Leaning forward in a comfy lime green chair in her fifth-floor walk-up apartment above an Indian restaurant in Manhattan's East Village, Darnell Martin talks about growing up in the Bronx, where her single mother raised her and her two sisters on public assistance. ''I think of it, and I think of running through the streets with no shirt on and being brown from the sun.'' ! She hums the tune from the ice cream truck, describes the guy at the bodega who sold them pickles for a nickel, and details the awful day her neighbor Marta Lopez informed her she had to wear a shirt because she was a girl.
In her feature directorial debut, I Like It Like That, Martin (who declines to give her age) goes home again, bringing those images of her childhood back to life in her coming-of-age tale of Lisette Linares, a young, married mother of three. ''I loved these people. This is the story of the place where I grew up.''
After attending public schools through the third grade, Martin won a scholarship to Barnard School for Girls and then went off to a Christian Science boarding school (she's a member of the faith) in Connecticut, where, she says, she was transformed by William Faulkner's Light in August. The daughter of a white mother and a black father, Martin felt a kinship with Faulkner's mixed-race character Joe Christmas. ''That a white man from the South, from a different period and a different social structure than I, could write something that was more close to me than anything I have ever read in my life says we're all f---ing human.''
It was Faulkner's writing that inspired her to become a cinematographer (''It became film to me''). After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College, where she studied theater and literature, she got work as a technician at various Manhattan labs. At one of them, she met the cinematographer-director Ernest Dickerson, who offered her a job as second assistant camera on an Anita Baker music video and eventually brought her on board for Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.
In her crowded flat, she sits surrounded by prints of Caravaggio (her favorite) and a poster by her husband, Italian artist Giuseppe Ducret, 28, who lives in Rome and whom she sees every few months. On this day she has finished her second screenplay, a dark psychological thriller titled Listening to the Dead. ''This is totally my baby,'' she says with a smile. And she likes it like that.