Local filmmaker Maurice Hicks talks ‘Rap & Rhyme’
When local writer/director Maurice Hicks came by my apartment last week to show me scenes from his nearly-finished film Rap & Rhyme, he cautioned me about mistaking the views expressed by Russell, the protagonist’s best friend, for those of anyone but the character.
Hicks called Russell, vividly played by Robert Crayton (a North Carolina-based actor whose extensive credits includes Peachy, the convict who punches Paul Rudd at the beginning of 2015’s Ant-Man), “a misogynist, homophobe and racist.” While Russell starts out as the film’s apparently funny secondary lead, he becomes the antagonist, or as Hicks called him, “the big baddie, but so charismatic, he’s almost hypnotic.”
He also said that, at one point, he debated with himself about just how virulent he should make Russell’s rhetoric.
Hicks ended up talking to his star Cranston Johnson about the dilemma. The Gastonia-born (and until recently, Winston-based) Johnson, whose credits include the recurring roles of DeShawn on Donald Glover’s FX comedy-drama Atlanta and Detective Hanson on SundanceTV’s Hap and Leonard, also played the lead in Hicks’ Greensboro-shot short film A Letter to My Son, for which Johnson won Best Actor at the 2016 International Film Festival in Rahway, New Jersey. In Rap & Rhyme, Johnson plays Jeffrey, an aspiring hip-hop artist (and grocery store employee whose workplace is “played” by Greensboro’s venerable Bestway), who has to choose between his own vision and the formulaic demands of commercial rap that his friend Russell embraces.
“I asked Cranston if I should tone the stuff down. He said no, that toning down the character and his harmful rhetoric would be a disservice to the film. So, he is who he is. It’s a cautionary portrait.”
Hicks then showed me several scenes from Rap & Rhyme, which I found engagingly and skillfully written, directed and acted, which included a great joke I won’t spoil here. I was impressed, just as I’d been back in September when he showed me other scenes at College Hill Sundries, where I found them engrossing despite the bar noise. This time, the only distractions were my cats, who were too interested in my visitor to get between me and the laptop Hicks set in front of me.
Hicks was frank about how long it’s taking him to complete Rap & Rhyme. Since his short film A Letter to My Son hit the festival circuit in 2015, I wrongly assumed it an earlier work. “A normal person would complete their projects as they film them,” Hicks said, explaining that the raw footage for Rap & Rhyme was filmed five years ago, but the film is only being finalized now.
“We just recently exported the cut with the score in. We chopped out all the excess, trimmed the fat. It needs to be color-graded, and the last couple of special effects shots done in post. It’s like 99.9 percent done.”
So why did it take so long? With disarming candor, Hicks told me that the blame rests solely on himself.
“It was almost completed in 2013, but then my depression and anxiety kicked in, and it became like this giant thing looming over me. Everyone around me was telling me it was great. But I started sabotaging myself, using whatever I could to keep the movie from being finished. I have a pretty cush corporate job and make more than enough money. But I was suddenly going, ‘oh, I’m going to buy this, I’m going to go on this trip, I’m going to do this.’ Anything but work on the film.”
For a while, friends and family members would regularly ask him when Rap & Rhyme would be finished, “but those inquiries got less and less frequent, and then silence.” And with that silence, he said, it became easier and easier to not do the work he needed to do.
That changed this year when he went to Vietnam to help scout locations for a friend’s film.
“I came back with this revitalization, and was so ashamed of myself at how fortunate I was, how many resources I have, how many people that care about me around me that would help me finish it, and I just wasn’t doing the work. And here I’d just been in a country where the people were so hard-working, making me feel even worse in comparison.”
Upon his return to the U.S., his sense of shame sent him into therapy. “My therapist said ‘you have FOS.’ When I asked him what that meant, he said ‘Fear of Success.’ And then he helped me get in charge of my anxiety and depression, and reframe my thoughts.”
As he worked his way through this process, Hicks said, “I just started kicking stuff in the butt. I stopped spending my money on a lot of excessive garbage. I went and found post-production people. I went and shot the last of the exteriors that we needed to bring the movie home. Got the score in place, got special effects shots done. And this movie that I’d had on the shelf for five years, all these things that were keeping it uncompleted, they were a month’s worth of work, if I’d just sat down and done them.”
Once he got that under control, Hicks said, “the movie started to come together again.”
The finish line in sight, Hicks reflected back on where it all began, with an earlier 10-minute short he’d made prior to A Letter to My Son. “It was basically the same story as Rap &. Rhyme, and that’s where I met both Cranston and Rob.” Like the feature film it would spawn, it was about “this artist’s pure love for hip-hop and how, to sustain himself financially, he has to venture into rap and his struggle with that.”
The original short film didn’t include any actual rapping. “It was just him after a show, how he struggled to maintain the façade, and how strenuous that was. It was him and the other characters existing in this universe and having to keep up appearances.”
Unlike A Letter to My Son, which would be entered in various film festivals and eventually sold to a new streaming service “that I can’t talk about yet,” not many people saw the original version of what would become Rap & Rhyme. “Just a few friends, but one said ‘this is so tangible and so real, you need to make this short into a feature.’ Cranston was on board, Robert was on board, and we started filming.”
He said he worked steadily on the feature for “a year and a half of living in self-imposed poverty” because he was putting all his money into the project. “I was working 40, 50, 60-hour weeks at my job, taking whatever overtime they would give me, eating ramen noodles and hot dogs. I lived in squalor despite being well paid. It was terrible because I had to live in a building that got condemned, but if I’d lived anywhere else, accrued any more expenses, I couldn’t have done it.”
As already described, he almost didn’t. But during the time Hicks’ psychological issues put Rap & Rhyme on hiatus, he conceived of and completed A Letter to My Son. “I wrote it in a couple of hours, and it really highlights my frustrations as an African-American man. I don’t have children, but if I did, those would be the kind of things that kind of circle in my mind.”
One night, he said, he decided to combine them all and get it out of his system. “It wasn’t written to fit a particular agenda or to fit in with what other people were doing. It was how I felt, and I knew that it was something I wanted to make.” He pitched the role to Johnson. “He said, ‘well, that’s a lot of dialogue, why don’t you do it? Those are your words and your thoughts.’ But I told him, I don’t have that talent, I write and direct, but I’m not an actor.”
Johnson signed on, and the project came together quickly. “I grabbed my buddy Rex Yow, and he said ‘yeah, we can do that.’ So, we just picked up a few places around Greensboro and filmed most of it downtown.
Hicks attributed A Letter to My Son’s eventual sale to star Johnson’s rising profile in the film industry. “He was recently on seasons two and three of Hap and Leonard, playing Captain Hanson, who gives Hap and Leonard a hard time. He’s also currently shooting a show called Wu Assassins for Netflix in Canada right now. He’s just a really successful guy, always working, and this festival that I submitted to years ago, which I guess is part of a network of festivals, said they were starting a new streaming service and asked if I would like my short to be part of it. They sent a contract, and the numbers looked good. They have exclusive streaming rights online for the next three years.”
His confidence bolstered by that sale, Hicks began finishing the feature-length film he’d begun filming before conceiving A Letter to My Son. When I watched scenes from Rap and Rhyme, I was impressed by how good his male leads are, not just at acting, but at rapping.
“I would put them up against anybody,” Hicks said. “I’m feeling kind of down about popular music right now, and I think that in rap culture, lyricism has taken a step back. The mainstream rap realm is no longer about that, but about the trappings and the image: who has the craziest tattoos, who’s having sex with who, what did so-and-so do outside of the studio, what trouble are they getting in. The persona takes over, and the music comes last.”
He said he told Johnson and Crayton they’d have to perform in long cuts, no instruments, “just rapping their asses off,” and they rose to the challenge. “In a lot of rap videos, they have these quick cuts, and the person can’t rap in real life. But these dudes can, and they’re fantastic actors. They’re like a double threat. You simply cannot deny their talent.”
I asked Hicks about his background and his influences. He told me that he was born in Long Island and described his family as blue-collar. “My father, who has passed, was a diesel mechanic. My mom lives in Winston, where she’s been for a couple of decades now and works in the hospital system. My little brother just enlisted in the army, and my sister is an attorney who works in downtown Greensboro.”
He grew up “more in Greensboro than in Winston,” and double-majored in film and psychology at UNCG, from which he graduated in 2010. “Thought I was going to go to get my masters in clinical psych, but the money issue intervened, so it was like go and get a job. And really, the flexibility of the corporate job has allowed all this to happen. I used my salary to fund my creative expression.”
He told me he loves the work of the great Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, writer/director of A Separation. Other contemporary favorites include Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight was fantastic”), and Hicks called himself “a big fan” of Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, The Arrival and Bladerunner 2049. “I also really liked Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. I’m far removed from her suburban bubblegum dream milieu, but I really like what she does with it.”
Hicks considers Stanley Kubrick a cinematic master, but, dissenting from many other local filmmakers, confessed equivocation on Quentin Tarantino. “I can appreciate what he’s doing, but it’s not totally for me.”
Spike Lee, on the other hand, is. “A lot of people don’t like his stuff because he’s outspoken, but if you look at his movies, from Do the Right Thing to Clockers to Summer of Sam, all those movies have critiques of the insulated culture they showcase, always. If you watch a Spike Lee movie and don’t think he’s critical of the culture, you didn’t watch a Spike Lee movie.”
He concluded with some advice.
“I say this to any artist, any project, any medium. The people around you that love you and recognize your talent will be there when you call upon them to help you achieve something you really believe in. I wholeheartedly believe that. This project would not be possible without my beloved friends. I’m 34 now. As you get old, you start to see the bubble you’re in slowly shrink, and it’s the world moving on. It’s your health, your bills, your mortgage, the things that pile up and slow you down, and that bubble of possibility gets smaller. The longer you don’t do it, the quieter and less forceful your voice becomes. If you have the energy and the voice and the creative resources, do it now. Please. Call up your friends. They love you and believe in you and will help you make it happen.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.