Black and white image of Little Richard
Little Richard in LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING, a Magnolia Pictures release. Credit: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Academy Award nominated, Emmy-winning producer, and film director Lisa Cortés, is bringing a fresh new perspective of the story of rock ‘n’ roll legend Little Richard opening in theaters and digital platforms on April 21.

The documentary “Little Richard I Am Everything” explores the victories and complexities of Little Richard as a Black queer man in the Jim Crow South.

The film features interviews by Billy Porter, Mick Jagger, John Water, Tom Jones, family and friends of the icon, revealing how he impacted music and culture through his self-expression and authenticity.

Although the film was made three years after his death, viewers will have the opportunity to witness never-before-seen archival footage and montages of his life and revolutionary sound, and how it has influenced the creative voices and sounds of many Black LGBTQ artists in present day.

Cortés isn’t new to the Hollywood game and has cemented her talents on other projects focused on Black culture and history including “Precious,” “The Apollo,” and “All In: The Fight For Democracy.”

The Defender spoke with Cortés about the documentary and her dedication to creating films that accurately portray the Black experience.

Defender Network: Let’s dive into your personal journey. What inspired you to get into film making?

My first career was in the music industry working for Def Jam Records and then went on to Mercury Records, and I reached a point where I kind of hit the glass ceiling and the music industry was changing. I wanted a bigger platform to tell share voices of the people that I loved from my community. I realized that film offered that opportunity. I went back to film school and started working with a lot of people on the independent scene here in New York. And then one day I got a call from an old friend who said come to New Orleans and work with me on a film. That film was “Monster’s Ball,” and that friend was Lee Daniels. I then spent 10 years with Lee as his producing partner.

headshot of Lisa Cortés
Lisa Cortés, director of LITTLE RICHARD: I AM EVERYTHING, a Magnolia Pictures release. Credit: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Defender Network: The “Little Richard: I Am Everything” documentary is coming right at a time where Black LGBTQ people still have many challenges in society. What made you want to follow the story of the iconic Little Richard?

I want to go back to the thing about this time we are in. When I started this film two years ago, I didn’t know that we would be at a place in Tennessee where drag artists were being criminalized in Florida, where African American AP history is (not being taught). And our stories in general are being erased. This film is very much in conversation with things that are happening right now. It is so important for us to make certain that our history is not erased. And with Little Richard, if anything, it was to elevate someone who is so important to the creation of rock and roll, and was also someone who started the careers of so many other amazing brilliant artists.

Defender Network: I thought it was cool to learn that you had also worked in the music business for some time. Did your knowledge of the industry help shape your understanding of the how the business was during Lil’ Richard’s era vs now?

It certainly shaped my understanding of some the things that have happened to Black artists for a long time in terms of signing away their publishing masters, kind of taking a big check up front and not understanding the business and not seeing any further remuneration for their talent. And that is certainly one part of his story is these contributions his early hits … him kind of signing away any for additional money to be received, which is very tragic because he creates these huge hits that have a long life, but because he wanted to leave his contract early, they said okay you have to give up everything, no more money. There is an interesting story that didn’t make the film. We kind of allude to it. Little Richard goes and protests at ATV Music, and that is a catalog that ultimately owned his back catalog with all his hits. Michael Jackson bought that catalog, and (he) felt so bad about Little Richard not receiving any money for so many years that he actually gave him money, which I think is so interesting when we look at how Michael Jackson understood the importance and legacy of someone like Little Richard and also the unfairness of what he had encountered.

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Defender Network: I’m sure this film wasn’t an easy thing to produce. Were you able to bring people with diverse backgrounds to contribute to this film?

When you look at the credits at the end of this film, there’s a lot of people who worked on it. I was incredibly lucky to have the composer Tamar Kali Brown join in scoring this film. And also the incredible executive producer in her own right Dee Rees. Many of you know her work as the director of the film Mudbound. In key pivotal positions, there is a broad range of diverse people who I was very lucky to have joined me in the making of this film.

Defender Network: Piecing together our history takes time, research and patience. What was the process like for you to properly gather the documents to create the story and the multiple layers of this icon? How long does this take?

There a many many layers. Just look at those credits at the end of the film. There’s the research, there’s the archival sweep to find some incredible material that’s never been seen before. There’s the outreach to incredible scholars, family, friends, rock and roll icons, incredible people like Billy Porter. Then the interviews, then out brilliant editors, take all of this with a timeline that we’ve created of this cradle to grave story that we’ve found all of the pertinent information from Richard to narrate the story. Then there is the special sauce of the visual effects. Then there’s the added hot sauce of contemporary artists like Valerie June and Corey Henry and John P. Kee performing music that is connected to this film and shot in a beautiful cinematic way. Then you edit all of this, you cut things, and put them back in and then you find out a song you want, you can’t afford to clear it, and then you work with the great music supervisor to figure out something else. All of this is a part of the creative gumbo that goes into crafting a film. That’s my joy as a director to work with all of the different people down to the colorists, to the mixers, the sound engineers, and editors, to create this testimony.

Defender Network: This isn’t your first-time telling stories about our culture and history. How have you been able to push through stories of Black history in Hollywood?

I would hope that what you see as ease, is what I call grace. With grace comes opportunities that are birthed by hard work for many years with incredible collaborators. I had the honor of being a producer on the Apollo about the Apollo Theatre and the brilliant director Roger Ross Williams who told that story. The documentary community is a small one, but it’s a community that is dedicated to telling the stories of hidden figures and histories that need to be known. We’ve been lucky to have many distributors who recognize the value of these stories. It often times feels like I’m starting from the beginning again, when I have a new idea and I’m trying to sell it. But I’m so grateful to be a part of this storytelling community and the ability to make hopefully an impression on our audience about the stories and the people that they thought they knew were about, but really had no idea of the richness and complexity of the lives led as evidenced by Little Richard.

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I cover Houston's education system as it relates to the Black community for the Defender as a Report for America corps member. I'm a multimedia journalist and have reported on social, cultural, lifestyle,...