It was the story of a young Ghananian girl forced into servitude that initially caught Jay Ellis’ attention to the layered cultural and religious systems explored in the independent film, Like Cotton Twines.
“Tuigi, the young girl in the film who basically gets forced into slavery by her family and ultimately becomes property of the shrine, it was her story that drew me to it,” the Insecure co-star tells Ebony.com. “It started to make me think about all the stories that we’ve heard [in America] about the girls who have been kidnapped and essentially what ends up becoming of them and what their lives are like. Their story usually doesn’t have a voice. It’s usually just a headline or a hashtag.”
Set in Ghana, Like Cotton Twines tells the complicated story of sexual slavery justified by religious traditions. Ellis portrays Micah Brown, an American teacher who volunteers to teach English in a Ghananian village. However, his excitement takes a turn when he confronts Trokosi, a form of child slavery, after learning that one of his students, 14-year-old Tuigi, is being forced to quit school to pay a debt on behalf of her father. Eager to save Tuigi and change the course of the traumatic predicament, Micah battles the tribal culture, religious customs and the state.
Like Cotton Twines is not for the faint at heart. The viewer may well be reminded of the young girls that were kidnapped by Boko Haram sparking the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and the fight against female genital mutilation. What is seen in Western culture as unfair labor and invasion of our bodies, for many, as Ellis shares in our interview, “is just a normal way of life.”
Written, directed and produced by Ghanaian-American filmmaker Leila Djansi (Where Children Play), the film has circulated festivals and won the Best Narrative Feature during the Savannah Film Festival – which is also Djansi’s alma mater.
In a 2016 interview with The Movable Fest, Djansi detailed her need to tell this story and the choice to reserve the severe depths of an issue that’s not often discussed.
“I try to be as realistic as possible. Everything that you see in the story – the training school, the slavery, the teachers, the volunteer work – if you go to Ghana right now, you get to experience every single aspect of that life,” she told the publication. “Getting the material together was not a challenge because it’s so close to you and it’s very easy to do research on it, but what was challenging was telling a story that everybody would understand and would not scare people. It’s such a scary topic, and we tried not to water it down, but if we had gone much deeper I do not believe people would have been able to tolerate the film.”
EBONY spoke with Jay Ellis ahead of the film’s premiere on the Urban Movie Channel to get deeper insight on the importance of this story and what he’s doing to take his action beyond a character on screen.
EBONY: I was able to screen the film and this is a totally different tone and direction for you in connection to projects such as The Game and most recently the success of Insecure. In addition to Tuigi’s story pulling you into the narrative, was there anything else that struck you about this project for you to come on as a co-executive producer?
Jay Ellis: My immediate draw to it [was] fighting for the humanity of this young girl whose voice was lost. Then there was also this thing, for me, of it [being] my first time to Ghana as Jay so I could easily relate to what Micah’s first time in Ghana, what that experience was like, to have that excitement to go somewhere and explore and find yourself through the history and through the people and the language and the food and all the tangibles and intangibles of being on a continent like Africa and being in a country like Ghana.
EBONY: It’s so layered and so deep because, like you mention, we do hear about some of the stories that are happening here in the U.S. While watching the film, it made me look at the mother and daughter relationship. Being in Ghana and learning more about the way of life in their country, what did you learn or observe in relation to that?
Jay Ellis : That’s such an interesting thing because you see this mother who’s heartbroken, right? She’s angry about it, she doesn’t want her daughter to go. But she’s also hopeless. It feels like she doesn’t have a choice and her hand is forced and it’s crazy because a) kudos to the character, Tuigi for standing up to her mom and saying, “These aren’t my mistakes, I don’t get a life because of their mistakes.” In Tuigi’s case, she stood up and fought but for all the girls who don’t stand up and fight or who don’t have a voice, it almost creates this cycle of behavior that’s almost forced upon them to where they believe that this is the only way. They believe that they don’t have a choice. That’s crazy to me, that’s just a cycle that obviously needs to be broken and hopefully will be broken and needs to be exposed and talked about and brought to people’s eyes more often. The woman who played the witch doctor in the film, when Tuigi gets sick, her mother was actually a Trokosi woman. She actually grew up in a Trokosi shrine. Just her talking about it and what that experience was, was amazing because she said it was just normalized.
EBONY: It seems that people in power are turning a blind eye to this in order to keep the peace but is there really peace when all of this trauma is happening? With dealing with that as an actor, how did you shape Micah to process what was going on and to know what actions to take to try to combat this sort of normalized trauma?
Jay Ellis : I don’t have children but the first thing I thought was, “Who in my life would I have this love for and fight like this for?” I immediately went to a couple of my cousins and just thought about them. In my mind, it was taking the love that I have for them and placing that love on the character Tuigi – giving Tuigi that love, essentially and knowing that I would fight and do whatever I needed to do to get her out of that situation. There’s a couple of scenes that didn’t make it in the film but [Micah] starts out so happy to be there and he’s experiencing everything and touching and tasting and smelling and you see him reborn and invigorated in some ways, just by being there and being in this small village. Then you see the turn where I feel like he grows up a little bit. Once Tuigi tells him what’s happening, he becomes a man of action. I do think he’s lost in some ways, he’s frustrated, he’s not sure what to do to make this happen and every time he goes to someone to talk to them about it, he meets a brick wall. Then he just takes matters into his own hands and he’s like, “This has to be done.” This is humanity. At the end of the day, we’re people and we should fight for each other and we should make sure the well-being of each one of us is taken care of. I think at that point his motives, his story, his reason for being in Africa, he finds it in that moment. I find that this trip is really about doing something bigger than themselves and fighting for love, life and humanity.
EBONY: There’s a really intense moment in the film where, you know what’s going on with Tuigi, you just experienced the shrine and now you’re in a slave dungeon holding chains. What’s happening internally in that moment for Jay?
Jay Ellis : That slave dungeon was built in the early 1800’s by the Danish. Ghana is one of the countries in Western Africa that still has quite a few of their slave castles still standing. I knew we were going to shoot in it. We got there that morning, and it wasn’t until we got there that I really felt the weight of what it was. I actually found this out along the way that the first slaves were actually prisoners of their society. This was actually a prison that was ran by the local village and then when the Danes came in to colonize, they took it over and used it as slave trade. It literally sits right on the ocean, the most beautiful blue sea you’ve ever seen in your life. That cell that we shot that scene in, literally there’s a window that looks directly at the ocean. You couldn’t not feel, you couldn’t help but feel everything that had gone through that room from tears to love loss to fear to anger, every single human trait, anguish. The chains were insanely heavy to where you actually need two hands to pick them up. I cried for probably six hours straight. When we were in that room, all I could do was cry because you really see where it all started. You really see where men and women were separated from their families forever.
EBONY: You’ve invested in this film. What happens now? Where does your involvement extend to at this point?
Jay Ellis: I’m working with a group called International Medical Core. We’re just trying to schedule it right now just because of my life and work and it’s obviously a far trip, it takes quite a few hours to get over there. I’m actually going to visit a refugee camp, a few different sites throughout continental Africa. We’re just trying to figure out exactly what all those locations are going to be. It’s tough because when you look at the situations, men are sometimes the last people who should probably be there because that is who these women have been abused by for so long. We’re trying to find those spaces that I can actually be there and help in any way that I can, whether that’s reading books, providing medicine, giving tours to children, helping fundraise, whatever it is. We’re trying to find those opportunities where I can go over to the continent and bounce around and be a part of helping to change all of this.
Like Cotton Twines premieres January 20, 2017 on Urban Movie Channel.
LaToya “Toi” Cross is the Senior Editor of Entertainment and Culture for EBONY’s Print and Digital brand. You can catch this laughing creative sharing work, art and capturing life via her handle of @ToizStory on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.