Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams is pushed to the side no longer
In his newest documentary, Williams introduces a new, unexpected kind of hero
Director Roger Ross Williams knows what it’s like to be a sidekick in a story about heroes. After all, Williams was relegated to the sidelines on a night when he made history — at the 2010 Academy Awards. When the film he directed, Music by Prudence, won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, Williams became the first black director to win in the category. He did it with a film about Prudence Mabhena, a severely disabled girl with arthrogryposis living in Zimbabwe (where disability is often considered a sign of witchcraft) who became a bandleader and singer-songwriter.
Williams walked up to the stage and was in the midst of delivering his acceptance speech when he was interrupted by producer Elinor Burkett, who hustled her way up, simply talked over Williams and took the mic for herself for the rest of Williams’ allotted time. News organizations reported that Williams had been “Kanye’d” by Burkett. Williams, a former employee of CNN, gave his full speech the next night on Larry King Live.
“Every film is personal,” Williams said. “It has to be, because you wouldn’t be able to make a documentary if you didn’t have the passion and it didn’t have the personal connection to you. So all my films are about the challenges of overcoming adversity.” Williams was born in the 1970s in South Carolina. His mother was a maid. He was the first in his family to go to college. “Everyone in my family, you know? My brother and sister are addicted to crack cocaine. It’s just like, they’re all left behind and I somehow triumph, so it’s like, how did I triumph? How did that happen?”
This year Williams is back with the feature film Life, Animated, another project that examines disability, this time from the viewpoint of Owen Suskind. Suskind, who is autistic, is the son of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ron Suskind. In 2014, Ron Suskind published Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism, which revealed how animated Disney films became a vehicle for Owen to connect with the world. Those on the autism spectrum tend to have problems reading and interpreting emotional and social cues, so they have to study and memorize them. Owen even taught himself to read by obsessively watching, rewinding, and re-watching film credits. In Life, Animated, audiences see Owen grappling with his first heartbreak, and his first foray into independent adult living.
“So many films about people with autism are from the outside looking in, and this was my goal to tell the story from the inside looking out,” said Williams, explaining why he used a camera made famous by Errol Morris called an Interrotron. The Interrotron creates an experience that allows documentary subjects to feel as though they’re talking to the director through a television screen when they’re really talking straight into the camera. It’s all about the kind of eye contact seen here.
“Because he’s spent his whole life watching television … if we were just doing an interview like this, [Owen] wouldn’t necessarily be able to make eye contact, or be focused,” said Williams. “But he totally can relate and connect to a television screen. So he’s looking the audience right in the eye and telling his story.”
Williams has been friends with the Suskinds for more than 15 years, but it’s his desire to keep plumbing the theme of feeling like an outsider, is what makes Life, Animated sing, and what allowed him to connect so well with Owen. “I’m outside of mainstream,” Williams said as he scarfed down a quick lunch at City Tap House of DC. “I’m black, gay, I’m not — in the documentary world, in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, there are no — ” Williams trailed off, and gestured to himself. “The Oscars so white! … There are many filmmakers from Spike Lee to lots of people before me who made many, many films, but have never … won anything.”
A survey of the world these days can make it easy to slip into a state of low-simmering cynicism, but more than anything, Life, Animated shows us what is possible. Owen went from being a child who did not speak for years to a kid who was able to build meaningful relationships, even a romantic one, through the Disney club he started with help from his parents. Owen, now 23, lives in his own apartment in a supported and independent living community in Massachusetts and works in a movie theater.
In some ways, Life, Animated almost feels like the real-life companion story for Pixar’s Finding Dory, where everyone is essentially a sidekick, including Dory. The animals in Finding Dory all have various disabilities — Dory has short-term memory loss, and she’s friends with a nearsighted whale and a porpoise with anemic echolocation skills. But everyone finds a way to do what needs to be done, because they have to live in a world that’s not going to stop for them simply because they’re not traditional heroes.
“Those are the stories that I want to tell,” said Williams. “About people who are sort of fighting their way in the world.”
Life, Animated opened in New York on July 1, and will continue to open in theaters nationwide in the upcoming weeks.