Cousins Daron Boyce (left), 18, and Robert Smith, 16, both of Memphis, are in the documentary "Stand," created by Tavis Smiley. The project allowed the two to spend time with a group of significant figures in African-American life, including scholars Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson.
By Zack McMillin
Of The Memphis Commercial Appeal
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Midway through Tavis Smiley's documentary, "Stand," the cameras find philosopher Cornel West commanding the stage at St. Andrew AME Church in South Memphis, explaining that his generation of black men and women had in some ways "misled" younger generations.
"We told young folk, 'Yes, we sacrificed for you, we've given so much for you, we want you to be successful,' " says West, one of the stars of the documentary airing on cable network TV One at 8 p.m Sunday. "We forgot to tell them we come from a people who always aspired to be great, not successful."
At that moment, the screen switches to the teenage faces of Robert Smith and Daron Keith Boyce, and the always-passionate West brings home his point: "Nothing wrong with success. But if you confuse financial prosperity with moral magnanimity, you wrestle with idolatry. If you're just concerned with your individual security and give up on your personal integrity, you're on the road to becoming a gangster."
Smith, 16, and Boyce, 18, are cousins who live on separate sides of Memphis -- Smith in Raleigh, Boyce in Hickory Hill -- and they became acquainted with Smiley after their aunt, Carol Walker, wrote the popular talk-show host a letter about them in 2007.
Smiley invited them and two other cousins to attend the Democratic presidential debate in June 2007 in Washington, and when he decided to film the documentary over a four-day period in Memphis and Nashville last summer, he made them a part of it.
It allowed Boyce and Smith to spend time with a group of significant figures in African-American life that Smiley dubs his "Soul Patrol." Armed with digi-cams,
Boyce and Smith had front-row seats to dialogues between towering intellectuals such as West and Georgetown scholar Michael Eric Dyson, emotional performances by the singer Bebe Winans and the humor of comedian and activist Dick Gregory.
In the documentary, Smiley explains the premise like this: "We all decided to meet in Memphis. To listen. To laugh. To love. And to learn: How did we arrive at this critical place in our history and where do we go from here?"
For the cousins, it provided a profound four-day experience.
"It was just unimaginable," says Smith, who like Boyce got his own suite at the Inn at Hunt Phelan during the filming. "To get dropped off and sit at the table and on the bus with those guys. Words can't explain it."
Adds Boyce: "Conversations would start popping up about Jesse Jackson, Mr. Sharpton, Barack Obama and all of that. You were speechless, because all you could do was look on in amazement."
Though their voices are heard only during one scene of the 90-minute documentary, Smith and Boyce are almost always "present," as Smiley put it in an interview earlier this week.
As the Fisk Jubilee Choir sings a spiritual that hearkens back to slavery and brings many of the men to tears, the camera cuts to Smith and Boyce, their faces somber.
When actor Wren T. Brown makes the point that many young African-American boys and girls no longer have the community- support system that existed before integration, Boyce and Smith are shown sitting on the bus, taking it all in.
"It is so important to us as adults to really remember to make young folks present," Smiley says. "And young people, well, you've got to want to be present. You've got to show up."
Smith and Boyce are two of the five Memphis names listed as cast on the movie's credits (Stax legends Isaac Hayes, David Porter and Sam Moore are also featured), and the editor of the movie, Stacy Goldate, is also from Memphis.
The city, itself, emerges a character, too.
"For me, it was like a love letter to Memphis," said Goldate, a 1990 graduate of St. Mary's Episcopal School who now lives in Los Angeles.
While sorting through the 40 hours of raw footage, Goldate said, she gained a new appreciation for her hometown.
"It helped me see Memphis in a different light," said Goldate, a 1994 Vanderbilt graduate. "I went to a private school and lived this sheltered life, and I really didn't understand the history of where I lived."
Part of Goldate's job was to make sure the young Memphians, Smith and Boyce, became essential characters in the documentary -- representing in many ways an entire generation of black men about to become adults.
Their biggest scene comes aboard the bus that shuttled the group between Memphis and Nashville, when Boyce and Smith asked about finding role models in current popular music.
"We don't choose to sag our pants. We don't choose to get tattoos. We don't choose to go around busting people upside the head," Boyce says. "We like the music but it's not a lot of role models out there we have to look up to."
At which point West and Dyson, two of America's foremost intellectuals, go through a litany of rap artists worthy of admiration -- and not just Jay-Z and Lil Wayne for their entrepreneurial abilities: Common, Lupe Fiasco, Nas, dead prez, Talib Kweli.
"It's hard sometimes when you are in the parade to see what's on the float," Dyson tells them.
One theme coursing through the documentary is the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a man Smiley believes is "the greatest American we have yet produced."
"My partners and I are always searching for Dr. King's perspective," Smiley says.
In one of the movie's most powerful scenes, it is Gregory who sheds his comedian's demeanor. At Mason Temple, where King delivered his final sermon, Gregory makes a powerful argument for the significant role played by the black church in lifting up its people.
Goldate recalled how her own parents received the documentary when Smiley and West came to town last month for a private screening at the Malco Majestic.
"My mom cried," Goldate said. "She was really moved. For her, the tears really started in the Mason Temple scene."
Smith and Boyce were surrounded by their large extended family, including their 72-year-old grandfather, Readus Smith. He raised 12 children in North Memphis, where he still lives, and beamed over the role his grandsons came to play in Smiley's documentary.
"He's just beside himself," says Walker, the boys' aunt. "He surely is."
Zack McMillin: 529-2564
What: A documentary by talk-show host Tavis Smiley, set in Memphis during the summer of 2008
Features: Smiley's "Soul Patrol" including philosopher Cornel West, Georgetown scholar Michael Eric Dyson, singer Bebe Winans, actor Wren T. Brown, comedian/activist Dick Gregory. They wrestle with a variety of issues, and, as Smiley explains, "reflect on black men who 'stood' for something in the past and what it means as black men continue to 'stand' for something now."
Memphis connections: Teenagers Robert Smith (Craigmont High) and Daron Keith Boyce (Kirby High) were invited to participate and are present in almost every scene. The project's editor, Stacy Goldate, is a 1990 graduate of St. Mary's Episcopal School who first encountered West while a student at Vanderbilt. Stax legends David Porter, Isaac Hayes and Sam Moore also make significant appearances.
When: 8 p.m. Sunday on TV One (Ch. 238 on DirecTV, Ch. 67 on Comcast).
DVD: Goes on sale Monday. Check out standthemovie.com for more information.
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