The storyline about Zyrick, a young baseball player facing a moral choice, makes us think of recent protests by American athletes, most famously Colin Kaepernick. Was that story happening when you were making the film?
At the start, it wasn’t. Then, reading the news, I asked myself, how would Colin Kaepernick have responded at 17? He’s a grown man, he has a platform. When you’re 17, you have no following. Colin was doing his thing and it was great to see someone come out so boldly.
A key scene has the character Dennis talk about how often, as a black man, he’s stopped by police – and he’s a cop himself.
My father worked for the Department of Investigation. It’s non-uniform; he was an attorney by trade, he had a gun, he had a shield. He looked like a normal black man in New York, so he would get stopped like a normal black man. There were many times when the gun would be in the glove compartment – he’s legally allowed to carry it, but it was scary to think that with the wrong person seeing him reach for something, anything could happen in that moment.
You were taught film by Spike Lee at NYU. What was that like?
Spike is a man of very few words. He’ll answer you with a question – “Why’d you do that?” – but doesn’t offer a response. He’s not going to go and do it for you: “No, I’m not gonna call Denzel! You’re not gonna get Denzel! Go make a movie so you can get Denzel!” That’s his way of saying, “I like you” – by pushing you to help yourself.
Dennis the police officer in your film is played by John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington, recently seen in Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.
John is from California, he wears an earring, he’s got long hair – I thought, “Can he transform? I can’t have one false note in this film.” But I think he’d been around some police officers, so I got this sense he had a real deep connection with the character. The guy gave me a month of prep, unpaid. For a Hollywood actor to do that, you know they’re committed to the craft.
You’ve been working in London on Top Boy, with Drake involved as executive producer.
His business partner Future saw Monsters and Men in Sundance. They’ve promoted the film, they’ve said, “This film’s important, you should see it.” There are a lot of things in Top Boy that are similar to what I grew up with. In terms of the crime, it’s a little different; there’s way more knife crime here rather than guns, but the estate life is quite similar. Ronan Bennett is an incredible writer – he knows that world really well.
And you’re planning a movie about the boxer Jack Johnson.…
He was an incredible human being – and I get to do a boxing movie and a period piece. He’s Ali before Ali. A lot of people don’t know who he is – and Trump pardoned him recently [Johnson was sentenced to prison in 1913 on a racially motivated charge]. Sylvester Stallone has a project in the works about him – there might be several Jack Johnson projects now. John David would be great in the role.
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