By Larisa Karr
When Joshua Jean-Baptiste started studying performing arts at New World School of the Arts in Miami, he wasn’t sure if it was the right place for him. But at New World, a prestigious conservatory, he met Edson Jean, his future friend and creative collaborator.
“Outside of class, we would have late-night rehearsals where we would have to bring props and set pieces and that was a challenge,” said Jean, also a filmmaker and actor.
The pair has since become known for such projects as “The Adventures of Edson Jean”, the web series #josh and “Grown” on Complex Networks. Their work has aired on HBO.
This month, Jean-Baptiste’s and Jean’s latest film, “Ludi,” premieres at the Miami Film Festival March 5-14, then will screen at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
Inspired by Jean’s mother who immigrated from Haiti to the U.S., the film focuses on a nurse who is struggling to send money back home and experiences a longing for her home country to explore poignant themes about immigrants.
Incorporating Haitian characters is one element that has always characterized both Jean-Baptiste’s and Jean’s work. With Ludi, the spotlight stays on one of those characters, one close to both men’s hearts.
“Any opportunity I get, I create stories starring Haitian people and make sure it’s accurate,” said Jean-Baptiste. “I love telling stories about introspection and how the narratives that we usually tell ourselves can be damaging, whether it be because of insecurity or trauma.”
Jean, of Miami, said, “The Caribbean has made its way naturally into our stories, just because of the melting pot that Miami is… Because Josh is Haitian, we share a lot of the same cultural nuances in our writing and it’s been really organic.”
Meeting at New World
The pair has come a long way from meeting at New World.
“I thought getting into those spaces was an exclusive thing or I had to know someone and I felt I didn’t have an access to create,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I looked at New World as a Hogwarts for drama nerds and the conservatory environment was exactly what I needed, a cohort of people to collaborate and grow with.”
Jean-Baptiste grew up in North Miami and spent his early years watching television while his single mom, Marie, went to work as a nurse. He realized the impact art can have on people and decided to make it a career.
One rainy night, his new friend Jean noticed that the commute for Jean-Baptiste would be tedious and proposed he crash at his house down the road from the conservatory in Downtown Miami. Soon after, when Jean was 22 and Jean-Baptiste 20, the duo became roommates.
During this time, Jean wanted to branch out from the stage and decided to make a short film titled “The Adventures of Edson Jean.” He featured Jean-Baptiste in it as well. That film aired on HBO, to which they licensed it in 2012, and on HBO GO.
Three years after Jean-Baptiste graduated college, the pair created a web series called “#Josh,” based on Jean, and developed a series about their experiences of two men trying to figure out life in Miami. In 2016, the series won a Project Greenlight Digital Studios “Get The Greenlight” competition.
The friends’ ultimate breakthrough came in 2018, when their TV show “Grown” became Complex Network’s first scripted show. They would then go on to meet Ben Affleck and partner with Matt Damon’s production company.
The following year, Jean-Baptiste turned 30 and realized he wanted a fresh start. Two of his best friends were living in L.A. and were urging him to move. He decamped soon after.
Now at 31, the South Florida native recently made the move to L.A., where he hopes to cement his status as a filmmaker known for innovative and original storytelling.
“I’d realized I’d never experienced anywhere else than Miami and there was also the added benefit of being closer to the industry,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I was also very excited to be nobody again.”
The differences between L.A. and Miami soon became evident to Jean-Baptiste. Used to Miami’s multicultural background where he had many Latinx and Haitian friends, he found himself realizing that oftentimes, he would be the only Black person in his work circles. The experience inspired him to create a short film last summer titled “1/1000” about racist microaggressions in corporate settings, funded by the GableStage.
Bringing Haitian stories into the light
Jean said that Jean-Baptiste’s work stands out because he addresses heavy subjects but incorporates comedy, as the pair does in Ludi.
Jean’s mother, Inea Jean, said that when she first came to the U.S., she felt a great burden and pressure to support friends and family back in Haiti.
“This stressful occupation of mine was so much heavier with the mindset that I was financially responsible for my friends and family,” said Inea Jean, 61. “They think that if you come to the U.S., it would be like having a tree where the leaves were filled with money and I felt like the whole world was crashing over me.”
Jean-Baptiste also had conversations with his aunt, Daphnee Delbrun, to learn about her experience as a healthcare worker in the U.S. Delbrun, a respiratory therapist, came to the U.S. from Haiti when she was 11 years old.
“He asked me questions about how hard it was to work in a hospital and how I felt regarding the patients I work with,” said Delbrun, of Miami. “I told him that when you work in a healthcare facility, you have to have compassion and treat people the way you would want somebody to treat you.”
Delbrun said Jean-Baptiste also had insight into the importance of compassion with healthcare workers. His two cousins were born with cerebral palsy and he would see the nurses come into the house to help them. She said he showed her a small peek of “Ludi” and she loved what she saw.
“Ludi” has already garnered significant coverage and great acclaim. It will be the opening-night film at the Miami Film Festival from Mar. 5-14. The following week, it will screen at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.
This will be the first film to be produced by Jean’s Miami-based company, Bantufy Films. Jean started Bantufy, inspired by the Zulu word “bantu,” to showcase Haitian, Caribbean, and Latinx communities from an accurate perspective.
Jean-Baptiste also has a pilot in the works, in addition to other projects he is currently developing. As he continues to make his move in Hollywood, he hopes to ensure that people who see his films realize they don’t have to have the same insecurities and doubts he had when he first started college.
“I try to tell stories where people can empathize with characters to realize that we all have a light and a voice that empowers us,” Jean-Baptiste said. “If I’m famous, I definitely want to give back and encourage people that it’s OK to come tell their stories.”
Although Jean-Baptiste and Jean have many collaborations under their belt, “Ludi” will be their last project for the foreseeable future. As Jean-Baptiste continues to establish himself in L.A., Jean has his sights set on continuing to create films in his home city.
“What Josh starts to develop down the road, it probably won’t be the same as me,” said Jean. “He focuses on introspection and comedy, whereas I’m more into drama and slices-of-life.”
He said that he is grateful to have had a creative partner he bonded with right off the bat.
“I was lucky that the first person I tried something with just worked,” said Jean. “More often than not, it doesn’t just click with the first person that you collaborate with.”
Jean’s mother, Inea, was skeptical of him initially pursuing a career in acting, wishing instead that he would choose to be an engineer or a doctor. Eventually, she decided to support her son and she is glad she has.
“I’m always encouraging him now,” said Inea Jean, who lives in Delray Beach, F.L. “Sometimes, I think he’s taking a risk, but I am very thrilled and happy to see he’s developed a love for Haitian culture.”