Film: A New Direction

Something New director Sanaa Hamri moves from videos to the big screen

The best music videos are distinguished by their compressed narratives and the director's stylistic imprint. In some dramatic cases the music — and, by association, the musician(s) — become secondary players.

Strong, distinctive performers like The Beastie Boys, Massive Attack, Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails have been able to forge indelible creative partnerships with the likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer and Mark Romanek. Of course, these visionaries have crossed over to achieve critical success beyond music videos with Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sexy Beast and One Hour Photo.

Those who pay special attention to the credit block when surfing cable music video channels know about the dearth of women making a significant mark in the field. One of the recognizable names is Sanaa Hamri. Before teaching herself how to edit film, which led to her initial work in the industry as a music video editor, Hamri studied theater and acting at Sarah Lawrence College.

Each step of her apprenticeship seemingly enriched her vision as she kept her eye on the prize. The Moroccan-born director displays a natural affinity for images that attract the senses. Her video frames feature lush, vibrant color and fluid movement in time to the rhythms of the music.

Hamri's diverse videography includes recent work with Prince, Mary J. Blige, Sting, Seal and Lenny Kravitz.

Now Hamri confidently brings her talents to bear in the service of her first feature-length film, Something New.

"After directing for all of my favorite artists, I reached a place where I wanted to expand myself and do a film because I had been condensing all these narratives into these four-minute pieces," she explains during a brief phone interview.

The story revolves around Kenya (Sanaa Lathan), an aspiring partner in a Los Angeles firm who spends far too much time focused on being better than her white male colleagues and not enough time catering to her personal life. She and her three equally successful single girlfriends are a West Coast version of the Sex and the City girls with the added awareness of race as a factor in their relationship-challenged lives.

When a white co-worker sets her up on a blind date with Brian (Simon Baker), a white bohemian contractor, Kenya's first response is a blatant mix of discomfort and rudeness. His race and the fact that he's a far more free-spirited, less corporate-minded man sends him back to the dugout before he can even lift the bat off his shoulder. But when she hires him to landscape the grounds of her new home, the long hours together planning the project lead to Kenya's awakening, both to him and the truth about her own nature.

Something New was shepherded to the screen under the guidance of a strong team of women in key positions. After joining producer Stephanie Allain and screenwriter Kriss Turner, Hamri found muses in Wendy and Lisa, former members of Prince's Revolution whose "classical piano style made them the perfect choice" for the score she had in mind from the outset.

The working title of the project, 42.4 Percent, speaks to data on unmarried African-American women in our society. But the film leaves the cold, hard facts and explores the road less traveled that Kenya finds herself on as she opens up to the notion of Brian as a potential lover and soul mate.

Hamri is the product of an interracial union, which likely influenced her honest approach to material that rarely gets treated in Hollywood, especially in a romantic comedy.

There are a number of largely unspoken rules defining suitable partnerships for a mainstream film. Two white protagonists are most universally accepted. Two black protagonists create an urban picture, which limits the domestic and international box-office earning potential. The taboo of black men and white women has never truly emerged in a romantic comedy due to a host of cultural assumptions predicated on the notion that white men and black women would be equally turned off and thus spell disaster at the box office.

Black women and white men have a slim, shaky history beyond the romantic comedy world. Most notably, there was the dramatic pairing of Halle Berry and Billy Bob Thornton in Monster's Ball, which earned Berry an Oscar and made her the butt of some negative criticism for her raw sex scene with Thornton. Last year's Guess Who, featuring Ashton Kutcher and Zoe Saldana, less directly addressed this dynamic because it was intended as more of a buddy film for Kutcher and hot sitcom dad Bernie Mac.

When asked about filmmakers who have inspired her, Hamri points to the French New Wave and Jean-Luc Godard. Curiously, the shorthand approach that Godard used — trusting in his American audience's comprehension of film conventions — is clearly evident in the way narrative music videos compress their story lines yet are still able to convey their themes.

But Hamri's association with Godard can be understood in his role as a social critic. With Something New, she addresses race and a new dynamic within a familiar framework by speaking directly to and embracing the two segments of the larger audience most likely to be alienated by the material: white men and black women.

But will this make it a hit? Hamri has done her part and is looking forward to finding something else on which to set her sights. Her vision, and by extension ours, is open to whatever lies ahead. ©

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