Trina's Screen Test

Miami's hip-hop queen makes a movie with a message

Down NW 60th Street near 10th Avenue, a group of old-timers play dominoes under a tree, complaining about the weather. Across the street young men in braids lounge on lawn chairs, rousing themselves each time a car slows at the corner. A couple of blocks north, school kids in khaki uniforms walk along MLK Boulevard, weighed down by backpacks. Like so many afternoons in this part of Miami -- nothing much to do, nothing much to see.

Except that when the kids get to the edge of the basketball court at Belafonte Tacolcy Park, a lanky guy in glasses with a walkie-talkie strapped to his belt stops them. There's a movie camera under the stone arch holding a basketball backboard and another camera looking through the far side of the park's chain-link fence.

"Be quiet," Imani McKinney tells the kids. "We're making a movie."

Hell, no, we won't blow: Trina sits down for her community
Steve Satterwhite
Hell, no, we won't blow: Trina sits down for her community

But the kids can't be quiet.

There she is, just on the other side of the court. Even though she's not wearing any ice and even though her skin is all covered by a pink and gray sweatsuit. That's her oval face framed by stick-straight black hair falling almost all the way down to her generous backside. Those are the same hooded green eyes that look out at them from the CD covers and music videos.

She's surrounded by a posse of beautiful young women also wearing sweats, staring down a police officer standing outside the park.

"Let's see if you understand this," she growls. "Until the gang violence stop, we ain't going anywhere."

"Cut!" yells director Melvin James.

"Trina!" yells one of the boys.

His little brother pummels him, but the boy yells her name again.

Soon all the kids are yelling in chorus: "Trina! Trina! Trina!"

Production assistant McKinney is powerless to stop them. He never learned crowd control in his film classes at Miami-Dade Community College.

The kids don't quit until Trina turns around, smiles, and waves.

Shooting begins again.

"We have the use of the park for the week, but we don't want to keep the kids out," explains Pam White, an executive producer of Trina's first feature film, A Miami Tail. A contemporary version of Lysistrata, a classic Greek comedy by Aristophanes, A Miami Tail has Alicia (Trina) leading the women of Liberty City in a protest against gang violence in their hood by refusing sex to their gangbanging boyfriends. Originally written by Los Angeles-based screenwriters Stephane Alese Jordan and Colin Costello as A Brooklyn Tail, the title shifted with the location to serve as a vehicle for the Miami rapper, whose second album Diamond Princess recently hit the top ten on the Billboard R&B/hip-hop album chart and whose current single "B-R-Right" is all over the radio. So if the local diva draws a crowd from round-the-way, that's okay with White. "When we need extras," she points out, "we can just use the people standing right here."

Using the people here is an essential ingredient in the making of this Liberty City Lysistrata. Not only is A Miami Tail Trina's acting debut, it is also the first feature film made by Breakaway, a new production company based in Deerfield Beach with ambitious plans for a series of movies made in South Florida. Unlike visitors from Hollywood, such as Bad Boys 2 and The Fast and the Furious 2, who tie up traffic while giving jobs to out-of-towners and using Miami mainly as a backdrop, Breakaway relies on South Florida not only for a setting but for everything from the onscreen talent and film crew to pre- and post-production services.

"The only reason we'll go outside South Florida is to sell the film when it's done," says White's boss at Breakaway, Doug Schwab. The president of video-distribution company Maverick Entertainment, also based in Deerfield Beach, sits on a folding chair during a lunch break on the set and explains how a hefty redheaded white guy gets into the business of making urban (hip African-American) films.

From 1987 through 1997, Schwab says, he served as a buyer for video giant Blockbuster, which was based in South Florida at that time. When company headquarters moved to Texas, he stayed behind and put his experience to work by selling videos instead of buying them.

Lesson number one: African-American and Latino viewers are underserved because Hollywood studios are more interested in worldwide box office than in the domestic market. So for the past six years Maverick Entertainment has specialized in putting urban and Latino films on the shelves of Blockbuster, Hollywood Video, and other major rental chains in the United States. But Schwab found that he couldn't always acquire enough urban films that followed the commercial formula the video chains buy. So he formed Breakaway to produce a projected ten to sixteen urban and Latino films of his own every year.

With guaranteed distribution through Maverick -- and a moderate budget (well under a million is all Schwab would say on the record) -- there's no way a Breakaway film can lose money. "We only make things we know won't be resisted," says Schwab. "If I walk into a chain and somebody says, 'Urban movies aren't happening anymore, we need a sci-fi movie with an all-Oriental cast,' that's what we'll make. But black clientele will be black clientele fifteen years from now. If there are 35 million Hispanics now, there will be 50 million five years from now. These genres are always going to be there."

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