Gullah descendant Roger Ross Williams discusses his Oscar-winning documentary Music by Prudence 

Music Man

Most people who watched the 82nd annual Academy Awards this year probably remember Roger Ross Williams as the director who got "Kanye'd" during his acceptance speech. Williams approached the microphone and only managed to get a few thank-yous out before the film's producer, Elinor Burkett, took the microphone. The kerfuffle became the ultimate unintentional publicity stunt, one that would garner international attention, launch Williams' career, and become a life-changing event for the star of one of last year's most poignant films, Music by Prudence.

"We got 165,000 hits in one day on the movie's website," Williams says, talking from his home in the Catskills.

A former television producer who grew up in Philadelphia, Williams spent his summers in Charleston with his family who have Gullah roots; he is still shocked by the big win. "I have paparazzi following me around," he says, sounding mystified.

Once you hear Williams tell the tale of Music by Prudence however, it's no surprise at all why this amazing true story and its compassionate director prevailed on Oscar night.

According to Williams, in 2007 his neighbor Burkett told him about the musical group Liyana she'd seen perform in Zimbabwe. Burkett, who was living part-time in the southern African nation, put Williams in touch with the King George VI School, where the members of Liyana lived. "I requested some mini DVDs of the band performing. I got the tapes, popped them in, and I burst into tears. I was so blown away and moved by the band and their message."

Within minutes of watching the seven disabled musicians and their charismatic lead singer Prudence perform, Williams knew he'd found his documentary subject.

On Christmas Day 2007, his plane touched down in Zimbabwe, and he went to meet the members of Liyana. "As soon as I started talking to Prudence, it was obvious that this was her film, her story," he says.

click to enlarge Roger Ross Williams and Prudence, the subject of his Oscar-winning short documentary. - OSATO DIXON
  • Osato Dixon
  • Roger Ross Williams and Prudence, the subject of his Oscar-winning short documentary.

The movie's star, Prudence Mabhena, was born in a small village in Zimbabwe with a condition called arthrogryposis. The disease caused Prudence to be born with both legs and arms twisted backwards. "Because of this, her legs were amputated when she was a baby," Williams says. Her family was so horrified by Prudence's condition, a condition they thought to be a curse, that the new mother was told not to breast-feed her child so that she would die.

And that was only the beginning.

"Her mother left her to make money in South Africa, so she was raised by her maternal grandmother. But by age four, her grandmother couldn't afford to care for her, so she was sent to her father who had remarried," Williams explains. There, Prudence was treated like a pariah.

Neglected and unable to care for herself, she slept in her own urine and feces. Williams says, "Her stepmother told her, 'You're no better than an ant.'"

Living a reality few could comprehend, Prudence barely survived. Every day she'd crawl under a mango tree and sing to console herself, but it was not enough to blot out the pain. She attempted suicide twice.

Yet somehow fortune interceded and Prudence got a scholarship to King George. Prior to Williams' arrival and his subsequent interviews and filming, Prudence had never shared her harrowing life story with anyone.

"That journey is unbelievable," Williams says. "She says in the movie that she was at her lowest point when she arrived at the school. She had no self confidence and could barely look at anyone. She was a shell. You would never know that to see her now, but that's because the school teaches students to be independent."

Although it's a government-run operation, King George depends upon donations mostly from Europeans. Williams explains that Prudence was shocked upon her arrival at the school to discover other disabled people. Sounding equally amazed, he says, "She thought she was the only one!"

At King George, Prudence quickly discovered that there were many people just like her living and thriving. More importantly, it didn't take them long to discover her incredible voice. As the Music by Prudence website explains, Prudence was encouraged to audition for the school choir by administrators. Soon she began leading it and quickly rallied eight other fellow musicians at the school to start the afro-fusion band Liyana, which means "it's raining" in Ndebele.

"She's not just a talented singer, she's a gifted songwriter and composer as well," Williams says.

Even before the documentary, Liyana was making a name for itself. In 2006, the group had the opportunity to perform in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands after winning the Crossroads Africa Inter-Regional Music Festival and even had the chance to tour and perform in America this past summer.

While Williams recognized he had a fantastic story to tell, it was his decision to limit the film to the documentary short that ultimately won him the prize. "I could have made a feature that would have been OK, but I knew as a short it would be really, really strong," he says. "It's really hard and really competitive in the feature category, especially with movies that have $500,000 budgets like The Cove and Food Inc."

With that in mind, the intrepid director whittled the golden pieces of footage down to 30 minutes. The big payoff? A shiny new Oscar and the ultimate prize of widespread distribution.

On May 12, everyone with cable can get a look at Music by Prudence when it airs on HBO2. But that's not all for Williams. "I want to do outreach and educational work, too. I want to create an educational version of the film for classrooms," he says.

On a grander scale, Williams hopes to take the show on the road. "One of the things that I'm doing now is organizing a tour around the country. We'll show the film, then have the curtain pull back and the band will be there ready to perform. I think it would be really powerful," he says.

One might assume that after two-and-a-half years of working on the project Williams would be burnt out, but his passion for his subjects and their plight remains undiminished. Though he's enjoying fame, he plans to continue his humanitarian efforts on behalf of the disabled, along with his creative endeavours.

"This past week, I was with Prudence in New York doing interviews, and I took her to see Fela! on Broadway. After the show we tried to find a place to eat on the famous Restaurant Row, and we couldn't get into any because they didn't have handicap access," Williams says. "I couldn't believe it. I told a reporter from [the New York Post's] Page 6, 'Apparently New York is just as bad as Zimbabwe.'" Williams and Prudence eventually made their way to B. Smith's restaurant, which happily accommodated the duo and Prudence's electric wheelchair. "They were so nice they sent over a bottle of champagne."

The director reports that Prudence is handling the recognition with all the poise of a seasoned celebrity. "When we arrived at the Governor's Ball [after the Oscars], we were being interviewed, and there was Oprah," Williams says. "I can't believe it, but I tapped her on the shoulder."

click to enlarge Melody Makers: Prudence Mabhena (center) and fellow Liyana vocalist Marvelous Mbulo (left) in the studio - ERROL WEBBER
  • Errol Webber
  • Melody Makers: Prudence Mabhena (center) and fellow Liyana vocalist Marvelous Mbulo (left) in the studio

Ms. O turned around and without flinching bowed down. "She said, 'Oh my God!' Then turned to the crowd and announced, 'Ladies and gentleman of the press, Prudence.' It was amazing."

However, Williams worries about the singer's return home. "She's now the most famous woman in Zimbabwe," he says. It's hard to believe that the same girl who was taught that she was cursed is now an international superstar.

"There's going to be a huge welcome home party at the airport when she lands," Williams says. Along with dignitaries and press from all over Africa and Europe, Prudence will have to face her family as well. "I know she's torn about that. Culturally you must respect your elders, so Prudence can't really say anything to her parents."

However, the director knows that she'll persevere. "There's no reason why Prudence shouldn't go on to be a successful singer-songwriter," Williams says.

The Oscar winner notes that Prudence writes and composes music in five different languages and has the pipes of a young Aretha Franklin. "HBO threw a pre-Oscar party, and Prudence performed an original song she'd written about going to the awards show. She sat down with the pianist about an hour before the performance and taught him how to play her piece," Williams says. "She was even singing on the red carpet."

Yet, one can't help but wonder how this incredible film may change the young woman's life along with her fellow musicians. "It brings you to tears seeing these happy kids, who had these not-so-happy lives at home," Williams says. While the movie has opened doors for the eight members of Liyana, as well as shed light on the mission of King George, the fact remains that prospects for children with disabilities in Zimbabwe are grim.

"Most villages don't have running water or electricity," Williams says. The government is even worse. "The country is essentially bankrupt, so the currency is worthless."

Add to that the superstitions surrounding those born with disabilities and the existence of a school such as King George seems like a miracle. In fact, the school struggles each month to survive. "I had a friend donate $20,000 and that managed to keep the school operational for two months," Williams says. He encourages all interested parties to consider donating to the school via the film's website.

As for Burkett, Williams says he hasn't talked to her. Apparently her interruption stemmed from creative differences in production. Burkett, according to MTV News, was actually removed as a producer from the film a year ago, but under Academy provisions, she still qualified as an Oscar nominee. Williams asserts that he has full ownership of the film and Burkett has no claim to the property. The original disagreement resulted in a lawsuit that has since been settled out of court. Suffice it to say, he's over it.

In the meantime, what's an Academy Award-winning filmmaker to do next? Williams is actually considering a trip to the Lowcountry. "I've always been interested in the area, since my family is from there," he says. "I've been thinking about doing a documentary in the Charleston area for a while."

Williams' mother and her three sisters grew up in the Holy City. "My aunt, Victoria Bowden, still lives in the same house in Charleston that we'd visit growing up," he says.

He recalls long summer days spent playing on a Lowcountry relative's farm. His cousin, Valerie Erwin, took the family traditions up north and owns and operates a Lowcountry-themed restaurant, Geechee Girl Rice Café, in Philadelphia.

A sense of pride in their Southern roots has always been in the family. Williams knows they were descendants of slaves who, like almost all captives of the Carolina slave trade, came from the West Coast of Africa. His family can trace their roots back to the Sea Island Gullah community and part of Williams' wish to return to the area is to uncover more of his family history.

For now though, he's going to enjoy the buzz surrounding Music by Prudence. "Many, many Zimbabweans sent me letters saying thanks for telling this story," he says. "I wanted to tell a positive story about Africa. Not a story about AIDS, famine, or genocide. I wanted to tell a story about an African who's taken her fate into her own hands through the arts. It's a hopeful story."

Here's hoping Williams films another hopeful story soon, one set in our own backyard.


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