A couple weeks ago I sat down with Ahsaan Mitchell, a Brownsville native, who filmed a behind-the-scenes documentary about what happens to a neighborhood like Brownsville when a big Hollywood production moves in for the summer. His is an amazing story: part luck, part imagination, part determination. Most of all it’s about grabbing on to an opportunity and taking full advantage.
Brooklyn’s Finest, starring Richard Gere and Ethan Hawke, took over part of Brownsville, Brooklyn last summer. Blocks of trucks took up residence and big-name actors became a common sight. Ahsaan, in his late twenties, had never shot anything before being hired on Brooklyn’s Finest. He was trying to film a documentary about Brownsville when he stumbled into this amazing opportunity. “I actually got into filmmaking in North Carolina. Blue Ridge Motion Pictures has a training program in Asheville, North Carolina. I have a background in music, and I’ve been on a lot of music video sets and I used to write, that was initially my background. But there was a lot of politics with the music industry that I disagreed with, in terms of the way music was going, so I just left that alone and moved down south, and I started getting really interested in film, so I took initiative and started reading and studying up and found this opportunity to go to this one year training program at Blue Ridge Pictures.”
When the training program was finished, he moved back to New York and went through the Made in NY Production Assistant Training Program, which is a non-profit program run in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting. It trains people from diverse backgrounds for entry-level work on film and television sets. “It’s definitely an entry-level foot in the door, because New York is really competitive, and that was a great opportunity. People from all diverse backgrounds are in the program. People who just graduated from NYU are in the program, so that tells you that the New York film industry is competitive.”
After completing the training program, Ahsaan worked as a production assistant on a lot of commercials, and on the remake of The Taking of Pelham 123 starring John Travolta and Denzel Washington. But he was anxious to get to work on his own project, something that had been germinating for some time. After spending a couple of years researching the history of Brownsville, he was in pre-production on his Brownsville documentary when he heard that Brooklyn’s Finest would be filming in the very housing project where he grew up. He sought out the super from the building, hoping that he would be able to get a little footage of the movie being filmed and work it in to his documentary. Little did he know that it would end up leading to a life-changing opportunity.
“Seventy percent of the locations that [Brooklyn’s Finest] was shooting in in Brownsville is the Van Dyke Houses…that’s the public housing I grew up in. I knew everybody. I knew the superintendent, I knew the tenant association. So I asked could I talk to the superintendent, his name was Stan Ridges. He was the superintendent of public housing at Van Dyke.” Sadly, Mr. Ridges died in a motorcycle accident, not long after shooting had finished. He never got to see any of the finished movie, and Ahsaan regrets that he hadn’t gotten around to interviewing him on camera.
Mr. Ridges already knew about Ahsaan’s documentary, and he introduced Ahsaan to John Langley, one of the producers on Brooklyn’s Finest. “I actually only wanted to get some footage of them shooting the movie, it wasn’t my intention to get hired on the movie.” But Mr. Langley saw bigger things for Ahsaan and brought him into the fold of the production. “Originally I was just hired to do behind-the-scenes footage, but I pitched them the idea – I wanted to do a social commentary documentary about what happened when this movie came to Brownsville. Considering how Brownsville is, this was really big for a lot of people, and I wanted to capture that. It changed a lot of people’s lives, and I’m one of them.” Ahsaan reflected on his luck for a moment and repeated, “And I’m one of them.”
The production gave Ahsaan a Sony DSR 500 to shoot with. When producers John Langley and John Thompson found out that Ahsaan didn’t have a computer to edit on, they gave him a powerful laptop and a copy of Final Cut Pro. He got to keep it all.
Ahsaan’s documentary gives a broad overview of the movie’s impact on the neighborhood as a whole, but he also zeroes in on a few key people and follows them throughout. He’s still not done shooting. He wants to do some more follow-up interviews with some of the locals to find out what’s happened to their Hollywood dreams since the movie left. “Some of them continued, and some of them went right back to what they were doing before the movie. Because some of these guys were ‘on the corner’ guys who had no aspirations ever to be in a film. They were cast, and some of them really took off, really shined. Some of them are going toe-to-toe with Ethan Hawke in the movie. It’s a story that needs to be told, because it’s things that people don’t get to see all the time. It’s inspirational.”
Ahsaan said that everyone was excited initially that a movie was filming in Brownsville. It’s not a common filming location. “It was a moment of calm in Brownsville. You have rival factions that stayed calm because it was something positive going on.” But as the production went on, some people started to get tired of it – they wanted their parking spaces back, they wanted free access to their buildings again. It didn’t take long for the neighborhood to become jaded about having stars in its midst (although when Wesley Snipes was on the set, everyone went crazy). But they did appreciate that the production was trying to build a relationship with Brownsville, that the filmmakers weren’t just taking what they needed from the neighborhood and running away. The production is fixing up a neighborhood park, and director Antoine Fuqua formed the Antoine Fuqua Youth Program (Ahsaan in on the advisory board and helped interview the potential participants), which is mentoring three neighborhood kids and teaching them how to be filmmakers. And Ahsaan is keeping on top of things, making sure that the program stays alive, making sure that the production keeps its promises to the kids. “The kids got a chance in December to go up to [the post production studio] where they were editing the movie and see what happens in post production. They’re going to start shooting short films in a couple of weeks.”
I got to view a trailer for the documentary, and at one point someone says that the neighborhood was in neutral during filming. I didn’t know what that meant. Was it luck? Was there some kind of agreement between the gangs? Or did everybody just instinctively realize that something special was happening? “Unfortunately what was going on in Brownsville, prior to them coming with the movie, it was like madness. [And when the movie came] everybody kind-of agreed to be in neutral, because it was an opportunity. Everybody could eat off of this situation – let’s not be warring out here, because we’re gonna be messing it up. There were guys who normally wouldn’t even be on the other side of the neighborhood that was over there because of the movie, and everybody was like ‘It’s cool, it’s cool.”
Granted, everything wasn’t sunshine and roses all the time. The production had the Nation of Islam provide extra security. Within the fold of the movie, everything was cool. But outside of the production, for some people who hadn’t had an opportunity to be involved, it was business as usual. A production assistant got jumped running an errand, passersby sometimes threw things. But for the most part, things were really laid back. “A lot of guys that were in the movie were very influential, and that helped… There was a lot of street politics going on. A lot of people who were ‘known’ in the neighborhood were in the movie.”
I asked Ahsaan if anyone from the neighborhood would be involved when the movie comes out, maybe doing some press or attending the premiere. He wasn’t sure, but he hopes so. The production was in Brownsville for about two-and-a-half months, and he’s hoping that when the movie comes out, the neighborhood gets excited again. In the meantime, besides trying to finish the Brooklyn’s Finest documentary, he’s gone back to work on his original Brownsville documentary.
As we wrapped up the interview, I asked him if he had any final thoughts. “There’s a lot of raw talent that can be mined. People just want an opportunity. You give people an opportunity, you’ll be surprised what you get out of them. Because I don’t think any of the producers thought I was going to do what I did, honestly. They gave me a shot, and the shot was all I asked for. I would have did it for free, that’s the truth. I would have did it for free, just for the shot.”
Ahsaan told me that he hopes to do for Brownsville what Spike Lee did for Bed Stuy. “We have talent. We have stories. We have stuff to talk about. We just needed an opportunity.”
Originally posted on Filming In Brooklyn