Judy Reyes, Rashaad Ernesto Green Harmony Santana & Esai Morales
*I ran into director Rashaad Ernesto Greene at a New York City gathering quite some time ago and he was kind enough to grant EURweb.com an interview, but I sat on the story and continually passed over publishing it in favor of other stories I felt were more pressing. Not my best idea. A week ago I watched his Sundance Film Festival selection “Gun Hill Road” at the Angelika Theater in New York City and was floored. Urban artistic representations have always carried realism as a business card of sorts.

Harmony Santana plays the role of Michael/Vanessa in "Gun Hill Road"

The term keep it real is spewed out so often that the line between reality and fantasy intermingle amid the syllables. But the thing about reality is it varies from person to person. “Gun Hill Road” tells the story of an ex-con who has been and out of prison nearly his entire adult life and is released after a 3 year bid to find his beloved son in the midst of a transformation from which there is no return. Starring Esai Morales, Judy Reyes, Vincent Laresca, Franky G, Harmony Santana and Isiah Whitlock Jr, “Gun Hill Road” is as real as it gets. No wonder Sundance snatched it up. This film is a welcome and much needed addition to the urban film genre. Yes, I say urban because it tells the story of city folks, dealing with city situations.

“I had hoped we would get into Sundance,” said Green of his aspirations for the film. “I had a short film that got in Sundance in 2005 called ‘Traces.’ When I made this feature I had definitely hoped it would premiere at Sundance, it would get sold, and we would have a theatrical release. These are just hopes of an artist. I feel like many artists have that same hope. Now that it has become a reality, it’s a blessing. I count my blessings and I thank my lucky stars that I have the opportunity to do what I’m able to do.”

“Every step for the film thus far has been all about getting it to more people. So, Sundance is great because that’s 50,000 people right there. My ultimate hope is that it’s how many people can I reach? I have been to Singapore, Poland and Italy with this film and it has played well out there. We know that it’s potential is good. I’m still at the very beginning of that journey but this provides us some insight as to what it can be.”

The film opened in New York on August 8th to packed houses and rave reviews. The cast in this film is awfully good by any measure. I asked Green how he was able to put it all together.

“Esai, I’ve been a fan of for many, many years, since I was 8 years old,” explained Rashaad. “I saw him in ‘LaBamba.’ So, although he didn’t know me, I felt like I had known him my entire life. He co-founded an organization called the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts with Jimmy Smits, Sandra Barajas and Felix Sanchez in Washington, DC. That organization awarded me a modest scholarship three years in a row. I got to attend a annual gala in Washington DC where I got to meet Esai Morales three years in a row.”

“The last years I had a script and I didn’t give it to him straight away, but I told him about it,” he continued. “He said to send it to his people. The script had to be good, but when I sent it to him he had to know who it was that wrote it. He remembered me as a result of that organization.”

Until Green mentioned it I didn’t realize that Esai had never truly played the lead in a feature film, but I always remembered him being a pretty darn good actor. Rashaad says the character of Enrique was designed specifically for Esai.

“The script was written with him in mind. It was a character that I thought he, at this point in his career, would love to play. He’s never gotten to play the lead in a feature before. He’s playing a Puerto Rican man from the Bronx and it’s a meaty role that he could really sink his teeth in to because he’s very talented. He just hasn’t gotten the due that he deserves. We’ve seen him do a lot of TV, but when is the last time you really saw him sink his teeth into something? I know the performances this man is capable of so I said I would write something this man would be interested in playing, and I was right.”

Judy Reyes is recognized as the actress who plays the somewhat moody, yet very Dominican, Carla on “Scrubs.”  My personal crush aside, she exudes the Bronx. .

“Judy Reyes, she’s a fiesty woman from the Bronx. It was another calculation and I was right. Has she ever gotten the chance to be a lead in a feature before? She’s got a very recognizble face coming off of “Scrubs” but that was a comedy. She probably wanted to be seen in a different light, where people could see her range, and I was right!” said Green.

“Gun Hill Road” seems to be the culmination of a bunch gambles that paid off. If only my time at the local c-low dice game could be as fruitful. Green’s is yet another voice that need to be heard and a vision that needs to be seen. They say an artist pulls inspiration from his own background and projects upon the world using him or herself as the lens. Rashaad’s unique parentage is one that offers him a unique perspective upon the world.

“I am both African American and Puerto Rican,” said Green. “There are not many Puerto Rican directors out there. Franc Reyes, but he’s showed us how to do it on the studio level. He had very marketable films (“Empire,” “Illegal Tender”) but as far as independent there’s not a lot out there. I feel like Latinos are one of the largest populations of moviegoers out here. An independent Latino film can be marketed successful. If you get that Latino support then it will be easier to make and market independent films to Latinos in the future.”

“Gun Hill Road” is currently playing at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in Los Angeles, the AMC Loews 84th Street in New York City and other theaters across the nation. for more info, go to www.gunhillroad.com.