“What was important to me and was an inspiration for the film was to start creating narratives that tell the story of women’s contributions to hip hop,” said Academy Award-nominated producer Lisa Cortés.
Her film “The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion,” sheds lights on ladies who helped shape and continue to have a hand in the hip-hop aesthetic as well as the present and future within the style industry. It is among the robust lineup of films for Cinema St. Louis’ 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival taking place November 7-17 at various venues.
Cortés was a part of the global cultural empire known as hip-hop just as it was breaking into the mainstream in the 1980s. She worked with some of the biggest names in hip-hop through Rush Management and Def Jam Management as an executive and eventually owned her own label.
When she transitioned into filmmaking, it was a priority for her to correct a serious oversight within historical accounts of the art form’s origins.
“I’ve seen so many wonderful documentaries on hip-hop – music and culture – and women are kind of pushed to the sidelines,” Cortés said. “And having been a woman in that business, I know that we occupied essential posts and from the beginning. When Kool Herc DJ’d for the first time and showed the world his innovation, his sisters were the ones who threw that party.”
The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap record to hit national airwaves (played first at East St. Louis’ WESL 1490), was produced by a record label owned by Sylvia Robinson.
“Whether it is in fashion, as an artist, as a manager, as a producer, as a record label owner, women have always been an important part of hip-hop culture,” said Cortés. “And they had such boundless entrepreneurship to match the boundless creativity. I saw a gap in the narrative that was being told and the need to highlight the important contributions that women have always had.”
After feeling like she had ascended to the highest heights possible within the music industry, Cortés found her next chapter while sitting in a movie theater swept away by a film in a language she didn’t understand.
“I had no idea what they were saying, but I knew what was going on,” Cortés said. “That really underscored the idea that a picture is worth a thousand words. All of the great songs could only go so far if you didn’t understand the language they were in, but these films could affect conversations and change.”
She worked alongside Lee Daniels for several years as a producer for films such as the Academy Award winning “Precious,” “Shadow Boxer” and “The Woodsman” among others before launching her own Cortés Films in 2010.
“The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion” is her debut as a director. She co-directed the film along with Farah X in addition to her role as producer.
The magic of black creativity
Roger Ross Williams’ “The Apollo,” another film that included Cortés as a producer, is also among the films to play SLIFF over the next ten days. Both films premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year.
“Roger Ross Williams is an incredible director and visionary,” Cortés said. “I greatly appreciate working with Roger, because there is a rigorous intellectual exploration that is then translated into a cinematic journey that is so rich and compelling. We were equally committed to this love song to the Apollo.”
The film gives incredible context to why The Apollo is as much a historic institution and national treasure as a performance venue.
“You can pass by the marquee of The Apollo and never have a sense of how far ranging the impact of that theater is – and this film takes you through that journey of why it’s important,” said Cortés.
The Apollo’s significance stretches far beyond African American entertainment history. And with encyclopedic footage that supports nearly each interview, “The Apollo” effectively conveys that notion.
“It is about the important conversations we as black folks have through the art we create,” Cortés said. “It is a reflection of the conditions that we live in, our hopes and aspirations. I think so many times, people just see the surface and are like, ‘I love that song or that joke made me laugh.’ But whether it’s Billie Holliday singing “Strange Fruit” – a protest song – or whether it’s the great comedians and how they used comedy to address the conditions that we are living in, the Apollo provided a platform.”
In addition to having her films screened as a part of SLIFF, Cortés was thrilled to learn that she would be the recipient of their 2019 Women in Film Award.
“It was so unexpected. It means the world to me,” Cortés said. “The company that I’m in as far as the other people who have received this, is truly remarkable.”
Past recipients have included Pam Grier and Kimberly Steward.
“I don’t do the work for awards, I do the work for the change that I believe these films can make in people’s lives and that they can have a greater understanding, that they can have empathy – that it can be a call to action,” Cortés said. “I want my work to be of service. And that my service has been recognized, I’m incredibly grateful.”
“The Apollo” and “The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion” serve their purpose of making our history come alive with vibrancy and depth and demonstrating the continuum of black culture’s place in the world as well as the ingenuity and resilience of the people behind it.
“The two films are documentaries that are so rich with archival and interviews and music, but also great takeaways about the ability of African Americans to take straw and spin it into gold,” Cortés said. “And how what we create often comes from what has been discarded by others – and how we have used our genius to re-contextualize, to remix and ultimately elevate what we share with the world.”
“The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion” will screen as part of Cinema St. Louis’ 28th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival at 6 p.m. on Sunday, November 10 at Washington University’s Brown Hall Auditorium. “The Apollo” will screen at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, November 10 at the same location. For a full lineup of films and related programming for this year’s festival, visit www.cinemastlouis.org or call (314) 289-4150.