Imagine watching a movie in 10-minute increments on your phone. That is the vision of the new Quibi (short for Quick Bites) network. But don’t think because the servings are small that the content won’t be satisfying. One of the first programs to launch is an action thriller called #FREERAYSHAWN, starring Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk, 21 Bridges) and the legendary Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, John Wick).
#FREERAYSHAWN tells the story of a young, Black Iraq War veteran named Rayshawn who is set up by New Orleans cops in a drug deal, runs for his life, and takes refuge inside his apartment building with his girlfriend and child. With the New Orleans PD and the SWAT team outside ready to storm his home, Rashawn begins streaming his ordeal to social media and a frenzy begins as community members and news outlets arrive at the scene. Fishburne is a veteran NOLA cop named Steven Poincy who tries to get Rayshawn to surrender before he is killed.
The 10-episode series is Executive Produced by Antoine Fuqua (The Equalizer) and directed by Seith Mann (Homeland, The Breaks). BET spoke with James about this new format for entertainment and fighting for justice in the age of social media.
BET: How did you become involved with this project?
Stephan James: I had a meeting with Antoine Fuqua and he pitched me this incredible idea of a modern day take on Dog Day Afternoon. Obviously, set with a young Black man who is ex-military and gets set up by the police and barricades himself in his apartment to negotiate his release with the police department. To me, it struck me as a ride of a concept. I love things that are contained and have suspense and sort of take you on a ride in that fashion. So, it was exciting from that standpoint. And it’s incredibly timely. I think the reality is that as Black men we are susceptible to a system that doesn’t always work in our favor. To be able to portray that in film and to have the involvement of the social media era that we’re in, all those factors just struck me as really compelling. So, it was a no-brainer for me to be involved in it.
BET: How do you feel about the micro-episode format for storytelling?
Stephan James: It didn’t make any difference to me. I treat #FreeRayshawn like a film as far as the process for me, day in and day out on set. I think that the writers do a good job at making sure the script is written for something that could be broken apart and separated by ads or trailers. So, there are certain cliffhangers that you end on as you go through episodes. But as far as the acting, I treat it just like a film.
BET: How long did it take to shoot?
Stephan James: As far as filming I think we shot it in two months in New Orleans.
BET: Through the first three episodes that I watched, your interaction with Laurence Fishburne is limited, but what was it like working with the Hollywood great?
Stephan James: Fish is amazing. What a legend. I was so excited to be able to do it with him. It’s a shame that we couldn’t actually be in the flesh together more in a lot of those scenes. But he’s an incredible actor who I’ve watched my whole life. I think his energy in the film, it elevates the whole thing. I’m happy to share the screen with him on this one.
BET: I saw shadows of 21 Bridges in this one, considering your character in that film was running from the police as well. How much of your previous roles did you bring to this, if at all?
Stephan James: I think that my character in 21 Bridges, Michael, was ex-military and Rayshawn is ex-military, so there are certain things like the mindset that would bleed over a little bit. Just in terms of the stealth and the way that he moves in his tiny apartment. Also, the gun training stuff. Now that you mention it that was probably one of those things that I just carried over from 21 that I was able to be more comfortable with, guns and weapons.
BET: There is a pivotal moment where Rayshawn is streaming what is happening on his Instagram live and says he doesn’t want to end up like Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. However, how much power do we have with social media when it comes to obtaining justice, considering that we’ve had men like Philando Castille and Eric Garner who had their deaths by police captured on camera?
Stephan James: Hmm. It’s kind of crazy, the times that we’re in, the fact that social media is an outlet we see being used more and more as sort of a cry for help. To me, I think it can certainly be a powerful tool. Has it always helped us? No. Do we always come out on the other side? No. But I don’t think we can underestimate the power of social media and what those calls do to rally a following and to raise awareness of a situation and sometimes these camera phones are saving lives. As soon as people know that they’re on, you change your demeanor if you’re a police officer. Sometimes the camera doesn’t change anything, but you gotta think that in the social media era that we’re in, we’re going to see it used more in those situations.
BET: Rayshawn and his family are almost literally sheltering in place. How have you been making out with the national COVID-19 lockdown?
Stephan James: That’s interesting, man. For me I’m a little bit of a homebody so it’s probably not affecting me as much as a lot of people. But I think times like this put everything into perspective. Just how grateful you are to walk to the mall and be able to shop and get what you want. Needless to say, people won’t take those things for granted anymore.
For Free Rayshawn that’s a place I found myself in, with the stress of a whole police department outside that doesn’t want me to see this through. It’s intense. Even filming the scenes there is something intoxicating about spending the majority of your time within the confines of these walls. The majority of this film takes place in an apartment. That wears on you psychologically over time. I think that it wore on us. We’d start [filming] at 3 in the afternoon and you’re not getting off until 4 or 5 the next morning. So, all those things play into the psyche of these characters.
BET: How do you think audiences will respond to #FREERAYSHAWN?
Stephan James: It’s really a ride of a film. I think that it’s gonna be one of those things that people are gonna be glued to and kind of want to see more of as the episodes go by. It never allows you to take a breather and sit back and relax. It’s high action, high intensity. I hope that people enjoy it and also recognize that this is a real-life thing and that people deal with these situations every day in North America. It’s very timely.
#FREERAYSHAWN is streaming on Quibi.