At the 14th Annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival this month, a film that addressed policing and violence in the black community beat four other contenders to win the award for Best Short Film. The Cycle, directed by Brooklyn, NY, director-composer Michael Marantz and executive-produced by popular radio show host Sway Calloway, is a fictional treatment of an African-American New York Police Department (NYPD) detective involved in the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old black youth wrongly suspected of robbery.
Although the police character is cleared of wrongdoing, he is forced to confront the personal and societal consequences of his actions. In a tragic coincidence, production of the film was completed a day before the fatal 2014 shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.
The confluence of a real-life tragedy with the poignant 11-minute film, which can be seen on YouTube, is a stark reminder of the violence that both black communities and the police are faced with every day.
TCR staff writer Isidoro Rodriguez spoke with Marantz about the making of this film, its reception by both police and community members, and his hopes that it can lead to constructive dialogue.
The Crime Report: What prompted you to make this film?
Michael Marantz: We wanted to tell a really authentic story around this idea of accepting death as a part of life. [We wanted to show] that, in the moments where life is threatened you can make the right decision, even when that means sacrificing your own life. We shot the film in the first week of August in 2014, we wrapped on August 8th, and then the next day Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, MO.
We realized that we couldn’t ignore this event, so we went back to the drawing board. We did a reshoot in October, and filled out the story to explain and convey this idea that violence is inherent to law enforcement, but also to address the fear that is engrained in this issue between police and African Americans, not only in New York but across the United States. That’s the conversation we really wanted to bring up.
TCR: Was it an initial choice to use all African-American actors?
MM: It was. We know that race is without a doubt an issue, but for the sake of this film and the conversations that we wanted coming out of this film, we didn’t want race to cloud what we think is a very potent and important issue within the larger context of what’s happening: this ingrained and institutionalized fear of police and their reactions to violent situations. This decision has allowed police forces and organizations like Black Lives Matters to sit in the same room and have these very difficult conversations without becoming too polarized over the race issue.
TCR: There is a lot of emphasis in the film on the stress an officer endures after a shooting and the consequences of that act on a personal and social level. Why did you choose to take this approach for the lead character?
MM: We wanted to talk about the trauma. At the end of the day police officers are humans too. And if you look at them as individuals—I don’t care if they are white, brown, black—I think that, except for a few bad apples, they don’t want to kill anyone. They want to go home to their families and see their children. They’re human, and being involved in a situation like this is incredibly difficult and has a lasting effect on them.
TCR: Do you see this film as a means of bridging the divide between communities and police?
MM: It already has been. We brought the community policing division of the Chicago Police Department to a venue with Black Lives Matter members and about 200 members of the Southside community, which is one of the most violent areas in the country right now. They call it Chiraq. So, we actually facilitated a dialogue there that was pretty incredible. There have also been other opportunities. In November, Harvard will be holding a screening and bringing in Boston police, Black Lives Matter, and other community organizations to facilitate a conversation as well.
TCR: What sort of feedback have you received when you’ve talked to police and community members about the film?
MM: Everyone takes their own piece of the story and relates to it in their own unique way. With police officers, it’s the trauma and the difficulty of dealing with shootings, especially when they kill a subject. Others relate to the violence in the community and the fear of police. There’s a line in the film that says, “This isn’t a black-on-black issue, this isn’t a white-on-black issue; this is a cop-on-black issue.” Everyone finds their own nugget to grasp onto and to talk about. At the same time, a lot of people have issues with the film. Like the all black cast, like the fact that I am a white director and telling this story. That’s all OK. It all gets people talking about it and thinking about it, and that’s the most important thing that could happen.
TCR: What difficulties did you encounter when making this film?
MM: From an emotional standpoint, this is just really heavy shit. I’m white and there were a lot of times that I questioned my own ability to tell the story. I really relied heavily on my producer and cast to have these tough conversations while we were conceptualizing and filming to make sure we were staying authentic to the story while still pushing it and challenging it. That was probably the hardest part and, honestly, it still is. You want to help in these situations, not cause more hurt.
TCR: What role do you see for film in terms of instigating change in society?
MM: It already plays a really strong role. It’s a medium to create an emotion in individuals through storytelling, and I think that when people have these kind of experiences from film they can be fundamentally changed. Because you’ve watched this film you’ve had this emotional experience and have gained perspective on an aspect of humanity that you didn’t have before.
TCR: Moving forward, do you see yourself doing more social commentary like this film?
MM: Maybe not in this direct vein or subject. But the filmmaking I want to do is about affecting society in a positive way and trying to expand perspectives. I want to give people tools to improve their own lives and the communities they live in. From micro problems to macro problems, that’s the kind of work I want to do.
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.