As the lights of a tightly packed Connelly Cinema slowly flickered back on after last month’s screening of the Cultural Film Series, the crowd assembled seemed to take in a bit more than just director Hezekiah Lewis’ three incredibly diverse short films and his calm, collected, but exceedingly confident demeanor. Standing off to his right in the front of the theater, his mother smiled broadly, eagerly nodding at her son’s every word.
After viewing the films and especially while talking with Lewis in person, there’s a sense that his relationship with his family is essential not only on a personal level but in his work as a director as well. His uncle, Deantre Conner, is the subject of Lewis’ documentary “Memoirs of a Smoker,” which chronicles Conner’s struggle with crack cocaine addiction on the streets of Los Angeles. In “Curtain Call,” Lewis’ father takes on a speaking role, and his brother has also worked as a member of his crew during filming. In his experiences as a director, Lewis has found their influence vital to his success thus far.
“If you don’t have people that really back who you are as a person and your passion, you forget about it,” Lewis says. “You could get a professional crew out in a remote location, and they have other agendas. They need to get paid, they need to get this and that and their passion is really not what you’re going for. Having family around you really enhances you and really protects you from a lot of things that you might run into.”
Originally from San Bernadino, Calif., Lewis received a full football scholarship to Villanova in 1995 and played on the same team as Eagles’ running back Brian Westbrook.
The transition from his life on the West Coast to Villanova’s campus, he admits, was not an easy one.
“It was a very rough environment where I came from, and it was like, statistically I wasn’t supposed to make it out,” Lewis says. “I was the first one to really set foot on a college campus and graduate in my family at a four-year university.”
Coming to terms with Villanova’s lack of diversity after growing up in a community with a large minority population, he describes his early impressions of the campus as a culture shock.
“It was a different world that I had to adjust to,” Lewis says. “I couldn’t bring my old ways to a new place. I had to adapt and learn how to work with people that are not black, that are of different colors, different creeds.”
What proved the most beneficial to his time as an undergraduate was the bond formed with the other players on the football team. As an athlete, Lewis was a three-year starter and co-captain and received all-conference and all-academic honors during his time on the team.
“I think that … being a part of the football team really encompasses a brotherhood no matter what color you are,” Lewis says. “So that really helped me adjust quickly to the differences.”
In addition to his commitments as an athlete, Lewis was a double major in sociology and communication and a triple minor in theatre, Africana studies and business, all while managing to complete his undergraduate degree in three and a half years. He was also involved in campus organizations outside of athletics as a founding member of Villanova Television and a member of SGA.
It was while branching out in his involvement with student government that Lewis encountered some startling displays of discrimination. While running for president of SGA, he received an anonymous phone call from an individual claiming that “n*****” could never win that position. Additionally, Lewis also says he encountered racist attitudes from the surrounding community.
“You can count on your hands how many minorities you have on campus,” Lewis says. “So really looking at that progression and understanding that issue of the lack of diversity when I first got here, it was hard for me to deal with a lot of issues on campus when I was pulled over many times when I got my car, people thinking that my car was stolen.”
Ultimately, Lewis turned to the brotherhood he found through Villanova football to get through the incidents.
“I dealt with a lot of racial tension, racial issues that could have made me rebel against this whole community saying ‘everybody’s racist,'” Lewis says. “But I had friends that really supported what I did and who I was as a person. I really looked to them for that support.”
Lewis found another outlet that provided support while allowing him to express himself in Villanova’s theatre program. After taking part in several film and theatre classes taught by Dr. Terry Nance and Rev. Peter Donohue, O.S.A., among others, his participation in campus theatre productions introduced him to visual art-an experience that also led him to a career as a writer, producer and director of film and theatre.
“Father Peter really got me involved with theatre back when I was a sophomore at Villanova and that kind of really opened my eyes back to what was really important to me,” Lewis says. “Something that I was missing in my life was that art and really being involved in that production really sparked that interest in getting back into the creative world.”
After completing his undergraduate studies, Lewis received a Presidential Fellowship from Villanova to complete a master’s degree in theatre, which he finished in 2002. He then went on to receive a Master’s of Fine Arts in directing film and TV from the UCLA film school. His thesis piece, “Warrior Queen,” was the focus of last month’s Cultural Film Series screening.
“[Film is] such a different medium, but at the same time when you really look at it, the heart of it is the art and the storytelling,” Lewis says. “I just think that desire to tell stories that evoke positive social change really lit a fire in me and really made me try to evolve to where we are now.”
“Warrior Queen” tells that story of Nana Yaa Asantewaa, the queen of Africa’s Ashanti people, and how she recovered from the death of her grandson at the hands of the British to regain the independence of her people in the beginning of the 20th century. The film cost $50,000 to make, and Lewis funded the project through sponsorship, as well as a contribution from football Head Coach Andy Talley.
Production for the film required a trip to Ghana, which inevitably had an enormous impact on Lewis. The experience helped him acquire 10 acres of land in the region, where he was inspired to establish a cultural film center.
Lewis is currently working on a final version of “Warrior Queen,” which has already won several awards, and he hopes to participate in a number of film festivals, particularly with a chance to show at Sundance. He also recently completed directing the play “Riff Raff,” which was written by actor Laurence Fishburne, in Los Angeles.
Although he has enjoyed his experience working on short films and documentaries, Lewis’ ultimate goal is to create feature films that can start a dialogue and spark change.
“What really got me involved in filmmaking was being an artist and understanding and loving the sense of telling a good story,” Lewis says. “Not just a story for the sake of a story, but a story that can kind of evoke some type of positive social change- that sense of being socially conscious andtrying to find a way that we can really creatively bridge a gap in order to get people conversing about issues that are kind of controversial but at the same time need to be talked about.”
As far as any advice he could give to students who are looking for a way to positively impact their own communities, Lewis had some simple but insightful hints.
“Don’t get too comfortable,” Lewis says. “Villanova can create a comfort level that a lot of people can kind of get sucked into. Look at the world and absorb what you see, absorb what you learn, because you could learn as much from a third-world country as a third-world country could learn from you.”