The New Orleans Film Festival turned 30 this year, and their diversity in films and filmmakers is a point that they stress. This year, they screened “232 visionary, thought-provoking films that represent a wealth of perspectives,” 26% of which were Louisiana-made and 56% directed by people of color. One series based in Uptown New Orleans made its debut on the NOFF big screen and online simultaneously.
“King Ester”—directed by Dui Jarrod and presented by Issa Rae’s ColorCreative production company—takes the viewer into the world of a black trans woman right before natural disaster. Filmed all over New Orleans and based in Pigeon Town (P-Town), the series is described as such:
“Ester is a trans woman struggling to find her path in New Orleans during the week before Hurricane Katrina. In the face of an evacuation order, she is forced to make a choice that will impact her future forever.” – NOFF Synopsis
“Written and directed by Dui Jarrod (Brooklyn. Blue. Sky. on BET.com), this short form scripted series explores the intersection of race, class, and gender in a uniquely NOLA context. Starring Janet Hubert (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), Angelica Ross (Pose, Her Story), and introducing Rowin Amone as Ester.” – kingester.com
The filmmaker felt that telling this story in an authentic way would be a great way to honor pre-Katrina New Orleans.
“I went through Hurricane Katrina. I was here,” Jarrod said. “I lived in New Orleans on both sides of the hurricane, so, I always knew I wanted to write something that honored this city and what it was.”
“I think there’s no greater story to tell than a Hurricane Katrina story,” he added.
Director Dui Jarrod
An Arkansas native, Jarrod found his way into filmmaking by way of Louisiana. His family had close ties with other families in New Orleans growing up, so he visited the city frequently. He attended LSU and moved to New Orleans afterward to become an actor, but another mission transpired.
“When I realized a lot of the roles really didn’t progress the black narrative,” Jarrod explained, “something crazy guided me to say, ‘Well, you can just write [the stories].’ So, I started writing movies.”
He created his first two short films in New Orleans, and his first feature film was inspired by a situation that happened here. Jarrod returns to a familiar space with this new series.
“New Orleans has always been this recurring theme in my work, but [‘King Ester’] is the first time that is being shown overtly,” he said. “You know this is about New Orleans. The authenticity is there, the assets are there, and most of the actors in the series are actually from New Orleans.”
Martin “Bats” Bradford, New Orleans native and Dillard University alumnus, plays Ester’s brother King in the series. Lindsey G. Smith, also a native and an LSU alumna, plays Ester’s twin sister Ruth. Both Bradford and Smith were involved in Jarrod’s very first film projects.
The King’s Origin
The birth of Ester came in waves. According to Jarrod, he found inspiration from an art piece by Mickalene Thomas called “Sandra: She’s a Beauty”—part of the “30 Americans” exhibition at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans in 2014.
He saw the depicted woman as the matriarch for a project, which helped birth a play about his character King— the journey of “a hood dude in New Orleans trying to start a church for the hood.” That play produced an ancillary character—Ester, and from there, she was given her own plan.
For Ester’s journey, Jarrod and his team wanted people to see a truly empathetic portrayal of an authentic marginalized character.
“Very seldom do you see a character who lives inside of the community in the south in a very normalized way,” he said. “Hopefully empathy is created for Ester, and through that empathy, hopefully people will create more space to diverse types of human experiences that we’re having.”
An authentic production
Given the temperature of the story being told, there was a consciousness to make sure that the team produced a series with empathy, with trans women in mind. Jarrod knew that he had a connection to the trans community in understanding their marginalization, so the project was approached with care.
“We made sure that there were trans women in front of and behind the camera,” he said. “Angelica Ross is an executive producer; we didn’t do anything without their lens. So hopefully, this shows creators how to create space in an artistic way.”
Yolanda Hoskey, a “King Ester” producer, spoke about the process of creating the series. “It was magical. I think Dui does a really good job of bringing talented individuals together to create art,” she said.
According to Hoskey, the project took about three weeks of filming in the New Orleans heat with little money. On the contrary, she said, “Every day, we left set with a sense of fulfillment and joy because we knew that the story that we were creating mattered, and it was important, and the world would see it.”
“I can sleep easy at night knowing that there’s art in the world that I had a little hand in, and that makes me really happy,” she added.
The first two episodes of “King Ester” premiered at NOFF on Thursday, Oct. 17, while the first episode aired online on the Issa Rae YouTube channel that same day. With a new episode every week, number five premieres this Thursday, Nov. 14.