THE STORY | Once upon a time, in a far away land, or very nearby, there was and was not….
The first inspiration for this project took place in my Berkeley home office on a sunny afternoon in September 2010. Kwame had sent me an Alchemy flyer. For an hour I kept being mesmerized by two stills: one of a group of 6th graders faces wide open, and the same group seven years later, the boys now grown into young men ready to graduate from high school. Their faces were still wide open and beaming, their souls alive and shimmering with potency, the gold barely hidden beneath the surface. What was the story here, I puzzled.
Oh no, I was not going to make another film, too arduous an undertaking. I, though, asked Kwame Scruggs, founder and leader of Alchemy, if he’d be interested to have the graduation workshop with his core group filmed in May 2011. I was curious. In April 2011, I flew out to Akron, Ohio, for a scouting trip to test the waters, introduce myself and meet everyone. I filmed a little at a writing workshop of Alchemy’s core group of 28 teenagers. And I was struck by their grounded-ness, honesty, and genuine openness to me the outsider on many counts. Certainly, the depth of Alchemy’s work with youth and mythological stories was impressive. My familiarity with Jung, Joseph Campbell, dream work and metaphors, and perhaps my unconventional life and slight accent made for a surprising, but natural match. I was on fire with so much potential on all levels.
I knew how the world had imprisoned young black men into stereotypes, their chances were so diminished that they had become an endangered species, unknown to most of white Americans. I had worked as an artist in drug rehab and prison 20 years earlier. And here was a chance to show the world what happens if we nurture our young sons. How could I refuse? The two leaders, Kwame Scruggs and Kwame Williams, are absolute heroes in my eyes, working in the trenches saving young urban males from the streets and jail. “Alchemy, it’s the real thing, man,” as Brandyn says.
I chose six protagonists, as I called them, thinking some might not stick with it, but all did. I wanted their input as much as possible for this adventure. I was not going to hide that my being here was influencing what we would experience and portray to the world. This was a journey we would take together, and we did. The momentum was unstoppable, to my surprise I could not give up the bigger vision that now was coming into focus. Following the young men for three years, interweaving reunion workshops and individual stories. A most rich and beautiful tapestry it was going to be. But was American society going to be ready to deal with these issues? Having our first black president could not hurt.
Finding the gold in the young men was easy; finding the gold of funding was tough. Getting people to understand what I was after, not being able to show what I was envisioning till very late in the making, the journey was even more arduous than I could have imagined. But also more rewarding: the intimacy with the young men, becoming an unintentional mentor to them, the fun, camaraderie, mutual continuous inspiration—it all took on magical hues. Also, angels started showing up along the journey whenever I was succumbing to despair and tears about not being able to find funding to continue filming.
Three times a year I would fly to Akron, Ohio, with a crew to film for 10 days: Alchemy’s reunion workshops, continuing interviews, scenes at the young men’s colleges, with family, friends, at summer jobs, in the gym, on the basketball court, at the golf course. Whether with Tyler’s team on the football field in freezing sleet, breaking a coffee table leg in Stacee’s family’s living room, or having Shawntrail almost faint from the hot studio lights, every mishap kept bonding us tighter.
In late spring of 2012, I decided that I would fly the six protagonists out to San Francisco for filming, sightseeing and performing in the following year. It was an audacious and unusual decision for a documentary filmmaker. But then again, I had never been a conformer to conventions and rules. In order to earn their trip, each protagonist had to write their own life into a mythological story. I would give guidelines and notes, and they would have to meet deadlines, keep rewriting and delivering.
They all made it: Brandyn, Darius, Imani, Stacee, Shawntrail and Tyler. On Sunday, May 12, 2013, we’d pick them up at the San Francisco airport with their Alchemy facilitator and chaperone Brother Shelton. The intense, tightly scheduled week of filming their myths in the studio, interviewing, sightseeing, ended with a public presentation of their stories and poetry, interspersed with music and film clips and a Q&A with the audience. After that, we partied till 3 am at my home. Next day early, they flew back home. It was important to me that the so-called “subjects” of the film would get something major out of the experience. They did.