Devin Rice’s new film “Being Black Enough or (How to Kill a Black Man)” is an emotionally and intellectually confrontational film addressing racism and perception. I had the pleasure of talking with Rice and his co-star/co-producer (and fiance) Jaqueline Corcos about the genesis of the film and how you create a big budget movie for less than $25k! Their answers are just as enlightening as the film itself.
“Being Black Enough” is based upon Rice’s personal experiences of being told he wasn’t black enough. As a youngster, after hearing this, he recalled feeling saddened by the words, but as he grew up, he generally shrugged it off as he knew there was no malice behind those words. The character of Cody (Rice) experiences the same thing as well as many other real life situations replicated in the film, but takes the reaction to a whole new level. Cody is a young college student who was raised in a predominately white neighborhood. He begins to question his identity as a Black man and what this truly means by seeking out his cousin Kyle (Bruce Lemon) who lives in the dangerous L.A. neighborhood of Compton. Given all the privileges anyone would need to succeed, Cody tosses this to the wind, emulating his cousin and his gangster friends. Kyle initially pacifies his little cousin, attempting to show him that this life isn’t for him, but Cody spirals downward quickly, grasping on to any sense of camaraderie and convincing himself that he’s fighting for what he believes is right. The cost may be more than he bargained for.
“Being Black Enough” begins with a sense of humor as this bright young man listens to Tupac, singing along, and his mom observing unbeknownst to him. He’s embarrassed, as any kid would be. His conversation with his mom is endearing, but there is a pain behind his words or perhaps an emptiness and he is looking to fill that void. Cody’s attempts to become “more black” are also quite humorous as he imitates what he sees in mainstream media. Blurring the lines of his reality, Cody begins to sever his ties with one of his best friends—Serah, a white woman (Corcos) who is in the police academy—as well as his family. As you watch Cody quickly become engulfed in this very dangerous world, you still hold out hope that he can come back from the edge of the cliff.
Talking him off that edge is his wise-beyond-his-years cousin Kyle. He has seen it all and has experienced it all in his very short life. His attempts to guide Cody are emotionally poignant and eloquent. He is educating not only Cody, but the viewer as to what it means to be Black and what it means to be a Black man in this hostile environment. Gang warfare is real. The consequences are real. And there are no winners. It’s the truth of what’s happening every day in every city. Rice shared with me the spark that ignited writing this film—a Youtube video about a young Black man who challenged the police to shoot him after stealing a bottle of liquor. He said, “This has to be written because this can’t happen [anymore].”
The conflicts we see within the community are reminiscent of “West Side Story’s” the Sharks and the Jets. There are leaders, retaliation, and a love that is forbidden. Rice readily shared with me that West Side Story was a huge influence on the film. He also admitted that there’s a 4 hour version of the film that fully utilizes all the parallel story lines found within that amazing musical. While “Being Black Enough” in its 90 minute version is not a musical, music is a huge component and driving force behind the film. Rice had originally written this story or a version of it many years ago while in high school when 50 Cent was all the rage. The story grew to be more complex than the original because “…I really had more life experience…and with the way the music has changed in the last 10 years, rap music has gone in an even stronger direction.” Tupac’s lyrics ring true to this young character as he embraces his every word. The film also brings elements of Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” to the forefront as we see racism, lack of future hope, and police perception in this film, but as Rice explained, “We made the film before ‘Chi-Raq.'”
Rice expertly weaves together a complicated story of today’s racial imbalances and perception and then somehow portrays the innocence of love with the utmost of care. No matter our race, we can empathize with Cody’s need for identity and longing for love. How he achieves this is another story. We see him innocently stepping into a war zone and we better understand the circumstances under which these young men are surviving. They are not living; they are surviving.
Rice and Corcos are exceptionally strong as actors and the supporting cast is equally skilled. Finding these unknown and unpaid actors speaks volumes to the story’s depth and importance. Rice and Corcos passionately spoke about finding these exceptional actors as being a “magical” moment. Corcos said, “Somehow they just came, all the right people.” I would have to agree that all the right people were drawn to being a part of a film that has a powerful message, one that resonates with many and is applicable to us all. Rice said, “I wanted people to realize that you can just be yourself. You don’t have to destroy yourself and lose yourself…just because other people have this idea of what you’re supposed to be. Don’t stereotype yourself…Expand yourself. Use your culture to expand who you are and not limit who you are.” Crocos supported Rice’s statement wholeheartedly and added, “It’s not just about this one race…Just be true to who you are…We really hope this movie can save some lives.”
“Being Black Enough” is shot with absolute precision. The attention to every detail brings you into the scene so that we are as much a part of the film as Cody. The range of emotions we feel, captured through the art of cinematography is extraordinary. We feel the bond between he and his mom as they lie on the grass outside, chatting like friends. We gasp and almost duck as the bullets come flying from every direction. And we hold our breath as we see what might possibly happen next. Creating this high calibre of a film for the price tag of $23k seems impossible, but for Rice and Corcos, educating themselves in all areas of filmmaking enabled them to have this highly polished final product. Rice wore not only the writer and director hats, but also the cinematographer. Rice and Corcos “…watched all of Kubrick’s best films, Spielberg’s, and Quentin’s.” Rice continued, “I wanted to see what the greatest movies looked like and I wanted to see a bunch of low budget indie movies like “El Mariachi” and “Clerks” [to see] what kind of mixed techniques from the two…we can use. Corcos interjected, “Devin [said] we need to make this movie for a crazy low budget, but it needs to look like a huge Hollywood movie.” It does. Corcos also said with a huge note of gratitude in her voice, “With locations, I just basically asked people [and] got everything for free” including a cop car! Crocos attributed the generosity of the community to the powerful message of the film.
The message of this film comes through loud and clear, but without the impressive story-telling skills of Rice, it wouldn’t have been so brilliantly bold and beautiful. It’s a great story told remarkably well—exactly what a film is supposed to be. To see this poignantly creative film, go to Dances With Films