History is often told through the perspective of those who are in power. So much of what is written erases the experiences of those who are marginalized in society. With his arresting and groundbreaking novel, “Double Play”; Curaçaoan author Frank Martinus Arion gave the world a unique view into the island of Curaçao and its culture. Nearly 45 years after the novel was first published, acclaimed Director Ernest Dickerson (“Juice”, “The Wire”, “The Walking Dead”) and Producer Lisa Cortes (“Precious”) are bringing this story to the big screen. Using Curaçao not only as a backdrop for the story, but also weaving its traditions throughout this exquisite tale, Dickerson and his team have begun bringing this story to life.
Shadow and Act was recently invited to visit the set of “Double Play” in Curaçao where I spoke with Dickerson, Cortes, and the majority of the film’s cast.
Stepping foot on the tiny island, which is recognized as a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the richness of the place is evident. The multitude of colors and faces shows a story of migration, enslavement, perseverance and settlement. On the journey to the set, we encountered both half constructed homes with crumbling facades, along with much larger buildings behind gates. This paradox raises a number of questions and begs that Curaçao’s past be told.
“Double Play” is a story of an older gentleman named Ostrik, his return home to Curaçao after many years away, and his childhood reflections. Set around a daylong game of dominos played between Ostrik’s father Bubu and four of his friends, in 1973, Ostrik recalls the events that dramatically shaped his formative years. Black men congregating within competitive spaces is an age-old scenario. However, the combative nature of Curaçaoan dominos makes this setting all the more unique.
In what producer Lisa Cortes called one of the “more powerful syncrises of life”, Frank Martinus Arion passed away the day the film went into production. He was 79 years old. Upon arriving on set, I sat down with Lisa on the first floor of a stunning white house, which serves as the home of one of the film’s characters. After scouting Curaçao for some time, Cortes and her team stumbled upon the house, which stands on a hill and provides breathtaking views of the valley of green surrounding it. Cortes’ producing partner, Gregory Elias was a friend of Mr. Arion’s, and had been trying to get the film made for many years. When I asked Lisa what inspired her to come onboard the film she responded, “I think going back to my days at Def Jam when I was in the music industry, I have always been interested in diverse voices and unrepresented people. I think Mr. Arion’s novel is so rich and so nuanced with lots of textures, and it represents a voice from the Caribbean that needs the cinematic presentation and the possibility to travel internationally. ‘Double Play’ is a really beautiful and personal story and it’s told by characters that I know. I’m a daughter of the Caribbean, I’m a daughter of Zora Neale Hurston, so this story is cultural, it’s anthropological, it presents people with complexity and that is an opportunity. For filmmakers of color to have the kind of support that we’ve had to tell Frank Arion’s story is so rare, that despite many times feeling like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill; I had to keep pushing because it was so worthy.“Set in both 1973 and 2010, Dickerson and Curaçaoan production designer Felix de Rooy (the pair previously worked together on the films “Desiree“ and “Almacita, Soul of Desolato”), had the daunting task of reconstructing Curaçao in a past time. From vintage cars, to stunning retro hair and makeup, it was clear from the moment we walked on the set that this team was up for this journey. Chatting with de Rooy over coffee one morning, he spoke about recreating the look and feel of Curaçao in the ‘70s. “I think the costume department brought in the costumes, but everything else was [on the island]; the locations, the props, the cars, the furniture and everything," de Rooy said. "The only thing that we didn’t have that we had to make were the public phones from 1973. They didn’t save any of them, so we had to reconstruct them using photographs from the period.”
Ernest Dickerson spoke with me about the decision to set the film in both the past and the present (the book is only set in 1973): “Setting the film in two different time periods resolved some of the storylines that were left unresolved in the novel. But also, a lot of people have not heard about Curaçao, so it gave us the chance to bring people to modern day Curaçao and get them to see a little bit of the island, and then go back into the past. I think it’s a better way to introduce the story.”
Though the meats and potatoes of the plot are still under wraps, what struck me most about the film is the fact that, though much of it is told through a male machismo perspective, “Double Play” is a story that is driven by women. It’s the actions of the women in this film that serve as the catalyst for the climax in the film. Producer Lisa Cortes talked about the role of women in “Double Play” stating, “In many ways this story is more so about the women, women that I know, women that I can identify with, women that so rarely seem depicted, women who despite everything they go though, are working to make the lives of everyone around them better. It’s also a very realistic story that is not told of women who are brave and take chances, and leave relationships that don’t work for them. Even the women who don’t have a lot of money sill look sexy, because that’s our story as Black women; we make something out of nothing. We set the tone for the generations that follow.”
Cortes was not the only one who saw the power that women held in “Double Play." Ernest Dickerson, who is a master at illustrating strong Black male characters, also spoke with me about the extraordinary presence the women in this film have. “The women in this film are quite powerful," the filmmaker said. "Some of them aren’t aware of how powerful they are. The men are big characters, but I think that “Double Play” is a film about women; women and their dealings with men… women and their dealings with each other. Even Micha (La La Anthony, “Chi-raq”) the prostitute, made sure that her past history is translated into our film.”
English actor Lennie James (“The Walking Dead") who plays Chamon in the film had this take on the dynamics between men and women in “Double Play”: “Regardless of what’s going on with the woman and what’s gong on with the men, it’s a story in which sex is used as a viable commodity and that’s done by both the men and the women.”
The actresses in “Double Play” also felt this reverence and familiarity with their characters. I sat with Melanie Liburd (“Game of Thrones") who plays Solema and Saycon Sengbloh (Broadway’s “Eclipsed”) who plays Nora. Sengbloh had this to say about her character" “I know this lady. I’m a very peaceful person, but I’ve had that sort of anger brought out of me, so Nora felt very familiar for me. I just feel like I want to do justice to this piece, to this book.”
Alexander Karim (“Tyrant”) and I spoke about his character, Bubu, and his experience working with Dickerson thus far. “Bubu of the book is a character that is a lot less sympathetic than the character in the script, so I’ve enjoyed the character in the script a lot more," Karim said. "Trying to find a character who does so many things that are unforgivable… to make that work, I felt like he needed to be a very likable character. And also, to try and find the spontaneity of the character, someone who just lives in the now; its not malicious for him, but everything is potentially a party."
“Double Play” presents both veteran actors like Louis Gossett Jr. and exciting up and coming actors who we will be hearing about for years to come. One of these actors is 11-year-old Dani Dare (“Inside Out”, “The Newsroom”) who plays the young Ostrik in 1973. I caught up with him and his mother during a study break in the green room trailer. Dani shared his love for Curaçao and he expressed his appreciation when it came to learning the musicality of the island’s widely spoken language, Papiamento.
It was not just the actors in this film who were tasked with doing justice to the characters in “Double Play”. Bringing Arion’s masterpiece to life required a master storyteller and Ernest Dickerson is that type of filmmaker. When considering the directors for the project, Lisa Cortes expressed her desire to have someone who thought of the film as more than just a job, someone who would have had the type of reverence for the story and Curaçao that was needed to bring the film to life. Curaçao is actually near and dear to Dickerson’s heart. He has been visiting the island for the past 35 years and had shot two feature films there – both directed by Felix de Rooy. He’d been wanting to shoot another film on the island when he was sent the script for “Double Play”.
After serving as Spike Lee’s cameraman on early films like “She’s Gotta Have It”, “Do The Right Thing” and later “Malcolm X,” Dickerson was the first director to offer the late great Tupac Shakur an acting role in his debut feature “Juice”. Over the years, we’ve watched his work on shows like “The Wire” and “The Walking Dead”, as he’s demonstrated that he’s able to embrace, not only the rich depth of each story and character, but also, to guide his actors, bringing out their best performances.
The day I spent on set under the warm Curaçaoan sun, speaking with some of the cast and crew of “Double Play," and watching scenes from the film play out on the land, was an experience I won’t soon forget. It’s clear that Frank Martinus Arion’s award winning novel will come to life more richly than perhaps even he could have ever hoped.
La La Anthony, Colin Salmon, Isaach De Bankolé, Mustafa Shakir, and Bronson Pinchot round out the film’s core cast.
Patrick Murguia is the Director of Photography. Kimberly Hardin, CSA is casting.
The film was filmed on location in Curacao, beginning in November 2015, utilizing its surroundings by emphasizing the beauty of the landscape, the music and the people. Great local music of the era will be performed by Aymee Nuviola ("Celia").
Gregory Elias is financing through his Foundation, Fundashon Bon Intenshon.
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at http://www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.