Making an independent film is a feat in itself, and having that project recognized and distributed to major theaters is an even harder sell. However, if anyone is up to the challenge, it’s the enterprising and engaging Rel Dowdell, a Philadelphia native whose urban drama, “Changing the Game,” opens in key cities across the country with the prospect of wider release in the future.
“Changing the Game,” filmed almost entirely in the City of Brotherly Love, had an auspicious local premiere at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and is now playing at the AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24, 2121 Route 38, in Cherry Hill, N.J.
An emotionally-charged crime drama directed by Dowdell, and written by Dowdell in tandem with Aaron R. Astillero, “Changing the Game,” begins in March 1986. It is the story of a bright, young school boy named Darrell Barnes (Sean Riggs). Though brutal circumstances have removed his parents from his life, Darrell has thrived under the watchful eye of his nurturing grandmother (“Soul Food’s” Irma P. Hall), and is an inspiration to his teacher, Mrs. Davis (Suzzanne Douglas). The boy is clearly destined for greatness, if he can survive the violence that surrounds him on the streets of North Philadelphia.
Darrell ultimately becomes a rising star in the world of high finance, but soon discovers that the sharks on Wall Street can be just as lethal as the thugs that ran the yard at 8th and Butler streets.
“Changing the Game” is the second film by Dowdell, following his 2005 release, “Train Ride.” The Central High graduate and Fisk University alumnus recently stopped by The Philadelphia Tribune offices to discuss his latest release, which he believes will indeed “change the game” of filmmaking.
“It breaks up so many stereotypes,” said Dowdell, whose passion for his current project is almost palpable. “Especially right now with young African-American men going through so much turmoil in this country. They’re not giving us a voice — like in the Trayvon Martin situation. Young Black men out there need some inspiration. This film shows that your environment does not have to take over your life. This message uplifts the young Black man.”
As Darrell, the likeable, fresh-faced protagonist, Sean Riggs brought an innocence and sincerity that can only come from an actor in the dawning of his career. The performances by a few of the bit players were somewhat lacking, such as Elizabeth Camacho’s brief appearance as the “sexy flight attendant,” which was stilted and contrived.
Still, I laud Dowdell for using as much local talent as possible, including the brilliant Brian Anthony Wilson, who has made his mark in virtually every medium.
Visually, “Changing the Game,” features cinematography by Bob Demers. It is breathtaking, and the smart, imaginative production design by Brian Chacon is indicative of the transition from Darrell’s rough and tumble childhood to the divine excess of the Fortune 500.
Dowdell joins a burgeoning corps of filmmakers in the city, including Robert Golphin, M. Azim George Siddiqui and Mike Dennis, all of whom are dedicated to the evolution and advancement of Black cinema. Dowdell hopes “Changing the Game” will contribute to the greater good of the Black film industry.
“I’m not here by accident,” Dowdell said. “I’ve been working for a long time for this opportunity. Like the days of the Harlem Renaissance, when all the Black writers got together and made great work, I hope that I am somehow able to be a part of a movement of Black filmmakers that all have the same objective — to make uplifting things — at the same time, so that we all come up together.
“That’s the one thing the Black film industry is lacking, is camaraderie. We should all be in this together. It shouldn’t be [that] one person’s out front, the other person’s trying to catch up, somebody’s in the middle. Everybody should know each other, and everybody should be like, ‘Hey! What are you doing next? Oh, cool. How can I help you with that?’ And if you need help, we rally around that person.”
In anticipation of a successful opening weekend, Dowdell called “Changing the Game” a “must-see, satisfying, inspirational, moving experience” and said in parting, “You will leave satisfied. You will leave and you’ll want to see it again. There’s a twist at the end that you don’t see coming.”
For show times, call the AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24 at (856) 486-7420 (Rated “R”)