Don't make like this is Beverly Hills. This is the real goddamned hood. The motherfuckin' hood."
So warns the gentleman watching workers set up lights and cameras in front of a graffiti-strewn, one-story yellow house just off Sistrunk Boulevard — in Fort Lauderdale's most notorious neighborhood. The man's name is Tommie Lee Carter Sr. — "but they call me Kool-Aid."
It is not quite 11 o'clock on this late-July morning, but the sun is already punishing. It's hot enough to make a man want to unzip his lunch cooler and crack open a can of cold Miller High Life. Kool-Aid sips his beer through a straw.
A week earlier, he and his wife had been walking home from church and noticed the commotion on the front lawn of the yellow house. Turns out it was a fancy Hollywood production. Right there. On Sistrunk! It's not every day that someone makes a multimillion-dollar movie in this part of town.
Those familiar with Fort Lauderdale know that Sistrunk Boulevard is the main drag running through a primarily African-American part of the city. It's lined with independent beauty salons and soul-food joints. During the day, lone souls amble past colorful buildings, groups of men play chess in the park, and crowds gather at bus stops. With its foot traffic and mom-and-pop businesses, the area is lovely, historical, and vibrant in ways that the rest of gentrified South Florida is not. But it comes with a reputation for crime — which even Kool-Aid says is not undeserved.
"Gotta lock everything up, else somebody come and steal the cockroaches out of the house," he notes sagely.
Kool-Aid recalls how on his way back from church, he got a notion to ask for a role in the movie, and just for having asked, he was granted a walk-on part. Not that he has any pretensions of becoming a movie star... unless, of course, agents come a-callin'. Kool-Aid has already been famous — as a musician. Back in the day, he played bass with Chaka Khan and the Commodores. "Now I'm just a little poor bitch," he laughs. After 17 years hunkered on Sistrunk, he has only one gig lately, with his church band.
Kool-Aid had no idea that the director of this movie — a Jamaican-born and Sistrunk-bred dude named Cess Silvera — is kind of a big deal. Kool-Aid did, however, recognize one of the stars: Jackée Harry, who's starred in Everybody Hates Chris and Celebrity Fit Club but is perhaps best-known for her role as the sexpot-next-door in the 1980s sitcom 227. ("It's Sondra!" her character used to declare as she did a little milk shake with her cleavage.) Kool-Aid made sure to introduce himself.
With his newfound Hollywood credentials, the bassist, who still talks in a voice laden with Southern grits, hopes his old music-biz friends will resurface when the movie hits theaters. "People will say, 'There Kool-Aid! He in Fort Lauderdale. Let's git him.' " Before long, he'll have a band back together. "Only good things can come of it," he says with certainty, nodding his head with a grin as broad as Shamu's.
In pinning high hopes on this production, Kool-Aid is far from alone. All around him, it seems, ordinary folks are polishing their acting chops and buzzing about Tinseltown careers. Some have even picked up on film-biz jargon, talking in terms of tracking shots, location scouts, boom mics, and William Morris. And the ever-important eight-by-ten glossy headshot. Nothing stirs up dreams quite like movie cameras.
When members of the film crew are not moaning about the suffocating temperatures, they are cursing nature's other film fucker-upper: rain.
Thanks to some surprise thunderstorms, an outdoor shoot has been canceled and truckloads of lights and props have been carted over to the M.I.A. Skatepark in Doral, a spacious, high-ceilinged warehouse — with no air conditioning.
The upside is that some 200 enthusiastic skater kids have dutifully shown up to volunteer as extras. Mostly, they play nonspeaking parts on fictional skateboarding teams — teams dubbed with local names like Lauderhill Grinders (a nod to the Caribbean-flavored city of Lauderhill), 954-Go-Gettas (a shoutout to Broward County's area code), and Overtown Shottas (love for the Miami ghetto). Never have these nooks of the world been so coolly immortalized.
The film, tentatively called G.E.D., is a comedy — think Friday meets Superbad. It's about three teenagers from the ghetto who drop out of school to smoke weed and skateboard. They want to win a big skate contest — but to enter it, they need high school diplomas or G.E.D.s. During their quest to finish their schooling, they steal a rabbit from an old lady and play pranks on a clownish Rastafarian named Willie Red. One of the skaters is chased by a neighborhood hoochie named Shaquida; another's big sister dates a wannabe Muslim named Brother Hakeem (played by actor Faizon Love, who starred in Idlewild and Friday). Academy Awards have been doled out for lesser story lines.