Creator Series 01: Rodney Lucas

Filmmaker Rodney Lucas on how community has shaped his perspective on the creative process and guided his work on Square’s partner film series "Black Owned."

Square’s 2020 film series “Black Owned” gives glimpses into the work of Black business owners in Jackson, Mississippi; Chicago, Illinois; and St. Louis, Missouri. We caught up with “Black Owned” director and Chicago native Rodney Lucas for the first installment of our Creator Series.

In this series, we sit down with some of our collaborators — world-class creatives and emerging talent — to learn about their creative journey. Here, the conversation between Global Brand Group Creative Director Eileen Tjan and Rodney Lucas hinges on community. They talk about how community shaped Lucas’ creativity and how traveling through the heart of America to film “Black Owned” stoked his inspirations and motivations as an artist.

So, Rodney, first I’d love to just hear a little bit about you — where you’re at currently, where you’ve been, who you are, what you do.

Oh man. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a father. I’m a brother, a son. And most importantly, I am of service to the Black community. My whole jam is re-owning moments. Like, growing up, we were economically poor, but wealthy in spirit and ambitions, so most of my day creatively and also just as a man operating in this world is to reclaim moments that were disallowed or tainted due to systemic oppression in America.

When I step into a coffee shop and I can even afford the small things and provide for my family, that’s what I’m proud of. I live for my family — I love my family. I think the deeper that I get into filmmaking, the closer I get to my family and the closer I get to the South Side of Chicago. You know, they keep me grounded. They keep me aware.

Growing up, being inspired by the environment around you, can you pinpoint a time when you were first motivated or compelled to create? How did that manifest and what mediums did you explore?

It happened pretty early. I was to some degree protected. I think my friends and my family and guys within our community:

They saw this touch of lavender — they saw this glow. We didn’t know what that was, but it was creativity.

We knew that that’s just how Rodney spoke. Whether that was writing poetry or just filming random stuff within our community or rapping, it was just being creative. My community saw that and supported that. They protected it. But they also, I think, were able to see themselves within those creations.

When did you start to combine your abundant creativity and verbal art into filmmaking?

That happened a bit later in life. I saw the industry so deeply entrenched in this level of detachment from what was happening in front of my eyes, right? And I didn’t think that there was a pathway in which I went to school for film or had some grand internship at a film studio.

I came into this game basically as raw talent, just wanting to capture these moments that I lived and loved as an eight- or nine-year-old kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago. And the easiest way for me to do that was to simply pick up a camera and do it. I wanted as little static as possible between the idea and execution of the projects.

It began to happen in my early 30s. But what was great about that was by the time that happened, I already had a high level of independence, artistically and economically. So I didn’t necessarily hop into this game with this level of thirst for people to cosign me or to put me on, right? And that’s how I designed it. I wasn’t going to become a part of this industry to work for this industry.

What other art forms or mediums did you explore that allowed you to take that step into filmmaking?

I was a rapper, so I was on tour and I was able to just build with people and travel and form relationships that became really important to me. And aligning myself with some really good producers and managers, that allowed me to see how a team process could add to the victory.

Now, I wouldn't say there was this defining moment that got me here — it was really just a collage of moments. And those moments would happen when I was 15 years old and I would step into the beauty salon and my mother’s friends would all make me rap for them. So I’m rapping in front of like 13, 14 Black women getting their hair done, right? And I’m just spazzing, and they would give me like a dollar. Like, Rodney is only here because of that beauty salon. Rodney is only here because some of the older guys in my neighborhood didn’t let me get in the car with them. So filmmaking is easy, you know?

I love hearing about how members of their communities are the people influencing and a part of rewriting what it means to run a business. They’re helping to redefine where inspiration comes from in the creative industry.

They are. And maybe one of my worst fears, which is probably why I’m such a hands-on father, is my son having a dream or an idea and getting to an age where that idea becomes part of his everyday practice in life, and then seeing a group of people standing as a gatekeeper. That’s oppression, yo. That’s oppression. I wasn’t with those vibes, you know?

And you could see it throughout my films — I film as if you’re right there in the soul of the community. I film as if you are next to me in that kitchen, as if you are with me over the shoulder of that mother braiding her daughter's hair. That level of intimacy to me is critical. And you couldn’t fake that with a billion dollars, you know? That comes from connecting. That comes from being of the community. That comes from being of the soil.

When I watch “Black Owned”, I feel like I’ve had the opportunity — a privilege — to see into this community through your eyes and hear their stories. It makes a really deep impression on me. I’d love to hear you talk about the perspective you brought to “Black Owned” — what drew you to that project initially?

Yo, thank you — it’s so neat to know that that film series resonated with you on such a spiritual level. With “Black Owned” itself, I wanted to create three different reflections and three different chapters of Black life in America as it relates to entrepreneurship — from St. Louis to Chicago and Jackson, Mississippi.

So when the concept of filming in Jackson came about, it was as close to our ancestors — to our family’s lineage — as me and my DP Kassim Norris could possibly get. It was more of a spiritual homecoming. And I get goosebumps thinking about it. I would wake up in Jackson at like four, five and just walk the town, and I literally felt the heartbeats of slaves, and I felt the voices on those plantations.

En ce qui concerne la migration des populations noires et l’entrepreneuriat, tout a commencé à Jackson, puis à Chicago. D’ailleurs, Chicago représente souvent la première étape que les populations noires courageuses, artistes et résilientes franchissaient lorsqu’elles quittaient le Sud.

Ensuite, il y a St. Louis. Ces frères de St. Louis étaient pour moi le reflet de la diversité de l’entrepreneuriat noir. Nous avions un frère qui s’exprimait à travers la mode et qui donnait confiance aux enfants noirs et aux femmes noires. Nous avions également un frère qui s’est concentré sur le thé et sur la façon dont il était lié à la terre à des fins de guérison. Et enfin, notre frère qui a mis sur pied une boutique de bière artisanale, et il a fait sa place avec son hip hop.

Je suis tellement ému par ces histoires parce que, pour moi, elles sont toutes le reflet le plus brillant, le plus beau et le plus glorieux de la vie des Noirs en Amérique aujourd’hui. Sur chaque tournage, j’essaie de retrouver l’énergie qu’on avait à Jackson dans le Mississippi.

C’est formidable de voir votre parcours à travers ces villes. Pouvez-vous nous en dire un peu plus sur les entreprises présentées et sur vos expériences avec les propriétaires?

J’ai grandi à un coin de rue de [5 Loaves Eatery], et c’était la première fois que j’avais une grande conversation passionnée avec [la propriétaire] Constance. Je fréquentais son restaurant depuis des années, je jouais et je passais devant, mais elle était toujours très occupée, elle travaillait tout le temps.

So, I’ve never been able to truly sit this amazing Black woman down and say, “Yo, let’s talk. Let’s build. I love you. You are everything that’s great about the South Side of Chicago. You are the reflection I want my daughter and my son to see.” I just felt the most honored to be able to give that moment a voice.

And with [owner of Marshall’s Music & Bookstore] , Maati [Primm] in Jackson, Mississippi, I knew the second I sat down with that sister, she would make me rethink almost everything American society has taught me about the Black experience. And when she spoke, there was this level of silence in the room — you knew people were truly absorbing the words.

And the way she carried that experience, we left there with true goals and lessons. She gave you the knowledge — but in exchange for that, it’s almost as if you made this spiritual promise with her to continue speaking, continue amplifying the legacy of Black ownership.

That obligation to continue to be proud amplifiers of the Black experience woke us up every morning.

In St. Louis, that was a matter of showing and tapping into this level of Black male sensuality and Black male care that we don’t often see onscreen. My brother [Brandin Vaughn] has a boutique [Brandin Vaughn Collection], but he gives away way more clothing than he sells, you know? The brother [Reo Quarles] with the tea shop [Teatopia], the game he’s giving is far beyond the tea that he’s selling. Brothers [Justin Harris and Ryan Griffin] with the craft beer joint [St. Louis Hop Shop], they’re pioneers, and they wear that with extreme grace and extreme pride.

What did you learn from these business owners that might speak to Black-owned businesses to come?

Don’t just embrace Black culture when it’s economically convenient. Embrace Black culture when you see a food desert on the South Side of Chicago. Embrace Black culture when you see Black businesses being pushed out on Cherokee Street in St. Louis. Embrace Black culture when you go to Jackson, Mississippi, and you see these beautiful, historical Black buildings basically dissolving before our eyes.

Everyone that we had the pleasure of filming and documenting, their love for our community was so deep that they wanted to be there to be able to plug some of those holes. They’re so committed, they wanted to actually become part of the change — a direct part of the fix.

Going back to the collaboration on “Black Owned” — were you surprised at the initial contact?

I don’t expect any company to actively want to economically support Black creatives — I do that myself. I am the big homie. I got that. But then once I met the team and was able to build with them, that quickly evolved into promise.

I just can't stress enough how every step of "Black Owned" internally was a team effort and was completely supported. This was part of the culture of Square, which was just incredible.

I don’t think that any Black creative going forward should see companies like Square supporting them, their communities, their vision, as this moment of surprise. I wanna grow to a place where that’s common, right? And that support within Square, I think that is a model that I would love to see at other companies — that level of diligence and detail, that level of care with sensitivity with a project like “Black Owned”. That made us feel seen, that made us feel honored, and it made us feel important.

Rodney, thank you so much for your time. This was a real honor for all of us. It was a very special first episode of our Creator Series, and I’m so happy it was you.

Sincerely, that means the world to me. I truly, truly appreciate it. It’s just been so dope to watch this continue to grow, evolve, and blossom beyond the content itself.

“Black Owned” earned eleven medals in the 2021 Telly Awards: four bronze, four silver, and three gold. The series won gold in the Culture and Lifestyle, Diversity and Inclusion, Social Impact, and People’s Telly categories. It also won the 2021 Webby Award for Diversity & Inclusion and is a finalist in the 2021 Tribeca X awards. It also won the 2021 Webby Award for Diversity & Inclusion as well as Best Episodic in the Tribeca X Awards.

Campaign credits: Justin Lomax (Head of Creative, Square), Rodney Lucas (Director, Even/Odd), Mallory Russell (Head of Content Marketing, Square), Mohammad Gorjestani (Executive Producer, Even/Odd), Malcolm Pullinger (Executive Producer, Even/Odd), Alex Friedman (Supervising Producer, Even/Odd), Trishtan Williams (Line Producer, Even/Odd), Kassim Norris (Director of Photography, Even/Odd), Ashley Rodholm (Editor, Even/Odd), Ayumi Ashley (Color Grade, Ntropic), Joel Raabe (Sound Design & Mix, Mission Film & Design), Dushane Ramsay (Sr. Brand Strategist, Square), Sean Conroy (Global Creative Director, Square), Eileen Tjan (Global Creative Director, Square), Kirstyn Martin, Sr. Interaction Designer, Square), Michael Arguello (Lead Art Director, Square), Nelson Murray (Sr. Creative Producer, Square), Evan Groll (Sr. Video Producer, Square), Ward Sorrick (Creative Studio Lead, Square), Steven Dupre (Sr. Film Editor, Square), Nick Dimichino (Social Media Content Lead, Square), Kim Miles (Head of Photography, Square), Amy Feitelberg (Photography Art Director, Square), Aaron Weiss (Customer Success, Square), Janjay Sherman (Content Marketing, Square), Kellie Spano (Brand Marketing, Square), Sasha Casas (Corporate Communications, Square), Katie Dally (Seller Communications, Square), Lauren Weinberg (Head of Global Marketing, Square)