Stephen Williams made his feature directorial debut with 1995's Soul Survivor, a drama about a Jamaican immigrant living in Toronto who collects debts for a local gangster in the hopes of starting a new life for himself. Nearly 30 years later, the filmmaker has helmed a second movie, Chevalier, a period drama about a Black virtuoso rising to the upper echelons of 18th-century French society.
As different as the two films may be in form, they both tell stories of Black immigrants attempting to find their place in a society that sees them as outsiders. "I'm an immigrant," Williams explains. "As an outsider, as somebody who feels displaced, you can imagine that by striving, by achieving excellence, you'll find your place in that world. And that is certainly in part true, but it is not the whole story. It's a lot more complicated than that. And I think is incredibly relevant today."
In the decades between his features, Williams worked as a prolific television director, helming some of the most noteworthy episodes of series like Lost and Watchmen. (He earned Emmy nominations for both shows.) Chevalier drew him back to filmmaking in part because of the connection Williams felt with Joseph Bologne, the composer, swordsmith and titular Chevalier de Saint-Georges.
"There was something personal about the fact that he was born on a Caribbean island, Guadeloupe, and was taken to France by his father at a very young age. I was born in another Caribbean island in Jamaica and made my way to England at roughly the same age," says the director. "There was much that I recognized and identified with and connected to in my understanding of the journey that Joseph's life took him on. For that reason, I was compelled to try to do everything I could to bring the story to the screen."
Below, Williams shares with A.frame five films that left a lasting impact on him. "You are speaking to a dyed-in-the-wool movie addict, so there's nothing I love more than discussing movies."
Directed by: Perry Henzell | Written by: Perry Henzell and Trevor D. Rhone
The Harder They Come is not the first movie I ever saw, nor the first movie that had a profound impact on me. But it is a movie that I revisit over and over and over again. And the more people that get a chance to see this movie, the happier I'm going to be. It is a Jamaican movie starring Jimmy Cliff, and it has the record for the longest unbroken theatrical run of an indie movie at the Orson Welles Cinema in Cambridge. It's a classic. Trust me on that.
Obviously it's Jamaican, so I recognize so much of the movie. I connect with it at a deep elemental level. But it's a journey of an outlaw, a rebel, a person who insists on being able to live by his own personal mandate. That's always a thrilling hero's journey, if you will, for me. I'll spoil it — it ends tragically — but nonetheless, it's a great outlaw movie.
Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola | Written by: Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather is perfect. I do not remember the first time I saw it, and that's largely because I have seen it so many times that one viewing blurs to the other. Now, it's about 50 years old. And if Godfather dropped today, everybody would be blown away. Nobody would be looking at it and going, 'This is so dated. It's so old. It's so whatever.' Nope. The Godfather endures. Its thematics and its characterizations are universal and enduring. It's an amazing piece of work.
Directed by: Michael Curtiz | Written by: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
Casablanca, I've seen 50 times if I've seen it once. Casablanca was written in a hurry, executed in a hurry to fulfill the contractual obligations of the major players, almost considered a kind of a throwaway at the time, and is an enduring classic. It's a fascinating portrayal of someone, Bogie, who sacrifices the love of his life for a greater cause. I mean, that's heartbreaking. That's also an enduring question and crossroads that a lot of us have to grapple with. Not in a literal sense, necessarily, but where do your true values lie? And what are you prepared to sacrifice for a greater good? That's a beautiful, painful movie.
Written and Directed by: James Cameron
Aliens is a flawless movie, and I'll tell you why I think it's a flawless movie: Think how tough it is coming off Ridley Scott's first movie. You're Jim Cameron, how do you leave your own imprint on this burgeoning franchise? And what Jim Cameron did was he told a character piece, but utilizing a genre. Sigourney Weaver is, for all intents and purposes, a career woman. She finds an adoptive child on the terraformed planet, and it ignites in her a sense of maternal responsibility. And it culminates in the climactic sequence with her confronting an alien who is doing exactly the same thing — a mother trying to protect her brood. It's this amazing character piece with this incredible lead performance by Sigourney Weaver, that honors both the genre and the truth of that character journey as well. And it's hard to imagine a better execution of an elevated genre movie.
Directed by: John McTiernan | Written by: Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza
I know it's not original to put Die Hard on the list, but Die Hard is a flawless movie. I'm going to avoid the debate as to whether it's a Christmas movie or not. I will say, for me, it's a Christmas movie, but no one else is obliged to agree with that.
But what it is is an amazing execution of Joseph Campbell's mandate of a hero's journey. At the opening of the movie, John McClane is a man who has treated the largess of his family carelessly. He has been careless with his wife and his time with her, and consequently, runs the grave risk of losing her. He has to go on this hero's journey, and cross many raging rivers, meet many goblins, witches, demons along the way, and only by going through that journey, can he re-earn his place in his wife's affections, and his place in that family constellation. It is an amazing genre exercise. It's an action movie, but it's a character movie first and foremost.
All of those movies that I just listed have, to me, the one essential ingredient of a great movie: And that is that you can watch them over, and over, and over again. And the magic of the movies is when you get to, 'Get away from her, you...' I'm not sure if I'm allowed to use that word. Or 'Yippee ki-yay' — not sure I'm allowed to use that word either! Or, 'This is the beginning of an amazing friendship.' The magic of movies is that you can know how they end, but you are still going to be sitting on the edge of your seat each time you watch those movies, because they're so flawlessly constructed. So, those are five movies that are justifiable classics, and influence me, and I think about them all the time.