When Laura Met Ray

Writer-director Ernest Goodly laughs heartily as he ticks off his financing sources for his debut feature-length film, Love Bizarre. A grant from the National Black Programming Consortium provided the bulk of the cash. A few private investors kicked in some more. "And my credit cards are totally maxed out," he notes drolly. "I have no room on them."

Shot in Miami, Miami Beach, and Miami Shores over a three-week period in May 1997, using, with one exception, a cast of locals, many of them making their film debuts, the 89-minute, low-budget Love Bizarre (it screens on Sunday as part of the South Beach Film Festival) recounts the repercussions after a young black woman introduces her "mystery man" fiance to her family and friends for the first time. Turns out he's Asian American. Vietnamese.

"You'd think I'd brought E.T. home for dinner or something," gripes Laura (Maureen Joseph Goodly, the filmmaker's wife and, with him, co-producer of Love Bizarre) to her best friend Peach (Veronica Dale) after her father Henry (Charles Weldon, a professional actor from New York City) and brother Larry (Michael Robertson) give her new man Ray (Simon Flores) an extremely chilly reception.

"Well, you did!" Peach replies.
From there Goodly takes off on an engaging romp, adroitly mixing seriousness and sassiness to fashion a dramedy that touches on the themes of racism among blacks, respect, responsibility, black pride and culture, male-female dynamics, and, most important, familial bonds. It is, by turns, funny, poignant, and thoughtful, echoing at times Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It and Do the Right Thing, and Stanley Kramer's landmark 1967 meditation on racial tolerance, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Goodly welcomes the comparison to Kramer's film. "If as many people see my film as saw Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, I'll be in pretty good shape," he quips. "I remember watching it when I was young, and I purposely did not watch it again until I had finished writing my script."

According to Goodly, the idea for his film grew out of a barroom conversation he had with a couple of Asian men, who told him about a horrific real-life incident involving two laid-off Detroit autoworkers. Back when Japanese imports were putting the economic hurt on U.S. carmakers, this pair purportedly got drunk and killed a man of Chinese descent, mistaking him for Japanese. "We talked about this whole idea of different kinds of racism," explains Goodly, "about whether black people can be racist."

A self-described army brat who has lived all over the United States, the filmmaker, who gives 32 as his unofficial age -- "That's the public number" -- moved to Miami in 1992 to develop a film program for Miami-Dade Community College. "I got to Miami a week before Hurricane Andrew," he recalls. "It was sort of like, 'Welcome to town.'" He spent three years at MDCC, during which he wrote Love Bizarre. "But I realized that I couldn't make the movie as long as I was working there because of time constraints," he says. So he quit.

Goodly first screened the movie two months ago at Columbia College in Chicago as part of the school's African Film Festival, and it has been accepted for an African-American film fest, Urban World, to be held in early August in New York. "I'm chomping at the bit looking for the next project," he allows.

Like Love Bizarre, it will be feature-length. Goodly dismisses short films; he made only a few in grad school, then opted for the long form for his initial commercial outing. "You sweat almost as much doing a short anyway," he explains. "I figured that if we're going to suffer, let's suffer big time."

-- Michael Yockel

The South Beach Film Festival runs from Friday, July 17, through Thursday, July 23. All films screen at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. See "Calendar Events" for details.