The American penal system is considered by many to be a figurative maze of legal twists and turns, but for some it is quite literal. In his short film The Tombs, director Jerry LaMothe documents one man’s 3-day journey in New York’s Central Booking system. The Haitian-American director has directed three films since his 2000 debut, Amour Infinity, but this film was probably the most personal.
“I was locked up,” he confesses about the film’s inspiration. “It was a real thought-provoking experience in the sense that that’s what I went through. I saw the red tape and politics that goes with central booking and the jail system. So I wanted to tell the story of a Brooklyn man’s 3-day journey through The Tombs. It’s kind of semi-autobiographical.”
The Tombs is LaMothe’s first project since his 2008 film Black Out. Tired of waiting for funding for a larger budget feature, LaMothe and his team decided to do a short. The result is a stirring and insightful look at one man’s frustration with what the court says on paper and what happens in practice. James, (played by Nashawn Kearse) has been detained under dubious circumstances. By law detainees are supposed to a see a judge within 24 hours, but that rarely happens, and in this case it is days before our protagonist sees daylight.
“I wanted to convey to young Black males..the helplessness,” says LaMothe. “It’s an innate instinct as an artist for me to tell stories. It’s my way of communicating. Most of my films have always had some subconscious plot or theme and that’s the best form for me to put out my stories. ”
LaMothe had the benefit of some high profile backing for The Tombs. “Basketball” Wives star Tami Roman signed on as a producer of the film and has been vocal in its promotion. What’s the connection?
“She didn’t have a choice because she’s my girlfriend,” LaMothe says with a laugh. “She was around from the beginning and knew I was about to embark on another project. She was instrumental in the creative aspect of it, she helped fund it. She was a trooper.”
While LaMothe is grateful to have his work scene, he was very candid about the hurdles of being an independent filmmaker, especially a Black one.
“I don’t think anyone working in this genre is doing it for any reason other than they love what they do,” he says. “But at the same time you hope that not every film you make has to be this hard. And don’t have to do this grind and hustle on every film. When you don’t have the machine backing you it’s hard to [get recognized]. Studios spend upwards of $10 MM on solely advertising just to make sure you know it’s out there, whether you want to see it or not.
The irony is that the decision makers who can take you to the next level are the last ones to know of your existence. The people know of you first.”
LaMothe is in talks for distribution of The Tombs and is wrapping up a festival tour which includes the Panafrican Film Festival in Los Angeles and Act Now/New Voices in Black cinema in Brooklyn at BAM.
Next up for LaMothe is a full-length feature called The Promise Keeper. The drama centers around two childhood friends from Flatbush, Brooklyn. When one is deported back to Haiti, the other makes his first ever visit to the island months after the tragic earthquake. Looking back on his decade-long career in film Jerry LaMothe has learned some valuable lessons that he will take into his next film.
“I was very, very green and naive,” he says of his early work. “And I had the balls of a lion. You couldn’t tell me nothin! I’m not saying I’ve lost that entirely but with age comes wisdom and you pace yourself a bit more. I’ve also become a more keen businessman as opposed to just being an artist. You have to be practical. You can’t thrive just being an artist.”
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