In July of 2002, spoken word poet Malik Yusef appeared on HBO's "Def Poetry Jam." The impassioned performance earned the Chicago artist a larger fan base, a record deal and a slew of industry awards, including an Emmy and a Peabody. It also, as it turns out, planted the seed of invention in a future collaborator.
"I remember watching that when it aired," recalls fellow Chicagoan Frey Hoffman. "It really sparked me. There was a project there and I wanted in."
Five years later, that "spark" of inspiration has escalated into a full-blown artistic blaze. This July, shooting began on "Hollywood Jerome," the brainchild of new creative colleagues Yusef and Hoffman. The short film – a scathing indictment of Tinseltown and the romanticizing of youth gang culture – is the centerpiece of a community outreach program being spearheaded by the filmmaking team. It's a fervent call for change and it begins in the place both men call home.
"I was born and raised in Chicago," says Hoffman, an alumnus of Columbia College (Chicago). "It's the city I know and the city whose stories I enjoy telling."
As president and founder of Freydesign Productions, the filmmaker has been directing, producing, and shooting in the Windy City for over a decade. He's helmed spots for E! Entertainment, Prevent Child Abuse America and the Screen Actors Guild, as well as a number of Chicago-based music videos. "That's how Malik and I first met," notes Hoffman, referring to the 2004 shoot for Yusef's contribution to the "Coach Carter" soundtrack, "Wouldn't You Like To Ride." Hoffman was director of photography on the video, which also included future Chicago superstar Kayne West and Common. There was a clear artistic rapport between the poet and the filmmaker, and a future collaboration between the two "seemed likely," according to both men.
It took two years, but that hunch proved prophetic. In fall 2006, Hoffman and Yusef began brainstorming a project to work on together. What they came up with was "Hollywood Jerome," based on one of Yusef's award-winning poems.
A subversive polemic, the film depicts an inner-city youth enthralled and bamboozled by pop-culture depictions of gang culture. He gets caught up in a standoff with the Chicago police and realizes that, as Yusef pointedly puts it, "Old West shoot-outs don't really work in today's society."
Though only a few days into production, "Hollywood Jerome" has been taking shape for months. The script that Hoffman and Yusef wrote won them the IFP Production Fund grant last fall, affording them more than $100,000 worth of services to make the movie.
Pre-production was intricate and meticulous, and much of the cast and crew was assembled far in advance. Chicago rap prodigy Shorty K plays the lead, while the rest of the cast is rounded out by a mixture of authentic unknowns and fixtures of the Chicago hip hop scene.
Kayne West and Twista are among the platinum-selling artists who make cameos throughout the film, adding "local flavor and color," says Yusef. The spoken-word artist also appears in the movie, playing himself, reading passages from the original poem, and narrating the proceedings.
Though much of "Hollywood Jerome" is staunchly naturalistic and gritty, the filmmakers have hinted at touches of surrealism. Thanks to his addiction to television and movies, Jerome is prone to confusing fiction with reality (and vice versa), and drifting off into elaborate waking dreams.
But despite these baroque touches, Yusef is quick to insist that this is no "fantasy movie," but rather "a microcosm of what is going on in the world." Hoffman concurs, adding that, "Everything that takes place in the movie draws on real life. The situations that the characters confront are really the same as those that kids all over the planet confront on a daily basis."
"Hollywood Jerome" also seeks to openly confront pop culture representations of gang warfare. Even the most honest, hard-hitting critiques of street violence – like the Hughes Brothers' "Menace II Society" and Sanyika Shakur's "Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member" – tend to inadvertently romanticize the hard-and-fast lifestyle.
When talking about the project, both Yusef and Hoffman were adamant about challenging this trend. "We tackled it head on," says Hoffman. "A lot of Hollywood Jerome's heroes are classic Hollywood gangsters – ‘Scarface,’ ‘The Godfather,’ Jimmy Cagney in 'The Public Enemy.' We play with that duality – the reality of gang activity versus Hollywood portrayals of it."
For Hoffman and Yusef, taking on a culture of violence meant doing more than just making a movie about it. They got the community involved, hiring local teens to work as extras and interns on the shoot. They've also spoken at local high schools and, working with consulting group Rockman Et Al, they’ve set up a program designed to get inner-city youths involved in the arts.
One goal is to simply open up a dialogue. "There isn't always a forum to discuss these matters," notes Hoffman. "Without discussion – without a chance to analyze what's happening in your life – you can never change it. You're much more likely to just go to a closed-minded, violent solution."
Yusef agrees, stressing the need to actively confront our problems. "Let us stand up and walk toward what is painful for us," he says. "Violence doesn't really solve anything. It might temporarily bring an argument to an end, but that argument is renewed, again and again, with new fervor. We need to change the way people think and break the cycle of violence for good."
A lofty, progressive goal, to be sure. Thankfully, as Hoffman notes, two heads are better than one. "It's been a fantastic, growth-inducing experience [working with Malik]," he says. "Together, I think we're could make a difference with this one."
Written by Andrew Dowd