During his days as a TSU theater student, and later in various plays and films, authenticity in writing and performance was Reegus Flenory's primary goal. Now, as writer/director of the new film Generational Curses, Part 1 — which will be screened four times Saturday at Scarritt-Bennett Center — he's continued that quest. Only this time, instead of creating accurate portrayals of historic figures such as Malcolm X, Flenory intends to showcase something literally closer to home — what life was like for some black men and women growing up in the '90s.
"My idea was to offer audiences an imprint of the people and experiences I saw growing up in Nashville," says Flenory, a local filmmaker who's already amassed a number of acting credits in short films and features. "The people in Generational Curses are modeled after friends I knew, my family to a degree, and the lifestyles I observed. We explore lots of issues, among them class conflict, the impact of drugs in the community, people trying to improve themselves through education, the conflicts that occur in trying to do the right thing, and clashes between old- and new-school philosophy in the African-American community."
Using a cast of more than 80 principals, culled not only from Music City but across the state, Flenory shot his ambitious indie drama exclusively in Nashville — including sections of Bordeaux, where the writer-director grew up. In the movie's gritty location shooting, locals will recognize many familiar sites, from the TSU campus to the Northwest YMCA. The sprawling storyline hinges upon the rise and fall of a dominant gangster and drug dealer named Joe Adams (portrayed by Darius Willis).
Adams' high-rolling ways are a key element of Generational Curses, but they're hardly the film's sole thematic terrain. The script grew so lengthy and complex, with so many characters and incidents, that Flenory made the decision early on to split the film Kill Bill-style into two parts. Subplots and secondary situations such as romantic entanglements, shifting loyalties, rivalries and family conflicts keep the movie from being strictly a crime drama. But Flenory takes many visual, linguistic and narrative cues from '70s blaxploitation movies — a problematic but undoubtedly influential genre for African-American filmmakers.
"The '70s films had a major impact on me as a writer," Flenory acknowledges. "From a storytelling aspect, many of them offered compelling tales and were strong in character development. Their downside was they tended to be quite predictable. We wanted to make sure we showed the who, what, when and why of the characters and situations — that we were honest in the writing and depictions, and that we presented real human beings rather than caricatures."
Toward that end, Flenory and his casting director and co-producer, William Jenkins, staffed their cast with numerous nonprofessional actors — locals whose credentials didn't come from a résumé or acting class, but in the time they'd logged in North Nashville neighborhoods, living the movie's situations.
"We wanted strong actors, people who could convincingly portray their characters," Flenory says. "There's a natural feel in some people in terms of acting, but you've also got to be able to shape and determine your character as the project evolves. I feel that we've been very fortunate in that way."
One of their more experienced talents was Chandra Walton, a local stage actress and current hostess at Bentley's House of Soul on Brick Church Pike. Flenory and Jenkins cast her in the key role of Tamika, a conflicted single mom with a necessarily mercenary bent. It may not bear a lot of relation to her life, Walton says, but she knows many people will relate.
"It was definitely a stretch for me because I'm not like that at all other than being outspoken," Walton says. "I wasn't raised in the same environment she was and I don't necessarily react to a crisis in that manner. But I also felt she was a very intriguing personality and offered me a challenge.."
Among those challenges were some fairly explicit scenes that required partial disrobing. "I did a have a few concerns about semi-nudity with the role," Walton says. "But it was done in a very tasteful manner and it wasn't something just tossed into the story to shock people. I'm very happy that I got involved and also very happy that this type of project is happening now in Nashville."
Laudable goals notwithstanding, Flenory and Jenkins understand that in an increasingly moralistic era obsessed with how black lives are portrayed onscreen, the film's use of vulgarity and racial slurs — and its mirror on aspects that are far from admirable or desirable — will put them in the crosshairs of overly sensitive individuals, as happened with the Oscar-winning Precious.
"I think this is the type of film that you will either love or hate, and either reaction is preferable to blank acceptance," Flenory says. "I think people who approach cinema in an analytical fashion and try to look beyond the obvious will really enjoy it. But I also understand there are people who want everything to fit into their definition of 'positive image,' and we're interested in hearing from them as well."
No release date has been set yet for Generational Curses, Part 2, though Flenory and Jenkins hope to have it out no more than a couple of years after its predecessor. The decision to divide the story in two, Flenory says, was both an artistic and practical one.
"At first the plan was to do one piece," Flenory explains. "But as we began telling the story and putting it together, we discovered we really couldn't do it full justice in one film unless we brought it in around four hours. That's a long time for audiences to sit in any movie, plus you risk losing impact and blurring your focus. So we felt it would be better and stronger in a two-part presentation."
Though Generational Curses will likely spark much recognition among black audiences, Flenory says, he believes the film's plotlines and themes are universal.
"The questions regarding such things as what defines manhood and the problems young men and women face coming of age cross all lines," he says. "While the '90s are the film's primary era, I feel these issues are still relevant to discuss and consider in the 21st century." Flenory and Jenkins plan to enter Generational Curses, Part 1 in several film festivals — "not just African American ones, either," Flenory adds. They'll also be closely scrutinizing the reaction cards from those who attend each screening.
Radio personalities A.G. from Magic-101 (noon), Kenny Smoov from 92Q (6 p.m.) and Tory Barnett from WFSK-88.1 FM (3 p.m.) will host different screenings. A complete schedule and tickets are available at www.generationalcursesthemovie.eventbrite.com or by calling 491-2077. A limited number of tickets are also available at the door. Tickets are $10.
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