Click here to view Oniffe White’s Echoes of a Winter Sunshine (2019), recipient of a Welcome Table Press Discovery Award.
In his debut release, Echoes of a Winter Sunshine, Oniffe White trains the lens of his camera on the story of sixteen-year-old Ashwood (Sonja Ivelisse-Cirilo) and her younger brother, Leon (Noble Whitted), who are homeless in Harlem. Echoes of a Winter Sunshine is the recipient of a Welcome Table Press Discovery Award.
Echoes of Echoes: A Conversation with Filmmaker Oniffe White
DM: Why this story about two young people who are homeless in Harlem?
OW: I guess my conscious brain went toward it and made it work. That was the eventual outcome. It’s just how I felt about the subject matter. My point is that the story itself, once you find the idea in what the story is, in my brain, it gradually just goes there. My brain says, “This is what we can talk about.” Because I have to tell a story. I can’t just tell the plot.
I have a unique opportunity to tell these stories, and it’s important. I live in Harlem where it’s being gentrified. People are being marginalized on the same block. You have green zones within Harlem itself that are nice condominiums next to a terrible place. I live here. I see it. I have to say what’s going on, I have to get this information out to the world so they know that this is how I view the world, and this is what’s really happening.
I see homeless people all the time here in Harlem. And even though they don’t have much, if they see another homeless person, they offer something to them. They show that possessions don’t mean anything, and possessions are even more valuable—you can have more— when you share collectively, as opposed to if you hoard it as an individual. That was the thought process there with Leon offering his snack to the homeless busker. Possession and identity—they can identify as lower class, they identify in their class group not having much, but they still offer. Leon is special because he represents love and hope. Ashwood represents perseverance and strength. And they could never live without each other.
DM: How did you cast the actors for this film?
OW: When I was looking for actors, I wanted to tell a Black story as best as I can because that’s what I know. Because dark-skinned actresses don’t get opportunities to tell their stories, I was looking for dark-skinned actresses, but Sonja—who is a lighter-skinned Black woman—is so good I’m not gonna take that away from her. When I picked Noble Whitted to play Leon, his smile was great, but I wanted a contrast to Sonja, and him being dark-skinned helped big time.
In looking for the benevolent woman [The Kind Lady], who is played by Marjorie Cabrera, I was originally looking for an older Black woman. She was in her forties, that was how I originally saw the character. I looked at so many people because that woman is so important to this story, and if her acting wasn’t there, none of it was going to be. I cast from good actors first and go from there. During auditions, I thought, “You know what? I’m not going to limit this. Let me expand this because I can tell a better story.”
Oniffe White says he chose Sonja Ivelisse-Cirilo to play Ashwood, the female lead, because “she understood the fundamentals of the script” and, he “saw she could express the emotions I was looking for.”
When I heard Marjorie’s voice, it was just heaven. Her voice is so amazing, it’s silly to me. So I went and rewrote the story and told it from an immigrant’s perspective because I had an opportunity to tell a better story. Especially during these times at this moment. So I sent out the call and immediately rewrote the whole idea of that character and what she represents. And I thought, “Oh my God, thank you. The universe is just giving me stuff to make this story much better.” The Kind Lady is an immigrant, and she is the one to offer the opportunity to Ashwood and Leon, so someone from outside of America is who is offering help to Americans, which tells the story of what’s going on right now with this silly Trump thing.
Noble Whitted was cast as the male lead because, says White, “his smile has the sun shining out of it. He is love incarnate.”
I cast Sonja first, then Noble took a while, and Marjorie was the last person to be cast. Terrible actors will always break your film, which is based on how good your actors are to tell your story. I got lucky, and it allowed me to tell an important story that is important twenty years ago.
“When I heard Marjorie’s voice, it was just heaven,” says White.
If I had cast a Black woman as The Kind Lady, it would have been great, too. There are things that I poke at the Black community about on purpose, that’s why I wanted it to be a Black woman, because when it comes to certain aspects like Christianity in the Black community, there are some that have a holier-than-thou, poke their nose up at individuals all the time attitude. Or even here in Harlem where you have Black folks who are of means, they have an issue regarding individuals that don't meet their socio-economic outlook. Like if they see a sex worker or a homeless person they don’t reach out and provide opportunities with those means. But If they aren’t of means, they reach their hands out to everyone the moment they have something… I was to talking to that group when I was trying to cast a Black woman. But I think I have the opportunity to talk to a wider group of people and speak on the topic of immigration.
DM: Why did you name the principal female character Ashwood?
OW: The name is from two things: the name, what Ashwood symbolizes for you hearing it, and it’s Marcus Garvey’s first wife’s middle name. Marcus Garvey hearkens back to Harlem, of course, and it goes with the name of the film because winter sunshine is the emotional history of Black America, any city, anywhere. They’re sunshine, they’re happy, but in winter, they’re marginalized. So winter sunshine, just the experience of Blackness in America is what that name symbolizes. Young people are just the echoes of that, and they’re just the result. Ashwood, to hearken back.
DM: Why did you make the decision to have the two principal characters not speak?
OW: I never wanted them to speak. I just wanted them to be in a world. Them not speaking adds to the fact that they’re ignored. The quietness and them not speaking adds to the narrative that they intuitively communicate with one another without a word. If I had brought their names up, it would have ruined that experience. One of the main focuses of telling this story is to be in the film with them. Experience what they’re experiencing. I rarely cut away from something. I try to hold the shots as long as I can specifically for that purpose. If I had their names spoken then it would break the audience engagement and take away from the rabbit-hole experience. I want the audience to follow the everyday reality of these two individuals.
DM: How did audiences react to Ashwood’s use of the razor blade to protect herself?
OW: When I was a kid, razor blades for protection was something that people were talking about and bringing up. And then I heard Cardi B. talk about it on an interview with Jimmy Kimmel, and he couldn’t believe it.
Cardi makes sense. She was talking about having a razor blade to protect herself, and I’m thinking, “Yeah, this is for my character.”
Demographically, the razor blade, it always works out this way: women, Black women, they get it. They understand it, right? If you’re in the field or have been, you empathize with it. If not, you sympathize with it as a woman. Black men understand it, they can sympathize and understand it. It’s always white men who ask me the question,. “What’s the razor blade for?”
I screened it for a film professor, and he asked me that. Another guy I screened it for said to me, “The film is great. There’s one weird thing in the audio, but the razor blade took me out of the film. I couldn’t understand.”
I can tell you the exact wording: “Anyone falling asleep with a razor blade in their mouth, it’s just not believable. The razor in the mouth took me out of the film. I understood that she was doing it to protect her brother, and I felt uncomfortable knowing that she was pushed to that point. However, sleeping with a razor in your mouth seems so logically impossible to me that it seems like a surreal element in an otherwise realistic and grounded film. In other words, it didn’t fit the tone of the rest of the story.”
I didn’t make up the razor blade. I was really surprised. Everyone I’ve told says, “What?” How privileged he must be to not understand the realities that people have to go through. Must be nice.
The film professor, I think, he was asking me why the character had it the razor in her mouth. He may be assuming, I could be wrong, the purpose of it in terms of the audience, what does it provide them? It’s that anxiety, that tension, of someone having to walk with a razor. Maybe that’s what he was asking? I think he may be in a privileged position too.
I’m always surprised, but then when I realized that it was always the same demographic, I was like, “Yeah, it’s because they’re in a position where they cannot experience it. They’re so privileged that they can’t fathom someone having to go through that.”
And those are the people that vote to remove health care, to pass FOSTA [Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act] and SESTA [Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act]. They did something on Twitter and other social media where they went and busted a bunch of sex workers. Yeah. I know a friend where it hurt her business but she’s figuring out how to navigate the world now.
DM: You use symbolism in the film. Can you speak to that? For example, the book that Ashwood is reading, Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde’s collection of essays and speeches.
OW: The book added a dramatic effect and an arc to the character and a depth. If you’re a sex worker, you’re essentially a slave to the work. Doesn’t matter what your feeling is. I wanted Ashwood’s character to have an LGBTQ aspect, to be questioning her sexuality. Going through the struggle, it adds more to her that her desires are never met and are never able to be met because of the behaviors of the people, especially the men, because it’s all about that man.
When we cut to the cover of the book, you see it and think, “Oh what’s that book about?” You look it up and it allows people to see a perspective. When Sonja was reading the book, in those scenes she was reading the book for real. She said, “Oh my God, this is so good!” So she was going through the process, and I want other people to go through that as well. Sister Outsider is so 1980s, a lot of people wouldn’t know the reference, but because I cut to it, it’s meant to get people interested and ask “What is that?”
DM: How about the torn Obama poster?
OW: The poster symbolizes that things are hopeless. The hope that was promised and how that didn’t get fulfilled, especially in this current time.
DM: And the scene with the lottery tickets?
OW: The lotto scene symbolizes how this marginalized woman—and those like her—put all their faith and hopes and dreams in the lottery. Ten tickets, five scratch-off, all those other things. The lotto, especially in Harlem, started as Numbers. And they made it illegal and decided to bring in the lotto. So it has a particular Harlemesque history there. Forty-five million to one. As the number goes up, the bigger the pot. You will never win.
A friend of mine works at a gas station and he said there’s a guy who comes in every single day and his daughter is there with him and he’s in there for hours buying scratch offs and scratching them off. They talk to her, offer her ice cream, because she’s just a little girl, and every day he does this. They can’t believe how it happens every day.
DM: Talk a little bit about the music you used.
OW:I’ve always listened to Nina Simone, because of my sister. So I was listening to her, looking up “public domain Nina Simone,” and the song “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” came up. Her voice? She can sing without music and it will just hit you. The song represents the love aspect between Ashwood and Leon. That’s why when they walk together, it’s the song I used.That song gets the point across, especially when combined with Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and the sunshine and what that means. North or South, the two songs deal with marginalization of Blackness so completely differently. And just because you’re up North and they’re not, conspicuously yelling at you racist stuff, doesn’t mean anything. That’s why that song was chosen, to give the idea that it’s still the same, North or South.