Seven years ago, filmmaker Russell Blanchard walked into the Blackstar Café in Algiers and began chatting with owner Baakir Tyehimba.
Blanchard, a Thibodeaux native, had just moved to the neighborhood, and when the conversation turned towards ways of reaching out and helping within the community, Tyehimba told Blanchard about the abandoned lot across the street from Blackstar.
“He tried to turn it into a park for kids,” said Blanchard, 33. But not just a park – an afterschool workshop where neighborhood kids could learn building skills. In other words, the park was going to be built for the kids and, in part, by the kids.
Despite some early momentum, mountains of insurance, red tape and historical building code restrictions eventually brought the project to a halt. Over time, what was already built was taken off the lot or torn down, and it now stands half-empty, except for the original fence posts set in place years ago.
Blanchard was working on another project at the time but Tyehimba’s story stuck with him. Ultimately, he says, “it inspired me to go ahead and make a short film script about it. Then one thing led to another and eventually we turned it into a short movie.”
The plot centers on Grady (played by Escalante Lundy), a café owner who attempts to befriend a boy, Christian (Justus Denair Breston), shunned by his community as they struggle to turn an abandoned lot into a park.
“So we basically took the community and kind of made a character of a young boy as a representative of the community,” said Blanchard.
The entire cast and crew were all locals and, of the six actors, only three had prior acting experience (including Lundy, who was in Django Unchained).
The crew took longer to assemble, about six to nine months, Blanchard said. “It took meeting with people, sharing the story with them and making sure it fit in everybody’s schedule.”
But most importantly, “they had to believe in what we were doing,” he added. “They had to believe in the projects because we really couldn’t afford to pay anybody, so it took a while…but we got a great, great crew together.”
Blanchard expects post-production to be completed in October or November, with a premier to follow and then the film festival circuit. But the project has already garnered a lot of positive buzz from New York-based Indiewire, the largest independent film company in the country, having already won a project of the day contest, then project of the week and now currently in the running for project of the month. (Voting ends Friday at 9:00 AM.)
The filmmaker says he also plans to screen The Lot for different neighborhood associations in an attempt to “get people thinking a little bit differently;” to show folks “that you don’t have to go across the country – you can help someone right there on your own block.”