Justin Emeka wears many hats and dons multiple titles. His most proud titles include father, son, husband, and brother. Being a man whose roots are never far from connection to family, Justin has found his way through arts families as an actor, director, writer, and now, filmmaker.
And like so many creatives from the Seattle area, Justin found much of his artistic grounding in Seattle at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. Although the path has not been straight, Justin is returning to his creative roots in Seattle this fall, specifically the Central District, to shoot his short film, Biological, produced by his Fargone Films company, whose mission is to create films that celebrate the complexity and resilience of the human spirit.
Giving voice to his Hip-hop roots in Seattle through Biological, Justin explores the realm of dreaming big dreams and putting them on hold in favor of family. The film is inspired by his own life becoming a husband and father at a young age and facing head-on, the challenges of making not just the right decision, but critical decisions that could alter the lives of others for a generation or more. The primary theme of the film swirls around the concept that “Sometimes, our dreams become less important than the dreams of those we love.”
Before Justin and his family moved from Seattle to return to the alma mater shared by him and his wife Farah Emeka, and where Justin became a tenured professor of Theater and Africana studies at Oberlin College in Ohio, his theatrical impact on Seattle-area audiences and the Black creative community was already huge. In 1995, Justin created an original theatrical piece featuring the then-nascent hip-hop community. The piece, funded by the Seattle Housing Authority was called Pressure: A Hip Hop Theater Experience featuring 25 youth from three of Seattle’s Housing projects. Mention Peer Pressure to a 40-something Seattle hip-hop creative with roots in the CD, and the eyes light up! It was a groundbreaking experience that included performances and workshops. We asked Justin how that experience relates to this new film project.
Pressure was the first full-length production I ever directed. It incorporated elements of hip-hop music, dance, style and art to reveal a story onstage about the conditions of life for young Black people in Seattle at that time. For me, the production gave me tremendous confidence in my creative abilities as well as the artists around me. It taught me how to have faith in myself, and my community. Before that time I accepted my position at the margins of the stage. Hip-hop helped create a universe where we, young Black artists could live comfortably at the center. It also inspired me to always think about hip-hop as more than a genre of music but rather as an artistic aesthetic and cultural force that still shapes and informs my approach to directing as a craft as I move from the stage to the screen.
Beyond Pressure, Justin leaned deep into sharpening his skills in performing arts and community-building by founding Jungle Creations, another place where young people could create and share their voices through spoken word, music, capoeira, and acting. Justin worked to blend these different artistic aesthetics as a way of expanding the creative visions of the young people with whom he worked and to also stretch and find forums for expressing his love of Black culture with his love for classical theater.
When the original version of the MAAFA was produced in Seattle in 2000, Justin played a key role in creating portions of the play that featured Seattle talent. Later, he would direct Seattle’s own version of the MAAFA in 2003 & 2004, Sankofa Theatre, written by his brother Gabriel Emeka.
Currently, Justin Emeka is the Resident Director at Pittsburgh Public Theater where he recently staged an acclaimed production of A Midsummer’s Night Dream in Harlem. His directing and teaching credits include helming work by legacy and contemporary playwrights like August Wilson, Dominique Morriseau, Lorraine Hansberry, Lydia Diamond, Arthur Miller, Alice Childress, Amiri Baraka, Tennessee Williams, and Shakespeare, among many others.
Justin’s latest foray into filmmaking has been aided by his being named a Fellow in Television/Film Directing by the Drama League, which led to a stint as a “shadow director” for Disney, and the making of his first short film, Six Winters Gone Still. Biological, his second short film pays homage to his adopted home of Seattle, and the growing hip-hop movement here in the 90s. Justin is always connected to his creative roots and whenever possible opens the door for others. It’s exciting to see him pull one of Seattle’s most dynamic talents into this project too, adding to the cast as the star of Biological, local entrepreneur, musician, “underground educator,” and rapper, Rell B Free. This collaboration promises sparks for sure!
Through his life and his work, Justin has been a leading stalwart in the promotion of the power of the imagination, and he embraces this power with each new project. As we globally celebrate the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Biological brings a unique perspective into the discourse. In Justin's own words:
Biological shines a light on a Hip-hop community in Seattle during the 90s that was alive, vibrant, and largely overlooked. Although the history of Hip-hop is often told through major centers such as New York, LA, Atlanta, Chicago, and Houston, I am interested in exposing the richness and depth of Hip-hop in communities where you might not expect to look for it such as Seattle. I am less attracted to battles and competition and urban warfare that is often associated with the art, and more excited about telling the stories of young Black people who were able to use Hip hop as a tool and ritual to build better lives for themselves and/or just be better human beings.
Learn more about BIOLOGICAL and join us in supporting and welcoming back, filmmaker Justin Emeka!