Bronx Princess

PBS Premiere: Sept. 22, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: Rocky is such an appealing and precocious character. Her parents are also fascinating. How did you find Rocky and her family?

Yoni Brook: Musa and I had been working on a small project in the Bronx, across the street from Rocky's mother's store, and everybody on that block knows Rocky's mother. She gives relationship advice and helps people with their hair products, and she is known as "Mama Africa" on the street. So we were very captivated by Rocky's mother initially. One day, when Rocky finally came into her mother's store, with her headphones in her ear and seemingly on a rocket ship to her future, talking about being the star of her high school, going to Ghana to become a princess and going to college, we knew immediately that we had to make a movie about the whole family.

POV: The dynamic between Rocky and her mom is priceless! Tell us more about their relationship.

Musa Syeed: Rocky and her mother are like any teenager and his or her parent. Of course, there's tension as the teenager is getting ready to leave home and go to college – she wants to strike her own path and not live in her parents' shadow. Parents are usually very skeptical of their children's independence, and that dynamic really plays out between Rocky and her mom.

Rocky is also the first woman in her family to go to college, and that creates tension in the family. Auntie Yaa, Rocky's mother, is thinking about whether a college education is something that Rocky is going to hold over her mother's head and whether it's something that will make Rocky not respect her mother's experience.

POV: There's also cultural tension between Rocky and her mother, since Rocky was born and raised in the United States. Can you tell us more about this source of tension?

Brook: Rocky's parents made huge sacrifices to come to the United States and raise their family in New York, because they wanted their kids to have a better education and a better life. But in the film, you see Rocky becoming an adult and asking more questions about what she herself wants. For instance, Rocky's mom has a beauty shop, and she wants her daughter to work in the beauty shop with her. For Rocky, this seems old-fashioned and boring. She wants to be a lawyer; she doesn't want to be selling products. But for her mother, the beauty shop is the culmination of a lifetime dream of owning her own business. So Rocky's mother, while she wants her daughter to go to college, also wants her daughter to appreciate the sacrifices that her parents have made for her.

Bronx Princess: Yoni Brook and Musa Syeed

Co-directors Yoni Brook, left, and Musa Syeed, right, film Rocky Otoo's high school graduation in the Bronx, NY.

POV: How did you establish a rapport with Rocky herself?

Brook: When we first met Rocky, she asked her where we had been her whole life! She really felt that she deserved to have a movie made about her. So she was not surprised at all that two guys showed up and said they wanted to make a movie about her for PBS. She thought that was just what should happen.

Rocky is a very intelligent, well-spoken and warm person. But she is also careful about the people she takes on as friends. In our first interview with her she said, "I think I'm only going to have 20 friends in my entire life, but you guys might be on the list." So we considered ourselves lucky that Rocky deemed us acceptable.

Syeed: Our rapport with Rocky was established right away. One of the earliest things in the film is the fight between mother and daughter about going to the beach. That created a huge fallout over the course of a few days, and we were there during some very emotional times with them: Both mother and daughter were complaining about each other and confiding in us. Because that fight happened so early in the filming, it really shaped our relationships with both of them; we were sort of a buffer between them.

POV: How did Rocky's parents feel about being filmed?

Brook: There were definitely times when Rocky's parents did not want us to make the film. They felt that we were just contributing to Rocky's inflated sense of self and her big ego, and they said, "Come on, you guys have been filming for a week. Why do you have to keep coming? Don't you have enough to make your movie?" We tried to explain that over the course of the summer Rocky would be growing and changing as she went from the Bronx to Ghana and, finally, to college in Pennsylvania. We had to convince her parents that we weren't going to contribute to the problem of her ego, that we were there to document what was happening.

It was also difficult for us to parachute into Ghana with Rocky and start filming at the palace right away. We had spent months in the Bronx before we started filming there, gaining the trust of Rocky's mother, but once we got to Ghana, we had only a couple of weeks to film a large part of the movie. Working as filmmakers in the palace was tricky, because we had to ask the chief to do things like sit for an interview or wear a microphone. Everyone else there looked to him for guidance. Our presence, while it was exciting for them, also upset the power structure, because we were making demands of the chief. So being flies on the wall in Ghana was a challenge, but, eventually, I think we were able to capture real moments between father and daughter.

POV: One of the most powerful scenes in the film is when Auntie Yaa drops Rocky off at college. Can you talk more about what that scene means in the narrative context of the film?

Syeed: College, to everyone in the film, represents a deadline. For Rocky, it's her chance to prove her independence. For her parents, it's their last chance to instill the right values in her. For anybody whose child is going to college, it means letting go, and not being able to play as big a role in that child's life anymore.

Brook: The scene is powerful because it's bittersweet. Yaa has sacrificed her whole life to get her daughter to this moment so that she can go to college. But at the same time, it creates a line of separation between mother and daughter, in terms of both what Rocky has accomplished and what Yaa has not accomplished. And Yaa has never been to a college before; this is her first time seeing the ivy and the trees and the kids walking around. It's foreign to her, just as it was foreign for Rocky to see her dad's palace. Seeing Rocky at college, you get a sense of the values that her mom has passed on to her, but then you also see Yaa realizing that Rocky is slipping through her fingers. I think those things give the scene emotional power.

POV: What do you want audiences to take away from the experience of watching Bronx Princess?

Syeed: I think the film is about growing up in the most universal way, and it takes a different look at first-generation immigrant families. It gives voice to both the immigrant generation and children who have grown up in the United States. We tried to respect and understand both journeys as they met each other in the middle. I hope the audience can see that the immigrant experience of growing up in the United States is not that different from any family's experience of growing up in the United States. In a lot of ways this film is about the changing identity of what it means to be an American and how people incorporate different identities from different places in the world.

Brook: The film is also an opportunity to highlight strong women. We wanted to show a complex, enduring mother-daughter relationship, and we knew that Rocky and her mom would embody that kind of relationship regardless of culture or nationality. There's something very powerful about putting a magnifying glass to a story that could take place in any neighborhood in the country. This story deals with deep issues that affect all families, and it highlights something that happens in immigrant communities, but not just in immigrant communities. Rocky's story is universal, and universal stories about immigrants are an important part of the patchwork of the American experience.