words Ellie Brown
As a filmmaker, director and producer, C. Fitz has built up a wealth of experience working within the industry. Starting out working on the commercial side, Fitz worked on the pilot of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy back in 2003 – a gig that introduced her to TV work. Yet, documentaries and short films have always been a passion for Fitz, something that is clearly apparent in the way that ShowGirls, Provincetown, MA (2009) and Jewel’s Catch One (2016) are shot. Whilst ShowGirls, a documentary about the showgirls of Provincetown’s legendary talent show, has become something of a cult hit, Jewel’s Catch One was picked up for release by Ava DuVernay’s distribution company, ARRAY, in 2018. The documentary tells the story of Jewel Thais-Williams, whose nightclub, the Catch One in LA, provided a safe space for LGBTQ, Black and Aids-affected communities over the four decades it was open. During its tenure, the Catch became a haven from the outside world for many, as rare footage of Madonna at the club in Fitz’s film demonstrates. With interviews from Thelma Houston, who heard her hit song Don’t Leave Me This Way for the first time at the Catch, Sharon Stone and Evelyn “Champagne” King, Jewel’s Catch One is a loyal and endearing tribute to the legacy of Thais-Williams. In the time since the documentary’s release, Fitz has been working on other projects; a few days prior to our phone call, Fitz enjoyed her TV scripted directorial debut for an episode of the fourth series of Ava DuVernay’s TV show, Queen Sugar. Speaking to Fitz, it is clear that the opportunity to watch this debut alongside Ava at Array’s Amanda Theatre, LA, is as valuable as the opportunity to tell important stories and create thought-provoking content.
NR MAGAZINE: Something that is striking about Jewel’s Catch One is the need to preserve the memories of the space as the club was being wound up. Did you anticipate this change when you started out filming to documentary?
C. Fitz: When I started making the film, I did not think of Catch One without Jewel as the owner because, at that time, it was all that that building and its stories had known for a little over three and a half decades. I did feel strongly about recording the history so that her story and the stories of our community’s perseverance were not lost. To me, the film was like a huge unwritten textbook that needed to be made.
NR: Would you agree that some aspects of Jewel’s Catch One, in the short time since filming, now feel bittersweet, as the political mood seems to be operating in reverse?
C.F: The political climate today; it seems like we’ve got so far to go to reach equality….one step forward, two back, three back…..I don’t think we ever imagined that we could feel like we are going in reverse. I think there is a lesson there too. Is it reverse, or do we just need to keep on fighting and not get distracted from making change happen? We need to dig in like Jewel, the patrons, and supporters of Catch One did for years to fight for our rights and our community’s rights. Change, real change, takes time and tenacity to believe it will, and can happen. This is one of the takeaways from making this film. During the four decades the Catch One operated there were many times the police tried to tear down communities - whether it was raiding and targeting the Black and Gay clubs at hours that would hurt their businesses the most, or arresting patrons for false acquisitions. The film sheds some light on what that felt like, and what not giving up looks like…
NR: As a filmmaker, what compels you to tell someone’s story for an audience that may have little connection to, or knowledge of, their circumstances?
C.F: Jewel’s Catch One has a very important history that I wanted to preserve in a format that would carry its message for a broader audience in, for, and outside of Los Angeles. I felt this film contained so many different histories and lessons for everyone, and everyone should know this story so they can reflect on how we got here as a country, and how we can persevere in the future towards equality.
NR: In Jewel’s Catch One and ShowGirls, there’s a real sense of community forged around the shared enjoyment and appreciation for the spaces and entertainment involved. How do you achieve the warmth in these films that can be felt as a viewer?
C.F: I feel you need to spend as much time as you can as a filmmaker, recording what you can document, and then reflecting back on the footage in the edit room to tell the best story to your audience. With each film, I spent a lot of time with my subjects - and did whatever I could to learn about them, their environments and basically submerse myself in their worlds. In both instances, I was already a part of some of the ‘world’ but needed to learn more, to find out why they are doing what they are doing.
NR: Do you think you can tell stories if you’re not really part of that world, or do you have to have a connection to it to be able to tell it well?
C.F: I think, as a filmmaker, especially in terms of documentary, you have to have some connection to it. That doesn’t mean you have to be of that community, but you have to have that passion to tell that story. How you tell it is what you have to figure out next, and hopefully you figure out so you can tell it the right way. You have to immerse yourself, talk to people, find out all the different stories you need, and then find the ones that are the best to support the story you want to tell.
NR: Being around Jewel and the spaces she’s involved with, was there a sense of community that struck you as unique to that space? How did people react to Jewel, and respond to what she was doing?
C.F: It was amazing, it really, really was. Whether it be at the Catch or the Village Health Foundation, I got a little sense of what the soup kitchens that were held in the parking lot back in the ‘80s-‘90s would have been like. In the documentary, there are scenes from the 2016 Pride Parade in LA, which Jewel was a part of, and people were thanking her for all the work she’s done. That’s the community she built and supported – and supported when nobody else would. So the sense of community was incredible, and the sense of her being the mother of it all was incredible to watch and really feel.
NR: How did the relationship with Ava [DuVernay] come about?
C.F: We met her at Urbanworld Film Festival, our New York debut. She was speaking there, and was our top choice of distributor. How we were going to get there, we weren’t sure. It’s a great story – how we actually, physically, met. She was leaving after giving a speech on the last day of the festival, and Jewel and I were behind trying to catch up with her. We weren’t doing so hot, but we were close. And then it was kismet and she was pushed back into me by the crowd and I helped her back up;(It was so crowded and every one wanted to talk to her) and she turns right around and says, ‘good catch’, which was so funny considering the film’s called Jewel’s Catch One. Anyway, then she was off again, but when I had the chance, I grabbed her and said, ‘Hi! My name is Fitz, I have Jewel’s Catch One which is my documentary and this is Jewel’; she turns to Jewel and she says, ‘you’re Jewel? I’ve heard so much great stuff about you’. She told me that she definitely wanted to review my film, that she’d heard great stuff about it. These things are never instant; it took two years to distribute the film. But, Array is where the film was supposed to be. They take such great care of their filmmakers and are celebratory of their filmmakers, and that was really important to me, And it was such a gift. It was such an interesting meeting the first time, but it was meant to be.
NR: Have there been any major obstacles that you’ve had to confront over the course of your career?
C.F: In general, I think, as a filmmaker, you really hope you’re picking the right projects and the right subjects, especially when it’s a passion project. You know, Jewel’s Catch One took me six years to make, and another two to distribute. That requires perseverance, and you’re also praying that you’re choosing the right things. You also have to be connected to what you’re doing and feel strongly about it – like I felt so strongly in my bones that I wanted to tell Jewel’s story. Again, with Queer Eye, I helped develop and create the pilot, and I wanted for that to be a masterpiece and make a difference in the world. It’s the same with being assigned as a director on Queen Sugar by Ava; I wanted it to be perfect and, I don’t know if that’s an obstacle, but you’re hoping that you’re choosing the right projects.
You’re talking about reinvention, and I think that that’s also about choosing what you’re going to be passionate about and what you’re going to really have that crazy tenacity for, in order to make content in the right way. Like Jewel’s Catch One, that could have been done a million different ways; it certainly could have been done in a shorter amount of time, without the music in it, without Thelma Houston, Evelyn Champagne King, and Sharon Stone… But, all those things matter to that story around Jewel being the central figure around them all, you know? So, yeah, time is always the hardest obstacle. But you know that; that’s part of the job. If you’re going to reinvent yourself, I think you really need to know what your passions are to have the perseverance that you’re going to need to get there. And sometimes, it’s really not reinventing yourself, it’s just finally coming into what you’ve always been and people seeing it finally.