By Alece Oxendine | Shadow and Act
Jessie Maple is considered to be the first African American woman to direct an independent feature-length film, after working/training at Channel 13 and Third World Cinema, apprenticing as an editor on films like “Shaft’s Big Score” (1972), as well as handling camerawork and editing for New York’s ABC, CBS and NBC affiliate TV stations.
“Will,” shot on location in 1980s Harlem, on 16mm film, with a $12,000 budget, focuses on Will (played by Obaka Adedunyo), a girls’ basketball coach fighting through a heroin addiction, while mentoring a 12-year-old street kid, adopted by Will and his wife (played by Loretta Devine), who is helping him overcome his obstacles. The couple is very affectionate and although she’s tough on him, she’s also supportive. Will also adopts a young drug using 12 year old boy they call “Little Brother”.
Maple does not withhold subtlety when addressing the drug problem in Harlem at the time. We see Little Brother snort cocaine and it is a disturbing image but effective nonetheless when showing how drugs affect the community. Will becomes a father figure to Little Brother, taking him under his wing, and showing him the other, more positive side of Harlem.
Later in the film, Little Brother is attacked by a group of boys that give him a lethal dose of heroin. The scene where Will and his wife mourn him seems a little over the top, but somehow works for this film. This scene also shows how easy it is for the community (the gang of boys) to take Little Brother.
Throughout the film, we see sweeping shots of Harlem pre-gentrification; vacant lots and big cars, it’s gritty but it’s Harlem. Harlem becomes a character in the film and the neighborhood interacts with Will and Little Brother. The neighborhood is embodied by the people in it. Maple captures the essence of Harlem in the early 1980s as a place that’s not entirely perfect but self sufficient and able to help each other. The entire film, with the exception of a brief scene at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes place in Harlem.
The film is worth it to see a very young and very thin Loretta Devine. Incidentally this was her first film, shooting while she was rehearsing for “Dreamgirls.”
She was paid a whopping $500 for the film which, as Jessie puts it, was a lot of money for Loretta at the time. Loretta was virtually unknown to the film world and Jessie makes a point for young filmmakers to hire unknowns because you never know who they might be tomorrow.
Loretta’s character did not have a name (to my knowledge) and could have been any “sista”. She was strong, complex, loving and supportive. Maple makes the point that, back then, women stuck by the men, regardless of how broken they were. The film had strong and empowered female characters; no women were struggling or downtrodden. The women carried the men, the men carried the young brothers—seen in the scene where Will literally carries Little Brother after his death.
“Will” shows how family-centered support systems makes a difference in building a community. In the final scene, Maple brings Little Brother back. Although I was slightly confused, I understood why she did not want to end the film with Little Brother dying. The last scene had Will and Little Brother listening to the inspirational minister speaking about confidence. To me, the last scene represents how some of our little brothers and sisters will be consumed by the dangers of their environment, but there is still hope for the next generation.
Jessie Maple got into filmmaking because she did not want to be a Lab bacteriologist anymore. She grew tired of seeing negative images of Blacks and saw a need for positive images. So Maple made up in her mind to put the positive image out there. She decided to start writing then editing, camerawork and eventually parlayed into directing.
Maple became the first Black woman to join the filmmakers union and worked as an editing apprentice on two Gordon Parks’ films – “Shaft’s Big Score” in 1972 and “The Super Cops” in 1974. She was trained on a Channel 13 program and Third World Cinema, and received the AFI grant for short films. Her documentary, “Methadone: Evil Spirit Or Wonder Drug,” talked about the dangers of using the drug Methadone to overcome heroin addiction.
What is also fascinating about Maple is that she started 20 West, Home of Black Cinema in the basement of her Harlem brownstone in the 1980s. For 10 years, they showed the latest in Black cinema—both studio-backed and independent films. The mantra behind 20 West was to give people a choice. Maple has boasted that they premiered Spike Lee’s films before anyone else.
I cannot help but to think about how “Will” and Jessie Maple have influenced independent black films today. Instead of Harlem, it’s now Brooklyn, and instead of rebuilding the ‘hood, young black people are trying to leave the hood in whatever possible way. Drugs are still prevalent in films and music today, and in our communities, but the focus has now shifted towards the drug dealer, not the user.
Lee Daniels coined the term “Independent Urban Dramas” and others have commented on how these films are insular. Have our urban dramas become too insular? Looking at films like “Will” is a good start in discussing the current and future landscape of independent Black films.
Some parts of “Will” are melodramatic and preachy; but after thinking about it within the context this film, the preachiness works. Maple was clever to include an inspirational minister to acknowledge the preachy tone of the film.
It was shown to addicts and recovering addicts, with the continued message throughout being, no matter how low you get, you can always rise up from the situation. Maple claims she wanted to show the positive side of defeating drugs.
The true message of the film is that we can ascend to higher ground when it comes to problems facing our community.
Maple is a gem who has been widely forgotten in Black cinema, but is still shining, having passed the torch to “young people” willing to take it. Jessie Maple made a film she could be proud of, and in return, this generation can be proud of too.
In 2005, Maple donated her personal collection to the Black Film Center/Archive (BFC/A) – an extensive collection of her films and logbooks, photos and news clippings, correspondences and more. You can get into a sample of that collection here.