Throughout a varied and impressive career that's seen him portray Nat "King" Cole, provide a one-man journey through black history, and found the Amun Ra Theatre, jeff obafemi carr has championed compelling, sometimes controversial projects. But carr acknowledges he's never experienced anything like the reaction to his new film He Ain't Heavy, which has its sold-out world premiere 8:15 p.m. Thursday as part of the "Tennessee First" kickoff for the 2012 Nashville Film Festival.
"The first day the trailer ran online we got more than 50,000 hits," carr said last week. "Since then, we're still getting thousands a day. I've had people tell me it was inspiring, and others tell me they hope I drop dead. I can truthfully say I've never had that kind of response to anything I've been involved with or produced."
He Ain't Heavy, which was completely filmed in Nashville, peels the covers back on an explosive and ugly issue currently resonating across the nation: hazing. It takes a look at what happens when five young students at a prestigious HBCU institution undergo an elaborate set of rituals that are part of the pledging process.
An enterprising graduate film student uses contemporary technology (digital video, cell phones, campus security cameras) to visually record the process, something that initially seems like fun. Then things quickly turn toxic. It's a scenario now being investigated at Florida A&M University, but is certainly not restricted or limited to black colleges and institutions.
Along with its cinema verité approach — carr calls it "the first African-American found-footage film" — the film's intensity is fueled by another aspect. What transpires isn't the product of a writer-director's imagination, but a depiction of actual events. One clip that was leaked online, depicting a nauseating ritual involving raw eggs, made it to Comedy Central's Tosh 2.0.
"This is both a movie and reality," carr says. "There are no special effects, no digital enhancements. The sacrifices, both physically and professionally, these actors made to ensure we got something real on camera were remarkable. I wanted this film to tell the story in a manner that didn't sanitize or hide the truth. The interesting thing is today every fraternity and sorority in America openly condemns hazing, yet there's little doubt it still occurs in many instances."
While carr wrote and directed He Ain't Heavy, he has high praise for co-producer Mark D. Jackson, whom he credits with helping winnow more than 300 hours of footage into a cohesive, effective 116-minute work. He also cites the acting ensemble of Robert Fitzgerald II, Terrence TK Kendrick, Joel Diggs, James Rudolph and Bralyn Stokes.
"We didn't have a big budget where we could do a lot of makeup and spray people with selzter so it looks like they are sweating," carr added. "These actors put themselves on the line. We did some incredible things over 11 days of shooting to make the film." It was originally scheduled for 10, but carr and crew took one day off. It was the day his fourth child was born.
"My family made big sacrifices right along with the cast," carr says. "We temporarily lost our home, had a car repossessed, yet no one said, 'Let's stop, we can't do this.' Now, things are turning around, and we're looking at getting a distribution deal, hopefully a later theatrical run, and appearing at other festivals."
It took carr nine years to get He Ain't Heavy on the big screen. But he hopes the production makes audiences consider the implications and impact not only of hazing, but the mindset that tolerates it.
"I had a minister who saw the trailer tell me there were people who wouldn't do what's shown there to get into heaven," carr says. "I want audiences to understand what it means to be that desperate about belonging to anything, as well as what it means for others to treat people that way. Those attitudes say a lot about humanity, and about society."
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