Phylicia Rashad, Mamoudou Athie and Jay Ellis Relive the Earliest Memories Tucked Away in Their Own Black Box

Black Box (2020)
Black Box (2020)
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

What is your earliest memory?

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr. and co-written with Stephen Herman, Black Box follows Nolan Wright (Mamoudou Athie), a single father who loses his wife and memory in a car accident. He attempts to regain the latter via a mysterious and disturbing experimental treatment conducted by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Lillian Brooks (Phylicia Rashad), which results in Nolan questioning who he really is. The film also stars Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James.

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I sat down over Zoom to chat with Rashad, Athie and executive producer Jay Ellis (yes, that Jay Ellis) about Black Box, which is one-fourth of Blumhouse’s horror/thriller anthology, Welcome to the Blumhouse. As Black Box—which I believe to be a metaphor for the mind—tackles the concept of memory (and the threat of losing it, a reality we all face in life the longer we live), the one question I asked all three of my interviewees was “What is your earliest memory?”

Rashad’s earliest memory was vivid and visual. “One of my earliest memories is the color blue because it was the color of the walls of the bedroom that I slept in as a little girl,” she said, glancing off into the distance with a soft smile.

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Phylicia Rashad in Black Box (2020)
Phylicia Rashad in Black Box (2020)
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Athie described the process of trying to grasp the bits of his memories as turning into “a soup” at the beginning—a bit muddled and mixed the further back you go. But, something did come to him, eventually. And it was worth the wait.

“I remember being with my parents [...],” Athie mused. “We were living in Northeast D.C. in this apartment complex called Dorchester. And don’t I think I remember oh—I remember one thing: I remember thinking that I made up the word ‘dungeon.’ Very bizarre thing for a kid to say, but I was sure I made it up. They stole that shit from me.”

For Ellis, it centers around his great-great-grandmother.

“It was an old shotgun house,” he recalled. “I just remember the house. I remember the bathtub—I took a bath in an old, cast iron bathtub with the claw feet. [...] Her name was Choice. My great-great-grandmother. Her name was Choice. She couldn’t remember her name, so they said, you know, it’s your choice. And so she chose Choice as her name. I was a little, little baby at the time, but yeah, I was probably four or five.”

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With each answer, I learned a little bit more. After traveling those life journeys to the past, I also asked them about the future, in some aspects. Black Box has horror, sci-fi and fantasy elements, all of which are creative tools a lot of Black audiences want to see more of with Black leads. What does that future look like—especially as we push for more Black representation? Black representation across any and every genre with no limitations.

“As a producer, my business partner [Aaron Bergman] and I, we started this company,” Ellis said. “We started our production company Black Bar Mitzvah with the intent of uplifting voices and truly telling authentic stories from people of color and for people who typically don’t get their voice heard. One of the things that we always say is we like to take a world that you think you know, tilt it on its axis, and show you a completely different point of view of that world.”

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Behind-the-scenes with Phylicia Rashad and Mamoudou Athie in Black Box (2020)
Behind-the-scenes with Phylicia Rashad and Mamoudou Athie in Black Box (2020)
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

“When I did Uncorked and Jean of the Joneses, it was about these Black families,” Athie said. “And it had nothing to do with white supremacy. I think that’s really important because I think our stories are much bigger than that. We can tell stories without that kind of trauma. That’s what I’m particularly interested in, telling those kinds of stories because we have a whole history. A history that has barely been touched on. And I think it’s truly regrettable. So I’m glad we’re getting into the spaces where we haven’t been represented before and [are] representing ourselves.”

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And finally, we needed the wise words of the woman whose career is the richest of them all—the woman who had pretty much seen it all in this industry. Rashad’s impassioned, “Chiiiiiile!” filled me with a maternal warmth as we bonded over a recent episode of Lovecraft Country (at the time, it was “Meet Me in Daegu”) and she simply said, “That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what I love. A world. A whole world. Why not?”

Why not, indeed. We deserve that and more.

Black Box is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.

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