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“The block reminds me of summer camp more than anywhere else,” he said. “You walk down the street, people are hanging out saying hello to you. There are kids running around. If you have a basketball, eight people are going to want to play with you.”
Like any camper hatching a scheme, for the movie he recruited bunkmates — in this case, next-door neighbors — finding a cinematographer, music composer and production manager. He even took a few of them to Airy last year.
“Mark, the captain — as he made us call him — was great,” said Stefen Reed, the cinematographer. And, if that sounds a tad egotistical, he added, “It’s not an ego that’s going to bombard everyone else’s. It’s an ego that’s going to bring everybody in.”
Blackman does not keep a budget, but he estimates that the movie cost $250,000, which came from loans, an inheritance from his grandfather and donations from family and friends. Some funds Blackman kept on hand for cash emergencies, like paying off his building’s superintendent so he could film on the roof.
“Every time we were shooting, I made sure to have a wad of cash in my pocket,” he said. “If $200 will make the problem go away, you have to do that.”
Bribery is hardly the craziest thing Blackman has ever done. For one month in 2009, inspired by men he met while volunteering at a needle exchange, Blackman decided to become homeless. Armed with some clothes and an iPod Touch, he sublet his apartment and slept in parks, on church steps and on benches. Finding food and shelter soon became easy.
Masturbation was harder.
“Where am I gonna whack off? How am I gonna do that?” Blackman said. “That was half my day sometimes. How am I gonna download porn on my iPod Touch?”
He’s no longer homeless, and Blackman expects to make millions off “Welcome to Harlem,” though he has “no idea” how. And indeed, Blackman informed his faithful that “Welcome to Harlem” hadn’t yet raised enough money to pay the Apollo. By November 14, out of 1,300 seats in the main theatre, they had sold about 30. They owed the Apollo $17,000. Since then, they’re up to 300 sold. But the film is made and the dream lives on.
Ben Sales is a freelance writer in New York.