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October 2004
Lightening in a Bottle: An Interview with Director Antoine Fuqua and Singer Ruth Brown

Lightening in a Bottle: An Interview with Director Antoine Fuqua and Singer Ruth Brown

By Wilson Morales

Antoine Fuqua has been making action and drama films as of late that we almost forgot that he started out directing music videos for Stevie Wonder, Toni Braxton, and Coolio. When the chance to come back to direct a documentary of music, particularly about the blues, was presented to him by Director Martin Scorsese, how could he say no. It gave him the opportunity to learn something new of the music he didn't tap on before. "Lighting in a Bottle" is a documentary that was film in one night on February 7th, 2003 at a one time only concert at Radio City Music Hall in New York City in which some of the greatest performers in the history of Blues Music, including B.B King, Ruth Brown, Bonnie Raitt, Steven Tyler, and Macy Gray performed together. Not only are the live performances shown on the film, but interviews with the named artists as well as others are conducted. Ruth, who was an inspiration to Little Richard, Aretha Franlin, and Stevie Wonder, had memorable hits like "Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean" and "Teardrops From My Eyes." In speaking with blackfilm.com, Fuqua and Blues legend Ruth Brown talked about being part of this historical collaboration and why the blues music is still important today.

How did this documentary get put together?

Antoine Fuqua: For me, it came from a blessing from God, honest to God. I was coming from church with my family and I got a phone call from Martin Scorsese in my car, which was on a Sunday. I was shocked. He asked if I like the blues, and I was like, "Yeah". "Do you want to make a movie about it?" "I'm making this movie" and he described what it was and before he could finish the sentence, I said "I'm in". At that point, we had a lot of meetings with (Musical Director) Steve Jordan, and (Producers) Alex Gibney and Margaret Bodde. It was difficult because we sat in a conference room, and were wondering how we were going to get all these people together. From Ms. Brown to B.B King and their schedules and get them all in one place. It was a task. We put the calls out and the producers did an amazing job. Somehow, with the magic of God, it all happened, and I showed up and they kept coming.

With the concert taking place on February 7th, 2003 at New York City's Radio City Music Hall, was after you directed "Tears of the Sun" and before "King Arthur"? How did that work out?

AF: I was just prepping "King Arthur" and that was the tough part for me because that film was a task. When this film came about, I just had to do it. I flew back from London to New York. I came here, did the filming, jumped on a plane, and flew back.

Did you have to reflex your music muscles a little bit?

AF: A little bit, but I got to do interviews. There were a lot of interviews. There was Ms. Brown, and B.B King, and all the people that were there. That was great storytelling and that was fun. Just to hear Ms. Brown speak, you learn some things.

You have an uncle, Harvey Fuqua, who is also a blues musician. Did you speak to him in regards to this film?

AF: Nah, I haven't had a chance to talk to anyone about this. I literally dove into this with a great passion and had to be literally yanked away from it. We'd edit, go back to King Arthur, edit, go back to King Arthur, and by the time I finished King Arthur, this film was already going. Then I started prepping another movie and Ms. Brown was in Canada and I was hearing great things about the film in Canada. For me, this has been a great passion that I got a chance to be a part of and all of a sudden get yanked out of it, and I'm being put back into it again.

If Martin Scorsese hadn't made that call, would you have done this film?

AF: I don't think so because I didn't know anything about it. I hadn't heard anything about it, and didn't know anything about it. My agent called me a couple of days before and mentioned something about Scorsese doing a blues documentary, but it wasn't clear, and then I got a phone call from Mr. Scorsese and he made it clear. He explained to me exactly what it was and I thought it was an incredible opportunity.

Ms. Brown, when did you hear about the film and was your schedule flexible for you to do it?

Ruth Brown: Oh, I was waiting, about 30 years. I guess when they got around to finding who was left, they called me. Harvey Fuqua has known me for many years, but actually I heard about this through a booking agent out of San Francisco. They told me about what they were going to do and I didn't have an idea that it was going to be this great either. That's why I supposed you hear my mouth all through the film. When I saw all of the people I have known all these years, when we got together, it was scary because B.B King and I lived in the same place in Nevada. I talked to Etta James and all of the blues people who made this and we had no idea that all of us were going to be in the same place. The day that they did the pictures, you hear me say, "My Lord, it's good to see all these friends and it's not a funeral". By the time we did get there, I understood that it was going to be real special and it is. I've seen some of it.

The songs that are performed in the film, are these songs you and the others selected yourselves?

RB: If you are speaking about my own songs, I would think so because we were talking about that particular era and I was singing one of my songs that I recorded 50 years ago. We are trying to prove that the blues lives on forever and anybody in this place can sing the blues. There was a time we decided that it was songs that were done especially from my background because of the things we were dealing with, but nowadays, anybody who has a need, and can find the need, they can sing the blues. Of course, in this movie, I sang my big hit as I call them and I'm still singing that, "Mama He Treat Your Daughter Mean". I recorded that 50 years ago and it's still danceable.

Having done rap videos and R & B videos, and no blues videos, what do you think prompted Scorsese to come to you for this film?

AF: You know I'm not sure, and that's a good question for him. I love music and that's known. He may have asked around about me from different people, like Harvey Fuqua. Music drives me in everything. I listen to music when I'm writing. I listen to music on the sets sometimes when I'm setting up shots. All kinds of music. Plus I came from music videos and then I did a film like "Training Day" and he really liked that movie. He called me about that film. He was proud of me for making that movie. I've always been a big fan of his. So I'm sure with the people I've talked to, based on the direction that I'm going as a filmmaker, he had probably heard that there was a young guy who admired him and is following a certain path that he had laid out as well.

Ruth, we've seen a lot of music documentaries these last few years as far as recognizing music that's no longer at the forefront of today's market. A film like "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" comes to mind. What do you think inspires filmmakers to do these types of films?

RB: I have only "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" and the reason I saw that was that someone told me I was in it. All of these years that I have been singing, no one has done a documentary about my music as far as I'm concerned. There have been movies that say they are telling the story, but I know that it's fiction. I've not really heard one real story until now. There are stories that people don't want to talk about that brought this music through. We have paid a price to sing this music. Unfortunately, the young generation, who I believe have their own place in the sun like I had mine; but I wish it was possible there were other ways to have them understand this music was here before they came, and the reason that it was here. It was not always joyful. There were times that Harvey (Fuqua), myself, B.B King, we almost had to go to jail to sing this stuff. More than that, the persons that came to hear us, had to pay for that. I remember working in a warehouse where the sharecroppers didn't have the money to come in. I remember singing in a warehouse where there was no stage and I sung on the top of a tobacco truck and there was a clothesline between the races on the floor, and when the music got too good, the clothesline feel down where everybody was dancing in the same place and they pulled me off the stage and took me to jail for singing it. So the young people don't even know that there was a paid for this music. It's different now. In those days, as I always tell B.B and Buddy Guy and these guys and gave them a place to cry like a man without having to do it. You could go up on stage and if you are angry, you can just sing it that way. There are many times that I think somebody should take time and I'm glad to hear this little bit that's coming out now. I think there are going to be some young people who are going to be surprised to see this and it's still going. But of course it's different now, the blues is no longer blues, it's green now.

It's interesting that you and Ray Charles were on the same label, Atlantic Records, at one point singing different types of music. What do you think record labels are looking for these days to sell?

RB: I have no idea because no one is looking at what they call now, old folk's music. They talk about R & B and they go as far as the 70s, which is Motown. That's as far as they go. All the radio stations and you listen around and they say, "Ms. Brown, we don't want you to come today to the interview and they will say to me, bring a record with you. You mean to tell me that you don't even have one. I have been recording for 60 years. Unfortunately, I'm a little concerned where the legends are coming from nowadays. With this film, it has labored us right on time. Right on time.

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