At 79 years old, Sonia Sanchez—the legendary writer, civil rights activist and leader of the Black Arts movement—is more badass than ever.
Soon you will be able to see for yourself in BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, a forthcoming documentary about her life and work—which are as inextricable as two sides of the same coin.
For the last three years, filmmakers Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon have been filming performances and interviews with Sanchez and with some of the many contemporary artists she’s influenced. When Ms. spoke with two of the producers, Barbara Attie had just returned from a hair appointment, where her stylist told her to forget paying for her cut and to donate the cost to the film’s post-production. Now that’s a community effort.
Ms. Blog: How did the idea to make a documentary about Sonia Sanchez evolve?
Janet Goldwater: Barbara [Attie] and I live in Philadelphia, and we’re readers, so we’ve long been aware of Sonia Sanchez. I had actually heard her read a couple of times, and I’m just really amazed at her public persona. So, about four years ago our friend Evan Solot composed a jazz -funk opera from one of Sonia’s books, Does Your House Have Lions? about Sonia’s brother dying of AIDS as one of the very early victims of the epidemic. We attended [this opera] and wound up being seated right next to Sonia and having the full Sonia experience—her work, her and her fan base, all at the same time.
Shortly after that we approached her and Evan about a collaboration on a project, and she agreed to do it. Afterward she told us, “You know, over the year lots of people asked me if they could make a movie about me and I said yes because, what’s the harm, and I see you’re going to actually do it.” And we are, we’re going to finish it.
Barbara Attie: The timing was right for us as well; we had just finished [the film] Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter, and the issues that Sonia tackles in her work are our issues too—violence against women, oppression, social justice.
What has the filming process been like?
Attie: Sonia’s schedule is so … she is on the road an incredible amount of time and I know that’s what sustains her, all the performances she does. We couldn’t have gone to everything, but we attended her readings and we’ve periodically sat down for one-on-one interviews. We traveled with her to Birmingham, Ala. She was born there and lived there until she was eight years old. We traveled with her to New York City, and we’ve been interviewing other people who can comment on her legacy, her impact and her place in literature.
We went up to New York and interviewed Questlove and Black Thought of the Roots, and Talib Kweli. [Philadelphia poet] Ursula Rucker, who was a student of hers, and Jessica Care Moore. In Virginia, at [the Furious Flower poetry center], we [spoke with] Amiri Baraka.
Are you focusing more on Sonia the person or on her work? Is it even possible to distinguish?
Goldwater: Her work is so infused with her life that we are comingling them and letting her work tell the story of the different periods of her life, intertwined with spoken narrative and the interviews. We’re really trying to place the Black Arts Movement in history as the time when she first gained the public’s attention, but then also showing the next two generations of artists who have been influenced by her. She’s mentoring Philadelphia’s youth poet laureate now. There are a lot of young poets and rappers who credit her with being the foundation of what they do.
What has surprised you during the filming process?
Goldwater: She often will be late to get on stage because she insists if a child wants to talk to her, she will not interrupt them. She’s sees herself as a role model and as having a responsibility to her community, and that’s been impressive to me.
Attie: The surprising thing is a woman 79 years old can sustain the schedule that she sustains! She’ll just look so spent and tired [before a performance], and then she gets on stage and you wouldn’t know she was 79 years old and just traveled back and forth across the country a few times. She just gets on that stage and she’s just mesmerizing, she comes alive.