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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Brooklyn Close-Up: Our Song & On the Come Up

The Jackie Robinson Steppers performing in Our Song

Crown Heights has never had a more loving and intimate cinematic portrait than Jim McKay's Our Song. Released 13 years ago, and screening next week in our ongoing Brooklyn Close-Up series, the film was hailed as "revolutionary" by The New York Times' A.O. Scott, who also praised McKay as an "indispensable filmmaker." Not only did the film introduce the American independent film world to a compelling new voice, but it also featured a trio of formidable young actresses (including Kerry Washington, who has gone on to work with everyone from Spike Lee to Quentin Tarantino) in their first screen performances.

With the upcoming release of the novel On the Come Up—a moving and beautifully wrought narrative, written by McKay's partner Hannah Weyer and based on the stories of actress Anna Simpson—both McKay and Weyer reflect on their friendship with their young star, the lessons they learned from observing the challenges she faced as a teenager, and the process of making the film with her.

Our Song screens Tuesday, July 23 at 7pm and will be followed by a Q&A and book signing with Jim McKay, Hannah Weyer, and Anna Simpson.


Writer-director Jim McKay:

Almost 15 years ago, I made my second feature film, Our Song. Filmed entirely on location—mostly in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—the film mixed actors with non-actors, neighborhood onlookers with a marching band, and was the coolest, most gratifying creative experience I ever had.

Anna Simpson, Melissa Martinez, Kerry Washington in 2000
The making of the film also resulted in one of my most treasured and long-lasting friendships, with one of the lead actors in the film, Anna Simpson. Anna was 15 years old at the time she was cast in Our Song, and she gave birth to her daughter Chasity a month and a half before shooting began.

I was in my mid-30s, living with and working alongside writer/filmmaker Hannah Weyer. Hannah was making documentaries at the time, and she worked with me a lot on the script of Our Song and came to the set with her video camera, documenting the shoot.

As a couple, Hannah and I had been thinking and talking a lot about starting a family, and our conversations typically included concerns about our careers, our finances, etc. Then all of a sudden there was this teenager in our life, a new mom, acting in a movie while tending to a newborn at home. And what had begun as an adult/teen, mentor/mentee relationship became reciprocal. Look at Anna, we thought—16 years old, a life filled with burdens and challenges, and she's doing it—she's raising this beautiful newborn with great skill, confidence, and love.

A decade and a half later, Chasity is ready for high school and our kids, Rose and Rio, have known her and Anna for their whole lives. A few years ago at a family picnic, Hannah was talking with Anna about some writing she was doing and Anna said, "You should write a story about me—I've got a lot of good stories." And Hannah took her up on it. The two of them sat down and talked, Hannah asking questions and Anna telling stories, and based on this series of conversations Hannah wrote a fiction novel called On the Come Up. It's a beautifully written, heartbreaking, hilarious, and uplifting story about a young girl coming of age in Far Rockaway, Queens.

Author Hannah Weyer:

For all the realist and neorealist film lovers out there, I would imagine the most interesting connection between the film and the novel might be the discussion about the lives of non-actors who inhabit the fictional universe of neorealist films. Where do they come from and where do they go after a movie wraps?

But On the Come Up is not simply a fictionalized version about Anna's time on the movie set. The novel is a rite-of-passage story, an odyssey of sorts that follows a headstrong young woman as she navigates the sway of the neighborhood which keeps her tied to old ideas about success and happiness, and ultimately journeys beyond the familiar landscape of Far Rockaway, Queens with only her irrepressible determination to guide her.

Jim McKay, Anna Simpson, and Hannah Weyer
When Anna and I started our series of conversations, several themes become immediately clear. I was struck by how she fought to upend her social isolation, put money in her pocket and raise her child, how she defied the downward drag of domestic violence that seemed to be her fate.

I wondered about all the small ways individuals find to level the playing field, turn a volatile home into a stable one, or simply find happiness when a sense of well-being isn't the status quo.

There are many rags-to-riches stories that celebrate overnight success, wealth, stardom, but On the Come Up is not one of them. It is a small story. It follows one girl, through one life and yet at its core, it's meant to remind us of all the small ways that regular people, like you and me, can gain power or at least a foothold, can rekindle passions, find love or safety, or simply take on everyday problems that at times seem insurmountable.

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