Angel Manuel Soto is set to direct “Blue Beetle”, DC’s first film to center on a Latino superhero. He has also been making a name for himself in Tinseltown for his new movie, “Charm City Kings”. The film was also announced as the Sundance Film Festival winner of the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast last year.
Produced by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company, Overbrook Entertainment, “Charm City Kings” follows Baltimore teenager Mouse (played by Jahi Di’Allo Winston) as he navigates through the temptations of life and his desire to be apart of the dirt bike gang Midnight Clique.
Having been raised in Puerto Rico, the topic of racial inequality and toxic masculinity resonated deeply with Angel Manuel Soto. He was able to incorporated his personal experiences into the material and keep it as realistic as possible. Instead of hiring random extras, the visionary director opted to include real riders, in order for them to have a voice.
In this interview, the 38-year-old discuss his directing style, working with rapper Meek Mill, and why the 3 young male actors were perfect for their respective roles in “Charm City Kings”. Get the full scope here:
Q: How did you arrive at directing “Charm City Kings”?
A: My agents were fast enough to get this script in my hands, which was titled “12 O’Clock Boys” at that time because it’s pretty much based on Lofty Nathan’s documentary. As I was reading the script, with a ‘story by’ credit for “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins, I was surprised how much I saw of myself in the character of Mouse, not just on a personal level but his environment as well. Baltimore read like Puerto Rico, the conflicts, the street politics, the obstacles that the kids face, they read like the same temptations that I had growing up back home. I found that through the character of Mouse and the city of Baltimore, I was able to tell a story that not only spoke about me, Puerto Rico or Baltimore and its people, but it’s also a love letter to marginalised communities and disenfranchised youth elsewhere.
Q: Had you been to Baltimore before making “Charm City Kings”? What was your impression of the city given the moniker Charm City?
A: The only times I’ve ever visited Baltimore was for this film. The first time was for a couple of weeks, just seven weeks before the shoot, embedded with the characters, getting immersed in the community and dirt-bike culture. The architecture of the city of Baltimore is very peculiar, like the row houses on West Baltimore are different than the row houses in other parts of the city. You cannot fake Baltimore. I studied architecture, so I pay close attention to those details that form the urban aspects of a society.
With a story set in Baltimore, inspired by Baltimore, we would have done a huge disservice to an otherwise under-represented, vilified and criminalised community by shooting elsewhere. Given the fact that Jada Pinkett Smith and Caleeb Pinkett, the producers of the film, are from Baltimore, we wanted to be in Baltimore, to tell the story for Baltimore and about Baltimore. So, even though you can have tax breaks in other cities that have similar architecture – we really wanted to keep the authenticity intact.
Q: Had you watched the “12 O’Clock Boys” documentary before you read the script? What were your feelings about the doc and immersing yourself in the dirt bike culture it depicted?
A: I saw the documentary when it came out in 2014. When I got the script in 2017, I revisited the documentary, but that’s as far as I took it. Once I was in Baltimore, and I hung out with people with dirt bikes, I realised it’s not an exclusive club, it’s actually pretty inclusive. You see people from all over town, people enjoying the tricks, people having fun, it’s very welcoming. At least with me, they treated me as one of their own and they kept inviting me to more events. It was invaluable having that experience. It’s something that I took from my journalistic experiences around the world. I never liked to be the person that just drops into a place, shoots and leaves town. I feel there is a responsibility when wanting to give a voice to a community to be immersed in their culture, to show some respect and have their trust, so that they can become part of the process. We had the community involved, almost every day of the production. People came in, keeping us in check on how you say things, how you pronounce things. A lot of the actors and secondary actors are from Baltimore.
Q: Your use of colours, for example, the use of neon, and the different lenses gives the film a kind of magical realism quality. Why was this style important to you?
A: Personally, in terms of the movies that inform my visual language, I think I come from a neo-realistic background. Then I wanted to tap into other elements and use modern technology to capture things that otherwise would have been difficult if you only went through the neorealistic lens, and combine them in a way that feels unique and yet raw within this world. I think it does give that sense of magic realism because we’re really trying to show the soul of our characters visually as opposed to just a snippet of their lives. Katelin Arizmendi, the Director of Photography, was able to hone all those things while still keeping the energy and dynamism that a movie involving dirt-bikes required, but with a sensibility, and tact that Kate has been able to show through her body of work.
Q: Regarding showing the soul of the characters, Mouse is at a crossroads in his life. How did you develop his story, and what struck you about the choices facing Mouse at this particular point in time?
A: One of the things that I hold dear in terms of the whole production and development of the movie was that we didn’t want to make the film about bikes. This is not the Fast and Furious type of story at all, even though it allows for moments of action to happen. We felt the urgency of telling a coming-of-age story of what it’s like to be a person of colour in a marginalised community, avoiding the temptations to use familiar tropes, and show a side of this reality where most kids have hopes and dreams that go beyond the expectations of our society.
In the case of Mouse, he wants to be a vet. In the movies, we rarely see people of colour who dream of being a veterinarian, and why not? So being able to explore different tropes and different personalities within the coming-of-age story, we felt it would be poignant to showcase a different perspective. And within that, also show a world where we understand the realities, we see the news, we can watch documentaries, more times than not the life on the streets takes you to the same ending. But here, we wanted to show what life could be, given the right mentorship, where there is an understanding of the deconstruction of patriarchal structures or toxic masculinity. To take us on a journey where all those elements affect the upbringing of a child.
Life is hard, not everybody makes the right choices, but you can have other realities, and tackling that in a way where I’m not beating you over the head with issues. So that was our North Star.
Q: The central friendship between the three boys is the glue of the story, how did you cast Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Mouse, Donielle Tremaine Hansley “Lil Dee Dee” as Lamont and Kezii Curtis as Sweartagawd?
A: That casting for me was one of the most entertaining and joyous moments. We went to Baltimore, we looked for our Mouse everywhere, and we found amazing characters and talent, but I was still to find the actor that carries this character’s soul on his face. The soul is something that I see in the eyes. After that, we went on a national search and that’s when we stumbled across Jahi, Kezii and Lil Dee Dee. When we did that chemistry read, it was amazing to see how those kids connected. They were laughing and telling jokes as if they grew up together. We still had people to see, but I knew we are not going to find this chemistry, it’s such a hard thing to mimic. They’re still friends today.
Q: When you cast Meek Mill, did you think he would also provide the soundtrack?
A: To be honest, when I came to the project, Meek Mill already had that role. That was his. And then he was accused of violating his probation and ended up in prison. During that time, we started looking for different actors and I even had my eyes on one. Right around that moment, Meek is released from prison and came back into the project. Meek is a prominent rapper who hasn’t acted before. Neither had Chino Braxton who plays Jamal and Lakeyria “Wheelie Queen” Doughty who plays Queen. They all started with cold feet, but they really stepped up to the plate. Then with the music, Millidelphia and Uptown Vibes are songs that came out when we were in pre-production. At first, I didn’t know we were going to use music from Meek, but as we were shooting the scenes, it became obvious that it was the right music. We tried a bunch of other songs, but Millidelphia was so perfect, so it was a happy balance.
Q: The project is from a story by Barry Jenkins, with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith as producers, how was it working with such illustrious names?
A: Of course, that was overwhelming. The good thing about working with them is that they let us do our thing. Barry Jenkins, I met him for the first time on New Year’s Eve in Puerto Rico, so I got to show him around and show him my neighbourhood. Will and Jada, they let Caleeb and Clarence Hammond, do their thing as producers, and let us own the story. They only stepped in towards the end in the editing room and gave us a couple of notes. But they really embraced our creative impulse. They encouraged us to go with our guts when it comes to portraying the story of Mouse, so I can’t think of anyone better to pull this off with.
Watch the trailer here:
“Charm City Kings” premieres on 9th March at 9pm on HBO GO and HBO (Astro Ch 411 HD).