You can tell from Edson Jean’s title that his venture is a business with a purpose. Jean is the Founder and Cultural Guardian of Bantufy, a Miami-based film production company devoted to authentic representation of Haitian, Caribbean, and Latin American stories in cinema.
First entering the industry as an actor, Jean naturally progressed to writing his own scripts, then directing them — and now he’s determined to rewrite the rules of Hollywood by creating new pathways through which art can be shared. Jean, who is a member at CIC Miami, attests that building a film company is a whole different ball game than making a film, but he seems to flow naturally between these roles by doing what he does best: storytelling.
Jean’s résumé speaks to his career-long commitment to authentic, humanizing cinema. He was recently nominated for a Streamy and MIPCOM award for his dramedy Grown for Complex Network. Before that, he wrote, directed, and starred in The Adventures of Edson Jean, which aired on HBO, and as an actor, he’s appeared in A24’s Moonlight, Warner Bros. Pictures’ War Dogs, HBO’s Ballers, and Bloodline on Netflix. This year, Bantufy — whose name is a verbification of Bantu, a family of ethnic groups and languages indigenous to central and southern Africa — will release Jean’s first full-length feature. Inspired by his mother’s experiences after emigrating to the US, LUDI tells the story of a hardworking nurse who will stop at nothing to support her family in Haiti.
Before LUDI debuts in Miami on March 30, we sat down with Jean to talk about art, the importance of representation, and the challenges — and opportunities — of forging your own path through a well-established industry.
CIC: Bantufy describes itself as being “birthed to mend the alarming lack of authentic representation of Haitian, Caribbean, and pockets of Latin communities around cinema.” Can you speak on the importance of specificity in the stories you tell?
EJ: Specificity is the core of my work. I’ve come into contention in the industry, so to speak, early on in my career, because a lot of times people seek broader content — things that can relate to the masses or that can be more commercial. But I’ve always wanted to be specific — even to the point where the Haitian Creole language is spoken in my films and being clear that it isn’t French and why it’s different — because our specificity is our identity. Once we get to the core of who we are, those experiences and stories are then universal. When I do that, I’m connecting myself to the human story, and everyone can relate to that. It just happens to be through a different color, a different lens, or a different backdrop.
CIC: Has that always been the case for you in your work, or was there a turning point where you started zooming in more specifically?
EJ: I started off as an actor and did my training at a conservatory here in Miami, the New World School of the Arts, and that’s when I started to really mold and identify my voice as an artist. That process was pivotal for me, because they focused on you the individual and that what you bring is of value. It instilled for me the idea that I don’t have to be like something else or someone else. I am myself, and just digging into that, you find your richer offerings as an artist.
My first two projects, a one-person short film and then a digital series, were more introspective and focused on my experience. Then with my latest film, my first feature film, I stepped into my mother’s story, because there are extreme specificites in that and I’m connected to that. So there wasn’t necessarily a turning point; good seeds were planted for me to start at this place, and I’ve just developed it more and more.
CIC: I wonder if you can talk more about going from being an actor to writing and directing to then starting your own film production company. To what extent are these things — creating films and creating a film company — the same thing to you, versus how are they different?
EJ: Acting was the gateway to everything else that I’m getting involved in. I realized none of these plays were talking about the people I know or the kind of people that look like the people I know and see. That opened an avenue into writing, because the most proactive way to see yourself represented authentically is to represent yourself… yourself. I really love the agency that’s provided through writing. You don’t have to wait for permission. The moment an idea moves in on you, you can manifest it on the page and it exists. Then that transitioned into doing the production company, because once you’ve written something, it’s like, “Oh you wrote this thing? It costs money. How do you make it?” There are different avenues for that, but for me it was going into production myself. And that makes you reinforce what you want to say, because this thing now represents the work that you want to put out into the world, as opposed to being an actor in somebody else’s puzzle. Now you’re creating the platform.
When I got into the business side, it opened my eyes to the fact that so many parts of it are art. There’s always a bit of art in everything. An artist had to design the layout of this video call we’re on. It’s in our architecture, in every color palette, every piece of design. We can’t walk away from art — it’s life. Even when I’m looking for investment, I’m thinking about how to share a story, right? So I’m taking the strengths from my primary field and literally reflecting that in other areas where they are applicable. An important part of the transition for me has been finding the art in, like, sending emails. Wherever there’s a moment for something to be mundane or to suck up the excitement and passion for what I’m doing, I like to flip it on its head and figure out: how do I make this like art?
CIC: You’ve talked about different paths in the film industry — more traditional approaches versus creating your own platforms. Doing things your own way sounds very exciting. But what are the challenges there, and also are there unique opportunities in that?
EJ: Absolutely. I think whenever you’re right at the edge of fear, there’s a great opportunity reward. We just have to go on the other side. When you’re trying to create something that doesn’t already exist, one could argue that’s going to make funding challenging. You’re not going to have a lot of data on things being proven. You’re going to have a lot of convincing to do, especially if you haven’t done it before. So how do you offer the right information to potential partners, sponsors, investors? How do you mitigate risks? How do you create confidence in your projections? If this hasn’t been done but you want to do it, why is it viable?
Some of those same things that are reasonable concerns are also the opportunities. If you’re the only one doing this thing in a space, it’s not overcrowded, and that can put a brighter spotlight on what you’re doing. Sometimes you have to exist in a space that people didn’t know they wanted to be engaged with.
A lot of the models that I’m putting together actually exist in documentary space. I saw this adjacent industry doing new things and thought, why can’t narrative films exist in the same space? So I’m borrowing ideas from documentary distribution or hybrid distribution.