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Shortly before dusk on a recent Saturday outside Take One Lounge on NE 79th Street, silver cane in hand, he is hard at work. With his personal belongings neatly stored inside a leather bag strapped to the back of a sturdy black wheelchair, he directs drivers into the lot adjoining the purple-painted strip club.
Priest, as he's known in these parts, smiles a near-toothless grin at the ladies as they come and go, and then belts out a blues number. "The Devil made you love it, yeah," he coos with a pitch-perfect tone, rhythmically tapping his cane on the dirty sidewalk. "He made you love it real, real bad/You know it's no good for you/It makes you real, real sad."
Shuffling anxiously from foot to foot, he tips his head forward, his brown eyes flashing proudly. "It was gonna be the national anti-drug campaign theme song," he says without a hint of irony. "And it still could be."
Priest, you see, is addicted to crack cocaine. "I'm not proud," he says, fingering a small, weathered bib tucked into his left chest pocket. "It's just something the body craves."
The addict's performance was filmed with his written consent by Winfield "D" Gillespie, one of the founders of Headliners Productions, a New York-based production company. And Priest will likely have a starring role in their upcoming DVD, Crackheadz Gone Wild Miami.
Publicizing the plight of a twenty-year crack addict and others like him, according to Gillespie, is what Crackheadz is all about. In recent weeks, the crew has filmed crack addicts passing the pipe, getting high, acting out, fist-fighting, rapping, singing, dancing, mouthing off, and generally playing the fool. It is the fifth film of its kind. Others have been shot in New York, Atlanta, and Chicago. (The Atlanta and Chicago productions were produced by another group.)
Producers of the Miami version, who say their aim is to publicize the problem so it can be solved, have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from the commercial release of the New York volumes. And though the company does not stage any of the on-camera antics nor supply drugs, critics say addicts are being exploited. On a recent Fox TV report, drug abuse counselors dubbed the genre "craxploitation."
Monkey Hustle Films founder Lorenzo "H" Hightower came up with the reality-TV-style approach to exposing the crack lifestyle after watching the drug-inspired weirdness outside his home on Jamaica Avenue in Queens early last year. So he called on Headliners Productions, partnered by Gillespie and Kyron Hodges two guys all too familiar with drugs.
Hodges and Gillespie grew up in homes where at least one parent battled addiction. "It affected [my mother] to a point where she almost took her life in front of me," the soft-spoken Hodges recalls of his troubled childhood. He was nine years old when she attempted suicide, forcing the state to place him and his six-year-old brother in foster care. Eight years later, he says, he was selling cocaine on the streets of his native Brooklyn. He was arrested and in 1992 sentenced to an eight-year prison term.
While incarcerated, he met Gillespie, who was serving a seven-year stint, also for selling drugs. Following their release in 2000, the pair worked as counselors for a nonprofit social-service organization in New York, Community Counseling and Mediation. Both are now married fathers who disdain drugs.
Sold on Hightower's idea, the pair took the camera to the streets of the Big Apple and drove around in search of crackheads. "We actually talk to [addicts]. We want to find out how they got like that. We're trying to show that everywhere, all these inner cities [have] the same [problems]," explains Gillespie.
Their first effort, Crackheadz Gone Wild New York, was released this past September and was well received. Hodges says some 60,000 copies (at $15 each) were sold primarily through their Website, crackheadzgonewildnewyork.com. Volume 2, also shot in New York, was released this past June. It has sold approximately 20,000 copies. To date, the company has netted an estimated half-million dollars.
After a promotional visit to Miami during Memorial Day weekend, Hodges and company decided to turn their attention to South Florida. "People look at Miami as beautiful women, beautiful cars, sunshine, and palm trees, but everyday life in Miami is not that," says Gillespie. "For many people, everyday life is what [Priest] is living."
"We don't make fun of these people; that's not what we're about," says Hodges, adding that a portion of the profits from the sale of their DVDs was donated to a nonprofit anti-drug counseling organization in New York.
In one surreally insightful line, the frail-looking Priest sums up the message of Crackheadz Gone Wild: "There was a time to just say no," he sings softly. "But let's show them what real love is/Now it's time to say I love you no more."