“Wannabe,” a short feature by Matt Manson debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival on Friday, is a coming-of-age story set in New York City about a young Jewish boy who falls in love with one of his African-Caribbean classmates in the summer of 1991. The story plays out during the peak of the Crown Heights riots, which turned African-American and Orthodox Jewish residents against each other, and severely weakened racial relations citywide.
The story is a testament to friendship, love and self-acceptance told from the perspective of two adolescents caught in the whirlwind of racial turmoil far beyond their control or understanding. The male lead is Daniel, whose spirited quips are what every outcast only dreams they actually said, and the female lead is Emefa, whose confident choices resemble a satisfying dream sequence that never ends.
The film, which will be shot as a full-length feature in the city this summer, is based on Manson's experiences on the Upper West Side in the early 1990s.
“I was going to a sort of cushy, Hebrew private school on the Upper West Side when I was diagnosed with a learning disability, so my parents sent me to this school for kids with learning disabilities and developmental problems on the Upper East Side,” Manson, 35, said of that time. “I was this 9-year-old Jewish kid who was puny and who had never kissed a girl before, and I was in class with 11- and 12-year-olds who had some issues, and some of them were in gangs. I got bullied a lot, I had a gun pulled on me, I was mugged a bunch of times. 'Wannabe' is about that experience: about feeling super out of place, super naive, really like a dork.”
Manson became friends with a girl, on whom the female lead, Emefa, is based. She was brash, and had severe dyslexia.
“Despite all those things that should make her be bullied, she wasn't bullied, in fact she was pretty popular and she held her own against everyone,” Manson said. “I fell in love with her, and I forged a friendship that has stuck with me to this very day. It became a sort of life lesson about the fact that how you perceive yourself is how others will perceive you. It transformed into this story that I've held on to for a couple of years.”
Manson was 12 when he started cultivating his dream of becoming a filmmaker, after having gone to arts camp. He followed his passion to film school at New York University, graduating in 2004. In 2011, he won a grant for first-time filmmakers, after writing the script for “Wannabe” in just three weeks.
Manson shot the short as a way to showcase the tone and the feeling for the longer, upcoming feature. “As soon as my producer, Toby [Louie], came on board, we got it all together in really like three weeks,” Manson said. “I wrote it, we cast it and we found the locations. It was invigorating to get it done so quickly because this story has been with me for a number of years.”
The film was produced with an all-female camera department, a female editor, set designer and costume designer.
“I felt that because this film has a very strong female lead, I wanted to sit down and create shots and talk about character with someone that could come at it from a female perspective,” Manson said. Cinematographer Catherine Goldschmidt “is really talented. She's got insight into characters. She'd look at things like not what's a cool shot, but what does this say about the character. I feel like that's really rare,” Manson said. “It was really nice to have that female perspective behind the camera.”
The pervasive themes of escalating racial tensions explored in 'Wannabe' appear to be as pertinent today as they were 25 years ago this summer.
“With things like Ferguson and Eric Garner, it's sad that not much has changed over the years,” Manson said. “Having all these things happen really brought me back to that time in the early '90s.”
Manson recalls racist accusations being spouted from every news broadcast and highlighted on every newsstand.
“One thing that really stuck with me was that right after the Crown Heights riot happened, I was walking down the street, I wasn't wearing a sign that said I was a Jew or anything, and some kid just spit on me.” Manson said. “What was going on in the news was so powerful and it was really just about two cultures fighting and clashing.”
Despite the animosity and hostility going on around them, Manson said he had both African-American and Jewish friends at the time.
“I think it's a testament to friendship, that we were all able to remain friends. That's kind of what the film is about,” he said.
Manson said the full-length feature will delve deeper into the story of two very different families, Daniel's and Emefa's, and how they experienced intolerance, tackled self-acceptance, and struggled to find love with each other, while the city seethed.
“I'm looking forward to telling a coming-of-age story where not only are the kids coming-of-age and the parents are coming-of-age,” he said, “but the city is coming-of-age at the same time.”