*interview questions are from various roundtable contributors
Director Sanaa Hamri has something to say. Mainly, she’d like to see audiences embrace the possibilities of positivity on the big screen with her new movie Just Wright, which hits theaters today (May 14). The Moroccan-born, New York-raised beauty is behind the popular Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants movies, and the 2006 Sanaa Lathan romantic comedy Something New, which was Hamri’s first feature film.
After a trial run at acting, Hamri taught herself to edit film, and made a strong name for herself directing music videos for Prince, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Sting, Jay-Z, Christina Aguilera, Common and many others.
With Just Wright, Hamri has reunited with Common, along with Queen Latifah, Paula Patton, Pam Grier, Phylicia Rashad and Grey’s Anatomy star James Pickens, Jr., and seems to have found her stride with creating positive images in film. We sat in on a roundtable interview with the 34-year-old director to find out more about her ideals and hopes for her latest work.
What was your approach for [Just Wright]?
SH: The approach was to create an organic environment that represents the life of Queen Latifah‘s character Leslie Wright. I thought it was depicted in a realistic way so that women could relate to what she was going through. I started from that area so that we could understand her journey as a woman who is 35 and has a house.
I think it’s important to show that women are taking control of their lives. She’s independent with a career that she works hard at and loves as a physical therapist. The one thing lacking in her life is a love life… it’s about balancing a professional life and a personal life.
You directed one of [Common’s] music videos before…
SH: Yes, back in the day  I did “Come Close” with Common, it featured Mary J. Blige. What’s crazy is we shot that in Jersey in a similar area as where Leslie Wright lives, he serenaded a girl who was deaf. It’s great working with him, Common is someone who is enthusiastic, and just a great person. I share so much with him in terms of music and things we like, so it felt really good to have him in the movie.
Having cast a pair of leads from music, how big of a part was music on the set?
SH: Queen Latifah has been acting for a long time, but I will say that working with actors who come from musical backgrounds like Queen Latifah and Common brings a sense of rhythm to scenes and a sense of collaborative exchange with them. It’s not like a party on set, but there was a time with a long lighting setup, it was 2:00 am and the energy was down. I was being the DJ using Latifah’s Ipod, trying to keep the energy going. We had those moments, but integrating a musicality into acting is what makes things flow effortlessly.
Why were [the characters]into jazz as opposed to R&B or Hip-Hop?
SH: When I first read the script I enjoyed the jazz element because I thought it was fresh and talks about the roots of music as well. If we had Hip Hop or R&B, I thought it would be too close to who they were as musical artists, and I thought it would be so regular. I think it’s more interesting that they both know about Charles Mingus and talk about Joni Mitchell, who took a lot from jazz.
As a director, I want to open up doors for all the young people who dont know about music and only think the Black Eyed Peas are the coolest thing, which they are, but I think it’s always important to remember our history.
Knowing that Queen Latifah, [film producer]Debra Martin Chase and you have the kind of juice that you all do, how difficult was it for women to come together and do a movie about the NBA and basketball?
SH: In this day and age I think it’s a misnomer to think that women and sports don’t mix. It’s not a gender thing, ultimately this is a love story set around the NBA – but just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean that I don’t understand the game. It was something that just felt natural. I like shooting basketball because to me it’s bodies in motion. I like telling the story through the sport, a lot of the scenes are focused on the way [Common] is emotionally dealing with coming back versus making it all flashy.
How [difficult]was it to get the Nets to sign on?
SH: I will say the Nets and the NBA were very agreeable – it was a process and it felt like a natural team for [Latifah] because she’s from Jersey and lives there. I wanted to stay with reality as much as possible just so that her character felt like a real character.
How much did you have to cut around to make it look like Common was playing with guys of that caliber?
SH: I honestly didn’t have to cut around him. Looking at the basketball sequences, what I did in editing was let the shots run long, so when he’s doing a layup I completely let it run as he goes through the NBA players. There’s a three pointer that he actually makes – he really plays basketball, and we had a great sports coordinator.
Have you gotten any feedback from any wives in basketball on how close the experience was portrayed?
SH: I don’t know, I personally don’t hang in the basketball wives’ arena, I don’t know any of them personally and it’s not really my clique.
But you haven’t gotten any complaints?
SH: This movie is about love, and I know you’re asking about Paula Patton‘s character Morgan, but to me it represents women who are incessantly looking for the guy who will solve all of their problems. Those type of women do it for a Wall Street guy, or a big CEO of a company. There are women who target men -and in this movie it just happens to be these ballplayers.
Did the NBA put any restrictions on what could and couldn’t be shown in terms of players’ behavior?
SH: They have certain rules like wearing a suit after a game, we had to follow rules in line with the reality of how the NBA runs. Another reason I was always attracted to the project was because I was not about to make a story about an African-American ball player and load him up with clichés. I thought it would do a disservice for the character and for cinema in general.
Is this a trend in Hollywood that lately the N-word isn’t in movies and that there’s less cursing?
SH: I dont know if it’s a trend, I just know that from my perspective that I definitely follow that to the point of removing certain types of language. I think it’s time that we are moving forward, and I want to keep moving forward rather than going backwards. Life is imitating art, and the young kids watching these movies are looking to film, media and TV almost like a mentor, and they grab onto these characteristics.
As a director I’m so aware of that, and that’s why it’s so important to me that with a movie like Just Wright that it has a certain element and class to it, because I think a 14-year-old kid will say, “I want to be like Scott McKnight.”
What do you hope people take from the film and what message are you trying to send?
SH: I hope people enjoy watching it, and that they feel good and inspired to be a positive role model no matter what they do. Queen Latifah‘s character Leslie Wright is a physical therapist, and she really does a good job, having started from a non-glamorous job to one that is amazing, and it’s about hard work. Work hard and be positive.
As a director you had more scenic transition in this movie. Did you do that to try to capture the essence of New York & New Jersey?
SH: I like the sense of place in a film. I used to live in New York, I live in L.A. now and I wanted to give a different perspective for people to really feel the places. New Jersey and New York play roles in the movie, especially after she’s heading back to New Jersey from the job in Manhattan. It was really about their lives and the contrast.
Talk about becoming a director, teaching yourself and breaking into the industry.
SH: For me, it was always about vision. I always say, “if the entire world stops and asks what you’re going to say, what do you have to say right now?” I use filmmaking as a way to say something, be entertaining and have a presence right now. That’s what I love doing, and going through the stages I always stayed on that path. When people ask how I was able to continue going forward, to me it was just having the vision of what I wanted to do, without allowing everyone else around me to be discouraging.
What’s your next project?
SH: I’m attached to a bunch of films, so I dont really know what’s going to go next. I would love to do a musical, because I do have a lot of experience in the performance area. To me it’s quality over quantity… substance is important.
Just Wright trailer