Class Action

With 'Justice,' a pair of Twin Cities civil rights lawyers raise the bar for African American filmmaking

Distraught and disheveled, a man in a rumpled tuxedo staggers into the intersection of Washington Avenue and Third Street near Sex World, stopping momentarily to scuffle with a hooker in fishnet stockings and her wide-brimmed hat-wearing pimp. Cursing them both, the man--a public defender, just sprung from a gala for fellow African American lawyers--jerks himself away from the hustlers' grasping hands and stumbles off into the night.

Cut! shouts director John Shulman from behind a movie camera, his sleep-deprived crew already rushing like vampires to get one more take before the break of dawn.

It's the fourth consecutive graveyard shift for the makers of Justice, an independent film shot in the Twin Cities over a five-week period in April and May. Blessed with renowned actor Roger Guenveur Smith (Do the Right Thing) in the role of the public-defending protagonist, Shulman and his co-writer/director and spouse Jeanne-Marie Almonor are behind one of the most ambitious feature film projects ever mounted in Minnesota. That the two thirtysomething filmmakers happen to be well-known civil rights lawyers--most notably having led the plaintiff's team in the high-profile NAACP vs. State of Minnesota lawsuit--is just one of the ways in which their highly charged African American narrative extends beyond the set.

Approaching the bench: 'Justice' co-directors Jeanne-Marie Almonor and John Shulman (with Allen Hamilton at right)
Courtesy of Jujitsu Films, LLC
Approaching the bench: 'Justice' co-directors Jeanne-Marie Almonor and John Shulman (with Allen Hamilton at right)

"The film comes down to this," says Shulman, taking a break from editing Justice at the couple's Jujitsu Films in Uptown. "What does it mean to participate in a system that is designed to harm and oppress the African American working class?"

In Justice, Guenveur Smith plays Carter, a lawyer who's torn between his career ambitions and his commitment to community activism, pressured by competing interests within the African American working class and the bourgeoisie. Carter launches a crusade, funded in part by his dope-dealing cousin, against corruption in the criminal justice system. But he soon falls prey to a political scandal cooked up by racist public officials and a malicious judge.

Ironically, some local African American activists and film-industry professionals--including one of the movie's top producers--have claimed a degree of injustice surrounding the production. DeJunius Hughes, a Justice co-producer who was instrumental in securing Guenveur Smith's involvement, has grown so exasperated with the directors' alleged behavior toward him that he questions whether he can even "be in the same room with them anymore." Hughes says that Shulman and Almonor regularly failed to introduce him as a producer to name actors while he was on set and slighted him in other ways.

"It started the first day of the shoot," says Hughes. "It was crowded, and I was back in the corner. Jeanne came up to me and asked me to leave the set or go outdoors. I didn't go off on her: I walked out. That was the big one." While Hughes doesn't specify other conspicuous incidents that took place on the set, the veteran producer--who launched what became the Twin Cities International Black Film Festival and operated it for eight years--asserts that the problems accumulated over the course of the shoot. He says that Shulman and Almonor currently want him off the project in spite of a contract that ties him to the film through distribution, adding that he has turned the matter over to his lawyer and hopes to resolve it soon.

For their part, Shulman and Almonor decline to comment specifically on the ongoing drama with Hughes. "I will say this," offers Shulman. "We are the same with everybody. We try to respect people. If we offend people, which we do on occasion, we want to understand it and apologize."

Among the many Justice crew members who sing the praises of Shulman and Almonor is second assistant director Chauncey Dunn, who also worked on the acclaimed Twin Cities indie Detective Fiction. Dunn thinks that the disagreement isn't terribly unusual. "It's impossible to make a film and avoid conflict," he says. "Enemies are always made on film sets. And I have yet to meet a director who wasn't arrogant."

 

Where Justice does appear unique is in dealing critically with the criminal justice system from a black perspective. Given the long history of African Americans being wrongly accused, prosecuted, and convicted, the rarity of films such as this one is rather astounding--and most likely indicative of another form of injustice. Indeed, for all the growth in opportunities for African Americans in film, the variety of black stories that appear on the big screen remains severely limited. And for all the drama in recent headlines, from high-court proceedings on affirmative action to mounting tensions over racial profiling and police brutality, the most noted black film stories of the day tend to involve praise for African American filmmakers such as F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) who deliver mainstream product with predominantly Caucasian casts.

No doubt the strength of the Justice project owes much to Shulman and Almonor's experience working with black Americans and the criminal justice system. When the NAACP filed suit against the State of Minnesota in 1995, charging that the state was failing to provide adequate education as stipulated by the constitution, the energetic couple dared to take on the colossal case. Both graduates of Harvard Law School, Shulman and Almonor had previously worked for corporate law firms in downtown Minneapolis before joining the private firm of Shulman's father Daniel Shulman, who had represented the NAACP in Minnesota for more than 20 years. The pair's approach to the controversial case was to attempt to desegregate the Minneapolis School District by forcing its officials to bus lower-income students to suburban schools and place those students in magnet programs.

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