Skateboard Film Pits Overtown Against Sistrunk
"Don't make like this is Beverly Hills. This is the real goddamn hood. The motherfuckin' hood."
So warns the gentleman watching workers set up lights and cameras in front of a graffiti-strewn, one-story yellow house. The man's name is Tommie Lee Carter Sr. — "but they call me Kool-Aid."
It is not quite 11 o'clock on this late-July morning, but the sun is already punishing. It's hot enough to make a man want to unzip his lunch cooler and crack open a can of cold Miller High Life. Kool-Aid sips his beer through a straw.
A week earlier, he and his wife had been walking home from church and noticed the commotion on the front lawn of the yellow house. Turns out it was a fancy Hollywood production. Right there on Fort Lauderdale's Sistrunk Boulevard! It's not every day that someone makes a multimillion-dollar movie in this part of town.
Sistrunk is the main drag running through a primarily African-American part of the city. It's lined with independent beauty salons and soul-food joints. During the day, lone souls amble past colorful buildings, groups of men play chess in the park, and crowds gather at bus stops. With its foot traffic and mom-and-pop businesses, the area is lovely, historical, and vibrant in ways that the rest of gentrified South Florida is not. But it comes with a reputation for crime — which even Kool-Aid says is not undeserved.
"Gotta lock everything up, else somebody come and steal the cockroaches out of the house," he notes sagely.
Kool-Aid recalls how on his way back from church, he got a notion to ask for a role in the movie, and just for having asked, he was granted a walk-on part. Not that he has any pretensions of becoming a movie star ... unless, of course, agents come a-callin'. Kool-Aid has already been famous — as a musician. Back in the day, he played bass with Chaka Khan and the Commodores. "Now I'm just a little poor bitch," he laughs. After 17 years hunkered on Sistrunk, he has had only one gig lately, with his church band.
Kool-Aid had no idea the director of this movie — a Jamaican-born, locally raised dude named Cess Silvera — is kind of a big deal. Kool-Aid did, however, recognize one of the actors: Jackée Harry, who has starred in Everybody Hates Chris and Celebrity Fit Club but is perhaps best-known for her role as the sexpot-next-door in the Eighties sitcom 227. ("It's Sondra!" her character used to declare as she did a little milk shake with her cleavage.) Kool-Aid made sure to introduce himself.
With his newfound Hollywood credentials, the bassist, who speaks in a voice laden with Southern grits, hopes his old music-biz friends will resurface when the movie hits theaters. "People will say, 'There Kool-Aid!'" Before long, he'll have a band back together. "Only good things can come of it," he says with certainty, nodding his head with a grin as broad as Shamu's.
In pinning high hopes on this production, Kool-Aid is far from alone. All around him, it seems, ordinary folks are polishing their acting chops and buzzing about Tinseltown careers. Some have even picked up on film-industry jargon, talking in terms of tracking shots and CGI (computer-generated imagery), boom mikes and William Morris. And the ever-important eight-by-ten glossy headshot. Nothing stirs up dreams quite like movie cameras.
When members of the film crew are not moaning about the suffocating temperatures, they are cursing nature's other film fucker-upper: rain.
Thanks to some surprise thunderstorms, an outdoor shoot has been canceled and truckloads of lights and props have been carted over to M.I.A. Skatepark in Doral, a spacious, high-ceilinged warehouse — with no air conditioning.
The upside is that some 200 enthusiastic skater kids have dutifully shown up to volunteer as extras. Mostly they play nonspeaking parts on fictional skateboarding teams — teams dubbed with local names such as Overtown Shottas (love for the Miami ghetto), Lauderhill Grinders (a nod to the Caribbean-flavored city of Lauderhill), and 954-Go-Gettas. Never have these nooks of the world been so coolly immortalized.
The film, tentatively called G.E.D., is a comedy — think Friday meets Superbad. It's about three teenagers from the ghetto who drop out of school to smoke weed and skateboard. They want to win a big skate contest — but to enter it, they need high school diplomas or GEDs. During their quest to finish school, they steal a rabbit from an old lady and play pranks on a clownish Rastafarian named Willie Red. One of the skaters is chased by a neighborhood hoochie named Shaquida; another's big sister dates a wannabe Muslim named Brother Hakeem (played by actor Faizon Love, who starred in Idlewild and Friday). Academy Awards have been doled out for lesser story lines.
Before anyone can worry about the Oscars, though, this sucker needs to get made.
And right now, crew members are checking their watches, wondering whether pro skateboarder Chad Muska will ever walk in the door to play the role that's been written for him. Another actor, slated to play the contest announcer, has also failed to show, so an assistant director is running around asking every adult: "Would you feel comfortable on camera?" In the end, Muska never shows, and the wardrobe guy steps in to play the announcer's part.
"Welcome to guerrilla filmmaking," says script supervisor Melinda Taksen, who has worked on much more efficient productions such as The Waterboy (the Adam Sandler comedy) and The Notebook (a Rachel McAdams romance). With a wry smile, she notes she was brought on two days after filming had begun.
Not that there was much more formality to casting the leads.
Eighteen-year-old Ricky LaVoir is almost six feet tall and looks like he's pushing 100 pounds. With an infectious smile, spiky hair, tattered clothes, and mismatched socks, he comes off as a wise-cracking Sid Vicious. He plays Stringbean, one of three skaters at the heart of the film. "I was working in the Apple store," he recounts during a break between takes, "and Cess came up and said, 'I like your look. Can you skate?'" He could.
Fourteen-year-old Chadd Kerr rocks a pair of stylish black-framed eyeglasses and a baseball cap cocked sideways on top of his Afro. He says he was "skating, talking shit to my friend" when Silvera approached him. "That's what he was looking for." Chadd told his mom he'd been offered a film role, and she wondered what kind of pedophiles were trolling the parks these days. But once his dad learned who the director was, Chadd had a job playing a skater named Loon.
The third skate-kid role — a character called Dame — would be filled by someone Silvera knew through tight-knit Jamaican music circles: 20-year-old Gamal "Lunch Money" Lewis — a hefty guy with a sweet demeanor and an expressive face who flirts with every female who enters his orbit. Lunch Money's dad is Ian Lewis of the reggae band Inner Circle (remember "Bad Boys," the theme to Cops?). The family runs legendary Miami recording studio Circle House.
Although Stringbean had acted in a children's theater, Chadd's experience as a thespian consisted of having memorized a poem in the fifth grade. None of the three leads knew much about showbiz basics such as getting an agent. Costar Taye Hansberry — a pretty, button-nosed actress who also does photography — says she offered to take their headshots, "and they were like, 'What's that?'" She found their reaction a refreshing contrast to the polished, lawyered-up kids who wave their resumés all over L.A.
Stringbean says he hadn't necessarily planned on an acting career — but he'll take it. "Some big executive will watch [this movie] and say, 'I like that kid. Get his phone number!'" Ultimately he'd like to direct slasher films.
He and Chadd are stoked to have just met Stevie Williams, another pro skater whom Silvera has written into the film. The role calls for Williams (who at this moment is sitting with bloodshot eyes on a bus, learning the lines he's supposed to say in five minutes) to award the contest winners a sponsorship with his real-life skate company, DGK (Dirty Ghetto Kids). Although black skaters are no longer an oxymoron, Williams is one of the first to have inked a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal and have his likeness built into Tony Hawk's Pro Skater videogames.
For knowledgeable skateboarders such as LaVoir and Kerr, Williams approaches Superman status.
Chadd: "He's a freaking genius on four wheels."
Stringbean: "He makes love on the board."
As the teenaged actors ruminate about Williams (each now dismissing the other as "homo"), Lunch Money wilts in the heat, soaking through his T-shirt and wiping his forehead. "It's hotter than 10 hot bitches in a burning building," he says.
Maybe that's why Cess Silvera is in such a pissy mood. Like halves of the Red Sea, actors part to make way as the director marches through the crowd toward the video monitors. A dark-skinned guy in a wife beater and unlaced Nike high-tops, he has sculpted his hair into a fauxhawk. Boxer shorts stick out the back of his low-slung jeans as he slides into the director's chair and plops his Marc Jacobs sunglasses onto his nose. His round, solid belly protrudes like a shelf. A drink could rest comfortably on top of it.
Maybe a 38-year-old director should speak gingerly to a roomful of prepubescents in his charge. Or maybe not.
"You su-u-uck!" he howls at everybody and nobody in particular after a fruitless take. In his singsong Jamaican lilt, he barks at the actors to snap to attention and get this scene completed. It's an act that evokes respect from his young talent.
"He yells at us," Stringbean shrugs nonchalantly.
"I'm 14, but he treats me like a grown man on the set," Chadd offers with a confidence that betrays his years.
While newer actors might be intimidated by Silvera, the three stars know him too well to fall for his intimidation routine. They lived with the director for the summer before shooting began. He plied them with pizza and cereal while bringing in an acting coach and dragging Lunch Money to skateboard lessons. It was like a season of Making the Band.
"You had to see us onscreen and not second-guess our friendship," Lunch Money explains. "It's a comedy — but there's some heartfelt shit."
Just then, the young female assistant director yells, "Lock it up!" through a bullhorn. The cameras roll.
When they finally nail the scene, Silvera's gruff face loosens into a juicy smile.
"He's a puttycat," one of the cameramen says.
Exhausted from a string of 16-hour days, Cess Silvera dirties his Barack Obama T-shirt when he flops down in the back of a U-Haul truck parked outside the yellow house that serves as both set and production headquarters. It's just blocks from the site of Silvera's boyhood home, which has long since been demolished. "Funny enough," he says, surveying his old stomping grounds, "it's the exact fuckin' same." Change might be better measured on Silvera's carbohydrate-abused physique. He ran into some people who knew him, he says, "and they told me: 'You got fatter!'" He chuckles wickedly.
Silvera says that, beginning in his childhood in Jamaica — which he hints was not necessarily rosy — he has always channeled his emotions by scribbling stories onto legal pads. "Bloody, grimy ideas," he says. "I wanted to destroy the people hurting me." One day, his dad and stepmom found a book in which he'd drawn out plans for killing his family. "My dad busted my ass. That's how I knew that writing was powerful. It could affect people."
Around age 14, he was expelled from school and shipped off to live with relatives in Sistrunk, like a rabbit tossed into a briar patch. "It was a dangerous time," Silvera says. The late Eighties. "The height of the crack epidemic."
He got a job at a neighborhood institution — a little grocery store/take-out restaurant called Ivory's, where he made $80 a week. But a co-worker named Emma, he says, showed him how to clear $800 a week working there — with the help of some five-finger discounts from the cash register. "Emma taught me too well," he says cryptically. His morals slid.
In his characteristic casting style, Silvera returned to film a scene for G.E.D. at Ivory's and offer Emma a role, only to learn she had died. Ivory's owner, Lorraine Mizell, was shocked to hear that Silvera — whom she remembers as an "innocent and nice" kid — was a little thief. But she wishes him well.
Silvera claims he never held a real job after Ivory's. Around age 20, he moved to Brooklyn, where he made a living by doing "some shit I'm not proud of."
In his down time, Silvera studied his favorite directors by stealing books from the library. Come to think of it, "I owe the Brooklyn library a check," he realizes. While other young would-be directors were studying their craft at USC film school or apprenticing with established directors, Silvera read tomes about John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone, and John Ford. He tutored himself by watching behind-the-scenes making-of videos. Through it all, he kept writing.
Skipping over the Nineties and picking up his life story "when I got out of jail" circa 2000, Silvera says he realized he needed to find a lifestyle that wouldn't kill him. He turned to his brother, Keith "Fada Screw" Deans, and asked, "Why don't we make a movie? We've got the money." How he got that kind of money, he won't elaborate (and criminal records are inconclusive), but within days, Silvera says, he had drafted a script for Shottas, a shoot-'em-up about the hard, violent lives of modern-day, drug-dealing Jamaican gangsters. His plot called for hails of bullets, dramatic deaths in slow-mo, and a tremendous body count. His characters would bang big-tittied women in hot tubs and spout classic lines like "Go suck your mother's sour pussy."
When it came to the actual filmmaking, Silvera didn't let inexperience get in his way. Leaning on his bravado, he says he simply "called up a friend who made music videos and said, 'Can you help me get a film crew?'" Simple as that.
After burning through $1 million in costs, Silvera was finally able to call himself a legitimate director. He moved to Los Angeles, and Shottas (Jamaican slang for gunmen) premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002. While snobby newspaper critics dismissed the movie as a crude and misogynistic variation on the gangster cliché, Silvera's tale had one key distinction. His story opened a window to life in Jamaica, a land almost never broached by filmmakers.
All of Silvera's characters spoke in an authentic patois, their accents so heavy that the film was subtitled in English. He cast reggae artists Ky-Mani Marley (son of Bob) and Spragga Benz to play the leads. The soundtrack would be overseen by Wyclef Jean. While Silvera was being true to his culture, financially it was a gamble: Would the audience be large enough to recoup a return on investment?
It would — but only after a twisted real-life saga played out over the next five years.
According to urban legend, Wyclef Jean was in his studio with preliminary copies of Shottas, which he was using to create the score. He called Silvera when he realized the tapes had gone missing. Two weeks later, Silvera got word that bootlegged copies of Shottas — even with their grainy look, poor sound quality, and time codes interfering with the picture — were being hawked all over Times Square. Eventually friends would report finding copies as far away as Cairo and Cape Town.
The movie gained a reputation as "the Jamaican Scarface"; while the underground buzz worked wonders for Silvera's street cred, though, it did little for his bank account. With bootleg videos of the film proliferating like rabbits, studio execs scuttled the distribution deals. No one would pay to see the movie in a theater if they'd already bought it on the black market, the thinking went.
Over time, though, the numbers became too big to ignore. Those involved with the making of Shottas like to say it was the most bootlegged movie in history and that studios were dumb to underestimate the reggae scene's global audience. After the movie spread underground for five years, Sony Pictures released it in only six theaters — a kind of consolation prize to Silvera — and then put it out on DVD, giving it wide distribution through official channels.
Still, "there was like zero, zero promotion," Silvera laments. "Not one print ad. Nothing on TV." Nonetheless, he says, "It sold 1 million copies on DVD. All from word of mouth." These days, any kid from Miami to Minnesota can walk into a Blockbuster or Target and buy it. That's bittersweet for Silvera, who estimates there are 2.5 million copies of the bootleg in circulation — sales he could never cash in on. In the credits of the 2006 DVD release, there is a special thanks "to all bootleggers worldwide (Shottas official PR firm)." The credits warned, "Never again, though!"
There was another warning of sorts in the credits: a list of Silvera's loved ones who had died of gun violence. There were 50 names. By the time of the 2006 DVD release, Silvera had to add his brother's name, to the list.
Silvera won't talk about how much money he has made — finances are something he keeps close to his chest. But he says he's funding G.E.D. with his profits from Shottas, and producers say G.E.D. is costing about $2 million to make.
On the surface, the two films couldn't seem more different: one, a hard-ass gangster drama; the other, a lighthearted comedy with stoner appeal. Silvera says they represent two distinct but valid sides of his personality, and at their core, "They're both about friendship."
Silvera once boldly told an interviewer that he wanted to do for Jamaican moviemaking what Bob Marley had done for reggae. If that's the case, material will not be a problem. He says he has 150 screenplays completed on legal pads and some 400 more in simple outline form. Up next, a TV pilot called East of Fairfax — which he describes as a black version of Entourage. In addition to that, Silvera says, he's ready to begin Shottas 2. The studios, he claims, are begging for it.
With flawless skin, a long ponytail, and a tiny frame, Theresa Frankel doesn't look bossy. But get this chick on a movie set.
"When we are rolling, there is to be no noise," she scolds into a headset that transmits to crew members' walkie-talkies. "Pretend you're in kindergarten — it's like timeout until I say, 'Cut!'"
Cess Silvera might be the visionary, but it's Frankel, a 28-year-old assistant director, who does the dirty work. Armed with a bachelor's degree in film theory from Florida Atlantic University, she has worked on eight eature films and "countless music videos" and has a recurring gig with Miami Ink.
Frankel says that, although fewer films are shot in Florida (about 70 per year) than in New York or L.A., work exists for anyone who builds a good reputation and hustles. The weather holds year-round, so there are no delays while snow melts. And because it's a right-to-work state, Florida appeals to moviemakers who've been financially drained elsewhere by unions. Though production workers won't get rich, Frankel says, "there's a camaraderie that you can't replicate. I'm surrounded by amazing, creative people. When you're together 18 hours a day, you become like family."
Turning back to the job at hand, she says peremptorily into her headpiece: "Let me know when the cameras are set."
Silvera pipes up to admonish Stringbean, Lunch Money, and Chadd when they don't muster the energy for the umpteenth take of a scene. "Stop partying and staying up late!" he commands. "No alcohol. No drugs. Plus, stop jacking off!" He laughs at himself and then gets serious again as he channels all the directorly wisdom he has soaked up over the years. "Either drive the scene or get out of the scene. A scene is only as strong as its weakest fucking actor!" Then he softens up: "Okay, that's my little pep talk."
A whole day of shooting might translate to five minutes onscreen. The crew must wait for a cloud to pass. A take has to be redone when a train whistles in the background. And again when Lunch Money holds an apple in his right hand instead of his left. Silvera whines, "I want to go ho-o-o-ome. I want this torture to end."
Frankel overrides him: "All set.... Roll sound.... Roll cameras.... Lock it up!"
One of the producers had said today would be a good day to check out the filming, considering it would be an exciting scene with cops.
Two white police officers sit in their car in Sistrunk, near the Bashful Arms apartments, around the corner from the Blue Goose Beer Saloon. Their lights are flashing, and they wear thick bulletproof vests that pop out from under their uniforms like life preservers. Behind black sunglasses, they look like overinflated Terminators.
But no, they are not in the movie. They just finished a real bust and are overseeing the confiscation of a car that is being reeled onto a tow truck.
"What is the movie about anyway?" they ask humorlessly.
Told that it is a comedy in the style of Friday, one officer says dryly: "Well, they picked the right neighborhood, because this is a comedy."
Film set or not, this is still the hood, they warn. "Be careful," they say. "Hold your bag tight to your chest — even in daylight." They have failed to get caught up in the neighborhood Zeitgeist.
Some of Sistrunk's tougher real-life personalities are a hard sell as well. One muumuued lady on a balcony isn't going to let some uppity Hollywood people boss her around, no matter how nicely they ask her to get out of the shot.
"Hey, beautiful! I'm beggin' you!" Silvera yells to her. When she doesn't budge, he expertly dispatches a crew member to strike up a conversation with her, so even if she's in the frame, at least she won't be staring at the camera.
Local kids and families gather around the steps of a housing complex. One man takes advantage of these invaders from L.A. and peddles mangoes for one dollar apiece. A 13-year-old girl watches from the hood of a car. She can't wait to see the movie — but she breaks the news that in real life, there aren't any skaters in Sistrunk.
Then comes a voice: "Bloodclaaaaat!"
Anyone familiar with Jamaican curse words knows that bloodclaat — or its cousin, bumbaclaat — is an insult you utter only when you want to get your ass beat or your mouth washed out with soap. (For literal meaning, refer to a used tampon.)
"Bloodclaaaaat!" a skinny Rasta dude yells as he zooms down the street on an old-school silver moped, chasing Stringbean, Lunch Money, and Chadd on their skateboards. Spectators laugh at the sight — ridiculous and awesome at the same time. The man on the moped sports a crocheted red, yellow, and green hat, his crinkly hair puffing in a ponytail out the back. He wears silly red boots, a bright green shirt, and — the kicker — a neckerchief.
A girl watching the scene drops her jaw and says of his outfit: "Are you serious?"
The Rasta dude turns out to be Red Rat, a dancehall star famous for bouncy songs in which he often hollers "Oh no!" in a trademark ridiculous/awesome style, as in his 1997 hit "Shelly Anne." Silvera wrote the role of bad guy Willie Red specifically for him. When Red Rat jumps off the moped to chase the boys, he runs after them with a funny high-step, pumping his arms.
"That's exactly how I run for real!" he laughs later. "I'm a track star."
Red Rat admires Silvera's decision to film in Sistrunk. "Love of the ghetto," he says. He's made new friends here, such as the tiny wisp of a girl who has been hanging around the set since filming began.
Eighteen-year-old Kristal Church lives across the street from the production office. She was surprised that anyone would want to make a film in her neighborhood, which is bad, she concedes — although not as bad as some people think. Drug dealers operate in plain sight, no doubt, but shootings happen usually "only on holidays."
Church has been going to school for business administration, but a whole new world opened up to her when the makeup artists and Red Rat took her under their wing and Silvera let her dance in the movie — during a nighttime party scene for which practically the whole neighborhood came out and got to be in the background. Now Church is thinking big time: clothing line, film career. "I'm gonna be the one to say, 'Lock it up!'"
As if on cue, Frankel announces they nailed the scene. Red Rat swamps her in a hug.
Stringbean is worn out from the long day. He picks up his skateboard. "Was that shot good?" he asks. All right then. "Where's my check?"
"One movie and you're already a diva," Chadd says.
The next day, Chadd waddles around the African-American Research Library as though he's in pain. He drops his jeans to reveal why: He's wearing a way-too-small pair of little boys' tighty whities with SpongeBob SquarePants on them.
"They're size 8!" he howls.
It's the last day of shooting. The cast has taken over the library to use as a film set, although it's still open for regular business. Patrons come and go curiously, wondering why there is a camera crew cramped around the bathroom.
In the scene, Red Rat's character, Willie Red, has just robbed someone. He runs into a public bathroom to freshen up; the three boys hide from him in a stall. Willie Red is washing up in a cartoonish way — he smells his armpits and stuffs his hand down the front of his pants for a good scrubbing — when one of the boys drops a skateboard. Willie Red detects them and, at knifepoint, forces them to strip down to their undies. He makes them dance.
"Vogue!" he demands to Lunch Money, pointing a blade at his throat. Lunch complies.
"Catwalk!" he tells Chadd, who obligingly does a few turns in the briefs.
When Lunch Money snickers, Chadd asks innocently: "What? You don't like SpongeBob?"
Despite being novice actors, the boys have great physical control and natural comedic timing that makes even the veterans on the set snort with laughter. They are, undeniably, charming.
"He is so good!" Silvera whispers deliciously about each of the young actors at one time or another. "He is so fuckin' good, yo!"
The boys come out of the bathroom and into the library lobby — in their underwear — to watch the take on the video monitors. Patrons stare. A librarian peeps over her glasses.
"We're in the library!" Silvera hisses at the boys. "They're going to think we're shooting a porno!" And so it goes: a long cycle of takes and breaks, of scripted laughs and organic ones, until the film finally wraps — at 4 in the morning.
Silvera swears the movie will be in theaters by February, but folks who have been in this business for a long time restrain their optimism. Cliff Charles, the director of photography, has worked on numerous jobs with Spike Lee. He's seen his share of great films get shelved owing to one Tinseltown roadblock or another. "I've learned not to have expectations," he says cautiously.
Still, everyone else dares to dream.
Lunch Money is off to make a record, Lunch Time, but he entertains visions of "G.E.D. — the series." Chadd is headed back to high school in Miramar — but looks forward to Red Rat helping him launch his music career. Stringbean is, of course, composing a resumé and getting his headshots ready. And neighborhood staple Kool-Aid is certain that after the movie hits the screen and his band comes together, "We'll be playing the Hard Rock for $7,000 a night, instead of $700."
For Silvera, there are still months of editing ahead and distribution to secure, but no matter what happens at the box office, to everyone who shared those hot summer days in Sistrunk, the movie feels like it is already a mighty success. And even the tale of what happened behind the scenes — that too is a pretty cool story. About friendship.
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