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COM’s Cinematheque Celebrates Black History Month

Director Rel Dowdell (COM’95) speaks tonight


No one knows the challenges of getting an independent movie made better than Rel Dowdell. The writer and director saw his BU graduate film thesis win first place in the Redstone Film Festival and later expanded it into his first feature film, but it was more than a decade before he completed his second. While he struggled to put together financing, he supported himself teaching film at the Community College of Philadelphia, a job he still holds.

Dowdell (COM’95) comes to campus tonight to screen and talk about his second feature, Changing the Game, about a young African American man who grows up in one of North Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods and lands a job with a premier Wall Street investment firm. The film explores his moral struggle when he must choose between the Christian values his grandmother taught him and the Machiavellian ways of Wall Street.

Dowdell, who is African American, will speak as part of the BU Cinematheque series celebration of Black History Month. Cinematheque is a College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work.

Dowdell grew up in Philadelphia and earned an undergraduate degree at Fisk University. At COM, where he earned a master’s in film production, he wrote and directed a short titled Train Ride as part of his graduate thesis project. The film’s subject was a date rape incident on a college campus. Dowdell successfully lobbied Emmy Award–winning television and film actress Esther Rolle (Maude, Good Times, Driving Miss Daisy) to make a cameo appearance in the film, the top winner in the 1995 Redstone festival.

Five years later, Dowdell expanded the short to a feature-length film, and it was acquired and released directly to DVD by Sony Pictures in 2005. Veteran Boston Phoenix film critic Gerald Peary, now a lecturer in COM’s film and television department and the curator of Cinematheque, ranked Train Ride as one of the best American films that year. It also won Best Feature at the American Theatre of Harlem’s film festival.

Last spring, Changing the Game hit theaters. The film, directed by Dowdell and with a screenplay cowritten by him, stars Tony Todd (Candyman), Irma P. Hall (Soul Food), and rapper Sticky Fingaz. Dowdell’s work has earned comparison to directors like John Singleton (Boyz n the Hood) and Spike Lee (Malcolm X) because of the way he explores social and moral issues in an urban setting.

BU Today spoke to Dowdell about his career, the challenges currently facing indie filmmakers, and his advice for students hoping to break into film directing.

Rel Dowdell film director, Changing the Game, Community College of Philadelphia

Photo courtesy of Rel Dowdell

BU Today: What was it like having your first film selected for the Redstone Film Festival?

Dowdell: I had attended other Redstones before my film was chosen to appear, and I wanted to make it a big event when Train Ride got in. I literally passed out flyers to the whole campus telling them to come, so much so that it was a mob scene on the night of the Redstones. They had never seen a Redstone crowd so big, and people couldn’t even get into COM 101. But the experience was indelible to me, and then my film won first place.

How did you persuade Esther Rolle to appear in the short and to reprise her role later in the feature-length Train Ride?

Esther was in town performing in A Raisin in the Sun for the Huntington Theatre Company. I went to the show and slipped the security guard $20 so he’d let me go behind the stage. When I met with Esther, I pleaded with her to do a cameo. I didn’t have a lot of money and I wasn’t working with a big budget, but I told her what an honor it would be if she would be in it. She said, “Well, I’m so busy, my health isn’t that well, and after this play is over, I’m going to do a film called Down in the Delta,” which was directed by Maya Angelou. I asked her to please just read the script to give me feedback, and she agreed. I called her the next day, and she really liked it and agreed to do the cameo.

What did working with a veteran like Rolle teach you?

It’s rare for a young filmmaker to be able to work with a seasoned actress. Esther had broken down a lot of doors for African American actors. For her to do a short film for me was a big deal, and then she reprised that role for me when I turned Train Ride into the feature-length film. It ended up being her last role before she passed away.

The experience taught me to really trust your actors and actresses, because if they have a real passion about your script, they’re going to bring some elements to your work that you may not have seen. Maybe they’ll add a line or subtract a line. If they have the kind of experience Esther had, you have to listen, because they have been on enough sets to know what is best for a project.

How hard is it to make and distribute an independent movie these days?

It’s almost impossible. When I was in graduate school, there were a lot of companies, like October Films and New Line Cinema, that were very receptive to independent films. But the companies have all dried up. To get your film out in 2013, you have to have a real plan. I wanted my second film, Changing the Game, to be a theatrical release, so I had to have a specific plan.

What did that entail?

In order to get a theatrical release, most people want to bring their film to a festival, but those can be expensive. My plan was to hit one or two festivals, get an audience reaction to see how they responded, and then go to distributors. I did this instead of traveling around with the film to multiple festivals, because I would have had to pay a lot of costs out-of-pocket.

I showed the film in Los Angeles at the Hollywood Black Film Festival, and I took some footage of the audience’s reaction right in the theater. I asked them what they thought about the film, and I got the reaction of people there who were of all different races and cultures. I then took their reactions to a couple of companies, including AMC Independent, which puts out top independent films. They chose to distribute it.

It was released in May 2012. What I learned from this was the need to have a very selective plan, because there are plenty of people who go to big festivals like the Sundance Film Festival and they come away with no distribution and they have paid everything out-of-pocket. You really have know where you’re going to spend your money. In the end, you just want your film to be seen by as many people as possible.

Why was there a 12-year gap between your films?

Money had a lot to do with it. I mean, first it takes time to write the proper script, but then in 2009 I had to worry about the economy crashing right as I was trying to raise money for the film. The film initially had a budget of $4 million to $5 million but after the crash, I sat down with producers and said, whatever we raise, we’ll make it for that much. I ended up raising just under $500,000, and that’s what I made the film for. That’s where a strong college film degree comes into play. If I didn’t have that film school training, I wouldn’t have been able to make the film well on a slashed budget.

How did that training help with the challenges of a reduced budget?

Changing the Game takes place in four different countries, and it starts out in the 1970s and ends up in the 2000s. It crosses a lot of different genres of film, from urban to neorealism to Hitchcock-ian elements. If I hadn’t had that graduate school training and the experience of one film behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to pull off making a big film on a small budget.

What inspired you to make Changing the Game?

I was tired of seeing African American men who aren’t three-dimensional characters. I wanted to show an intelligent, adaptable young man who survives. The main character quotes Machiavelli throughout the film. A lot of times movies show young black men who end up being a statistic and end up not making it. My film shows a young African American male who anybody can relate to and who can succeed in an urban and a Wall Street environment.

Do African American filmmakers have challenges other directors might not have?

Absolutely. It’s always difficult to raise money for a film independently, but oftentimes with an African American product, studios want them to be a comedic film or something that is urban with a lot of heavy violence in it.

I wanted to show that you didn’t have to do that, and so instead I made a drama. Another thing is that studios think that African American films can’t sell overseas, but many films that don’t do well in the United States do well in the international market. A lot of times the African American culture is like a lot of people’s culture, so who’s to say that a well-marketed film with a predominantly African American cast can’t do well?

Tell us about the feedback you’ve gotten from those who’ve seen Changing the Game.

I’ve received a phenomenal response. The film has some elements in it that people don’t expect, like a surprise ending. I’ve also put some spirituality elements in there. The film shows how the young man learns from his grandmother to appreciate the Bible and to have faith in a higher power. Some people might not like that, but faith is part of my life that kept me on the right track. If it weren’t for my values growing up, I would have been on the street and ended up as a statistic. When you make a film, not everyone is going to like what you do, but there are a lot of people will appreciate your message.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Just know that you are not reinventing the wheel with your films. If you do enough research, you’ll find someone has probably done what you are trying to do, and probably even better than you. People have sacrificed all their lives to be pioneers in film, so you definitely have to know your history. Treat film with respect.

What’s next for you?

This film took me seven years, and I’m just happy to see it do well. In the next six to seven months I want to start working on something else, but for now I just need to regroup and hit it hard again. I’m proud to say that I have made two films and they have received some serious success. Having Changing the Game released theatrically has put me in very good shape for my next film. Each film that you make should make the road easier for your next project. Changing the Game had people saying, “Wow, if he can make such a polished film on such a small budget, well then he is definitely worthy of a big opportunity.”

Changing the Game screens tonight, Friday, February 15, at 7 p.m., followed by a talk by Rel Dowdell, at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.

Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

3 Comments on COM’s Cinematheque Celebrates Black History Month

  • Reggie Jean on 02.15.2013 at 11:25 am

    I had a pleasure of being a classmate of Rel at BU. Its hard to remember anyone with more energy, love and knowledge of film. He and Phil Tavares would be the two. Thanks for sharing this. Best of luck to Rel.

  • Nathan on 02.15.2013 at 4:19 pm

    RE” It’s always difficult to raise money for a film independently, but oftentimes with an African American product, studios want them to be a comedic film or something that is urban with a lot of heavy violence in it.

    I wanted to show that you didn’t have to do that, and so instead I made a drama.”

    Looking at the trailer, I saw an invitation to an urban film with a lot of violence and some international glamor/wealth shots. Rel may have made a movie that escapes the genre of black-on-black urban violence, but you can’t tell that from the trailer.

  • Brian Stephenson on 02.17.2013 at 11:25 pm

    You’re definitely off base, Nathan. Trailers are cut and used by film
    companies to entice audiences to buy tickets. I was at the event this
    past Friday at B.U. I assume that you were not. It was a great, very non-stereotypical film, with many universal uplifting and intelligent messages
    for the diverse audience that attended. It’s beyond refreshing to see
    an African-American filmmaker so aptly and creatively express themselves
    in a film as resonant as “Changing the Game” was.

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