After the death of George Floyd and the protest aftermath, some films that came out in recent years take on added resonance, particularly those that involve the murder of black youths at the hands of quick triggered and fearful cops. Features include Fruitvale Station and The Hate U Give. I was fascinated by a most prescient 2019 short film sent to me by its makers, who intend on turning it into a limited series. On a leisurely Sunday, have a look at About The People, a Sterling Milan-directed drama that got strong reaction on the festival circuit last year, starting with an attempt by a powerful group of Black men to use their collective influence to force change, rather than waiting for it to be implemented by a white establishment that is only now reacting to the serious injustice people of color endure too often. I’ve got more after you watch it:
The newly formed Compelling Pictures, spearheaded by Bohemian Rhapsody producer Denis O’Sullivan and Jeff Kalligheri have optioned the short and intend to develop it as their first limited series, producing with Steven Garcia, Coffey, and Michael K. Williams. Coffey created the drama with Garcia, based on his own experience and he wrote it with Samuel K. Rhind.
“The film was birthed because four years ago my teenage son was afraid to be outside in the dark thinking he was going to be killed by the cops,” said Coffey, who plays the role of the militant who is skeptical about the circle’s intent to make a difference. “When he mentioned that, as a black man, I had no answer for him because as you see the climate we’re living in, I wasn’t about to sugarcoat anything by saying it can’t happen to him. So as months went by it bothered me and while running at midnight, it dawned on me that I should write a short film to address not just him, but every person of color that’s feeling the exact same way as my son because believe it or not as a black man and people of color, we have to relived our lives every single day like we did the day before, if we made it home in one piece that day before. So this short film is the blueprint to what needs to happen in order for us to get back to where we once were, like how Black Wall Street was before my time. My references were the film 12 Angry Men and The Cleveland Summit in 1967 coordinated by Jim Brown. During the film circuit, everyone that watched it, including Ava DuVernay, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam of the Exonerated Five wanted more. With that said this short is a proof of concept of what it can be by following these characters outside of the room. So the main priority right now is to get this project packaged and developed as a limited series so we can continue to have these hard conversation’s intelligently on a much larger scale weekly.”
Garcia said: “Coffey, Mike and I had been trying to find a project to collaborate on since 2014. One evening, Coffey and I connected for a development call, and he was fired up about a really terrible encounter he had with the NYPD while with his son in a park. Once he told me the details, I was just as fired up as he was. Being an LA Born Latino, you learn very early on that you don’t Fu*k with the police, because they’ll put you in a hole in the desert. I started questioning why I was OK with that being a fact of life. About the People allowed us to explore these types of questions in a very smart way. It wasn’t a white vs black argument, it was documenting the internal struggle of folks from the same ethnic background, but with differing socioeconomic status, trying to align as a group first.
“The challenge was, the entire piece takes place in one room. So, when developing the script, we wanted to make sure each character had a unique POV that was infused into their argument,” he said. “That made the one room much less daunting because then it became a sparring match of words that carried the audience through, and now you were now rooting for them to find common ground.
“Once we had a solid script, Coffey and I were able to enlist the help of our longtime producer friend Jeff Kalligheri to tap his development fund. He actually introduced Coffey and I back in 2013. Jeff immediately saw the value and he, along with Denis Casali and Joshua Adams agreed to finance the project. Once we had a modest budget, we enlisted the help of the amazing Shruti Ganguly and Rachel Kessler of Honto88 to help us set up a 2-day shoot in NYC. Because the project originally had 10 men on screen, I felt it important to find a female voice to guide us in the director’s chair. So, Coffey and I had originally attached Anika Poitier, daughter of Sydney Poitier to direct. Anika unfortunately had scheduling conflicts once we were able to lock on the talent, so the very capable Sterling Milan stepped in with only a two-week prep and he and our Director of Photography, Maria Rusche, knocked it out of the park.”
Lending prestige to the short and its series transfer is Michael K. Williams, the great actor whose indelible performances include The Wire and Boardwalk Empire. Williams told Deadline:
“The reason I thought it was so important to use my platform for the short story, besides the fact that Coffey is not only a dear friend, but also a brother, I was that young man that had challenges with law-enforcement. The idea that this story was created due to his son being afraid to come home after dark, fearing interaction with the police no matter the circumstances which could potentially become detrimental spoke to me. The social justice problems that we face today are the same social economic inequalities and racist practices that have continued to grip our black and brown communities for decades. These problems continue to feed the mechanisms that allows police brutality to continue in police departments all across the country. We worked hard to change that narrative in About The People.
What we see today is reminiscent of the murders of Eleanor Bunkers, Sean Bell, Eric Gardner, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. The better question then would be how what is taking place currently not relate to About The People? I worked really hard to express that in my character as the Senator.
If you ask me, About The People should be a series,” Williams said. “It would then allow me via the character that I portray, to expand on these aforementioned injustices in a climate that is currently seeking understanding and solutions.”
The short was produced by Garcia & Kalligheri, along with Coffey and Shruti Ganguly & Rachel Kessler of Honto88 in New York, with Williams, Denis Casali and Joshua Adams the exec producers. Williams and Coffey star in the short with Dorian Missick, Hisham Tawfiq, Tyler Lepley, Sterling Brim, Diggy Simmons, Nashawn Kearse, Akintola Jiboyewa, and Ebony Obsidian.