By Cynthia Gibson
CRENSHAW — Three films honored the legacy of the late John Singleton with their submissions to the short film competition named in his honor during the 30th Pan African Film and Arts Festival.
TJ Ali, Chelsea Hicks and the team of Jenesis Scott and Brandon Hanmond received $20,000 each for the production and completion of their live-action narrative short film of their screenplays.
The John Singleton Short Film Competition introduced a new category to the Pan African Film Festival: film production. In addition to showcasing more than 200 films from the African diaspora, the film festival included an art show, workshops, seminars, panel discussions, a fashion show, a comedy show and spoken word performances.
Singleton, a South Los Angeles native, was a screenwriter, director and producer. At 24, he was the first African American and the youngest person to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Director category for his 1991 debut film, “Boyz in the Hood.”
With a budget of $6.5 million, the coming-of-age drama set in South Los Angeles grossed an estimated $57.5 million and paved the way for a new generation of filmmakers. Singleton died on April 28, 2019 at the age of 51.
The short film competition’s executive producer Sherri Sneed thinks film production is a natural part of the Pan African Film Festival’s evolution.
“The festival is incredible in terms of showcasing Pan Africanism and Pan African artists from all over the world, but this is the first time that they’ve been involved in the production of film,” Sneed said. “Whether or not it is a competition, I hope that it will continue. I think it’s a wonderful progression of the film festival.”
Sneed was Singleton’s assistant in 1992 when he went to Burkina Faso with PAFF organizers. For the past 20 years, she has been a volunteer and actively involved with the festival.
This put her on the radar when Singleton died suddenly and organizers decided to develop a film competition to honor his legacy and support of the festival and needed someone to produce the program. Sneed was familiar with the festival, had worked with Singleton and had decades of production experience working with Spike Lee, actor and director Tim Reid, Magic Johnson’s entertainment division and others.
“It’s been a full circle moment for me to be able to spearhead this program and honor John’s legacy and shine a light on emerging film makers,” Sneed said.
For Chicago native TJ Ali, winning the competition and having his screenplay produced was “beautiful and jarring and unbelievable.”
His screenplay “The Lifted” about two older Black women who decide to follow an extremely intoxicated young woman who gets into a ride share vehicle with a suspicious-looking driver, made the top 10 finalists in January 2020. The pandemic put the competition on hold for over a year. In February 2021, when the three winning screenplays were announced, Ali’s screenplay was not one of them.
Six months later, in August 2021, Ali received a call from Sneed telling him that one of the winners was working on a project and had to drop out and that his screenplay was selected.
“We all struggled throughout this pandemic in various ways,” Ali said. “For me, it was the creative piece that was hit the hardest. Having that call come in August, it was like striking a match and lighting that fire to encourage me.”
Jenesis Scott was confident that “Amaru,” the screenplay she wrote with her partner Brandon Hammond, would win. “Amaru” is the story of a Black man whose super powers render him impervious to racism and white supremacy.
“It took a while because they were supposed to announce the winners at a certain time and then they didn’t,” Scott said. “But I always knew we were going to win.”
Hammond was not as confident. He checked his email often for notifications of the screenplay’s status. When the couple finally received Sneed’s call informing them that “Amaru” had been selected, the first person they shared the good new with was Scott’s mother, who was ecstatic.
Unfortunately, shortly after learning her daughter’s screenplay would be produced, Lucille Marie Scott contracted COVID-19 and died.
“As we premiere [the film], her joy and excitement and telling me she was proud of me is really something that is in my heart and in my mind,” Scott said. “She was really close to Brandon and it’s something that we think about often.”
Unlike Scott, when Chelsea Hicks submitted the screenplay, “Contraband,” she not think she would be among the final three winners.
The prediction that white people will become a minority in near future and the lengths they will go to protect their privileged status is the idea behind Hicks’ dystopian screenplay. The idea for the story resulted from a school assignment in her script analysis class.
“Finding out I won, was definitely a shock,” Hicks said. “I was not expecting it. I tend to be a little pessimistic about things, to be honest. I have to work on that.”
Hicks’ screenplay was not only a winner in the John Singleton Short Film Competition, it also won the Audience Favorite Award in the Short Narrative category.
Sneed said the competition did exactly what it was supposed to do, give people an opportunity to first-time writers and directors.
“I think John would have loved it,” Sneed said. “He was a master in cinema. His own story was he was somebody who just believed in himself and got it done.”
Cynthia Gibson is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.