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Midterm Madness | “Bring Your ‘A’ Game” Producer: “We Had to Do Something!”

Midterm Madness | "Bring Your 'A' Game" Producer: "We Had to Do Something!"

As part of SnagFilms’ programming around this year’s midterm elections, Snag has curated a lineup of political films to get us all in the mood to do our civic duty and vote on November 2.

Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is indieWIRE’s parent company.

As part of an initiative with the Twenty-First Century Foundation, whose mission statement is “Giving for Black Community Change,” actor/director Mario Van Peebles, son of “Sweet Sweetback” director-star Melvin Van Peebles, and producer Karen Williams got together to create a short documentary to “transform the lives of urban youth.” Using video game aesthetics and A-list celebrities, the filmmakers provide role models and inspiration for urban youth.

Producer Karen Williams spoke to indieWIRE about coming to the project and her career as a filmmaker.

On coming to filmmaking…

I was a FORD model throughout undergrad and grad school and when I finished, I started making inroads into broadcast journalism when I became exposed to the independent film movement in New York. Reginald and Warrington Hudlin, who at the time had just done the original House Party, got a deal with Tri-Star Pictures and asked me to come on board as their assistant while they produced Boomerang and Bebe’s Kids. With the Hudlin brothers, I had unlimited exposure to all aspects of development, production and post-production. I subsequently branched out and developed projects for independent producers while I acted (recurring roles on “Cosby,” “Homicide,” “Guiding Light,” “All My Children,” “K Street,” and numerous TV commercials). Over time, the emphasis in my career organically shifted away from on-camera work into more producing and writing.
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On the inspiration to become involved with the project…

On a walk in Brooklyn NY just as school was being dismissed, a teenage Black male whizzed by me with the police hot on his trail. Seconds later, I passed a group of pre-teen African-American boys belting profanity and vulgarity to another group of high school age Black and Latino males who were smoking and drinking liquor from brown paper bags in front of the corner bodego. Less than ten minutes later, as I crossed into a more affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn, the images changed drastically. Young people of all ages and races were milling about animated, interacting with each other and/or engaged in some constructive way with an adult. This surreal, fifteen-minute journey vividly contrasted the pathologies of poverty and the benefits of wealth for young urban males. The experience sparked the idea to create a hip media piece that catalyzes young urban males to succeed through anecdotal insights and conversations from prominent Black male role models.

Shortly thereafter, Mario Van Peebles and I were speaking on the phone about the alarmingly high school drop out rates for African-American males. Mario belted out something to the effect, “We’ve got to do something.” Of course, I was already galvanized to do just that! We met with Twenty-First Century Foundation (21CF), whose groundbreaking “Black Men and Boys Initiative” detailed critical issues facing Black males nationwide. 21CF became the executive producer of “A” Game, raised funds, and provided institutional, administrative and creative support.

Producing the film…

A truly collaborative approach was used to make “Bring Your ‘A’ Game” from development through post-production and outreach. As director, Mario had the creative vision; I led the crew to find ways to realize it. I can’t say enough thanks to Scott Billups (cinematographer, VX supervisor and co-producer) who introduced the idea of using CGI; Jackie Stolfi (talent coordinator and associate producer); editor Lillian Benson and her crew; composers Tim Boland and Sam Retzer; post-production supervisors Wendy Wallace and Geoff Garrett; Joe Melody and his sound crew; Alpha Dogs; the shoot locations; the many crew members and volunteers that gave their all; Gabe Kleinman and Aubree Curtis from CAA Foundation whose guidance and support were instrumental in securing the broadcast; the funders; institutional outreach partners; and 21CF’s staff who worked tirelessly to execute “A” Game’s community engagement campaign.

On the film’s challenges…

Coordinating the schedules of forty-five extremely busy “A” Gamers and lumping their interviews into a few select days versus having individual shoots was a real feat, thanks in large part to Jackie Stolfi. The challenge of doing CGI with budget constraints was pulled off by Scott Billups and the many hats he wore on this project; and Lillian Benson miraculously synthesized hundreds of pages of transcripts into a half-hour final piece. Fortunately, the mission of “A” Game resonated so strongly with the film community that the challenge of calling in favors from crew and vendors was met with incredible displays of grace and generosity.

On bringing this film to its target audience…

With national attention focused on the U.S. education crisis, I hope audiences see Bring Your “A” Game as a message of love, understanding, insight and inspiration to young urban males from people who are deeply invested in their success. I also hope that audiences will feel motivated to share and discuss “A” Game with their families, in schools, community programs, churches, mosques, detention centers and the like.

Mario often says if we want to hide something from young people, we just have to put it in a book or a documentary. We kept this in mind and deliberately incorporated gaming and music video aesthetics, both of which are especially popular with young urban males.

Williams’ upcoming projects…

“Tide Running,” a screenplay adaptation I co-wrote with award-winning novelist Oonya Kempadoo, about an enigmatic black man who risks his life exploring a fantasy-driven ménage-a-trois with a wealthy foreign couple in order to escape the harsh reality of his existence on a tropical Caribbean island. A documentary series on girls and women, the first installment “Nteasie” (pronounced en-tee-assy) which examines critical concerns of Afro-Latina women from Honduras and Peru.

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