Talking to Mamoudou N’Diaye About ‘#,’ a Film That Looks at Police Brutality Through The Lens of Comedy
Mamoudou N’Diaye’s # is a short narrative film inspired by the Brooklyn comic’s reality in which as a black man he lives in fear of the police and institutionalized racism but also goes onstage and is expected to make jokes about it. With the project, currently in the crowdfunding process, N’Diaye hopes to place the audience in the shoes of a person of color trying to find light for others in a world where it’s hard to find light for himself. Recently, I met up with N’Diaye to talk about the film, the hashtag epidemic affecting black lives, and how it feels to be a foul-weather comedian.
How did you come up with #?
In 2012 Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, and I had a bare-bones idea, but was still young and in college and didn’t have the lexicon to really build this world, and do things with subtlety — it would have become a student film where someone’s overacting very dramatic lines. So it took a back seat for a while, but then this summer Alton Sterling was killed and a week later Philando Castile was killed. I decided this movie needs to be made, so I put a Facebook post out, which is an embarrassing thing to say, but so many people were on board with my mentality, saying “I totally get it.” But I was like, “You don’t entirely get it because you won’t have to live it.” So then I thought, why not just make a movie that’s a little bit surreal but at the same time delves into the issue of police brutality through the lens of comedy? If you watch comedians like Jon Stewart or John Oliver, when things get really terrible they stop being funny for a second, get serious, and then can go back to being funny, but unfortunately people of color can’t do that. They have to try to keep being funny but at the same time have this darkness on top of it. That’s my experience and the experience of a lot of people I’ve met who do comedy. We all cope in different ways, but I wanted to show my take on it.
On the GoFundMe page, you say that you’ve written a script but in order to really feel the fear of becoming a hashtag, that one has to see it. Can you talk about your visual approach for the film?
It was hard to make at first, because I didn’t want it to just be Fruitvale Station. Fruitvale Station is an actual story where we’re following throughout the day a person of color who at the end of the movie we know is going to die. I wanted to play with that fear the entire movie by blending it with elements of what’s happened over the last few years. Mine is a narrative story I wrote, but I’ve put homages and references to other people of color who’ve been taken by the police. I am a big fan of Hitchcock, especially Rear Window, which locks you in a perspective for a very long time. That fear of not being able to go anywhere is where we are for most of the movie — lots of long shots, shots where we pan away and come back and a person of color will be missing. Someone may notice it, but you are forced to move on, because it, apparently, isn’t important to our current narrative. It’s a metaphor for how we move on from things far too quickly — there are parts where we hit that on the nose, especially in references to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland, littered all over the place in imagery, and in lines of dialogue reminiscent of conversations these people had with their family after incidents with the police.
How did you assemble the cast and crew?
I cast a lot of people that are my friends. I wanted the conversations to seem like they’re real and between friends, rather than build relationships with new actors. The movie follows one main character, but I try to put in as many other points of view as I can. There’s a scene in a diner where four or five people are together, and one’s point of view is like “Take it easy for now, things were terrible, they are better now, things will get better,” and then there’s somebody who is really militant and says you can’t do that, someone who says we’re not doing anything because we’re on Facebook, and then we have somebody who just wants to help but doesn’t know how to insert themselves into the conversation, which I feel like is where a lot of us are, especially after the incident on November 8th. We want to help but need to know the next step. I wrote Mitra Jouhari as that character. There are some parts like police officers that I have not cast yet. I want them to be as menacing as possible, and do have people in mind for that.
No, not comedians. Most of the people we have conversations with in this movie are comedians. It does revolve around brief moments of levity, but it’s Don’t Think Twice-esque in the sense that it’s cringeworthy, just more on the personal level than on the comedy level. Everyone has their take but we don’t delve too far into that, we focus on the police brutality.
Crew-wise, the moment after I sent that Facebook post, so many people were inboxing me resumes and emails saying they wanted to be involved. Most of the people in my crew are people who just really want to help, and are doing it for free or for a little bit of money. I want to be able to pay them at least a bit of a wage to let them go home and pay their rent and eat. I have to have money for that.
You briefly paused funding efforts because you felt conflicted about asking for money to make a project around such a morbid subject. How do you combat that inner conflict?
As a performer and comedian, I’ve had to build my confidence over a really long time. When I first started doing jokes and comedy sketches, people told me I wasn’t funny and I was written off immediately. This was in high school, when it means the world to you. So those demons in the back of my head are like, “This is gonna be bad, this is not funny, this isn’t a project that people need to see,” but I’ve been consistently reminded that anyone who donated money to my cause, especially given that there’s the ACLU and so many places you can actually donate to, believes in my vision.
I feel sometimes like a foul-weather comedian, because I only get booked or asked to do things when a black person is killed by the police, or when a Muslim has done anything in the world, or when Trump becomes president. My inbox lately has gone up to 100%. It feels weird, because I don’t want to be capitalizing on the tragedies of people who have lost a life in their world, one that they can’t retrieve. I want us to remember them. I want to make this movie as a tribute to that, and also show that this continues and that people of color are locked up in this reality where our lives aren’t valued as much. People ask me are you Black Lives Matter, and I am 100%. There’s such a stigma, that it’s like a white nationalist group, but it’s not, because we didn’t ask for this.
I want to make this movie, and I don’t care if it makes any money. It’s just a bit of catharsis for me. Also I’m tired of explaining to people, “This is how it feels.” I feel like we’ve normalized black people being killed by the police. Now that we’re talking about normalizing Trump and his administration, still no one is saying anything about normalizing police brutality. Black lives have become part of a hashtag epidemic. Things happen, we get mad or excited for a few moments, and then it falls to the side while other things take place, this time the presidential election. People don’t want to talk about police brutality while other things are happening, and I get that, but I’ve noticed, having been writing this since Trayvon Martin died, that there’ll be a big uptick and everyone gets mad for a second. Part of the money that got donated, there’s a demon inside of me that’s like “Some of this was for the creative project, but some is just white guilt.” All this conflicting stuff was happening in my head, but I came to terms with people believing in my vision, and want to know that the money wasn’t wasted. I feel weird sitting on a sum of money and want to put it to use.
What is the most difficult part of # that you’ve encountered so far as well as the most difficult part you’re anticipating?
I’ve been doing most of the jobs myself. A lot of people have offered to help, but the issue I’ve run into is that a lot of the people who’ve wanted to help are caucasians, who might not be able to see it from the perspective I want. I’m trying to have a framework and a rationale behind what I’m doing, so once I pull everybody together we know what we’re doing. I know filmmaking is a collaborative process, but I think the hardest part has been, you know, letting go of the babies, things you really love.
Going forward, the hardest part will be getting it to a wider audience. People don’t want to be uncomfortable; unfortunately we’re going to be in an uncomfortable situation for four years. Whenever I do standup, most of my jokes are about being black in America and the realities of police brutality, and I’ve done them before where people say it’s a good joke or even give a clap break, which is great. Two weeks after #AltonSterling –and that little bump I get whenever bad things happen to the world — I did a set, and someone said “too soon…” It’s like, this has been happening for a very long time.
I think the hardest part will be distributing it outside of my Facebook bubble and the New York bubble. I want as many eyes to see it as possible. I’m very comfortable with trolls saying that this is not the real world or that I made a crap movie, but I want the people that can be swayed and that want to understand to be able to see it. That’s not just New York. The word “echo chamber” has been thrown around so much lately. I don’t want this to be that. It would be cool to see it in LA or at a festival. I think one thing that will help it is that ever since Atlanta, which has a very surreal feel with parts that are very real and some that are inexplicable, came out, I was like, “Holy crap, this is exactly what I’m feeling for this movie.” People are seeing that as a new normal.
What are your next steps?
Raise money to pay for the venues, advertising, permits, stuff like that. As soon as we cross the $30k mark we’ll start production immediately. I’m hoping to shoot in late March, because I want the outdoor scenes to be a little bleak, and you know how New York gets in the spring. I have so many people on board who are ready to shoot whenever I am, and I’m feeling some pressure because I’ve got people like Gary Richardson, where something could take off for him and he could be gone. Janelle James, her star is rising too, and I really want them to be in the movie, so as soon as I hit that mark I’m ready to go. Post-production-wise, so many people have volunteered to help. I feel like right now people want to help by protesting or yelling and screaming, and there are so many ways to do work. There are people who are more silent or quiet about it, but just want to help, which is humbling. When I was in a pretty depressed area, these people stepped out of the woodwork.
Anything else you wanna say? Any plugs?
Hmm… Oh yeah, book me for things that are not when terrible things happen. I feel like people see me as a dude who can get people un-depressed, like “We’ve got other people to make us laugh during happy times.” I mean, the World Series? I can craft a baseball joke!
Photo by Sara Feinstein.
Jenny Nelson lives and writes in Brooklyn.