By Andre LaFontant
Roxbury, MA — Writer-director Storm Saulter proves with his coming-of-age film “Sprinter,” that cinema is yet another avenue of culture that Jamaica can conquer. The film, backed by The JAFTA (Jamaican Film and Television Association) Propella Project, adeptly portrays a side of the island nation that filmgoers may not be aware of: a nuanced family structure trying to hold onto a sense of normalcy amidst the phenomenon of ‘barrel pickney’ (the separation of parents from their children in the name of economic stability). “Showing how normal Jamaicans are is radical,” Saulter says, “because we are thought to be this extreme thing. It’s super important to show that and cinema is the most powerful space to expand ideas about who people are.”
Saulter eases the audience into this expanded perspective through the vehicle of track-and-field and the life of wannabe track star Akeem Sharp (Dale Elliot), a young man focused on running the wrong race. His coach (David Alan Grier) helps retool his frame of mind, which allows Sharp to embrace a new sense of vitality. Sharp’s spirit is splintered by the departure of his mother, Donna (Lorraine Toussaint) at a young age. Her intended two-year stay in the United States on a work visa soon becomes ten years of agonizing separation that affects not just Akeem, but also his father Garfield (Dennis Titus), and his brother Germaine (Kadeem Wilson). For Akeem, focusing on track stardom is a ticket to see his mother again.
Germaine Sharp, acts as Akeem’s foil: once a high school 400-meter dash record-setter and now guileful lottery scammer. Akeem strays from the path of his fullest potential, trying to chase Germaine’s record, before realizing the 200-meter dash record will allow him to reach Usain Bolt-like status. Akeem’s personal success doesn’t stop him from trying to emulate his brother in other ways, which leads the young sprinter down a slippery slope where regaining traction is in serious doubt.
Hailing from Negril, Saulter parallels his own experiences with the characters he creates. “Whenever I’m writing or developing characters, I always have a lot of myself in them,” he explains. “They are original and have their own thing but they have to be living in the things I’m living in. I also have an older brother that I looked up to and the whole thing of having a whole lot of girls, being sexually adventurous, that’s part of performing for him. In many ways, Akeem is performing for his older brother and flipping into his behaviors, which is a cultural thing.”
Saulter goes on to explain, “I lost my mom a few years ago now, a lot earlier than expected. She was a really amazing woman and has everything to do with why I am the way I am. I was processing missing my mom, wishing I could see her again or speak to her again. She is the best example of the strong women in my life; whether it be her, women I have been in relationships with, or women I have just been friends with. They have always been a stabilizing force in spite of whatever trouble I might put them through.”
Enter Kerry (Shantol Jackson), who is equal parts Akeem’s fellow sprinter and moral backbone. Jackson and Elliot’s onscreen chemistry exudes that of longtime friends and finds a way to stand out amongst a cast strategically built to capitalize on Eilliot’s strengths. “Storm put a lot of actors around Dale so that he had support,” explains Jackson. “Myself, Kadeem, and Titus are all seasoned theatre actors in Jamaica. My character is somewhat the best friend, the voice of reason and Dale is somewhat of a troublemaker in real life. So eventually, we did build a bond because I was looking out for him onset and offset.”
“Sprinter” is Jackon’s first feature role (she has since gone on to star in “Yardie,” directed by Idris Elba), but she implements the skills cultivated through early years in the theatre to deliver a supporting performance worthy of a standing ovation. “Of course when doing stage, because you have to project yourself to the back of the audience, the emotions, everything is big,” says Jackson. “Whereas in film, I had to learn how to bring out my charm subtly and not be too stagey on camera. I do love the subtlety of film. It is a lot more real. You are actually living in this world. I think the chemistry that you have to build for just that one shot on camera is the same amount of work, but it’s two different types of work.”
The JAFTA Propella Project is a tangible effort to usher in new creative storytellers that Storm Saulter supports. “There is always a language barrier that came to storytelling, but films like ‘City of God’ and series like ‘Narcos’ have broken that down. It’s all about good stories and people want to watch global cinema,” he explains. “What the Propella Project does really well is their script-to-screen program. Folks that are making their first shorts or writing scripts can win one of the five places and get funded to make their first work. Propella introduces five new Jamaican filmmakers every year. That’s major.”
Like The JAFTA Propella Project, Jackson and Saulter share a commitment to Jamaican film. “Sprinter” is a glimpse of the flash of brilliance that Jamaican cinema can produce. “I think people are seeing that Jamaicans are not one-dimensional and we can tell different stories. I’m excited to see that,” states Jackson. Saulter adds, “in Jamaica, the underworld is something you’re never fully set away from. I didn’t want a story centered around criminal behavior, but I did want to show how present it is and how easy it is to slip into it as a means of survival or to continue this idea of who we think being a ‘topman’ is. Stereotypes become what they are because there is some level of truth, but certainly not the totality. The Caribbean is much more complex and I want to be a part of expanding our stories.”
Sprinter will have its Boston debut at the 2019 Roxbury International Film Festival on Friday, June 28th. Tickets are available now at the RIFF website.
Watch the theatrical trailer below:
Photos of film courtesy of Film Rise and Nicole Torchio.