Ronald K. Grey, cinematographer on his work on The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy.
R: Let me ask you this question: Have you seen Cruz Brothers?
G: I have. I saw it twice.
R: Good for you man. I really love that film because it’s the first film I did with Kathleen and the first long narrative film that I shot and co-edited.
G: I actually saw it sort of by chance. What I mean by that is that I didn’t have real plans to see it. I happening to be looking at what was playing on that day at BAM and that’s how it went. I’m grateful that happened to me.
R: I’m glad! So what do you want to know?
G: I wanted to ask about some of your background. Things like where are you from, how did you grow up and whether or not those things informed your role in film.
R: I was born in Harlem hospital and raised between the Northeast Bronx and Harlem. From the time I was in elementary school through high school, I was a combination musician and fine artist. After graduating from the High School of Music & Arts as a fine arts student, I went to Pratt Institute for fine arts. Unfortunately, my parents could not afford the tuition and for a lot of reasons, I joined the Air Force and became an Airborne Electronic Technician. But I never forgot my exposure and competency in fine arts. So when I got out, I decided to meld electronics and fine art and started studying motion picture. I went to City College, but before that I had met Kathleen Collins [the director] in a program teaching filmmaking at Channel 13 to people of color, years ago, had to be before 1975. I met her there. I then learned from one of my classmates that she was teaching at City College. But the most thing about me going to City College was that when you studied filmmaking there, they paid to buy the film and get all that stuff developed. So I was never officially her student at City College.
G: That’s interesting; you two could’ve easily never crossed paths then.
R: Well she was a teacher in the undergrad film department and I was accepted into the advanced film program. What happened was, I made a film that won my first award at City College. Kathleen saw the film and was blown away. She approached me and asked me would I be interested in working on a film with her. Because I just graduated, I said “absolutely”. And that film became The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy. I understand you’re studying...Puerto Rican Studies?
G: What I’m studying actually is Journalism with a focus in archiving work. What this project is about is reimagining to history of Puerto Ricans, specifically those who migrated to New York, in cinema.
R: I understand. Well, that was Kathleen’s first narrative film as a director. However, she also was a writer, but she did not want to risk her writing yet. But she had a friend of hers, Henry Roth, who wrote short stories, three of which were about the Cruz Brothers. When she met Henry, she decided, “we’ll do your films first based upon your screenplay.” Kathleen melded all three of the short stories as a co-writer. Now teaching as City College, it was a wonderful place to be in because I refer to it as a “blue collar school.” People came from all over New York and then went home. Nobody lived in the dorms because there were no dorms. We were hungry and aggressive. I actually knew Lionel Piña [actor who played youngest brother Jose] as a student at City College. We were all members of the Leonard Davis Center for the Performing Arts. Kathleen casted Lionel as well as the other two brothers, but Lionel is actually a Dominicano! So you have a Jewish guy writing the original screenplay, an African American adapting the screenplay, an African American cinematographer and co-editor, a bunch of people who are all artists. While the specificity of the film came from the three actors who played the Brothers, they added all the Spanish and fleshed it out, the rest of the crew primarily came from City College as Kathleen students.
G: Can you tell me a little about the setting of the film? What’s unique about Cruz Brothers, both as “Nuyorican Cinema” and in the festival itself, it’s the only film that takes place completely outside of New York City.
R: It was shot in Rockland County, above Kathleen’s house in woods right off Route 9 W. I remember looking for locations and I couldn’t see through the woods so I turned to Rae, the carpenter on set, and said, “I can’t see at the bottom of the hill,” and she would knock down trees! And so this was the craft of theater into filmmaking. Because it was my first long film and Kathleen’s first long directed episode, we learned a whole lot in the craft of making the film. I knew enough about filmmaking that Kathleen and I wrote on the back of her actual shooting script how the screenplay should evolve and look, mind you we hadn’t seen the location yet. A friend of ours who was a realtor up in Rockland County said, “Look I’d love to work with you! What do you guys need?” We need houses; we need places to shoot so she helped us find houses. The house where the boys lived was not too far from Piermont. At the time it was not developed. It was an old, old house and had nothing inside of it. Nothing.
G: I read the film was shot in Nyack.
R: Part of it was Nyack. Part of it was Piermont. Miss Malloy’s house was a function of three separate houses. The exterior from the back was just north of Nyack, now mind you that’s the woods down to the Hudson. The interior was two other houses. The exterior from the front was all Nyack. As we found other places, we could meld all three separate locations into Miss Malloy’s house.
G: What the transition like for all these New York based artists to suddenly be shooting and directing in the middle of the woods?
R: Well we all got to know each other as hardcore urban savages from New York City up in Rockland County. So when I said “I need something done,” my friends from City College, “Ronald I’ll take care of it, don’t worry about it.” So we shot the whole film in 14 straight days. We were exhausted. I’m talking about 16 hour days, but we were young and foolish and we did it.
G: It sounds like everything happened pretty rapidly, which is surprising to me. It moves like something that would’ve taken a long time, I think we make that assumption about masterpieces. That’s a heavy statement to make, but I think it’s a perfect film. Did anyone else share this opinion with me at the time of it’s completion?
R: This is one of wonderful things about Kathleen; because she is African American, at the time when it was finished in 1979, she showed it to her Black peers and they said, “What the fuck is this film? You’re a Black woman.” And she said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve made a mistake. I’m a filmmaker.” At that point, certain people did not accept it. Other people did.
G: Could I ask who didn’t accept it?
R: Well, there was a producer at Channel 13 whose name was Ellis Haizlip. Ellis had a writing conference and he worked at PBS. He goes to Kathleen, “oh so you have a film?” She says yes so when he saw the film and accepted her into the conference. Then, he saw my short film and accepted me into the program. So at this conference, there was a whole bunch of people from around the world. The name of the conference was “Advantages Through Diversity”. You had Asians, Latinos, African Americans, and all kinds of people as well as white people. So this dumb ass white guy goes off and presents the film saying, “Now we have a film done by one ethnic group of people done by another ethnic group of people,” whereupon the Latinos became highly offended. “We’re sick and tired of seeing other people making films about us.” Kathy goes, oh God, now I have to show this film to these people?
R: So they saw the film...and they loved it! Then the Latinos went after these white people and said, “Why the fuck did you set us up to be offended? This is genuine work of art.” It’s like, how dare you assume that we make films the way white people do? Because of who we were, our ethnicity, our artistry, and the fact that we leaned on the ‘Rican specificity that the actor brought to the table, they loved the work. No one was offended. They laughed. It was hysterical. It was wonderful. Because if you really see films done by us, we celebrate our cultures.
G: It’s funny that the conversation has naturally gone this way because it seems as if there is no way it could not come to these points. This is one of the questions I had planned to ask you: Why do you think Kathleen, as an African American filmmaker, why did she choose to take on this film that takes on Puerto Rican culture? Perhaps this is a projection of my own experience, but it seems to me as a New Yorker, there is an inextricably tied destiny between Puerto Ricans and African Americans living in the same communities and relying on each other to push art.
R: It’s true. It’s a very almost narrow place for us to walk. My whole family came from the Caribbean. My parents came from Jamaica, Barbados, and St. Kitts. I certainly can’t speak Spanish; I can certainly speak a lot of Spanglish because I grew up in New York. I am 68 now. At the time when I was in junior high school, Mambo was king in New York. Everybody listened to it and more specifically we got up and danced the Boogaloo. Boogaloo is a melding of Black people and Nuyoricans. We all absored it and we all loved it. My older friends said “Ronald, I wish you can go to the Palladium.” I said “I’m too young. I look like a baby.” I would love to have gone into the Palladium. “No, no it’s time for you learn mambo,” and I’d say what do you mean, I do Calypso. “You’ll easily slide into it,” and we did. Certainly there was dysfunction, but more often than not, there was out and out love. Do you realize how many Nuyoricans loved Jazz? Listening to people like Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, they loved that shit! Tito went and studied music as Julliard. He’s Jazz as well as his culture! So when we went to make that film, it was so easy because number one, the ‘Ricans wanted to be in film period. Not necessarily ‘Rican films, any films especially by a person who was respectful of them.
G: Clearly she was. It’s not anymore clear than in the outcome of the film. I mean look at it.
R: Initially, Kathleen was very upset when people said “Oh man, you’re telling stories about other people!” Well guess what? White people have told our stories for-fucking-ever.
R: And they call it filmmaking. When we did it, it was called “ethnic filmmaking”. I said wait a minute...no no no, either I’m a filmmaker or I’m not. I’m not quote an ethnic fucking filmmaker.
G: I don’t think I ever questioned it after seeing the film, but there certainly seems to be that strong connection to you between Black and Puerto Rican people that I was trying to articulate.
R: You know, years ago I was married to a woman who knew Felipe Luciano from the Young Lords. And I met Felipe and he is exactly the same color as I am! He is as Brown or as Black as I am. We just laughed because people assume that [Puerto Ricans and Black people] don’t care to know each other, we don’t like each other, we don’t respect each other, but look at someone like Felipe! Back then, Felipe’s Afro was as big as mine! The funny thing is, in the scene where Lionel is dancing with Miss Malloy, Lionel couldn’t mambo. He didn’t know. My friend the ballet teacher says, “Lionel, show him what’s supposed to be done.” So I grab Miss Malloy and I had everyone clapping clave while I did it so Lionel could get it. And he did! I said ain’t this special? Here is a Dominican, who is supposed to be a ‘Rican who can’t dance Mambo being taught by a Black dude. And he nailed it.
G: I wanted you to speak a little more on your role as a cinematographer. It seems that to my understanding of what that job entails, you did a lot more than that on this film. You’ve also spoken a bit about your relationship with the Puerto Rican community, can you say that any of that informed the job you had to do on Cruz Brothers.
R: At that point, I was very much exposed to Latin culture in New York, i.e. Boogaloo music and Puerto Rican people. They were also around me in the public school system all the time. Plus growing up in Harlem, my grandmother would take me shopping. Where do you think we went to get her food? La Marketa. I didn’t know where the hell I was going as a child, but that’s where she went to get her produce because she was from St. Kitts. I would be taken with her to carry all this stuff backwards and forwards. So I certainly was exposed to East Harlem and was familiar with East Harlem. And to think about the way all of us have seen all these films our entire lives on TV or on movie theatres, we accept it as real and it takes a long time to say wait a minute, this is not about me. This is done by white people for white people and they tell us that’s filmmaking. No it’s not. We have still, in our capacity, to tell our own stories. We knew certainly most of the ‘Rican actors were being casted as either maids or thugs. And you know, all of us are still trafficking the unchartered territory. The specificity of our capacity to tell our own story has yet to be embraced. How many real, genuine ‘Rican stories do you know in film right now?
G: Right now?
R: I’m not talking about thugs now. Not maids. How many do you know?
G: Zero. Even before, zero.
R: Because it’s like you’re in heaven when you finally see something done about you. How many years did it take for someone like J.Lo to really appear and became a major player in show business? As much of Spanish speaking TV I’ve seen, Caribbean Latinos are in the minority because you’re basically Black. And so I say, oh my god, it’s as racist in Spanish speaking TV as it is in regular TV. What the fuck is going on?
G: It’s the truth. The Cruz Brothers is an anomaly then in that case.
R: The most important thing was that allowed us to be successful was the love and respect we had for each other. When the actors who played the brothers, once they met Kathleen they said, “oh we like this lady,” because she’s not being a jackass.