The door has opened for Hollywood to tell more stories about gender, race and equality. The latest movie from director-producer Robert Rippberger, written by Harlem native Sha-Risse Smith, is set to remind its audience that hard work, optimism, and perseverance in the face of overwhelming adversity, is the essence of what it is to be an American. Mark Meets chatted ‘Strive’ to these multi-talented filmmakers who have cast veteran actor Danny Glover in their movie, produced by Scott Rosenfelt (Mystic Pizza and Home Alone).
Sha-Risse, can you explain the story of ‘Strive’ a little?
Strive is a story about a teenage girl named Kalani living in the projects in Harlem. It is Kalani’s goal to get into Yale and home life is ultimately at odds with that. The film is about how she navigates it all over the toughest weekend of her life while keeping focused on her dream.
Is there a particular reason why you chose to write about Harlem in this way?
Oh yes. There are a few reasons. I was very inspired by Lee Daniel’s Precious, which was based on one of my favorite books “Push” by Sapphire, which was set in Harlem. I remember when that film came out, being struck by how raw it was. It was like no film I had ever seen before. And then for it to be nominated for an Oscar—it was really like, wow, our stories are being recognized and they’re ready to be told.
Harlem has always been a special place for the arts. It was where the renaissance for black novelists, philosophers, painters, and poets occurred. Harlem has so much to share with the world and that’s why I chose it as the backdrop. It’s where I am from, it has a rich history, and Harlem is really the epicenter of black culture.
Why do you believe Robert Rippberger is the right director to tell the story?
I am grateful for Robert Rippberger because I queried him; he was looking for a film about social change, and I queried him, and he was like – okay, I’ll read it and he loved it and got onboard. At the time he was off filming a few other projects and he believed in the story when he didn’t have to. He’s not from Harlem, he’s not a girl, and yet he saw something in it and he stuck with it through thick and thin to make sure it got told.
On top of that, Robert understands the story. Whether it is going back and forth on revisions, or editing, his ideas are always right on track. I don’t know how it’s possible but physically and emotionally, he understands what Kalani is going through and that is what’s most important.
Even on set, which I witnessed on a few occasions, I saw that he was always careful to respect where he was in Harlem and that was very important to me. He also made it a collaboration with everyone in the neighborhood and realized how special it was for them to be involved. He handled the story and the project with a great deal of care and I’m very thankful to have him as a storyteller and director on Strive.
Robert, can you explain some of your Harlem location choices and why you picked those spots?
Certainly. But first, thank you Sha-Risse. You’re one of the most patient and thoughtful writers I’ve worked with, so the kind words mean a lot.
What one notices immediately when setting foot in Harlem is its vitality. The streets and sidewalks are utterly alive and as Sha-Risse mentioned, it was very important for me to observe first before representing it on camera. Ultimately that meant putting it all on screen: the murals, the subway stops, the cracked-open fire hydrants, the house parties, the music, the churches, and the wittiest of extemporaneous dialogue you’ll ever hear.
Can you talk about getting Danny Glover onto the project?
Sha-Risse: Casting Danny Glover is a dream come true. I mean, The Color Purple. My family and I know every word of that movie. The fact that he even read the script is amazing. It’s an honor to have him onboard with the project. I mean, who wouldn’t cast Danny Glover? He’s an icon and very important in the film community, especially in the black community.
Robert: I can’t agree with that more. In character and caliber, Danny Glover is in a league of his own and we are grateful beyond words for him to be a part of Strive. It is an important time for stories about gender, race, and civil rights and Mr. Glover brings a steady hand to that conversation.
Casting Joi Campbell was an interesting choice considering her hip-hop song-writing background. Did Joi influence her lead role as Kalani at all?
Sha-Risse: I first saw of Joi when she recorded a video message on her phone after auditioning for the role. She was so bubbly and excited. When I saw her I was like, oh my goodness that is Kalani. She did an amazing job. She is the embodiment of Kalani. It is kind of nuts, everything even down to her braids.
Sha-Risse, why is it important to you that this story be told now and for the big screen?
It’s very important. Firstly, there are a lot of stories about education in the past, again around civil rights, but it’s important for me that there is a contemporary story that kids now can relate to about education, learning how to navigate where you’re from and still go after what you want and what you need.
It’s graduation season right now and I see a lot of people going to college, and a lot of them are the first in their family to go. And I also see bitterness from other groups, bitterness that they “get a free pass.” But the truth is, they earned that acceptance letter. They earned that scholarship. It’s important to show why.
Lastly, I feel as though our generation has short attention spans and I feel film is the type of medium that touches people a lot faster than all types of medium and it’s something enduring as well.
What are the key points of the story you want audiences to walk away with?
Sha-Risse: My main goal of this film and writing the original story is to inspire young women. It’s super important to have representation and yes, it’s a color thing, but it’s not just a color thing. I wish I had a film like this when I was going to boarding school. I wish I had something like this when I was going to prep school. A lot of times these issues aren’t shown, and I want people to watch this and say, if Kalani can do this I can too.
Robert: In addition to being moved and entertained, for me it would be for an audience to gain perspective and insight. The second I read the script, I knew this was a movie that had never been done before; a story that was very different in important ways and I think audiences will greatly appreciate that.
Is it based on a true story?
Sha-Risse: It’s based on true stories of my experiences and the people that I know, but a lot has been changed. I am not Kalani. Strive is a patchwork of everything that I know about growing up in Harlem. And yes, I did go to prep school. And I did go through something a little worse than what’s portrayed on screen. If anything, Kalani is the super hero on screen that I wish I was.
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