Karley Newell held her director’s notes, reading lines from the infamous throne-room scene in Marvel’s 2018 superhero film “Black Panther.” In the scene, Wakandan soldiers escorted Eric Killmonger into the throne room, with the antagonist revealing his ancestry and the fact that he and T’Challa, Black Panther, are cousins with the line, “Hey Auntie.”
An hour had already passed since the rehearsal began at 9 a.m. in the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center in downtown Jackson.
“Tell me what the scene says,” Camp Facilitator Maximus Wright asked Newell, the student directing her fellow campers during the inaugural Jackson Youth Film Camp.
The camp introduced 20 students ages 13 to 18 to creative and technical career opportunities in the film industry. Campers learned various aspects of the filmmaking process from experts in the industry. Classes ran from June 13 to July 8, 2022, Monday through Friday, and sometimes Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. inside the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center (528 Bloom St., Jackson).
As part of the program, the students adopted a number of roles including actor, director, wardrobe, hair and makeup, and more. They set to work on preparing for the filming that began in early July 2022, wherein they recreated scenes from popular movies. The culmination of their efforts will be screened at the Jackson Film Festival on July 27 and July 28, 2022.
“So like you said, T’Challa sits on his throne surrounded by tribal elders: Romanda, Shuri, Okeye and the Dora (Milaje),” Newell said in reply to Wright’s instruction.
“OK, so what does that tell you? If he’s sitting here, what does that tell you? He’s surrounded by tribal elders, so what does that mean?” Wright prodded.
“That means that they should be surrounding him,” Newell answered.
This part of the filmmaking process is what the industry calls “blocking,” the placement and movement of actors in relation to the camera. In simpler terms, the practice is the scene choreography. Intentional placement and movement tell the story by staging a character’s actions to mirror the subtext of what occurs on screen.
Actor Malcolm Butler sat on the steps of a mini stage, the lights above honing in on him in his role as the pretend T’Challa. Wright pulled chairs from the audience and positioned them in a semicircle around Butler, simulating the original version.
“Alright, what happens next?” Wright asked.
“Kilmonger and W’kabi walk in,” Newell said.
“Show me what happens,” Wright asked her.
Newell walked to the middle aisle, explaining how she would like the actors to proceed from this direction in a replica of Kilmonger and W’kabi walking into the throne room. She wanted the actor playing W’kabi to walk behind Kilmonger as he escorted him into the room, she explained.
“So, they should be talking, and when this person comes in the room, what is that going to do to the room?” the facilitator asked Newell.
“Silence,” Butler whispered, while Newell echoed, “It’s gonna be silent.”
“It’s going to interrupt the room, right?” Wright confirmed. “So when they come in, they’re going to all be talking amongst themselves and then they open this door at this strange presence that’s being brought in in chains, right? Alright, what else do we see?”
‘Living in Their Becoming’
Last year, the Jackson Film Festival engaged students from Canton 9th Grade Academy and the Mississippi School of the Arts to commemorate and discuss the 25th anniversary of “A Time To Kill,” which was filmed in Canton, Miss.
The Jackson Film Festival celebrates independent filmmaking and provides educational training and master classes with industry professionals, in addition to its community-outreach efforts, the festival’s website says.
“We always wanted to make sure that we are engaging young people in this process because (for) Mr. Wright, myself and others, this is our second life,” Program Director Candice Jackson told the Mississippi Free Press. “We don’t want these young people to think that they can’t achieve those dreams, even have those dreams or know what those dreams are because Hollywood happens ‘out there’ (and) not here.”
Jackson said the organization wants young people to feel like they can start now and get workforce training that is not limited to just acting. The program also covers craft services, wardrobe, set design, lighting and other behind-the-scenes careers in the industry, she explained.
“If you are pursuing a trade as an electrician, you can do set design, and you can light a set,” the director said. “The possibility is there for young people much earlier to have that training, so that as these productions pick up, we have a new generation of filmmakers, of tradesmen, craftsmen ready for this new challenge.”
During the commemoration of “A Time to Kill”, the organization gave students the opportunity to write their own scripts. Students from the Mississippi School of the Arts created a short film titled “A Time to Heal,” which focused on a character named Tonya Hailey and her response in the wake of her assault.
Last year’s experience led to this year’s youth film camp in Jackson, which was made possible through a collaborative effort between the City of Jackson’s Human and Cultural Services and PEG Network, in partnership with Maximus Wright Productions and Mighty Mississippi Films.
“We said, ‘Let’s see about doing a film camp and bringing these students from Jackson to get them engaged in all aspects of filmmaking,’” Jackson said. “Some (are) on camera, director, wardrobe and styling, so all of those aspects, not just in front of the camera. They had to do location scouting.”
“We had about 50 to 60 applications. We were limited to students in the city of Jackson for the most part because this is a city partnership, but that also lets us know that there are kids in this tri-county area who are interested in film and production,” Jackson said.
On the first day of camp, everyone got a chance to mingle and get to know one another, she said, but afterward, the real training began. The program brought in teachers to have what they call masterclasses that offered hands-on experience. Phil Washington, a camera operator, editor and actor, taught the students about camera work. Director of Photography Dreka Shevon of Prime Stone Media talked to students about lighting.
Chirvona Frank covered hair and makeup, and Ashiunna Ingram, who is self-taught, came in to teach the campers how to do special-effects make-up. Campers were in the pre-production stage when the Mississippi Free Press visited the program. Last week was the filming stage.
“They get these opportunities to meet people who are actually doing this in their fields and having good lives,” the program director said. “These are people who are living in their becoming (finding their passion), and that’s what’s important.”
The Jackson Film Festival, which will take place from July 24 to July 29, 2022, this year, will screen the campers’ project along with other independent projects at the Malco Grandview movie theater in Madison, Miss. Film screenings will span two days: Wednesday, July 27, and Thursday, July 28, both from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
At the time the Mississippi Free Press visited the program, campers were working on a new scene—one from the film, “Hidden Figures,” where Katherine Johnson stands face-to-face with her white supervisor, who confronts her for being gone for long periods of time. She had been leaving the building to use the restroom, but with no bathrooms for “colored” folks in the building, Johnson had to walk half a mile to use one.
Karley Newell, the student director, went over the scene with actress Kennita Littleton before she and her acting partner, Khai Hart, rehearsed.
“So you’re going to walk in down here and then–”
“Hold up. Trust your instincts, you hear me?” Wright interjected. “The worst thing you can do by being the director is not being sure of yourself and your commands. Because if the crew starts to see that there’s insecurity in you or seeing that you’re not sure, it’s going to make them feel like they need to talk. (There) only needs to be one voice on set. One voice. That’s yours. Trust your power. Trust your instincts.”
They began again, and Newell seemed more sure of herself than beforehand. Her voice resounded with more authority as she told her fellow actress how she wanted her to enter the room, the emotions she wanted her to convey in the scene.
“You’re going to walk in, and then, obviously, you’re frustrated because you have to walk for so long,” Newell explained to Littleton. “So he’s going to be mad and say his first line, and then you’re already going to be irritated because he’s getting mad at you, but he doesn’t know what you had to go through to get here.”
“OK, let me tell you this,” Wright interjected again. “Your job is to give an overview, not give them every detail because you’ve got to give them space to interpret and deliver the lines themselves. You want to give them an overview of the direction, not all the acting cues they want to do. It’s only when they do something that you don’t want them to do, you come back and give notes,” he advised.
“You’re trying to over-explain,” he continued. “You want to know why you’re trying to over-explain?”
“Why do you think?”
“Maybe I’m not as confident.”
“Because you don’t want to make a mistake, right? Trust yourself,” Wright repeated.
“You got this. You’re a great director,” Littleton complimented her.
“This is what your crewmate is saying. Stop trying to over-explain. Trust. This is all image. You are here to calm this set, to let them know I got y’all,” the facilitator assured.
At the new boost of confidence from her crew and the instructor, Newell adjusted her approach and tried again. She told Littleton what she wanted from the scene, succinctly, and moved aside to let the scene play out.
“And ACTION!” Newell yelled.
‘Greatest Talent Comes From Mississippi’
Camp Facilitator Maximus Wright is an director, writer, producer and owner of Maximus Wright Productions. His daughter, Jamie Wright, told him she wanted to leave the state to become an actress. So he bought some equipment to film for promos that involved his daughter and discovered a love for filmmaking, he told the Mississippi Free Press.
“It was a blessing because I found my passion,” he said. “It just kind of started encouraging people my age to say, ‘Well, what can I do? To see you doing this, what can I do?’” he said.
Under his film company, he has written, directed and produced two films, “Soul Damage” in 2017 and a short film, “My Name is Lola,” in 2018. Wright said the campers didn’t surprise him with the talent they showcased and that he is grateful the program was able to help them find some passion in their chosen roles.
Wright said he found out one of the students liked music and suggested he work on the film’s score, original music that accompanies a film. The student told him he couldn’t hear.
“There’s not much music here,” the student told him.
“But are you listening for the other sounds?” Wright asked in return.
“He’s talking about listening for the ambient sounds. I (thought), ‘Did he say ambient sound?’ And I realized then, ‘(He’s) just bored,’” Wright later told the Mississippi Free Press. “(He’s) smart. (He was) just bored. So, I immediately said, ‘You’re my AD (assistant director), so you check on everybody’s department and tell them what’s wrong,’ and everything changed.”
Another young camper admitted that he only attended camp because his mother made him attend. However, once Wright found out he was interested in clothes, he assigned the student to the wardrobe department as the head stylist, and it changed his outlook, Wright said.
“I’ve always said the greatest amount of talent comes from Mississippi. I have never seen any greater talent than ours,” the camp facilitator said. “What we are trying to do is bring the opportunity and the resources and give them a chance to just compete against everyone else and realize they don’t have to leave here to do it.”
‘Leaving Yourself Outside the Room’
“How has your experience been so far throughout this week’s long process?” this reporter asked the group of middle and high schoolers.
“It’s been very informative,” director and actress Karley Newell answered.
“I’ve been learning the different aspects of different actors and actresses,” she said. “Certain people can only do so much, so you have to be willing to work with them differently.”
Kennita Littleton, who works in the wardrobe department and is also an actress, said it has not been difficult for her to balance both roles, as doing so is something she really likes putting her effort into.
“I like to style them, especially when we went to the African shop. We did it for ‘Black Panther.’ It was really fun,” she said. “I can just tell how the characters would match with how their personality came out with their clothing. Acting, for me, is just something I’m willing to do for my career.”
“I agree with what she said. It’s like when you’re really passionate about something, you really go for it and give it your all,” Aaliyah Omari, who works in the hair department and also acts, said.
The campers at large explained that they learned of the camp either through Facebook or the news and were immediately interested in applying. Most of their summers entail hanging with friends, working or playing sports. The camp gave them an opportunity to do something different than what they normally would, they answered.
“I like it better because I’m actually doing something instead of staying at home,” Bianca Omari, an actress and location scout, said.
The campers were in the pre-production phase, which includes memorizing lines, running through scenes off script, blocking, and finalizing wardrobe, makeup and hair. They were one week away from filming at the time, and though the campers were excited, they were also nervous.
“It’s a lot to think about. It’s not the process; it’s more of the result, of what I want the result to be. Top tier,” Newell expressed.
“What do you think about your facilitators and the people that have been teaching you so far?” this reporter asked them.
“They taught us a lot. They tell us more than what we knew before,” Bianca Omari answered.
“They push us to go ahead and get it out the way. Don’t be procrastinating and just go ahead and learn your lines and strive to do your best in whatever you’ve done,” Littleton said.
“They want the best for us. During work, it’s more like ‘Work now, talk and play later,’ and I like how that is. If you’re not (working) hard and you don’t come through from the beginning, then we’re gonna lose a lot of people. It’s good to just come hard from the jump,” Newell, the director, added.
“What has been your favorite aspect about filmmaking that you’ve learned so far?”
“I really like the behind-the-scenes (elements) because I didn’t know that there were so many different aspects of it before coming to this,” Tierra Kelly, who works in wardrobe and as an actress, said. “Through the master classes, like last week, we got to learn about different things we didn’t before, so I think that’s really cool.”
“Like we learned about makeup, sound, lighting, how the camera works, zooming in, zooming out, the close-ups,” Kelly added.
“Each of us got to actually do some of that. Someone would be camera opps (operator), someone would be a gaffer, someone would be a director, all of that,” Newell added.
Most of the day was spent with the characters learning their lines, which is not as difficult as the task may sound, Breanna Omari said. “It’s really about practicing it a lot. But when you practice them and get to know them, then it’s not as hard as you thought it was going to be,” the actress, makeup artist and hair stylist said.
Newell said the hardest part for her is not learning the lines, but rather putting the character into the lines and making the role your own.
“As well as leaving yourself outside of the room,” Aaliyah Omari added. “You have to step into that character.”
“Make that character feel like it’s you now. Be in that body. Even when you’re off set, you still need to be inside that character, so you can really know how this character is emotionally feeling, so that’s really good too,” Littleton chimed in.
When Karley Newell felt pressure from serving in the role of director for the student film, she said she just had to get out of her own head. She has always wanted to be in the entertainment industry as an actress, but her interests switched to more behind-the-scenes aspects once camp began, she said.
“You have to be that person to be mentally prepared for it,” Newell added. “You have to be willing to take extra steps.”
‘The Next Denzel’
Mighty Mississippi Films owner and camp manager Sekou McGlothin said his experience in film has shown him that people from all endeavors and skill work on the production of a film.
“You’ve never seen one name at the end of a credit roll. You see multiple names,” McGlothin told the Mississippi Free Press. “You have painters, carpenters, makeup artists, hair stylists, electricians—all these people are on the crew, and all those people are in my community.”
If he can help build a film industry in the state, then Mississippi will have an opportunity to build a lot of revenue for the state through the arts, he said. He pointed to Atlanta and Tyler Perry’s studio there and the impact it has had on telling African American stories and reworking the narrative that aspiring creatives have to fly to Los Angeles to make it in the industry.
“You don’t have to leave the South now in order to be a part of Hollywood. There are no stories in the United States like the Mississippi stories,” McGlothin said.
As a producer, McGlothin said he wants to create jobs for other people and that nothing fulfills him more than seeing young people who are shy come out of their shells.
“And now they’re just independent thinkers. They’re ambitious. They have a professional focus on how to structure their thoughts to make films, so this camp was designed for that purpose,” the camp manager said.
McGlothin and his partner had a project through Mississippi Public Broadcasting that was similar to the Jackson Film Youth Camp around 10 years ago called “Can I Kick It?.” The Black Caucus asked them to create a program for dropout prevention, and the success stories that came from that program were phenomenal, he reflected.
“My little brother is one of the success stories,” he said. “(He) was a part of a 48-hour challenge that our students did. The hosting city was (Washington), D.C., and it was basically a national competition, and they created the topics. Our students chose the topics and did films in 48 “hours based on those topics.”
The Jackson students placed second and third, and they were able to attend the award ceremony in Washington, D.C. For a lot of the youths, the experience was their first time flying, and they were flying because of their own talents and minds, McGlothin said.
“And for a lot of them, their testimonies were, ‘I didn’t know that people would pay you to be smart. I didn’t know that my mind could get me out of my community to see another place,’” he added.
The City of Jackson does not have enough opportunities for the youth, McGlothin says, so his hope is that the Jackson film program will continue for as long as the City allows. In the future, he also wants to bring incentives to the young people, such as compensation for their work, and produce a film out of the program.
“We hope to have an incentive for them because that’s my main belief,” the producer said. “I look at the young people; they outnumber us, so they’re the mob. And if you don’t want the mob to hurt you, you pay the mob. I believe that I never made honor roll until my grandmother started paying me for my grades. Personally and professionally, I believe in incentivizing,” the producer said.
McGlothin said young people are more brilliant than the credit adults often afford them reflects. Taking students out of a lecture situation and giving them authority over themselves can lead them to surpass the expectations placed on them, he explained.
“We want the next Tyler Perry, the next Spike Lee, the next John Singleton, the next Taraji (P. Henson). We want these leaders. The next Denzel is in there,” he said.
The Jackson Film Festival will include pitch camps, masterclasses, film screenings and a gala at the Jackson Convention Complex (105 E. Pascagoula St., Jackson) from July 24 to July 29, 2022. To learn more about the festival and the event schedule, visit jxnfilmfestival.com.