In Praise of André Benjamin and Awards Season’s Surprises (Guest Blog)

An Oscar-winning screenwriter and director celebrates those who look beyond the FYC ads

Andre Benjamin in All Is By My Side

What I’ve come to very much appreciate about awards season is that it is not only a recognition of art, but of the art of possible. Filmmaking is all too often a negative-expectation activity. The ambition to tell a story is regularly met with the a “no” more than a “yes,” and even “yes” is tempered by limitations of time, money, access to talent …

Each finished film becomes a document of accomplishment worthy of regard in that alone.

And each awards season, as various organizations gather to offer praise for the state of the art, there are films and performances that dark-horse their way into wider recognition. Their inclusion among assumed frontrunners surprises and sometimes confounds us, but it also reminds us that beyond the guessing games engaged in by the pundit class, there is a larger voting community that is vibrant, diverse and eager to seek out what others gloss over.

Arriving without campaign war chests or PR experts, these outliers find ways to gain cultural density solely on merit, word of mouth, and by performing the art of possible.

I was certainly reminded of that with André Benjamin‘s inclusion in the Independent Spirit Awards’ Best Male Actor category for his portrayal of Jimi Hendrix in the film “All Is by my Side.” As one online writer put it, it was a nomination for an “outstanding” performance that “nobody saw coming,”

Nobody, that is, except for the folks on the nominating committee.

Having worked with André on the movie, which I wrote and directed, I can’t pretend to be objective about the quality of his performance. While others see his portrayal of Jimi Hendrix as exacting, soulful and nuanced, I’m reminded of so much more.

I met André several years before receiving any of the professional accolades I’ve recently been blessed with. Despite the fact that I approached him with no station, no money, no distribution and any number of rights complications, André responded to those challenges with devotion to the material, respect for the subject matter and an insane desire to hone his craft.

He spent nearly seven months learning to play a guitar, learning to play a guitar strung upside down and backward, learning to sound like Hendrix and walk like Hendrix, shedding weight so that he would look more like the young, nearly emaciated Hendrix. Months more were spent rehearsing as we reworked the script both in Los Angeles and in Dublin, Ireland. He did all that was typically expected from the most exceptional of actors – but not so expected from a musician taking time away from his primary discipline.

André is the consummate artist.  He believed if he was going to do the work, he would do so with the same devotion to the craft demonstrated by the most dedicated of our community.

In a space and time when I had no other way to get it done, André made the conceptual real; he transformed himself, fought to get the film made and gave a performance worthy of the greater attention it continues to garner.

I could not have asked for a better partner. In this season I know that I’m not alone. I don’t write merely to praise André’s performance and professionalism, but to acknowledge those who find a way to actualize their passions. I write as well to remind those of us who’ve been franchised with various votes that beyond the multitude of FYC banners, ads and mailings there are a host of works that require yet a bit more discovery.

But in that discovery lays reward; the renewed sense that some are gifted with the ability to take that which lays beyond the realm of easy accomplishment, and make it real.