Caleb Jaffe’s Explores modern Racism in "It’s Not About Jimmy Keene"
A mixed-race family is the focal point of the pilot for 21-year-old director, Caleb Jaffe’s, episodic series, “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene,” which premieres at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival January 29, 2019.
The death of a young black man—shot three times in the back—by members of the Tulsa Police Department, serves as the dramatic underpinning for the family’s fraught interactions inside their aging home in the West Adams neighborhood of Los Angeles.
As their ailing white father looks on in baffled dismay, and their powerful black psychiatrist mother calls on them to be calm, three siblings engage in a pitched war of socio-political ideas. It’s a battle similar to the one roiling America in the age of President Trump and Black Lives Matter.
Jaffe scored a fantastic cast, including Roger Guenveur Smith, who has starred in a number of Sundance hits including, “Birth of a Nation, “Dope,” and “Bitch,”; as well as Gabrielle Maiden (“I Love Dick,” “Stranger Things,” “SMILF”); and performance artist, choreographer and MacArthur Fellow Okwui Okpokwasili.
Born of Jaffe’s own tumultuous experience with a racially charged incident in college, “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene,” seeks to uncover uncomfortable truths about the nature of individuality within the context of family and race.
We tracked down Jaffe, who also stars in the pilot, for a quick Q&A before next week’s premiere.
What happened during your freshman year of college that led you to want to explore such a thorny issue?
There was a social media threat on Yik Yak that threatened the black student body and that was scary for me because prior to that I had no conception or understanding of my role in the world as a person of color, and to have that crashing consciousness of “you better watch yourself or you might get assaulted on campus” really took a toll on me. All the black students basically exchanged numbers the night of the social media threat and would update each other on what was happening. I remember getting a call at midnight from my friend Mahmoud saying, “A Black student was just beaten up. He’s now in my residence hall and doctors are on their way. Just to be safe, don’t go outside after 8PM starting tomorrow.”
I started writing the pilot because I was anxious and looking to escape—also sad that I didn’t have much time to make films during the school year let alone think about anything except my own safety and the safety of other black students. The constant on-campus dialogue around the protection of black lives, white supremacy, privilege, etc... became very interesting to me from a storytelling point of view. I was really looking to write something that would highlight all of these ideas, issues and themes that polarized the campus during the Fall semester of 2015.
By the end of second semester, however, the dialogue about the initial racist threats had long ended, and it made me insanely depressed feeling the loss of that energy on campus, because it meant the loss of community in certain ways and the loss of on-campus community mobilization. It also meant regression on campus. In my humble perspective, nothing was resolved. The school still has racist threats every year and we’re not the only college that faces this—and black people aren’t the only students targeted.
After my freshman year, going back wasn’t something I was looking to do. Making the film seemed better, necessary, somewhat inevitable. So I came up with a plan with my parents for how I would budget the project, what that meant for us financially, and overall what it would result in.
How did growing up in a mixed-race family affect your perception of yourself and race?
Being mixed or even Black never crossed my mind until I was 10. My elementary school (Play Mountain Place) was an incredibly diverse community so I always felt like everyone was just everything and there was not a lot of racial profiling because no one really knew what anyone was.
Is the story of Jimmy Keene a metaphor for the many police shootings that have come to public attention post Michael Brown and Ferguson?
I’d prefer to leave that up to interpretation.
What are you hoping your audience will uncover as they watch “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene”?
I want an audience to feel humanity for each character. Given their political differences, it’s natural for people to take sides. My hope is that instead of having empathy for a single character while antagonizing another, one will instead have a broader empathy for people having to reconcile their political and personal turmoil.
This story is about more than the complexity of racial politics, it’s about the complexity of family. Political ideas aside, what were the challenges inherent in making a family drama?
Having to look at my own family under a microscope was anxiety inducing. The dynamics at play in Jimmy Keene aren’t autobiographical, but I definitely observed how my family interacted with each other, how my sisters related to my mom and Dad, respectively. How I related to my family as a unit, feeling on the outside a bit.
You took your tuition savings and quit school to make this pilot. How scary was that?
It was up and down. I had a lot of support from people, including my parents, so I felt like I was making the right decision. However, it was a big decision, and a scary financial decision for my parents initially. There were moments of feeling stupid for leaving college to make a film that people might not even relate to.
Where do you see this story going as a full series?
I want to explore the family outside of the home, which will present opportunities to explore different environments. Aliza the eldest sister works in tech, so I’ll get to dive into Silicon Valley politics which I think are really interesting. Jada is in her OBGYN residency so we’ll see her struggle under the demands of being a resident, seeing death daily, feeling disillusioned, crushed, having to suck up to supervisors, etc. with Ivan I’ll depict a neurotic crisis that sends him to a series of doctors that aren’t providing him any clarity. This will inevitably lead him down a road of meeting black people in the city, distancing himself from family, finding his sense of agency and voice in the big world.
It’s interesting to watch your characters listen to old-school audio tapes. What led you to use this dated technology? Was it a stylistic choice or something more?
I saw the tape deck in my friend Charlie’s house and thought it looked cool, and without thinking asked Gabby who plays Jada if she would use it as a prop. I also have a lot of friends who’re still into tapes, so I wanted to take that and use it for Jada.
Do you worry that today’s college students are too political, or not political enough?
I don’t think being too political is a thing. In my life now I’m definitely trying to be more politically aware and politically active.
What was your own family’s reaction to “It’s Not About Jimmy Keene?”
They were happy to see that I took a risk and stuck with something for so long that ultimately payed off. My parents and sisters are all really proud, and my grandma on my mom’s side wrote me a beautiful text about identity, place, and belonging. Overall, positive reactions from family, though my mom was bummed that our family dog Dexter didn’t have a cameo.