When I failed
Kevin Coleman's secret to success
Few people credit past failure with their current success, but that is exactly how Kevin Coleman responded to a question about why he chose filmmaking.
“I failed as an actor in junior college,” said Coleman. “I am just too shy to suspend my disbelief in front of the camera, but I have an insane desire to create. So I thought, ‘what about working behind the camera?’”
Since that time, Coleman has been able to do what he loves, staying involved in movies as a professional, a practitioner and an instructor. This semester, he is a visiting assistant professor at UMKC in Communications Studies and has received accolades from his students for content and style.
Graduate student Jeri Riley said, “Kevin brings life and vitality to a subject that has been put on a shelf and left to gather dust. He took African American Film History and breathed life back into it. His openness gives students the opportunity to be candid in their responses and he has opened my mind. His unique style gives a new meaning to diversity. I have learned how important it is for me to respect other cultures as I want them to respect mine.”
Coleman has grown in his teaching and his directing. In his hometown of St. Louis, where he was a community college instructor, he also taught life skills to at-risk and homeless youth through a street outreach program. Working alongside professors, he learned about teaching.
“Talk about coming full circle. In a weird sort of way, I now see likenesses between teaching and film directing. Teachers lead the discovery process with questions. I try to avoid giving the answers in my classes – I want the students to think it through and use their brains to analyze the material. I enjoy teaching for another reason, too. It is a performance profession, like acting.”
Learning by doing
Student Toni Choate echoes Coleman’s statement. “I've taken two classes with Professor Coleman. He establishes a foundation with film and a textbook, then invites us to question and interpret. This makes for some lively discussion. All I can say is, I am richer for the experience.”
At Howard University in Washington, DC, Coleman earned his BA in Film and Communications, and wrote and directed two films, “Inner Conflict,” and “Michael Keys.” At Howard’s annual Paul Robeson award ceremony, “Inner Conflict” received best film, best cinematography and best editing honors; and the film earned Coleman a scholarship from the Eastman Kodak Company. He earned his masters from the prestigious directing program at the American Film Institute in 2005.
Next, Coleman became a student of veteran actor and director Bill Duke, an American Film Institute alumnus. Duke is known for the blockbuster films “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit,” “Hoodlum,” and “Deep Cover.” For a Spark Media and PBS broadcast of “Partners of the Heart,” directed by Duke and narrated by Morgan Freeman, Coleman acted as production assistant. He had the same role on “Angel,” a short Duke-directed film starring rap artist DMX and singer Mary J. Blige.
Coleman calls the work he did with Bill Duke the biggest thrill of his career so far.
“Working side by side with Bill Duke on a music video was the best. But I would have to add, going to film festivals and having people tell me they enjoyed one of my films - that gives you a wonderful feeling. Also, as a student, going to Hollywood parties and seeing all the big wigs was fun.”
For his own students, Coleman has some hard-won advice about self-awareness and developing story-telling sensibilities. As a creative exercise, Coleman urges them to take acting classes for a better understanding of what actors go through to inhabit a character.
Coleman said, “It’s scary for an actor. You feel naked, and you need the protection of your director.”
Finding that deep, dark place
Next semester, Coleman is offering two classes through the Communication Studies department: African American Images in Film, and The Art & Craft of Film Directing. Whatever the subject, Coleman challenges his students to stay true to themselves and fight against the familiar. He wants them to dig deep and find “that deep, dark place we all have,” he said. “That's where true creativity will be waiting. Get out of the way of the material.”
Faced with a choice of the single most important thing in film work, Coleman opts for story, story, story, story. Otherwise, there is no film. Still, there are other important things to figure out. If, as Fellini said, movies speak the language of dreams, then directors must prepare an emotional journey for the audience.
“You struggle against what you know. Your job is to design a film and reveal characters, as opposed to shooting a film and covering characters. You have to get into the world where the characters live,” said Coleman. “In film, two plus two equals five. There is no exact science to help you understand human behavior. After all, Hitler had a mother.”