Trey Ellis

Filmmaker, writer, teacher
Headshot of a man.

Photo Courtesy of Trey Ellis

Music Credit: Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Bryan Stevenson: “We are haunted in America by our history of racial inequality. I think that our history of lynching casts a shadow over the modern death penalty.”

Reporter: “The supreme court was urged today to strike down the death penalty because it is applied unequally to black and white.”

Bryan Stevenson: “The court said a certain amount of bias is inevitable. … So, we set up this project to provide legal services to poor people, incarcerated people … I think it’s important that we understand all the ugly details, because those are the things that actually give rise to what might allow us to one day claim something really beautiful.”

<Music Up>

Jo Reed: That was a clip from the documentary, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. It was produced by Kunhardt Films with Trey Ellis as executive producer. And this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Trey Ellis has a resume most writers only dream of. He is, in no particular order, a novelist, essayist, playwright, filmmaker and professor of screenwriting at Columbia University. His novels include Platitudes, Home Repairs and Right Here, Right Now which won the American Book Award. One of the original bloggers for “The Huffington Post”, Trey has contributed essays to pretty much every major national publication, like “The New Yorker”, “Vanity Fair”, “The New York Times” and “The Washington Post”. He’s written screenplays for Paramount, Sony and Touchstone pictures and he was nominated for an Emmy for writing the HBO film The Tuskegee Airmen. Meanwhile, his first play, Fly, is still performed in theaters around the country, including Ford’s Theater in DC and the New Victory in New York. Yet, as extensive as Trey Ellis’s resume is, he had never been involved with documentaries until he began working with Peter Kunhardt on the award-winning film, King in the Wilderness, and then again with Peter on True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Trey explains how he and Peter Kunhardt began to work together.

Trey Ellis: Yeah. It was really lucky for me, unlucky for Peter. Peter was, you know, is a legendary documentarian. He’s made dozens of films, been nominated and won several Emmys. He was having back surgery, so he couldn’t go out and—and travel the country and interview all these amazing people, the last living people that knew Dr. King, like Andrew Young and Harry Belafonte, all these people. So, through our mutual friend in Professor Henry Louis Gates, Skip Gates, suggested that he talk to me and he said, “Would you be interested?” and I’d never worked in documentaries before. But, of course, I said, “Yes, of course. It’d be fun.” So, it—it really has changed my life. It was about two and a half years ago that we started that project, so I traveled the country talking to these amazing people, Joan Baez—and the idea of crafting a story, a true story, was just amazing to me. And to be able to sit down for, you know, two, sometimes four hours at a time, looking in the eye of these heroes of mine, these superheroes, was really the adventure of a lifetime.

Jo Reed: You’ve talked to people who changed our lives, literally.

Trey Ellis: Right. And then after that, then after—after that was done, it was really interesting for me to bring my filmmaking narrative sense to crafting both of these films, and they were really open to that—to figure out, “How do you tell a compelling story out of the truth?”

Jo Reed: I have a number of questions, and—and the first is, we know so much about Dr. King. I understand what the appeal is, but what was also the deeper appeal of the story that Peter Kunhardt wanted to tell?

Trey Ellis: Well, I think from the beginning when they came to me, when they said they wanted to do a documentary about Dr. Martin Luther King to sort of peg to this 50th anniversary of his assassination, I was reticent because I didn’t—I thought there would be another kind of hagiography. But when I said to them, “What I’m interested in are these later years in his life when he was forsaken by the black world and the white world.” A—a lot of blacks, more radical blacks, including my own mom, thought that he had become too conciliatory, and whites saw him as a Commie agitator. I thought, “That’s really interesting,” and he agreed and, before me, he had just started talking to Taylor Branch, the great historian of King and the—and the movement. So, all three of us independently came up with this idea that that’s where we’re going to focus. That’s why—Then, that’s why I came up with the title, King in the Wilderness, this idea of him after he had done his great, great works.

Jo Reed: What surprised you during the making of this film?

Trey Ellis: What most surprised me about Dr. King is how funny everyone said he was. You know, some—even Belafonte would say, “He could’ve been a stand-up comedian or an actor in a different world.” Not just the charisma but really, like, a biting sense of humor. Andy Young has these amazing stories about how he was just so witty and light on his feet in that way. And we have a lot of the footage of him not on a podium talking, and that really comes through in this—in the film as well.

Jo Reed: I have to say, the thing I think that surprised me was his father. I knew his father was this figure, but I did not quite realize how large and looming that shadow was.

Trey Ellis: I knew a—a bit about the dad, and I’d studied with—with Clay Carson, who—at Stanford, who is a curator of the King papers, so I knew a fair amount about King already, but what I’d never seen was that footage that our—Jill Cowan, our archivist, who’s really a genius, she discovered that footage of Daddy King at the open casket, collapsing and wailing, and almost everybody, when they see that, they just—they lose it themselves. It’s really an amazing moment.

Jo Reed: Yeah. It certainly is. So, this was your first documentary. What—what appealed to you as you were doing it? What felt compelling, not just about Dr. King but about the whole genre of doc making?

Trey Ellis: Well, I had flirted with documentary making a bit before. Stacy Peralta, who did the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys, about the Venice surf culture, I had worked with him on a documentary about the black gangs of Los Angeles, briefly, and I’ve been teaching here at Columbia University, filmmaking, for about 12 years, so it’s—it’s made me think about storytelling because I have to teach it, more than just do it. And I like to say all the time that storytelling is storytelling. My first prejudices when I began is that I thought novels—writing novels was better than film, which is better than television, and documentaries were someplace else, right?

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Trey Ellis: And now, you know, I just look back at that young me and think he was an idiot. So now I—I’m super-genre agnostic. So, what appealed to me was, A, that it was going to be done, the—the idea of production, I started directing myself, so the idea of getting out there and filming and eliciting a performance out of someone, even if they’re real people, was really interesting to me. So, let’s say Dorothy Cotton, who was one of Dr. King’s closest advisors. She was very ailing. She was in a—in an old folks’ home. She had some dementia, or considerable amount of dementia, so she would repeat herself a lot. But I knew from my friend and writer on the project, Chris Chuang, had done research and knew that she loved to sing. So, she was not so lucid in some of her questions but I said, “Hey, I—I heard someplace that you sang with Dr. King a lot,” and she just lit up and started singing, and I just saw this other side of her and we captured that on film that I—I’m really proud of.

Jo Reed: Mm, yeah. It was a lovely moment. You have the kind of resume most people would open their veins for. Screenwriter, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, essayist, professor. You obviously like telling stories. When did you work out that that’s what you wanted to do, that you wanted to write in—in various genres?

Trey Ellis: Yeah. I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. My—my mom, she was going to law school before she died, but she was also—wanted to be a playwright. I was just—I lived in a house full of storytelling. And then, you know, I—I also think that I’m lazy and don’t like bosses, so the idea of being my own boss really appealed to me. So, from an early age, I also had this notion of living on a boat with a typewriter on the deck and a—and a beautiful wife who would serve me martinis. This is in fourth or fifth grade.

Jo Reed: <laughs>

Trey Ellis: I didn’t know what a martini was, but I just knew that that’s—that’s what I thought a writer’s life was like. So, I thought that would be fun.

Jo Reed: But here’s the question I have, because you do operate in so many genres. How do you know or how do you work out if an idea or story is going to be best served by the written word or seeing it onstage or seeing it in film?

Trey Ellis: Yeah. That’s—that’s a great question. I—I like the idea first. I look at the idea and then I—I try to judge—from my experience I try to judge. For example, this piece that I’ve been working on for a long time about the rise and fall of the Amos ‘n’ Andy TV show, began as a—an HBO film. Then it migrated to the proposal to making it a, sort of, the first of a limited series television series, and now I—I’ve converted that into a play, a big Broadway play. You have to be flexible. You have to think about what best serves the story and then also think about, in the long run, what’s going to get it made?

Jo Reed: Well, let’s turn to the second documentary you made with the Kunhardts, True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. Remind us who Bryan Stevenson is, because many people don’t know him.

Trey Ellis: Right. Well, while we were working on—on the film about Dr. Martin Luther King, the Kunhardts, their—their—it’s a family affair, but one of the brothers runs The Gordon Parks Foundation, and they have this big gala and they invite all these black luminaries to come give talks on social justice, and one of them was Bryan Stevenson. So, he gave this talk at this black-tie gala and got us all on our feet. It’s—it’s like seeing Clarence Darrow come to life. Just one of the most amazing speakers of ever, and all of us said, “Wow. We should make a film about his life.” He was just in the process of, about to begin, building this memorial to lynching and this museum to contextualize lynching. So we thought, this would be a great moment, and we did not realize that so many people over the years have been begging Bryan to do a documentary. He was very, very reticent about it. He’s been working, sort of, under the radar for years and he was just starting to come out. He’d won a MacArthur years ago but still was not a household name. Even when we started the filming, his book, Just Mercy, was a best-seller but still, people vaguely knew of this guy. Now, in theaters, is the film version of his life story, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, and he’s much better known. But we knew, and he kind of understood that—that he could sort of have his pick of the documentarians coming towards him. So, being the shrewd lawyer that he was, they had a hole in their—in their museum. They had a—he had a crazy deadline that there was almost no way they were going to make, and they had one film that they had to make about the domestic slave trade, and he said to HBO, “Well, if you make this film for us, I’ll agree do to this documentary.” So, his ask was fantastic for me because I wrote this short film that I’m incredibly proud of, and was lucky enough to be able to co-direct it, with Chris Chuang, my first film, and it’s a film now that’s in the permanent collection of their museum.

Jo Reed: And the name of it?

Trey Ellis: It’s called The Domestic Slave Trade, there. At film festivals called—it’s called What the Wind Carries. Bryan, not only is he a legendary death row attorney, he realized that—that getting people off death row one at a time was not enough, that he had to educate the DAs and the jurors in the South to the real history of the South, because, as he says, “The South might’ve lost the Civil War but they won the narrative war.” So, you’ll—you’ll have these situations where, often, the black defendant is the only black person in the court. So, he realized that, “One at a time I cannot—trying to get these people off or getting just sentences for these people in such an unjust system. I need to actually work to change the narrative of the South,” which led him to add to his already 20-hour days and create this amazing museum to the history of lynching. So, he sent his own attorneys, these death row attorneys, in their spare time, which they really don’t have. They started researching for years and documenting every case of this horrific racial violence, and then they compiled them into these—into these pamphlets. When we first met them, they had just these pamphlets that they would give out to schools in Alabama, and he realized that wasn’t enough either. He wanted to do something bigger, so he had this grand idea of building this memorial, and not in DC, where many more people could come see it, but build it in Montgomery, in the heart of the South, right where he worked. So, the documentary is about his legal work and also about the building of this amazing museum and memorial. It’s been a year and a half. Half a million people have come to see it. He built it and they came. It’s like Field of Dreams. It’s just the most amazing thing. The opening ceremony had everyone from John Lewis to Ava DuVernay. Everybody was there. It was just the most amazing thing that he has this almost magical ability to attract the best people.

Jo Reed: You know, when I saw the film I was surprised that it went off in the direction of the museum, even though he absolutely states in the beginning the South won the narrative, and how important it was claiming it. But, at the same time, I thought it was—it was really going to just focus on his legal work. The museum, far from being a left turn, was really so extraordinary. I’ve had dreams about that museum.

Trey Ellis: It’s incredibly moving, especially for me, as somebody—To go there at first when there was just a hole in the ground that turns into this museum, to watch it blossom. And then, it’s just now they’re opening new restaurants. I mean, really, that—that memorial and his work there has single handedly revitalized the city of Montgomery.

Jo Reed: Well, the film traces his trajectory and shows us how his thinking evolved.

Trey Ellis: You know, from the beginning, when he does his legal work and he says, “I’m—I’m a Harvard Law School trained guy. I’m going to come to the deep South and just fight one by one.” He realizes he can’t—that’s not going to work. He has this idea of like even putting up markers, there are all these markers to the Confederacy. He said, “Let’s put a marker up in front of our very building,” which happened to—it was at a slave warehouse. “Let’s put a marker up there.” He has to fight with the Alabama Historical Society to say, “This is what happened in this place.” But he does that. Then he has this idea of—after he documents the—the lynchings, to go to all of these lynching sites and to—to recover earth from these places and put them in these really haunting jars. When I first met Bryan in his office, he has this wall of jars, just in their conference room. So, you saw the power, so the idea of broadcast that kind of power to everybody who comes to the museum is—is important. Each marker, each project, each film, is, sort of, an antenna radiating out this legacy of—of racial separation.

Jo Reed: You know, what’s so interesting is it’s such a simple idea, these clear jars of earth on shelves, but to see that in that film and to see the different colors, the different textures—the power of that. If somebody had said, “Oh, this is so powerful,” and described it, I’d just nod my head and say, “Yes, I’m sure it is.”—but unbelievably powerful.

Trey Ellis: Yeah. You can’t help but think of the different colors in the earth as being the cremated remains of these people.

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Trey Ellis: The first time we—we go down there just to talk to him, to try to sweet talk him into please agreeing to let us do this film, we’re ushered into this room, and my last name is Ellis, and my people, before Dayton, Ohio, where a lot of them are from, were from Selma, Alabama. So, I told Bryan that and he looks on the wall and he finds there’s an Ellis from Selma, Alabama, in the same county, who was lynched and the earth, from the—from the site of where he was assaulted and murdered, right there. Yeah, it’s just—It’s been really life-changing for me.

Jo Reed: Yeah, yeah, I can see how it would be. So, with Dr. King, you’re making a documentary about a man we feel we know, whether we do or not. With Bryan Stevenson, you’re making a documentary about a man who many of us don’t know. Can you explain how that changed your approach to the film, how you approached the interviews, and so on?

Trey Ellis: Right, they’re almost the opposite films. In the King film, since our subject was not there, we, in a Rashomon kind of sense, we just interviewed everybody else around him to give a portrait of King. In this case, we really mainly interviewed Bryan and then a couple people around him, and the people like Anthony Ray Hinton, who he helped free. So, really it was the focus on—on Bryan, and we went back and forth on how—how best to, sort of, introduce people to who this guy was. The fact that he’s won the MacArthur, all the things that he’s done in his life—the filmmaker part of me, the storyteller, I wanted to put more of that into the film in the beginning. You don’t know who this guy is, but you should know who this guy is. And he’s one of the great speakers of all time, with a lot to tell you. You’re going to be three feet away from him for the next hour and a half, and you should count your lucky stars.

Jo Reed: It’s interesting because you use the personal anecdote stories like a spice. <laughs>

Trey Ellis: Right.

Jo Reed: --To flavor that soup. You were very reticent about it and I could not help but feel that was also his decision as well. How—how did you negotiate that one?

Trey Ellis: Well, yeah. He’s a very private guy, but the more we get to talk, and he’s a friend of mine now. I’m proud to call him a friend. He would open up and, you know, and tell us just amazing stories about his life, and they didn’t all make it into the film. I wish, you know, we had more time, because I do think, you know, we’re trying to do a lot of things in that film, trying to tell the story from slavery to mass incarceration, the story of the building of this memorial, the story of his legal work, his evolution from a lawyer to storyteller, and his life story. So, there wasn’t enough time for everything, but, as much as we could, trying to, sort of, anchor his life stories to—to the—the other narratives as well.

Jo Reed: Anthony Ray Hinton had been on death row for decades and interviewing him had to be have been daunting because he’s been through so much, and you’re asking a lot of him.

Trey Ellis: Yes. Anthony Ray Hinton was in prison for 30 years. And EJI, Bryan’s organization--

Jo Reed: And that’s the Equal Justice Initiative.

Trey Ellis: Right, thanks. They are very guarded about him as well. He’s been through so much, but he just said, “Hey, come to my—come to my house and let’s just talk and see how it works out.” I show up at his house with our crew and he’s invited his friends over. Being a hospitable southerner, he’s bought about a hundred pounds of ribs and sausages and food.

Jo Reed: His barbecue. Right.

Trey Ellis: Just amazing stuff, just to host us, just—so it becomes, like, one of the best days of my life. So, we all talk and it’s, sort of, all, sort of, light and beautiful and just this amazing moment and then comes a time when—when he and I have to go off to the house and he’s got to tell me his story, and that was hard. So, every single time he says it, it’s—it’s hard. He’s as remarkable a man as Bryan is. The fact that he’s gone through what he’s gone through for so long and come out the other side so positive. Really, he also deserves his own film. He’s just completely a force of nature, so giving and so open and I think he probably there on death row kept a lot of those guys, on death row, sane through his—just his presence.

Jo Reed: Well, both King in the Wilderness and True Justice are being distributed by HBO, which for documentary films it’s like Christmas.

Trey Ellis: Well, we’ve been lucky. I mean, the Kunhardts have a—have a longstanding relationship with HBO, so HBO are co-producers of the film with—with Kunhardt Films. So, that’s a great luxury, so don’t have to go to Sundance and hope that someone picks it up. The—the film is going to be an HBO film.

Jo Reed: But it also did do the festival circuit, because I saw it—I saw the premiere at AFI.

Trey Ellis: Right. So, we went to some festivals, and King in the Wilderness actually was at Sundance, out of competition because we were—we were lucky to already have distribution.

Jo Reed: I wonder, especially with the Bryan Stevenson film, what you learned about yourself through the making of it.

Trey Ellis: Yeah, that’s a tough question. I think through interviewing Bryan and Anthony Ray Hinton and some other accused—some other people that they’ve helped that didn’t make it into the final film, and also his attorneys, like, these attorneys working there, it made me think about my work as an artist, thinking about how selfless they’ve been in their work, in their legal work. I never want to be too didactic in my own artistic work, but understanding the responsibility they have and, sort of, shouldering that in some ways and figuring out how I can marry my art with helping this planet right now in such a time of need.

Jo Reed: Yeah, the thing—I was so struck not just by that work that he does and the relentlessness, but the graciousness with which he approaches it.

Trey Ellis: Right. When you talk about him and—and one of his great mentors, Steve Bright, they really talk about it like a priesthood. Their life is helping these people. Bryan, he’ll work six days a week and on the seventh day he will drive to a prison and have a book club with some inmates. It is his, 100 percent, his life’s work. Not everybody at EJI has to do that, but he does that, and that inspires everybody else to—to really bring their A-game all the time.

Jo Reed: I’m switching gears a little bit here, but you write novels, you write essays, basically solo work, and you work in film, and stage too, you know, very, very collaborate work. Can you talk about what the challenges and rewards of each are?

Trey Ellis: Yeah. It’s funny, with—even writing in—in film, I live in sweatpants at home, in front of my computer. So, when I first started to work on a play, this play Fly, about the Tuskegee Airmen, which played actually at—at the Ford’s Theatre in DC, we had the first staged readings, and the director wanted to change a line from an “and” to a “but,” and then he kind of waited. Everybody’s waiting. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. They’re waiting for me to okay that, and I realize it’s—it’s a very different world than the screenwriting world, the Hollywood world, that I’d been so much a part of, where, you know, you’re rarely consulted as a writer. After—after they take your words, they take it away and you really have to fight to keep involved. Then, working on the documentary world and the physical production of it, and working with these cameras and this amazing crew, the improvisational aspects and the interpersonal aspects were something I really thought were really fun. And then, the editing is also very fun because editing is very much like writing. So, I wanted to do more of that, so when it—when Bryan came to us to do this short film, for example, I’d directed a short maybe 30 years ago, but really nothing since then. So, it really was exciting for me to—to think visually again and to really, when you put something on the page, and it’s easy—it’s sort of almost easy to say, “This sounds good on the page,” and let some director and some actors make it better. But the idea of putting it on the page, communicating that to the actors, communicating that to your entire crew, and then working with your editor to—to make the finished product as close as possible to, you know, the platonic ideal in your head, has been a great challenge, and I just like challenging myself.

I’m writing a music right now, which I’ve never done before. The people came to me—it’s about writing this musical, and then they—they said, “Would you also like to write some of the songs, some of the lyrics for the songs?” and I said, “I’d love to try it. If it doesn’t work, we’ll get somebody who knows what they’re doing to—to do it. But I—I want to try because I want to invent, I want to try that new kind of storytelling. It’s important for me to be irreplaceable, and I talk about in my classwork and teaching screenwriting and storytelling, to create irreplaceable characters, and I think it’s important for all of us, if we’re taking up space on earth, to be irreplaceable in some kind of way. That—that’s what I want to do.

Jo Reed: I’m curious about teaching and some of the things you try to impart to your students about the stories they want to tell.

Trey Ellis: Right. So, I’m a child of academics, so I thought that I would eventually teach, but I thought much later in life. But I’ve been teaching for a while now, and working intimately with twenty-somethings about the stories they want to tell has been really super-helpful for me in rejuvenating my own life and aesthetics and just expanding my own horizons. So, I do get amazing things out of it, and forcing me to think about my own pedagogy. What—why am I writing these stories and what’s important about storytelling? Asking people to really dig and expose themselves is tricky, and I think—but I think it’s important. I’m asking people to be personal and fearless. Otherwise, they’re kind of wasting their time.

Jo Reed: You wrote an essay a few years ago about your daughter having the world in the palm of her hand with her iPhone, and how she really curates her own cultural experiences. And we know the way we consume culture impacts the way culture is produced, and I’m wondering how these changes has impacted your teaching, for example. Film has changed. It’s not even film anymore, and the limited series now has as much prestige as a full-length movie, if not more.

Trey Ellis: Right. Everything is changing so quickly and, you know, again, when I first started and—and when I wrote the Tuskegee Airmen, for example, I wrote it as a feature, and then they weren’t making it as a feature, and this company called HBO said, “Hey, we’ll make it as an HBO film.” But it’s one of their first HBO films, one of their first prominent ones. So, I didn’t really understand that, at that point, what a big deal it was going to be. I grew up in a world of walls. Television was television, film was film, radio was radio. All this storytelling was—was all very segregated. Now, my students—now they don’t notice. So, if I went and I published something on, they don’t notice that it’s not in The New Yorker Magazine or—they’re reading everything online. The internet is everything for them. So, everything is digital in that way. So, I really push them and push myself to think about one of your earlier questions, about what form a—a project should take. I’ll say to them, “We’re here at film school and we still—a lot of people want to think, oh, that the feature film is the sort of the—the lion in the jungle. But maybe not. And maybe the story you’re trying to tell doesn’t lend itself to be told in two hours. Maybe it’s four hours. Maybe it’s six hours. Maybe it’s eight hours, 10 hours. Look at the subject and wring it out. Explore every possible thing of it and then tell me or ask yourself the hard questions of how long it should be.”

Jo Reed: Yeah, it’s so interesting. The choices and the fact that it’s digital, there’s a way you just don’t have to worry about money the way you used to, and of course there are people, and I understand completely, bemoaning that loss of film.

Trey Ellis: Right.

Jo Reed: And I get that, but, you know, as with everything, it just opens up new possibilities.

Trey Ellis: Right. And now, with these means of production so—the cost brought down so much, the people can have a story. Maybe it’s a really fantastical story but they think they could make a podcast, for example, a fictional podcast about it, and they could—they could afford to produce that, and that could be a wonderful thing in and of itself, but it could also be a proof of concept for something bigger, like The Homecoming, which—the TV show with Julia Roberts, was a good example of that. I think--

Jo Reed: Which had its first life as a podcast.

Trey Ellis: Yes, exactly.

Jo Reed: Yeah.

Trey Ellis: Things are moving very, very fast, in all ways.

Jo Reed: What makes a story worth telling?

Trey Ellis: I think you feel it in your heart. I think—Well, a) I think you should say, “Would I do it for free?” A story worth telling is one you’d do for free. Then you’ll find that it’s one that when you wake up or you’re going to bed or you’re taking a shower, you can’t stop thinking about.

Jo Reed: And I was going to say, “What’s next for you?” but you already told us. So, is there anything else that’s next for you that you haven’t shared?

Trey Ellis: Yeah. I mean, I’m working on a lot of things at the same time. I’ve realized, working in Hollywood for so many years, that you could spend a lot of time waiting for people to come to you, and you can—you can lose years of your life, your creative life, not doing other things. So, I—I’m always doing too many things at the same time. So, I have a board at my house with about—let’s see, right now, seven different projects. One I’m extremely excited about is this story called Downtown, which is a story of the Lower East Side in the 1980s, really focusing around Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Fab 5 Freddy and Debbie Harry, and I worked briefly at the Warhol’s Factory when I first got out of college and came to New York and this explosion of hip-hop and, post-modern writing and—and new theater, it just was really exciting, so I’m excited about that project as well.

Jo Reed: Oh, that sounds fabulous. Trey Ellis, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. Both films are wonderful, and thank you for making them.

Trey Ellis: It’s been a pleasure. It’s really been a true pleasure. Thanks.

Jo Reed: Thank you.

<Music Up>

Jo Reed: That was writer, filmmaker and teacher Trey Ellis. Trey was the executive producer of King in the Wilderness and True Justice: Bryan Stevenson’s Fight for Equality. True Justice can be seen on HBO, and is also available for screenings through the Kunhardt Film Foundation.

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts, so please do. It will make us very happy, and it will make us even happier if you leave us a rating on Apple because it does help other people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Filmmaker, writer, and teacher Trey Ellis knows how to tell a story—whatever the genre. He recently moved into documentary filmmaking, working with the acclaimed documentarian Peter Kunhardt on what became the award-winning King in the Wilderness. They joined forces again almost immediately for the documentary True Justice--about Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)-- which opened the 2019 AFI Docs Film Festival (a long-time National Endowment for the Arts grantee). The film looks at Stevenson’s work tackling death row appeals at EJI as well as his more recent work as a public historian. Stevenson is also responsible for both the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the nearly 4,000 persons lynched in the south, and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which spotlights how the effects of slavery and Jim Crow reverberate through the criminal justice system today. In this podcast, Ellis talks about bringing Stevenson’s work to the screen, how his approach to filmmaking changes based on the visibility of his subject, and the ways in which his films have profoundly changed his life. He also discusses writing for screen versus for the stage and the challenges of teaching screenwriting in a quickly-changing media landscape.