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Speak Up: Lashana Lynch on ear for eye

Ever since Lashana Lynch burst on the scene as the headstrong, unflinching Maria Rambeau in “Captain Marvel” she has cut a defiant image. That sight was only deepened in “No Time to Die” and “The Woman King,” two films that see her reimagining Black women action heroes. But Lynch did not mysteriously arise from the ether. She is a formidable stage actress, with her best work coming in collaboration with playwright debbie tucker green. 

One of their most fruitful pairings, "ear for eye," which debuted in 2018 at London’s Royal Court, took on new life with a film adaptation of the staged play. Filmed in late 2020, the imperative material is an electric study in prose, rhythm, color, and politics. It’s composed in three parts: The first being a series of vignettes concerning the ways Black folks are forced to navigate vicious policing through a balance of respectability and guile, and how the past Civil Rights movement came up short while keeping in mind how the present strategies for collective action sometimes prioritize individual esteem over broader movements. The third part, a black-and-white section, recalls the racist laws that once governed the former slave-holding countries that have found new life in different words, and different deadly forms.

But it’s the second part, starring Lynch as a college student debating her prejudiced, microaggressive white professor (Demetri Goritsas), which takes the poetic and renders it in astonishingly blunt terms. The two characters converse about what spurred a white shooter to go on a brutal rampage: The professor finds increasingly mealy-mouth reasons that place the blame on the white kid’s environment as the student calmly dismisses those fragile claims. All the while, the white professor undermines her intelligence, her carriage, and her mental health. The exchange is only shocking in its incredible reality and green’s willingness to put these fissures all on display. 

In Lynch’s assured hands, green’s potent words arrive with a flurry akin to firecrackers that soon grows due to a wit matching a flamethrower. Lynch spoke with RogerEbert.com about reprising her role from the stage play, the uncomfortability of the material, and the importance of the film arriving on Criterion Channel.       

You were in the original production for ear for eye. How did your collaboration with debbie tucker green begin?

I had done a play with the writer/director, debbie tucker green, the previous year of ear for eye, debuting on stage at the Royal Court Theater in London. Of course, after doing my first play with debbie, I was jumping at the chance to work with her again. And debbie being the light she is and, I guess, a modern-day Black Shakespeare in the female form, in my eyes, I was looking for more projects and characters that spoke to me and spoke to my culture, and she does that so easily. 

So yeah, the usual way: It came through my inbox through debbie, and I hadn't even gotten halfway through the play—well, not even a quarter—before saying yes. I was just gripped immediately. And then during lockdown, we had conversations one-on-one about how many legs does this play have: could it be something, could it speak to the world in a broader way? Could it land in people that really need to hear this language and these scenarios play out? It turns out, it did. It was the perfect time to do it because it just felt right. And again, if I was busy, I would've canceled everything to be there for the film. I'm lucky that it worked out and it has the reach that it's getting now.

When ramping up for the film, of course, you were already familiar with the character, but did you need time to reacquaint yourself with the material?

That's a really good question. When the film came up I was very confident that I'd be fine with the language; you know, muscle memory would kick in. But debbie's work is very specifically nuanced. And that's what I mean with her, in terms of her being Shakespeareesque because the tenses and the ellipses and the interruptions and the pauses, the beats, they're all part of the world that she's creating for these human beings. I wouldn't even call them characters. They’re absolutely human beings living on stage and on screen. So I had to refamiliarize myself with the language and the speed in which you have to deliver debbie's work.

There's such a way to do it. And I think that after weeks of rehearsing or like weeks of conversations with debbie, as an actor, you get it yourself, and you are able to deliver it in the way that she wants. As an audience member, it just looks like two people talking. But in order to get two people naturally talking, the timing has to be everything. I kind of wish that there was a through-the-keyhole documentary of how to work with debbie, because when you see her way with actors and her way with her work, her text, it's just a dream to be able to go through texts like that. As an actor, it's quite a gift. 

So I had to take a beat. I had to take a step back and just remember that every time you work on something, just like if you were gonna play Othello, if you played Othello one time in your life, and then you played it again another time in your life with a different director and cast, you can't approach it in exactly the same way as the first time. So, whilst she's in my bones, I also wanted her to live slightly differently on screen, which I think we were able to achieve with the time we had.

How granular and specific is debbie with regards to her direction?

So, in the play, myself and Demetri, who I was playing the scene with, were on a spinning circle for 45 minutes, constantly, which changed directions halfway through our section in the play. And we emulated that for the screen. And it meant that, one, debbie could trust us because we'd done it before. But also debbie has a really relaxed, easy, very colloquial way of directing actors. She very much makes you feel as though you are in charge of your character, you're in charge of your performance, and being guided in a really healthy and holistic way to literally present a human to the camera. 

Debbie, having worked with her three times now, has always made me feel like I've made good choices. And that's not because I've always made good choices. It's because she really creates a collaborative environment whereby you wanna see everyone win. So even in the sections I wasn’t in, I was asking questions about how everyone else was doing because I wanted them to win. I wanted debbie to win. I wanted the park DP to win. I felt the whole film in my section, and I knew that I had some wonderful things to contribute with this character, with this piece. In answering your question, basically she's very free flowing and I've always felt like I've leveled up as an artist after working with her. And that's definitely what happened after shooting this film.

You kind of mentioned a little bit before about the difference in terms of the staging from stage to screen. Could you talk more about how that changed your approach in terms of being in front of the camera? Did you play it more toward the camera, or were you, for lack of a better term, a little bit more stagey in your approach?

So as we were on a spinning disc, if you like, for the duration, which literally made me seasick, at some point, I was enjoying turning away from the audience and giving them something to question. So they can't see my face, they can't see my response, but they can see what Demetri's doing, and they can assume that I am riled up or that I am emotional or maybe thinking about what I'm about to say. Whereas then for the film, I really enjoyed the camera capturing those nuances, to give more of a perspective for the audience. So on stage, the audience can just get what they get, then maybe they'll catch my look to the side, and maybe they won't, depending on where you sat.

But for the camera, because I trust debbie so much, I knew that she was capturing texture. So I was giving everything that I could, knowing that she might get a raised eyebrow or she might not even be focused on my face. She might do a whole take of a closeup of my hands, rubbing together, like picking my nails or me inhaling and exhaling. That’s not only a texture, but it really adds to the vibration of the scene. It's so hard to play and to watch that scene when I've seen it back, the whole film is very uncomfortable. I know that debbie and the whole crew made conscious efforts to ensure that every single movement was being captured. So, in that edit, we can paint the picture of, "This is uncomfortable" as an audience member, but as an audience member, we have a responsibility to sit with it and remain uncomfortable because these are uncomfortable situations. They're real-life situations that audiences should be forced to watch, actually. So, whilst doing the spinning disc, I was confident that we were capturing what was necessary to paint the right picture.

The uncomfortability that you're talking about ... of course, the entire film is charged, but especially your scene, where you and the professor are arguing over what instigated a white kid to carry out a school shooting feels so direct and in your face. The rest of the film has a kind of ambiguity, yet a poetic rhythm. But this is so to the point, so concrete. I'm wondering if you could talk more about how you read the themes of the scene? 

Uncomfortably. [laughs] Very uncomfortably. I read the themes as what they were, which is important to note as an actor. So that you're on the same page as the director. But also I'm thinking about what the audience, what the world is gonna read out of this. I didn't want any of the themes to be watered down by my performance or like shied away from. I wanted it to do with being a woman, being a student of a certain age, being a Black person in the world, being someone who has, you know, anxiety issues, who has authority issues, to really be displayed in the most blatant way because I do believe that this film is literally like a direct presentation of what it can be like in some of these spaces. With this section being the only section with a white actor, it was a really great opportunity for me to heighten the themes and really ride with them so that they were like on the tip of my tongue every single time I spoke her lines.

It was really simple in the end actually, because it felt like we were just so in it. We went straight in it and it felt very real to the point where there’s one section where Demetri's character says something not very nice or supportive to this woman, and I had to take a beat and speak to debbie offset and just gather myself because it was very triggering to hear those words on repeat. 

When you're doing it on stage, you know, one time a night, eight shows a week, you're getting to spread out the feeling of how those words land in you as a Black person and as a Black woman. But to hear it take after take, I had to really stop and pause and look at Demetri and remember that he's a lovely person. [laughs] It was a struggle. I broke down at one point because I reminded myself of just how important this work is to get out in the world. Even though it's uncomfortable for me, it's more uncomfortable to not discuss this, it's more uncomfortable to not have our culture be spoken up for, and way more uncomfortable to be silenced. So I chose not to silence my character and let the themes run for themselves and let her uncomfortability sit with us.

It must have felt even more present during lockdown. What was the filming like during Covid?

Oh my gosh, mad. It was my first time going back to work. I think it was the first time for a lot of the cast and crew going back to work. It was like any other production during Covid, touch and go. You just dunno what's gonna happen on any single day. You dunno how people are gonna feel. The protocols were high. I'm so glad about that. My section in particular, we were very far apart. We were like opposite ends of the circle the whole time, constantly balancing out the space. So we were protected; we were safe. I felt good and safe and comfortable, but also I felt like it was a triumph to get this spoken about, planned, financed, and off the ground within a few months. 

We really discovered a different part of ourselves that we were able to push through adversity and really make important work during this time. I think during Covid that's when some of the best ideas came from creatives because we were forced to just make things work. I liked that. We were supported through it too. I mean, when you're just looking at debbie during, and in and out of takes, I just felt like I was on a normal film set because it just felt so relaxed and comfortable. It was like being at home, but with masks.

I noticed that in the stage performance, your hair was its natural color, but in the film, it’s blue. Was that intentional?

Ooh, no one's asked me that before. It was intentional. I worked with hair and makeup to complement what the aesthetic of the film was gonna be. I knew that the background was gonna be quite dark, but there was gonna be lighting through it. We were gonna have projections behind us, and I wanted something, in a very simple way, to give her a bold, open, radical unorthodox approach to life.

I didn't want her to have a shaved head. I've had a shaved head before, but I wanted her to have something that was bold, to cut against her silencing during the film. And for some reason, it just came through hair. It was like, here goes this really outspoken woman with this, you know, bold look. She's got a hoodie on, and she's got jeans and trainers, but she got blue hair, and she's probably gonna speak up for herself. Then you realize that she's speaking to this white man who doesn't care about her stance or her opinion. That boldness that you see aesthetically is diminished immediately. So she almost grows into her hair during the scene, which I liked.

When I watched the film, I thought about the timeline of how it came into the world and how it was made just after lockdown and during Black Lives Matter. Back then, it felt like there was a changing tide. But now we're in 2023, and it feels like not much has changed at all. Could you talk about the importance of this movie coming out today? 

Well, firstly, I think it's important for people around the world to remind themselves of what they uttered in 2020 for themselves and for their culture and their sex and their history and everything that they don't represent, that they wanna speak up for. It got very quickly raised to a hundred and then very slowly whittled back down to almost regressing to a different place, in some instances, a worse place. Because what's worse than not much happening is nothing happening at all. And I feel like with the release of this film, on this platform, it gives the world a reminder of what they've promised for themselves as human beings. That we have a responsibility to take action, to speak up for someone that doesn't look like you and to not rely on media or entertainment or even a phone reminder to make the world better in your own way.

It's really incredible that we have this film at this time. But if we keep using the word “moment,” then I feel like it's gonna subliminally convince people that, oh, now's the time to do something. Not yesterday and tomorrow. Maybe I won't, but today I will. And it's actually not a choice. It's a demand from the universe that we have to do something as a collective. 

So I'm hoping that this film just makes people uncomfortable enough to wanna continue to ask those questions that they asked in 2020 and to not forget them. Because it's the forgetting that makes Black people wanna continue the work, to shout from the rooftops what the world needs to do. Whereas we all learned in 2020 that it's not for Black people to do it themselves. It's for every culture to come together and speak up for each other. All I can say is this is one film, a brilliant film by a brilliant filmmaker. If there's no film like this ever again, that's my only question, you know, what do you choose to do as a human. You need to ask big questions and hopefully find big answers.

Watch debbie tucker green's ear or eye here.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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