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Outside a hangar at Perry Airport in south Broward, grips and gaffers roll out cords and set up lights to a dancehall beat as a DJ teases a captive audience of film extras and celluloid hopefuls. Inside the nearby Maydays Bar and Lounge, a young woman in bandanna, bikini top, and go-go boots, looking like a shipwreck from The Pirates of Penzance, intercepts director Cess Silvera and asks if she can be in the shot. "Okay," he says without pausing, rushing off to oversee a convoy of Mercedes, BMWs, and Lexuses pulling on to the set of his feature film, Shottas.
In front of a trailer that could be called the House of Silicone, a luckier actress, going by the name Marilyn Manhoe, eats a chocolate chip cookie. The ex-stripper admits to having no formal acting training but believes her life experience gives depth to her character. "My character Marcia reminds you of an ex-dancer," Manhoe says. "Usually they hook up with a drug dealer or a guy with a lot of money to take care of them." Leaning on a Nissan Pathfinder, Jamaican-American hip-hop star Foxy Brown chats with dancehall great Spragga Benz. "Maybe later," sneers Foxy, who is not appearing in the film, as she waves off a New Times camera. On the set of this gangsta flick, which tells the tale of Jamaican big shots, life imitates art. The shottas, or ballers, all are here.
Almost. The cameras cannot roll until the dreadlocked Wyclef Jean, who has been delayed on South Beach, pulls up in his yellow Lamborghini. The Haitian-American hip-hopper makes his acting debut in Shottas playing Richie Effs, a Jamaican thug based on the past of Richie Effs, Silvera's real-world cousin and co-owner of ACCESS Pictures, the film's producer. Silvera says he wrote the character with Wyclef in mind. "I don't know anybody else who could bring this character to life," says Silvera. "I had his picture on the wall as I was writing this; it was straight-up planned." Wyclef in turn chose Shottasas his breakout film over myriad others. "Wyclef had Hollywood scripts with $20 million budgets," boasts Silvera, "and chose to do mine."
Now seemingly camera-shy, Effs admits that Wyclef's character is loosely based on his former thug life. He says he hopes the feature about greed and loyalty will convey that "what you do in life will come back to haunt you." The star-studded production also will deliver plenty of glock bravado. Apart from Wyclef, the film features a predominantly Jamaican cast that includes Kymani Marley and self-proclaimed "black ghetto star" Louie Rankin, the long-time reggae recording artist who made his mark as Ox in the hip-hop film Bellyopposite rapper DMX.
When Wyclef finally arrives, a Deco Drive camera crew descends upon him. Onlookers assemble at the fence that surrounds the bar, trying to catch a peep. Twice the production crew is asked to hold off on sawing wooden planks during the taping. Shoulder to shoulder with Silvera, Wyclef answers questions about the film, his upcoming concert, and his newfound love for strippers. "I'm a nice guy," Wyclef jokes about the difference between him and his character in the movie. "That's not the real Wyclef." Goaded by the reporter about his acting skills, Wyclef responds, "I'm from the ghetto. All I have to do is go in my mind, and I can be anything." Then he explains why he took this role. "It's about the Caribbean. My man right here," addressing the film director, "he's the next big thing."
Wyclef is not only acting in Shottas but also composing the score and producing most of the soundtrack, with Richie Effs Entertainment serving as executive producer. The soundtrack is the most recent in a string of collaborations with major reggae recording artists, including the remix of the legendary Yellowman's multiplatinum single "Perfect Gentleman." Has Haiti's hero turned in his compas card for membership in the roots-and-dancehall scene? Wyclef, who has always maintained and elevated his Haitian identity, describes himself to the camera crew as "an adopted Jamaican."
That adopted status is evident in this week's reggae-heavy Wyclef Jean Spring Ting. Previous Miami concerts Wyclef has hosted to benefit his Wyclef Jean Foundation have had more hip-hop in the lineup. From her office on South Beach, Stella McLaughlan from A.S.A.P. Productions, the show's producer, told New Times: "I felt [Wyclef] needed to come back to the South Florida community and represent the Haitian youth. We missed him last year." A.S.A.P. has worked with Wyclef and the Wyclef Jean Foundation for several years and assisted in the production of most of the foundation's events to date. McLaughlan, a Chicago native, has been in the reggae music business for 24 years, since she met Bob Marley in 1977. She was in charge of the Bob Marley Festival in Miami for the first four years of its existence. Aside from his Haitian origin, how Wyclef will represent Haitian youth with such a tight reggae roster is not clear. When asked why there weren't any Haitian acts to further that end, the producer replied, "We wanted to put Haitian acts in the lineup, but our budget ran out -- that's really what happened."