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Filmmaker Spotlight: Dante James (Open Projector Night Audience Vote Winner)

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Dante James talks about process and inspiration behind his film that won the audience vote at Open Projector Night.

We'd like to congratulate our last Open Projector Night winner, Dante James, and his film 'The Doll'. Nicholas Hartman from the Grand Rapids Film Society sat down to have a conversation with Dante to learn more about him, his process, and filmmaking background. 

Hey Dante! First and foremost, thank you for taking the time to do this interview with me. To kick things off, let’s keep it simple: for those who don’t know Dante James, can you give us a little bio?
I was born and raised in Grand Rapids. I graduated from Ottawa Hills High School and Grand Valley State College. I also have a master’s degree from Duke University. I worked at WGVU TV — actually, it was WGVC TV then — as a student, and after graduating, I joined the staff as a producer/director and, several years later, was promoted to production operations manager. I left WGVU and worked at PBS stations in Washington, DC then moved on to Blackside Films in Boston as an independent filmmaker. I have produced or supervised the production of over 25 hours of prime-time PBS programming, and I’m a multiple Emmy award recipient.  

For those who haven’t seen your award-winning film The Doll, can you give us a synopsis?

Set in the early 1900s and based on the short story by Charles W. Chesnutt, The Doll tells the story of Tom Taylor, a Black man who rents a barbershop in a white-owned hotel. Taylor's morality and sense of justice are challenged when he can avenge the racial murder that took his father's life decades earlier.

I feel like every filmmaker has that “spark,” that moment where they say to  themselves ‘Yes, this is what I want to do, I want to make films.’ Did you have that  moment — and if so — could you share it with us? If you didn’t have that moment, what  made you want to make movies?

Storytelling is vital to African and African American culture, from the Griot to writers, spoken word artists, musicians, singers, and filmmakers. I come from a family of skilled storytellers, and I believe that's where my love for storytelling began. Looking back, I had a fascination for moving images. During my grade school years, I would often set up movie projectors for my teachers. Later, I developed an interest in Black history, literature, and the complexity of human experiences.
My first job in the industry was as a studio technician at KSTP TV in St. Paul, Minnesota. However, I soon realized that my true passion was creating and interpreting content rather than focusing on its technical aspects. As a result, I moved back to Grand Rapids, re-enrolled at Grand Valley, worked at WGVC TV as a student, and — after graduating — joined the staff.
So, my “spark” was the opportunity and challenge of merging technology, spirituality, and artistry grounded in the humanities to create meaningful and engaging stories that reveal the complexity of our journeys as human beings.
I understand The Doll was shot on Super 16mm. Can you discuss that aesthetic choice and why you wanted to shoot 16 rather than digital? Off that, what are the  advantages and disadvantages of shooting film?
The Doll is a story set in the early 1900s. Digital is a contemporary medium with a modern look and feel. As a filmmaker, academic, and artist, I strongly believe in respecting history and my audience. My thinking was, and still is, that shooting with a digital medium for a historical period piece can consciously or subconsciously be a barrier to the audience's engagement with the story.
Shooting film requires more discipline, yet it is also more visually engaging. A talented DP can provide a broader range of tones, visual emotion, a deeper sense of place and environment — in general, a richer visual palette. With digital video, I have more latitude to be spontaneous. It is a more technical medium.
I don’t have a problem with digital video, but when I immerse myself in a project, the material speaks to me both editorially and artistically. With The Doll, the look of 16mm film worked better for the story and time period. Several changes in the original text, first published in The Crisis magazine in 1912, were required to evolve the story for a contemporary audience while respecting the integrity of Mr. Chesnutt’s work. For me, filmmaking is a challenging, demanding, yet fun interdisciplinary process regardless of  whether I’m shooting film or digital video.
I know The Doll is based on a story written by Charles W. Chesnutt. Out of all the stories that have been written, what was it about this specific story that stood out you? Why did you want to tell this specific story through the lens of a camera?
At the time, I was — and I still am — troubled by the numerous negative images of Black men. This story presented many opportunities to counter those images in an engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking way. Too often, Black men are portrayed as absent from their children's lives. Tom Taylor is a Black man raising his daughter alone. Too often, Black men are framed as selfish and irresponsible. Taylor is a hardworking professional who is concerned about his employees and community. Most importantly, when he feels the natural human emotions of anger, pain, and revenge, he controls those emotions.
The story was also an opportunity to highlight the work of Charles W. Chesnutt, an underappreciated Black writer. In a larger context, I wanted the project to bring attention to the often-overlooked brilliant short stories by gifted Black authors – stories of self determination and self-definition.

Making a film is no easy task. There are so many moving parts, so many roles, etc. Can you talk about any specific hurdles you faced and how you overcame them?

The biggest challenge in any project is to secure resources to produce it without editorial or artistic constraints. There is a natural tension between filmmakers and funders or investors. Filmmakers want to put the most engaging and challenging story on the screen, whereas private investors are interested in saving money and maximizing profits. With PBS projects, station executives must be concerned about offending funders (including PBS, CPB, and foundations) with controversial material. If one can reconcile the disparate interests and maintain the project's integrity, the next challenge is assembling the production team.
The standard for everyone who works on my projects, including me is “check your ego at the door.” I establish an understanding that we are going to have some creative and content differences, but none of them are personal. Respectful creative and intellectual tensions and discussions are fundamental to outstanding, complex, engaging content. I want a team where everyone is invested in the film and subject matter. I want people who care about what we are doing and are willing to go the extra mile. And I want an environment of mutual support where everyone can grow and move their professional aspirations forward.

Generic question, but I must know: what’s your favorite film? If you don’t have a  favorite, name a picture that you cherish.

I need time to think about the question. However, two films come to mind that are special to me: the HARPO production of The Great Debaters, featuring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker, and the HBO production of A Lesson Before Dying, based on the novel by Ernest Gaines and starring Don Cheadle. Both films explore the humanity, dignity, and resilience of Black people and have remarkable writing that makes them engaging. Additionally, the acting in both films is outstanding.
Both of these films are based on Black literature and history. If one is interested in exploring authentic interpretations of our journeys in America (I say journeys because we are not monolithic), the keys to doing so are embedded in our history, literature, and culture.
To all the filmmakers out there that are interested in creating their own movies but  haven’t taken that step yet, what advice would you give to them?
It is important to consistently work on improving your craft. For instance, writers should write often, and painters should paint regularly. Filmmakers must take steps to produce films and enhance their creative and intellectual abilities. Additionally, it is crucial to conduct a thorough investigation of your subject matter. In order to convey a narrative effectively, you must have a complete understanding and appreciation of it.

This is a question I like to ask all our award-winning filmmakers. If you were able to make your dream film and had an unlimited budget, what would you make?

I'm sorry, but I can’t answer that because I do not dream of projects and possibilities. I have visions of what I want to do, reasons why I think they are needed, and plans to build an infrastructure to execute the vision. I have several vision projects under consideration at major production companies and other funding entities, but I can’t reveal what they are yet. I can say one project includes a vision of shooting a film in Grand Rapids. Based on a plan to do so, I’m confident this vision will become a reality.
An essential element of the vision is to work with young aspiring filmmakers from the neighborhoods I grew up in and provide them with exposure and experience working with real industry professionals on productions and through workshops.

How do we stay up to date with Dante James? Do you have a website or any social media channels you can encourage our audience to follow?

I don’t have time for, or interest in, social media on a personal level. I’ll have a staff member handle all facets of social media when we launch a project. In the meantime, my website is

What’s next for Dante James? Anything new in the works?

I have several projects under consideration, but I cannot provide any specific details about them yet. In a generic context, these projects include a series of dramatic short films, a mini-series based on the Black Church, a documentary, and a feature film based on a novel. Hopefully, I will be able to share more details about them soon.
Apart from these projects, I am also researching teaching opportunities and possibilities at the university level in Grand Rapids. I taught for six years at Duke University as an artist-in-residence, one year at North Carolina State, and two years at the University of Dayton. I believe that committed students can expand the parameters of discourse, they have their own visions of the future. Fortunately, they often see possibilities — not limitations.
Any words on your experience with/at Open Projector Night?

Open Projector Night was fun, as was coming home and seeing family, friends, and former colleagues. I congratulate all of the filmmakers. I’m committed to contributing to the growth of filmmaking in Grand Rapids and creating opportunities for the next generation of filmmakers.

We hope you enjoyed this interview with Open Projector Night winner, Dante James, and we hope to see you at our next event on June 26th, 2024.

Are you a filmmaker and looking to screen your film on the big screen? If so, please visit for submission rules and guidelines.

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