Like all of our stories, “…The Harder They Fall” was inspired by our life experience, but is not necessarily about our life.
What do I mean by this?
A few months ago I had a long discussion with our cinematographer, Ramulas Burgess, about the trap many filmmakers fall into with their first films. Many make their first project autobiographical, and it seems as though everything in their life up to that point was about getting their story told. Then their following films fall short because they seem to lack passion or drive. The difference with us is that Daoud and I create stories around things we have witnessed or observed directly, but rarely are they autobiographical.
Our first short, “rev’ o. lu, ‘shun”, was inspired by an incident Daoud had while standing in line at a Chinese take-out spot in Bedstuy. An unruly customer walked up to the door’s entrance and, while placing his order, began to shout and curse at the workers behind the counter. Daoud was inspired by the thought of what kind of energy goes into food preparation when the people who work in the kitchen are exposed to such a hostile environment (think about “Like Water For Chocolate”).
Whenever we do screenings for “Eye Jammy”, the question that always arises is which one of us had been punched in the eye by an ex-girlfriend. This story, I’ll admit, is perhaps the closest to being autobiographical. Many years ago, some kids we used to mentor started to wrestle, at first for fun, but things soon got out of hand and became pretty hard-core. As tempers flared, a smaller kid picked up a discarded ironing board to hit his much bigger opponent and, as we tried to break it up, Daoud stepped in and got hit in the eye which, of course, led many to assume he had been in a fight—just like the character in “Eye Jammy”.
Our last short, “Shades of Brooklyn” (which ran on HBO for two years), drew its inspiration from all around. The story Temporary Insanity was drawn from a conversation that Daoud’s father, David Powell, overheard between two young men on a public bus. Karma was actually a story Daoud and producer Rahman Bugg heard from an actor while we were pitching him. And The Longest Walk was drawn from the experiences women have relayed to me about walking down Nostrand Avenue in Bedstuy and Crown Heights. Clearly, this project was shaped by a pretty eclectic mix of stories!
In the summer of 2010 our friend Zebi Williams invited us to her hometown of Settlement, in the St. Andrews parish of Jamaica. Settlement is in the Blue Mountains, about an hour or so outside of Kingston. Years ago she had started a free day camp for marginalized kids in the community, and asked her friends from Brooklyn to come and help teach. Daoud and I were asked to lead a group of 14 to 16 year old boys as counselors, and help train them in the qualities it takes to be responsible men and effective leaders in their community. We decided to teach them about the process of making a film, and the boys asked us to help them make a PSA. After a quick session they picked up some basic camera skills, and in a single day mapped out the entire production of the project: writing, staging, camera direction, and more. Even more impressive, when it came time for the kids to perform, their natural talent and comfort performing on camera was amazing. Daoud, who works with afterschool programs in Brooklyn and Manhattan, had never before seen kids who were so quick to pick up on the fundamentals of the creative process.
That was our inspiration for “…The Harder They Fall”, and we began to craft our idea that very afternoon. Our first challenge, we recognized, was the fact that just two weeks of volunteer work in rural Jamaica certainly didn’t make us experts to tell a Jamaican story, no matter how amazing and positive our experience there was. But this dilemma also, ultimately, led us to the answer: to tell the story through the eyes of someone going through it for the very first time, just like we were.
Make no mistake, Daoud and I are filmmakers because we want to not just make a statement but also to make a difference. We recognized a long time ago that the youth of our nation learn more through entertainment than anything else. So years ago we posed the question: how do we entertain and teach, without being preachy and ham-fisted? The key lies in being relational: setting up experiences and perspectives that are universal, but also adding in our own understanding of what sets the story apart. In “rev’ o. lu, shun” there was no hero or villain, each character had shades of both. In “Eye Jammy” we tried to shed light on what makes our community come together, but what can also still tear it apart. “Shades of Brooklyn” gave us the opportunity to tell multi-generational stories, to comment on how we sometimes abdicate responsibility to our community and examine how the seemingly harmless things we do can still carry a lot of weight.
“…The Harder They Fall” will give us the opportunity to understand today’s youth through the eyes of a troubled young man who, despite having access to all the material things he wants, has to travel thousands of miles away and take a journey up a mountain to get what he truly needs. Our own journey to the Blue Mountains has been a transformative experience, and we look forward to soon spreading the magic of this story to audiences everywhere.