Five years ago, director George Tillman Jr. introduced me to an incredible script written by Michael Starrbury called The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete. Michael initially wanted to write about how and why the very poor have difficulty rising out of their circumstances.
As someone who grew up in the projects, Michael approached the subject from the point of view of two boys (ages 12 and 10) -- Mister and Pete. The boys' desire for a better life was in direct conflict with institutionalized poverty and the debilitating mindset that comes from such a place. It was an honest and authentic portrayal of life in the projects -- the kind of story we don't often see on the screen, and the kind of story we as a people too often shy away from in life. It also captured a different part of New York than we're used to seeing -- the part where dreams are more often crushed than realized.
I read it in one sitting. It hit me right in my stomach and knocked the wind out of me. The voices were powerful, the characters were real, and I identified with it immediately -- remembering what it was like to be a young girl walking the streets of the city with aspirations greater than myself. For a movie with "defeat" in its title, it's ultimately a film about the strength and perseverance of the human spirit. The kids candidly act and relate to things as most pre-teen boys would if they were struggling to survive. We see redemption through friendship. We see humor and even more heart.
It's why I was so drawn to this project and was proud to join as an executive producer and composer. George Tillman Jr. brought this story to life in such a raw and beautiful way, surrounding the boys with remarkable actors including Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie, Jeffrey Wright, and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. The cast helps illuminate life in the projects from nearly every point of view: the gangs, the cops, the teachers, single mothers, neighbors and more. It explores how and why people become a product of their environment. But the film ultimately belongs to the two leads, Skylan Brooks and Ethan Dizon (revelations both), who as Mister and Pete, vividly portray the plight of so many children who are continuously silenced and overlooked.
Without opportunity and programs that educate, inspire and foster our youth, how will children like Mister and Pete ever become who they are meant to be? Do we all have a responsibility to help lift our children out of harm? Or are we meant to turn our heads and ignore the truth? We are all familiar with the phrase, "it takes a village." These days it seems the village is under attack.
The crazy decision to shut down the government is causing real pain and anxiety to our most vulnerable -- single mothers and children similar to the ones in this movie. Some Head Start and early education programs have either closed, or are in jeopardy of closing. Shelters and rape crisis centers funded by the Violence Against Women Act may have to turn away women and children in need. Food banks that rely on government aid may soon see their shelves bare. There is a lot of talk about essential and non-essential forms of government -- making sure children don't go hungry, and seeing that victims of domestic violence are safe, seem pretty essential to me.
At its core, the government shutdown seems to be about whether or not we value a society that shares its burdens. This week Time magazine featured an article written by an inspiring young woman, Jenny Lu Mallamo, entitled "From Head Start to Harvard." Jenny grew up with the benefit of having teachers, programs and parents invested in her upbringing. She went on to study at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. While certainly not every kid is going to end up attending an Ivy League school, imagine a world that truly believed every child had that kind of potential? In the piece Jenny says, "We like to tell ourselves that, in this land of equal opportunity, a baby's zip code should not determine her life trajectory. But all too often, it does."
This is why I was so drawn to this story -- the courage of Mister and Pete remind us that the zip codes we live in shouldn't decide our worth, our character, our dreams, or our destiny. Mister and Pete learn a valuable lesson in the film, "you can't do it alone." It is a lesson that unfortunately many of our elected officials have yet to grasp. Let's hope they find a way soon.
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