It's August in New York, and the set of Jumping the Broom is buzzing with the usual suspects (the cast and crew) and some unusual suspects (Precious' Gabourey Sidibe and various onlookers). Everyone's watching Salim Akil, the film's director, climb onto a crane to film Loretta Devine — aka Mrs. Taylor, aka Laz Alonso's movie mom — coming home after a hard day's work.
It's the last day of shooting, and it's a virtual lovefest on the set. Forget about all the drama you hear about on movie sets — the cast and crew chat, hug, and share photos and iPads as they prepare for their final shots. It's like one big family reunion, without the drunk uncle.
The family vibe here is fitting: The film is about two families from vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds coming together over one weekend for the marriage of the lead characters Sabrina Watson, played by Paula Patton, and Jason Taylor, played by Alonso. This is the black version of the Hatfields and the McCoys, with one family (Patton, Angela Bassett, Brian Stokes Mitchell) being wealthy and privileged and the other family (Alonso, Devine, Mike Epps) with working-class leanings and a Brooklyn swagger, to boot.
Most of the film's action happens on Martha's Vineyard, but today they're wrapping things up near Lincoln Center.
Some folks stop to watch the shoot, while others keep walking, obviously used to seeing film crews around the city. Hip teenagers hang out in groups, old heads play chess, lovers sit and chat, and tourists gawk at the film crew moving about rhythmically. It's pretty chill.
Rain is in the forecast, but Akil doesn't seem to mind. "If it rains, we're still shooting," he calmly states. He's the reason Alonso, the lead actor, says he wants to be a director one day. Akil, he says, "has never lost his head once during the entire film."
In fact, the only drama that has unfolded was off set, when Sidibe emerged from the subway, and teenagers squealed and asked for autographs. Sidibe was perturbed because she came to hang out with her friend — not sign autographs, which she mentioned multiple times. She obliged a few of the teens, agreeing to a few photos, then took off, leaving stunned teens in her dust.
Off to the side, two of the film's producers — Glendon Palmer of Our Stories Films and Elizabeth Hunter, who also co-wrote the film — confer with DeVon Franklin, a Sony executive. It is clear by the way they all get along that they've known one another a long time, acting more like siblings than colleagues. They huddle with Akil, sharing ideas, then break out in laughter as they move forward with the plan.
It's also clear they understand that it is going to be a long night, and they're ready for it. They rush to finish the shot of Mrs. Taylor entering a modest brownstone with a bag of groceries before the rain comes.
People make their way into the swanky lobby of the nearby Empire Hotel. Red and gold is everywhere, in direct contrast with the green of the trees and the darkening sky outside. Makeup artists, journalists, executives, friends and loved ones sit and chat while the crew figures out how to deal with the rain, which luckily subsides, turning the day into a perfect New York night.
Across the street from Lincoln Center sits a grand piano. Set decorators busy themselves putting final touches on lights. El DeBarge, who makes a cameo appearance, chats with his manager. In a few minutes, he'll sit down at the piano to make his movie debut.
It is Akil's first time directing a feature film, with an ensemble cast that includes film heavyweights like Bassett and Devine. "The beauty about working with an ensemble cast on this project is that all of them accepted what we were doing, and we were all trying to make something good happen. There was no ego-tripping. It was like real cool people hanging out and working," says Akil.
Coordinating all the moving parts — from making sure that the cars on the street move on cue to ensuring that the actors hit their marks — requires machinelike precision. One scene is repeated over and over as Akil attempts to get the timing just right. It's like making music.
Even though this is Alonso's first time playing the romantic lead in a film, he is no stranger to film sets, having starred in Stomp the Yard, Miracle at St. Anna, Avatar and Fast & Furious. In between wardrobe and makeup sessions, Alonso and Patton chat with The Root in the once bustling lobby of the Empire Hotel, which at well past midnight now seems abandoned.
The two talk with an easy camaraderie that's reflected in their on-screen chemistry. Both say they leaped at the chance to do the movie. As Alonso sees it, he and his character were cut from the same cloth: "This character went to Howard University. I went to Howard University. He was raised by a single mother. I was raised by a single mother. His father died when he was 12. My father died when I was 12.
"He became the man of the house, the breadwinner and almost surrogate partner to his mom, and so did I," Alonso continues. "He went to Wall Street. I went to Wall Street when I graduated. The similarities just go on and on, and it was the type of thing where it was very easy for me to slip into this character's DNA."
Adds Patton, "I loved the script and the cast, which is why I wanted to do the film. When they told me Angela Bassett was on board, and Laz Alonso and Loretta Devine and Mike Epps, it was a no-brainer. I really enjoyed working with the cast and Salim. We just clicked and worked really well together."
As Alonso and Patton are escorted out of the hotel lobby to film their next scene, the crew continue working as if they had just arrived on the set. The onlookers have thinned out, giving in to the lateness of the hour. Akil's wife and business partner, Mara, who has flown in to support him on his final day of shooting, darts across the street with her uncle to grab some snow cones.
Shots of 5-Hour Energy are being handed out like candy on Halloween to keep the crew alert. Akil asks for take after take in pursuit of the perfect scene. It is the last day of filming, so he must get it right. His crew — more like his family — is right there with him.
Nsenga Burton is The Root's editor-at-large.