Push for African American cinema bears fruit

Posted: May 09, 2012

Before Philadelphia’s invited movers and shakers even arrived at the red-carpet premiere of Changing the Game, Rel Dowdell’s urban tale of corruption and redemption, moviegoers were instructed to leave their smartphones in their cars or turn them over to security before entering the Van Pelt Auditorium at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After all, it took Dowdell seven long years to birth his baby, and to miraculously land a nationwide distribution deal. He wasn’t about to risk some lowlife in a tux recording his movie and turning it into a bootleg before it even hit cineplex screens. Wasn’t going to happen.

Illegal film-jackers are just one of many obstacles that an African American independent filmmaker like Dowdell must hurdle just for his project to have a chance at success. When it comes to African American cinema, it seems as if the number of offerings has decreased, not increased. Twenty years ago, about 15 black movies made it to the big screen; in 2010, the number had decreased by half. And black indie films? All but disappeared.

But Changing the Game beat the odds. The suspense drama, which stars veteran actress Irma P. Hall (Soul Food), will open in five major markets — Philly, New York, Atlanta, Washington, and Chicago — on Friday before a nationwide rollout on more screens by the end of the month.

What Dowdell has been able to pull off with nothing more than passion and perseverance has been nothing short of extraordinary.

“It’s pivotal that Changing the Game gets support,” he says. “Because then it will open the door for other films.”

Hard-knock filmmaking

Dowdell, 39, thinks in scenes. You can tell by the way he expresses himself — staccato sentences with only relevant information and a bit of descriptive detail.

He grew up in Germantown, the son of two teachers. “On the same block as Bernard Hopkins,” the Central High graduate says. Shifting scenes, he explains, “I didn’t even know that you could make films, that you actually could learn the craft of doing it, until one of my professors at Fisk [University in Nashville] gave me an article about Spike Lee and John Singleton.”

The aspiring director was hooked. After Fisk, Dowdell’s parents took out a second mortgage on their home so Rel could afford film school at Boston University. After graduation, he wrote and directed his first feature, Train Ride, a college date-rape drama starring Wood Harris and MC Lyte, and filmed on a shoestring entirely at Cheyney University. The movie turned out to be the last project for the veteran actress Esther Rolle (perhaps best known as Florida Evans on the TV sitcom Good Times) before her death at 78.

Though Dowdell filmed Train Ride in 1998, production problems stalled its release until 2005. The movie received positive reviews, but the young filmmaker learned some lessons about hard-knock movie making.

It takes planning, perseverance, and sustaining local connections — much as protagonist Darrell Barnes (played by newcomer Sean Riggs) does in Changing the Game.

For Dowdell, that important local connection is businessman Thomas L. Webster, 59, one of the founding members of Mastery Charter Schools and the film’s executive producer.

Four years ago, Webster asked Dowdell to be the commencement speaker at Mastery, and the next thing Webster knew, “Rel shows up in my office, asking me to produce his film,” Webster recalls, chuckling. “I told him no, thank you, I don’t know anything about the entertainment business. I stay in my lane.”

But Dowdell is nothing if not persistent. He showed up at Webster’s office the next day, and the next — that time with lunch.

Webster, admiring his young benefactor’s chutzpah, got on board and assembled a team and $1 million for the project. The two also secured a major deal with AMC Independence, AMC’s indie-film distribution arm. And in a stroke of sheer luck, Changing the Game was placed as the lead trailer for the urban romantic comedy Think Like a Man, which topped the box office for two consecutive weeks and has pulled in almost $70 million.

Webster, also a Philly guy, says he hopes to see a return on his investment, but doesn’t expect one. He’s just grateful he was able to utilize his business connections on behalf of Dowdell, who deserves it. “I’ve been blessed with opportunity, but I had no one to be a mentor. I had to figure it out by trial and error,” he says. “Now I gladly turn around and do for anybody else who wants to pursue a small business or profession.”

Which, if you ask Dowdell, is the way he imagined it.

“When I was in college, I envisioned a world where African American filmmakers would bring each other up, like during the Harlem Renaissance,” he says. “Whether I need help with my project or someone else needs help, we can lend our expertise. That’s what we need in African American cinema.”

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.

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