As the Popdust movie review observed, ‘Race, religion and violence haven’t been more poetic and amusing.’ Black Ruby was the first iphone 7 feature film released two months ago that found it’s way to festivals in London, Rome and Los Angeles. Black Ruby racked up over 20 nominations with lead actor and writer Zachary Laoutides walking away with five wins.
Many of the articles have become redundant now with the applause, but I wanted to hear the minority voices that were not amused and disliked the film due to the title, language and relationships in the film, some saying the movie was racist. Interestingly, those who claimed Black Ruby was a racist film, about a Black Hispanic escort ruining a friendship between two musicians were white critics. That interested me because the film was made by a Hispanic film company out of Chicago called Ave Fenix Pictures; noted as the first Hispanic film company in Chicago and the Midwest. I caught up with the actor and writer Zachary Laoutides to ask him what he thought about some film critics believing his third film to be prejudice.
After all Zachary is a blue eyed brown haired young white man, or is he… Critics praised his performance for changing his hair, eye color and skin tone for the role, with the Huff Post comparing his performance to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. I believed Zachary to be the first Hispanic ever compared with the likes of Brando and Clift, but wait…. Is Zachary even Hispanic?
Zachary has a rather interesting and complex ancestry of Sephardic, Greek, Turkish and Slovenian heritage. I asked Zachary to expand on how his fascinating roots all evolved.
What do you consider yourself?
ZL: I feel Greek, my father was Greek Orthodox. To simplify conversation I say I’m half Mediterranean and half Eastern European – but my Mediterranean half is very Hispanic, which I know can be confusing due to America's interpretation of the word.
Being from Spain I understood what Zachary was trying to enlighten, his father’s Jewish heritage traced back to the Levite Spanish rabbinical families present in the 11th to the 15th centuries from Barcelona, Aragon and Castile - HaLevi and Benveniste. The Jew’s of Spain are called the ‘Spephardi’ (Judíos sefardíes). The Spanish Inquisition of 1478 expelled their Jewish population with Sephardi’s fleeing to Morocco, the Mediterranean and the Balkans.
Zachary also mentioned his Jewish background included Indian Jewish, Moroccan Jewish and distant Latino roots from his father’s grandmother.
You played Louis Katz, a young Jewish man in Black Ruby, why did you make your character look more like James Dean, why create a lighter character?
ZL: When I wrote the screenplay I saw Louis as Ashkenazi. My two previous films I played Hispanic so I deliberately this time wanted to switch it up. I do have Slovenian and Scandinavian roots. I know when I shave, lighten my hair and through contacts -- I can reflect more of that image.
Zachary expanded on his Eastern European ancestry who were ethnic minorities from the Austrian Empire and Russia, mostly Slovenian along with some Polish and distant Scandinavian. Zachary’s maternal grandmother also had some Sephardic roots.
Once coming to the United States Zachary revealed his ancestors changed their last names and hid their identities due to anti semitism and wanting to be accepted as 'American.'
Do you take strength from your families stories?
ZL: I find it so sad -- the sacrifice so we were to live and avoid so much destruction at that time. It's hard to comprehend... I'm inspired by their stories, it makes you want to do something with the life you were given - that was preserved.
Zachary paternal grandmother's family was from the Biblical town of Smyrna in Turkey, today Izmir. The last name of Laoutides comes from the Arabic world al-lud the musical instrument that his ancestors used to build and play. The family migrated to the United States from the Aegean Islands and Smyrna, a mixed ancestry of Greek, Turkish and Sephardi.
You do have a multifaceted ancestry. What did you think when Black Ruby had some critics characterizing the film as racist due the language and the actions of the characters?
ZL: My films are back row America; I just don’t think the people in the front row get it. They want to be edgy and exploit as if they’re part of a movement or a cause. People in the back row, people who comprise Ave Fenix Pictures will get it and they will make a movie like this. – We tell our stories over here.
Do you believe it's disingenuous to say that the film has racial insensitivity?
ZL: There are characters who are very selfish in the film and behave as such. I stand by the reality of what people experience. I’m a storyteller and I’m not going to lie to make you feel good -- Can I quote a lyric that I believe poetically speaks to this..?
I agreed to hear Zachary's lyrical-poetic courtesy of P.O.D. ("Fly Away") appropriate for the occasion.
ZL: 'So who are you to say what life is like, that life is good? And I bet whoever said it never walked up in my hood -- So I wish you would, and maybe you should -- You should discover what is missing, since you misunderstood.'
Impressed, I felt Zachary owned his critics or rather that is if you're actually taking the criticism of the film seriously. In closing I asked Zachary how does he use his diverse look and background to his advantage in film and what are the disadvantages…
ZL: I didn’t want to be typecast, so I purposefully wanted my first three film characters to all look different, I want to be able to play anything. As for disadvantages I believe we make those for ourselves – I don’t have the time to look at roadblocks; I just find different ways at getting around them. That’s why I’ve written my first three films -- I’m just not going to wait around and have someone else decide if they should put me in a film or not.