By Yolande Brener
“Welcome to Harlem is a goofy, spoofy musical comedy created completely by artists currently living in Harlem. Think Rent meets South Park, or In the Heights meets Avenue Q,” my friend, who teaches musical theater, suggested. She loved the songs.
The story is loosely inspired by events in director Mark Blackman’s life. Although Mark also plays the main character, Marty Blackstein, the film was very much a group project. The diverse directing team includes two people born and raised on the block, a German, an Irish guy, a Japanese guy, and a Bermudean.
The story line is basically: geeky Jewish guy moves to Harlem and finds community bliss on 151st Street. One aspect of the story is that the lease for Marty’s building is running out, and the characters don’t know whether they will be priced out of their home. This brings the community together as they fight to keep their building. In reality, Mark’s building’s lease was not extended and he may soon have to relocate.
When I met Mark at The Chipped Cup, just two blocks from his home, a barista on her way out and a double bass player on his way in stopped to greet him. Mark clearly loves his community, and this shows in the movie.
It was refreshing to see an up to date musical comedy, complete with hilarious rhyming lyrics, such as “She’s just what I’ve been looking for. She’s not a whore.” I also liked the tripping scene where Marty and two ladies go flying off above the Hudson in cartoon form. And it was great to see the neighborhood on celluloid.
The team filmed mainly on 151st Street, which turned out to be very photogenic, especially during the night scenes, and on the rooftop. The film’s cast includes some talented and captivating actors with great vocal skills. Mark’s own singing skills are limited, but that’s part of the humor. The performers also include a few locals and passersby, which was a nice touch. The cast and crew obviously had a great time making this film.
Some aspects of the film shocked me, such as a middle school sex education scene where the children snicker as they sing about STD’s and the teacher sings to the students, “It’s ok to f@#k.”
“Look at any of the films made about Harlem in recent years,” said Mark. “This film isn’t about gangsters and hoes. It’s about real people having genuine community feeling for each other. And if you’re shocked by the language, kids hear much worse than that on the streets every day.”
Welcome to Harlem the movie has been screened at the Apollo, Magic Johnson Theater, Anthology Cinema and various other theaters around the USA. As of now, the film has made nine festival selections, 15 nominations and 5 awards including Best Musical at the Urban Media Makers’ Film Festival.
So, Welcome to Harlem, if you dare.
- The Harlem World Magazine Links Celebrates Harlem History (harlemworldmag.com)
- MISTHarlem A Cultural Entertainment Center (harlemworldmag.com)