By Jack Taylor
He doesn’t give off the attitude of someone who has won an Oscar. Ever humble and honest, Western alum Thomas McKay Martin Jr., who goes by T.J., has a deep desire to create honest work in a cutthroat industry.
Martin is best known for directing the documentary “Undefeated,” which earned him the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2012, making Martin the first African American to win in the category. Martin is currently earning acclaim for the 2017 “LA 92,” a documentary focusing on the Rodney King trial and aftermath. But long before the awards and success, Martin was a child enchanted with films.
Charismatic and insightful, Martin cited the experience of getting HBO installed in his television as a child as the springboard for his interest in filmmaking.
“I remember watching a lot of movies – ‘The Color Purple,’ in particular – and being young, not fully understanding my own cultural history,” Martin said. “I remember without that appropriate context, still having an emotionally charged response to that film and I remember explicitly being like, ‘I don’t know what it is but I wanna be able to do that for other people.’”
After graduating from Roosevelt High School in north Seattle in 1997, Martin eventually found his way to Western, all while practicing filmmaking whenever he could. He worked on music videos and commercials.
When Martin arrived at Western, he struggled and even took time away his sophomore year.Martin said he felt like he belonged in New York but found himself in Bellingham.
“I didn’t feel like I belonged and struggled with culturally being surrounded by a sea of white faces,” Martin said. “I did everything in excess as a form of escapism until it got to the point where I physically needed to escape and studied in France the following year.”
After studying in France for a year, Martin returned to the states and continued to take time off. It was during this time off when Martin created his first film.
“During that time I made my first film ‘A Day in the Hype of America.’ It was my first major project and it was a complete disaster. The silver lining is that it essentially became my film school and set me on the course that I’m on now,” Martin said
Upon returning to Western, Martin enrolled in the Fairhaven College. Martin graduated from Western in 2005 with a degree in American Cultural Studies.
Larry Estrada, associate professor and director of the American Cultural Studies in Fairhaven College, spoke highly of Martin’s work in his classroom.
“One aspect about T.J. is that he was always inclusive in his thinking and never wanted to leave anyone out of the conversation,” Estrada said. “He was always conscious of the viewpoints and positions other students would take and how they interfaced with his own thinking.”
Furthermore, Estrada commented on T.J’s desire to be a filmmaker and how it impacted his school work.
“T.J. foremost followed his own dreams and always wanted to be a filmmaker. He was able within the American Cultural Studies program and Fairhaven to carve out a concentration and academic pathway that made sense to him,” Estrada said.
Martin explained how attending Fairhaven influenced his work life through teaching him to respect all points of view and listen to everyone.
“My job is not to come in with all the answers. My job is to take into account all types of points of views, look at media dissemination – like where are you consuming this – and to pose critically challenging questions that are an opportunity to foster a more engaged dialogue,” he said.
“I remember watching a lot of movies – ‘The Color Purple,’ in particular – and being young, not fully understanding my own cultural history. I remember without that appropriate context, still having an emotionally charged response to that film and I remember explicitly being like, ‘I don’t know what it is but I wanna be able to do that for other people.’”
Oscar winning filmmaker
Suzanne Baker, the admissions and outreach coordinator for Fairhaven College said Martin’s experience is an example of how students in the program can personalize their own studying.
“It’s a interdisciplinary college, so by definition, the sky’s the limit in terms of different careers students can go for,” Baker said. “They can study a variety of different topics.”
Martin’s most recent project was directing National Geographic’s “LA 92,” along with his directing partner Daniel Lindsay.
The documentary was released last year to observe the 25th anniversary of the Rodney King trial, which gained notoriety for being one of the first cases of recorded footage of police brutality.
The film earned Martin and Lindsay the Primetime Emmy Award for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking in 2017.
Martin admitted one of the challenges was to create a film unique and different from its peers, given how there were four other films about the Rodney King trial released in 2017 as well.
“We thought the best approach would be to tell it just using archival materials and to preserve the integrity of the emotion that we saw in these clips,” Martin said.
Tackling this topic was no easy task. Much debate has been centered on how to label the aftermath of the March 3, 1991 police beating, in which numerous people took to the streets of Los Angeles to protest the verdict the following year. Many people see the protests as simply riots, while others view it as a demonstration against police brutality on people of color.
“I think it’s all the above, out of respect to all the ways people want to associate it, because everyone had a different experience. I’ve always settled on civil unrest because that’s all-encompassing,” Martin said.
One of the lessons Martin took away from “LA 92” was seeing how society has not changed over the course of decades.
“We knew that there’s facets of our society like systemic racism that really haven’t changed that much, but the thing I really found interesting was the specificity of not just the systems in place, but of how we talk about it,” Martin said.
Martin continued to explain how you could look at the papers from the 1960s, 1990s and present day and see shockingly similar headlines dealing with the same issues of police brutality.
Covering such tough and intense topics in his films has elevated Martin to a class of his own. Regarding his Oscar win, Martin said, “In all seriousness, it was surreal.”
Martin also spoke on his historic win and the ugly truth it shows of how much Hollywood still needs to improve when it comes to diversity.
“There are companies putting forth an effort to expand upon who they traditionally hire. Having said that, I don’t think it’s enough because what we are talking about is the psyche of a culture,” he said.
Martin said the majority of the people who search for content to produce in Hollywood are straight white men. These men essentially have the power to control the narrative of the content getting produced in Hollywood.
Looking forward, Martin said that he and his directing partner will both be working on a television episode of a Netflix series, but that nothing has been announced officially.
“There’s always five or six things you’re developing that aren’t real until you get the money,” Martin said. “Nothing has been announced yet, but there are a couple projects that we will be executive producing on.”