Q&A with Toe to Toe director Emily Abt
D.C.'s particular brand of racial and socio-economic stratification doesn't often make its way onto the silver screen: While plenty of big-budget political thrillers use the Washington Monument as a scenic backdrop, not too many touch on the divide between Southeast and Northwest. That's what makes Emily Abt's new teen drama Toe to Toe so refreshing.
The film dives headfirst into all the diversity and dissonance of the city without coming across as forced or melodramatic. After meeting on the lacrosse field at their prep school, Jesse—the daughter of a well-heeled NGO executive who's never home—and Tasha—a bright success story from Ward 8—form an unlikely friendship. The events that follow involve go-go clubs, major misunderstandings, and underage hookups, all soundtracked by an array of D.C. artists. City Paper caught up with Abt just in time to talk about her work before it opens tonight at E Street Cinema.
Why did you choose D.C. for the film?
I'm not actually from D.C., but I have family in D.C. and I spent time growing up coming into the city. It always struck me as a romantic place and a beautiful city, partly because of the architecture. It has this lush kind of warm feel, and from a cinematic perspective, I thought it'd be a beautiful place to set the film. Thematically, I wanted to tell a story about race relations. D.C. is incredibly diverse, but like so many other American cities, it's also somewhat segregated. So I had the idea to create these two characters that would traverse the color lines in the city.
I learned about D.C. and go-go and urban culture in D.C. during a summer experience I had when I was 19. I was an intern with an investigator for the public defender service. I was living in the vanilla suburbs of D.C., but I was commuting every day into Anacostia. I was traversing the different communities in DC, and it really had an impact on me how separate they were.
There are a lot of great D.C. bands featured throughout. How did you choose the music for the film?
A lot of the music is by local musicians. Our associate producer, Six, is very connected to the local go-go scene. He took me on a tour of the best and brightest go-go bands. I went and saw Junkyard and TCB and folks like that perform, and that was a really awesome experience. That's how I found the Backyard Band. We worked really hard to try and combine a middle eastern sound with local go-go music because we thought that's what the character Rashiid would do. We also worked with local indie artists, because we didn't want the whole film to just have an urban score. We wanted to reflect the diversity of the film’s characters and of D.C. We had an Ethiopian artist, B. Sheba, who does a track. We also had Tabbi Bonney, who's a big hip-hop artist, and more indie artists like Beauty Pill.
The film seems to take on racial and socio-economic issues primarily, but it also explores teenage sexuality. Was it difficult to appropriately manage so many divergent and heavy issues within the context of the story?
I guess the audience will be able to say whether I managed that well or not. I think it's all about a light touch. You want moments of levity, and it's a less is more thing. The story and characters have to come before any overt message. Hopefully, if you do your job well, the message comes from the characters and the story. I hope it doesn't come off as didactic or preachy, because it's really about these two girls more than anything else. I did of course want to make a film that challenges the status quo about teenage sexuality and race relations.
Did you ever worry that the underage sexual content might be too much?
Nowadays, there's so much overt sexualization of teenage girls. I wanted to make a film that challenged that, but in order to challenge that, we had to go there. So, the film definitely is a frank depiction of teenage sexuality, but I think it very much shows the darker side of hookup culture that's so prevalent among teens today. The character that's promiscuous is representative of so many young women today, and in order to get a conversation going about teenage hyper-sexualization and the sexual health crisis, you have to kind of show it. The sex scenes aren't meant to titillate, they're more there to show you how this girl behaves and what that is rooted in.
How did you approach the central element of race in the film?
I wanted to create what I thought was an aspirational relationship between Tasha and Jesse. Yes, they have conflicts, but what makes their relationship beautiful and worth sacrificing for is the fact that they aren't always polite, they don't always say the PC thing, but that honesty is something that brings them closer.
The film opens tonight at Landmark's E Street Cinema, 555 11th Street NW, (202) 452-7672