Malcolm M. Mays’ “Covers” Starring Tristan “Mack” Wilds Shines With Songs In The Key Of Strife for Urbanworld 2017
by Jerry Barrow
Black Cinema in the 1990s was defined by a string of gritty coming-of-age dramas centered on usually male protagonists trying to navigate the pitfalls of crime, gangs and poverty. From Boyz N The Hood and Menace II Society to Jason’s Lyric and Belly,” to “get out” referred to escaping the ‘hood, not a white suburban enclave commandeering Black bodies. While the trend didn’t completely dissipate in the decade that followed, there was a considerable shift to comedies and romances that offered a depiction of Black life that wasn’t mired in misery. Nevertheless, the struggle continued and a new generation of filmmakers is eager to tell their stories of survival through an updated lens.
Malcolm Mays’ film Covers is in many ways a throwback to those hood noir movies of the Bush/Clinton era, but with a considerably updated veneer. Set in and around South Central L.A. Covers follows an aspiring musician named X (played by Mays) who has “escaped” to college via a music scholarship only to find himself inexplicably back home after a year and a half. The Doughboy to his Tre is an equally gifted gang member named Angel (played by Mack Wilds) who is fresh out of jail peddling lean from his mother’s front porch. They bond over the “covers” of pop songs that they record and turn into Soundcloud gold.
X’s problems are multidimensional as he checks off the “it’s complicated box” with his onetime girlfriend Neesha, who he hasn’t spoken to since he ghosted for college. Neisha has clearly moved on but as X tries to find himself, getting square with Neisha becomes a priority.
With a growing fan base but no job prospects, Angel and X go to a local record shop to dig for inspiration. This is where they encounter the misogynistic shop owner Dean (played by Jason “AMG” Lewis”) and his employee, a white music nerd named Stan (played by music video director Jack Begert). The conflict between the boss and employee is one of the more intriguing relationships in the film as it confronts the uncomfortable realities of hip-hop’s growth. Stan has an encyclopedic knowledge of Black music but Dean has actually lived through the era that Stan most likely discovered on Youtube. Both of their experiences are legitimate but at odds in a culture that hinges on authenticity.
Where Covers pulls away from its predecessors is in how it explores this evolution of a culture that includes different races and age groups vying for relevance. Mays swings his lens from South Central to Melrose where a white hip-hop blogger is hosting a house party attended by a broad swatch of people with one shared interest: music. But we soon find out that simply bopping your head to the same rhythms while you down the same drugs doesn’t make up for a lack of exposure to the realities that inform the music. Angel and X are faced with a multitude of choices when the worlds collide.
Mays, who some may recognize from his role as Gabe in the 2015 fight flick Southpaw, is also playfully self aware in his setting of time and place. Angel is painfully out of date with his social media usage but his family can be heard watching “The Wire,” one of the first shows where we see Mack Wilds in a seedy element. The juxtaposition answers the question that no one asked: What if O-Dog had a son and what would his Twitter handle be?
One unexpected aspect to the film was the wide-ranging and soulful tracks that provide a fitting backdrop to many scenes. Among others, we were pleased to hear a serious G-funk throwback with Dove Shack’s “Summertime in the LBC,” classic soul with “Just to Keep You Satisfied” by Marvin Gaye and “Ain’t No Woman Like The One I Got” by the Four Tops, and newer artists like Nao with “Bad Blood” and Alex Isley with “Don’t/Do.” Amazingly enough, they even included a scene with Prince singing “Purple Rain” on T.V. The grooves certainly work well and provide some added relevance to the flick.
The sobering reality of Covers is that it reminds us that some twenty years later we are facing some of the same issues regarding the cycle of violence and that the “escape” hatch of college can in fact be a revolving door. But it excels in that it pivots from a purely macro view to deal with the very personal decisions of one man and how those around him influence his choices. In real life the late Barry White was a gang member before breaking into the music business. He sat in a South Central jail cell at the age of 16 before listening to Elvis Presley inspired him to pursue music upon his release. Covers is in many ways the grandchild of that experience.
To further expound on those themes and more we spoke with the director and star, Malcolm M. Mays before the film premiers at The Urbanworld Film Festival on Saturday, September 23, 2017.
Jerry Barrow: Covers is very layered. Was it inspired more by the music angle or the lives of the people creating it?
Malcolm M. Mays: We came up with the idea about two years ago and it was inspired by real life events that had occurred to me, people in my life coming from this situation. I wanted to express myself. I made a little money with the movie Southpaw and I asked how much money do I need to make a movie and we made a movie for $7500. First I wrote the script then figured out how to get it done. The thing that made me want to write the script was before I booked Southpaw, I had a friend who had just gotten of prison and reminded me about something that happened when we were younger where he had kind of taken the rap for me in a big way. It changed the course of my life. And right before that movie I almost jeopardized all that doing stupid shit. That event that happened in the movie was inspired by true events to say the least.
JB: What is the story behind the song covers?
MMM: On a macro level all of the characters were operating from a place of artifice. They had an avatar operating against their true intentions. And that kind of went with the idea of lack of originality in this day and age. Not to say no one is original. But inspiration has kind of crossed over the threshold of sampling into highway robbery. Because we lack identity of self we look to those things that remind us of what is in us and appropriate it. You hear about white musicians appropriating Black music. So I thought wouldn’t it be interesting if that appropriation happened on the other side of the aisle this time. Other side of skin tone. And how could that represent all of the characters inability to find their own identity in the face of adversity. So it just made sense to me to have this kid from the hood who enjoys artistic, weird music. We all have pop interests but that’s not often fostered in our community. So if you can bridge that with what makes us us—rhythm, boom bap, 16-bar loops—and put that over something that’s campy or poppy, we have the ability to make chitlins and greens and do with the scraps that they give us. So I thought that Covers was the perfect symbol for that.
JB: So you’re a musician yourself as well. I really liked the closing song.
MMM: Yessir. Please tell people the final song of the movie is dope so they sit through the shit! [laughs] It’s really the only original piece of music that he creates in the context of this film. It’s about self-identity and coming into ones own. That’s why he keeps making the covers because it’s easier to remix something than to get to the core of who he is as a person. That song was made before the entire film was made. I made it when my homeboy came out [of jail] and it reminded me of where I came from. I found myself on this set with 50 Cent, Jake Gyllenhaal and Forrest Whitaker and I was in my room every day. At the time some things had happened and I was scared that I was going to jeopardize the opportunity so I made the song. When I got home I played it for my DP/Producer and he said this is a really good song. And we were watching Prince’s Purple Rain and he said ‘We should make a music movie! It’s truth bro, You gotta go with the truth.’ So we wrote the script over the course of two days because of the song. The song was made first, which is why I think it culminates.
JB: There are definitely homages to films from the 90s like Boyz N The Hood. Someone is even watching Menace II Society at one point. What made you do that?
MMM: I’m so glad you picked that up. John Singleton has been a big influence on me and Menace is one of my favorite movies also, we can go down the list. But even more than that the Rousolini’s of the world and the neo realist movement influenced me. Just kind of getting into the films about urban environments that weren’t about anything but the people in them. In the 90s it was so flashy and aggressive but that reflected the times. So coming from those same streets it caused me to want to do something slightly different. I wanted to start the film observationally with wide shots and let the people live in their environment. And then suggest ideas by having things that influence me playing in the background. It’s no coincidence that at the end of some of the scenes you hear a key scene tom “The Wire” or Boyz N The Hood. I knew I wouldn’t have a big budget for sound, so I said let me try filling up environment. Mama leaves the TV on and that helps me communicate influence.
JB: Mack Wilds as Angel definitely has an O-Dog feel. Why was he ideal for this role?
MMM: It’s funny because I was originally supposed to play Angel and he was supposed to be X. The reason we decided to switch is because I like to challenge actors and do counterintuitive casting. Tristan at the time had just got off “90210” and was playing a good guy on “The Breaks” and not that Angel is a bad guy, but people don’t know Tristan is from the projects. That’s why we connect. So I wanted him to show that version of him that you haven’t really seen since “The Wire.” He’s instinctual, just like O-Dog and Doughboy. There is no moral judgment on whether they are gonna pull a strap on somebody. It’s how they’ve been bread. So I thought it would be interesting to take somebody that everyone loves and dirty that face up. Then you have a dirty-face Angel, an allusion to another classic film, Angels With Dirty Faces. I took a risk with that but I felt like it paid off because he got to go back to his roots.
JB: The other thing that stood out to me was the presence of white people. Just being straight up. Stan is working in the record store, Jinx is a singer and there is the hip-hop blogger. Speak to that juxtaposition.
MMM: Juxtaposition is the word. The state of hip-hop now is–beyond appropriation– it is no longer just ours. It often causes very funny situations where you have this lily white suburban kid who may know more about hip-hop than you do. Whose roots in classic hip-hop and pop culture might go deeper than yours. One of the funniest scenes is when Stan, who is played by Jack Begert, who is a video director who has done a bunch of Kendrick Lamar videos, who is running off this list of hip-hop info to this OG dude who lived it. That is the state of hip-hop now. How I feel about it may be different from how I expressed it in the film. Some white people appreciate and some appropriate, there is a distinct difference. We can all enjoy this because it is bigger than just Black people. But it does provide for funny situations. There are certain things you’re gonna miss. You’re not gonna know, culturally, where certain influences came from, because you can’t get it all from a textbook. So I really wanted to put that in there.
JB: Then on the flip side of Stan you have the super misogynist Dean played by West Coast rap veteran AMG. Was that casting deliberate?
MMM: Jason “AMG” Lewis is a natural comedian. He could have a whole movie. He’s not as bad as Dean in real life but I did write it specifically for him. He’s really that good. I cast somebody who would represent old school and had been through it. And he’s so L.A. it don’t get more classic than that. So you put the young guard up against the old guard who used to be the young guard and those two together were perfect.
JB: What part of L.A is this taking part in and how many record shops are still left?
MMM: This takes place between Melrose and South Central. In L.A. the hood is a bus ride from Beverly Hills. You pass the 10 Freeway, head north and you could be in a place that looks nothing like the place you grew up in. Because it’s a port city and it’s an epicenter of information, there are a bunch of different social classes of people interacting. So you can have this kind of paradox. And the record shop is a huge thing for me in high school. I used to go all the time and then it closed. But they tried to do this “save the record shop thing” and all the young hip-hop kids wanted to perform and that’s where Kendrick and them started. It’s a real thing.
JB: Carmella Baldwin was fantastic as Neisha. Where did you find her?
MMM: In the movie there is this girl named Gayle who was like a Sundance new talent presentee. She was in “Insecure” the first season and some pretty big movies. She’s in the opening scene with Dean playing the real estate agent. She’s from Atlanta and her and Carmella are sorority sisters and were in the same theater program. They’re in Delta Sigma Theta and I just really wanted to have a sista. Fuck body shaming, fuck body goals. She was real and attractive. Sweet but hard to a degree. She’s from Detroit but went to school in Atlanta. I’m a huge advocate of domestic talent being brought to the forefront from disenfranchised social classes being allowed an opportunity. She was kind of green to film making, because she had done mostly theater before. She’s really strong and has a sweetness about her, but she’s lived a lot of life. For her freshman effort she did a wonderful job.
JB: As the director and star you take on a lot. What do you hope people take away from Covers?
MMM: I hope they feel something. With the metaphors and motifs and liberties taken, and the surrealism wasn’t just me to say look at me I’m doing some art shit. I wanted to lead people to the water with being ok with stepping into whatever your purpose is. this was part of a journey I’ve had where you think you’re comfortable somewhere and you think you have those set accomplishments in your life. But sometimes you gotta let it go to move forward. That’s what makes X an ironic character because he doesn’t take an active volition to change. The people around him are beautiful enough to recognize where they are, where he is and where they want themselves to be and push him. Sometimes people are the very reason you are where you are and I wanted to show all of that. If you can’t do it you better get some good friends. If you don’t, you might have to let go of some old things to bring in the new.
Covers screens on Saturday, September 23, 2017 at the AMC Empire 25 in Theater 12.
Check out the trailer for Covers below:
Jerry Barrow is the founder of NODFACTOR.com and is a New York based veteran journalist with stints at The Source, Scratch Magazine and WatchLOUD. Follow his work on Twitter @JLBarrow. Check out some of his work for soulhead.