On April 20, 2009, a Charleston man called police to tell them he had been shot while sitting on his back porch on America Street. On July 18, 2011, Brian Holmes, son of S.C. Baptist Convention President Sonny Holmes, was found shot and unresponsive in the driver seat of his car, facing the wrong way on America Street. At 6 p.m. on Oct. 25, 2014, police responded to a report of shots fired, only to find a half dozen spent shell casings in the middle of America Street and no apparent witnesses.
This is not Travis Pearson’s America Street, the titular inspiration for his debut feature-length film.
For Pearson, America Street is about more than the area’s high-crime history — it’s about human stories like that of his protagonist Bucks. Pearson’s America Street follows Bucks (played by Jason West), a man who, after losing his tongue in a prison attack, is released from jail and discovers he has a son, Chris.
However, Bucks’ challenges don’t end with the discovery of his young son. He must also come to terms with his gay father, his son’s mother, and his “street” brother, Sota.
“Sota is the opposite of who I am [in the film]. I’m not into what he’s into,” says West. Pearson speaks to Bucks’ dilemma: “[Bucks] is trying to figure out if [his] allegiance is to America or to ‘the street.'”
In the film, Pearson uses Bucks’ silence as a symbol. As a formerly incarcerated black man, his silence stands for the oppression and struggle of many African-American men. “I wanted a main lead who doesn’t speak. He has to communicate through looks and gestures,” says Pearson. As a result, America Street is not your typical urban drama.
Inspired by cinematic greats, Pearson likens America Street to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. He also draws from Woody Allen’s use of location as a character and John Cassavetes’ cinema verite style.
And yet Pearson says that he avoids any heavy-handed symbolism by keeping the film’s focus on the story of Bucks and his son. “It’s important to keep it rooted to the protagonist’s story,” says Pearson. “You want your film to translate well with today’s audience.”
West understands the importance of Pearson’s cinematic vision. “We couldn’t do a silent film,” he says, “so we went with a silent character. With me and Chris, I’m just trying to say simple things with my hands.”
He adds, “We want people to see Charleston, to see the struggle of African-American men getting out of prison, trying to do the right thing.”
A California transplant who moved to the Lowcountry at age 18 to escape street violence, Pearson can relate to life on America Street. Pearson’s mother and grandmother are from the Charleston area, and from a young age Pearson has been familiar with and fond of the area’s Gullah culture.
Elder Carlie Towne, a member of the local Gullah/Geechee nation, helped Pearson breathe Gullah influences into America Street. The director references a scene in the film where a painter on America Street shares some of the Gullah history of Charleston.”I try to work educational and historical aspects into the film,” says Pearson.
After a warm reception at the film’s first and only showing at the Terrace Theater last November, it’s clear that Bucks’ story resonates with locals as well.
In an effort to keep the film’s historical references and symbolism in check, Pearson has sought to create a kind of “realness” in his film. One way he achieves this realness is through the use of amateur actors. “I wanted to mix experienced actors with people who had never acted before,” says Pearson. “It’s almost like an episodic way of shooting things … a precursor to reality television.”
For West, establishing the film in reality was important. “We wanted the audience to feel right there with us,” he says.
West and Pearson first met when they worked together on the documentary Voices of the South, which Pearson both produced and directed. The film explores the Gullah influence on Southern hip-hop culture.
A member of the Gullah nation, West had never acted before America Street. But despite his theatrical inexperience, he grasps the nuances necessary for his role. “I could say hello to you … without saying a word,” explaining the importance of hand gestures in human speech.
Pearson believes in the importance of the film’s local impact but he also believes it has a universal message. The story — beyond its symbols and references — is a story for African-American men, for fathers and sons, for brothers, for lovers.
In the end, Pearson hopes that America Street won’t just tell the story of one road, one neighborhood, or one street. America Street is everyone’s story.
America Street will screen during the Terrace Charleston Film Festival at the Terrace Theatre (1956D Maybank Highway, West Ashley) at 7 p.m. on Sat. March 14 and Sun. March 15. Admission is $10. For more information call (843) 762-4247, or visit terracetheater.com.