Lawrence’s new short gives a spoken word spin to classic love story
By Amanda Koehn
After showing his first short film at the Cleveland International Film Festival last year, Roderick Lawrence returns to CIFF this month to debut a new short film, “Speak Up Brotha!”.
Lawrence is a 2007 graduate of Orange High School (he then went by Roderick L. Ingram Jr.) and a graduate of Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Berea. The 14-minute film he wrote, produced and acted in will be shown at the Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland at 7:20 p.m. March 29, as part of “Local Heroes: Shorts 2.”
CIFF kicks off March 22 and runs in Playhouse Square theaters through April 1. “Speak Up Brotha!” will also be viewable online during CIFF Streams from April 2-9.
Filmed in New York City’s Harlem last fall, “Speak Up Brotha!” draws from Black romance films of the 1990s, aiming to offer a new perspective on Black love and relationships and mental health. It highlights spoken word poetry through the eyes of its main character, Ahmad.
Lawrence spoke with Canvas about his new film, his production company, Black Man Films, and his upcoming return to Cleveland for the film festival.
“It was a lot of beautiful things that came together, and we wanted to make a great story out of it,” he says.
In the film, Ahmad, played by Lawrence, is a graduate student who struggles with anxiety and communication. Supplementing his income by driving rideshare, he meets an interesting woman. He pushes himself to lean into her world of poetry to further connect.
For couples and in love stories, “I think there’s just a communication barrier,” he says. “And it was cool to explore the idea of making our own love language, and that being spoken word. But also just it being a symbol for us not communicating with our partners and our anxiety being crippling.”
Lawrence was developing the idea about a year ago when he was in Cleveland to show “Silent Partner,” his first film, at CIFF46. He connected on Instagram with his favorite spoken word poet, Obbie West, who wrote the poems for the new film.
It came together quicker than expected, Lawrence says, and they shot it in Harlem, where Lawrence also resides, in about three-and-a-half months. The timing worked out perfectly to premiere it at CIFF.
“I wanted to premiere it at an Oscar-qualifying festival, and obviously if I can premiere it in my hometown, that’s the dream,” says Lawrence, who will visit Cleveland for the premiere.
His first short film, “Silent Partner,” showed at 21 film festivals, including CIFF. It won eight awards, multiple nominations and qualified for the 2023 Oscars.
As an actor, Lawrence has performed on many Cleveland-area stages including Playhouse Square, Cain Park, Cleveland Public Theatre, Great Lakes Theater and Dobama Theatre. He has starred in plays and musicals in New York City and beyond, and appeared in TV roles.
In addition to beginning the festival circuit with his new film, Lawrence and his team are also starting to film another short that is a co-production of Black Man Films – the company he and producer Salma Qarnain created initially to produce “Silent Partner” and future films. And in December, they will begin to film a feature-length version of “Silent Partner.”
While the plot of “Speak Up Brotha!” as a love story is quite different from “Silent Partner,” which chillingly focuses on microaggressions faced by Black professionals, the films have common themes like anxiety and mental health as experienced by Black people.
“(Anxiety is) so crippling to different people in different ways,” Lawrence says. “And it shows up at different times in different ways, and nobody really talks about it. So, I think it was the relatability of people being able to see something that they might relate to in the anxiety, and then seeing that person work it out at the end. I think it’s a cool thing that we don’t get to see all the time.”
Tickets for CIFF47 are on sale at clevelandfilm.org. A full list of films and locations can also be found on the CIFF47 website.
Canvas readers can receive a discount to CIFF by using the coupon code MEDIA47.
Canvas is a media sponsor of CIFF47.
If you go
WHAT: “Speak Up Brotha!” at Cleveland International Film Festival
WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, and on CIFF47 Streams
WHEN: In theater at 7:20 p.m. March 29. On CIFF Streams from April 2-9.
TICKETS & INFO: More info on “Speak Up Brotha!” here. CIFF and ticket info here.