This interview has been condensed and edited for the consideration of length and importance.
Doubt is one of the most crippling emotions we as humans feel and it can often deter our minds into thinking that the possible is impossible. In this case, it’s a dancer who doesn’t believe she will impress judges for an upcoming audition. Recently, The Reel Effect was introduced to a short film that speaks to the path we as beings take when faced with uncertainty.
In “The Next Stop,” directed by Sultan Ali Jr., and set in New York City. The main character Tia (Emma Youte) rushes against time to prepare for a dance routine for a famous Hip-Hop dance team. Tia doubts her talent until an unexpected visit from an old-school hip-hop savant named Benny (Veronica Street), and a time-traveling boombox show up and alter her reality. While chronicling critical periods in Hip-Hop history, Tia ends up making a decision that will ultimately decide her fate, to either overcome doubt or buckle under pressure.
This short film directed and written by Sultan Ali Jr. was the product of an opportunity given to him by Red Bull Media House in collaboration with the Ghetto Film School. Red Bull chose five innovative and underrepresented filmmakers from the school and challenged them to create their own short films. Thanks to their funding and the proper resources, Ali was able to curate a story that highlights an all-Black women-led ensemble, honors the history of hip-hop culture, and teaches a lesson about self-confidence.
Ali displayed many things in the film, one being his deep interest in Afro surrealism. What Ali does organically through his work is reflect Black experiences and enrich the Black culture through film and storytelling. The Reel Effect sat down with Sultan Ali Jr. to discuss how hip-hop found its way into the story, the impact he wants to make with audiences, and what he knows for sure about his future in film.
Devon Townsend: Last month, hip-hop celebrated 50 years of its influence and culture and from watching ‘The Next Stop,’ I wanted to know if that played a role in how you created this short film or was it not at the forefront when you started.
Sultan Ali: “I wasn’t thinking about the anniversary of hip-hop much. Real quick story, I live in Harlem and I live by 5th Avenue, and across my window I see the [hip-hop] museum being built in real-time and so there was inspiration behind that. I was thinking about hip-hop and the prompt for the [Red Bull] fellowship was about speaking on the history of dance and how that incorporates into today’s culture. I saw [the museum]. Saw the prompt. It was just like 1+1= 2 and it was a perfect match.”
DT: What made you fall in love with Hip-Hop?
SA: “My family. My mom. She would always play Paid in Full by Eric B. and Rakim. Grandmaster Flash. Big Daddy Kane. KRS-One. It was like that repetition of growing up [with hip-hop music] consistently, kind of fell into my brain so that’s where the influence of love and hip-hop came from, being around family, being around people in my environment and that’s what I would see 24/7 so it was a very easy match I would say.”
DT: In ‘The Next Stop’ you touch on some of hip-hop’s history by chronicling through time to remind Tia of its’ lasting impact. What’s the impact you want to make to your audience through storytelling?
SA: “The impact I want to leave through my storytelling is that there is no perfect formula for telling a story. I think if you have an idea and a voice you want to share then definitely share that story. I think for my film it was so out there, it’s so non-linear, in the sense of the story’s structure. We’re talking about a young dancer who goes through a time-traveling boombox to go to different eras of hip-hop and dance to get her confidence back. I guess the impact I want to leave is if there’s a theme or message you want to put out there, the story will make sense as long as you stick to that message and stick to that theme. Whatever that is to you. The story will stand the test of time and your voice will attach itself to that. Make sure your theme and your voice are strong because that’s your pushing factor for storytelling.”
DT: What’s the hardest part of supporting your vision? Funding, casting, writing?
SA: “It takes a lot of line itemization, it takes a lot of getting estimates of what you have to do. But the money is the hardest because if you’re not getting money yourself if you’re not a trust fund baby, or if you don’t have a sponsor and you’re getting a grant or getting donations, it’s really selling yourself and selling the idea. Getting people who don’t have a lot of funds to still donate to a project that you’re creating for the audience. Also, receiving the funding to make it happen because after selling yourself, in the sense of for your dream, and you’ve got the funds then that hard hump is over. There are still more obstacles around the corner but that’s the hardest part because now that I have the money I have no excuse as to why I can’t make this happen.”
DT: In your other short films you’ve branched across genres ranging from Sci-Fi to Thriller to Drama. What category/genre interests you most and why?
SA: “For narrative, I would say, genre-wise… Afro-surrealism, that’s the best way I can put it. Anything that kind of falls into afro surrealism. Right now it is horror, thriller, and psychological but the theme will always be afro-surrealism. The idea of taking the black experience and giving just a different viewpoint like how we experience things, how we view things is not how people think we view things. When we watch the news, when we go outside, when we talk to our friends, it’s trying to describe that feeling. I try to describe what [black people] actually see and how it plays in our head because we are very imaginative as black people, we have just different ways of viewing the world and it’s not so realistic or facefront. There are different layers to it. Afrosurrealism and horror. That’s where I really feel very comfortable now.”
DT: You end the film with Tia reciting a quote from Alvin Ailey, “to be who you are and become what you are capable of is the only goal worth living.” I’ve noticed in researching you that you use a lot of quotations that are close to you. What quote would you use to best describe your purpose in this phase of your life?
SA: “One by Marcus Garvey, it’s a long one but it’s one I was told a lot. Actually, I learned it from ‘House Party’ and it was, let’s make sure I get this right, ‘Without confidence, you are twice defeated in the race of life. With confidence, you have won even before you’ve started.”
“It’s one of the first [quotes] that stuck with me and one that I repeated and one that was repeated in [House Party] where it’s the idea that without confidence you are twice defeated. You lost first because you have no confidence and you lost twice because with no confidence you didn’t win anything at all. But, having confidence in yourself is truly the hardest part of any race you want to do. Even if you lose it was the fact that you did believe in yourself and when Benny [Boombox] told Tia at the end of the day I give 110% to myself because that’s my responsibility for me, whatever happens outside of that is out of my control, but it’s my job to make sure I’m good 24/7.”
DT: What do your future projects look like? What’s next for you?
SA: “Right now, I’m focusing more on documentaries because I still want to create, I still want to put out works and projects that I really care about. I want to focus more on [documentaries] but now giving my own personal flair to [documentaries] where it’s not just interview-based. I wanna give an actual story, documentaries can be real stories and I want to share and create that.”
“I’m working on a documentary about my apartment building. I live by a riverbed in Harlem and I live in one of the buildings where it was one of the first five buildings to house middle-class black Americans in the 60s. A lot of the residents still live here to this day who were bankers, judges, professional athletes and they all lived in one central building. That level of excellence and creativity in one spot in five different sectors in a well-known affluent black neighborhood is a really dope idea and I want to dive into that.”
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