Jovan James ’13 Breaks Through at Sundance

By: Catherine Borg
Mar 27, 2020

Jovan James portrait by Erik Humphrey. (Portrait of Jovan James wearing a navy suit on a red background)

For an independent filmmaker, recognition from the Sundance Film Festival is a big deal. This past January, Jovan James ’13, visual arts, along with co-director Elegance Bratton, presented their short film Buck at Sundance to an appreciative crowd of industry insiders.  

“It was incredible because you wonder when you make your work if someone is going to care about this, will it matter?” said James recently upon hearing the news that the film was selected for Sundance. “It feels great to be seen, to know that you are doing the right thing by telling stories that you want to tell, and not compromising.” 

Getting to Sundance is an incredible accomplishment on its face, as well as an important opportunity to network within a key professional community. For James it could also mean an auspicious entrance to a career in film, considering the results of early support from the Sundance Institute – think Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, or Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

Portrait of Jovan James
Jovan James. Photo by Michael Ori.

Motivated to Make a Difference 

Completed in 2019, Buck is James’ MFA thesis film – the culmination of his graduate studies in the NYU Tisch School for the Arts Graduate Film program. It is a story about a young black man, Lynn, caught in the throes of a depressive fugue. Seeking escape, he resorts to debauchery with an older white lover Richard. But, rather than joy, he discovers that happiness is a more complicated proposition.

Aware of the mental health crisis facing the black gay community – noted by a rise in suicide rates and drug addiction as the rate of HIV infection hovers at 50% – James approached this project from a very personal perspective. He wanted Buck to tell a story that could speak to this community – his community –  and suggest a way towards a different outcome.

Young black men like Gemmel Moore, who was in the news after overdosing in the home of wealthy white political donor Ed Buck, were on the minds of the directors as they selected a title for their film, they said, along with the commodification of black male bodies, as the term references black male slaves and black male sex workers.

The Through Line: Collaboration

As a transfer student to UMBC from CCBC Essex, James lived on campus and enjoyed the grit of the community. He often found himself among other dedicated students working at all hours in the Fine Arts Building, making short films for classes and with close friends throughout his time at UMBC.

“A lot of my path, of course, began at UMBC…I met a lot of interesting people on campus…and I left the country on the study abroad program (in Milan, Italy in 2012 at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore), that was a big moment in my life.” He goes on to recount the sense at UMBC that to be great you had to work really, really hard and want success. “I’m thankful for that – it really gave me my sense of determination, and allowed me to experiment.”

Once at NYU, there was pressure to follow the “auteur model” of filmmaking, but the egoism in the approach went against the way he wants to lead. Collaboration has been an important element of his filmmaking, ever since the early days at UMBC and throughout production of the three short films he has released – The Jump Off (2017) and Tadpole (2018) preceded Buck – since entering the program at NYU. Bratton and his husband, producer and costume designer Chester Algernal Gordon, have become key collaborators.

Assistant professor Susan McCully recalls James from her playwriting class: “He was always front and center in class – completely focused. He challenged me frequently; it was always the kind of defiance that I yearn for from my students. His questioning was always about his growth, not about him protecting his ego. I’ve been following his journey through NYU and now in the world. I’m not surprised by his success. I’m proud that his work is ‘out’ and defiant and about people growing in the world.”

Jovan James on the movie set.
Jovan James on set. Photo by Dawn Hall.

Bringing the Work Home

James currently lives in L.A. while interning at Bad Robot Productions in a coveted year-long internship program that gives him direct access to people who can help his career. (He recently had an opportunity to screen Buck for his colleagues, including Bad Robot head J.J. Abrams!) But, James can’t wait to share Buck in Baltimore, where so much of his inspiration comes from. News of an upcoming screening in Baltimore is forthcoming.

All three of James’ films have been shot in Baltimore and he hopes to shoot his first feature in his hometown. Buck was recently named an official selection of the 22nd Annual Maryland Film Festival and will be screened during the festival’s revised virtual edition from June 12 to 21.

“There are so many environments in Maryland that I want to use,” said James.“I want to bring that love and attention to my city…and money, jobs, and mentorship programs to teach kids to gaff, do sound, costumes, AD and also to direct, write and produce their stories!”

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Header image: James (left) on set with his crew. Photo by Dawn Hall.

See more from Jovan James on Instagram and Twitter.

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