Editor's note: Hunter Harris is one of three recipients of the Sundance Institute's Roger Ebert Fellowship for Film Criticism for 2016. The scholarship meant she participated in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism, a workshop at the Sundance Film Festival for aspiring film critics started by Eric Kohn, the chief film critic and senior editor of Indiewire.
Steven Caple Jr. attracted top talent from the music industry for “The Land,” the director’s first feature film. Nas is a producer, Erykah Badu and rapper Machine Gun Kelly play supporting roles, but the city of Cleveland is the movie’s star. Caple Jr. is a Cleveland native, and the film plays as a reaction to the trauma in his home city.
Caple Jr.’s camera follows this trauma, focusing on four teens living in the projects (played by Moises Arias, Rafi Gavron, and newcomers Jorge Lendeborg Jr. and Ezri Walker) who start selling drugs to sponsor their skateboarding passion. The sport and the soundtrack (which features tracks from the stars) work in tandem as the vehicle of choice to produce a wider commentary on the freedom to make decisions—both good and bad ones—in a city that can suffocate.
Steven, can you talk to me about the experience of directing your first feature? That’s a big accomplishment.
STEVEN CAPLE JR: Emotional. I’ve been with the project for like three years: creating it, pushing it. [There] becomes a certain doubt when you’re pitching this story to people. ["The Land" is] a cautionary tale. It’s not the brightest or best ending to a film when you’re telling a cautionary tale about four kids, kids who are killing each other, kids who are products of the streets.
Erykah and Kelly, as career musicians, what drew you to the script?
MACHINE GUN KELLY: I saw it from when Steve was basically like talking about in a coffee shop. We were both in Cleveland and we’re both from Cleveland, and we actually know a lot of mutual people and the relationship started there.
ERYKAH BADU: I got a call from a mutual friend of ours, Charles King, who’s also the executive producer. [Steven and I] had a conversation about it. I read it. We kind of finished each other’s sentences when it came to the nuances and personality flaws that the character had, and some stereotypes and things we were trying to stay away from. We agreed on that as well. He just kind of allowed me to run rampant with the ideas. As we paced ourselves through, we developed Turquoise.
SCJ: I’d be on set and like prepping a scene and get texts from her. Straight up, that’s how committed she was to trying to find a balance in this. I think one key factor with this prostitute role is that we didn’t want her be the cliche or the "heart of gold." It’s well balanced—Turquoise was like the epitome of what it means to be a product of the land to these kids who were surrounded by it.
Steven and Erykah, can you speak in more detail about how the character of Turquoise, who is an addict and a prostitute, was formed?
SCJ: One of the realest conversations I ever had with Erykah—she was on the phone, she had her son with her. She was like “What kind of hoe am I? Am I a stocking-wearing hoe? A house shoe hoe?”
EB: Right. Am I a house shoe-hoe or a fishnet-hoe?
SCJ: [laughs] She got it! Turquoise is the house shoe!
In an essay for Indiewire, Steven, you wrote about your friendship with Ryan Coogler, who brought "Fruitvale Station" to Sundance 2013. You said that you understood the “intention behind his filmmaking.” How would you describe the intention behind "The Land"?
SCJ: We have our classic hood movies, right? Like “Boyz in the Hood.” We have our classic conscious films like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” or “Stand By Me.” Even beyond Coogler, there are black films that are just voices. So the intention behind this was to capture today’s. Skateboarding is a whole new element. Usually hood stories are like basketball/football and straight to drugs. Who makes a skateboarding movie with minorities in it?
Sundance has been critiqued in the past with featuring movies that have very specific ideas of blackness. At this festival, black people are often dealers, criminals or slaves—how does “The Land” somehow upend or reckon with that narrative?
SCJ: I wanted to make sure the focus was on human beings themselves and their decisions, but still connected to the urban environment that people associate as being black. I think I was able to make a film without commenting on “black this or black that” and you still feel the presence of it. There’s no one character who’s saying “we’re all black and we’re all in this struggle.” It’s that you just feel it. Some of that is because we get the sense from a lot of independent films that black people struggle all the time.
EB: Poor is the new black.
SCJ: Yeah, poor is the new black. So on this film, there are poor black people, but there are also poor Latinos, and poor white people as well. I am black, so with my writing and my voice, you get that kind of dialect. Beyond that, the subject matter itself lends itself to the black side because the kids are drug dealers and kids that are getting shot by police and getting shot by themselves. People automatically associate that with blackness because of the news.
MGK: It wasn’t like Steven just set out to make every race happy. I respect people who tell it how it is. I think that racism is being so fueled right now, but I think classism is really what the issue is. In my opinion, to your question, I say people should just continue to tell it how it is. On the east side of Cleveland, the west side of Cleveland, in the inner-city there’s whites, blacks, Puerto Ricans, and whites sprinkled in sparsely.
SCJ: What did you think about black identity in this movie?
I don’t think there was a direct commentary on blackness. The movie felt more informed by the experience of poverty.
SCJ: I think we’re used to the black filmmaker coming in and making the all-black subject matter. Especially at Sundance, they’re looking for that. It’s funny because amongst my filmmaker friends talk about this. We’re like “what’s going to be that token black film this year?” And in a way it’s a joke, but at the same time it hurts. You know what I mean? Because it’s like, is that all we’re known for? Does it have to be one? Can it be two? I wanted to provide a different subject matter.
EB: It’s a film that just happens to be directed and written by a Puerto Rican guy with a black dad. It seemed like a very natural, human interaction between people who all just came from one common cesspool of bad luck.
Not all of you are from Cleveland, but it is a cornerstone of the movie. How did each of you start to vibe with the city?
EZRI WALKER: I’m from Cleveland. I grew up in Cleveland. For me it was something that came natural.
MOISES ARIAS: We fed off him. Our cool factor was definitely Ezri and the collective, like his extended family, and the block parties we went to.
RAFI GAVRON: Steven had us meet his father, who’s been in Cleveland and in and out of trouble in Cleveland for a long time. The feel and energy of Cleveland [in the film], for better or for worse, is real.
Talk to me about the creative space you all cultivated while living together during production. Did you collaborate outside of the movie?
RG: Everyone was involved; it was this mad energy! Our music ended up playing during the title credits of the film. That last song that you heard with Ezzy as the credits start rolling, that was something that we made while we were there, in our bedroom.
The movie is about a group of teens living in the projects. Is there a message there about youth that you wanted to tap into?
RG: Steven said something—and this is something I feel—that the youth, especially right now in this country, are in a vacuum of systemic issues. Whether it’s the judicial system or the schools, the lack of love that youth get is unreal. As a result, they’re viewed as thugs, as thieves, as drug dealers, as drug users. Steven wanted to paint a picture of four kids who love each other and are having fun and are in that vacuum.
JORGE LENDEBORG JR: It’s a deep look into who these kids really are. It’s not just one layer. Every human is not just a gangster or a thug. We all have layers, and I think that’s what’s illustrated through this project.
Obviously music plays a huge role in the film—Nas was a producer, and Erykah and Machine Gun Kelly are supporting characters, and Ezri raps as well. What music were you listening to that helped inspire your character?
JLJ: I just listened to a lot of J. Cole. Rafi was there—on the first day, Steven came up to us and said that the tone of one of the last scenes is the [J. Cole] song “Intro” on "2014 Forest Hills Drive."
RG: Me and Jorge were crying our eyes out. We shot the last scene of the movie on the first day.
JLJ: You can get the whole story and message of the journey in this one song. We went into tears.