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Black boys in film: indie promise?

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Can indie films like Troop 491: The Adventures of the Muddy Lions change the status quo for black boys on camera?

Very few kids' movies fea­ture young black pre-teen boys as the main star, even in so called “black movies”. Black ac­tresses seem to fare com­par­a­tively well, think, is there a male-cen­tric equiv­a­lent to Keke Palmer’s ca­reer tra­jec­tory after her suc­cess in Akee­lah and the Bee? Hol­ly­wood has its knick­ers in a twist over Beasts of the South­ern Wild Os­car-nom­i­nated ac­tress Que­ven­zhané Wal­lis but there is a sur­pris­ing ab­sence of young black kid ac­tors to join her in the spot­light.  In the past few years young black males have cast in adult, niche films. LUV star­ring Michael Rainey Jr. made Sun­dance’s 2012 Of­fi­cial Se­lec­tion. Take Lon­don's John Boyega in Brit flick At­tack the Block back in 2011. For all its bril­liance, At­tack the Block was sold to indie movie­go­ers on a cer­tifi­cate “R” the United States and in the UK you had to be 15 years old to see the film.

Al­though he is often hated-on in the tabloid press and blogs, Jaden Smith, son of Will Smith, is one of the few black males to por­tray young black male char­ac­ters in sig­nif­i­cant movie re­leases, so it is telling then, that Troop 491: The Ad­ven­tures of the Muddy Lions, the first film from African-Amer­i­can di­rec­tor, Patrick Ricks aka Pra­heme Praphet, 29, ex­plores the strug­gles of a pre-pu­bes­cent mid­dle schooler.

The wide-eyed Tris­tan Fos­ter played by Ki­mani Cole­man lives in in­ner-city Rich­mond, Vir­ginia with his mother, Glo­ria, a nurse. Straight away we learn that Tris­tan strug­gles with­out a male role model as his mother has to prac­ti­cally drag him to church. His only out­let seems to be is one hobby, draw­ing, but he’s not that much of a geek, in fact, he’s afraid of the label.

His “friends” led by his best buddy called Cocoa Puffs (King Hoey) have a rou­tine hang shake and con­stantly prac­tice their swag­ger, try­ing to dis­tance them­selves from kids who don’t. Dur­ing the Sun­day ser­vice local scouts re­ceive their badges in a homiletic cer­e­mony. This gives his mother ideas. Scouts she be­lieves, could save her son. At this point in the film, the writ­ing fal­ters, in the in­ter­change be­tween Tris­tan and Glo­ria, she be­rates him for “hang­ing with a pack of wolves” after he steals some candy from a store with his friends. These lines are ex­pected and could have been worked over a lit­tle more by the di­rec­tor, who also dou­bles as the scriptwriter, but hey, the kids won’t no­tice right?

Much to his cha­grin Tris­tan is in­ducted into the scouts and pre­dictably, wants to keep it a se­cret. His tus­sle with good and evil forces gets stronger. Para­ble-like movies can de­scend into cheese ex­tremely quickly, Pra­heme never al­lows this. He doesn’t hide the bleak re­al­ity of inner city pro­ject life. This Howard and Florida State Uni­ver­sity film grad­u­ate has taken time to build com­plex char­ac­ters. He al­lows light-hearted hu­mour to even the pace after Tris­tan wit­nesses a mur­der and his scout val­ues are tested. There is even a cameo ap­pear­ance by Daphne Reid, who played Vi­vian Banks in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Re­al­ist cin­e­matog­ra­phy moves from edgy to soft with the ex­cep­tion of Tris­tan’s night­mares which ap­pear as events in real time.

Tris­tan even­tu­ally finds his fra­ter­nal fam­ily with his di­verse scout mates who call their pack the “Muddy Lions” a name that would have worked bet­ter as a title.

At the pre­miere screen­ing held at the British Film In­sti­tute a few rows were taken up with young black boys from inner city Lon­don. At the end of the film they were whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing, tug­ging at the di­rec­tor for his au­to­graph.

Pra­heme, a for­mer scout him­self, says, “Scout­ing helped pre­pare me for life, it taught me a lot of val­ues and lessons that I still keep with me today.”

“If I could sneak that into this next gen­er­a­tion of kids,” he muses. “Maybe it might help shape some of these young kids lives?” Hope­fully his dreams will come true.

Troop 491 was funny, en­ter­tain­ing and re­la­tional, a film I’m sure all young boys liv­ing in Eu­rope's inner cities will be able to iden­tify with.

How­ever, when asked about his main strug­gle as a young black film­maker, his re­sponse was im­me­di­ately, "Dis­tri­b­u­tion." He said, "It’s hard enough to make it, [a movie] it’s even harder to get it out for peo­ple to see it."

If Pra­heme can get past this ini­tial hur­dle and Troop 491 gets the at­ten­tion it de­serves, per­haps black boys’ sto­ries will stop being over­looked and they will be able to go to the cin­ema and see a three di­men­sional por­trayal of them­selves on screen.