Q&A: Visual artist Titus Kaphar makes a personal film debut with ‘Exhibiting Forgiveness’

PARK CITY, Utah — Titus Kaphar wanted to find a way to talk to his children about his life experience, his addict father, generational trauma and healing. An acclaimed painter and MacArthur fellow, Kaphar found that images were insufficient on their own. Words were, too. He even tried making a documentary to tell the story, but realized there was still a lot left unsaid. So he looked to narrative to let it breathe.

“I will tell you when you’re older is the refrain that I can no longer say,” Kaphar said. “’Exhibiting Forgiveness’ allows me to look at the past, the present and point towards the future.”

Delving into filmmaking was both surprising and not for him. He’s often found himself having to learn new skills in different mediums to make his art, including carving wood and blowing glass. But moviemaking was one of the first times he had to give up full control to a team of collaborators.

“Exhibiting Forgiveness” premiered this weekend at the Sundance Film Festival, where it is playing in competition and seeking distribution. Kaphar talked to the AP about his stellar cast, including a breakout performance from a veteran stage actor, his mentor and producer Derek Cianfrance, and how his kids responded.

Remarks have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

KAPHAR: One of the things (Derek Cianfrance) told me early on was the most important thing for the director in terms of casting is to select people you believe in and you trust, and then get out of the way and let them do what they know. That’s pretty much what I did. I mean, I got to work with Aunjanue Ellis on my first film. Do you know how ridiculous that is? Like what am I going to tell her that she doesn’t already know? André Holland is the best actor in his category. I chose people who I felt a connection to. It really had nothing to do with star power or anything like that.

KAPHAR: He will not be familiar to most people unless they’ve spent some time in the theater world. Back in the day, August Wilson put him in many of his works. His wife tragically died in a car accident and he was left to raise his three children all by himself. So he just disappeared from theater. This is his first major feature film. He turned 65 on set. I’m super proud of his performance. This film is re-introducing him, well, introducing him really.

KAPHAR: When we first started talking about this film, I told André that I hate watching movies about an artist and I see the actor pick up a paintbrush and I’m like, ‘You have never seen a brush in your life.’ I said, ‘I need to believe that you made these paintings.’ So over a three month period, André came to the studio and we worked. I taught him how to draw, how to paint. When you see him in the film, he looks like he’s making those paintings. And André made his way into some paintings.

KAPHAR: It started as an experience that transitioned into words from those words, it evolved into images and paintings that inspired the film. It’s actually become a cycle because now the film is inspiring other paintings.

KAPHAR: My sons (ages 17 and 15) received an explanation. They received an understanding, and I feel closer to them. And they feel closer to me in that way. There’s a piece of this that feels like a conversation, a national conversation around fathers and sons, family and about generational trauma. This is a film that, as heavy as it is, it’s really about generational healing and one artist’s approach to that. I was pretty excited about how proud they were. They’ve seen me make paintings and they’re like, whatever, but I make a movie and now they want to tell people.

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