Spotlight on Ohlone:
Journalist's slaying inspires ode to Oakland
By Jessica Werner Zack, Special to The Chronicle.
Friday, May 14, 2010—Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle.
Like many Bay Area residents, Carmen Madden read with sadness about journalist Chauncey Bailey's slaying in August 2007. Oakland Post Editor Bailey was investigating infighting and financial problems at Oakland's storied Your Black Muslim Bakery when he was gunned down on his way to work.
Madden, a lifelong Oakland resident and English teacher at Ohlone College, had been interviewed by Bailey years earlier for a local cable show and she had been planning to call him to discuss a screenplay she was writing.
"I had an aha moment when I read about Chauncey being killed, and I started to write a new film," says Madden, who had completed several unproduced screenplays but needed a new script to flesh out that summer for a UCLA online screenwriting course. "There was something so powerful about the idea of this bakery that was so well known in the community just being a front for no good."
Less than a year later, Madden was on location at Willow Market, a corner store in West Oakland, shooting scenes for her first film, "Everyday Black Man." Written, directed and produced by Madden, who raised its $300,000 budget by refinancing family property, the film has been winning over audiences on the film-festival circuit since last year. Its official theatrical premiere is at the historic Bal Theatre in San Leandro, next Friday and Saturday.
Crafted like a tautly drawn play, with an emphasis on affecting dialogue, "Everyday Black Man" is a powerful portrait of Moses Stanton (played by Henry Brown, who grew up in Alameda), an African American grocery store owner who is targeted by drug dealers fronting as upstanding black Muslims.
Moses' troubled past casts a shadow on his present and hinders him from telling the truth about his identity to his daughter, Claire (played by Tessa Thompson). The film is clearly inspired by the Bailey case as well as what Madden calls "a problem that's all too common in black culture right now - kids being raised by relatives and not knowing their real mothers or fathers. It's an everyday sort of conflict, hence the title."
Interviewed in her bright downtown Oakland office at CLM Productions, which she formed when she started filming "Everyday Black Man," Madden has a ready laugh when explaining the improbable story of assembling a crew as a novice director and bringing "Everyday Black Man" to the screen. She met assistant director Josh Hoover on a salsa cruise around the Caribbean. ("I saw a cool shot he had taken and asked him how he did it.") Hoover introduced her to cinematographer Philip Briggs. Her associate producer, Karen Dea, reluctantly signed on after learning that Madden had been her son's favorite teacher at Ohlone. "There were so many important connections like this that allowed me to pull this thing off," Madden says.
Without even a short film to her credit, Madden attributes her success in completing a professional full-length feature to this kind of serendipity, as well as a dogged faith in her vision and willful deafness to her naysayers. "People thought I was crazy and tried to talk me out of the project, but I just put a goal on my calendar and start moving toward it."
Formerly an actor who toured with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Madden studied film writing at San Francisco State University and ran the Fame Talent Agency for six years before her dream of making movies took shape. She has difficulty explaining her outsize confidence. "Maybe it comes from being a single mother of two boys and just having to go out there and get things done because no one's going to do it for you."
Madden says she sees "Everyday Black Man" as her "ode to 'Unforgiven.' " Clint Eastwood's western is an unlikely inspiration for her decidedly urban film, but Madden says, "I'm drawn to characters trying to be good guys but with wavering success, and yet as bad guys they experience a whole lot of remorse."
A more obvious muse is Spike Lee's 1989 "Do the Right Thing," which is about another community, like Oakland, rife with economic and racial tensions. Madden says, "Lee's older work really speaks to me, and I use 'Do the Right Thing' in my classrooms."
In conversation, as in her script, Madden isn't afraid to ask some uncomfortable questions, such as "whether desegregation hasn't been the best thing for black small-business owners and if re-segregation, black Muslim style, has its merits. I posed this to my critical-thinking class, and it generated a great discussion."
Madden is deeply troubled by the violence in Oakland. "Inequality has bred a level of anger that, like sibling rivalry, creates in people this false sense of being the underdog, perceiving that someone else has it better than you.
"This city needs people to come together. I wanted to make a film that would stimulate conversation about what doing the right thing for your community should look like."
Madden's "nearly all-white crew was scared of going to West Oakland (to film), but I assured them, 'Trust me, it really is fine here. It's quiet and we won't be disturbed.' " She says her three-week shoot (squeezed in while she was on sabbatical from Ohlone) was uneventful.
"Working on this, I really wanted to create something that would represent Oakland," says actor Brown by phone from Santa Barbara. "New York has 'Do the Right Thing,' Los Angeles has 'Boyz n the Hood.' When do you see anything about Oakland?"
Everyday Black Man: 7-10 p.m. next Fri.-May 22. The Historic Bal Theatre, 14808 East 14th St., San Leandro. (510) 614-1224. www.baltheatre.com. Both screenings include a post-show Q&A with director Carmen Madden and musical guest Dwayne Wiggins of Tony Toni Tone, who scored the film's soundtrack.
E-mail Jessica Werner Zack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle