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.

The case would not be resolved for five years, a period that included fiery protests at Minneapolis School Board meetings, NAACP infighting, and a heap of criticism lodged against the plaintiff's attorneys. Though the eventual settlement allowed thousands of students from lower-income families to be placed in the schools of their choice, Shulman contends that some school district officials in Minneapolis and the suburbs have appeared reluctant to enforce it.

Given the couple's close involvement in contentious issues, it's perhaps not surprising that criticism would have followed them into filmmaking. In addition to Hughes's complaints, the directors have been reproached for allegedly sidestepping local African American acting companies, and for failing to include enough black people on the crew.

Craig Rice, head of the Minnesota Film and TV Board, and Robin Hickman, who worked with Rice on Half Past Autumn, his Emmy-nominated documentary about Hickman's uncle Gordon Parks, say they were not invited to participate in Justice after having expressed their interest in the project. Like Rice, Hickman expresses support for Justice and its message, but says she wishes that Shulman and Almonor had made a more conscientious, grassroots effort to incorporate the Twin Cities' African American community into the production.

Almonor notes the hundreds of African American actors and extras on the set as part of the film's strong community base, adding that she and Shulman don't see the production wholly in terms of race. "If you have a problem with us," she says, "we will confront you and ask you what it's about. But do not disrupt what we're trying to do. We don't have time for that. We are not Minnesota Nice."

For an example of ideal grassroots filmmaking, Hickman points to the landmark HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue, which director Carl Franklin and producer Paul Aaron made in the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul in the early '90s.

"The process of making Laurel Avenue should have been a documentary in itself," says Hickman, who was the film's location manager and is a native of Rondo, where she now bases her own multimedia group, Soultouch Productions. "It was so powerful, and the impact on the community so great, we're still waiting for [Franklin and Aaron] to come back here and make another film."

Laurel Avenue, which follows a weekend in the lives of an extended family, offers the most progressive, dynamic representation of African Americans in any film made in the Twin Cities, and was justly celebrated by critics nationwide. Yet due to the relatively small population of black people in the state, and to the even smaller number of black Minnesotans trained in film, there wasn't a Twin Cities African American production with the scope of Laurel Avenue in the entire decade until Justice came to town.

"It's purely because of the dollars," explains Rice. "In the Twin Cities--all over the country, in fact--film producers just don't see [African Americans] as economically viable. They make comedic films with black people, but few of them take a chance on true drama."

Guenveur Smith--who has made seven films with Spike Lee, in addition to working with John Singleton and Mario and Melvin Van Peebles--identifies the dearth of worthy projects for African Americans as a national phenomenon. "We rarely get that element of social change in entertainment media, where we're inundated with mindless material," he says in between takes in the Warehouse District. "It's a breath of fresh air to get a piece [like Justice] that's so ambitious in its political perspective."

Guenveur Smith has a history of taking on projects with roots in African American activism, from his explosive role in A Huey Newton Story, which he wrote and performed for the stage (and adapted for Lee's recent film of the same name), to his more subdued part in Lee's Get on the Bus. He also has a history with Minneapolis, having worked at the Guthrie Theater performing the plays of Ionesco, Pinter, and Shakespeare in the early part of Garland Wright's tenure as artistic director. Before moving to the Twin Cities in the mid-'80s, Guenveur Smith caught Prince's Purple Rain in a Greenwich Village theater and met the then-unknown Spike Lee in the lobby. Two years later, having set up shop in Minneapolis, the actor sat mesmerized through two consecutive screenings of Lee's debut feature She's Gotta Have It at the Uptown Theatre and resolved to find out more about the provocative director. It didn't take long: Less than a year later, Guenveur Smith had landed a small part in Lee's follow-up film School Daze. That was 1987, and he has been working regularly with Lee ever since.

 

Though Purple Rain and its sequel, Graffiti Bridge, remain the most widely recognized African American films to come out of the state of 10,000 longings for national recognition, the small but rich legacy of black filmmaking in the Twin Cities stretches back much further.

Growing up in Rondo, Rice greatly admired the area's famed one-time resident Gordon Parks--the prolific photographer, writer, composer, filmmaker, and poet to whom Rice paid tribute with his documentary Half Past Autumn. "There was never a single moment in my life when I didn't know about Gordon Parks," says Rice. "When I was five years old, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but I didn't think that black people could become directors. But when I saw [Parks's] Shaft, it was a big turning point. I decided that I wanted to--and could--make films."

Another young Rondo resident inspired by Parks was Timothy McKinney--who, only a year after Shaft's premiere in 1971, began production on a fictionalized account of the destruction of his neighborhood caused by the rerouting of I-94 in the late 1960s. With its vengeful protagonist and radical politics, Hampton Alexander--directed by McKinney when he was just 19 years old--is a movie rooted in genuine and legitimate anger, as well as a rare historical document of a lost part of Twin Cities culture and black culture. If Hampton Alexander marked Rondo's inevitable decline, followed by an economic plight that lasted almost two decades, Laurel Avenue welcomed its renaissance, sketching the neighborhood as a virtual Sugar Hill of the Twin Cities.

Some smaller local productions have been part of the legacy, from producer Daniel Bergin's children's film Zero Streak to Marie-Françcois Theodore's recent experimental short "Rebel in the Soul." But now there's Justice. While several hundred protesters wave signs ("Justice for All!") and chant slogans ("No More Racism!") on the steps of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (shrewdly cast as a courthouse), local news anchor Robyne Robinson stands before a news crew making her cameo as an on-the-scene reporter. Shulman is at the top of the steps giving direction through a megaphone, his young son perched atop his shoulders. A driver in a passing car shouts, "Go home!" to the extras, having seemingly confused them for protesters of the war in Iraq.

Two of the extras linger on the sidelines and discuss the excitement of being involved in the movie. "Hey, man," says one to the other. "I met that star--Roger--today. Great guy."

"Yeah, well," the other nonchalantly replies, "I'm from L.A. They do this all the time down there."

The extra from Minnesota takes a deep breath, as if waiting for...justice. "Well, you know," he says, "we just want our place on the map."

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