Roderick Lawrence’s first short movie tackles effects of microaggressions on Black professionals

By Amanda Koehn

When his shows closed at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, actor Roderick Lawrence was in Cleveland and had time to think.

Without plays and other acting jobs keeping him busy, the Northeast Ohio native began exploring his own mental health journey and challenges he’s faced throughout his life.

Not only did he realize that for Black men, mental health is “not something that anybody really dives into,” but also the constant negative power microaggressions have on his state of mind, emotions and even success at work. He found out the same subtle yet powerful, harmful racist slights he’s experienced throughout his career are relatively common for Black people working in nearly every industry, he tells Canvas.

“I wanted to tell an authentically Black story about struggles that young, affluent, educated, brilliant Black couples and people are going through,” Lawrence says.

“Silent Partner” by Black Man Films.

Lawrence – who graduated from Orange High School and Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music in Berea before moving to New York City in 2011 – channeled that experience into a 16-minute film that will show at the Cleveland International Film Festival April 6 at Allen Theatre in downtown Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. “Silent Partner,” the film he co-produced, co-wrote and starred in, has not only led to festival success near and far, but a new company to create productions illustrating aspects of the Black experience.

Northeast Ohio beginnings

Lawrence. | Photo / Ben Witherwax

Lawrence, 33, says he became interested in acting around the end of high school, after playing football and dabbling in playing guitar and singing growing up. A 2007 Orange graduate (who then went by Roderick L. Ingram Jr.), his parents encouraged him to apply to musical theater schools like Baldwin Wallace.

He’s performed on Cleveland-area stages including Playhouse Square, Cain Park, Cleveland Public Theatre, Great Lakes Theater and Dobama Theatre, according to a news release, and starred in plays and musicals in New York City and elsewhere. He’s also appeared in TV shows such as Comedy Central’s “Broad City,” in which he played “hot lawyer” in the 2015 episode “Citizen Ship.” He’s also done voiceovers for the National Basketball Association and played Simba in Disney’s “The Lion King.”

“Silent Partner” marks the first time Lawrence has taken on a producing and writing role. After coming up with an idea for a film, he partnered with Salma Qarnain, who he previously worked with on an off-Broadway show and who “has a background in producing and literally everything,” he says.

The pair got to work on the short film, which shot in February 2021 in New York City and Weston, Conn. Editing wrapped around the end of May in preparation for the upcoming film festival circuit.

“Silent Partner” by Black Man Films.

Microaggressions and worse

“Silent Partner” takes the audience through a dinner party from the perspective of a Black trial attorney – played by Lawrence – who is about to be named partner at a white-shoe law firm. After successfully defending a white woman charged with murdering a Black teen, the main character begins to question his promotion and the microaggressions – and worse offenses – he’s willing to put up with for the job.

The aim was to take the microaggressions Black professionals face across different industries and narrow in on one fictional story, he says.

“We talked to so many different Black people – and so many very rich, very well-off Black people,” Lawrence says. “Many of them had been to dinners like this – and so many of them.”

The film is chilling. The dinner party gives a sense that at the slightest misstep of the main character, something very bad could happen. Besides the main character and his wife, the characters give off a creepy/icky vibe as they spew racist stereotypes. As Lawrence says, “the horror in it is that it’s real.”

Some have said the film reminds them of “Get Out,” the Oscar award-winning 2017 horror film written and directed by Jordan Peele, Lawrence says. He gives credit to the “phenomenal” actors and “unbelievable” director, Aristotle Torres, who worked to make “Silent Partner” as strong as it is.

It debuted at the Martha’s Vineyard African-American Film Festival last August. The Cleveland International Film Festival – which is in-person from March 30 through April 9, and on the CIFF streaming platform from April 10-17 – is the 10th festival “Silent Partner” has been featured in, and the third Oscar-qualifying one.

Lawrence says on top of meeting the film’s goal of making people feel seen and heard in an authentic way, being selected for the major film festival in his hometown made its success even sweeter.

“If I can premiere my first film in my hometown at an Oscar-qualifying festival, in front of my family, friends and all that, that would be a huge blessing,” he says.

The film’s production included several others with Northeast Ohio connections: associate producer Ike Mbanefo (a graduate of University School), associate producer Ankur Garg (a graduate of Case Western Reserve University), associate producer and gaffer/drone operator Derryl Strong (creative director at Adcom), assistant director and script supervisor Tiffany Beacham, and production assistant Marcus Martin (a graduate of Baldwin Wallace).

Lawrence, whose parents still reside in Northeast Ohio, says he was adamant about making those local connections.

“I wanted to keep the production team as minority filled, Black filled as I possibly could, the artistic team, all of it” he says. “And I also wanted to get a lot of Cleveland hometown people involved because if we are going to create jobs and opportunities, then why not create it for (Cleveland) people?” 

“Silent Partner” by Black Man Films.

Black Man Films

As interest began to stir up for “Silent Partner,” Lawrence and Qarnain considered best strategies for getting it out to the public. Qarnain suggested starting a production company. Lawrence says he hadn’t thought about starting one before, “but if the name Black Man Films is available, let’s do it.”

It was available, and “Silent Partner” became Black Man Films’ first production.

Looking to the future, there’s talk of making “Silent Partner” into a feature-length production, Lawrence says. A couple other ideas in the vein of mental health, social issues and the like are also being fleshed out, and Lawrence adds that collaborators have approached him about working together. He hopes to keep the momentum going.

In addition to his producing and writing work with Black Man Films, Lawrence says at his core, he’s still a working actor, calling it his “job, love and everything.” While acting in “Silent Partner,” he used the same process as he would for any other acting job as not to take away from the skill needed to deliver best performance possible, he says. He took himself out of the editing process as not to alter the ultimate vision of creating a movie that allows Black people specifically to feel seen, and with an ending that kicks.

“For me, it was just giving the message that the film has to fill our souls,” he says, careful not to give away any spoilers. “Obviously, we work so hard to get these promotions and do things, but at what cost do we want to give these things away? So the end was huge for me and huge for us, and it was probably the only thing that didn’t change throughout.”

“Silent Partner” by Black Man Films.

If you go

WHAT: “Silent Partner” at the Cleveland International Film Festival

WHERE: Allen Theatre, 1407 Euclid Ave., Cleveland, and on CIFF46 Streams On Demand

WHEN: In theater at 11:50 a.m. April 6. On CIFF46 Streams On Demand from 11 a.m. April 10 through 11:59 p.m. April 17

TICKETS & INFO: More info on “Silent Partner” here. Read more about CIFF here.

About “Silent Partner”

Run time: 16 minutes

Year: 2021

Director: Aristotle Torres

Producers: Salma Qarnain, Roderick Lawrence, Celeste Watkins-Hayes, Rejji Hayes

Screenwriting: Story by Roderick Lawrence, Aristotle Torres; written by Aristotle Torres, J.J. Johnson

Cinematography: Eric Branco

Editing: Taylor Levy

Principal Cast: Roderick Lawrence, Kara Young, Michael Park, Maia Guest, Jeff Ryan