lucky the documentary interview with fillmmaker laura checkoway and star lucky

Interview: A Talk With The Filmmaker And Star Of 'Lucky' Documentary

Pictured above: Lucky Torres in a movie still.

There's something communal about struggle. Regardless of a person's background or lifestyle, when someone is struggling, you feel it. You understand it. You empathize with it. Most importantly, you learn from it. One journalist/filmmaker wants Lucky Torres' life to be a tangible experience.

"Lucky has an uncomfortable life and it's an uncomfortable story, but I want us to face that and feel that a little bit with her while we're watching," says Laura Checkoway, creator of the documentary, Lucky, which screened last month during the New York Documentary Festival.

What was born as a magazine feature five years ago evolved into the visual journey of a woman's search for stability. For a significant chunk of her life, Lucky—née Waleska Torres Ruiz but nicknamed after surviving being hit by a NYC yellow cab—has juggled homelessness and unemployment, moving from girlfriend to girlfriend and shelter to shelter with her son, searching for success.

For Checkoway, Lucky's rocky journey was worth more than just a few thousand words. "This is what happens when you decide this magazine story's not enough," she says. Here, VIBE chats with both Checkoway and Lucky about the documentary's intent, mutual learning experiences and life after the cameras have turned off. —Stacy-Ann Ellis

VIBE: Congrats on your first full-length documentary, Laura. What made you pursue Lucky's story in the first place? What drew you to her?
Laura Checkoway: When I started it, I didn't know what publication it was for. Originally VIBE was interested. But VIBE thought it was more like hardcore lesbian gangs. It's not. It's a story of family and young women trying to be themselves. It's not my sensibility what the editors at the time more so wanted it to be, so then I did it for The Fader and it was just a piece about Lucky. Then I started filming.

Was that weird? Switching from writing to filming it?
LC: For me, just having an audio recorder or taking notes as a journalist versus having a camera is such a different dynamic. People want to perform when they see a camera. They take a really long time to get to the place where everyone's comfortable and comfortable that there's a camera there rolling. Even people that love the camera still takes a long time for the camera to feel… you know?

Lucky, was it a weird transition from Laura just writing about you to recording your life?
Lucky Torres: I dunno, I guess not as weird as it would've felt for Laura being a writer and then all of a sudden filming this crazy woman's life. She went from decent to wild within a couple of years. It probably kinda freaked her out, but to me it was just another person there, even when I got tired of the camera.

Laura, did it get wild for you?
LC: You know, I always felt comfortable because of Lucky. And having to cater to celebrities in interviews for so long was very good training for this.

Before the filming even started, can you describe your first encounter with each other?
LC: We were on the Christopher Street Pier in 2007 and Lucky was there. She had her son in a stroller, her sister was there, there were a whole bunch of girls. I remember Lucky came up to me, I was talking with different people, and she put her phone number in my hand and said, "You're not paying enough attention to me, but you need to call me." And that was how we met.

Wow, so strong an approach. So, Lucky, I'm assuming you were already comfortable and wanted your story to be told.
LT: It took a while. I didn't get comfortable overnight, in a year, in two years. Laura filmed me for years, not two years. Whatever people don't see that was edited out, it was a lot of hard times. Emotional, anger, violence, stuff like that. It wasn't easy. It wasn't easy filming me. I always wanted to tell the truth about a person like me from the system to the shelter system to not having anyone. She was willing to share it, do it. It wasn't planned. It just happened. Now that it's being shared, maybe a lot of other people understand the type of people like me instead of stereotyping them and judging them.

What was your first reaction seeing the film played back to you?
LT: When I first watched the film, I didn't like looking at myself on the film. I found something wrong in everything. It was good, her work was good the way she fixed it up, but I just didn't like watching me. Watching back at it like it was… it's like I was trying to take the dream out my head and put it in Laura's hands, she did what she wanted with it. And me watching it is like being replaced. I don't want it in my head anymore. I wanted to let it go.

LC: The first time Lucky saw the whole film was when were were in a huge theater. She was just massive up there, so I think that made it more overwhelming.

And Laura, what was it like seeing people receive your work?
LC: It's absolutely amazing. People are having very powerful reactions to the film and the things that people are saying are really such a gift. The film and Lucky's story are touching people in a way that I'd hoped that it would. Actually, what's been really unexpected and most powerful is that something in it has sparked people to want to not just talk about the film, which I knew that they would and I wanted the film to spark dialogue, but that it sparks them to want to open up and share their stories and some of their own pain and the kind of stuff that people don't normally talk about. Something abut Lucky sharing her own story seems, so far, to be inspiring people to share theirs and that is amazing.

For people who haven't watched the film yet, give us a sample for what a day in the life of Lucky looks like.
LC: Wow, you never know [laughs]. Lucky, do you want to answer that?

LT: I don't know. Everyday's a different day, a different scene, a different mood, a different location. It depends, so I really can't tell you what Lucky's life would be, or in the film what it would've been from morning to night. Laura didn't even know what was gonna happen when she was filming me.

LC: It makes for such an interesting film because Lucky's moving from place to place, shelter to shelter, and trying to find stability. She also has such amazing expressive style, so she always has a different look almost every day. Cinematically that's very interesting because you get to see her with wigs, mohawks, always a different style. She always outdoes herself. As a filmmaker and hopefully a film viewer, that's really interesting. Not to be superficial. That's just visually speaking. But on a deeper level, following somebody that is trying to find stability and doesn't have it yet, yeah you never know. I would go and have the intention of what I thought we'd shoot that day, and sometimes that thing would happen, but there was always a whole lot else as well.

A "just go with it" experience, perhaps?
LC: To some extent, yes. But you have to be sharp with your vision as well.

Lucky, how has life changed for you and your family since the making of the film, if it has at all?
LT: The only thing that's different in my life is I have a fiancee and moved to Detroit with her, somewhere I've never been. The relationship [between me and my sister, Fantasy] has changed. That's the only major change. I'm still struggling and stuff but that's life. Everybody has a struggle, right? But I'll be getting married next summer with my fiancee. I'm excited. I'll finally be with someone that's comfortable with me. That's the most amazing thing ever.

During all that time spent together during the making of this documentary, what have you learned from each other?
LT: What I've learned from Laura from her being in my life is her part of the world, because she was always so jolly, so friendly. Knowing that she was a journalist and had to be a writer and meet different people and things like that. See me, I stood just in a little world with a gay community --actually New York is big -- but in our little world in one location. And I wasn't that friendly. I was like the biggest bitch ever. I learned how to be more like Laura and Laura learned how to be a little more like me.

LC: I learned so much on so many levels. It's too much. I learned a lot from Lucky's resilience and strength and also being so willing to share her flaws and vulnerabilities at the same time. I've been thinking a lot about, not to sound corny, but trying to find a limitless heart and limitless love. That's something that I've just been thinking about these past couple days.

What's been the most memorable part of the experience?
LC: Everything is memorable. Our New York premiere showed to a packed house. There it is up on the big screen. Those are the moments that are supposed to be milestones or maybe the most memorable, but the whole process of this, because I was capturing Lucky's life in the film, I mean it's all very memorable. It's just one of those cases that it's what it takes to capture whatever the journey is [that's] as important.

LT: I'm just as lost as Laura with that. There are so many memorable parts of our journey together, so I can't call it. I just know that as much as she wanted to give up, she never did. As much as I pushed her away and cursed her out, she just held on. I don't know why, but she did. And still is. Every part within the years of me and Laura, learning each others' lives and being in one another's lives was a memorable part, from the good to the bad.

So would you say this is the beginning to your film career or are you going to keep pen-to-paper as your main medium?
LC: I think this was a case where this story felt like it was a film. So I think I'll just share stories in the medium that fits them best. But I love documentary filmmaking and I would love to make more documentaries.

Were there any major inspirations or guidelines while creating the film?
LC: I love music and art and I'm inspired by so much, but I haven't studied film. It was really a learn as you go type of thing.

After all the film buzz goes away and you've both moved on with your lives, do you think you'll keep in close contact?
LC: Yes!

LT: Duh! Me and Laura are gonna always have contact. This is not something everybody else does. This is different. See, everyone else that is in this life of filming, once they're done, they look at is as a job and then that's it. They move on to the next thing. See, me and Laura built a relationship. I wasn't just a project to Laura. That's the difference between a lot of people that are into this. Just into this for work or publicity. Or I guess to test the waters. You see, Laura did more than just film me. She put me in magazines, she wrote about me, she traveled with me. We shared more than just the film. Outside the film, while not filming, we shared a bond. Yes, we're gonna stay in contact. And like I said on radio interviews, Laura ain't going nowhere.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Derrel Todd

Music Sermon: Forget The King of R&B, Raphael Saadiq Is The Son Of Soul

#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

This week, Cash Money artist Jacquees set off an internet firestorm when he proclaimed himself to be the “King” of R&B “for (his) generation.” The comment led artists, executives, music fans and #BlackTwitter in general to debate: who is the King of R&B? (Spoiler alert - it’s not Jacquees.)

While a consensus was never reached, the heated discussion illustrated how much the definitions and ideas of R&B and R&B stars varies between age groups. Ironically, one name that seldom appeared in the convo belongs to one of the most consistent and prolific presences in soul and R&B music for the last 30 years: Raphael Saadiq.

Saadiq has become like a stealth superhero of soul for the last several years of his career, moving to the background as more writer/composer/musician, so the impulse for many might be to label him as an “old school” artist. But that’d be a misnomer, as he’s still had his hand in some of the most influential music for the current generation. Perhaps he transcends a simple R&B conversation as a self-identified Son of Soul (the difference between R&B and Soul is a topic for another day), but however you want to categorize him, he is not widely-enough acknowledged for how he’s kept us jamming, constantly, for three decades.

Let’s explore the iterations through which “Ray Ray” has blessed us over the years.

TONY! TONI! TONÉ!

During the birth and rise of New Jack Swing and then the subsequent evolution to Hip-Hop Soul, Tony! Toni! Toné! was one of the last of a dying R&B breed: the band. They – and a few years later Mint Condition - were standouts as live musicians in an R&B landscape turning to sample-based production. This set both groups apart, establishing them early on as serious soul acts, and making them forerunners of the neo soul sound to come in the late ‘90s.

Like almost every black musician and/or producer of note in his peer group, Saadiq developed and honed his musical chops in the church. Exposure to Motown and Stax by his blues singer father led him to the bass and served as inspiration for his future style. But he, brother Dwayne and cousin Timothy Christian received their formal Tony! Toni! Toné! training on the road: Raphael and Christian toured as part of Sheila E’s band on Prince’s Parade Tour and Dwayne with gospel great Tramaine Hawkins.

Having been properly trained, educated and tested in blues, soul, gospel, and funk, the three formed Tony! Toni! Toné!. Their first album was a modest success, achieving gold status from the RIAA, but wasn’t a standout. The trio started taking the reins on writing and production on their sophomore effort, and the Tonys as we now know them showed up. They announced both their musical background and intentions with their album titles: The Revival, Sons of Soul, House of Music. They were not there for catchy, formulaic R&B. They developed a signature blues, soul, gospel and funk hybrid, rolled up in modern R&B and hip-hop fusion.

The Revival is arguably a new jack swing album – “Feels Good” is a must-have on any new jack playlist – but they were taking the existing marriage of R&B and hip-hop and adding an even deeper soul element, reaching back to ‘70s sonic roots. It was the sonic equivalent of taking new jack swing chicken and shaking it in a paper bag of old-school musically-seasoned flour.

The group still had the kind of jammin’ uptempos found on their debut, Who?, but started to establish themselves as producers of some of the greatest R&B ballads of the ‘90s.

When you think of the Tonys’ music, aside from “Feels Good,” the first song that comes to mind is probably a slow jam. Most acts are fortunate to get one true signature song in their career. Tony! Toni! Toné! has several, and they’re timeless. Put them on today and see if you don’t hit a body roll.

They also established themselves as formidable soundtrack players (as any 90s act worth their salt did. Remember soundtracks, by the way?). They had cuts on the House Party II and Boyz in the Hood albums.

By Sons of Soul they’d found their pocket, and they pushed the sonic limits of contemporary R&B to the extent that some outlets classified the album as jazz, it was such an outlier. Saadiq recognized that they were doing something important for genre. Something that was connecting old style and new. In an interview about the album in 1994, he expressed what he saw as the group’s role in music. "We've been very blessed to be able to be a group that writes our own songs and people have accepted us from both sides, hip-hop and the R&B…I feel very fortunate to be able to do that here in 1993-94, because like you know, it was starting to be a dying thing that was happening. But I guess we were like the bridge between hip-hop and soul and R&B.”

Going back to the aforementioned King of R&B discussion, Diddy chimed in the conversation (he knows a little something about the topic) to run down some criterion to even be considered. His list included vulnerability and adoration in the lyrics and subject matter, the ability to sing a woman’s “draws” off, and the pen game to write hits. Check, check and check. Sons of Soul deservedly landed at or near the top of a gang of 1994 year-end lists and the Tonys continued to raise the bar for the ballad game. Real talk, the last four and a half minutes of the “Anniversary” album cut are better than some entire R&B albums.

With House of Music, the group sought to even more fully showcase all their influences and inspirations: the Al Green-esque “Thinking of You;” the Stylistics-inspired “Holy Smokes & Gee Wiz;” the Bay Area connect with DJ Quik for some G-Funk with “Let’s Get Down;” the straight-up church moment of the “Lovin’ You” reprise closing out the album, with Christian putting all that good anointing on the Hammond B3 organ. This was our clearest glimpse what Saadiq had in store for the future.

LUCY PEARL

When Tony! Toni! Toné! broke up and Saadiq put together supergroup Lucy Pearl, we realized he was on some other sh*t. First, the very idea to bring En Vogue’s Dawn Lewis, A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Saadiq together was genius. Then, oh…what’s this sound? Tony! Toni! Toné! with a little somethin’ extra on it? Saadiq revealed his ability to reinvent himself, stylistically and sonically, and play in different music spaces. Successfully. Hits, check.

WRITER/COMPOSER/PRODUCER/MUSICIAN

After Lucy Pearl, Saadiq embarked on his first solo projects. We’ll get to those, but the more remarkable part of this era was his expansive work as a writer, producer and session musician for others. As mentioned earlier, Tony! Toni! Tone! was an inspiration for neo soul (a term Saadiq loathes), which pulled from ‘60s and ‘70s influences, paired with the return to live instrumentation, mixed with hip-hop swag. Saadiq was a sometime member of Q-Tip, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and J Dilla’s Ummah production collective, but had also been working on outside projects since the Tonys were active. Through either the Ummah or alone, Ray was behind hits you may have attributed to someone else.

-D’Angelo, "Lady:" Saadiq co-wrote, co-arranged and co-produced the still-perfect ode to #WCEs (Women Crush Everydays) with D’Angelo.

-Bilal, "Soul Sista:" Soul and R&B great Mtume on the pen, Saadiq on production.

-Angie Stone, "Brotha:" OK, who’s gonna create the 2018 “Unproblematic” edit of the “Brotha” video?

-Total, "Kissing You:" No, this wasn’t Stevie J. Now, imagine this as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song. You can absolutely hear it, right?

-Erykah Badu and Common, "Love Of My Life (An Ode To Hip Hop):" Saadiq again proving he’s a master of the perfect fusion of hip-hop and an old soul groove.

-D’Angelo, "Untitled (How Does It Feel):" Saadiq has admitted he later realized he was channeling Jay Dee’s style throughout the D’Angelo session.

SOLO SAADIQ

As a solo artist, Saadiq has accomplished what few can: continuously evolving his sound and aesthetic while yet managing to still always sound like himself. The retro-influence has been a constant in his work, but that influence ranges between decades and musical eras. He’d given us a taste of solo Ray through “Ask of You” from the Higher Learning soundtrack, but that could easily pass as a Tony! Toni! Toné! song.

With Instant Vintage (again letting you know what he came to do with the title), Saadiq expanded on his existing signature sound of soul, funk, gospel and R&B; a sound he coined “Gospaldelic.”

With Ray Ray, he delivered a modern blaxploitation soundtrack. But then, in 2008, he went all the way back to Motown and the purest soul sound for The Way I See It. Saadiq was committed to an authentic return to ‘60s soul for the entire process. He eschewed slick, modern production techniques for old-school practices, including vintage equipment, all live instrumentation and single-take recordings. He donned slim-cut suits and classic frames for his look, and delivered a retro soul package via the 45 inch LP box set. But it still sounded incredibly fresh and modern, and that is his gift.

His last solo album, 2011’s Stone Rolling, was a progression of The Way I See It, staying in the same retro soul pocket, bringing some funk and rock’n’roll back into.

Or did he?

MILLENNIAL RAY

The thing about Saadiq is that he doesn’t just look a perpetual 30 years old (he’s 52. It don’t crack.). Unlike a lot of “old heads,” he keeps his ear current, as well. Kendrick Lamar, Kamasi Washington, Anderson Paak, and BJ the Chicago Kid are his musical nephews. He praises them and their music often in interviews, heralding them as the current bridge-builders between eras and urban genres. Labelmate Leon Bridges adapted his The Way I See It and Stone Rolling formulas - from the sound to the ‘60s-style dress and imaging - for his own, and had Saadiq’s enthusiastic blessing. He listens to SZA, PJ Morton and Daniel Caesar. And he still has his finger on the pulse of current urban musical movements.

Saadiq was an executive producer on Solange Knowles’ 2016 A Seat at the Table, garnering a Grammy for the anthemic “Cranes in the Sky.”

He’s also helped to bring the full authenticity of the West Coast to Insecure for the past three seasons, serving as the show’s composer.

And he hasn’t abandoned his peers and contemporaries, garnering a “Best Song” Oscar nomination last year with Mary J. Blige for Mudbound’s “Mighty River,” and just recently executive producing John Legend’s first Christmas album, A Legendary Christmas. Only time will tell what he brings on the forthcoming solo album he told VIBE about, titled Jimmy Lee.

Whether his name is included in King of R&B conversations or not, Saadiq has been booked and busy in every area of black music since before 1988, keeping both aunties and nieces grooving, with no signs of slowing or stopping.

RELATED: Raphael Saadiq Talks New Music, 'Insecure,' And Why Tony! Toni! Toné! Won't Reunite

Continue Reading
Nick Rice

25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018

The female voice in hip-hop has always been present whether we've noticed it or not. The late Sylvia Robinson birthed the hip-hop music industry with the formation of Sugar Hill Records (and fostering "Rapper's Delight"), Roxanne Shante's 55 lyrical responses to fellow rappers were the first diss tracks and Missy Elliott's bold and striking music and visuals inspired men and women in the game to step outside of their comfort zones.

These pillars and many more have allowed the next generation of emcees to be unapologetically brash, truthful and confident in their music. Cardi B's Invasion of Privacy and Nicki Minaj's Queen might've been the most mainstream albums by womxn in rap this year, but there was a long list of creatives who brought the noise like Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Noname and Bbymutha. Blame laziness or the heavy onslaught of music hitting streaming sites this year, but many of the artists on this list have hibernated under the radar for far too long.

VIBE decided to switch things up but also highlighting rap albums by womxn who came strong in their respectively debut albums, mixtapes, EPs. We also had to give props to those who dropped standout singles, leaving us wanting more.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

Continue Reading
VIBE / Nick Rice

10 Most Important Hip-Hop Artists Of 2018

We’ve reached another end to an eventful year in hip-hop. From rap beefs to new music releases and milestones, 2018 has been forged in the history books as a year to remember. But more important than the events that happened over the span of 12 months are the people who made them happen.

While fans received a large dose of music from our favorite artists and celebrated some of the most iconic album anniversaries, there are a few names that stood out as the culture pushers, sh*t starters, and all-around most significant artists of the year.

For your enjoyment, VIBE compiled a list of the top 10 most important hip-hop artists of 2018 based on a series of qualifications: 1) public actions - good, bad, and ugly; 2) music releases; 3) philanthropic/humanitarian work; and 4) trending moments.

Be clear: This list isn’t about the most influential, the most talented, who had the best music or tours. While we are commemorating artists for the work they’ve contributed to this year’s music cycle, we’re looking beyond that and evaluating how these particular artists have shaped conversations and pushed hip-hop culture forward.

READ MORE: 15 R&B Songs We Obsessed Over Most In 2018

Continue Reading

Top Stories