When local filmmaker Kevin Clarke released his hip-hop morality tale, 2 Sides of Life, in 2004, he distributed the DVD to chain stores, including Blockbuster and Best Buy, and waited for the money to roll in.
Soon enough, 2 Sides of Life was a certified hit, though Clarke didn't earn much money from the proceeds. Miami's street entrepreneurs made the low-budget drama one of the most illegally sold films in the urban community. "They bootlegged my movie all over the place," Clarke chuckles.
He can afford to laugh about the economically injurious experience now, because what initially seemed like a curse turned out to be blessed inspiration.
Clarke decided to observe these urban pirates in their natural element. "This one guy was making $1500 a day, on average. I actually sat down and watched him. I followed another guy who actually caught a case for bootlegging and had to bootleg to pay for the legal expenses. From that, I was able to come up with the story of Bootleggers," the filmmaker explains, referring to his newest film, which is set to hit store shelves May 2.
Bootleggers tells a tale familiar to residents of Liberty City, Carol City, and Overtown, which are liberally studded with salesmen hawking wares ranging from nickel bags to bean pies to the latest DVDs on the black market which are also peddled at flea markets in skillfully simulated box covers.
The trailer for the action-packed dramatic thriller, which can be viewed at www.miamifilms.net, shows street-corner hustlers in action, feverishly burning DVDs and then setting up shop to furtively sell their wares. After a short opening scene, an announcer's deep voice intones, "Each year, the movie industry loses five million dollars to bootleggers." Then we meet the protagonist, Wafeeq, who confronts his woman and declares, "I know you worried about me, but I'm gonna keep bootlegging until I get this money!" Guns are drawn and the tension is palpable.
To cast his film, Kevin Clarke turned to the very same group of well-known local characters who helped make 2 Sides of Life a hit. Wafeeq Rauf, a slender, innocuous-looking dreadlocked Miamian, reprises his role as the good guy by playing a well-meaning hustler named Wafeeq who sells illegally downloaded films to make child support payments.
Andre "Bulldog" Cuff plays Bulldog, the villain who steals Wafeeq's hard-earned bootlegging money, shacks up with his baby mama, and then sets out to destroy his enemy's profitable, illicit business.
In an interview last week, Bulldog, a rapper who is a member of the local group Iconz, says the illegal sales of 2 Sides of Life in which he played a similarly animated and malevolent character did more for his career than the group's hit song "Get Crunked Up" ever did. "They been bootlegging that movie for the last three years! That movie did more for me promotional-wise than the music industry did in twelve years! 2 Sides of Life is in Jamaica, the Bahamas, Canada, New York, Texas, Atlanta I think the bootlegging was a blessing," he says.
Bulldog is an obvious choice for Clarke's bad-guy roles, thanks to his unique hairdo and ghetto authenticity. When the muscular actor is silhouetted against a wall, his two upturned dreadlocks cast a devilish shadow. When he speaks, his gold teeth glint in the light. "I play the neighborhood character who everybody loves to hate. I bring that Miami appeal. There's a lot of people who come to Miami, but you don't get to see the actual people from the city. All you get to see is the people from South Beach. Well, I'm from Carol City. Representin' Overtown, Liberty City, 305, and 786," he explains in a thick drawl. In addition to starring in Bootleggers, Bulldog also contributes music to the film's soundtrack. His song "Only the Strong" is prominently featured.
Thanks to the success of Clarke's first film, Bulldog has become something of a ghetto superstar, an instantly recognizable figure. "Now I'm like a hundred times platinum concrete. I'm like the neighborhood hero," he laughs.
Kevin Clarke worked hard to craft a fictional story out of cold facts. The people whose story he purports to tell believe they have no other means of survival. Clarke describes Bootleggers as ultimately being a positive story, but admits to having some personal issues with the practice. "It's replaced drug-selling for a lot of young men. If you go in front of a flea market, you'll see maybe ten, twenty guys out there. The pants are hanging down, they got the dreads not to stereotype them, but what would they be doing if they weren't bootlegging? I like the fact that it helps keep money in people's pockets. But then when it comes to them getting their hands on my product, it becomes a major problem. It's sad to say, but if you're a black filmmaker, your movie is gonna get bootlegged first."
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In the Magic City's inner core, bootlegging rules the streets. In many other big cities, the crime is taken more seriously, and sentences can be harsh. "In a city like New York, the police crack down on it big time. But in Miami, for some reason, it's still free. They're still on every corner," Clarke comments. According to the filmmaker, most bootleggers are sentenced to only a year in jail in Miami-Dade County.
Even though his wallet is thinner because of this inner-city enterprise, Clarke remains magnanimous. "I really don't think it's so big of a crime that it should be punished with jail time," he laughs. "I think it should be punished monetarily. To some of these guys, facing one year is like not getting charged at all."
Clarke's film about bootleggers will most certainly be bootlegged. The irony makes him laugh uproariously. "It's gonna be one of the biggest bootlegged films in Miami! I mean, it's guaranteed. They're waiting on it. They're rubbing their hands together, waiting on it," he chortles. "The DVD is gonna cost $12.98 in Best Buy."
And how much will it go for in Carol City? "It's gonna be on sale for five dollars," he laughs. He intends to monitor his legitimate sales as much as possible, although he is fully aware of the struggle he will face. "There's hundreds of people in Dade County who get up every day and do this for a living. You can spend all your time trying to stop them, but you can't stop bootleggers."