Two well-known figures in the Minnesota theater world jump toward the silver screen this week as they take their short movie to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Actor Sha Cage and writer-director E.G. Bailey's film "New Neighbors" was selected from tens of thousands of entries for Sundance.
"New Neighbors" began when E.G. Bailey saw a Washington Post story on Facebook. It was by an African-American woman named Fay Wells, who locked herself out of the Los Angeles apartment where she'd lived for seven months. She called a locksmith and got back inside. But things soon went bad, when she answered a knock at the door.
"And there's a gun pointed at her face," Bailey said. "And it's the police, telling her to 'Get down, get down. Who else is with you? Who else is in the house? Why are you here?'" She counted 16 officers. She learned later there were 19 dispatched. Wells wrote that the police were not interested in hearing her story. And then this happened: "She found out that a neighbor called the police, thinking that she was a burglar," he said. The neighbor, a white man, claimed he had never seen her before. Wells said they had met.
Bailey and his wife, Sha Cage, were in England at the time, touring with her one-woman show "U/G/L/Y," which he directed. He couldn't shake what Wells had described. He found himself writing a short story.
"And rather than look at it in terms of her own story, I tried to look at it from the perspective of parents, the perspective of a mother," he said. "What do you do in this situation, in trying to protect your children?"
He rewrote it several times from the viewpoints of different people in the story. Then he wrote a script about a black family moving into a white neighborhood. They shot it last summer.
A woman walks door-to-door with a handful of fliers. They bear the names and photographs of her sons, and other family members. Her two adult sons trudge behind. They are not happy.
"Y'all better get up here," she shouts to them.
"I'm going back to the house," the younger son says to his brother.
"Man, just let her do this so we can hurry up and change," says the older son.
"You may be fine with being embarrassed like this, but I ain't," says the younger man.
"Who says I ain't?" the older son retorts. "But arguing with her ain't going to change her mind."
"Maybe if you would speak up! You know she listen to you way more than me" says the younger man.
"I ain't got all day," the mother calls.
"But Momma, why we got to do all of this?" the younger son whines.
"Because I said so. I'm going to do whatever I have to, to save your lives."
Sha Cage plays the mother bent on introducing her sons to all the neighbors so they recognize them. At some homes, no one answers. At others, people don't know what to make of this woman with her two sons, huddled together, looking uncomfortable, halfway down the path.
"It's just that there have been a number of incidents lately," she tells one man, "where black folks have moved to a new area and the neighbors..."
"You're not part of that Black Lives Matter thing, are you?" he interrupts.
"No," she replies.
"Because I don't go in for that kind of thing. We like things quiet in our neighborhood," he says with a scowl.
"So do we," she responds, scowling herself.
"Good!" says the man, shortly before heading back into his house.
"Each of the neighbors sort of represent ways in which people engage with what's happening with the African-American community and the African-American struggle," said Bailey.
There's a lot of nuance in "New Neighbors," which runs about 8 minutes. The mother is forcing people to talk, but her sons worry that she's doing more damage than good. One neighbor wonders if she's being accused of racism. The film has no neat summation nor easy answers.
Cage said it's been a learning experience, and going to Sundance will help them learn more. Black filmmakers can feel isolated, and there's real value in getting feedback, she said.
"And perhaps we don't hit the mark," she said. "But I think jumping in and being a part of the contenders is equally important."
Cage and Bailey are also looking to make connections. Bailey said film has always been his final destination.
"Film allows me to bring all the other expertise that I have in theater, radio, spoken word, and writing, and playwriting," Bailey said. "I can bring all of that into this art form and tell nuanced black stories."
After Sundance they'll return to Minnesota to work on the Guthrie's latest production of "King Lear." Bailey is assistant director, and Cage plays the king of France.