There Goes the Hood

A legendary underground filmmaker from Sistrunk surfaces to make a movie about Florida homeboys

Just then, the young female assistant director yells "Lock it up!" through a bullhorn. The cameras roll.

When they finally nail the scene, Silvera's gruff face loosens into a juicy smile.

"He's a puttycat," one of the cameramen says.

Pro skater Stevie Williams makes a cameo.
Shakey Kost
Pro skater Stevie Williams makes a cameo.
Silvera discusses a scene with assistant director Theresa Frankel (left) and script supervisor Melinda Taksen.
Shakey Kost
Silvera discusses a scene with assistant director Theresa Frankel (left) and script supervisor Melinda Taksen.

Exhausted from a string of 16-hour days, Cess Silvera dirties his Barack Obama T-shirt when he flops down in the back of a U-Haul parked outside the yellow house that serves as both set and production headquarters. It's just blocks from the site of Silvera's boyhood home, which has long since been demolished. "Funny enough," he says, surveying his old stomping grounds, "it's the exact fuckin' same." Change may be better measured on Silvera's corpulent physique. He ran into some people he knew, he says, "and they told me, 'You got fatter!' " He chuckles wickedly.

Silvera says that, beginning in his childhood in Jamaica — which he hints was not necessarily rosy — he's always channeled his emotions by scribbling stories onto legal pads. "Bloody, grimy ideas," he says. "I wanted to destroy the people hurting me." One day, his dad and stepmom found a book in which he'd drawn out plans for killing his family. "My dad busted my ass. That's how I knew that writing was powerful. It could affect people."

Around age 14, he was expelled from school and shipped out to live with relatives near Sistrunk, like a rabbit tossed into a briar patch. "It was a dangerous time," Silvera says. The late '80s. "The height of the crack epidemic."

He got a job at a neighborhood institution — a little grocery store/takeout restaurant called Ivory's, where he made $80 a week. But a co-worker named Emma, he says, showed him how to clear $800 a week working there — with the help of some five-finger discounts from the cash register. "Emma taught me too well," he says cryptically. His morals slid.

In his characteristic casting style, Silvera returned to film a scene for G.E.D. at Ivory's and offer Emma a role only to find out that she had died. Ivory's owner, Lorraine Mizell, was shocked to hear that Silvera — whom she remembers as an "innocent and nice" kid — was a little thief! But she wishes him well.

Silvera claims he never held a real job after Ivory's. Around age 20, he moved to Brooklyn, where he made a living by doing "some shit I'm not proud of."

In his down time, Silvera studied his favorite directors by stealing books from the library. Come to think of it, "I owe the Brooklyn library a check," he realizes. While other young would-be directors were studying their craft at USC film school or apprenticing with established directors, Silvera read tomes about John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone, John Ford. He tutored himself by watching behind-the-scenes "Making Of" videos. Through it all, he kept writing.

Skipping over the 1990s and picking up his life story "when I got out of jail" circa 2000, Silvera says he realized he needed to find a lifestyle that wouldn't kill him. He turned to his brother, Keith "Fada Screw" Deans, and asked, "Why don't we make a movie? We've got the money." How he got that kind of money, he won't elaborate (and criminal records are inconclusive), but within days, Silvera says, he had drafted a script for Shottas, a shoot-'em-up about the hard, violent lives of modern-day, drug-dealing Jamaican gangsters. His plot called for hails of bullets, dramatic deaths in slow-mo, and a tremendous body count. His characters would bang big-tittied women in hot tubs and spout classic lines like "Go suck your mother's sour pussy."

When it came to the actual filmmaking, Silvera didn't let inexperience get in his way. Leaning on his bravado, he says he simply "called up a friend who made music videos and said, 'Can you help me get a film crew?' " Simple as that.

After burning through a million dollars in costs, Silvera was finally able to call himself a legitimate director. He moved to Los Angeles, and Shottas (Jamaican slang for gunmen) premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002. While snobby newspaper critics dismissed the movie as a crude and misogynistic variation on the gangster cliché, Silvera's tale had one key distinction. His story opened a window to life in Jamaica, a land almost never broached by filmmakers.

All of Silvera's characters spoke in an authentic patois, their accents so heavy that the film was subtitled in English. He cast reggae artists Ky-Mani Marley (son of Bob) and Spragga Benz to play the leads. The soundtrack would be overseen by Wyclef Jean. While Silvera was being true to his culture, financially it was a gamble: Would the audience be big enough to recoup a return on investment?

It would — but only after a twisted real-life saga played out over the next five years.

According to urban legend, Wyclef Jean was in his studio with preliminary copies of Shottas, which he was using to create the score. He called Silvera when he realized the tapes had gone missing. Two weeks later, Silvera got word that bootlegged copies of Shottas — even with their grainy look, poor sound quality, and time codes interfering with the picture — were being hawked all over Times Square. Eventually, friends would report finding copies as far away as Cairo and Cape Town.

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