By DAVID KLEIN
The debate on whether identity – gender, ethnicity or race, sexual orientation, perhaps even socio-economic background – affects the business of storytelling is growing quieter. Can a women produce war flicks? (check: Kathryn Bigelow, whose The Hurt Locker won her the first Oscar for a female director in 2010). Do out gay actors play straight characters convincingly? (check: Neil Patrick Harris as womanizer Barney Stinson on TV’s “How I Met Your Mother.”). Spike Lee may be known for producing films around African-American story lines, but his Summer of Sam (1999) remains true to the real life events it depicts with an all-white cast and story line.
Lisa Cortes, who is African-American, perhaps gained broadest recognition as a co-producer of Precious: Based on the Novel Push (2009), with lots of awards, several Oscar nominations and awards in the Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress categories. But for Cortes, the acclaimed film comes after a prolific career as both a film and music producer, where the characters and roles were black and white, strong and vulnerable, male and female.
Cortes’ resume includes co-producing Monster’s Ball, The Woodsman and Shadowboxer, each featuring their own women who negotiate life from a sometimes-compromised position. That includes even when the character appears to be in power – for example, the female assassin Rose in Shadowboxer, who controls the deaths of others until she gets her own terminal cancer diagnosis.
The point in many of her films is that skin color is not the defining characteristic, nor does she only work on “women’s projects.” She can make a Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) just as vulnerable and just as strong as Kyra Sedgwick (The Huntsman). In her music career, Cortes was the executive producer of “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” the debut album of all-male hip hop group Black Sheep, which was selected by The Source magazine as one of the 100 Best Rap Albums Ever.
But that doesn’t mean people don’t ask Cortes to define the differences. Indeed, a review of speaker topics on which she provides chats to groups provides insight: “Breaking into the Boys Club: Women behind the Camera,” “Evolving Image of Black Women on Screen” and “My Sister’s Keeper: Mentoring in Your Community.”
Lisa Cortes attended the New York Film Academy (http://www.nyfa.edu/), a school that prides itself on student and faculty diversity, and is a graduate of Yale University. It may not be possible to divine exactly what drives her involvement in creating characters such as “Precious” – clearly it is the actors, screenwriters and directors who form the characters and the storytelling overall. But Cortes worked with Sapphire for four years to turn “Push” into Precious. She had a vision of what the film could be long before actors were cast in their roles.
It is worth noting that Cortes’ successes in film didn’t begin until after two decades of achievement in the hip-hop music industry. Much of the product from hip-hop is unquestionably misogynistic. Becoming a powerful woman in that industry hardly would have been easy – an experience that may have a lot to do with her film success.
Lisa Cortes’ work speaks for itself. It’s not just about women, being black or a narrative based on disenfranchisement. She occupies a place called life, no identity required.
Executive producers Lisa Cortes and Tom Heller, produced by Lee Daniels and Gary Magness; co-producer Mark G. Mathis; screenplay by Geoffrey Fletcher, based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire; edited by Joe Klotz; music by Mario Grigorov; produced by Donald W. Ernst; released by Touchstone Pictures.
Starring Gabourey Sidibe (Precious), Mo’Nique (Mary), Paula Patton (Ms. Rain), Maria Carey (Ms. Weiss), Sherri Shepherd (Cornrows) and Lenny Kravitz (Nurse John).
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Klein earned a bachelor’s of science from Tufts University (magna cum laude) and his master’s in fine arts at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he was awarded the Tisch Excellence in Producing Award. Klein is also the winner of Warner Bros. Production Award for To Dye For. He has written and directed numerous other projects, including the award-winning short film Gone With the Moon.