Jay Ellis Discusses The Plight Behind Africa's Child Sex Slavery Shown In 'Like Cotton Twines'
Like Cotton Twines, directed and written by Leila Djansi, takes you on a trip to Ghana to catch a glimpse of what life is like for most underage girls who are forced to coexist as a Trokosi (a wife of the gods). The sexual religious slave practice is used in an effort to lift any crime a family member has done by sacrificing a family’s most vulnerable member.
To save her father from the crime he has committed, 14 year-old Tuigi (played by Ophelia Dzidzornu) is chosen to sacrifice herself. Yet amid the inevitable heart-wrenching life obstacle, Tuigi’s English teacher, Micah Brown (played by Jay Ellis) is here to save the day. Micah becomes fixated on the process of trying to save his student from succumbing to the socio-political trappings that are threatening her life path. The film creates an interesting dichotomy in relation to how westerners view old traditions of the eastern hemisphere.
“Trokosi is a form of modern day slavery, and when I came to America, I would hear Americans discuss racism, slavery, freedom, and civil rights,” Djansi told Hollywood Black Renaissance. “I wondered what an American would think if he went back to Africa. I also wondered if an American would realize that he would be an outsider if he returned to his origin. My goal was to mesh these two ideas together while telling the story of resilient women. I also wanted to explore the emotional journey of an African American with roots of slavery, and his reaction when unexpectedly faced with modern day slavery in Africa.”
Ellis, who's known for his roles on BET’s The Game and now most recently is starring in Issa Rae’s new HBO series, Insecure -- quickly jumped on the opportunity, considering the message behind the film. VIBE recently caught up with Ellis during the week of the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival, where the film premiered on June 2.
“It was kind of a no brainer for me,” he tells VIBE over the phone from Los Angeles. “It was an opportunity to tell a really amazing story, something that is super topical right now with child slavery, and also a chance for me to be able to film in Africa.”
Catch the full Q&A with Jay below where he discusses his experiences in filming Like Cotton Twines, the powerful message behind the film, and what he helps the masses learn from the motion picture.
VIBE: What was it like filming the movie in Africa?
Jay Ellis: It was amazing. It was my first time in Africa so it was very spiritual—very emotional. It was an education. I think all the things we think Africa is like—it is some of those things; but it’s also so much more, and I think I was able to tap into that experience. It was really amazing.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about African culture?
I really picked up on how proud everyone was of their tribe; of their specific village; of where they come from and how related they are and how interconnected they are and keep in contact with each other. That was a really amazing thing to see.
Years and years and years of history of these kings of villages and how that fits into a higher political system as the country evolves, and that was really amazing to me. I think one of the biggest things I really took away from all of this was happiness. Everyone I met was so happy and so kind, and not knowing necessarily of their situation.
That puts a lot into perspective.
We would drive by these villages and they would have no electricity, no running water and they would have fire pits that everyone cooked off of or stayed warm off and that was the light for the village. As you would go into the villages, no one was worried about the price tag on something; no one was worried about labels; no one was tripped about traffic. It was really amazing to see that happiness can exist without all the material things that we come to associate happiness with.
What do you hope that the African American community in this country learns about their culture through this film?
I hope that the African American culture here learns that we are connected. Though we're thousands of miles away, and it may seem so far from us; it's really not. There's something just so spiritual. First getting off the plane and everyone has your skin color and then as you're seeing ads for toothpaste and deodorant and clothes, and everyone looks like you and there's so much pride to it. I just don't really know how to explain all the things that went through my mind at one time while being there. I hope that's what's taken from this is a connection and a responsibility to kind of go back and learn your heritage. See where your ancestry started.
What are your thoughts on Micah’s character being perceived as a “white man” in the movie by the locals?
When I got there you actually immediately recognize it. So immediately by my accent, I was considered a white man. Just because of my accent, which blew my mind. They clearly knew I was not white but that is what I was referred to. Like little kids would point and say, ‘Oh, there's a white man mommy.’
It was so interesting to experience that, and to them honestly it's not about the skin color it's about the accent. The accent to them is that of a white man’s accent. So that was interesting in itself, but what you come to learn in a situation like what you're talking about is that the customs and the traditions of the western world are much different than that of these small villages and traditions that have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. They automatically equate that to something that the white man would do—a white man wants to be a savior, the white man wants to come over here and change things and doesn't want to let us have our customs and our traditions.
It's interesting and it's scary because what you realize Tuigi— not being a sex slave or not being a slave period—is a human being regardless of accent or race or western vs. eastern. That's a humanity thing no matter what the skin color is.
Were you aware at all of what was going on in Africa before being in the film?
I don’t know that I was as aware. I was definitely aware of what Boko Haram was doing and kidnapping the young children and the whole “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign. I was definitely aware of that. It’s been like over two years now since those girls have been gone from that last huge Boko Haram raid where they took like 200 children. I was definitely aware of those things, I didn’t know though how culturally accepting and normal it was in some ways. I think that is what really caught me off guard is that traditionally, it was accepted and normal in quite a few places; it threw me for a loop.
If you could do anything for a group of people in Africa that are in a similar situation like Tuigi and you had all the resources to do it, what would it be?
I would end child slavery and slavery as a whole because it’s still going on over there. Servitude, indentured servants, slavery, it’s all still happening. And that’s a worldwide problem. It’s happening throughout Asia, in South America and the continent of America, and throughout the Middle East. That’s definitely something that I would want to end and abolish. No one should ever have to live through anything like that.
What was it like working with Ophelia?
I would tease her a lot (laughs) because she is a very pretty girl and she is very, very talented, but I would always tease her a lot because she’s always in her book. When I say that I don’t mean tease her because she’s in her book, I was just trying to make her laugh because between every single take she was down in her book studying and she already makes straight A’s to begin with.
So I would just mess with her every once in a while just to get her to smile. Just to get her to take a little bit of a break, but she’s fun. Ophelia’s super smart, she’s got a good head on her shoulders and she loves what she does and she did such an amazing, honest job of playing this character. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with her.
Were there any scenes that were emotionally hard to film?
A couple of things were really tough. The one where Tuigi walks in the door to see Micah and she's been away at the shrine for a while and she's pregnant was really hard for me. Ophelia’s a beautiful young girl and an amazing actress and all I can think about was Ophelia, who in between takes or between set ups is talking about her exams that she needs to get back to. And how innocent she is and how full of life she is and how much she wants to do and accomplish, and she wants to move to America and act; all I can think about is her being ripped away from that. So that was really tough for me. That was a really hard day for me.
And the other one was actually in the slave dungeon, and I’m kind of wiping my hand against the wall; slaves were sold from that building that we were in, and you can feel something there. I don't want to call it a spirit but there is an aura; there’s an energy there that immediately puts you on edge and I cried that entire day. I probably lost five pounds of tears that day because I could not stop crying. I was crying between takes, I was crying at lunch. It was just hard to be there because you look out of these tiny cell windows and you see the Atlantic Ocean and you realize that millions of slaves were taken from buildings like this, put on ships on the ocean that was literally 15 feet away from them. It's the most pristine, cleanest, beautiful beach you've ever seen, and what should be something to be enjoyed and experienced is actually the thing that changed their lives forever, and changed history.
What are your thoughts about other movies made about slavery like Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation?
It’s important. The Nat Turner story is amazing because it's a revolution in its own way, it’s a small revolution. I do think there are different takes on slavery that have not necessarily been told, Nat Turner’s story is one of them. I got an opportunity to see it at Sundance and Nate and the entire team did an amazing job of telling that story. I think a way to change the narrative about these slave stories is to make sure we also tell the story 360 and not just from one perspective. Another TV show that’s doing an amazing job at that is Underground. It doesn’t always have to be the woe is me story, although that is part of the history; don’t get me wrong, that deserves to be there as well, but there are stories of those who fought for their freedom and who led revolutions, who led uprisings and escaped and helped others escape.