By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,
Los Angeles native Stephen Blake gained his fascination with film when he was just 9 years old. His uncle gifted him an 8mm movie camera, and he immediately began creating short films, casting his sisters and neighbors as the main characters.
Eventually, his childhood pastime turned into a professional aspiration.
Blake formed the cinematography club at his high school and continued developing his portfolio. He also received special permission to leave school during his lunch period to intern for American television producer Arnold Shapiro.
At 19, Blake finally began directing on professional sets, and this led him to work on numerous independent war, action and horror films.
But, after a chance encounter with a music producer at a payphone, Blake transitioned into creating music videos.
His first project was American music group Bell Biv Devoe’s “Do Me!” It made a huge debut on the charts, and Blake was subsequently asked to shoot a music video for Public Enemy’s “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Streets of New York.”
He continued working in the music industry, making videos for Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre and Tupac, but as his career progressed, he became increasingly aware that the content he was creating glorified drugs and violence and portrayed women as property.
Blake saw that society was facing increased violence, suicide rates and incarcerations, particularly of Black men, and he realized that his work was contributing to the issues.
“As an artist, on one hand, it’s wonderful to create something that is amazing, gripping and compelling, but there’s also the responsibility I have to my community,” said Blake. “If what I’m doing is just idolizing these things that are going to result in more Black men being in prison and more women being kept under the thumb of a somewhat chauvinistic world then I’ve got to give that up.”
Blake left the music video business and even publicized a renouncement of all the projects he’d worked on.
He took some time off to think about what his contribution would be to the Black community and to the world, and his reflection led him to establish his own production company, Realm Pictures International (Realm).
Pulling from his experience as a cinematographer, Blake designed Realm to produce epic motion pictures, for a fraction of common film costs, that universalize the stories of Black people.
Currently, Realm is in pre-production for its first movie, “Steal Away.”
It’s based on Andrew Ward’s book “Dark Midnight When I Rise,” and tells the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a young historically Black university choir who toured the world and fought the Ku Klux Klan’s (KKK) destruction of Black schools with songs of faith and freedom after the Civil War.
Realm pledged to endow historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with 10 percent of the movie’s net box office revenues and intends to do this with future projects.
“Every Black woman who’s wearing a graduation cap at whatever college she’s going to should have the exact same view in terms of what’s possible for her future as any White male coming out of Yale or Harvard,” said Blake. “To the extent that that’s not the case, we, Corporate America and Hollywood, need to dig into our HBCUs and be more proactive in not only sustaining them so that they are financially solvent year to year but doing remedial action.”
Realm has also committed itself to discovering and hiring new talent from HBCUs’ performing arts and film departments.
“Steal Away” is still looking to cast its protagonist, Ella Sheppard, the leader of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and Blake believes her character could be the strongest Black female lead in the history of film.
Rev. Jesse Jackson has also already endorsed the film, and Blake hopes that when audiences see “Steal Away” they will find themselves in the story, regardless of their background, and experience hope.
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