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The PYRITE Story: Fighting Racism (Part 2 of 3)

Forest Park Illinois Sign

The PYRITE Story: Fighting Racism (Part 2 of 3)

Wrapping up the first part of the story behind Pyrite, I’d just finished recounting the moment at my old junior high, where parents and 8th grade students alike admitted to their fear of Proviso East and the racial barrier sitting before them. We had a breakthrough, and a great moment of honesty.

A reporter from the local paper attended that night, taking pictures and of course taking notes on the topics discussed. A few days later, when the next edition hit the newsstand, there were pictures of all the Proviso East students/speakers and a few parents, including my mom who also attended for moral support (she spoke up too by the way), and a full page spread and story.

I couldn’t wait to see what kind of response our town would give the article. I sincerely hoped that maybe the breakthrough we experienced within that auditorium could translate to a larger segment of our town via the newspaper.

Unfortunately, such a seismic event required one key thing that we’ve all seen gradually deteriorate over the past 20+ years now – integrity in the media. Forest Park is a relatively small town (about 15,000-16,000 people at last check), but it lies just 2 miles west of the Chicago city line.

It’s not like some tiny distant village that feels a need to shy away from any controversy. That said, I’ll ask you to take a guess here – what did that reporter write in the paper about the question I asked regarding race, fear, and our town’s blatant lack of a presence at Proviso East?

NOT ONE SINGLE WORD. The reporter wrote the article as if the big exclamation point of a conversation at the end never even happened. Save for the people in attendance who of course witnessed things firsthand, he essentially wiped the event from history.

Unbelievable. I would safely call that cowardly behavior, and all the people in our community deserved better. I felt betrayed, and I felt our town was betrayed, to say the least.

But I also learned so much during that one night near the end of my high school days, that I actually look back on it as a microcosm of my entire Proviso East experience.

The strength, courage and moral integrity that grew within me during those years still guides me today. It’s kept me on the right path, it’s steered me into good work with good people, and perhaps most importantly of all – it’s fueled me to keep speaking up.

I’ll come back to the great media debacle of 1989 in a bit, because The Walk A Mile Project (you will love The Walk A Mile Project) essentially rose out of that ardent neglect in the media… but let’s see Pyrite through here first.

I wrote the short story that inspired Pyrite’s eventual screenplay while still in college. This 34-page, racially-charged, urban adrenaline story grew into a much deeper parable about the age old clash between youthful ideals and the older generation’s steadfast clinging to stereotypes.

Pyrite, at its core, focuses on the conflict between utopian goals and the “fools gold” that we cling to – the pigeonholes, or the black and white, right and wrong buckets that we tend to put everything into as we grow older and more jaded.

I suppose if you break it down completely, Pyrite focuses subtly on the clash between young hope and old despair. And I wrote largely based on experience, from seeing this clash all around me while growing up, but watching people too busy yelling and ranting (sound familiar here in the age of internet news and never-ending comments?) to actually step back and analyze exactly what the real problems were.

No matter how you slice it, however, the film’s core is about black and white. It’s a racially-charged piece, and it features white folks acting like jackasses, even when they are actually on the side for good. So one last time for guesses here… I’ll give you one guess as to how easy an indie film project on fighting racism was to sell in Chicago… yeah, “a long hard road” sums it up pretty cleanly.

Back in the very late 1990s when we initially started the project, indie film just started taking off. You’d mention making an indie movie, and local investors were giddy with excitement.

The money might not have been astronomical, but there were certainly projects that started with nearly zilch and exploded enough to grant 300 to 1000 percent gains to their investors. Plus the prestige… the chatter at cocktail parties… come on now, film was HOT!

The video and internet democratization we see today hadn’t quite arrived yet, however, so the price points were still pretty high.

Once I threw that “fighting racism” phrase in the mix, however, excitement quickly waned. I found a few key people, enough to get us started, but the project fizzled before we even reached the 40% mark. Its day would come, but not until well into the 2000s.

Thankfully, that democratization eventually arrived, at least for people who set aside enough of a budget to handle its constraints. We pushed forward, and over a period of nearly four years, the little film that could finally saw completion.

During the trials and tribulations of PYRITE, I watched, and contributed as much as I could to, the gradual decline of racism that we experience in America.

In fact, we did an early premiere of PYRITE in the year our country elected Barack Obama as our first black president. Leaving my Democrat and Republican reservations aside for now, Obama’s election gave Americans hope outside of politics.

We made a statement as a people, and from growing up in the 1980s, I felt it a very pleasant surprise.

Tupac even rapped about it before his death: “And though it seems heaven sent, we ain’t ready to see a black president.”

So PYRITE arrives here in 2013 at a time when racism has at least declined (from what I’ve witnessed personally at least, in dealing with the younger generations in particular), something we should all be thankful for.

A few people have even asked me if the story is relevant… if we aren’t post-racial now in America… if we haven’t moved on and everything is now “all good?” Granted, all the people who asked me those questions were white (there’s a LOL in there)…

 I’ll be back after the upcoming holidays here to start off 2014 with the final part of the story, delving deeper into this topic.

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