By Kharisma McIIwaine
On the forefront of many discussions are race relations, economics, the criminal justice system and how the current climate of our country impacts the daily lives of people of color in America. The frustration felt nationwide surrounding the atrocities, past and present, that go hand in hand with the Black experience in America is difficult to come to terms with.
This begs the question; how does one maintain faith while being immersed in a system and environment riddled with prejudice and implicit biases? Producer, writer and director Rhyan LaMarr addresses many of these issues in his new film, “Canal Street”.
“Canal Street”’ tells the story of Kholi Styles (Bryshere “Yazz” Gray), a young man born on the south side of Chicago. After Kholi’s father, Jackie Styles (Mykelti Williamson) gets a promotion at a prestigious law firm; he moves his family to the suburbs to offer his son a better life. Shortly after the move, Kholi finds himself in an altercation with one of his popular White classmates Brian Sudermill (Kevin Quinn).
The very next day when Brian is found dead, Kholi is accused of killing him. The rollercoaster ride that ensues as a direct result is one for the records. The all-star cast features Mykelti Williamson, Mekhi Phifer, Michael Beach, Jamie Hector, Will Yun Lee, Lance Reddick, and Harry Lennox. LaMarr spoke with the SUN about his journey to becoming a filmmaker as well as the importance of telling this particular story.
LaMarr was born and raised in Chicago. He began honing his creativity as a writer at the ripe young age of 10 years old. He always knew that he wanted to be a director, and set out to do just that while attending Columbia College Chicago. With a hunger for knowledge and experience, LaMarr found himself under the wing of one of the greatest comedic voices of our time, the late Bernie Mac.
“I actually got my start as a filmmaker on a film called, “Mr. 3000”,” he said.. “In the summer of 2003, Bernie was filming in Milwaukee and I ended up being able to work on that movie. He was a man filled with a lot of wisdom. The amazing thing about Bernie, was on “Mr. 3000”, he ended up taking whoever wanted to go back to LA to work on his show back in the fall. So I was going to quit school and just go to LA. He said ‘nope, get that piece of paper and look us up when you finish,’”. That motivated me to get through school and go to LA.”
After returning to school, LaMarr found himself back in LA for a semester-long program. He was reconnected with Bernie Mac, and was able to start his career almost immediately.
“There was a studio in Studio City where all the shows were shot at the time, “That 70’s Show”, “Malcolm In The Middle” and “The Bernie Mac Show” he said. “It just so happened that my class was on the same lot. So I walked right in there before class even started, and asked if a particular AD worked there. The lady looked at me weird. Here’s this Black kid walking into the production office with baggie pants and a hat. She reached out and within a matter of five minutes here comes Rhonda. She asked what I was doing there, and I told her I was doing a semester in LA, but would love a gig. I got a gig that day on “The Bernie Mac Show”. It was an amazing experience. I owe a lot of my beginnings to him as well as the whole Bernie Mac team.”
LaMarr continued to pay his dues, and found himself working on reality shows like “America’s Got Talent”, “American Idol” and “The Apprentice — Season 6” during the writers’ strike. A testament to perseverance, diligence and dedication, LaMarr continued to work towards becoming a well-rounded producer, director and writer.
“I started on this roller coaster of learning everything I could possibly learn,” he said. “So whether it was being a production assistant, transportation captain, a post production supervisor, an editor, or a music video director, I learned everything humanly possible within the film industry so I could be the best producer possible, which also helped with writing as well.”
“Everyone that ever spoke to me said, ‘if you want to get into film, you have to learn how to be a producer, so you can control your own stuff so that Hollywood can’t take advantage of you.’,” he said. “I didn’t take any directing classes, but I minored in acting so I can learn how to talk to actors and learn how to break down scenes from an actor’s perspective.”
LaMarr’s work ethic is evident in his resume, but also in the journey from inception to the completion of “Canal Street”.
“In 2005, my writing partner Jon Knitter and I started working on the script for “Canal Street”,”. LaMarr said. “We started working on “Canal Street” while we were working at a movie theater in Chicago on another project called “Restored Me”. We ended up shooting that project before “Canal Street”, he continued. “We have been writing together for over a decade. We have over 10 scripts fully developed that we’re working on as we speak. “Canal Street” was written in 2005… over 10 years ago and that really shows perfection. I always tell people when they ask for advice, if your phone hasn’t rung yet; you have no excuse for the projects that are sitting with you while you wait to not be perfect! Jon, Adam Key, who was another writer that came on during the later drafts, and I just kept bouncing the script off of one another while continuing to perfect it. We did that until there was nothing else to do until we got on set.”
In addition to a solid, well-crafted script, the dynamic cast of “Canal Street” added another layer of excellence to this film. A tag team effort on behalf of Philadelphia’s own Charlie Mack and Atlanta based casting director Marisa Ross resulted in Bryshere “Yazz” Gray coming on board. Charlie Mack, who is a producer on the film, spoke with the SUN about Yazz’s first leading role in a feature.
“For “Canal Street”, the director and I developed Yazz’s character to be completely different from anything he’s played before,” Mack said. “For starters, he has braids and braces. We lucked up with the director’s brother, who had similar hair and we took the braces from me. I wanted to break up the monotony, so he won’t get type cast as Hakeem from Empire. With Yazz playing Kholi, it was just a matter of finding and channeling a person he could actually see.”
“Canal Street” is a film with an incredible amount of depth that tackles complex subject matter with a nuanced grace. LaMarr explains the heart of the film.
“The movie is about faith and how to fight your hate and your prejudice,” he said. “We always talk about other people’s prejudice, but not our own. I don’t care who you are; we all have prejudice inside of us. It may not be race or sexual orientation… it might be where someone grew up or the types of restaurants they like to go to.”
“We live in a society, where you wake up in the morning and you look at your timeline on whatever your app of choice is, and you’re looking at judgment across the board,” LaMarr continued. “When you like something, you’re judging it. You judge a million things before you even leave your house in the morning. You have the opportunity every morning to judge your TV and what you want to watch. That’s what “Canal Street” is all about. It’s about presenting an idea of the America that we live in, through the lens of a millennial filmmaker. It shows you what you’re accustomed to, and when you leave the theater, you should be checking yourself all while being uplifted. That’s the crux of “Canal Street.”
One of the most challenging subjects addressed in “Canal Street” is young Black men and the criminal justice system. Charlie Mack shared his perspective on the matter.
“There are a lot of racially biased issues, tones and situations that happen throughout the film”” he said. “It’s unfortunate, because in the film, there’s this automatic idea that the Black kid murdered the White kid just because he’s the Black kid. It’s sad, but that’s the reality of the world that we live in today. Although in our society it’s supposed to follow the principle that you’re innocent until proven guilty, for a Black man in America that’s not the case. Instead you’re perceived as guilty from the rip and you may not get the opportunity to be proven innocent.”
LaMarr added a personal element to that reality, sharing some of the wisdom he imparted on his younger brother.
“My brother has friends of different races,” he said. “I tell him [that] when you get pulled over; you unfortunately have to protect yourself. I don’t mean you have to protect yourself physically… I mean you have to protect yourself from being prejudged. When you’re walking down the street, you’re already being prejudged for being a Black man in America.”
One of the many ways people of color have been able to fight against prejudice and false preconceived notions is through sharing our stories.
“I’m pushing the envelope in a lot of areas right now… I’m trying to shake things up,” LaMarr said. “The trend has already started. Jordan Peele busted open the door, and so have people like Tyler Perry, Bishop Jakes, and Devon Franklin. People always look at what’s happening now, but people have been banging down the doors for a long time. We can go back to Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans… there is a lot of work that’s been done to allow us as a community to be excelling the way that we are. There would be no “Black Panther” without “Meteor Man”. There would be no “Upside” without “Beverly Hills Cop” that’s real talk. At the end of the day, it’s such a great time to be a minority filmmaker.”
Charlie Mack echoed LaMarr’s sentiment, adding, “This year marks 40 years of me being in the entertainment business. What I do see is a significant difference in terms of women of color getting opportunities, and I think that’s pretty cool. All you need is vision and determination. The universe naturally wants to move out of your way. One of Michael Jordan’s’ mantras is… ‘Failures made me a winner’, and that’s real. Will Smith says ‘fail and fail often so you can get that out of the way. At some point it’s going to land on its feet.’ My mantra is persistence wears down resistance… so we as a collective just have to keep pushing.”
“Canal Street” is a film that will encourage audiences to keep pushing and to keep the faith. LaMarr shared his hopes for the audience.
“At the end of the day, I want people to feel uplifted when I leave the theaters,” he said. “We created a body of work where you’re going to walk in with all the hate that the world gives you. You’re going to walk in with all the stuff that sticks on you throughout your day… and you are going to feel like you’re still in your day-to-day watching the film. People always leave the theater [and] they are in tears… joyful tears. And when they leave… I really challenge the audience to not feel uplifted.”
“Canal Street” is currently in theaters throughout the country. Check your local listings for showtimes, and visit: www.canalstreetmovie.com for updates. Additionally, LaMarr has several other projects in the works. He is currently working closely with the family of Sean Bell, on a limited TV series about Bell’s life. He is also working on a dramedy entitled “North of the10” –a male take on “Sex In The City” set in LA. To support Rhyan LaMarr on his journey follow him on all social media platforms at : @rhyanlamarr.