Instead of ending with a car chase, this film starts with one: Royal Canadian Mounted Police cruisers pursue two young men in a souped-up sedan down two-lane roads and through cornfields. The guys lose the cops and succeed in selling the drugs they’re smuggling into the country: prescription medications from Canada for a grateful group of hard-pressed elderly Americans.
Rocksteady, a good-natured coming-of-age story, is the first feature film from television and commercial director Mustapha Khan ’84. Aimed, he says, “at car-crazy teenage boys who love action films, the purpose of the car chase scene is to grab the audience’s attention. But the film is about something larger, the connections between fathers and sons. Rocksteady poses the question every young man has to answer, ‘How do I grow up?’ He has to figure out if he’s a guy who can walk in his father’s shoes.”
The film’s protagonist, B.C. Cook, and his widowed mother are the sole Caribbean family in a small town in upstate New York. His late father held himself to a high standard, aware that the Cooks were the only Jamaicans most of their neighbors had ever met. B.C. has a talent for driving cars, handy for his prescription-running exploits. He dreams of becoming a Hollywood stunt driver, but hasn’t the wherewithal to enroll in a training school in Los Angeles; in fact, his mother faces eviction. So he, his stoner pal Rudy, and Faith, an attractive girl from their high-school days with a “thing” for B.C., form a team to enter stock-car races at the local dirt track, where the season-ending grand prize of $10,000 will cover the trip to California and tuition, too. A dream, a team, an interracial love story, and a reggae soundtrack (“rocksteady” is a reggae precursor), plus a lean $1.5-million budget—in the hands of an Emmy-winning director like Khan, the result is an entertaining, sleekly produced indie film.
Stephen Hays, a hedge-fund founder turned independent film producer, initiated and funded Rocksteady; he wrote the screenplay with Kevin Shine, and Khan then streamlined its multiple threads to emphasize the father-son relationship. “I was a 20-year veteran director making my first feature film,” Khan recalls now. “It was familiar—at heart, whether it’s a commercial, a documentary, or a feature, I’m a storyteller—but very different at the same time. I have a lot of experience directing actors in narrative formats, but nothing really prepares you for directing your first feature.”
Going into the five-week shoot, his greatest concern was endurance. “There are a thousand decisions you have to make every day and they all affect what you see on screen,” he explains. “You have to make it seem like things are going great when they are falling apart—and you can’t lose momentum. And I knew I had to bring it in on time and on budget so I could live to fight another day.” The film (www.rocksteadymovie.com), completed in 2010, has been on the festival circuit since last year, winning the Best Feature award at the Litchfield Hills Film Festival and a jury selection at the Jamaica Reggae Film Festival. It’s now available on iTunes, DVD, Netflix and on-demand; executive producer Hays isn’t concerned that it’s never appeared in general release. “Eight out of 10 independent features are never seen in theaters, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t artistically noteworthy or commercially successful,” he says, noting that films with modest production budgets can generate steady income streams for years.
Khan, like Rocksteady’s B.C., is the son of a Caribbean immigrant; his late father moved from Trinidad and became a physician in Camden, New Jersey, practicing on a street now named in his honor. The younger Khan’s life took an unusual turn at 13: he was ordained an evangelical minister and spent his high-school years as a preacher and faith healer in storefront churches in Philadelphia. He stopped preaching shortly before matriculating at Harvard. (“I consider myself spiritual, but not religious,” he says now.) In college he studied comparative religion and developmental psychology while acting and directing at the Loeb Drama Center. “My idol was Robert Coles,” he reports. “I wanted to study different societies through their children.”
That goal took him to an intensive filmmaking course at New York University, which led to a job with director Spike Lee on School Daze. “I was driving a van,” Khan recalls, “but I got to know Spike and made other friends whom I’ve worked with throughout my career. My plan was to establish myself directing commercials and go from there to doing documentaries on how people live.”
Using borrowed equipment and finagled film, he made a reel of sample commercials in 1988 that he parlayed into a contract to shoot real ones. In 1989 he shot his first documentary, Reflections of A Native Son. The story of a 15-year-old boy trying to grow up amid the grinding poverty of the South Bronx, it was inspired by research he’d done at Harvard; the central theme, Khan notes, is the same as Rocksteady’s. His work so impressed Bill Cosby that the star arranged for the 26-year-old to direct a large-budget commercial he was making for Coca-Cola. Khan then began making short films for Sesame Street; Dancing Shoes won a 1992 Daytime Emmy. He also received a Primetime Emmy nomination for his work on Sesame Street’s 25th Anniversary Special: A Musical Celebration.
The essential sweetness of Rocksteady may reflect the sensibility of Khan’s continuing work for Sesame Street. It is a film without a villain; characters who seem threatening turn out to be good. B.C. arrives at the track as an outsider, but doesn’t encounter racism. No one dies or is even injured.
Khan acknowledges that Rocksteady’s world is not necessarily what audiences may anticipate. “I like to give people the unexpected,” he says. He admires Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth, who in the 1980s made Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, upbeat tales populated by quirky but fundamentally kind characters. “There’s enough darkness in the world,” Khan says. “I aspire to being a gentle filmmaker. It’s possible to be that and still be a serious one.”
Watch a clip from Rocksteady: