• Mark Brennan

Denim Richards exploring untold black stories with 'The Zoo'

Denim Richards, star of Yellowstone and soon to be seen in The Chickasaw Rancher, talks to us about how an exploration into black history prompted the telling of one of those stories in new short film The Zoo, telling more of those stories in his feature The Forgotten Ones, and the Black Lives Matter movement currently sweeping across the world.

When I sit down to speak with LA-based actor and filmmaker Denim Richards, there are things happening in the world far more deserving of our attention than the usual chat about film and filmmaking. For the last few months that main thing has been the coronavirus pandemic, so we naturally begin by talking a little about his experience of that.


"I really tried to use the lockdown, to not look at it as a time I'm not able to things, and instead focus on what I now have time to actually do. That's not to make light of it. There's been tens of millions of people, especially in America, that have lost their jobs and so it's extremely devastating and very easy to get caught up in that emotional state, but I just thought, 'Okay, what can I do to help enrich myself mentally, emotionally and spiritually?' If you're not careful, these things can just take you down. I started a garden, I wrote my first book, I was able to finish up some other projects that I had been working on."


Speaking of those other projects, I have a lot of questions lined up to ask Richards about his new short film The Zoo, his work on the series Yellowstone starring Kevin Costner, and feature film The Chickasaw Rancher. However, once we start talking about state of the world in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it's difficult for both of us to talk about anything else. So many things have changed since our chat was first planned.


"Man, so many. I'm very big on pulling myself out of situations and looking at them from every possible angle. When the situation happened where we had yet another man of colour going through another horrific circumstance, it was something that's not new, so the kind of outrage and attention it was getting was really interesting to me. My first reaction was, 'Why are we acting like we've never seen this before?' This is something that has happened many times in the past and now in 2020 it seems like enough is now enough.

"For me, it was something that was sad because how many of these acts did it take for people to want to have a conversation about it? Now there's white people and Asian people and all these different communities coming together for the black community to show support and solidarity. That can be a beautiful thing. But what is it that we're trying to do? What is it that we're going to now accomplish by the marching and by doing all these things? One of the things that I've always had a problem with is, I don't need to have somebody else that I've never met to tell me, 'Hey, your life matters'. I know that my life matters. If in 2020 I need you to tell me that my life matters we are in a lot of trouble."


As Richards says, the death of a black man at the hands of the police is not only a recent or even rare occurrence, but the global condemnation and protest that followed the killing of George Floyd does seem to be different. I offer the difference may be a combination of the pandemic commanding the attention of so many whose lives have been put on hold, and then that attention turning to the shocking video of a killing that has only one possible interpretation - one not allowing for any argument that the officer's life was in danger.

"I think you're absolutely correct. I think that because of the COVID-19 situation, people are much more plugged into current events than they've ever been before. It used to be you get up in the morning, you go to work, you come back, you're tired, you have social life, you're doing all these are things, so you're not really paying attention. Now there's been much more time to plug in and really see this is something that has been happening all the time.


"That's why it's important for us in the black community especially, to take advantage of this time to educate. We have our brothers and sisters that are out there protesting but what are we protesting for? What are we out there talking about? When do we go back in and redo the education system? When do we start getting people that are actually going to do more than just pay lip service?


"In order for us to get to the destination, we have to be willing to have the hard conversations. Police brutality, for example. When we were brought over here in chains and put onto plantations, they set up 'slave patrols' to make sure that black people could not run away. Those slave patrols just evolved into police patrol, so there is no shock factor for me when I see injustice happening to black men. White people will say, 'Well, what about us?' This is not a conversation where I'm trying to devalue you, but focus on situations and circumstances that have plagued us since 1619 that we need to have a conversation about. You don't get to inject yourself into that conversation. We never get to the destination because we always get caught up in the semantics of everything."


Through the omission of so much black history in our education systems, the historical context against which protests such as Black Lives Matter play out are often misunderstood, misrepresented or conflated with other issues. The most obvious conflation being to respond to 'Black Lives Matter' with 'All Lives Matter'. It's a retort that is at best a show of ignorance, and at worst a display of racism, wilful or otherwise.

"So much of what's going on is ingrained in history, one founded upon the enslavement of black people. They didn't bring us over here in 1619 because they thought we were created equally. They didn't set up the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence because they thought black people were people to be valued. They brought us over here to yield their crops and to build their homes.


"We are talking about the very fabric and the very DNA of what this country was founded upon and that is a completely different type of conversation but until we're willing to have those types of conversations, we'll never really be able to get the true kind of change or the true reform that everyone is now so desperately seeking. You will always be stopped and caught up in the emotional state of the current situation and not fully understand why it's happening the way that it is.


"We have so many of these issues right now because so many of our brothers and sisters don't know their history, because in our school system we have been taught that our history started in chains. If all you've known from your history is that you've been chained up, that you built houses but you weren't able to dwell in them, that you manufactured things but never made any money, any little thing that you get after that is going to seem amazing. It doesn't matter how many times people say we're all created equally and the American flag stands for all of us, our history says that's not the case."


It's the exploration of history, not just in America, that has driven Richards towards the stories he wants to tell as a filmmaker - starting with his new short film The Zoo. It's the untold story of African American prisoners being experimented on by Nazi scientists during the Holocaust.

"One of the things I always wanted to do as an artist is to create stories that humanise people and talk about their experiences, but also talk about things that people never really heard of. I was watching Schindler's List and at the end they talk about the millions Jews that were killed during The Holocaust. I wondered if any people of colour that were captured or tortured during that time. I wondered because I knew 1930's and 40's Europe was a Mecca for entertainment for people of colour as well. There was a lot of jazz, opera, dancing, there was a lot of that. I thought if all these different groups of people were being segregated and picked on and isolated, black people would probably fit into that mix as well.


"That got me researching and researching and researching until I finally found some books that talk about several men of colour being in concentration camps and showing some pictures. They would capture these black men, and they would experiment on them. They would burn their skin and they would put them in ice buckets, and they would inject them with different viruses and X, Y and Z. They gather these men and put them in essentially a cage or in a zoo, if you will, in the hopes that they would be able to crack some type of genetic code that would give them an upper hand to be able to thrive and to dominate in different countries in Africa.


"So I thought, 'If we really want to start a dialogue that is through more of an entertainment base, why not create a film? Why not write stories that are talking about this?' Because this is something that most people have never heard of, they've never seen it, and I would say it's hard for 99% of people to even imagine what it would look like because it's always been so separate. You know what I mean? You've never parlayed Nazis and people of colour together for any reason. That's what The Zoo talks about."

Richards gives a host of examples of stories consigned to history books read only by those with the appetite to seek them out. In particular, stories about the colonisation and looting of Africa by America and European countries that should be in the mainstream consciousness far more than what they are. With that in mind, he notes it fascinates him that 'we have this narrative the world of the world needs to save Africa, but it's always been Africa that's been saving the world'. How did he go about telling just this one story in The Zoo?


"One of my producing partners, J. Mallory McCree, who I met on another show and was talking to about this, said "Man, why don't we just do a short version of it? You can direct it, and that way you have an opportunity to really show all the things that you're thinking about in your head'. That was something that I had never even thought about, because I've been so in the history aspect of it, I just wanted somebody to read what I wrote and then do something.


"The way that I wanted to approach this as a director, I didn't want this to just be a shock-value piece. You know what I mean? I really wanted this to be an experience for people. I really wanted to show the camaraderie of what these men have gone through in what I would imagine are conversations, and the struggles that they would go through when they've been experimented on day in and day out, and not feel as though as there's anybody that's coming after them because they then completely discarded."


Richards stars alongside Kevin Costner in the series Yellowstone, created by Taylor Sheridan, the writer/director behind such films as Sicario, Hell or High Water and Wind River. His experience as an actor on shows such as Yellowstone would also serve him well when directing actors for the first time.

"It would be ridiculous if I said that it didn't. One of the great things about being on a show like Yellowstone having the opportunity to be on set everyday with Taylor Sheridan. Then also being able to have the experience of different directors coming in and seeing their different styles, seeing how I like to be directed and how I resonate with people. I thought, 'That's what I want to do. If I ever get the opportunity to be a director, I want to humanise'.


"Going into a project like this, having already been through the emotional ups and downs, the tears, the crying and the sadness of all the research, and having had the opportunity to work with so many amazing directors, I just decided to take all of that, throw it into a blender and just pour it out. I just really wanted to be with these actors and say, 'This is who you guys are'. There's nothing that I told these guys that they didn't already have. This is in their genetic make-up. This is what their ancestors already went through. Then after a while, they're just in the environment, they don't even realise they're acting. It is almost like their ancestors take over and it's not even them doing it anymore."


The Zoo will be completed later this month, but has already been submitted to multiple film festivals. It's certainly one to keep an eye out for on the festival circuit. With that finished, it's time for Richards to turn attention to his next project. As we've discussed above, there will be no shortage of material for him to explore.


"I think that's what so much of my life has been about. This is what I want to do. I love it. I'm so thankful that the Most High has given me the opportunity and the group of people to be surrounded by that not only love it, but also have believed in me and the visions that I've been given. My job, one of my responsibilities that I feel is to change the narratives where people say, 'Well, that can't be done. There's no way that you can do that'. I've dealt with that my entire life. I didn't grow up in an entertainment family, so there's so many people that I was surrounded by that say that. If I had listened to all of those voices, I would never be sitting here talking to you. I would never be talking about The Zoo.


"That's not a testimony to me. It's just a testimony to the fact that the Most High has given me the opportunity to be able to say, 'Look, this is what can happen if you really listen and you really stay true to yourself'. There's nothing that you can't do, no matter how many people say that you can't. To me, that's the most important thing. That's what I hope that our youth and our children will be able to understand. Even if you're in your own circumstances and your situation is surrounded by a whole bunch of people that say that you can't, if you believe that you can, you can, and you will."

You can follow Denim on Twitter: @DenimRichards