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From VR to 'Atlanta': Director Janicza Bravo is on the rise

(L-R) Zachariah Waller, Janicza Bravo and Christian Sprenger on the set of Bravo's VR experience
(L-R) Zachariah Waller, Janicza Bravo and Christian Sprenger on the set of Bravo's VR experience "Hard World for Small Things."
Luis Blackballer

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Every episode of the FX comedy “Atlanta,” was directed by either the creator-star Donald Glover or the director-producer Hiro Murai. That is, save for "Juneteenth" – the penultimate episode which aired last week – was helmed by guest director Janicza Bravo.

Through the last five years, Bravo has made a name for herself directing award-winning short films like "Gregory Go Boom" starring Michael Cera. But until "Atlanta" she'd never directed in television.  But it's easy to understand why Murai and Glover tapped Bravo to direct an episode of their show as her short films have a similar sensibility.

"I tend to do dark comedy. It's absurd and some of the show has this kind of absurdity. It lives in a very similar place that I live in tonally."

The “Atlanta” episode Bravo directed took place at an elaborate celebration for Juneteenth, a holiday commemorating the end of slavery. The comedy in the episode came in part from the over-the top nature of the party – Glover's character refers to the scene that has a quartet singing Negro Spirituals and signature drinks with names invoking plantations as "'Eyes Wide Shut' directed by Spike Lee."

Some of the humor also comes from the white husband of the woman hosting the party. The character, played by Rick Holmes, is an optometrist who's "obsessed with black history, obsessed with black culture," Bravo says. "He's one of these guys who knows more about black culture than someone who's say, black." He was the type of character that Bravo felt she'd met in real life and she wasn't alone.

"Donald [Glover] had also experienced this in his life and the writer Stefanie [Robinson]. We were sharing stories of this moment where we have been with a white person who asked things like, 'Have you been to Africa?' Made you feel bad about not having been to Africa."

In the last year, Bravo branched out in new mediums beyond TV. She made the short virtual reality film "Hard World for Small Things" with the company Wevr. But unlike her usual genre, this was a dramatic narrative about an incident of police brutality of an unarmed black man.

"It's a day in the life of this community in South Central. The protagonist is in this altercation that happens by mistake. It's not a real altercation. He literally bumps into a young cop and the cop hears this big crash and ends up shooting him."

A scene from Bravo's VR experience
A scene from Bravo's VR experience "Hard World for Small Things."

The impetus for the VR film came from her family.

"My cousin had been asphyxiated by the cops in the summer of '99 in Brooklyn, and when I was approached to make a VR film, at the time I really wanted to be part of something political and I didn't know how to do it. This felt like my way. This was how I could throw my hat in that ring."

"Hard World for Small Things" played at the Sundance Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival and will also be at the AFI Festival in Los Angeles later this November. Bravo says that while virtual reality is appealing, that's not the direction she's going these days. 

"I think the thing, what's sort of exciting, about VR is that there is something about it that feels a little bit like theater in that it's so raw that you can see everything about the image that isn't perfect. There's a lot of imperfection. I think in film you can arrive at close to perfection. Life looks and sounds better than it does.

"But I've only been doing films for five years and I'm not exhausted with that space yet. I'm having a good time in this reality. In this dimension. "

In fact, Janicza Bravo is currently in post-production on her first feature-length film. It's called "Lemon" and is based on a script she co-wrote with her husband, the actor-comedian Brett Gelman. And she's back to doing dark comedy. In the film, Gelman plays the lead of a cast populated with comedic actors including Michael Cera, Judy Greer, Nia Long and Megan Mullalley. She's hoping to get it into festivals next year.

To hear the full interview with Janicza Bravo, click the play button at the top of this page.

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