‘From the Rough’ will show new aspects of African-American life
The first film from Gyre Entertainment – founded by former Pitney Bowes executive chairman and director Michael Critelli – is “From the Rough,” about a pioneering black female college golf coach played by Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson.
For the past 40 years, mainstream films depicting African-American life have often veered from one stereotype to another or, roughly speaking, from “Foxy Brown” in 1974 to this year’s “Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son.”
Instead of griping about the situation, like the rest of us, the former executive chairman of Pitney-Bowes, Michael Critelli of Darien, and Los Angeles writer-director Pierre Bagley decided to do something.
The result is a new production company, Gyre Entertainment, whose first film, “From the Rough,” starring Oscar nominee Taraji P. Henson, will open nationally this fall.
In separate phone interviews, Critelli and Bagley said they hope their movie will be the opening salvo in their new way of telling untold stories of African-American life.
“I sort of backed into it,” Critelli said of getting involved in the world of filmmaking after retiring from Pitney-Bowes.
“I just became obsessed with getting this story on the screen,” he added of “From the Rough”s true tale of the struggles of the first black female college golf coach in the United States.
Critelli has long been involved in advocating opportunities for women in the business world so “the story inspired me on a lot of levels.”
Combine the content of the film with Hollywood’s “unwillingness to promote and support movies with black women — and women in general” and Critelli was ready to try to apply his own corporate world acumen to the realm of commercial filmmaking.
Critelli is also ready to challenge the “misperception that movies with black performers do not have the same global reach (as films with white stars)…except for (those with) Will Smith.”
Although “From the Rough” is designed to entertain people, Critelli believes movies and TV can spearhead political and social advances in a way that “is far more powerful than laws and political advocacy. We need those components, but entertainment drives things faster.”
As a black filmmaker who has lived in Hollywood for many years, Pierre Bagley understands the struggle between making socially responsible movies and delivering films that will rack up significant profits.
“It’s kind of like the way everybody complains about what the government does. Either you try to make yourself part of it or you don’t,” he said of black actors he knows who will privately complain about the material they are offered but will publicly endorse it when the time comes to promote a big new release.
Bagley let out a rueful laugh as he recalled one conversation about “From the Rough” in which a prominent black performer interrupted the director, saying “Let me tell you how this town works.”
“At the end of the day, though, there is no conspiracy” against high quality, non-stereotypical films, Bagley asserted, because in Hollywood “there is no singular voice.”
“If you want to change something you have to try to do it yourself,” the filmmaker realized after meetings with studio personnel who would only give him less than a minute to encapsulate his idea for a movie. And when it became apparent that his ideas weren’t easily boiled down to an advertising tag line — or didn’t sound like another recent hit “urban” film — Bagley was shown the door.
It was not long after one of those soul-crushing studio executive brush-offs that Bagley decided to join forces with Critelli after they met at an Urban League gathering.
Bagley and Critelli were lucky to get one of the finest black actresses in movies today — Taraji P. Henson (an Oscar nominee for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) — to commit to their first project; raised the $6 million needed to make “From the Rough” independently; and now are laying the ground work for a promotional campaign and wide release that will put the film on everyone’s radar this fall.
“It is a privilege to make a movie and to have 150 people (on the crew) working for the same goal. There was no THEM, there was no studio telling us what to do. Just Mike and me, keeping the whole thing very personal,” Bagley said of the filming of “From the Rough” in Louisiana last year.
Critelli believes that the Internet and the major social networking platforms give moviemakers new ways to reach audiences without spending the vast sums Hollywood does on major summer and Christmas releases.
The so-called “rules” that the studios have been following are being negated by independently produced hits such as “Black Swan” and off-beat but highly successful studio pictures like “The Blind Side.”
“Whatever rules there were, I think they are all subject to challenge now,” Critelli said. “Everything is up for grabs.”