Trina's Screen Test
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."
But the kids can't be quiet.
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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."
Depending on how A Miami Tail turns out, Schwab and producer White also may sell the films to theaters, pay-per-view, and cable television. But then again they may not. For Schwab it doesn't really matter. "Direct-to-video has a stigma that is unfounded," he insists. Harry Potter and 8 Mile notwithstanding, the average theatrical release hits a few screens in a few cities for a few days and is seen by a few thousand sets of eyes. "Blockbuster's active customer base is 50 million people," Schwab argues. Or as White clarifies: "More people will see you on video than will ever see you on a movie screen."
Relying on the parade of video-rental customers who head straight for the new releases, Schwab doesn't even bother to advertise the films he distributes. But inside the store, he lures that Blockbuster customer by prominently featuring rap stars like Trina. "It serves as a kind of hip-hop seal of approval," Schwab laughs.
But does following such a strict commercial formula stifle a director? Not really, says Melvin James, who with West Palm Beach producer Roderick Powell approached Schwab with the Miami Tail project. An earlier independent film made by James and Powell called Honeybee (female boxers who are sweet as honey but sting like a bee) was acquired by Maverick for distribution after it was completed. This time the pair went to Maverick first. "[Direct-to-video] is just another medium, from a creative standpoint," James says. "Hollywood follows a certain pattern determined by box-office grosses. Because direct-to-video is more accepting, African-American filmmakers can tell different stories." And the modern adaptation of Lysistrata is certainly a different story for the hip-hop world: Instead of serving up sex, the women are holding out. Instead of gangbanging, the film ends in peace and love.
The movie has personal resonance for Trina, who was propelled into the world of rap in part by the murder of her boyfriend Hollywood (Derek Harris), half-brother of fellow Miami superstar Trick Daddy and dear friend of rap impresario Ted Lucas, head of Trick and Trina's label, Slip-N-Slide Records. Sitting in her trailer waiting for lunch, Trina says she sees A Miami Tail not only as a way of "breaking the ice to get into acting" but also as a way to send an important message to her community. "It's good to tell women that they can stand up for themselves, and to let people know that when you're into violence, you're taking a life," she says. "You're not repossessing someone's car; you're taking a life."
Trina is not the only one who sees the movie as the next step in her career, but opinion is split on how well the just-say-no-to-sex-and-violence strategy will actually work in Liberty City. "Oh no," laughs Carol City's Lady T, one of several local comedians who landed roles in A Miami Tail. She and her comedic colleagues regularly appear on programs like BET's ComicView, and they've had walk-on roles in Hollywood movies and music videos made in Miami, but for all of them this is their first speaking part in a film. Director James has actually incorporated their stand-up routines into the movie. "I represent the ovaries," crows Lady T, "and I know none of these young ladies would go along with that."
"I don't think the girls would ever have the heart to try these things with these crazy guys," agrees Liberty City native and reformed convict Henry Clay (he learned standup in prison), better known as the World's Wildest Black Comedian (WWBC). Clay plays Cornbread, the neighborhood drunk, while younger comic and Miramar resident Dexter Angry plays his sidekick, a womanizing wino known as Red Beans.
Angry thinks it's the fellas who would foil the plan. "The guys around here be, 'All right, then I'm going to Broward. They got women up in Broward.' But unfortunately Red Beans don't have a car. It's kinda hard for him to relocate."
Pausing to sign autographs for a gaggle of neighborhood kids, Trina's labelmate Money Mark insists the strategy would work. "Yes, yes, capital Y-E-S," exclaims the muscular, tattooed rapper. "Excuse my language, but that's the power of the pussy. P.O.P. Some women use it the right way. At the end of the day, a man wants to make money and feel like he's number one with the ladies. If women did that, the men would go crazy."
Rapper CO, Money Mark's partner in Tre+, says it really doesn't matter if A Miami Tail's fantasy could ever come true. He's happy the script shows urban couples aspiring toward love, not war. "Usually urban stories are so violent," says CO, who grew up with Money Mark in Carol City. "It's nice to see them put a love twist. Just to show there's love in the city no matter how you tell it, whether it's A Miami Tail or Gone with the Wind."
And that's a sentiment Doug Schwab hopes you'll take home with you, direct-to-video.
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