No stereotypes in this `Choir'

SPOTLIGHT

Spotlight On Charles Randolph-wright

April 14, 2006|By CHRIS KALTENBACH | CHRIS KALTENBACH,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

For director Charles Randolph-Wright, movies should be all about the story. Not about niche audiences, or whether they will appeal primarily to blacks or whites, or whether they give people what they've come to expect and feel comfortable with.

That's why he's so excited about his debut as a feature-film director with Preaching to the Choir, a drama centering on two brothers who grow up embracing different worlds, only to find their differences really don't amount to much. It's different: The film has a predominantly black cast, but does not rely on the stereotypes that for years have relegated African-Americans to the mean streets of Hollywood films. It tells a story that's neither white nor black, but universal, about family ties and enduring love. It's set in a Harlem that's decidedly middle class. And, most important of all, it got made in the first place - and is about to open in theaters, despite all the people who thought it never would.

"We had nothing," recalls Randolph-Wright, 49, who's enjoyed a long career as a television writer, a director of commercials and videos and as a stage playwright (including six plays put on at Washington's Arena Stage). "We had the money to shoot the film. Which was impossible. Secondly, editing it and finishing it was impossible. Then, getting it distributed was the next impossibility."

Preaching to the Choir follows brothers Wesley (Darien Sills-Evans) and Teshawn (Billoah Greene), who move to Harlem after their parents' deaths. Wesley follows in his father's footsteps and becomes a preacher, but Teshawn wants no part of such old-fashioned ways. He ends up in Los Angeles, earning fame as a rapper with the stage name of Zulunatic. But when things get hot in L.A. and his life is threatened, Teshawn heads back for the safety of Harlem. There, despite their obvious differences, the brothers rediscover the importance of family ties.

The film's financiers, Randolph-Wright says, took it around to various distributors, "and these were people who were friends of theirs. And [the distributors] said to them, `Black people like violence and drugs. This film doesn't have that.' One person said, `Where did you shoot this?' Harlem. And he said, `Harlem doesn't look like that.' Because the Harlem they see in films is the Harlem where every building has graffiti.

"Often, especially because of ghetto films, because of various things, the experiences of African-Americans are always heightened in the movies," says Randolph-Wright. "It's always a certain type of thing you expect to see. What I liked about this were the normal people in the film, the normal people in this Harlem community, and that Harlem wasn't portrayed the way that you always see, where you always have the three P's: pimps, pushers and prostitutes.

"There are great communities there and extraordinary people there that you don't typically see in a Hollywood context. I loved that it had all these elements that, unfortunately, are unusual."

Having faith in their film was one thing. But finding people with pockets deep enough to get it released in theaters was another. Preaching to the Choir (under its original name, On the One) debuted at last year's American Black Film Festival in Miami, where it won several awards, including best performance by an actor (Greene), the audience award for best picture and the grand jury prize for best picture. It was picked up for distribution by Codeblack Entertainment, a company dedicated to finding films aimed at African-American audiences not willing to settle for typical Hollywood product. And, today, it opens on 150 screens in 22 markets, including Baltimore and Washington.

Although his film is being targeted at African-American audiences in its initial release, Randolph-Wright is confident it will appeal to all audiences.

"It's a story about love and redemption and family, themes that we all understand," he says. "And it's about people that we all understand, and have in our families. Or people that we are.

"There's a core audience that this movie will automatically attract," says Randolph-Wright. "This kind of marketing will get to that core audience, and what you hope for, and in this case we pray for, is that it does then cross over into other audiences."

But regardless of how his film does, the director is proud that it's the product of a system that should help pave the way for similar movies, with similar themes and similarly wide appeal. Codeblack's status as the first African-American distribution company should help ensure that, he says.

chris.kaltenbach @baltsun.com

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