Film Independent’s Project Involve 2020 Showcase Raises The Creativity Bar With Thought-Provoking Films

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Jonah Beres as Sam in Balloon, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

We are living in unprecedented times. That’s a given. A global pandemic claiming more than 2 million lives and counting, a monumental Black Lives Matter Movement calling for the dismantlement of systemic racism rooted in American foundations. Yet, in the midst of all this chaos (ultimately for the greater good) there is beauty waiting to be discovered through the magical storytelling lens of filmmakers. Stories about communities underrepresented on the screen that need to be seen. This year, Film Independent unveiled 6 short films from their 27th Project Involve program poised to make a lasting impression on audiences. 4 of these films are laced with bittersweet, funny, and controversial themes expressing emotions validating our universal experiences we share as humans.

Balloon, directed by Jeremy Merrifield, and edited by Bowei Yue, follows 14 year-old Sam (Jonah Beres) in the middle of an active-shooter drill, led by the talented Paul Scheer (Officer Hart). Sam, a quiet teen, is the target of harassment after a video of him crying goes viral after being punched by school bully, Jason (Carson Severson). Jason is dead set on seizing any opportunity to get a rise out of Sam and his other victims. Sam’s friend, Adam (Jaylin Ogle), tries to console Sam and urges him to fight back, while not wanting to be labeled as weak by the other boys. When Sam discovers he has super powers to defend himself from his aggressors, he’s at a crossroads: fight back or continue enduring the brutal torments. The film reveals an all too familiar toxic masculinity in American culture and what’s at stake for children and young adults to survive in school. It’s relevant and timely and worth watching.

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Lara Cengiz as Kati in Bambirak, Photo Courtesy of Film Independent

The film Bambirak by director Zamarin Wahdat, about an 8 year-old Afghan girl (Kati) and her single father (Faruk), adapting to a new country they’ve sought asylum in is poignant and speaks to the collective solid bond fathers and daughters have. The story begins with Kati (Lara Cengiz) hiding in her dad’s delivery truck. Once he discovers her while making deliveries, Faruck (Kailas Mahadevan) becomes desperate to drop Kati at the grandmother’s home, although she’s nowhere to be found. Faruk enlists Kati to be his assistant. Everything seems to go smoothly until a racist turn-of-events challenge the father-daughter duo. Tensions flare, accusations are made, and with minimal dialogue, the father-daughter team accept the trade-off of being in a new country. Wonderfully acted and scripted, Bambirak is a gem of a short film.

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Buck, the narrative short by director Elegance Bratton and co-director Jovan James follows Lynn (Malik Shakur), a young gay black man dealing with his depression in a self-destructive manner that has the potential to lead to tragedy. The film starts off with Lynn’s mother pressing him about his meds. Determined to seek happiness with a visit to his white male lover, Richard (Gabe Peyton), the encounter proves to be disappointing. Lynn realizes there is another gay couple waiting for him to partake in a sexual party. Reluctant and declining to participate, Lynn decides to leave even though he’s taken a hit of Meth, is barely conscious, and is rescued by fellow black gay man whose life is on borrowed time. With the 25 million Americans suffering from depression to date, we don’t see nearly enough films examining and exploring individual experiences with this disease and Buck does a great job of portraying someone who battles mental illness, with empathy, not pity.

 

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Saint from La Gloria film, Photo: Courtesy of Film Independent

La Gloria a film by Mary Evangelista explores the aftermath of an attempted suicide by a young gay Latina (Gloria). And she how copes with lovesickness and sorrow with the help of her grandmother’s optimism and dream-channeling to achieve hope and peace. While the rest of her family glosses over her suicide attempt and go about their everyday lives. Gloria (Chris Gris) and her grandmother’s bond is authentic and compelling. It offers a sweet glimpse into relationships between younger and older generations. And we are here for it!

Film Independent’s 2020 Project Involve Showcase, a carefully curated program of short films spotlighting some of the program’s most exciting new filmmakers. Project Involve (PI for short) fosters the careers of talented filmmakers from communities traditionally underrepresented in the industry, and is celebrating 27 years of working toward a more inclusive entertainment landscape. The program serves as a valuable incubator for diverse talent and has cultivated the careers of more than 820 filmmakers. Notable alumni include Linda Yvette Chavez & Marvin Lemus (Gentefied); Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians); Jomo Fray (Selah and the Spades); LaToya Morgan (Into the Badlands); Justin Simien (Dear White People); Lulu Wang (The Farewell), Kim Yutani (Director of Programming, Sundance) and many more. To learn more about Film Independent and Project Involve, click here.

Review: ‘Ovid and the Art of Love’ – Resoundingly Mirrors Modern Times

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Corbin Bleu as Ovid, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Esmé von Hoffman’s latest film to hit the streaming platforms, Ovid and the Art of Love, couldn’t have come at a better time amidst a global pandemic and the ensuing chaos the current administration is wittingly encouraging in our nation. Its social and political commentary will resonate with audiences. As millions of Americans affected with the repercussions of the novel coronavirus (over 76K+ deaths domestically, an unemployment surge of 14.7%, a statistic unseen since the Great Depression) continues to wreak havoc in our daily lives.

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John Savage as Augustus, Kimberly Cruchon Brooks as Livia, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Parallels of our stark reality compounded by the film’s theme are spot on. Writer/Director Esmé von Hoffman’s version of the old tale of beloved poet, Ovid, otherwise known as Publius Ovidius Naso, who was exiled by Roman emperor, Augustus in 8 AD, “allegedly” because of his exotic and provocative books of poetry. Corbin Bleu (“High School Musical,” “Dancing with the Stars”) is charming as he breathes life into modern-day Ovid, and finds his purpose in the urban streets of Detroit. He’s summoned by Augustus, the inept and hypocritical emperor, played by the talented John Savage, (“Deer Hunter”) to pursue a career in law but his interests lie elsewhere: poetry. Determined to follow his passion, Ovid attempts to read his poems at open mic clubs, failing at first and ridiculed by patrons, later finds his rhythm in verse and love as he follows a woman he thought would fulfill his life. As Ovid’s poetry career and romantic conquests flourish, the citizens of Rome, A.K.A. Detroit, are in an upheaval; jobs are lacking, health insurance is scarce, and people are protesting inadequate leadership. Ring a bell? It’s 2020 on screen, minus the fancy togas, and elegant headpieces.

 

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Director Esmé von Hoffman, Photo: Brian Geldin PR

Ovid and The Art Love is a tale as old as humanity – depicting average citizens standing up to power with truths and freedom of expression to affect change and the dire consequences that result, in this case, Ovid, regarded as the canonical poet of Latin literature, is exiled and sent to Romania, but his beautiful poetry and popularity lives on. In 2017, Ovid’s birthplace of Sulmona formerly Sulmo in Italy, acquitted the poet of any wrongdoing, Florence followed suit.

Check out this wonderful adaptation of Ovid and the Art of Love by director, Esmé von Hoffman, when it’s released on May 19th by Level 33 Entertainment via major streaming and VOD platforms including Amazon, iTunes, Comcast, XFinity, Dish, Sling, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube and many more.

 

 

Film Review: ‘The State of Texas Vs. Melissa’ – A Gripping Doc on the Judicial System’s Exploitation of the Marginalized in America

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Melissa Lucio, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

As the first Hispanic woman facing death row in the state of Texas, Melissa Lucio’s milestone or accomplishment isn’t worthy of recognition, especially for Latinos, yet her story and impending fate is compelling and requires attention. The State of Texas vs. Melissa, a documentary by French-American director, Sabrina Van Tassel (The Silenced Wall) asserts how the laws of injustice favor poor, uneducated people of color. And how their cases are inevitably swept into the vortex of anonymity. Sabrina Van Tassel first encountered Melissa as she was researching for her documentary about women in jail. Van Tassel, an investigative journalist and filmmaker for over 15 years, was reluctant to meet Lucio as her case centered on the homicide of her 2-year-old daughter, Mariah. An abhorrent charge, undoubtedly. What drew Van Tassel to Melissa’s case was the inmate’s demeanor, the facts of the case, and belief that she’s innocent.

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Director, Sabrina Van Tassel, Photo: Courtesy of The 2050 Group

The director does a fantastic job of letting the images and cast of characters guide the narrative- everyone from Melissa’s family members to defense attorneys and forensic scientists play significant roles in how the documentary unfolds. From the beginning, as Melissa is interrogated for over 7 hours by unrelenting police in Southern Texas, the audience can surmise she was coerced into confessing to the murder. The filmmaker paints a vivid picture of Melissa’s life. We see she comes from a broken home, suffered physical abuse at the hands of relatives and her mother’s ex-boyfriends. The indifference Melissa’s mother shows towards her daughter’s sexual abuse and current situation is quite telling of the lack of parental and emotional support Melissa received. The drug abuse, abject poverty and guardianship of 14 children overwhelmed Lucio. It’s obvious her unresolved trauma led to her downward spiral, but this impossible situation does not make a murderer. Or does it? With no history of violence, as confirmed by family members and psychologists, there wasn’t sufficient evidence she was prone to commit this heinous crime. Melissa Lucio was a negligent mother and child services eventually removed her children from her care, the director glosses over these facts. The audience could have benefitted from learning more about Melissa’s state of mind during the actual death of Mariah.

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Although some details were omitted, the documentary chronicles the turn of events that make Melissa’s story so fascinating. A corrupt DA looking to seek re-election in Texas’  Cameron county; a defense attorney with career aspirations that trumped his client’s best interest and goal of being freed; Melissa’s other daughter, who may have been responsible for her sister’s death. Van Tassel sets the stage for a documentary-style whodunit. And in doing so, we see how easily Lucio was railroaded in a failed judicial system. Sitting on death row for over 13 years, Melissa Lucio is on her last appeal, which if overturned, may go to the Supreme Court.

Making its Tribeca 2020 Film Festival world premiere, The State of Texas vs. Melissa has received well-deserved media attention from virtual festival filmgoers and panelists. Written and Directed by Sabrina Van Tassel, produced by Vito Films in co-production with Tahli Films and Andaman Films has a running time of 97 minutes. To learn more about The State of Texas vs. Melissa, click here.

 

 

Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz – Get Ready for the Next Household Name in Comedy!

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Photo: Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz

Latinos loved to be entertained. We love, laugh, cry and yearn to see our cultural truths and customs depicted – especially on social media. And in recent years, many comedic Internet superstars have emerged and drawn material from their Dominican, Cuban, and Puerto Rican heritage with hilarious content. Taking it to the next level, with popular audio streaming services, is Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz, who co-hosts the weekly podcast“ “Latinos Out Loud” on the Revolver Network with Michael “Juan Bago” Diaz, Jaime “JFernz” Fernandez, and Frank Nibbs. Now in its 7th season and winning a Tecla award for “Best Podcast Content Creator” this Latino vehicle is amplifying Latino voices throughout the country. We chatted with comedienne/actor/producer Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz to get the inside scoop as to why this multi-hyphenate star on the rise, merits the spotlight. Apart from cohosting “Latinos Out Loud,” Rachel is part of the comedy troupe Room 28, featured on NBC’s “Bring on the Funny,” hosts and produces HERlarious, a diverse and all female collective featuring the best sketch, stand up and character acts in New York. With her involvement in variety of entertainment projects, Rachel is primed to shake up the Hollywood status quo for Latinx.

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Room 28 Comedy Troupe on NBC’s “Bring on the Funny,” Photo: Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz

DSMC: What’s your earliest memory of wanting to be in entertainment?

Rachel: I can remember as far back as age 9 when my parents would go out on Saturday nights and leave me behind with my older siblings. They were 9 years older than me. And they’d let me stay up late to watch Saturday Night Live so I’d stop annoying them. I was in awe. These actors would interpret these different multiple roles and act them out. I remember thinking to myself: That’s the coolest thing ever! I want to do this! I was always involved in the performing arts in school, growing up in South Brooklyn, I was very much part of after-school life. Participating in plays, rehearsals, dance, and theatre. Growing up with a Dominican mother, my mom was like “No, mija that’s not going to make you money…Aaa-aah.” So I went to college. Pursued a career in marketing and I never let the acting bug go, once it’s in you – you never let it go. It’s like a parasite and it creeps into your system, until finally, you’re like fine! It has to come out. When my son Donovan was born 4 years ago, that’s when it came seeping through my pores. I said to myself: Why am I here, in corporate America? The money brings me some happiness, but there’s nothing like making other people smile, laugh – entertaining them. I gave all the corporate stuff up and said: Fuck it! Let’s see where this goes. I want to be the mother that I always wanted to be and the actress that I wanted to be. Those are the two things I’ve been pursuing hard body full-time the last four years.

DSMC: Brooklyn College is both our alma mater. At one point they had a thriving diverse performing arts program? Did you receive formal acting training from Brooklyn College?

Rachel: I took a few undergrad classes, but when I decided to pursue acting full time with formal training, I enrolled in private acting lessons with well-known teachers. I’m a two-time recipient of the diversity scholarship at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. With a career in comedy it’s smart to understand the methods and approaches of the different schools of comedy that are recognized and accredited throughout the world. I began with Improv Comedy 101 and heard about the diversity scholarship. I saw the lack of diversity within the student body. I went for it. I didn’t get it the first 3 times I applied. I just kept at it. Finally, I got the good news in 2016. Since then, I’ve been nonstop. The beauty of being a diversity scholarship recipient is that they hook you up! If there are open seats, in other classes that don’t sell out, the scholarship recipients are the first to get the notifications about open seats at UCB. I’m so thankful. Now that I’m 40, I’m super focused, and want to do everything I can to add “sazón” to the comedy bucket. I’m trying to hone in on where my passions lie and that’s sketch comedy right now. I just finished the sketch writing circuit at the school. I’ve touched on the 3 pillars of the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB).

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Center: Amy Poehler, Photo: Courtesy of UCB

Side note: The Upright Citizens Brigade, which readers in case you didn’t know – was co-founded by the supremely talented, Amy Poehler, which also founded Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, bringing to the spotlight incredible women making strides in varied industries. The Upright Citizens Brigade is the only accredited Improv and sketch comedy school in major cities like New York and Los Angeles. To learn more about the Upright Citizens Brigade, click here.

DSMC: You have a lot on your plate with acting, parenting two toddlers, producing, podcasting. You co-founded the podcast: “Latinos Out Loud” What’s it like sharing the airwaves with 3 men?

Rachel: Finding your voice is so important, but maintaining it, is equally as important. Sometimes, all the testosterone around me can easily drown me out. We have this ongoing joke that they have crowned me the Queen Bee of the podcast. And, “Dejame decirte!” I’m not about that life: Oh, bow down! You know, Beehive, but I have to maintain that position. I can get stepped on, not literally, but figuratively. I gotta represent. The female voice within this crowd of funny men is so important. I feel I have to play multiple roles. I modulate and sometimes I have to be the voice of reason, or the voice of femininity. When there’s too much dick talk, and I’m like, all right guys let’s bring it back to comedy.

DSMC: You have a knack for switching up character voices on the podcast, after listening to the 100th episode with Lin-Manuel Miranda Jr. and Sr. as guests, I observed that. Congrats on this milestone! You’re able to do urban, prim and proper, corporate voice, whereas the others on the podcast panelists struggle at times.

Rachel: Thank you, I don’t think I code-switch. I do think it’s important to know your audience. I actually attribute and thank my corporate background for having that ability to modulate, because we need to. I could be hood, but there’s a time and a place. I’m working on me also. I’m a work-in-progress on the Mic. I went from dropping F-bombs on the 1st season every other minute to occasionally using the N- word and that’s not who I wanted to be on the Mic. I still struggle with the F-bombs. I’m from Brooklyn. You know what Im sayin’? I would like to get to the point where I don’t need to say it. The same way I don’t need to say the N-word or curse every other 3 words. I want to be who’d I like to listen to on a podcast. I listen to every episode of the podcast 5 times. It’s my method. I look for errors to edit and fix in the car. To make sure the episode is the best it can be audibly. I’m very structured and anal with voice and what I’m projecting. We take a lot of pride in the audible quality. I get angry when I listen to some of my favorite podcasts and the jokes fall flat, and not because they’re not funny, but the crispness of the sound isn’t there. Nobody wants to hear white noise, black noise, and hear anything else other than the podcast host. We’re all on the same page and I love that. It’s our friendship and our interdependence that makes it thrive. Collectively we’ve been friends for a little over 10 years. We hang out with each other on the side, holidays too. We’re still friends. It’s cool.

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Top (L) Jaime Fernandez, Bottom (L) Juan Bago, Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz, Frank Nibbs, Photo: Revolver Network

DSMC: I remember listening to Howard Stern and Robin Quivers, when it was free on local NY stations. And they had great chemistry. They did pop culture, comedy sketches. Sure, it was controversial, but funny. There doesn’t seem to be anything like that for Latinos. What comes close is New York’s 97.9 FM La Mega, and they seem to fall short. What are your thoughts on this?

Rachel: I would love that – to eventually be the Howard Stern, Robin and Bababooey for the Latino market. We don’t have that. We recently had the president and CEO, and co-founder of Casanova Advertising Agency, Ingrid Otero-Smart. She’s Puerto Rican and has been in the industry for a while. We asked her about the current state of Latinos in podcasting? And she mentioned: “You guys are pioneers right now. You are setting a path for those that are going to follow in your footsteps and it’s so important to make the best decisions you can.” There is a huge weight on our shoulders. She’s right. We don’t have a textbook to read, handbook or manual or someone that came before us. What comes close is La Mega, “El Vacilón de La Mañana.” That’s not a podcast!

DSMC: Whenever I heard “El Vacilón De La Mañana,” I’d interpret the skits and majority of the listeners as gullible – a dumbing down of the Latino population that I never liked. That’s not who Latinos are. We’re educated. We’re smart. We are not here to be disparaged. 

Rachel: I appreciate what the Luis Jimenezs’ of the world do. My mom still thinks he’s hilarious. Sadly, I do not. I don’t relate to most of the content. He’s a funny man. I get it and he’s talented. No disrespect. I’m 40 years-old. I’m on a different comedy wavelength than those guys. We have to do our part to elevate this void. I watch SNL, white/black/Asian sketch shows. When I was out in L.A. to do NBC’s “Bring on the funny.” I was in The Ubers – hittin’ up the dispensaries, left and right. One night I was with the director of Room 28, Jerry Diaz, in the back seat. And, the Uber driver turns around and says: “Rachel “La Loca” – Latinos Out Loud.” Yeeees! That’s me. “I listen to you guys all the time. “You don’t know how much we need you.” I said, really, how so? “They feed us this chancletazo bullshit or Mexican-American comedy that we don’t find funny anymore. My friends and I listen to you even though you’re Caribbean, Dominican, even though your jokes have a New York-centric attitude, my friends and me think it’s hilarious. It’s still Latino, it’s still cultural, and we can still relate.” I think this divide we saw in the past, among different pillars, one of them comedy, is fading out – it’s fizzling away. Finally, we are approaching this convergence that black comedy has already crossed, where we are just about each other and NOT where we are from anymore and it’s about the cultural relevance and the unity, especially with 45 right now. Comedy will always be a universal language.

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Daniel Craig on SNL, Photo: Mary Ellen Matthews

DSMC: What’s next for Rachel “La Loca”? Are you doing more sketch comedy? Continuing with the “Latinos Out Loud” podcast?

Rachel: Collectively, the 4 of us are treating this as a business. We are rebranding and redoing our website and looking to elevate the brand for 2020. We are looking to do more live shows – especially with the markets that have shown us a lot of love; right now it’s a tie between New York and L.A. Our top five markets are New York, California, Chicago, Texas and D.C.; it fluctuates. We want to bring more live shows, hopefully with sponsors attached to them across the country. Our listeners hear themselves when they listen to us. They feel like they’re chillin’ with their cousins snappin’ on each other in a living room. We want to do pop-up podcasts across the country.

Rachel con’t: We took 2019 to focus on our network television debut, branded content development and performing in the comedy festival circuit, as well as a bit of company restructuring, and are really looking forward to our off-Broadway return after our stint on NBC’s “Bring the Funny.” We’re proud to have released a 5-part web series written, produced and starring Room 28 players for the non-profit organization Somos Community Care. The goal of the content is to connect our community with in-culture and in-language primary care doctors that can target the ailments that plague our community before they get to urgent levels.  The organization’s research has shown that on average, our people wait until the last minute to seek medical attention when it comes to the ailments that attack their health, thus making it harder to combat at that stage.  We partnered up and created the “Sick!!” series where our very own Jaime Fernandez plays “El Profeta de la Salud,” a Walter Mercado-like character that can predict your health future.  I believe this is Jaime’ best character yet! He’s a stellar writer. The series is available on the MiSomos app or on their web site https://misomos.com/sick.

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Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz and Jaime Fernandez

DSMC: You mentioned acting as your passion, apart from the sketch comedy and podcasts, what are you looking to do acting-wise?

Rachel: I’ve set this goal for myself: my manager and I are trying to get me booked on networks with co-starring roles. I’m coming so close! I’m out there. I’m auditioning. I’m getting callbacks. I had booked a gig for Identification Discovery. I did a crime-scene reenactment; I was the principle for one episode. I would love to do a recurring role on a network. Pilot season is coming up. I did background work recently. Over the summer I got a taste for film, I did background for West Side Story, working with Spielberg was amazing, and every now and again I do background for SNL. I don’t want to do steady background work anymore unless I’m absorbing and learning something from it. The goal is to book a feature film gig.  

With the ongoing global pandemic grinding life, as we know it, to a startling halt, Latinos everywhere know how to persevere and make the best of the current situation. And that means getting creative when producing comedy. Whether we turn to memes (JLo and Shakira’s history-making halftime show performances are still on people’s minds and social feeds) or creating TikTok videos to Bad Bunny’s or J. Balvin’s tunes, our resilient spirit will never wane. We just can’t hug or kiss like we used to when greeting people – but we make do! Recently, Latinx has made significant strides with shows like Gentefied making its debut, and with the returning season series: On My Block – on Netflix. Latino visibility only accounts for 3% of representation in Hollywood – a dismal situation at best. But, with personalities like Rachel “La Loca” Strauss-Muñiz committed to breaking barriers in the entertainment industry and paving the way for more Latinx stars, our stories will finally be told and knock mainstream entertainment on its head. Check out and subscribe to the “Latinos Out Loud” podcast on Apple podcasts, Spotify, iHeart and Stitcher today.

 

 

 

‘In Case You Didn’t Know: A Conversation with Rhonda Ross’ – Revelatory and Raw!

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Photo: Courtesy of Rhonda Ross

As the eldest daughter and only child of music legends Diana Ross and Berry Gordy, Rhonda Ross has managed to rise above her famous parents’ shadow and carve out a career replete with film, TV and theatrical triumphs. She was bit by the acting bug at the start of her entertainment career and joined the cast of NBC’s popular soap opera, “Another World” as “Toni Burrell – which led to an Emmy nomination. Ross later went on to star in Showtime’s “Bessie Coleman: A Dream to Fly,” the film Hook’d Up, and toured nationally with the Vagina Monologues; It’s clear Ross doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, she revels in it.

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L to R: Patrick L. Riley and Rhonda Ross

And recently, all eyes were on Rhonda Ross as Patrick L. Riley from the digital talk show, “The Happy Hour” hosted and served as moderator for an intimate setting at The National Black Theatre. As he posed personal and professional questions to the singer/songwriter, I was surprised at her candor. She revealed details about her childhood that I think most celebrities with her family lineage would be inclined to withhold. For instance, discovering at the age of 13, that her then stepfather, Robert Ellis Silberstein, Diana Ross’ former husband, wasn’t her biological father and receiving confirmation why her younger sisters seemed different than her with their physical attributes. She thanks her mother Diana for being truthful and arming her with the resilience and guidance to navigate the world and providing unconditional love, as evidenced by the tight bond the 5 siblings (sisters: Tracee Ellis Ross (star of the hit series, “Black-ish,” Chudney Ross, younger brothers: Evan Ross and Ross Naess) share with each other. If you follow them on social media, they support and advocate for each other’s professional endeavors and their extended families with sweet, playful displays and undoubtedly fierce loyalty. As moderator, Patrick L. Riley coined it: “No one does blended, like the Rosses.”

Adding to the excitement of the night was Rhonda’s 10 year-old son, Raif Henok – whom Ross home-schooled. He can speak 4 languages and is very comfortable in the limelight, stealing the show on multiple occasions throughout the evening. Ross, when speaking about her son was honest about the hardships she and her husband (Rodney Kendrick), and musical partner of 20+ years had conceiving. She went on discuss the lack of and misguided instruction he endured at the hands of private school teachers and was lucky to find a home-schooling collective of people that helped her make the right decision for her son’s education.

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L to R: Rhonda Ross and son, Raif Henok

The audience, including myself, hung on to Rhonda’s every word. How could we not? It was a rare opportunity to witness a celebrity  divulge so much of their personal and professional journey with such honesty and bravado. Ross is determined to speak her truth and live an authentic life. The Neo-Soul singer continues to tour with her husband and mother, Diana Ross, throughout 2020 and has exciting plans to enter the acting world soon. To learn more about Rhonda Ross and check out tour dates, click here.

Review: ‘A Patient Man’ – Dauntingly Relatable

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Jonathan Mangum as Tom Alexander, Photo: Courtesy of dawn til dusk PR

Indie film A Patient Man by writer-director, Kevin Ward (The Mist) starring Jonathan Mangum (“The Sarah Silverman Program”, “The Drew Carey Show”) follows Tom Alexander’s life after a devastating car crash. Alexander decides to go back to work after 4 months and tries to adapt to normalcy, begins cycling to work, as he’s not quite ready to drive a car, and goes to therapy yet can’t seem to open up. He’s the solo character driving the story. The film is absent of subplots. And the audience has to decide if they like or dislike the character pretty soon. Luckily, Alexander, played by Jonathan Mangum, who’s a comedic and improvisational actor, can pull off this sullen, ready to give up on life character with just the right amount of cynical sarcasm.

Exploring and delving into the mundane details of life, especially after a tragedy; scenes, I believed intentionally placed by director Kevin Ward, allows the audience to identify and feel empathy for Tom Alexander. The action finally comes in when Tom meets a stranger, Aaron Clark played by Tate Ellington (Remember Me, The Endless) on a Sacramento commuter train he uses to bike between home and work. We don’t know if this a chance encounter or a calculated meeting by Tom, but as the friendship progresses, we discover Tom is crafting a revenge plot on his would-be antagonist.

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Tate Ellington as Aaron Clark, Photo: Courtesy of dawn til dusk PR

We learn about Tom’s life through flashbacks and Ward does an excellent job of weaving them throughout the story to give the audience enough snippets of information for us to follow and stay vested. Tom’s wife was killed in this life-altering crash and as more of the couple’s relationship is revealed, the more we sympathize with Tom. It wasn’t an ideal love story, something was amiss and this propels Tom to react instead of accepting his current circumstances.

A Patient Man requires audiences to be patient with the storytelling. This dramatic thriller insists upon evaluating a character’s trauma-inducing experience, as most people have endured at some point in their lives, and figuring out what to do with the cracks these situations leave behind. It’s a nice break from the numbing action-driven, over-the-top special effects blockbusters that only seem to get made in Hollywood lately. A Patient Man will be available on AppleTV, Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play on February 7, 2020. To learn more about A Patient Man, click here.

Review: ‘A Christmas Carol in Harlem’ – Modern Twist of a Favorite Classic: Delightfully Uplifting

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L to R: Emery Jones as Tiny Timothia and Charles Bernard Murray as Ebenezer Scrooge, Photo: Jill Jones

The holiday season is upon us and as you plan the rest of your entertainment activities with friends and family for the month of December look no further than A Christmas Carol in Harlem to fill you with glee. The Classical Theatre of Harlem brings to the stage a new adaptation of the beloved Charles Dickens novel. Its main character Ebenezer Scrooge, is a real estate mogul and community curmudgeon, who’s acquired his wealth at the expense of others and lacks empathy towards the less fortunate. He refuses to part with his money to help the needy without getting something in return. Scrooges’ lonely existence – and world – is turned upside down by the visit of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s former business partner, the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. And, is forced to contend with the error of his ways. Almost two centuries old, this famous tale is as timely as ever with income disparity becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the country and citizens being displaced from their neighborhoods.

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L to R: Kaden Jones as Young Ebenezer, Charles Bernard Murray as Scrooge, Eryn Barnes as Ghost of Christmas Past, Photo: Jill Jones

Set in present day Harlem, this dynamic cast’s interpretation is replete with magical strobes; hip-hop, lively dance numbers and singers with impressive vocal range. The festive and wintry backdrop sets the tone and Charles Bernard Murray (Honkey Tonk Nights) portrays the miserly Scrooge with conviction and wit. The most memorable ghost in the production: Christmas Past, as she sashays across the stage with interpretive dance to transition between Scrooge’s past memories – a wonderful creative touch as only the Classical Theatre of Harlem group can conceive.

Celebrating its 20th anniversary season, The Classical Theatre of Harlem brings A Christmas Carol in Harlem production, with a 90-minute runtime, to the City College Center for the Arts’ Aaron Davis Hall from now through December 21, 2019. Don’t miss this spectacular holiday show for children and adult of all ages. To learn more about A Christmas Carol in Harlem and buy tickets, click here.

CREDITS:
The company of “A Christmas Carol in Harlem” includes: Eryn Barnes (as The Ghost of Christmas Past), Reed HarrisButts (as Bennie),  Kahlil X Daniel (as The Ghost of Christmas Future), Gabrielle Djenné (as Fan and Belle; The Bacchae), Daniel Echevarria (as Fezz; In The Heights, Something like a Fairytale, The Open Gate), Ure Egbuho (as Sierra Jones; Good Friday, Locked Up Bitches; SCRAPS), Paula Galloway (as Claudette; The Colored Museum, Ain’t Misbehavin’), Steve Greenstein (as Jacob Marley; Flashdance the Musical), Emery Jones (as Tiny Timothia), Kaden Jones (as Child Scrooge and Bennie), Charles Bernard Murray (as Scrooge; The Bacchae), Andrei Pierre (as The Ghost of Christmas Present), Angela Polite (as Clock Shop Lady; MARY SPEAKS, Flambeaux), Jeffrey Rashad (as Bob Cratchit and Young Scrooge), and Kenzie Ross (as Mrs. Cratchit; Blood at the Root, When We Left). The ensemble features dancers from Elisa Monte Dance includingTracy Dunbar, Kat Files, Daniela Funicello, Ashley LaRosa and Sai Rodboon.
Based on the Charles Dickens Novella; Adapted by Shawn René Graham; Director: Carl Cofield; Choreographer: Tiffany Rea-Fisher; Costume Design: Lex Liang and Margaret Goldrainer; Lighting Design: Alan C. Edwards; Music Director: Kahlil X Daniel: Scenic Design: Izmir Ickbal; Sound Design: Kathy Ruvuna; Production Stage Manager: William V. Carlton; Projections Designer: Shawn Boyle; Props: Samantha Shoffner.

 

Film Review: ‘People of the Wasteland’ – Frenzied, Raw Storytelling

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Courtesy of Jouzour Film Production

Anxiety levels are sure to soar after watching, People of a Wasteland, mine sure did! Heba Khaled’s experimental documentary short; shot on a Go-Pro for two years, chronicles Jihadist fighters, working under the command of Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the frontlines of war in Syrian-occupied territories against the Kurds and the Syrian army. This film isn’t an US vs. Them type of war genre. We don’t know whom we’re rooting for, since the audience is limited to the Go-Pro’s footage and essentially, it’s point-of-view, and we depend on the sights and sounds captured. We see what the soldier(s) sees.

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Director Heba Khaled, Courtesy of Jouzour Film Production

And, first-time Syrian-born female filmmaker, Heba Khaled, weaves and edits different moments where the audience witnesses brutal warfare, fighters interacting with each other and performing basic acts like drinking water and taking pictures of one another drawing empathy from the audience. Her time spent with CNN and Reuters allowed Khaled access to cameramen and the fighters because there’s absolutely no way she would have survived as a female in the trenches and she knows it. According to Khaled: “As a female filmmaker, it was impossible for me to be there to film this. It was very urgent to learn how men and masculinity controls radicalism, and this experience at the moment of killing in a war, and to transfer it in a cinematic way through my own eyes, mind and heart.” War and devastation: a familiar theme in Heba Khaled’s life has been ingrained in her; she’s lost 20 relatives to bombings throughout the years.

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Courtesy of Jouzour Film Production

People of the Wasteland’s experimental nature and powerful composition exposing fighters from both sides, even if it’s vague on identifying who’s who – done intentionally by the filmmaker, poses the question: What is the point of war when ultimately, everyone loses? Judge for yourself. Produced by Talal Derki, winner of Sundance’s Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in 2018 for directing Of Fathers and Sons, and the Oscar® nomination for “Best Documentary Feature” in 2019. People of the Wasteland has fared well in the festival circuit, winning The Grand Prix for Best Short in the Berlin Liberi Film Festival, where Khaled now resides. The 21-minute short is under consideration for “Best Documentary Short”, and rightfully so. It merits all the accolades it has received thus far, and I would love for it to be expanded into a full-length feature. To learn more about People of the Wasteland, click here.

Broadway Review: ‘Tina’ – Riveting, Heartfelt, and A Testament To Tina Turner’s Indelible Star Power

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Photo: Manuel Harlan

Upon hearing that the Tina Tuner musical was coming to town, I had trepidation and a bit of skepticism. As a theatre and musical lover, I had no choice but to succumb to a new rendition of one of my childhood idol’s life portrayed on the Broadway stage. Would the actress playing Tina measure up? Would she be able to convey this powerhouse of a woman justly? Would the music move me? The answer to all my resounding questions: Absolutely! Tony-nominated actress, Adrienne Warren (Shuffle Along, Bring It On: The Musical) reprises her role of rock legend, Tina Turner; Warren had performed ‘Tina’ in London’s West End this past spring with rave reviews. And, now she’s traveled to New York to shatter all expectations of fans and critics alike. Warren’s portrayal of Tina Turner is sensational. The octaves in her similarly raspy voice to Turner’s are spectacular. Warren interprets Tina’s signature moves with grace, sans mimicry.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan, Steven Booth as Phil Spector, Adrienne Warren as Tina

The musical begins with Warren seated on the stage floor wearing Turner’s iconic red leather dress reciting a Buddhist chant. Turner, a Buddhist since 1973, credits the religion for helping her endure life’s hardships. Then the audience is introduced to a young Tina (given name: Anna-Mae Bullock) played by Skye Dakota Turner masterfully, belting out church songs with fervor in her hometown of Nutbush, Tennessee, where her mother, Zelma, played by the talented Dawnn Lewis (A Different World, This Is Us) isn’t too pleased and constantly scolds her for being to loud and boisterous. At the behest of her grandmother, played by Myra Lucretia Taylor (Macbeth, A Streetcar Named Desire), she pursues her talents as a singer, and moves to St. Louis to be with her mother and sister.

The pacing of the musical is perfection. There are no lulls. We transition through the different phases of Tina’s life with Tina’s hit songs and sets so visually stimulating the rest of your senses have to play catch up! The scenes between Tina and Ike are electrifying. Their chronicled relationship is replete with success and abuse at the hands of Ike Turner played by Daniel J. Watts (Hamilton, The Color Purple). Ike Turner is undoubtedly the villain from what is known about his persona and documented past relationship with Turner. Watts does an excellent job of balancing the complexities of Ike, as the abusive husband, yet talented musician that discovered Anna-Mae Bullock’s talents at 17 years-old, Watts is able to convey this atrocious man, with comedic flair at times, while showcasing his singing and dancing abilities. After all, this is a musical and the tone shouldn’t be too gloomy.

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Photo: Manuel Harlan, Adrienne Warren as Tina, Daniel J. Watts as Ike Turner

Executive produced by Tina Turner, directed by Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia, The Taming of the Shrew), and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast (Mamma Mia!, Sister Act) ‘Tina’ is a true gem for biopic and musical aficionados. Run! Don’t walk to see this fantastic production of the Queen of Rock n’ Roll. Tina, The Tina Turner Musical will be on Broadway at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre through September 2020, for upcoming performances, click here.

 

PRODUCTION: A presentation by Stage Entertainment, James L. Nederlander, Tali Pelman, Feste Investments B.V., David Mirvish, Nattering Way, Teg Dainty, Katori Hall, Mark Rubinstein Ltd., Warner Chappell, Peter May, Eva Price, No Guarantees, Caiola Productions, Jamie DeRoy, Wendy Federman, Roy Furman, Independent Presenters Network, John Gore Organization, Marc Levine, Carl Moellenberg, Al Nocciolino, Catherine Adler, Tom Perakos, Daryl Roth, Iris Smith, Candy Spelling, and Anita Waxman, in association with Tina Turner, of a musical in two acts, with book by Katori Hall (with Frank Ketelaar and Kees Prins), originally produced at the Aldwych Theater in London, by Stage Entertainment, Joop van den Ende and Tali Pelman.
CREATIVE: Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Choreography, Anthony Van Laast. Sets & costumes, Mark Thompson; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Nevin Steinberg; projections, Jeff Sugg; hair & wigs, Campbell Young Associates; orchestrations, Ethan Popp; musical supervision, arrangements, additional music & conductor, Nicholas Skilbeck; production stage manager, Kristen Harris.
CAST: Adrienne Warren, Dawnn Lewis, Nkeki Obi-Melekwe, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Daniel J. Watts, Steven Booth, Nick Rashad Burroughs, Gerald Caesar, Holli’ Conway, Kayla Davion, Charlie Franklin, Judith Franklin, Matthew Griffin, David Jennings, Ross Lekites, Robert Lenzi, Gloria Manning, Jhardon Dishon Milton, Destinée Rea, Mars Rucker, Jessica Rush, Carla Stewart, Jayden Theophile, Skye Dakota Turner, Antonio J. Watson, Katie Webber.

 

‘Hurdle’ Review: Palestinian Youth Combat Political Strife With Inspiring Creative Outlets

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film

The world is in political turmoil domestically and internationally as evidenced by the ongoing deadly protests in Hong Kong, Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia. Reaching its 50th year of Israeli military occupation, Palestinians have mastered the virtue of resiliency in fighting for their rights to exist and living with the oppression that brings social injustice; they’ve taken to the streets for half a century, and attempting to reclaim their land is nothing new. But what has emerged, and shed light on this age-old Middle Eastern conflict, is a fresh perspective by documentary filmmaker, editor, cinematographer, producer: Michael Rowley. In his film Hurdle, audiences can judge for themselves what Palestinians are fighting for.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Mohammed by Wall In Occupied Palestine

Hurdle begins with Mohammed, a Palestinian photographer examining a wall built to confine Palestinians to their “territory” by the Israeli military. Mohammed is clearly anxious and frustrated by his and his family’s current situation, but uses his photography business to enlist the youth in his community to find what’s beautiful and intriguing in the midst of all the violent attacks on their people. It’s gut-wrenching yet hopeful to see this community persevere and strive for a better life and brighter future.

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Photo: Courtesy of Hurdle Film, Parkour Team Member Jumping

The film then follows Sami, a parkour instructor who teaches young men to jump and flip over rooftops and structures with measured form. Apart from the mental and physical demands the sport requires – it invokes the spirit of these young men to persevere, to attain the unattainable and overcome obstacles in currently occupied Palestine, even with all the violence and bloodshed simultaneously consuming their daily lives.

Rowley’s Hurdle film is candid. It shows daily Palestinian life: the celebrations, familial moments, triumphs and tribulations that connect us on human level. There are devastating violent attacks that can strike at a moment’s notice. On one side, we see people (Palestinians) fighting for their very existence, and on the other, Jews waving their flags rejoicing as they claim victory over their enemies. It’s an eye-opening experience to see basic freedoms we are all entitled to, squashed, but in succession, witness a movement of self-preservation and determination. Rowley documents the breathtaking landscapes and energy of Jerusalem with captivating cinematography and music. Winner of the Best Documentary Feature Film from the 2019 Tulsa American Film Festival, Hurdle is destined for more accolades and world-wide recognition. To learn more and check out future screenings of the Hurdle documentary, click here.