Actors Michael Rainey Jr. and Common film a scene of the indie… (Bill Gray )
Common kept his cool last week — and his artistic faith.
While controversy swirled around his appearance at the White House for a poetry reading, the rapper-actor was anchoring a movie in Baltimore that should quiet even those pundits who tried to paint him as a gangsta. With concentration and intensity, he was helping first-time writer-director Sheldon Candis and a superb ensemble flesh out a script that proves (among other things) that gangsterism doesn't pay.
"LUV" — it stands for "Learning Uncle Vincent" — captures the turning point in the life of an 11-year-old boy named Woody (Michael Rainey Jr). It takes place on a day when his ex-con uncle, Vincent (Common), makes him feel like a man for the first time, then teaches him, by example, how destructive and self-destructive crime can be.
Small in scale, huge in ambition, it's the kind of film that even seasoned directors with a slew of hits would find hard to launch, whether in today's play-it-safe studios or the complicated thickets of independent-film financing.
But against all odds, Candis, who lived until age 10 in the same Baltimore streets where he set his story, has filmed it in three weeks, all over town — at Lexington Market and the Mondawmin subway stop, inside Dunbar High School and outside Dr. Bernard Harris Elementary School, and in Cockeysville, too. He received key support from Pikesville native Jason M. Berman, a producer who is on his own one-man crusade to re-establish this city as a place to make quality films for a price.
"Growing up off of Park Heights," Candis said a week and a half ago, "I'd seen a lot of these relationships that exist between young kids and uncles or other older guys. A lot of them truly want to be father figures to these kids, but they don't have the actual makeup or ability to be positive father figures, given the reality of their situations."
The script he wrote with Justin Wilson is full of savory-yet-unsavory characters. He aims to fill the ticking-clock urban suspense of a "Training Day" with the emotions of classic coming-of-age movies from "The Night of the Hunter" to "The 400 Blows."
"A diamond with flaws," or "a car that gleams on the outside, although the leather seats are cracked on the inside" — that's how the script describes Common's character. And the cracks widen as the film goes on. Vincent wants to go straight. He hopes to open a "big crabs and live music" joint in an empty warehouse along the Canton harborfront.
He discovers that before he can secure a bank loan, he must scrounge up $22,000 to cover his mother's back mortgage payments. He reconnects with his old friends and confederates — including a couple of wily, dangerous brothers, Fish (Dennis Haysbert) and Arthur (Danny Glover) — and signs on for what should be a quick and easy "drop" of knock-off prescription drugs. He brings Woody along.
Ten-year-old Michael Rainey Jr, who plays Woody, told me he was "excited," not intimidated, to be part of Candis' high-powered ensemble: "I never thought I would be working with Common, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Glover, Charles Dutton, Forest Whi — no, not Forest Whitaker."
Excuse him for thinking, for a second, that Whitaker is in it, too. Candis and his producers have filled even small roles with the likes of Michael K. Williams, Russell Hornsby, and Lonette McKee. Actors responded to the script because it put personal insights into a tightly knit drama.
"While this movie takes place in a world of crime and drugs, at the heart of it is the dysfunctional love story between an uncle and his nephew," Candis said. "It's a boy's coming of age and rite of passage, all in one day, He loves and reveres his uncle, but quickly finds out that he is a bad person. And at the tender age of 11 he has to do something to stand up against his uncle."
Getting this movie on its feet also took considerable strength and gumption.
Candis, 31, and Berman, 28, both went to USC's School of Cinematic Arts. Berman and another "LUV" producer, Michael Jenson, fresh out of USC five years ago, formed a production program called "FilmForward Independent" to support the production or sale "of great scripts coming out from USC film students," as Berman told me on the Cockeysville location. Candis and Wilson (another USC grad) put 'LUV" in their hands. Queen Latifah's company optioned it, but didn't move on it.
But Berman kept producing other projects. He was a co-producer on the Iraq War-vet film "The Dry Land," an executive-producer on "Jess + Moss" (a unique relationship movie — about second cousins — that went to Sundance this year), and a full producer on the inspirational golf movie, "7 Days in Utopia" — starring Lucas Black, Robert Duvall and Melissa Leo. Last fall, he shot the comedy "Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best" in Baltimore. He assembled much of the same crack crew a half-year later for "LUV."