• Interviews

Anthony Bawn and Spencer Michael Collins IV on “Velvet Jesus”

Velvet Jesus is a collaboration between African American filmmakers Anthony Bawn and Spencer Michael Collins IV, who created the company VIM Media LLC to create content for their community and tell stories that are not often heard outside it. It turned out that it is not an easy task creating gay African American content, and the team set out to make a difference and create a platform for their community to tell their stories too. The community has seen a lot of trauma that has not been openly discussed until now, and their films and TV series are intended both as what they call “edutainment,” and as a conversation starter about subjects that are not easily talked about. Their current film, Velvet Jesus, about an African American gay man who seeks to confront his stepfather with past events that continue to traumatize him as an adult, is just one of many projects that seek to enlighten the community at large and open such topics up for debates. We spoke to directors Anthony Bawn and Spencer Michael Collins IV from their homes in Los Angeles.


The story Velvet Jesus is based on a true story about an African American man who confronts his stepfather with past events that have been traumatizing for him. Why did you want to tell this particular story, and how close is it to the true story?

Spencer Collins: We wanted to tell this story because we do not really talk about trauma a lot in the African American community – especially among Black males. The movie was written by my mentor, Charles McWells, and he was brave enough to put most of his life story into it, which I applaud him for because his transparency will help a lot of people.

Anthony Bawn: A lot of African American men do not discuss the trauma they have suffered, and this shapes who they are and what they become. A lot of bad choices and misplaced anger stem from some kind of trauma that Black men have gone through growing up in underprivileged and disenfranchised Black households. That does not mean that all Black households have had traumatic experiences. Going into the realm of systematic situations that Black families go through that other families do not, such as struggling financially, the lack of financial literacy – there are many things that happen in a Black household that some Black men only learn of as adults.

One of the elements of the story in Velvet Jesus is alcohol abuse and the effect it has on both the abuser and the people around him. Is this a subject that is important to you personally?

Spencer Collins: Yes, it is very important to both of us. I am pretty sure that we both have someone in the family who is an alcoholic. The trauma of being a Black man is something that most people will never understand – it’s why so many of us self-medicate with alcohol and drugs. We have to worry about things that other ethnicities don’t have to. Back in the day, we had to worry about being lynched or hanged or accused of a crime we did not commit just so they had the right to kill us – which they already had anyway. Now, this is even scarier because we have sons, grandkids, nephews, and we are older, and even if we think we have surpassed this in our history, the fact that we’re still living it today proves otherwise. Prime example – I was coming home last night from a birthday party and on the way back, the police were racing behind me, and my heart immediately jumped out of my chest because I thought they were after me. They sped around me, but as a Black man, I am afraid for my life every time I hear a siren, and especially when driving. This is part of the reason why so many of us decide to self-medicate to escape all this by drinking. Guess what? These are the things that feed our alcoholism. I also think these are the things people don’t take into consideration when they talk about an increase in alcohol and drug abuse in our community. We have so many reasons to do those things because we are constantly in fear. I am constantly in fear because as a Black who has seen and felt the effects of white supremacy, at times I feel the world is out to get me/us. It sounds like an exaggeration, but it feels like our truth.

Does this affect you daily?

Anthony Bawn: I am an educated man, but that does not matter because I am still looked at and treated as if I am insignificant, and I cannot fathom that. So, Spencer and I, nine times out of ten, if we are not with each other or in our homes, we don’t go out to different places, because we don’t want to be in situations where we can be subjected to being detained or threatened. It’s an ongoing thing and it is something other people don’t have to worry about. But in our community, we have to worry every time we walk out of the house.

Spencer Collins: And unfortunately, we also have to fear our own community, which is broken and disenfranchised and angry and does not know what to do with that. So, there’s a lot of displaced anger we have towards each other because we are dealing with so many outside elements that we don’t know what to do about, even in your own neighborhood. You feel fear because these people have been traumatized as children and they still are still being traumatized as adults, so that is another reason why I wanted to tell the story of Velvet Jesus because it dives into the background of both (main characters) Carl and Vernon and why they are doing the some of the things they are doing. That is one thing we don’t do enough in the community: we don’t pull the curtain back and look behind it to see what is really going on, and why it is happening, and what this person is dealing with. Why are they affected like this? And do they need counseling? There is so much that is not talked about, and it is frustrating. But our community is so traumatized that after a while, it becomes normal. We want to take that normalcy away and talk about the why. That is the only way it will change is by confronting it head-on, and if people watching have not lived this experience, this is a way for them to better understand it.


It is also a film about sexuality. Without revealing too much, can you talk about which thoughts you had about it before making the film?

Anthony Bawn: Velvet Jesus was a play before we made it into a film, so we wanted to make it cinematically beautiful without pulling focus away from the story of the two main characters. We want the audience to be somewhat in the dark as to what one of the characters is talking about until he says it flat out, and then you see what happened in the flashbacks of his memories.

Spencer Collins: I did not want sexuality to be the first thing people saw. What I wanted them to see was two Black men dealing with a universal issue. We did not want Carl to be a stereotypical gay man, nor did we want Vernon to be the stereotypical child molester.

The film stars Ernest Hardin Jr. and Jensen Atwood as the stepfather Vernon and the younger man Carl. Why did you choose these actors for your film? What impressed you about them?

Anthony Bawn: I had never worked with them before. However, I have a degree from Columbia in acting, so when I was working with them on set, it was very important to me that they did not overplay it. Ernest did the play on stage, so it was important that he understood the difference and that he understood that we should see his emotions through his eyes and facial expressions. Jensen really impressed me every single day on set, because I had underestimated his ability to go dark.

Spencer Collins: Because I had already worked with Ernest, I knew that he was the man for the job, but we did explore several options and bigger names during the casting process. However, after viewing the play again, it was Anthony that insisted I call Ernest and get him back in. I also knew that Jensen could do more than he’s been cast to do in the past after seeing him in Oprah’s Their Eyes were Watching God, and I wanted to give him an opportunity to prove it! Which I believe he did, especially on set. We gave them the necessary space needed because it was a very intense story. Ernest is someone who wants to communicate – he wants to talk to the other actor and rehearse – but Jensen did not want that. He did not want to be Ernest’s friend because of the dynamic between the characters – he knew what he needed to do, and that this would get in the way of his performance. And it shows on screen because there is that awkwardness between them that I don’t think they would have been able to achieve had Jensen not pulled away.

A velvet Jesus picture has a significant role in the film. Why did the scriptwriter Charles McWells choose this particular image?

Anthony Bawn: The velvet Jesus is a statement. Jesus has been painted as a white man who walked in Jerusalem. However, the real description of Jesus is not quite that. As a community, we feel that Jesus was African American. The velvet Jesus is an important statement: It is a sense of uniting the communities.

Spencer Collins: In this period, most Black households would have a Black velvet Jesus in the house: he’s how we’ve made it through so much. We put our trust, hope and faith in Jesus and his abilities to deliver us. So it makes sense that Carl believes giving this painting to Vernon will make everything right. It’s a strong statement: “If Jesus can’t fix it, then who can?”

What do you hope to achieve with this film?

Anthony Bawn: The same thing we want to achieve with all our projects: we want to tell our stories because we have so many to tell. We have a show called Trace, that talks about the 1970s serial killer the Doodler who was killing LGBTQ men in the gaslight district of San Francisco. We have another one called Conframa about polygamous relationships in the LGBT community. What we are trying to do is start a conversation for people to open their minds and realize that things that they think they know about us, they really don’t. There are many things that happen in this world and in the community that needs light shed on it. The ballroom community became popular with Pos,e but what will these actors do now that it’s been pulled & shelved like so many of our LGBTQI Programs? Will they be placed in a box where they can only be seen as characters in a ballroom scene? These are real people’s lives, and we just want people to see us as normal people.

You also made a movie called As I Am about the LGBTQ community. How important is it for you to tell the stories?

Anthony Bawn: We go through these things every day. Our people – the LGBTQ community – go through it every day. My purpose for writing As I Am was that I wanted it to be a story about people who do not know their identities. They are two individuals, who happen to fall in love with each other. It also deals with a trauma that a character has that was not discussed and that thus blows up at the wrong time and prompts a discussion – and a discussion needs to be had about these issues. Also, being able to tell our stories authentically written for us and by us.

Spencer Collins: It’s all about creating platforms and safe spaces for people to have conversations that we would not otherwise have. That is why we title our work “edutainment,” because it is educating and entertaining at the same time. One of the things that we thought was most effective in our community is to talk to an audience when you have them captive – and you can do that by entertaining them. It makes everyone feel safe enough to have a conversation about what was just seen and experienced through film, and because they are in a room with other people like them, they feel validated enough to discuss openly what was there for them.

May I ask how you yourselves identify?

Spencer Collins: I identify as a bisexual man. However, I now prefer to be with a man. I have a child – he is 18 years old and he is the light of my life. But at this point in my life, I don’t want to be with a woman. In our community, it is kind of taboo to identify as bisexual because they think you are doing it because you don’t want to say you are gay. But for me, it is not that. I am attracted to both sexes, period. Right now, I am more attracted to a man, so that’s who I’m with. When I’m with a woman, it’s the same thing.

Anthony Bawn: I am married to a guy for over seven years. But I am still very much attracted to women as well, so I guess that means bisexual as well.

Is it important for you to create job opportunities for your community?

Anthony Bawn: Yes. There are a lot of trans actors who find it difficult to get work, and it’s important to me that we continue to create opportunities for them. At the same time, we want to create a space where they don’t necessarily need to be identified as transgender to work. If you identify as a woman, you should be cast as a woman, and vice versa. It is important that we in our community employ each other, but it’s also just as important that we get the financial backing to be able to continue to make quality products.

Spencer Collins: We have mostly made independent projects, and we find that the support we get is limited. It is a small fraction of what they would give to someone of a different race. They expect us to make quality projects with low and micro budgets, but they give much bigger budgets to other content creators. Our crews are very diverse; however, it would be nice to have an all-African American crew. But we don’t even have the finances to have the crews we have now. We are digging deep into our own pockets to pay everyone else, but we don’t get opportunities to pay ourselves and we work hard.

So, there is discrimination based on race in terms of the financial support you get? And is there a place that specializes in helping fund African American projects?

Anthony Bawn: No, there is not a place that we know of that specializes in helping to fund Black projects. That is why Spencer and I usually do everything ourselves: we write, direct, produce, edit, sometimes we do lighting, craft services or whatever else is needed while filming to get it done. We play every role we can in-house because we do not have enough money to pay the sound mixers, special effects, colorists for postproduction like we’d like to. So, we rely on our friends and family for support, which is still not enough if we want to continue to create a good project.

What is the budget for Velvet Jesus?

Spencer Collins: (laughs) The final budget was about $65,000. It is not a big budget for the content that was produced and created. For the amount of people, we had involved, it would be considered a drop in the bucket on a bigger project. For us, it was quite the sacrifice, and though we did receive some financial assistance it wasn’t enough to keep us from having to make personal financial sacrifices. And there is no place where we can go to get dollars specifically for African American content creators. That is why we created our own company, to be able to help other people. The problem is that in helping others, we hurt ourselves. But the quality of our content is getting better and together we are stronger and can accomplish so much more. It was a no-brainer to do it together but the main element that we are still missing is funding. We have reached out to certain networks, who have offered us money for projects, but it was not enough to make a good project and also pay ourselves, so we always have to make a choice. As you see, our content wins.

Anthony Bawn: We did Trace during COVID, and that was very difficult. We pitched it to networks, and they wanted the project because they knew that our content is going to bring on a whole different bracket of audiences, but they are not willing to give us the money for it. I know personally that they have given other people, who are not people of color, more money to create. They want the Black audience, but they don’t want to pay for the Black content to get them. We’re hoping to change that.