The story of Newlyweeds revolves around Brooklyn and weed, a coming-of-age movie about love, relationships and addiction in New York, with the scent of ganja blazing above like a narrative trail.
Filmmaker Shaka King links together the experiences of his own life in his debut feature, a loosely structured “stony movie,” which premiered at Sundance Institute’s mini-festival Next Weekend in August.
Funded partially through Kickstarter, the 33-year-old tells theGrio that now is the time to capitalize on the freedom of expression that comes with a low-budget film that could only be done at this stage in his career.
“If this had been a studio film, I’d have had make it completely different,” King remarks. “The tone of movie is all over the place, and intentionally so; it changes from moment to moment. Also, it’s a mostly black cast so already the studios really don’t think the audience for this film is complex enough with their thinking patterns…I’m setting out to prove them wrong.”
Moving beyond the ideology of a black film
King has spent the past six years studying filmmaking at New York University, and used both his collegiate connections and new technology to get his movie off the ground.
With the help of his Kickstarter fundraiser, an initiative he says was fun and demanding – and yes, he’s totally fine with Spike Lee using it – he was able to bring Newlyweeds to the festival.
Fresh out of school, the filmmaker recognizes the hurdles he faces selling films in a business dominated by a small handful of directors producing one type of movie.
He hopes to defy classification, particularly for what others have deemed a “black film.”
“One of the biggest problems with racism is that whiteness is the standard,” King observes. “There actually are, I would argue, culturally white films. Woody Allen makes culturally white films. Noah Baumbach makes culturally white films, but nobody classifies those as white films so all people are open to see them. They’re marketed as movies.”
By designating a film ‘black,’ King believes studios alienate the audience, and limit the movie’s appeal.
More demeaning, he suggests it’s a label placed on films that are not critically praised.
“A movie like Beasts of the Southern Wild, which isn’t labeled a black film but features black leads [gets] embraced by everyone,” King remarks. “Why isn’t The Color Purple a black film? It’s not considered that. All the movies that are lauded that feature black actors are not labeled black films. They’re just labeled great films. But when Tyler Perry’s movies get bashed by the critics, [they’re] black films. Any black romantic comedy, whether it’s good or not – The Best Man is actually a good f**king movie; the sequel looks better than the original. That movie did well theatrically, but the critics, they’ll give it a little three-star, a little pat on the back…It’s good for a ‘black film.’ It’s a demerit.”
Depicting the real culture of Brooklyn
Enough with the unnecessary boxes, says King. It’s a point of focus for him with Newlyweeds, which does feature primarily African-Americans, but that he hopes transcends race-based classification.
Centralized on the ebb and flow of a young couple’s relationship, Newlyweeds follows the two main characters’ struggle to make their love for each other greater than their love for marijuana. It stars Amari Cheatom (Django Unchained) and newcomer Trae Harris.
While the film doesn’t take a particular stance on drug legalization, King says that “anything” can become a dependency in the hands of an addict, from weed to food to baseball. The idea then is seeking control of the powers that make or break a person.
He also sought to depict diversity in the Brooklyn he knows, as opposed to the neighborhood he often sees inaccurately portrayed on screen.
“I grew up in Bed-Stuy, and I remember I went to college from ’97 to 2001 and there was drastic change in my neighborhood,” King recalls. “The quality of life in the neighborhood has risen tremendously in terms of access to better foods. You want to say social services too, in this sense of there’s mad cops everywhere. At the same time, it has not been to the benefit of so many people who grew up and live in that neighborhood.”
“There’s been pluses and minuses,” He continues. “The other day, I saw a group of teenagers hanging out that would have never been hanging out back in the day. It was the most diverse clique, and you could tell they were really bonding and were true friends…I grew up vegetarian, so it was always like we’re driving to the grocery store, and now stuff’s a little more accessible. But for me the less cops on the street in my life the better. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to interact with them negatively since the neighborhood changed.”