the camera, it just feels like my purpose.
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