Another piece of advice I got that I love is the idea of not throwing your passion away to choose a life that’s sustainable. I’d say to not do things that are just practical, you have to find some balance between what brings you joy and what allows you to eat, pay your bills, and to have the lifestyle that you want. Make sure that you find a balance between purpose, passion and sustainability.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Steven Cleveland.
From humble beginnings, Steven graduated from UCLA & USC in Los Angeles, the first of his family to go to college. At Cal State University, East Bay, Steven is a Black Studies Professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies, a Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Professor in the Department of History and an African American (AFAM) Faculty Fellow at the Diversity and Inclusion Student Center (DISC). Currently, Steven resides in Los Angeles where he wakes up every day working to infuse Black Humanity into a variety of media projects.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I went to UCLA for my undergraduate degree, and I thought I wanted to be a computer scientist. And I got there and I discovered something that was very important, which was that they didn’t have a computer science program. They had a computer science program connected to engineering but that wasn’t really what I wanted to do. So I ended up thinking “Now what do I want to do with my life?” I took a class that looked at third world cinema. One of the films that was shown was Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and that movie sort of opened my eyes to the fact that film could be used as more than just entertainment. I’d always thought of film as purely entertainment before that. I declared African American studies as my undergrad with a concentration in film after seeing that film and pushed me to decide that I want to use film as a tool for social change. This class showed me that film could be used to bring about sustainable change in a community and that’s what brought me to filmmaking. I was very inspired by Charles Burnett, which is ironic in the sense that Charles is now a friend and mentor to me. He’s the reason why I got into this; he inspired me to become a filmmaker. In fact, he’s partnering with me on MLK: A KING IN PARADISE.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
So this story is connected to Charles. Charles and I both went to UCLA, but we met at USC. I went to USC for film school, which was a painful experience for me, being cross town rivals. When I was at USC I was the guy who bought a Trojan stuffed animal and I tied a string from that stuffed animal to my backpack. And I would walk around with the thing dragging on the ground as a way to protest being on USC’s campus while a Bruin. I remember that someone from USC gave a USC jersey (it was the famed #55 linebacker jersey) and I remember putting it in my car door and dragging it around and people would try to stop the car and tell me I had something hanging out of my car. And I would tell them “No it’s on purpose buddy”. So I remember being the obnoxious Bruin while I was in my masters program at USC for cinema and television. Those are definitely some of my most memorable moments; the idea of being different. But it’s funny that I met Charles at USC. They brought him in as a speaker,so behind enemy lines two Bruins connected at USC.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
So my mentor is a Trojan and the reason I actually applied to USC was because of him (Ed Santiago). He is a marine guy who found himself at USC’s Cinema Television School via his time in the service. He is an absolutely great guy who supported me and actually inspired me to go to film school at USC. And he actually is one of the select few people who was Charles’ editor. They worked on a lot of projects together. Ed is the one who helped me develop my relationship with Charles after I met him at USC. Ed had a post production company in Culver City called Digital Cut Post and while working for him there I met so many incredible folks. But the most memorable time was when Mel Gibson cut Payback with us. And Lethal Weapon had paid Mel Gibson to stop working on Payback, so they basically paid for the movie in exchange for him to star in their Lethal Weapon franchise. So he was cutting in our facility before he stopped to do Lethal Weapon and after he wrapped Lethal Weapon he then switched to the lot (I think it was Paramount, but it could’ve been Universal (I can’t remember where he had his deal). And what I remember the most was when he introduced himself and said “Hi I’m Mel Gibson, what’s your name?” and I always thought of that as an impressive thing. Because I like it when folks don’t assume that you know who they are. I just remember meeting a lot of great folks while working at Digital Cut, but the most memorable was that Mel Gibson introduction. That always put him in a different light for me, despite all the rest of the Mel Gibson stories that people told.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m a professor of African American studies at Cal State East Bay and the work that I do in film is very much connected to that scholarship. The thing that I’m most excited about and focused on at this moment is a project called A King in Paradise. This film looks at MLK’s time in Hawaii and the influence that trip had on him, and the impact he made on the islands. Very few people know that he took this trip to Hawaii for five days in 1959 (and a second in 1964). The trip says something about the movement at the time and reflects how Civil Rights leaders moved, but it also reveals the impact MLK was beginning to have beyond black and white folks in America. This was the largest non Black or White audience he had ever been in front of. This audience was made up of mostly diverse Asian folks, who came to see him speak in one of the most diverse states in the US (Hawaii). I’m excited about this project because it feels very connected now because of what MLK was fighting for, i.e. MLK was fighting against systematic racism aka segregation. This moment right now is very much about fighting against the same evil forces that seek to divide us, so I feel there are parallels between the two moments that are worth exploring. Through making this film, I’m interested to discover what lessons we can take from his time on the island in 1959. I’m interested particularly in highlighting and learning ways we can achieve sustainable, transformative change out of this Black Lives Matter moment that is very much real and upon us.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
The questions of history for me are very connected to ancestry because of how my dad brought me up. The first book I read when I was six years old was David Walker’s Appeal, which is a very advanced, short novel for a young kid, and so I always remember that. So when we talk about history, the biggest historical figure looming in my life is my dad who was a great inspiration to me. And his passing really left a big void in terms of guidance for me. But with that said it also left a pathway. I feel like we walk in the footsteps of our ancestors, both the ones who came before us and the ones who live(d) among us. People like the brilliant MLK, the wonderful Nelson Mandela, and all these historic figures. But also the most impactful historical figures on us are our family. For instance, I have memories of being in Alabama hanging in the kitchen with my grandma in Alabama and the smells of soul food OR being in the garden with her and the smell of jasmine; I loved those experiences I had with her. And I cherish the many laughs that I have had with Charles. He’s this historical figure that I am blessed to take this journey with. So I would say, my grandmother, my mother and father, and my mentors including Charles Burnett; those are the folks who are the biggest historical figures in my life. As well as the brothers & sisters from the LA rebellion who are still alive, i.e. Larry Clark, Julie Dash, ets. These are all historical figures, who shared LA geographically and the values/cultures of UCLA. All those people who came out of UCLA’s film movement in the 1960’s [paved the way for me. Again, they’re not gone but those are the figures that are most prevalent for me. And it is also an honor to share UCLA with Ava DuVernay. I think because we both went there at the same time we have both been impacted by that history. The history of fighting for systematic change, that was inspired by those revolutionary filmmakers that helped to guide us.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
I think that one of the things I am inspired by, while developing A King in Paradise, has been the emergence of love as a key guiding force in my work. The idea of love means that you don’t get so caught up in your own perspective, no matter how solid you think it is. It asks you to stay open to embracing others’ perspectives, including others you disagree with. As I am creating these documentaries, I am not creating a space to just promote one or the other extreme. We will work to bring in voices from all sides so that you will be able to hear from everyone. And from there we can try to find some place where we can create sustainable momentum. I think this idea of love, as it is articulated by MLK, is really the thing that guides me as I am moving forward with making this particular film. All of my work is about us understanding our common humanity. Understanding humanity in a way that allows us to be able to plot a pathway for change that is sustainable and joyful. And this is not just in filmmaking. I’ve developed a mentorship/coaching program that is centered on finding a way to change our lives in a way that brings us joy and sustainability. It’s called The Change Project (TCP) and I’m working with my friends at La Familia to launch a pilot in Hayward, CA during the 2020–21 School Year. So, love is what I use as my guide in this very intense moment of US History. In all that I do, I try to figure out a way I can promote love. I ask myself: how can I support people living at their highest selves, i.e. their most joyful, most passionate and most fulfilled self.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
I think of a number of different moments in my life which were milestones. I think about this most recent moment, the election of 45 and the idea of “What do we do next? What is our next move?” I was concerned that the progressive ideas that I love and the fact that they were going to be fought against. The BIGGEST idea is the fight against systematic racism. That is because the idea of Black liberation from systematic racism is at the core of everything I do. I really want to create films that inspire and empower Black people and their allies, while providing rhetorical tools and space for needed conversation. My vision and hope for the world is one where there is a future for me, in which systematic oppression is not at the core of my lived experience. When 45 got elected I remember being in shock for about a week.“The pundits were saying he wasn’t going to win” and I kept asking myself “Well what does this say about America? What does this say about who we are and where we are?” At that moment, it wasn’t a critique of 45 perse, because while a lot of people were really clear that he was racist, I hadn’t fully completed my research on 45. And I had actually known people who had done business with him (his companies to be exact) and they didn’t necessarily think of him as racist. They thought of him as a wealthy person who sees the world from that point of view. He didn’t have the experience of our race so his priority was capital. The take that they had on him was that he didn’t necessarily take the time to think about race in any real way, i.e. moved either made money sense or it didn’t make money sense. And that was their experience with him. But then a lot of my friends who were more educated, talked about his housing practices, and etc. So I spent about a week trying to figure out my next move. And in that moment I thought “Do I want to spend the next four years fighting against what I perceive his presidency might be? Or do I want to spend the next four years building the world that I dream of?” And that moment led me to this film. This film was my response to that question of what’s next. There was this transcript from 1959 of MLK’s speech in Hawaii and it was talking about these extremes that exist in the world. And he talked about the need to move away from the extremes to be able to get stuff done and to bring change to the people. This really resonated with me because it felt like MLK0 was speaking to me. So I guess I have his election of 45 forced me to decide what I want to do with myself. I decided to fight for something as opposed to fighting against something. So, I begin the work to create this piece of art that allows people to have access to a moment that many don’t know about. This will expand one’s understanding of MLK holistically, but more importantly provide a platform to ask the question: What lessons can he give us in this Black Lives Moment that we are having? And this moment shifted me and brought me into focusing on MLK’s idea of love as a key to as a guiding force.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
So I work as a professor and my filmmaking is connected to this scholarship for me. Because of the low number of Black professors for a lot of Black, I may be their only person of color that my students have ever had as a professor. I have had the pleasure of mentoring a number of folks and I have found it to be supremely fulfilling. I have been teaching since 2006 at Cal State East Bay (formerly known as Ca State Hayward), and every year I end up having a few individual students I connect with and mentor. These are students that I like, are intellectually curious, and those who have embraced scholarship as a part of their identity. I have always had a pocketful of people that I check in with and make sure they get all the scholarship opportunities that come across my desk, and that they feel connected. But last year, I was given the opportunity to apply for a fellowship position through our Diversity Inclusion and Student Center and I was accepted through a competitive process. So now I am the DISC African American Fellow, mentoring these students is a part of my job description. The aim of this work is to give students experience with professors outside of the classroom. We collaborate on research, programming and community services…and I get to mentor them. I feel VERY lucky!!!
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
What I realized was that oftentimes in the work that I do, I work a lot of long hours and push myself. I work really hard to make it look easy. And one of the things I’ve realized recently is that if you make it look too easy then folks can’t see how they can help you. I think that’s one of the things I am still learning is how to share the work that I’m doing with folks and say “Hey, this is the vision I have but to get there quickly and in a way that changes the world then I’m going to need your help”. Specifically with A King in Paradise we crowdfunded and raised 5,000 dollars during our first phase and now we’re currently crowdfunding in the second phase where we are looking to raise 100,000 dollars for our phase #2 efforts. We’ve developed a number of sponsorship levels and are looking for partners with synergistic brands, individuals who are skilled at both fund, partner and sponsor development and of course any donors, partners or brands that would like to reach out directly to us to discuss collaboration opportunities. Individuals, society and the government can…1) take a moment to explore this project deeper, 2) share it with their network and 3) Join our movement as a donor, partner, sponsor or advocate!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1) I think one of the most important things is to realize the importance of your voice. In college, I started off trying to write how I thought people wanted me to write and tried to do stuff the way I thought people wanted me to do stuff. Now I have evolved to understand the importance of showing up authentically. Now I tell people: just be you, learn the skills of writing, but bring you because people really NEED to hear your voice. That is something I had to learn on my own as a first generation college student and I wish someone had told me that at a younger age.
2) Another thing is that filmmaking is hard. With filmmaking if you can do anything else in life, you should probably do it. Someone did tell me this but it was later in life, and I wish i had gotten this message earlier. That someone who burst my film buble was Francis Coppola, who I met in San Francisco. As a young filmmaker I was absolutely in awe of his greatness. I asked him if there was anything he could tell me as a young filmmaker and he said “Don’t do it. If you have any other option in your life please do that!” That is something I would now tell young filmmakers, i.e. if there is anything else you can do, do that. Film is a labor of love, there are lots of ups and downs, and there is no guarantee of success no matter how talented you are or how hard you work. So I would say don’t get into this unless there is nothing else that makes you feel fulfilled and is your purpose. I would give you the advice that Francis gave me which is: run if you can, lol.
3) Another piece of advice I got that I love is the idea of not throwing your passion away to choose a life that’s sustainable. I’d say to not do things that are just practical, you have to find some balance between what brings you joy and what allows you to eat, pay your bills, and to have the lifestyle that you want. Make sure that you find a balance between purpose, passion and sustainability.
4) Another thing I wish I had known earlier is that there is a parallel between relationships in your personal life and business relationships. And that is one of the things I don’t think I recognized until later in life. A good working relationship takes a bit of commitment. You have to be open to the fact that a person isn’t always perfect, as you are not perfect. You also must share the same values to have a good business relationship. It’s not just about hiring the most talented person to work with you…you have to hire someone who vibes with you and whose values align with your own. So I think a lot about the spiritual side of casting and crewing when I am thinking about the people I want to work with. I want to work with people who get the topic I’m talking about and want to go to work with me. I want to work with people who I enjoy being with and all those things are very much like relationships. And I think that’s an important piece of advice!
5) And lastly, systematic racism is real and it can make you feel a little bit crazy. So when you don’t get a promotion or you don’t get considered for a job, as a Black person…you have those thoughts in the back of your mind that it could be because of your race. Or it could be because you just suck and you’re just not as talented as the next person. And there is not a mechanism that can help you to ever answer those questions. Systematic racism isolates you to a space where you don’t have a macro understanding of how the system works in a particular institution. You don’t know how many Black people were turned down for that job (or for other jobs in that institution) and you don’t know how many women are getting paid less or how many older employees are being asked to do more work. I don’t know these things because I’m just having my individual experience aka a micro view. That’s one of the biggest pieces of advice I have is to not allow yourself to be isolated. You have to be in fellowship, you must find like minded people, so that you can have a better understanding of the macro through the genius of the group mind. The other option is to always feel isolated and living in the micro (blinded to the macro understanding of your institution. If you’re isolated it could be economically disadvantageous for you because you won’t know if your workload is equitable or if you’re getting lowballed, etc. This last point is the BEST work advice I have to give.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I think it is all about doing what you love,but recognizing that you can’t just do what you love if it’s not sustainable. You must have joy, while doing what you think makes the most sense to sustain your lifestyle. I think the idea of legacy comes out of doing what you love that is sustainable. And finding that right combination for yourself is important. I, like most people, don’t necessarily feel like I’m done. I feel like I have another couple of great contributions left in me. And I feel like my best contributions are still ahead of me. I worked on “California Love” which was one of Tupac’s first videos after joining Death Row. That was sort of my introduction to the film business. I got the chance to meet all these people like Charlize Theron, Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Danny Devito, Ed Harris and many more famous actors, who were using their “big picture” paydays to fund their passion project at Digital Cut. And with the music video game I got the chance to work on projects for Mandy Moore, Xzibit, Missy Elliot, Kid Capri, Ledisi, Wu tang Clan, Lauryn Hill, Outkast and many more giants in music. All these projects allowed me to be around tastemakers and successful artists. I got to go to Sundance, in fact I went to Sundance ten years in a row, and on that journey I met and reconnected with a lot of great people. I met Liam Levine at Sundance and through him connected with a lot of HBO talent (The Wire, Sopranos & Sex in the City days). I share these connections to say that being a filmmaker is really cool, but it doesn’t mean anything if it’s not sustainable, connected to your passion and in line with your purpose. I’m a Black Studies & Film Professor now, and have been for 18 years, and I’ve had thousands of students I have interacted with. All of my students benefited from my skill set, experiences and expertise. And I have a ball recounting these stories, especially when I’m able to connect these experiences with history, sociology or humanity scholarship. My ability to be still standing and going forward in what I feel is my purpose can all be all credited to the fact that the things I’m doing are both joyful and sustainable, i.e. I work hard to make sure that my life is aligned. I keep moving forward, so that’s the best advice to folks I could give is to make sure to marry sustainability with joy when you choose a career. Secret: Identify people in your life who you think has a life similar to the one you desire and have conversations with them about how they put together that life that they have.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I am honored to have been able to work with Charles Burnett. He is the reason why I became a filmmaker and his path in film has been super inspiring for me. I would love to work with Ava because of the Bruin connection and the awesome work she’s doing. For me as a Black filmmaker and scholar, I love the work she’s doing. I would love to work with Obama’s company and collaborate on a social justice media project that is synergistic with the sort of thematic bent that they have. There’s a lot of folks that are marrying social justice with the arts and particularly filmmaking that I would love to collaborate with. And a special narrator request for my story about MLK’s time in Hawaii, i.e. I would love to have Obama’s voice on this project, because we’re looking at the time MLK spent in Hawaii. And MLK spent time at Punahou which is the school that Barack Obama attended. So there’s an interesting connection there with the space they shared. I would be VERY willing to make some time for those people in my schedule.
My pop used to say, “If you don’t have haters you’re not doing it right!” If you’re taking a path where nobody questions it or if you’re making choices that are so safe that no one is responding to it, then you’re not doing it right. So I think about that, you know when people have negative things to say, rather than looking at it as a negative I see it as a positive because I am challenging norms and inspiring them to respond. I’m inspiring them to step up and say something. And I can hear my pop is in my head, rooting me on!
How can our readers follow you online?
You can reach me at my website and you can follow me on Instagram at @theproflife. Those are the best spaces to catch me at and I’m absolutely excited to share the things that we have been doing with the world. If you want to support A King in Paradise, checkout this link http://www.akinginparadise.com/.
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!