Last week, the New York Film Academy welcomed the multi-talented Suzanne De Passe to come in and speak at Warner Bros theater 4. Producer Tova Laiter, who is a friend of Suzanne’s, brought her in and moderated the event. The iconic female African-American producer / writer (who was drafted by president Barack Obama to produce his first inauguration Gala) started at Motown, where she discovered and signed Michael Jackson & The Jackson 5, Lionel Richie & The Commodores, Rick James, and others. She oversaw the soundtracks for Cooly High, The Mack, Trouble Man, and Lady Sings the Blues; and her Motown films include Mahogany, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars, and The Wiz. Her TV work includes the iconic mini-series, Lonesome Dove (CBS) and numerous family shows including Sister, Sister (The WB), The Temptations mini-series (NBC), Kid & Play Saturday morning cartoon (NBC). After producing the live show Motown 25 for NBC, Suzanne produced the NAACP Image Awards, The Essence Awards, and Showtime at the Apollo. Her productions have garnered over 30 Emmy nominations and 2 Emmy wins, a Golden Globe win, five NAACP Image Awards, 3 Peabody Awards, and an Oscar nomination as co-writer of Lady Sings The Blues. She is currently working with Steven Spielberg on the definitive film on the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., and is prominently featured in the new broadway show Motown.
On Tuesday, we screened the Emmy Award winning television special Motown’s 25 Year Anniversary (Best Variety Show), thought-up by Suzanne and sold to NBC. The television event, hosted by the legendary comedian Richard Pryor, included Michael Jackson’s first recorded “moonwalk” performance – a moment that changed his career forever.
At the young age of eighteen, Suzanne met Berry Gordy of Motown and began working for him. She rented a limo with money “from her piggy bank” to celebrate with her friend, Cindy Birdsong, when Cindy was hired to sing with The Supremes. When she picked Cindy up, Berry Gordy’s driver was on a run and Berry needed a lift. Suzanne and Cindy obliged and this was the beginning of a long relationship.
After moving to their offices in Detroit, artist Bobby Taylor approached her about an act. She went to Bobby’s house to observe a “kid act” in his living room. The then unknown Jackson 5 sang three songs for her a cappella. She had to badger Berry to see them, as initially he wasn’t looking for a kid act. When he finally agreed to see them, it was the beginning of The Jackson 5 and Michael’s unprecedented career. “Michael was a perfectionist, immensely talented, committed,” said De Passe. “He gave everything to his art and we felt it, we responded to it. He was electromagnetic!” From then on, Berry trusted Suzanne’s ability to find talent, and let her sign the next artist herself. She signed Lionel Richie and The Commodores. It’s safe to say that Suzanne has a keen eye for talent.
Suzanne went on to produce the TV mini-series Lonesome Dove, which she called a complete game-changer for her. Currently, Suzanne has a ’1st look deal’ with Universal and is doing a remake of the classic film, Mahogany. “Nobody bothered to tell me to stay in my box,” said De Passe. “My specialty is in responding to material as I see it. I am story and content-based, not genre,” she added, referencing the variety of projects she has worked on and produced.
Allister, a NYFA Filmmaking student, asked her for some general advice about the business. She answered, “Don’t take no for an answer through gentle persistence. Know your vitamin, and be very open to receiving critique from your constituents that you respect. Patience and persistence…as long as you really believe in something, then it deserves your energy.”