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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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As the urban independent film market entered a glut phase, Overlea High School student Alvin Gray was just getting started. "I had a little handicam, and I took my school friends out and we did a movie called Senior Cut Day," he says. "I put that together with two VCRs, [hitting] pause record, pause record."

Gray soon graduated to digital video and directed and starred in his debut feature, a martial arts thriller entitled Torture, in 2007. He declines to share a DVD of it for screening. "That movie's terrible," he says. "I wish I could take all the copies and burn them." But what he learned he put into preparations for future projects. And once Warren moved back to Baltimore in 2006, Gray met his future key collaborator. "He started bouncing ideas, and I said this is really neat," Warren says. "And the ideas became a script."

Asked about movies that inspire him, Gray offers, "I like a lot of Lifetime movies, believe it or not, cause there's a story, there's drama, there's a little suspense to it," he says. "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle--very suspenseful and just complete, you know. It comes full circle."

Gray's script for Sweet Dreams follows a similar course, telling the story of photographer (Gray) who falls into an intense relationship with a beautiful model (Robyn Wood). She is the woman of his dreams, literally, haunting his slumbering subconscious, but their relationship eventually becomes a bloody nightmare. Gray and Warren cobbled together a small budget and shot off and on between November 2008 and late fall '09. Earlier this year, Gray enlisted Jonathan Robinson to help him with editing and special effects. The rough cut that recently screened for the cast and crew hits the usual thriller bases but does so with considerable style, boasting a luxe look and feel that belies its low budget. A Baltimore premiere is planned for July 15.

Warren and Gray say they've already been in touch with an old contact of hers in Hollywood about Sweet Dreams, but got nowhere. "He said when you do a regular thriller or a comedy, give him a call back," Gray says. "But being Sweet Dreams was an urban thriller, he didn't want to represent it."

Why?

"Because it [would be] hard to sell. People don't wanna see urban thrillers right now. People wanna see regular . . . regular thrillers," he says, bursting out laughing at his own hesitation.

And what is a "regular thriller"?

"It would be a white-people thriller," Gray says, with a resigned smirk. "I have a strong feeling that if Sweet Dreams was a different color, the market would find it more acceptable."

Jonathan Robinson, for one, says he admires Gray and Warren sticking to their story. "They tried to push something," he says. "Instead of going gangsta or baby-mama drama, they actually went with a thriller-slash-love story."

You don't hear too many stories of filmmakers having an easy time getting their films made and distributed. But black filmmakers face additional challenges when shopping around their work. Despite the success of filmmakers/personalities ranging from Tyler Perry to Spike Lee to Ice Cube--or maybe in part because of their success--black filmmakers are often expected to produce films that can be marketed the same way as, say, Perry's wildly remunerative comedies, or what Gray calls "these churchy, Soul Food type of movies."

"If it doesn't fit in a certain category, then [distributors] are afraid to touch it," Warren adds.

Even friends and family sometimes expect filmmakers to follow a certain path. "Everybody's like, 'You gonna be the next Tyler Perry, the next Spike Lee?'" Gray says. "And I'm like, 'No.'"

And if black filmmakers can get any interest from distributors, they may find their work ghettoized as "black films," which can limit their budgets, their audience, and their commercial potential.

"It's difficult for anybody to get a film produced, so when you look at it in those terms, race or skin color doesn't really figure in a great deal," Moir says. "But I know the history of this country, and I know how difficult it is to tell a 'black story.' It's really a universal story, a human story, but [it's] difficult to get over the hump to where it's looked at by the mainstream as a universal story. In so many respects, commercial success and getting your movie produced relies on the mainstream being able to interpret it and relate to it."

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