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Mind-blowing crime drama about a Black expat in Paris proves Black beauty is inescapable

October 4, 2017
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AFROPUNK writer Hari Ziyad talks to writer-director Tamara P. Carter about her stunning new series short, The Paris Project.

Boldly willing to leave some of its deepest questions unanswered and trust its audience to do complex intellectual work, HBO’s The Leftovers, described by Vox as “one of the best TV shows ever made,” created a new lane for television dramas. Now, one of the writers behind the too-short-lived series is expanding that course even farther in a new short film that is just as bold but even Blacker, and it will blow you away.

Written and directed by The Leftovers‘s Tamara P. Carter, The Paris Project (watch above) follows Brooklyn artist Michael Wynton (Terence Nance) as he attempts to start a new life in Paris with his fiancé Samuelle (Nia Andrews). But when he runs into an ex-girlfriend (Marie-France Alvarez), Michael is forced back into Paris’s drug-run underground art scene to settle a debt, thwarting his meticulous attempts to escape the past.

Conceived as part of a longer series, the independent project was inspired by Carter’s own experiences as an expat, and the questions of race, queerness, love and loss that arose from them. I had the pleasure of speaking with the director to discuss these themes, and how The Paris Project speaks to the “inescapability of black beauty.”

HZ: Thank you so much for speaking with me about The Paris Project. It was such an enthralling experience—one of those rare films that stick with you long after the credits roll. Let’s start from the beginning: As a Black queer person, I couldn’t help but think that Mike’s introduction—his warning that most stories about him aren’t true, his admission that he’s into reiki and oceans and polyamory—sounds so much like so many of the Black queer people I know and/or have been on dates with LOL. This, along with the constant critique of monogamy (at least as the only viable option) throughout the film, made it feel very queer in a lot of ways. Not queer as in men who have sex with men or women who have sex with women, queer as in “in defiance of the violently constrictive ways society tells us we are supposed to connect with and relate to one another,” especially as Black people.

I think it’s important to understand that queer doesn’t necessarily look like what we’ve learned as “gay” or “lesbian” (although it can), and that it is more so a state of constant questioning and rejecting what society has imposed onto us as acceptable, the same questioning and rejecting that might be necessary to combat the anti-Blackness that also structures what is and isn’t okay.

Within this context, would you agree that in some ways this is a Black queer film?

TPC: Absolutely, in that it was created by a black, queer, woman, so the characters are going to embody those attributes. But the project is also queer in that it, as you say, questions and rejects what American television says is stereotypical of the black American narrative.

As storytellers, we hope to create complex characters whose experiences reflect the realities (or fiction) that we’re living day to day. We hope to show life in all of its glory and fucked up-ness. We’re not a web series or a short feature film, there weren’t any boxes for us to fit into, we had to create our own. So yes, The Paris Project is a queer film—within that context.

Michael Wynton (Terence Nance) & Samuelle (Nia Andrews)

But just as queer creatives are rejecting society’s definitions of how it thinks we should move about the world, as viewers move further into Michael’s story and the theme of the series, hopefully the need to define it as a specific thing—queer—or any other thing will subside.

Some say it’s a story about love and crime. Or soulmates and art. Or the Black American expat. I say yes to all of those categories and more because the cultures of being black or queer aren’t monolithic. We are everything we say we are and then some.

HZ: Speaking of queer, Mike’s story of being a Black artist from NYC who moves to Paris very obviously harkens back to the story of James Baldwin. In another interview, you said that when you hear the experiences of folks like Baldwin and his life in Paris it feels “like a fairytale,” and so you wanted to bring that experience into the modern day with Mike and this film.

But even outside of this film it seems like there is a general push to bring Baldwin into today’s world, and his work is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence. Why does Baldwin’s story, and particularly his journey to Paris after decades of fighting anti-Blackness, resonate so much today, and why is it necessary to bring into the “now”? 

TPC: Baldwin’s story has always been relevant to the Black American seeking refuge from white American terrorism. Whether for a year, a summer, or a week, to have the opportunity to experience oneself outside of the psychotic obsession that this country has with our bodies, freedoms, and art—to be able to re-calibrate the experience of one’s own blackness to a more resonant and familiar frequency can be quite healing.

I wrote the short as a way into a drama series that my friends and I could watch and and hopefully see ourselves as we exist to ourselves. People always ask what my friends and I do while abroad every summer and I can’t really describe what we’re doing other than existing on our own terms. Most of the time when we are together we don’t really think about whiteness at all, we’re too busy enjoying our cultures.

Anaïs (Marie-France Alvarez)

Whether in London, Lagos, Accra or right here in Brooklyn, everyday Black Americans are having a different experience than what we’re seeing on TV. I’ve run into people from Bed Stuy and East New York at parties in Paris. We don’t have to be novelists or activists or jazz musicians to have that experience. Michael, Samuelle and Anaïs move freely throughout Paris, living their lives (and their messiness) and outside of the reality that America has created for them. We don’t have to wait for Hollywood to tell us who, what, or where we can be.

HZ: I think every Black person, especially those of us who grew up in so-called “rough” neighborhoods, can understand the desire to escape, and that desire cannot simply be limited to a place. For Mike, escaping America and the racism here is intertwined with a desire to escape his past in general.

But, as the film shows, escaping the past is impossible, and eventually his history catches up to him. Similarly, some might argue that it’s also impossible to escape anti-Blackness in the world as it is now. Even in France, though it shows up differently (focused on certain Black populations or in more subtle ways), it’s always there. I remember earlier this year there was a 22-year-old Black worker who was beaten and sodomized by police there. Would you say the film is also a commentary on the inescapability of anti-Blackness?

TPC: I wouldn’t say the film is a commentary on the inescapability of anti-blackness. It more-so dives head first into what I experience on a regular basis, which is the inescapability of black beauty. Black love, black skin, black languages and dialects, black art, black scholarship, black women—I could go on.

I was lucky enough to attend AFROPUNK in Paris and London this year and am still at a loss for words to describe how breathtaking and innovative we are. It was all I could do to try and grab a tiny sliver of the diverse nature of that beauty, put in on screen and hope people see us as I do, not as America tells us we are.

HZ: Early in the film, there’s a great scene where Mike talks about not wanting to seem like the angry Black guy in an interview, and his fiance Samuelle says there is a difference between directness and anger. I think that moment is so great because this is a fine line all Black people have had to walk in one way or another.

He then says something to the effect of Black anger is even more of a turn off to white people in Paris. So he wants to escape racism in America, but isn’t the censoring of a basic human emotion like anger a significant type of violence? Wouldn’t he have more of that here? What is Mike trying to say, if anything, about how we prioritize certain violences over others?

TPC: Michael is doing what many of us have, which is carry the PTSD that comes from the constant policing of our words and behaviors to a place where the rules of engagement are a bit different. Don’t get me wrong, France is a racist country. But the carrying load (minus death by police every 28 hours) feels about three fourths lighter (for me) than it is in the US, something I can’t say is the case for my Afro-French counterparts.

In the scene you’re referencing, Samuelle represents a different type of black aesthetic, one who didn’t grow up under the same circumstances as Michael did in Brooklyn. Samuelle is a privileged black girl who grew up between Paris and New York in black centric spaces, attended black international schools and universities, shares a complete lack of regard for whiteness and steers Michael toward being his fully empowered self—which to her means don’t mince words or code switch, be 100% you—no matter who is in the room.

Samuelle (Nia Andrews): Photo by Romain Jacquot

It will always be important to me to highlight the diversity within our own perspectives on race as not all of us are having the same experience. What’s important to remember about The Paris Project is it isn’t a political film per se. It’s a crime drama that takes us into a world where an artist from Brooklyn can be as black or queer or complex or messy as he wants to be—wherever in the world he wants to be, and live to tell the story.