Satchel Lee Wants to Bring The Energy of Live Performance to Film

Robyn Mowatt Robyn Mowatt is a staff writer at Okayplayer where she…
Photo credit: Sara Laufer

We recently caught up with Satchel Lee who spoke about art and becoming the first openly queer ambassador for the Golden Globes.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic caused Satchel Lee to slow down. During the heart of quarantine last year, Satchel returned to her childhood home, an Upper East Side townhouse, for a reset. She did a lot of reflecting, bonding with her mother, Tonya, and relaxing. Now, nearly a year removed from the initial stay-at-home order, Lee is ready for what’s next.

Born in New York City, Lee, the 26-year-old daughter of film legend Spike Lee, was a creative kid. She journaled and had a passion for dancing and singing. She remembers a time in elementary school where she skipped out on recess to go write a musical with her classmates. After planning and casting, the group of friends presented the venture to their entire school. 

The film bug caught on by the time she was ready to head to New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She chose filmmaking as an avenue to collaborate with other artists. “I like to make stories, I like people,” Lee said over a Zoom conversation in early February.

As a queer Black woman, Lee is well aware of the space she inhabits when she walks out into the world every day. With the ubiquitous stamp of approval that her last name provides, she feels she’s been privileged with the ability to pursue many different career paths. Satchel is also a photographer and previously served as a writer’s assistant in She’s Gotta Have It, her father’s ex Netflix series. 

At the top of 2021, Lee and her brother Jackson were announced as Golden Globe ambassadors. We recently caught up with Satchel Lee to sort out her thoughts on film, becoming the first openly queer ambassador for the Golden Globes, and what’s next for her. 

Photo credit: Sara Laufer

What’s been keeping you busy during quarantine?

I’m a photographer, so I take a lot of portraits. I love the idea of just having someone sit in front of me and just putting a camera in front of their face. I think there’s something very beautiful about the classical interpretation of what a portrait is, but I’m feeling a little bored with that. 

I’ve been trying to figure out how I can keep the integrity of what this setup is, but also challenge it in some ways and just make it more experimental. I just want to make something more abstract because I think, as exciting as that traditional setup can be, sometimes it can feel stale. In terms of other work that I’m doing, I think right now is a big preparation period. I’ve got a few music videos and short films in the pipeline. 

I feel like we’re in a really cool moment right now in terms of the content that Black filmmakers are creating. What have you been binge-watching or paying attention to recently?

I watch a lot. But truthfully in the way that I think I like the idea of people getting dressed up in their homes, that kind of thing. I really love reality television. I know that’s not very good to say, but there’s something interesting about someone being like, “Oh, this is how I’m supposed to act. So I’m going to act this way.” 

[One] movie I saw that was really good — I’m going to mess up the name. It was the one with Tessa Thompson [Sylivie’s Love]. I liked Nnamdi [Asomugha], I think he was a good actor. I really like Tessa Thompson a lot. It’s one of those things where it’s like, this is a love story. It’s about black people and you know, it [wasn’t] billed for a majority audience. 

[Watching it I was thinking]: Let’s just have a story. Everybody’s just a person. Yes, this is the context, and this is the ways in which I might find this familiar and you may not, but at the end of the day, have we all felt loved? Do we know what that’s like? I just thought that movie was really good. The clothes were really nice too in that film.

How are you feeling about being named an ambassador for the 2021 Golden Globe Awards?

I’m really excited to be able to do it with my brother, [Jackson]. Jackson’s the first Black male ambassador. I’m the first openly queer ambassador, so that’s cool. And the other part of it too is that we were able to pick organizations that the Hollywood Foreign Press Association donates a grant to.

The whole grant is $50,000. So they’ve given $25,000 to Callen-Lorde which is the organization that I’ve chosen here in New York. And they’ve given $25,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters, which is the organization that my brother has chosen. Callen-Lorde does so much amazing work for the city. For the queer community that they provide like 18,000 people a year with healthcare services. They’ve [also] been trying to get comprehensive sex education for public schools in New York City.

They haven’t closed their doors once during COVID. So all the doctors and nurses and healthcare practitioners, not that they need to hear it from me, but to be able to give back a little bit, just to let them know how much I appreciate them, the city, the community, it was the least I could do.

Photo credit: Sara Laufer

Do you have anything else on the horizon for 2021?

I am a trained filmmaker. That’s what my education is in, but in the same way that I think I want to abstract photographs, [I have this] idea of wanting to do the same with film, television, and theater. I think there’s something really interesting about theater. It’s a different sparkle than film and television, and I wonder what a combination, a hybrid of that would look like.

I’ve often thought if this is a screenplay I’m writing, how would it be adapted for the stage if I’m writing a play? How do I adapt it for [the] screen? I think we’ve seen this, like recently, with Hamilton or my dad’s American Utopia, with David Byrne. I think there’s something really beautiful about the texture and the energy of live performance. I wonder how we might be able to preserve as much of that as possible for a digital kind of medium so that as many people can experience it as possible. 

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