My Path to Directing From the South Side of Chicago

A mission to nurture and preserve culture

I want to tell you about a moment I experienced recently, the proudest moment of my career as a commercial director. My first national TV spot aired on the major networks, just a few weeks after we shot in my hometown, the South Side of Chicago. The same streets my father was sent to prison on. Same streets my sister was shot on. Same streets my best friends were murdered on. Same streets that dared me to dream beyond the alleys. The same streets that made me. There's a kid on a bike in the spot. That kid was me—honored, loved and protected by the same community that was labeled a war zone by the president. That was my life. That's the South Side of Chicago. To be able to transport the love I have for the community that raised me into the homes of millions of Americans is a dream completely realized. 

I've lived in one-bedroom shelters with my other six siblings and mother. In basements. In roach-infested hotels off the highway. Literally, I think about what it feels like to go hungry or be homeless every single day. I actually kinda dig it—it makes me feel alive. I wake up every morning in a beautiful home, and I have a bank account with money in it, and I still don't feel like any of it's mine. The only thing I truly feel like is mine is my community.

That connection to my community—and acting in service to it—is also my mission. I take great pride in amplifying marginalized stories and voices through the power of film. I'm an outsider too, a guy who had to take the back door to get here. I didn't have homies at ad agencies or uncles who were producers. Those alley-oops didn't exist for me. I had to create these opportunities by revisioning the landscape of advertising through my ability to cinematically translate emotionality. Filmmaking is a privilege I approach with gratitude and humility.

I worked in restaurants for a while, and it's funny how directing is familiar to that feeling I had then. I love serving people. I'm still that server, just now with more authority and resources. When I'm directing a film project, I'm being entrusted with people's stories, their most personal, emotional situations or events. For a lot of people, it's their first time in front of the camera and they want to know I care about them. And I do. They can look into my eyes and see that I'm cut from a similar cloth. I share a spiritual kinship with my subjects that reflects in all of my pieces. The best I can do is be of service to that person to tell their story to the world, and to portray them with the same sensitivity and love as I would my own mother. 

If you're not serving the folks you're directing, how can you truly connect with them and access their best? It's my job to create a safe zone, to allow them to be vulnerable. Balancing the expectations of the people and the client can be a delicate dance. My approach is to lead with credibility, authenticity and trust. In most cases, the client wants to connect with the community beyond the product, and it's my job as a director to creatively find commonalities within that process—so that the connection is organically sparked. 

It's my goal to establish a level of understanding from both sides, and I see my directorial approach as the bridge for that. My execution is more poetically driven than mechanically engineered—by keeping clients involved, aware and accountable, I'm able to humanize the process and nurture the culture of my projects. 

To truly reach the level of emotional depth it takes to make a spot sing, the community has to understand that my role as a director is to honor their values and handle their energy with sensitivity, care and protection. Since the days of Aunt Jemima, companies have repeatedly misrepresented and disrespected the integrity, culture and buying power of people of color. So there's an inherent mistrust of brands within our communities. 

I view the community and client as one body—striving to be whole and cohesive. Regardless of the project, my flavors remain: credibility, authenticity and trust. 

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Rodney Lucas
Rodney Lucas is a director with Emerald Pictures.

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