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The Black Box

Baltimore's African-American indie filmmakers search for an audience

Photographs By Rarah
(Clockwise from left) Alvin Gray, Kim Moir, Grasshopper, R.M. Robinson, Jonathan Robinson, and Nakia Warren (center)
Nakia Warren and Alvin Gray
Grasshopper
Kim Moir

By Lee Gardner | Posted 6/16/2010

Sweet dreams Premiere

Landmark Harbor East on July 15.

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Jonathan Robinson was ready to give up. He and his brother Rick--29 and 25, respectively--had only been making movies since 2006 but had already caught a tantalizing whiff of the big time in 2008 when a Hollywood production company showed interest in their first feature, the Rick-written drama Preparation for a Murder. Though the deal had fallen apart, they'd bounced back soon after with an impressive new calling card in the hour-long Tarantino-esque drug drama China White ("Blow Up," Arts & Entertainment, June 10, 2009). Better yet, a Baltimore friend had offered to front $200,000 for them to make Preparation for a Murder on their own. In December 2009, the Robinsons had held a meeting with the producer and a line producer, set the budgeting process in motion, and firmed up plans to start shooting their feature debut this September. In March, their friend the producer stopped returning their calls.

"He messed us up something terrible," Rick says, laughing in a way that suggests he's only recently been able to be amused by the situation. "He meant well, [but] to this day, we still haven't heard from him."

"I was thinking about quitting," Jonathan--Jonny to friends and family--acknowledges. "I was like, I think I better find something else to do."

But then in April, Jonathan visited the set of a music video being filmed for local R&B diva Paula Campbell by local director Alvin Gray. Gray and the director of photography, Antar Hanif, were shooting footage with a Canon EOS 7D, a new consumer device that looks much like any other digital SLR still camera but shoots high-definition digital video too. It's small, easy to maneuver, easy to use, captures crisp imagery even in existing light, and can be had for less than $2,000.

Gray, 24, remembers the moment well. "When [Jonny] saw that, it was Christmas morning," he says with a smile.

"We bought two of them," Jonathan says, selling their bulkier Canon XL2s to pay for less a pair of Canon T2is, a less expensive companion of the 7D. "We got everything we need to make a decent film."

One of the new cameras sits in the middle of the dining table in the Robinson family kitchen--setting for a sequence in China White--looking for all the world like something you'd see around the neck of an Inner Harbor tourist. (Their innocuous look is an added bonus, the Robinsons say, given that they usually work without filming permits.) Preparation for a Murder is back on for September, and this time the brothers are doing it on their own and on the cheap.

The Robinsons are much like any indie filmmakers anywhere--passionate, driven to succeed, and under-resourced, piecing together ambitious projects on shoestring budgets. But their story thus far also exemplifies that of many other African-American indie filmmakers in Baltimore. Thanks to advances in digital cameras, editing software, and the ad hoc film school that is the internet, the tools to make a professional-looking movie have never been more affordable or easier to use, opening up what used to be an expensive, arcane craft to those who've never spent a day in a film class. But while being able to tell the story you want to tell is one thing, as the Robinsons, Gray, and other black filmmakers in Baltimore can attest, getting a wider audience to see it is something else entirely.

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