By Tammy Reese
Lisa Cortés is an Academy Award–nominated and Emmy-winning producer and director renowned for creating challenging, visionary stories. The film Precious, which she executive produced, received the Sundance Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize for best drama. All In: The Fight for Democracy, which she directed with Liz Garbus, chronicles the battle waged by Stacey Abrams against voter suppression.
She’s also the director and producer of the new documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything which is premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival yesterday.
As stated the in film about the rock & roll legend: “Richard created a blueprint to a new sound. Every artist that has come along since has built on what Richard created.” The film features rare archival footage of Richard Wayne Penniman, as well as testimonials from legendary musicians and cultural figures, Black and queer scholars, Penniman’s family and friends, and interviews with the artist himself, all of which exuberantly reclaim a history that was willfully appropriated by white artists and institutions.
Cortés is a NYWIFT member and longtime mentor for the NYWIFT’s The Writers Lab for women screenwriters over 40. She spoke to us about her latest Sundance premiere.
Lisa, congratulations! Little Richard: I Am Everything is premiering at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival! How does it feel?
It feels fantastic! I’m so honored for the film, my incredible team, and most importantly for Richard, even though he’s not here. When I started this film, it was about how can we give him his flowers, and I think this is so fitting to have this opportunity to share with the world. Not only about the music, but about this incredible man behind it.
Please tell us some background about how Little Richard: I Am Everything came about.
I have amazing collaborators at Bungalow Media+ Entertainment such as Robert Friedman, Liz Yale Marsh, and Mike Powers. I was excited by Little Richard’s story because, with all of the great music docs out there, no one has told his.
Whenever you have the opportunity to interrogate a story with a unique perspective, as a director I’m excited by what that allows for. There is no pre-conception, there is nothing pre-existing that I am trying to tell [differently]. I had an open roadway to look at the music, look at the man, and look at his impact on culture.
When you think of Little Richard as a person, what comes to mind?
I think that he’s a revolutionary in so many ways. For a long time, most of us knew Little Richard from his television appearances, and when he would say, “Oh, shut up!” He was a comedic moment in our cultural memory. What we didn’t see and what we weren’t told is that this man who was born in the south, in Macon, Georgia, is a revolutionary. He introduced music and ignited people in a way and claimed his agency as a Black man at the same time that Emmett Till is killed. He declared himself a king and an innovator. Black people did not do that and when we did, we saw the consequences. He created something and had ownership of something, rock & roll. Even though he was not recognized and given his props, he knew it, while at the same of being queer. All of those moments of being a beautiful human that Little Richard embodied are so important.
Is there anything about Little Richard that you could personally relate to?
Yes, Little Richard declared himself. He created agency for himself. As he said, his father wanted seven boys and felt that Richard let him down from being different. I think for anyone that has felt different or has not been invited to the big party, Richard is such an example of not letting that stop your show. That I relate to deeply, from being an outlier in many spaces that I go into which happens oftentimes for us as women.
The creative spark is one that we have to honor, and we have to build community and teams. This film has so many incredible contributors behind the scenes. From our editors to my other producers to our graphics person, to our composer, and it goes on and on and on. When I look at the credits and look at what it took to realize my big dream of telling this story, I am just so grateful to everyone who’s joined in. It’s been a long journey and what is most important is I want to give Richard his flowers. I hope that we’ve achieved that.
You’re best known for creating challenging, and visionary stories. We’re so proud of you and inspired by your career. We look forward to your continued journey. What advice would you have for aspiring filmmakers that dream to have an impactful film at the Sundance Film Festival?
It’s about putting one foot in front of the other. Several years ago, I was at Sundance with a film I produced, Precious. It was a little film that could. I’ve been blessed to see what it means to lean in to telling a story that many people were afraid of while telling it with grace and humanity.
What I always think about with Precious is, “OK, let’s see what happens.” We didn’t know how it would connect with the world. It’s a life journey and something I’ve been doing as a storyteller for a long time. We’re very lucky to work in this space at whatever scale of storytelling we’re doing. It is important and necessary and it’s about beating the drum constantly.
My advice is to take care of yourself. Commit 300% to the stories you’re going to tell and surround yourself with a great team of collaborators.
Little Richard: I Am Everything is a CNN film and is executive produced by NYWIFT member Amy Entelis. In one of the very first deals to come out of Sundance 2023, it was announced today that Magnolia Pictures has secured global rights to the film.
A portion of this interview is also available for listening on the special Sundance 2023 episode of the NYWIFT Women Crush Wednesdays podcast, available here or at the button below!
Additional reporting by Katie Chambers