Who the Hell is Johnny Otis?

Project type: Nonfiction Feature
Project status: Development
Director/Producer: David Zeiger
Director/Producer: Mobolaji Olambiwonnu
Director of Photography: Jerry Henry
Director of Archival Research: Jayne Kennedy
Editor: Lindsay Mofford
Animation: Carl Jones
Website: displacedfilms.com
Email: dzeiger@displacedfilms.com
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When a high school counselor told him to quit his Black friends, Loannis Veliotes dropped out, took his drum set on the road, and became Johnny Otis–a decades long innovator and promoter of Rhythm & Blues and Rock & Roll. Calling himself “Black by persuasion,” Johnny Otis tore through taboos against white and Black musicians playing together and wrote dozens of R&B and rock hits along with books and articles promoting Black liberation.


This is the story of a man who, born in 1921 to Greek immigrant parents in an integrated neighborhood in Berkeley, California, wholeheartedly cast his lot with the Black community and became both a major force in the creation and growth of African-American music and a champion of the Black Liberation struggle.

Johnny Otis has been dubbed the “Godfather of Rhythm & Blues,” a moniker he hated. “I was just privileged to be there,” he told music historian George Lipsitz in 1986. But in the spectrum of R&B and Rock & Roll, “there” was everywhere. In the nineteen forties and fifties he had over a dozen top ten recordings in the R&B charts, including four number one hits. 1958’s “Willie and the Hand Jive,” a classic of early rock & roll, was both number one on the R&B charts and reached number nine on the pop charts.

In 1965, as his beloved community of Watts was rising up in flames, Johnny Otis wrote “I can’t read the American White Establishment’s mind, therefore I don’t know if they really see the handwriting on the wall. But I do know that if the black man is not cut completely free of his misery he will continue to rock the boat and rock the boat and rock the boat…and I don’t mean nonviolent, organized demonstrations led by pompous, sanctimonious preachers and self-declared ‘leaders.’”

Thus began his 1968 book Listen to the Lambs, which the Los Angeles Times called “A disturbing, incisively written book.” The book is a roadmap into both the struggle by Black people for freedom and the determination of a man born to Greek immigrant parents to devote every fiber of his being to that struggle, a full-throated battle cry for an end to white supremacy.

Meet the Filmmakers

David Zeiger — Director/Producer
Guggenheim Fellow David Zeiger has been making documentary films and series for 20 years, starting with The Band, a film about his son’s junior year in high school, broadcast on the PBS series P.O.V. in 1997. That was followed by the landmark thirteen-part PBS (U.S.) and Planete Cable (International) series Senior Year in 2002. Senior Year was funded by CPB, PBS, NAATA, LPB, and the MacArthur and Kellogg foundations, and was a national presentation by PBS. His short documentary, Funny Old Guys, was broadcast in 2002 by HBO. His 2006 film, Sir! No Sir!, ran theatrically in 65 cities throughout the U.S. and Canada and was broadcast in 200 countries worldwide, including on BBC Storyville, ARTE France, ABC Australia, and the Sundance Channel in the U.S. It won Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival (Audience Award) and Hamptons Film Festival, and Seeds of War Award at the Full Frame Documentary Festival, along with nominations for an International Documentary, Independent Spirit, and Gotham award. In 2010 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 2012 completed his first narrative feature, Sweet Old World.

Mobolaji Olambiwonnu – Director/Producer
Mobolaji Olambiwonnu’s first feature documentary, Ferguson Rises, was executive produced by Academy/Emmy Award Winner TJ Martin, acclaimed producer Gigi Pritzker, Grammy Award Winners RZA and Aloe Blacc, and acclaimed actor David Oyelowo. Ferguson Rises went on to win numerous awards including the coveted Tribeca Film Festival Audience Award (2021). Its powerful story about the impact the killing of Michael Brown Jr. had on the community of Ferguson, his father, and ultimately the global BLM movement, was featured in Variety Magazine, was chosen to represent Independent Lens’ fall slate at the Television Critics Association (TCA) and was qualified for the 2022 Academy Awards.

Olambiwonnu’s goal is to use cinema as a tool to share diverse cultural and political experiences, critique the superficial conditions that divide us, and accentuate the merits of shedding our prejudices.

Jerry Henry — Director of Photography
Jerry Henry is a LA-based Director/DP who received his MFA degree from UCLA’s prestigious Production Program with an emphasis on Documentary and Cinematography. His award-winning short documentary I Promise Africa premiered in over 100 film festivals worldwide and won many prestigious awards, among them a Directors Guild of America Student Award. Jerry’s visual talents can be seen in the Oscar nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop directed by Banksy, and Peabody Award winning documentary American Revolutionary by director Grace Lee. He lent his DP talents to help shoot the Grammy Award winning HBO doc series titled The Defiant Ones which chronicles the life and work of Dr. Dre. and Jimmy Iovine. Jerry also lensed The Rachel Divide by director Laura Brownson premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is currently streaming on Netflix. Jerry contributed cinematography on the Oscar Nominated documentary short film St. Louis Superman by directors Smriti Mundra and Sami Khan. His most recent work is the Documentary/Narrative hybrid adaptation of the Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me directed by Kamila Forbes which is currently streaming on HBO Max.

Jayne Kennedy – Director of Archival Research
Jayne Kennedy is the Chief Archival Researcher for the multi-award winning film, Zappa.

Lindsay Mofford – Editor
Lindsay Mofford began her career as an assistant editor on several of Frederick Wiseman’s landmark films. With David Zeiger she edited Senior Year for PBS, Funny Old Guys for HBO, Sir! No Sir! and Sweet Old World.

Carl Jones – Animation
Carl Jones is an esteemed producer, writer, and director in the animation industry, known for his work on acclaimed projects such as the Peabody Award-winning The Boondocks and Black Dynamite. His versatile portfolio includes co-creating Adult Swim’s Freaknik: The Musical, writing for Comedy Central’s Legends of Chamberlain Heights and Adult Swim’s The Jellies!, as well as executive producing the animated reboot of Good Times on Netflix and HBO Max’s Young Love. Carl also served as the showrunner for Season 3 of TBS’s The Last OG and notably directed the 2023 Webby Award-winning animated series Undeniable for Major League Baseball. His impressive track record showcases his ability to produce innovative and compelling content, solidifying his impact on the world of entertainment.

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