Labor of LUV

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By Malia K. Salaam

LUV is a new film starring rapper and actor, Common and newcomer, Michael Rainey, Jr.  It is adrenaline inducing, heartstrings-tugging roller-coaster ride of triumph and tragedy, takes place over a 24-hour period.  The coming-of-age story is centered on a precocious but shy 11 year-old William “Woody” Watson, who shadows his fresh-out-of prison uncle Vincent and learns more harsh realities than any 11 year-old should in the course of a day.  Think “Training Day” for pre-teens.  While the time frame that the movie covers is short, the timeline for getting the film discovered was a long and difficult one for writer and director Sheldon Candis.

Most of us sit in theaters with our popcorn, candy, and soda enjoying a two-hour thrill ride, not realizing exactly how much blood, sweat, and tears went into making the film we are experiencing.  One of the first challenges Candis faced was actually creating a completed script.  He and writing partner Justin Wilson began putting pen to paper in 2003, bringing to life some of Sheldon’s childhood memories and the role models who helped shape his world view, for better or worse.  Three years and nearly four dozen drafts later, they had a finished screenplay.  In 2006, they partnered with producer Jason Berman, who has a pretty robust resume of documentaries and independent films, along with technical support to the Sherlock Holmes franchise.  Candis and Berman had common ties through the University of Southern California and the filmmaker incubator, Film Independent. Not coincidentally, Berman also spent some early years in Baltimore.

When it came to identifying a star-studded cast over a five year process, it was relatively easy to match Common with “Vincent,” the ubiquitous Denis Haysbert as mentor/nemesis “Mr. Fish” (24, Allstate spokesman), icons Danny Glover as “Arthur” and Charles Dutton as “Cofield.” Other supporting roles were held by Lonnette McKee as Woody’s grandmother, Megan Goode, Michael Hornsby, and Michael Keith Williams (“Omar,” The Wire). Conversely, right before the pre-production phase of the film, they were still roaming the country searching to fill the young protagonist’s role, when all other casting efforts had fallen short.  Candis even joked that a film could have been made about finding the young lead for the film. With Sheldon nearing personal financial ruin and the meter ticking on a fully-funded almost fully cast movie, a production team member finally identified the last kid in New York who had not already auditioned, Michael Rainey, Jr.  on IMDb, the digital repository for actors, describes Rainey as a “perfectionist.” Aside from Sesame Street, some commercials, and print work, LUV is the first major American work in which he’s been featured.  His first feature film was produced in Italy in 2009, where the then nine year old was acting completely in Italian.

Fast-forward to 2012, where many dues had already been paid and the artistic foundation laid for LUV to have its breakthrough at Sundance in the narrative film category. On January 18, 2013, the film opened in selected AMC Independent theaters across the country.  In the DC, MD, VA area, it can only be seen at the Hoffman 22 in Alexandria, VA and the Magic Johnson Theater in Largo, MD.

It was at the Magic Johnson Theater, where we crossed paths with Dr. Nubia Kai, a former Howard University Theatre Arts professor and arts critic.  She said she found a few of the scenes to be a little unbelievable.  However, she appreciates how the film engages the audience in the same way a dramatic play does, challenging the viewer to think and suspend belief at the same time.  Kai said, “LUV is a cautionary tale, an urban fable. I would recommend that people go out and show love, to LUV before it leaves the area.”

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