Some might say that we are all linked – each separated from another by a mere six steps or degrees. The cast of the film Canal Street seems to be a real-life demonstration of this theory and promotes the idea that our lives are always intertwining with the lives of others, allowing us opportunities to share our stories as humans co-existing with each other. The connections among the film’s cast members are significant and slightly surreal: Actor Bryshere Y. Gray (Empire) and Woody McClain (The Bobby Brown Story), who starred together in 2017’s BET hit miniseries The New Edition Story. Mekhi Phifer played Woody’s brother in The Bobby Brown Story. Jamie Hector and Lance Reddick both starred in HBO’s The Wire; and Michael Beach (who stars in one of last year’s most acclaimed movies also having a street in its name, Beale Street) starred in the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale with actor Mykelti Williamson. Whether the slight degrees of separation amongst the cast members was designed by its casting director or simply a divine act, the ties between the cast underscores this major theme of the movie – we as human beings are all connected.
Set in present day Chicago, Canal Street tells the story of a community that is torn apart and divided when the lives of two teenage boys (one Black and one white) collide and force those around them to question the “lens” through which they see and relate to others.
“How do we show an example of the world we live in on screen in 92 minutes?” asks director, co-writer and executive producer Rhyan LaMarr. “Well, it’s going to be chaotic, but it’s gonna get you there, and when you leave, you’re going to check yourself.”
BET.com spoke with LaMarr, Amir Windom, the movie’s executive producer and music supervisor, and actor Jamie Hector, who plays Pastor Sam Billings, about Canal Street, its major themes and takeaways, and its relevance given the state of the world we presently live in.
BET: For those who still have yet to see Canal Street, as well as those who have viewed the movie already, what do you want the takeaway to be?
Rhyan: When you’re working on something that’s anointed, and it’s in God’s hands, you’re kind of expecting God to do miraculous things with something that isn’t that miraculous. And by me saying that, I’m saying this: [I want] people to leave the theaters uplifted… We were trying to create something that would uplift people during the times they’re in today – during the struggles, the chaos that we’re dealing with – we wanted to create something that people could feel hopeful when they left the theater. And when I’ve been to screenings and I’ve witnessed people walking out in tears, they’re walking out in tears of joy. They’re happy. They’re uplifted. Amir did an amazing job on the music, and that has a lot to do with how you leave the theater. You’re coming into the movie with everything that you’re coming into the movie with, with the world that you’re dealing with, and you’re sitting there, and you’re seeing real-life situations unfold in front of you, but the one thing that we don’t have when you go to sleep, when you’re watching the news and we’re seeing these horrible stories that are unfolding in front of us, is our happy ending. That’s one thing that I feel Canal Street does – it gives a sense of hope for the people that are watching the movie. That they can leave the theater with that spirit of joy and hope and prayerfully spread it and bring about a conversation and be a part of the change, and be a part of the solution.
Amir: [Canal Street] is that entertaining spiritual treat. You go to the theater, and we do want you to be entertained, but the biggest thing we want you to feel is like you’ve been on a spiritual retreat… Now you find yourself talking about it and having little conversations about it, and that’s what we’ve seen so far. We could’ve made a comedy or we could’ve made a romantic love story, but we literally made something that the people have spoken and said that this is something that is impacting my mind and is helping me not see color anymore, and look through the lens of unity, love and faith, and start having conversations with people who don’t look like me and don’t have the same religion as I have… more than highlighting any particular social injustices, we want people to experience the feelings of unity, love and faith.
Jamie, as an actor, what attracted you to this project?
Jamie: Primarily for me it’s always the script, first and foremost. I read it and I fell in love with it right away because it was telling the story of a young man who was coming from a good family that I was rooting for. And in rooting for that individual I had the opportunity to play a pastor, an individual that even as he goes through his struggles in life, he always has to be that one that’s standing in the storm for others, so that they can fall back on faith and they can fall back on him as he goes to God, and just basically tries to help them through their situation. When I was younger, moving from where I was living and where I was raised at and having to move out of there was painful for me because I didn’t want to leave my family and friends and relatives, and then I had to move to another location, and that was a struggle for me in itself, because now I had to go and make new friends, and go and meet new people, and I had to go and try and get accustomed to that way of life. So not only going through that, but losing a mother and then having to live this life by going through the struggle of being accused of a crime that I didn’t commit – all of that was the reason why I jumped into this material.
How did you prepare to play a pastor?
I told Rhyan I want to shadow somebody, you have anybody in mind? And he said, “I do.” And he thought of a pastor in Compton that was surrounded – his congregation caters more so to the Crips, the Bloods and I think a Latino gang that surrounds the church – and that’s his congregation, these young kids between the ages of 16, 17 to 30, and they relate to him, they respect him, they believe in him, they trust, you know? And when they’re going through their ups and downs they come to him. When they’re doing good they come to him. And they don’t forget him because they’re loyal. And that individual, I wanted to actually let the world see, so that’s the reason why I jumped into this.
The content of the movie is very interesting, because initially you believe it is about race, social injustice, prison reform, but that perception changes as the movie unfolds. Can you talk about the direction and focus of the movie?
Rhyan: You know, we live in a world of chaos. We live in a world of short attention spans now, and everything’s accessible. So, with everything being assessable, everybody’s ideas and opinions and Google…you don’t go to the library to research things anymore, you just go on your phone. And so, I wanted to structure the film in a way, as we were penning the script, I wanted it to feel kind of chaotic, and we wanted it to feel very judgmental in the beginning. We almost wanted it to make the decision for you in the beginning to show you what your eyes are seeing. And it was very on point and very purposeful the way that it was structured. It’s so easy to say there’s a black kid, there’s a white kid, he’s dead, OK this is going to be about black and white. Oh, but wait – the defending lawyer is black, and the prosecutor is black, so now we’re gonna throw out the whole black and white thing. Oh, but wait, it’s not about a Black kid getting killed by a Caucasian person, it’s actually about a white kid getting killed by a black kid, you know, and wait it’s not going to be Black people on one side and white people on another side, it’s going to be about the city of Chicago and the diversity that surrounds it, and the segregation. And with segregation and diversity, it’s not just color, it’s where you grow up. It’s also how you were raised, it’s also financial status, it’s also your opinions on gay and straight, and your Democratic affiliation, and your Republican affiliation – this is the world we live in.
Amir: Another undertone that we wanted to address in the film was fatherhood. Every father was depicted as loving, caring and present. We wanted to showcase the love that Mykelti [as Jackie Styles] had for Kholi, but we also showed love and just the care that fathers of all the races that we have highlighted have for kids. There’s a scene where Jackie says, “I know my son didn’t have a gun. I know it and I believe it.” His love for his son was just so profound that he was like, my son wouldn’t do that. Mekhi [Phifer] plays kind of the villain, but there’s a period of time where you still see him as a loving father, a present father, and he still has the mindset of a father enough where it challenges his judgment. Because when it comes to cross-examining Kholi, he thinks about his own kids and he’s like, it’s hard for him to do this because [he thinks] if my son was on the stand, I would want someone to show me grace as well. I would describe one of the major undertones of the movie as grace and mercy.
Reaching millennials was important to you. How did that shape how you approached making this film?
Amir: One thing I know that we often have to do with this film is touch the millennial soul, and Rhyan and I are very similar in thought. We knew one way to do so was through music, and so if you listen to the music in our movie, it sounds like your modern-day hit in terms of the music and the sound and even some of the content, but we essentially are saying let’s meet them where they are. Let’s not preach to them, let’s have a conversation with them where their voice matters too. And so with Canal Street, we have Bryshere for a reason. We have Woody for a reason. We have Kevin Quinn – we have all of these millennial faces for a reason, because we want them to see some people that they may idolize and say wow, they made a movie that was about faith, unity and love, at the early part of their careers. We have to replenish our souls.
Any thoughts on the recent attack on actor Jussie Smollett in Chicago, where this movie was actually filmed? And does it serve as a powerful reason why we need a movie like Canal Street right now?
Rhyan: Let’s just always remember that this script was written in 2005, for what was going on in 2005. So I always say, it’s sad, but it’s still relatable, because this script should be sitting in my closet, because the world should’ve made some leaps and bounds since 2005. With Jussie, it’s so sad because Jussie has actually been one of our main supporters in Chicago. He bought out a theater [three] weeks ago. I frequent the set of Empire – I’ve got plenty of friends on that set that work behind and in front of the camera – so it’s a shame that it happened in Chicago, but it’s not surprising. And I’m not saying that it’s not surprising that it happened in Chicago, I’m saying it’s not surprising because these things happen every day. They’re happening every day to our brothers and sisters, and that’s not just a color thing anymore. It’s also a sexual preference thing – people are being targeted left and right. So when you have a film like Canal Street come out, that’s setting up the conversation to put the mirror up so everybody can look at themselves, I think that it’s only God to have something like this come out right now. I think it’s a tragedy what’s happening day in and day out in America, it’s not just Chicago, it’s just not. The media likes to harp on Chicago, but then again we wanted to create this film to bring hope, to shine a light on Chicago, because there’s a cloud on it right now.
Jamie: It’s unfortunate, and it’s disgusting, and it’s sad that this happened to Jussie. I don’t know him personally, but his reputation precedes him and I know everybody that talks about this young man speaks with kindness and about how much of a nice guy he is. But sometimes, it takes things to happen to a nice and real individual for the world to see what’s going on. And it’s like, the amount of love, and respect, and anger and that feeling of I’m fed up, that feeling of me wanting to go to Chicago, like, y’all got nerve… Just sitting back and seeing what happened to him and the light that’s being shined on it, and the fact that they messed up by doing this to him, because now we know the light is gonna be shined on him and on the community at large and people that are running around with MAGA hats on – we know what it symbolizes now. Even if we didn’t know before, we know now. And when it comes down to Canal Street, if you really think about it, this young man moves into a community, a situation takes place, and then while it takes place he is immediately judged and there’s a discussion in regards to it being true or not. So I get a phone call today from my people, and the conversation that I’m having with them is the disrespect that so many people have on social media and trying to judge [Jussie] as if what he was saying was… that he made it up. With Bryshere’s character in Canal Street he’s saying what happened, but it’s as if he made it up.
A major theme of the movie is dealing with a loved one who is incarcerated. What advice would you give to families faced with this situation?
Jamie: I want to say, constantly visit them. Do not leave it up to the system in any way. Once you go in the first time, fault of your own or not, you kind of give up on the system, and things start to happen and it starts a trickle-down effect – but the more visits that you get, and the more show of support that you get, the chance is that you will not revisit again, or give up on life.
Also, there’s a lot of institutions and people that are willing to try and help you, like the Innocence Project. Jay-Z and Meek Mill and Michael Novogratz, they’re still trying to reform this entire prison system, which is chaotic and just modern-day slavery of Black men. Keep knocking. It will drain you, it will tap you out, but it’s about finding the right door to knock on, and making it a point that you don’t give up. They don’t try to just attack that pocket, they try to attack that spirit. You have to stay grounded in that word, and you’ve got to keep pushing and holding people accountable the best way that you possibly can, especially if you have family outside, you cannot be forgotten.
Rhyan: As a writer, when people ask me about the story of Canal Street and say where’d you get the story, is it based on a true story, it’s actually inspired by many stories that I myself, Adam Key and Jon Knitter experienced growing up on different sides of the Midwest. Adam Key is half Jewish, half African-American, John Knitter is Polish-American, I’m African-American, so we already just come from different approaches and different upbringings. The character played by Woody McClain is actually based off of one of my best friends who is doing a life sentence right now for a crime that he didn’t commit. He’s been locked up since 1998. And I have several stories like that. Pretty much my whole crew growing up is all incarcerated – some of them for crimes they did commit but the crime doesn’t fit the punishment, and then others that did not commit that crime at all. And so it’s something that I knew too, too well. The political and the judicial system, and just the law… as Jamie said, it’s a mess. There are tactics that police officers are taught to interrogate our young minority men and women to talk themselves into time – and that is not the way that it should be. We are literally not given any rights, and persuaded into telling on ourselves when we’ve done nothing wrong, and so I thought that it was important to show that. I had somebody in New York [tell] me, well that would never happen, and I said well that actually is what happened, and it’s based off of literally what happened in the room. It almost looks fake because you’re like, for somebody who doesn’t experience that it doesn’t exist. And you’re like yes, it does exist, that’s how I grew up. I grew up fearing the cops. I grew up heart beating when you see a cop drive past you. And it’s systemic, it’s passed down, and being able to create art that imitates life is important today, because we can give you examples of how to react, how to respond, and also as Jamie said, as hard as it is, to stay in that person’s life and to bring it back to what Amir was saying, being faithful enough to fight for your child, or fight for your loved one. It’s important.
Jamie: One thing that I know is that what affects people most in certain circumstances or institutions rather is when you hit their pocket, right? Hit ‘em where it hurts. When you’re going through a situation like that, especially a situation where you’re innocent, in the back of your mind, to keep that you’re going to sue these cats. It might sound far-fetched, but I know a couple of people that have done it. In a case they pulled over a friend of mine, pulled him over, beat him down, but they didn’t know that he was pre-law. So of course he took them to court [and] sued. I saw three individuals do that, back-to-back, and it kind of will slow down the process of trying to humiliate or wreck and terrorize the community the way that it is being done, because money talks in terms of when you really shake things up by making them feel it in their pocket.
What can we do to create more Canal Streets on which we can come together and have greater love and understanding for one another?
Rhyan: How do we create more Canal Streets? We’re doing it right now. Create things that can inspire people, and not be selfish about the wisdom that you have, and be willing to share your wisdom with everybody, because that will be reciprocated back. I got here because people poured wisdom into me. They didn’t pour finances into me, they poured wisdom into me and that was invaluable. There’s canal streets across America. A canal is a body of water that opens up into many different facets and so the title was very intricate in that. There’s a Canal Street everywhere, and we want the conversation to flow everywhere.
Canal Street is in theaters now!