“Crack! ” is the sound of the girl’s fist as it connects with the jaw of a teenaged boy who is almost twice her size. As he crumples to the ground from the blow, the pummeling continues growing more and more intense with every punch. Surrounded by a group of peers too shocked at the display to intervene, the violence continues and the boy’s very survival becomes questionable. The unlikely administer of such brutality seems to be driven by an internal rage that belies her youthful appearance and pushes her to the brink before she is pulled off of her victim by the friendly neighborhood hustler.
Welcome to Yelling to the Sky, the directorial debut of veteran actress Victoria Mahoney. The film’s aforementioned opening moments set the tone for a story that will literally pull no punches as it seductively draws its audience into the world of its protagonist, Sweetness O’Hara an adolescent with apparent intelligence, compassion, and overall promise. Yet Sweetness is trapped on all sides by the circumstances of her surroundings. Living with an often tyrannical, mentally and physically abusive alcoholic father, a loving yet less than capable mother and a slightly older sister who is growing more and more independent, Sweetness struggles to find her place in the world. Add to the mix that her father is white Irish and her mother is African American, identity issues naturally emerge as well. As this girl rapidly approaches womanhood she is forced to confront these issues head-on while she struggles to not become a victim of her environment, which includes a neighborhood infested with crime, rampant substance abuse and a group of bullies intent on making her life hell.
True to its guerilla filmmaking indie spirit, Yelling to the Sky is one of the more honest films to come along in recent times; stripping away all layers of pretense to reveal the rawest of truths as the celluloid unspools. Although set in relatively modern Queens, NY the film offers a kindred spirit in feel to some of the more celebrated international independent film efforts of a past generation. Yelling to the Sky reflects the heart of Gregory Nava’s 1983 masterpiece El Norte, and the compelling characterizations of Euzhan Palcy’s classic coming of age tale from the same year, Sugar Cane Alley. Yelling to the Sky also embodies the alluring narrative of 1982’s The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez directed by Robert M. Young.
Ironically, Victoria Mahoney’s journey to the director’s chair was not initially a deliberate one. Having worked steadily as an actress in film and television for the better part of two decades, the inspiration to sit down and begin writing Yelling To The Sky was born out of one of the most fundamental places. She explains, “What inspired me to write it was that I was going stir crazy from not seeing a reflection of myself represented in Cinema. When I say that of course I’m not speaking from a narcissistic point of view. I mean just a reflection of other. Any other. So my creative DNA allows me to get up and get proactive instead of disruptive when I’m angry or upset. So I sat down to write purely out of frustration. It wasn’t at all some concept of talent or level of talent.” Her background and extensive training as an actress provided a firm foundation when embarking on her new creative endeavor. She continues, “The transition from acting to writing was effortless for me because some of the inquiries are similar [such as] who is this person? What do they want? What do they need? What are they willing to do to get what they need? What’s going to happen if they don’t get what they need? Some of the basic questions of existence from my training as an actor are very similar to how I approach a story.”
After breaking ground on her newfound passion for writing, Mahoney would discover that she had done all she could do on her own and if she were ever going to achieve her dream of bringing her story to mass audiences she would need to take it to the next level. This realization would lead to her enrolling in the Prestigious Sundance Institute’s Filmmaking Labs in the areas of writing, directing, and producing. Mahoney offers, “the process was very interesting because it was very solitary. It was horrendously isolated. There are some simple components to growth that require reflection, feedback, notes, and tools for communication. So I knew I needed a community. Then the path toward Sundance Institute happened and that shifted everything for me.”
Once the needed support was obtained the journey began to manifest into reality, and the time came to find the right actress to embody the lead role of the complex Sweetness O’Hara. The process led to her auditioning over 200 young actresses for the part, eventually pairing the short list down to 40. However, after an intense and grueling audition that lasted no less than 3 hours, it was the inimitable Zoe Kravitz who would win the coveted role. Having previously made her mark in big budgeted Hollywood films like The Brave One and No Reservations, Kravitz would still need to prove she was ready to tackle this intense and nuanced character with the proper combination of understanding the essence of Sweetness and the willingness to commit to the grueling process of shooting indie-guerilla style. At first look it would be easy to dismiss the then 19-year-old actress as too much of a princess to take on such a challenge given her pedigree. After all she is the child of famed actress Lisa Bonet and globally adored rock star Lenny Kravitz. However, such an assumption would prove to be a gross error in judgment. Much to her credit, not only was Zoe Kravitz up for the challenge she was supremely committed to delivering extremely visceral and textured performances regardless of the circumstances were on set.
Mahoney explains of her young star, “This particular film required that you had to be willing to go to the dark places. [Due to budget] there’s no high end treatment. [While filming we were] knocking on the neighbor’s doors in the neighborhood to use the bathroom at points. So it was like is this girl going to get down with the elements of guerilla filmmaking? She couldn’t have cared less. She never complained. She knew her stuff inside out. She did her homework and it was exciting. She had a rough job because it was a refined performance. We all know if it’s much shinier you get a lot more recognition for going crazy and screaming and being loud. It was difficult because the calibration was like a tea kettle about to explode.”
Zoe Kravitz explains how she approached the assignment and achieved the connection to her character.
“I feel like if you strip away the obvious circumstances it all comes down to these incredibly human issues that everyone can feel no matter what their situation, where they’re living, who they’re living with, where they’re from, what color they are. Everyone has felt abandoned and alone. You can step into anyone’s shoes and experience those universal feelings of loneliness. And I felt that in High School not knowing my place in the world. For obvious reasons being different because of who my parents were and being different because I was one of like four black kids in a white rich school in Miami. I felt alienated and [I didn’t] always make the best choices, creating that cycle of violence. It’s about that cycle of violence that is very, very real in our world today. I’ve been lucky enough to physically not be involved in so much violence but the emotional violence especially at that age. Especially at that age of 17, no teenager has felt completely confident all the time. That’s just not real. Everyone at one point or another has felt all of these things that she is feeling.”
Zoe’s passion for depicting the human experience through the craft of acting is mirrored by her passion for music. She actually also fronts the indie-psychedelic-rock band, Elevator Fight. One can’t help but to note that her creative career endeavors reflect the influence of that of both her parents. She explains the duality: “Acting is something that I actually went to school for and have definitely taken more time to make it a career. Music is something I love to do because it makes me happy. [Music] is just as important to me as [acting] it’s just not how I’m choosing to make a living.” As far as her parent’s reaction to her chosen profession, she reveals, “They’re both incredibly supportive. Not because they’re both established in their fields, but because they’re great supportive parents. As long as I’m happy and healthy they’re on my side. So that’s incredible.”
In addition to Kravitz, Yelling To The Sky boasts a powerhouse cast that includes Jason Clarke (Public Enemies), Antonique Smith (Notorious), Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson), Tim Blake Nelson (O Brother Where Art Thou?), Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) and Tariq Trotter of the legendary Hip Hop collective, The Roots. Victoria Mahoney was able to attract such an esteemed collection of talent with the sheer power of the words on her page.
The cast and crew were galvanized by the desire to make an impact young people with this film. In early 2011 a young Harlem girl would be arrested in a police sweep of her block that targeted a violent street gang, Afrika Owes, 17, made national headlines as she was retained in the notorious maximum-security facility Rikers Island, for months on weapons and drug charges. What made her story so newsworthy is that she had previously been a star honor student and athlete at a prestigious Pennsylvania Prep School on the verge of a future that could seemingly be no brighter. However, once she fell for her 20-year-old boyfriend, the leader of the lethal ‘137th st crew’, she became embroiled in his lifestyle and displayed her devotion by doing whatever was needed to assist his criminal enterprise. According to police, this included carrying and trafficking illegal weapons and drugs. It was when Rev. Calvin Butts, the nationally prominent pastor of her church, Abyssinian Baptist, stepped up and made Owes’ freedom his crusade and redemption ultimately attained.
Sweetness O’Hara is the cinematic depiction of the millions of Afika Owes’ around the world: young women who are at the crossroads where, one choice will determine their destiny and an intervention by a caring adult will steer them in the right direction. In this manner Yelling To The Sky gives voice to the voiceless. On this Mahoney offers, “There’s a lack of awareness about individuals who come from a [violent] environment. You’ll hear this thing like ‘Well what’s special about her?’ and it makes my hair stand. It makes my skin boil. To make a statement like that then you’re suggesting that everyone else from an environment like that from Cabrini Green to Watts to Nigeria or wherever, that something is wrong with them. The hundreds of thousands of them who get thrown under the bus that something is wrong with them? No. That was the point of the film. She’s not special or different or better. What happened was someone walked up one day and said I’m here right now. And that’s what separates young people who just go off the rail and you wonder ‘Jesus what happened?’ from the ones that are doing ok. Somebody showed up and said I’m here right now.”
Victoria Mahoney’s understanding stems from a very personal place. Her own experience provides the catalyst for striking out on such a mission. She explains, “I do different types of service work and I’m years [removed] from when that type of stuff was going down for me. Year after year I meet countless young people who are living the exact same circumstances. It hits like a lightning rod that nothing is changing, the conversation remains the same and there isn’t discourse. There isn’t any evolution on the topics. I have kids who I sit across from and they are in the exact same chaos, conflict, and confusion that I was in when I was their age. That was the overall inspiration for the story.”
When considering how this film could impact not only the masses in general, but more specifically the young women of the world who will deeply identify with its content, Zoe Kravitz is thoughtful and aware of the big picture. She says, “Seeing themselves in film is such an important thing. Victoria and I have had many conversations about looking the way we look and going to the theatre over and over again and you never see yourself. It’s like where the fuck am I? It’s sad. There are so many young women whose stories are neglected in pop culture and in cinema and obviously they need it. So hopefully that will lead to something positive and inspire these young girls to become involved in art.” Mahoney adds, “Every time I leave a screening, all the time, all over the world, no matter where I go there is some young girl who walks up to me saying ‘I live in this town. There are no filmmakers’ due to whatever circumstances, ‘everyone says you should stop and you’re not going to be a filmmaker. Give that up and go to work. Now I know that I can because you’re here.’ If that’s all that goes down, that’s pretty good with me. If the only thing that goes down is that I help someone follow what their heart wants to do, I’m good with that.”
— Nasser Metcalfe is an Actor, Writer, and Producer living in New York City