New York, Old School :: Adam Leon on ’Gimme the Loot’
Writer-director Adam Leon’s first feature film follows two New York teens as they make their way around the big city in pursuit of a dream. Sophia (Tashiana Washington) and Malcolm (Ty Hickson) are street artists who believe that if they can "bomb" the Mets home run apple, the coup will be a shortcut to fame and glory. All they need is $500 in bribe money. So begins their mission to scrape together the cash in any way they can -- stealing, pawning, selling drugs, whatever they can manage. It’s not going to be easy, because they, too, are pickings in an underworld where everybody is both plotter and prey.
That’s the plot, but the story and the way the film unfolds is considerably more limber and fresh. "Gimme the Loot" feels like an early Spike Lee movie built on a Woody Allen foundation, but with a post-racial, twenty-first century gloss. New York serves as a character in its own right, and the movie celebrates the city’s lesser-known quarters while not shying away from the rougher aspects of life on its streets.
What’s surprisingly effective and refreshing about "Gimme the Loot" is how it maintains a sweet tone of light comedy while delving unapologetically into immoral (or amoral) situations, including theft, drugs, and graffiti. Refreshingly, the movie never apologizes, moralizes, or punishes these transgressions; neither does it glorify them. This is the world Sophia and Malcolm inhabit, and as such it’s the only world they know. Leon’s script and direction take their point of view, as insiders within a milieu most of us can only imagine.
Street Art -- or Vandalism?
Central to the story, of course, is the street art (or vandalism, depending how you wish to view it) that the kids create and in which they take pride. For denizens of the streets who see themselves as artists and buildings as publically available canvases, the city is one gigantic, complex gallery with unending opportunities for expression. To the owners of those buildings, however, street art is something quite different... but then, this is not a movie about property owners.
"I thought about this a lot when I was growing up," Leon told EDGE in a recent interview. "I have strong feelings both ways. I am very sympathetic to the idea that street art can be viewed as vandalism, and I think in some cases it is pure vandalism.
"At the same time, I find it very fascinating and amazing that these kids who are really good at creating this art take these incredible physical risks. Some of them are literally risking their lives, let along the legal risks and the dangers of conflict with rival crews, to pursue their art and be part of this culture. It’s not for any monetary gain. I find that fascinating, and in some way admirable. I think it’s a complicated issue. The movie is not really about graffiti, but I think that that culture is very fertile ground for the story."
"Gimme the Loot" is not really about any given social issue such as truancy or vandalism or young street toughs; if it were, it could all too easily turn into some sort of do-gooding, anodyne "After School Special." Instead, the film touches on, and comments on, a range of issues though sheer observation, and without getting preachy.
"It’s about characters first," Leon noted, "and I think it’s a mistake to go in and say, ’I want to say something about this.’ Instead, you nee to think about our characters: How do you say authentically who they are and try to make them as fully realized as possible and put them in situations that feel exciting and interesting and entertaining for an audience, but still touch on larger issues?
"If the audience chooses to take some of that from the move, that’s great," Leon continued. "If not, that’s great too. I didn’t go in trying to make a social message piece -- in fact, quite the opposite. What we wanted as to make a movie that was a little bit more fun and little more of an adventure than we normally expect in this world, wile staying true to what that world it. In itself, that makes this film a little bit different."
Actors to Watch
The casting helped Leon hit the right tone. Tashiana Washington has appeared in a few movies before now, usually as an extra; here, she has a chance to shine, and shine she does. Indeed, there are moments when she dazzles. She’s a complicated character, vulnerable to the ways in which adults exploit her naivete and her ignorance, but all too willing to fly right back in someone’s face and give vent to her grievances. Rather than stew over her defeats, however, she bounces right back into the game -- not much older, but getting wiser by degrees.
Ty Hickson pulls off Malcolm’s mixture of adolescent bravado and ineptitude with winning charm and a natural comic presence. (Who else could possibly have spent half the movie running around New York in socks, having lost his shoes in an amorous yet innocent misadventure, and not seem like an utter moron or detract from the film’s essential believability?) The characters spend much of the movie apart, having separate adventures that bring slightly different moods to the movie, but when they do share the screen their very different personas mesh in a likable fashion.
"It’s a huge testament to them." Leon said. "I had worked with Ty before, and I really developed the role with him. Tashiana is, I think, a fantastic actress, and she is very diverse in the role. It’s a huge compliment to the movie, but it shorts them that people think they really are Malcolm and Sophia. What they really are, are two very smart, dedicated, focused young actors who pulled it off."
Washington’s career may already be enjoying an upward trajectory; IMDB lists her as having a role in the upcoming film "Gimme Shelter." Leon laughed over the coincidence of the similar film titles, saying, "She’s in her ’gimme’ phase right now.’ "