If you asked him 30 years ago what he wanted to be, Randall Dottin would have said, “An actor like Bill Cosby.”
He would have told you he raced home after school every day to catch Cosby in old episodes of I Spy and The Electric Company, and how he even tried to catch him on the silver screen. “I really wanted to be an actor,” the 37-year-old says.
The Cambridge-native didn’t know then fate had a bigger plan for him — one that entailed him being behind a camera instead of in front of one. Dottin thought he was chasing a calling when he played the leading role in an elementary school play that was a version of The Gingerbread Man.
He thought he was chasing that calling in high school, when he traveled and performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland during the summer of 1988. Dottin, who was 15 at the time, didn’t know the open arts festival was the largest one of its kind.
Started in 1947, the festival continues to feature big names in showbiz and street performers, according to edfringe.com. It covers a range of art forms from theater, comedy, children’s shows and dance; to physical theater, musicals and operas; to all genres of music, exhibitions and events. In 2008, hundreds of groups participated in putting on more than 2,000 different shows with a total of more than 31,000 performances in 247 venues.
When Dottin attended that festival as part of a theatre group from St. Sebastian’s High School, he didn’t know it would change his life.
At the festival, he saw a one-man show based on Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X. It was the first time he had heard of the Muslim minister, public speaker and human rights activist. In retrospect, Dottin says, “It’s so funny how a young Black kid” – from the U.S. – “goes to the UK and finally hears about Malcolm X.”
That moment was the second of many Dottin says developed his consciousness. The first was before that trip, when he came across an article on Spike Lee and August Wilson. While reading that article, he was struck by how prominent the two African-American men are in the arts.
With his 1986 film, She’s Gotta Have It, Lee’s credited for leading the new wave of young Black independent filmmakers “armed with audacious visions and fresh perspectives about black life,” writes Greg Braxton in a March 2008 article for the Los Angeles Times. These indie filmmakers included Robert Townsend, the Hughes brothers, Mario Van Peebles, Charles Burnett, Matty Rich and John Singleton. According to Braxton, “They created comedies and dramas barbed with sharp perspectives on race, class, social conditions and politics.”
August Wilson was a playwright, whose literary legacy is the ten-play series, known as The Pittsburgh Cycle. For that series he won two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each play is set in a different decade, portraying both the comic and tragic aspects of the African Americans living through the 20th century. Nine of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s African-American neighborhood, known as the Hill District.
Both Lee and Wilson were unapologetic about using the culture of their people in their works. The way they used it, Dottin recalls, “Was inclusive and not exclusive.” It became clear to him then what his calling was. Dottin wasn’t sure how he would do it but knew he was going to be an indie filmmaker.
His personal and artistic journey that started in the summer of 1988 took him to Dartmouth College, where he majored in film and graduated in 1994. It took him to Columbia University, where he completed his MFA in Film in 2003.
At Dartmouth, Dottin won two awards for a play and a short film. He also scored an opportunity that took him to New York City, where he currently lives. Looking back, Dottin’s convinced fate had a hand in making things happen for him. As an undergrad, he was walking the halls of the college’s film department in 1993, when he spotted a billboard posting and jumped at the opportunity to intern at Spike Lee’s production company, 40 Acres and a Mule.
Prior to offering the internship, Spike Lee struck a six-picture deal with Universal Studios, which resulted in the director opening a story development department to solicit scripts to be made into feature films. Cirri Nottage, a Dartmouth alum, was hired to head that department. She sent the notice that was posted on the billboard Dottin almost passed up on his way to class. Coming across Dottin’s application in the pile, Nottage read he had won a scriptwriting competition for his play, Hustle.
The play, currently being adapted for the screen, is about three generations of street ball players and the struggle to overcome the legacy of betrayal. The idea came out of a conversation Dottin and the play’s producers had about the absence of Black fathers and its effects in urban communities. “These young men are growing up without the guidance…and they’re forced to choose men in their communities to follow that are not really helping them grow and man-up,” Dottin says. They’re “not helping them learn about themselves or how to serve themselves, their families and communities.” In Hustle, the playground is where Black youths seek out their missing fathers. And while they might not find them there, the game, itself, becomes a surrogate with its rules and disciplines. On the court, they learn the game has costs and benefits. “When you play street ball, if you practice the game and become excellent, the game will come back to you,” Dottin says. “People of the community will give you the love that you may not experience at home.”
Impressed by this, Nottage invited Dottin to New York for an interview. He got the gig. It was the summer of 1993. Spike Lee was shooting Crooklyn at the time and was wrapping up the theatrical run of his other movie, Malcolm X.
As an intern, Dottin’s primary duties were to read scripts and run errands to the set of Crooklyn, where he watched daily shoots as a perk of the internship. Because of 40 Acres’ open submission policy, “Everybody was sending in scripts; people were even sending in handwritten scripts in hopes that Spike Lee would produce their movie,” Dottin recalls. There was even an extreme case when a guy called in, claiming to be chased by the mob. “I just need a little office where I can write this script that I know is going to be hot,” Dottin recalls the caller saying. “Do you think you could talk to Spike about getting me an office at 40 Acres and a Mule?’”
It was an experience Dottin enjoyed, and one that taught him a valuable lesson. “I saw a little bit of the pressure that was put on Spike Lee because he was the only African American consistently directing films at the time,” he says. “I saw a glimpse of that pressure and how he worked really hard to keep on making movies despite what the obstacles were.”
Lee and several others from his generation were heirs to a tradition that predates them. “Race movies” was a film genre that existed in the U.S. between 1915 and 1950. The films were produced for an all-black audience and featured an all-Black casts. “These movies…provided employment for hundreds of underutilized talents languishing in servile roles in mainstream filmmaking,” writes Violet Glaze in a February 2006 article for the Baltimore City Paper. “Directors such as Oscar Micheaux took pains to reflect an African-American life more familiar and optimistic to the newly, or nearly, middle-class Black audience hungry to see their own on screen.”
At 40 Acres and a Mule, Dottin says he saw Lee continue that tradition by fighting for Black teamsters to drive some of the trucks and fighting with unions to make sure there were crew people of color. “I think because we’ve been so successful, we don’t really think about those battles that he fought,” Dottin says. “It’s a legacy that we need to understand lest we forget and things change.”
More than 20 years after Lee kicked down the door for his generation, Tyler Perry has emerged and established himself as a dominant voice. In his LA Times article, Braxton described Perry’s films as a “traditional formula of romantic, family-centered melodrama – spiced with over-the-top, insult-hurling characters.” But Perry’s popularity has sparked debates among Black filmmakers and observers. Among them was D’Angela Steed, one of the heads of Strange Fruit Media, who accused Hollywood of suffering from the Tyler Perry Syndrome. “We want to tell multidimensional stories with in-depth characters,” Steed told the Times. When her company pitched a made-for-TV drama to a cable network, she claimed their response was, “What’s the Tyler Perry version?” Her partner, Nia Hill, told the Times that the images Perry’s characters portray are too stereotypical to be taken lightly.
On the other side of that debate is Dottin. “The people who are really harsh critics of Tyler Perry…need to see the
bigger picture,” he says. “The bigger picture is that we’re focusing on Tyler Perry because Tyler Perry is the only consistent producer of Black films that we have, right now.” Dottin noted that Perry’s films speak to middle-aged, Black, church-going women – an audience Perry learned to connect with through the plays he produced before becoming a filmmaker.
Seeing validity to some of the criticisms, Dottin also challenged filmmakers who don’t like Perry’s films to make their own. To hear him tell it, he doesn’t allow himself to be affected by the so-called Tyler Perry Syndrome in Hollywood. “I realized throughout my study of independent filmmaking and filmmakers that Hollywood has never given anyone a chance,” says Dottin, who knew fate could only take him so far. “You got to go and take that shit.”
It’s that attitude that pushed Dottin to get his Columbia University MFA thesis film, A-ALIKE, out to the public when no one was rushing to give him a deal. A-ALIKE is the story of two brothers from opposite sides of the social spectrum. One brother is a corporate executive and the other brother is an ex-convict. The corporate executive picks up his brother from prison on the day of his release. “They haven’t seen each other in four years,” Dottin says. On their ride home, the story becomes more about the struggle of two brothers trying to reconcile their estrange relationship and to reconcile the choices they made in their lives and how those choices split them apart. “In the climax of the movie,” the filmmaker says, “they realize that despite the facts that they made choices that took them in different directions they realize how alike they are.” Because of that determination, Dottin’s film won numerous awards including the Director’s Guild of America Award for Best African-American Student Filmmaker, Best Short Film at the Roxbury Film Festival and the Gold Medal in the Narrative Category in the 2004 Student Academy. A-ALIKE placed second in the National Board Review of Motion Picture Award and was a finalist in the HBO Short Film Competition at the American Black Film Festival. Additionally, A-ALIKE was screened at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival. The film was licensed for a two-year broadcast run by HBO in 2003.
Columbia News, an online publication of Columbia University’s Office of Communication and Public Affairs, reported that Dottin’s film beat out more than 200 entries nationwide in the highly competitive narrative category at the 31st annual Student Academy Awards. “We are proud of Columbia’s record, which indicates pretty clearly how strong our filmmaking program has become,” Dan Kleinman, chairman of the School of the Arts Film Division, told the news service in 2004. “Congratulations to Randy, who is having a wonderful year and deserves all this recognition.”
That attitude of taking what Hollywood wouldn’t give him also got Dottin recruited by Fox Searchlab in 2004 after being honored by the Director’s Guild of America. The Searchlab is a program for emerging directors who sign a first look deal with Fox Searchlight when they enroll. They have a year to make a short that becomes an audition piece for Fox executives. If the short is successful, the filmmaker enters into a two-picture deal with the studio. Randall’s short film, LIFTED, was completed in the Winter of 2007.
LIFTED is a story of a young mother/dancer who wants to be the greatest dancer ever. She hasn’t had a job in five years since she’s been taking care of her son. One night, she goes out for the biggest audition of her life and fails. She attributes her failure to her raising her son – something she sees as a burden and distraction that hinders her from pursuing her dreams. The night of her failed audition, the mother abandons her son at a pizza shop. What ensues is an encounter between the mother and spiritual guardian on a subway platform. The spiritual guardian sets the mother straight. “The story is all about a woman struggling to regain her worth and to see that all of these experiences and people are in her life for a purpose,” Dottin says. LIFTED premiered at New York’s Schomburg Library for Research in Black Culture.
The filmmaker wasn’t deterred by setbacks he encountered while shooting LIFTED, a film that cost him $80,000 to make. “I built a $25,000 subway set on a soundstage in Connecticut; the same soundstage where they shot Amistad,” Dottin says. “We shot it and we were going to do some re-shooting, and the set burned to the ground.” With $25,000 literally up in smoke, the filmmaker had a choice: he could either fold up his bags and call it quits or rebuild the set and finish shooting. “I had to finish it,” Dottin says. “I had to get my movie done.”
The perseverance paid off. LIFTED went on to screen at more than 30 film festivals and won 10 festival awards. The film continues to be requested for several screenings as an educational tool. Dottin has screened the film and led discussions at academic institutions such as Brooks Academy, Phillips Andover Academy and Noble and Greenough School in Massachusetts and Community Works, an arts in education program in New York City.
Dottin is currently at work on INDELIBLE, a story about a Black female scientist who races to find a cure for a rare disease that killed her husband and threatens to kill her son. The lead character has been engaged in a struggle with a corporate pharmaceutical industry to make drugs that save lives and make money. She runs head-on into the struggle when she realizes that her son is getting close to the age when he can contract this disease. The question for her becomes: Does she spend more time in the lab at the sacrifice of spending time with her son? or Does she spend more time with her son at the sacrifice of creating a cure for her son’s disease? “One way or another, when the disease becomes full-blown in her child, the disease will kill him,” says Dottin, who didn’t write the film. Instead, it was written by Mikki Del Monico and produced by Melanie Williams Oram.
The three of them recently won the Alfred P. Sloan Foundations $100,000 feature film grant. This award, given in conjunction with Columbia University will be used as seed money to start production on Dottin’s feature film debut as a director.
As part of his activism, Dottin founded and served as artistic director of Middle Passage Filmworks in 2001. The film production company strives to access and build on the cultural memory of the African Diaspora to create entertaining and empowering stories about people of color. “The best of our art taps both the spirits of our ancestors,” says Dottin, whose West Indian roots are through a grandfather from Barbados and a grandmother from Montserrat. Middle Passage Filmworks aims to join this tradition, using the lense of the African Diaspora to tell stories that touch everyone.
Dottin currently teaches screenwriting, directing and acting at New York Film Academy. He also teaches for an arts in education program called “Making A Difference” as part of the community works organization. Through that program, he teaches at three New York City high schools – at PS241 in Central Harlem, he teaches digital photography; he teaches film at Mott Haven Village Prep High School in the Bronx and the High School for Math Science and Engineering on the campus of City College of New York. Dottin likened the classroom to a movie set because much like directors on a set, teachers are leaders of their classrooms. He notes that learning is a collaborative effort between teachers and students, just as it is between directors, their actors and crew.
At this point, Dottin’s students could be anyone looking to get into the film industry. His lesson for them? “You cannot take no for an answer…If you take no for an answer, that’s a sign of being mediocre,” says Dottin, whose recent honor by indieWIRE lets him know otherwise. In February, he was listed as one of the top ten new exciting voices in African American Cinema. “This game is hard enough,” Dottin says. “In the world of film, you cannot afford to be average or mediocre.”