We’re all Golden Eagles here. Gemma is away on festival assignment, so Slim and Mitchell are joined by Julian Higgins, director and co-writer of God’s Country—his neo-Western debut feature which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. We also dive deep into Julian’s four favorite films: Rashomon; Chimes at Midnight; The Return and Foxcatcher. Plus: Julian growing up with college professor cinephile parents; why he’s never seen a Star Wars movie; Toshiro Mifune is the last 30 seconds of a bag of Skittles; Slim (still) isn’t a Shakespeare person; going “full-on Orson Welles”; Julian being afraid of reading reviews from writers he loves; Mitchell watching Foxcatcher in the heart of du Pont country; and Julian’s childhood hero Basil Rathbone.Read transcript
Actor John Boyega and writer Kwame Kwei-Armah on righteous generational rage, showing the humanity behind the heist in Breaking and their hopes for Black storytellers.
“It’s so important that we have an audience that’s open to listening to a perspective that they haven’t lived through—these fundamental things that change people from the inside out. The main general thing is just to shut up and listen. Just shush.” —⁠John Boyega
This interview contains plot spoilers for Breaking, which is based on a true story.
Breaking explores the inner mind of a complex man who leverages the spectacle of terror to cast light on an everyday American crisis, one that could be holistically remedied if only it is considered important enough. Any number of American stories like this can be told, and many often are for their entertainment value. But there is a compassion and a frankness threaded through Breaking that transcends typical heist films, which is no surprise given the creative brains behind it.
The film stars actor and activist John Boyega (Small Axe, Star Wars) as Brian Brown-Easley, a former US Marine who held up a Wells Fargo bank in Atlanta in 2017. Abi Damaris Corbin’s affecting, dramatic debut thriller, co-written with groundbreaking UK theater-maker Kwame Kwei-Armah OBE, is based on a true story. Easley was a young father on the verge of houselessness, who threatened to detonate a bomb in the Georgia bank to draw attention to the US Department of Veterans’ Affairs’ usurping of his disability money and neglect of his emotional needs.
In Breaking’s pensive script, brought off the page by Boyega, Easley is tragically aware that, despite his military service and his doting fatherhood, advocating for his livelihood within the system would not garner the same amount of attention as orchestrating the possibility of televised Black death in the 24-hour news space.
Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth, 42) and Selenis Leyva (Orange is the New Black) deliver sublime character work as bank manager Estel and senior employee Rosa, who remain in the building with Brian while outside, the late Michael K. Williams brings nuance and charity to the role of police negotiator Eli Bernard. As each of them realizes the stakes that are really at play, their reactions are severely tested.
In the realm of stick-’em-up movies, Breaking is more delicate than action-heavy gang heists or the white-collar, quippy one-liners of the Danny Ocean capers. It differs too from the chilling melancholy of white loner films like Beast Beast, We Need to Talk About Kevin, or even 2003’s Elephant—all stories in which vengeful, patriarchal carnage is to the fore.
Although Brian creates chaos and panic with his hostage-taking maneuver, it is not undergirded by his love of the con, or a desire to usurp power, or to show brute strength. Rather, it is the extreme length he feels he must go to in order to have his ordinary outrage witnessed and legitimized on an institutional level.
Wanting to understand more about the humanity infused throughout the film, I met with Boyega and Kwei-Armah in separate Zoom calls on the same day to ask about how these exemplars of Black British artistic excellence came to work on this compelling American tragedy.
It’s really lovely to be here speaking with you John! Thanks for making time.
John Boyega: No, likewise!
Bank heists are Hollywood action bread and butter (even this year we had Michael Bay’s Ambulance), but Breaking is the true story of an army veteran who is retaliating to theft at the hands of the VA. While working with your director Abi, what was important to you in striving to tell this hold-up story and its particular depictions of theft, versus others we’ve seen in the past?
I definitely wanted to make sure that we knew the facts and that we stayed close to the research. It happened recently. Every detail in this story is very important for the story we are trying to tell, and for the audience specifically to understand Brian as a character. Obviously, I wanted to make sure we had enough money to get it done. And finally to make sure that we were collaborating with the best people. Our cinematographer Doug [Emmett] was fantastic, we had an amazing cast. It was those combinations that led to me going “Yeah! This is the project for me.”
I know that you all connected with Brian’s family and that that was an important part of the storytelling process too. What was it like for them to invite you in so warmly? And for you all to try and honor his humanity on-and-off screen by collaborating with them?
Well, it’s great to be in the process of the job. To portray somebody, it’s good to speak to people who knew him on the day-to-day. It informs my performance. I’m guided. I’m never making decisions as John because of the information I’ve got, I can always make choices on set as Brian. And that was something that was really fun to play with.
You bring so much compassion to Brian’s experiences. People come back from war and expect to be championed by the state but then are neglected as they try to navigate and move through the world. This story in other people’s hands could have been told thoughtlessly, but we get to learn so much about Brian as a father, someone who loves his daughter. Talk with me about the process you and the production made when it came to depicting Brian’s trauma and disability, to ensure that you’re speaking to his individual experience but maybe also increasing effective representations of Black mental health through this film?
I think anytime we’re given a good enough platform as Black individuals to talk on or perform in that way when it comes to mental health, it is definitely giving it a platform and the opportunity for it to lead to a discussion. I think this specifically was about honing in on what made Brian, Brian; as a man, as a human being. I’ve connected with the family to give us those details, so that we’re not just defining him by what he went through but by who he is as a person.
He’s a movie buff by the way! Loved movies, loved sci-fi and fantasy, loved a great laugh. There were so many details that were so important to the making of this character. It’s a combination of things that help inform what you want to do. And Abi came with so many facts—some to the point where I was like, “how’d you get this?” [Laughs]
Did you find that there were any films that you and Brian had in common?
He loved The Lord of the Rings movies, and I agree! I love those movies! Then there was insight into nerdy stuff—Marvel! DC!—comic book stuff that he really loved. But it also gave an effect of like, yo, it could be anybody. You go out and join the army, you face what you face, and you’re changed forever. That’s why it’s so important that we have an audience that’s open to listening to a perspective that they haven’t lived through—these fundamental things that change people from the inside out. Because when you haven’t lived through a perspective, the main general thing is just to shut up and listen. Just shush.
Speaking of change, someone on Letterboxd shared that “this is the kind of film that changes minds.”
What’s a film that changed your mind and motivated you to listen to other people?
I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily changed my mind, but I think City of God exposed me to the reality of what happens when young children are exposed to certain scenarios. And what happens is really dependent on the environment, the opportunities that you leave, especially as a man, or a parent, or as anybody in a position of power. It kind of exposed the connection between all of us, how society is full of domino effects, we’re ripples, small ripples that are reflections of each other.
That’s my brother’s favorite movie.
I remember that part where it goes through an entire timeline of Li’l Zé’s apartment—or how Li’l Zé got the apartment for it to become his trap house. And in that timeline, you just see how life goes. People come in. People go out. And there are these small decisions that kind of lead you toward a final, finishing endpoint.
That insight to me, especially as a young man coming up, I don’t know how your brother felt about it, but I was like ‘aw man these choices are peak! This is real AF’. Li’l Zé made these choices, then the guy with the camera who wanted to be a photographer made his choices—look at those trajectories.
And what does it mean for that kid to be capturing the experiences of his people and for that voyeurism to sort of be his individual way out?
Yes! You saw two lives going with each other side by side. But then you see the two different outcomes, don’t you? For me that’s always been something that hits home. City of God!
You’re in this beautiful place in your career. I know that many of us in the Nigerian-American community admire how much you’ve led and participated in Black Lives Matter in England. I remember you giving this really impassioned speech where you shared that you weren’t sure how your belief in the movement would affect your career. I remember thinking, hoping, ‘for someone to have this much integrity, they deserve to continue to choose stories that possess a kindred sort of humanity and depth.’ So now to see you be in this place where you have Breaking and The Woman King coming out, does the concept of Black British excellence resonate with you at all? Is that something you deliberately strive to embody?
First, I like going for roles that I myself would like to watch. I like to put myself in the position of the audience member, that excites me about doing roles. All of the best films that we love and actually enjoy, even the sci-fi, the Spielbergs and stuff have an element of social commentary in them to give us an in to understand. Then we add the imagination to go further into story. It’s important to have that balance, that something I always search for.
I think fundamentally it’s about story for me. I’m a storyteller. I’m here to embody characters that are not me. I’m here to change, to transform into other people. Definitely yes, stories that have a reflection of what we see in the world [are] important. Film can be in a moral or immoral space and explore different kinds of truth. We don’t always have to provide answers to explore truth. I’m just a vessel to the art.
There’s only one thing as artists we crave, and that is freedom. The freedom to do anything, to go anywhere, to explore, to excavate the crack in its most vigorous and entertaining fashion.—⁠Kwame Kwei-Armah
Kwame, I’m grateful to have time with you and John today. Your film’s mostly single setting lends itself to a play-like treatment, and given your background in theater, how did those skills come to bear here? How did you, from a dramaturgical perspective, decide how to create and maintain this sense of urgency and ephemerality in the film over what was an actual multi-week shoot?
Kwame Kwei-Armah: Well that’s a lovely question, because yes! The very first thing one thinks about is ‘what skills do I have to bring to this immediately?’ Then, how do those skills actually take away from what you’re trying to do? Writing a single set play isn’t easy, but one understands the rules of that. So we started to look at what movies have done this. We started to look at Dog Day Afternoon, that’s all mostly set in the bank.
So we think, ‘what does it need to keep the tension alive?’ And what it needs is very connective dialogue and energy. Electricity between those that are in the room. What is at risk for them and how might they escape? Being a playwright gave me an understanding of it. Then I had to go into my screenwriting brain and go ‘okay, we cannot make this feel [like] a play.’
I think that the dramaturgy of theater can be very useful in that static film space just like you’re speaking to but it requires different hats and different challenges. Did Phone Booth influence you? I remember getting into the first act of Breaking and thinking ‘what are all the films where there’s an emergency situation and someone has to remain in the same space?’
I actually haven’t seen that, but you’re right! The rules of ‘you are in one place.’ As a writer you get really nervous that your audience is going to switch off because there hasn’t been an explosion. We haven’t exploded a whole block or city yet. In a way it comes back to the rules of drama, which as you know means “to do.” What are these characters doing? They are amid the act of survival. That was our drive.
To that point of survival, certain reveals in the third act cast such a distinct light on this film’s exploration of theft. What Brian has gone into the space to do isn’t a traditional hold-up. He’s like, “I don’t want the money. I want to create this spectacle because it is under these conditions that I know I’ll be listened to. But why is it that my previous sense of urgency didn’t garner your attention?”
Aside from the brutality of the end, this 21st-century lynching we’re seeing post-Reconstruction in a modern time, actually what really stood out to me was that there was something 21st-century heist about this. He walks in saying “no one will listen to me, I need to be heard!” Then what does he do? He calls a TV station. So it’s captured live, so it cannot be denied! It becomes breaking news. The truth of the matter is that as fascinating as it was for me or Abi, [Brian’s story] died and it did not ignite [a movement].
Even for me, being from Atlanta, I did not hear about it until the story came across my desk.
Right?! And I’m like how did I not hear about this? He did everything “right” to be heard when silenced. He went to TikTok, to Instagram, he Insta-lived this shit and still wasn’t heard. We thought about that a lot. What is the major driver here? The urgency is the ticking clock of his life. “How long do I have left to live? Because they are going to kill me.”
Yes, and how it’s not a matter of if he’s going to make it. Even the lingering of the Newports cigarettes before he enters the bank and the fulfillment of that motif with Michael K. Williams; he knows he’s going into that space and that things are going to be permanently different after that.
The urgency is ‘if I’m not heard here and now, I’m never going to be heard.’ And that was our driver.
Oftentimes in a film like this, with three key Black characters, the conflict might be reduced to all of the Black characters feeling the same way and all their antagonizers feeling some opposing way. While these characters are connected, they all possess their own Black individuality. Nicole Beharie’s manager is trying to defuse a situation and keep as many people safe as possible. Michael K. Williams’ character can empathize with what Brian’s gone through as a fellow vet, but now as a decorated police officer he doesn’t have as much clout on the force. How did you write their interconnected yet individual experiences?
First you have to love or find something to love about every character in your narrative. To find the ground upon which they stand, and each of these characters stand in a different place. There’s a moment that Nicole delivers magnificently when [her character] Estel talks about how to defuse the situation, not just as a professional but “because I don’t want to tell my son that another Black man died and I did nothing to stop it”.
Same thing with Michael, he’s coming in going “my job is to stand this down and brother I will speak to you in a way that I know you would not be spoken to it were it someone else. I’m going to do my job, diffuse the situation.” And that’s why it’s heartbreaking when everyone loses. But that is the nature of tragedy, right?
That sentiment is encapsulated so well by the absence of a key shot. We don’t see what happens to Brian… because we don’t need to. We know what happens and what death meant to Brian. The last time we see him [on screen] is in a scene with his daughter, reciting dialogue from The Lord of the Rings.
Thank you for that very powerful spot. In doing our research, we saw him get hit. And… I don’t want to see it again. We know it. It was very intentional, in a piece that was meant to be intense and relatively traumatic, that we could [leave the audience to] fill in the blanks.
It’s that “unwilling martyr” shot; people start to associate political catharsis with images of Black death. It’s like “we’re not going to see these people suffer, that’s not why this movie should be made”.
I appreciate your mind!
Thank you. I wonder, what is a film that motivated you to write for the screen in addition to the stage?
Stories shout the place that they want to live in. There are stories that come to my mind and make me think ‘where does this live best?’ Let me explain it like this: the first play that I did at the National Theater in Britain was set in a Jamaican restaurant. It became clear to me that it was very important that the play [Elmina’s Kitchen] was at that theater because those people who could change the circumstance would come to see it. There was a call for the community to supersede the circumstance, and a call for the community that put the circumstance in place to remove that circumstance. So that taught me a big lesson about audiences.
This film, for example, I could see it certainly as a play, but we wanted it to be a film because we want to shout this loudly to the most people possible. That’s really what decides if I write a movie or play, direct a movie or play.
What’s a movie that you return to again and again because it becomes richer with every viewing?
Malcolm X, every year. That and The Matrix, because there’s something about the whole of that narrative where it is not a three-act but a five-act piece of cinema. That it attempts to, for generations to come, give people shortcuts to understanding the greatness of self-determination. It’s my default movie.
Do you think Malcolm X is your favorite Spike Lee film?
Yeah. I flew to America to see its opening. I’ve never let go.
What’s a favorite John Boyega performance outside of Breaking?
Well, you know I love John, he’s extraordinary and exceeded expectations. His breakout film Attack the Block—
Which I saw when I was in middle school! Thirteen-year-old me could not believe that Black people were in a sci-fi movie; when John says, [terrible South London accent] “What are aliens doing in South London?!” [Laughs]
It was quite amazing. The play he did for me [Seize the Day], it was the casting director who came to see him in that that helped him land the audition for Attack the Block. So everybody is a mother and father of someone’s success—but they are never the mother or father of people’s failures! I’m not trying to claim anything. But I loved when I saw him Attack the Block, I loved him in Star Wars, in Detroit. I just think that every film he does, he grows. And that’s the real definition of the artist.
That’s something John spoke to today: how exciting it is to embody a vast array of characters; to be perceived as someone who can shapeshift. I think that’s an exciting place to be for Black creatives. I feel like John’s really forging his path.
He is, he’s doing him and expanding! I was so overjoyed when I saw his performance in this. As Abi describes it, he’s a generational talent.
There’s a moment in Breaking where he’s on the phone and asking about how much longer he’s supposed to wait, and there’s something about his frustration in that moment that felt evocative not only of Brian’s crisis, but of that interview where James Baldwin talks about his grandfather, his father, etc, being told to be patient, to wait to be free. It raises this question of who is forced to wait to be safe.
Abso-bloody-lutely. I call it a righteous generational rage. That really was why I signed up. I saw Brian’s existential righteous rage. And used that with Abi to channel the character.
I want to talk with you in our final moments about this idea of Black British excellence. I think people use Black excellence as a way of trying to name and contain the great things that Black people accomplish, even though our accomplishments are abundant and boundless in nature. I wonder if there is a vision you have for Black creatives coming up. If there are things you want them to be able to access and do, or if you even want them to be associated with things like “Black excellence.”
What a beautiful way of framing it, Adesola. I’ll say this: there’s only one thing as artists we crave. And that is freedom. The freedom to do anything, to go anywhere, to explore, to excavate the crack in its most vigorous and entertaining fashion. So my hope for the next generation is that they continue to stand on the shoulders of the ones before. And I know this sounds crazy Adesola but speaking to you, the way you framed this… It’s thrilling to me to hear you speak so eloquently and so theoretically on point about structure and meaning. You are my hope. This.