Marlon Johnson’s documentaries tell the story of Miami and more

Marlon Johnson in his studio at the Deering Estate. (Rachel Rodriguez/SFMN)

Picture this, a blank page, a million ideas swirling in your head, and a pen at the ready to write.

Fast forward. Now you are sitting in a theater. Adrenaline is pumping through your veins as an audience waits in anticipation of the film you spent the last year and a half working on day and night.

This is what documentary filmmaker Marlon Johnson describes as his favorite part of the creative process. Following an idea from birth to end product.

“Going from a blank sheet of paper to a theater surrounded by people that have come to see my movie, you can’t imagine it,” he says, “to be able to create something out of absolutely nothing.”

Currently an artist in residence at the Deering Estate in South Dade, Johnson is a 47-year-old, born and raised Miamian. He is a first-generation Bahamian American and a 12-time Emmy award-winning filmmaker; he recently described how he transformed from a boy with a dream to a man walking his own path.

Johnson comes from humble beginnings in Liberty City, “an area of a lot of beauty but a lot of challenges,” as he described it. There weren’t many outlets for him outside of sports or other negative endeavors. But then he was accepted into a local performing arts middle school, where he went from an environment and mindset that a career in the arts was impossible to a place where he was championed and encouraged to follow his dreams.

“It allowed me to reimagine what the world could be,” he said. “Art saved my life.” 

After graduating from New World School of the Arts, he attended the University of Miami, where he earned his college degree. Then he was offered work in New York and Los Angeles but chose to stay in Miami because he believed (and still does) that, “We have a voice, and we hadn’t yet reached our full potential artistically.”

As a child, he was fond of watching PBS and Discovery, particularly documentaries. However, a pivotal moment came when he saw Spike Lee’s 1989 classic, “Do the Right Thing.”

“It made me reimagine what creating art could be as a black director and writer,” he says.

Johnson started his professional career by doing freelance work. He began as a production assistant, eventually moving up to second assistant director. He honed his skills and knowledge under local producers such as Rob Perkins, Herb Silverman, and Kim Wolf as mentors. Then he became a production coordinator due to his knack for computers. He went on to become the production manager for Plum TV. 

Although he dabbled in fiction, dealing with real people was more satisfying artistically, he says. His first documentary project was a film about the gentrification of historically Afro-Bahamian West Coconut Grove. “We followed how it was transformed by developers and what that meant to the neighborhood and the history of Miami.” 

This is where he got the bug. “It felt like true artistic expression… journalism if you will…something that was ours, that was our own.”

He described the challenge of entering a field with few black voices this way. “There was no one that looked like me, that was in positions of power or creating documentary films, so we had no blueprint. We were figuring it out as we went.”

Now he can be an example to young people who are, like he once was, wondering if they could make a career out of their passion for film. “It is important for young people to know that. There is a path. There is a way,” he said.

He has over 10 films under his belt. In 2017 he showcased composer Tod Machover of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in his film Symphony in D. Following these two films, Johnson collaborated with another Miami local jazz singer Cécile Mclorin Salvant, to create Singular (2019), a film that chronicles her career. Currently, he is filming a project scheduled to premiere in November at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami (MOCA).

When talking about his career, a few moments stand out to him. The first, and one of the biggest, is when he made his first feature film “Deep City: The Birth of the Miami Sound.” It is a documentary covering the 1960’s soul music scene in Miami and the first black label in Florida, Deep City Records.

He describes the process by saying, “You don’t know with your first feature film how difficult it is until you actually do it, and you get to the finish line.” But the hard work paid off in 2014 when critics named the film as one of the top ten films at the prestigious SXSW film festival.

Another acclaimed film is 2019’s “River City Drum Beat,” about a drum corps in an underserved community in West Louisville. The founder, Ed White, was turning over the program after 30 years to a child of the program, Albert Shewring. The movie followed that transition for a year. 

Showing documentaries to the protagonists can be difficult. “It’s always a bit nerve-wracking when people have entrusted you with their time and their story, but haven’t seen the end result,” he says. “So we are very careful and intentional with the way we present it to them.” 

In the case of “River City Drumbeat,” they showed the film in a private viewing, and some viewers were brought to tears. “They were so appreciative by the fact that we did justice to their story,” he added. He says moments like this “trump most awards.”

When talking about his many Emmys, he says it is great to be acknowledged by critics and his peers, but as a humble guy, it’s clear that he gets joy from the work itself.

Johnson’s advice to young filmmakers starting out is to be aware of what is around them, both big and small. Push yourself artistically and go after things you are interested in. Don’t be afraid to fail. Go out and talk to people. It may not be easy, but the yeses will come. 

“Always stay curious,” he says. “Any story can be told if done right.”

Rachel Rodriguez is a sophomore majoring in digital journalism at Florida International University. She is interested in analyzing media trends and film. After graduation, she aspires to attend law school and become an attorney focusing on media law.

Olivia Guthrie is currently a sophomore at Florida International University studying Journalism. Writing is a passion of hers. She enjoys listening to music and reading books in her free time.