by Len Lear
Move over, Spike Lee. Rel Dowdell, 39-year-old a native of Germantown and graduate of Central High School (248th graduating class in 1989), may just be the next great black filmmaker. His second feature film, “Changing the Game,” opened last Friday at selected AMC theaters in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Chicago, with a nationwide release to follow. AMC Theatres is the second-largest motion picture exhibitor in North America.
“He is an outstanding filmmaker,” said Bob Demers, the director of photography on Rel’s breakthrough feature. “I shot his first thesis for him at Boston University (where Dowdell earned a master’s degree in the film school), a short named ‘Train Ride.’ I have known Rel for 15 or 20 years. On the set he has a real vision.”
“It took me seven years to raise the money we needed,” explained the filmmaker, “and to hire all the people and make the film and then get distribution. It really does ‘take a village’ to raise the money for an independent film.”
According to Dennis White, one of the actors in “Changing,” “Rel is a hands-on director. He knows exactly what he wants. In this industry it does not always work that way. Some directors go by the seat of their pants.”
“Changing the Game,” which was shot entirely in Philadelphia, is the story of child prodigy Darrell Barnes, who grew up at 8th and Butler Streets in North Philadelphia in the 1980s. (“It was the most dangerous neighborhood in the city at that time,” said Dowdell.) Barnes winds up working in the skyscrapers of New York’s financial district, where the stakes are high with global impact. Darrell is played by Sean Riggs, whom Dowdell calls “the next Denzel Washington.”
Is the key to survival an almost-mystical gift from a slain childhood friend? Dowdell’s screenplay, which he wrote with collaborator Aaron Astillero, his direction and a plot that includes a few Hitchcockian twists and turns give the film a chance to strike it rich at the box office. Dowdell said he admired Alfred Hitchcock greatly as well as the movie “The Sixth Sense” and that “Changing” also has a big surprise ending that will provide lots of water cooler conversation.
“I always wanted to do a film showing somebody coming out of the worst environment but who does not let that environment take over his life and who succeeds in spite of it,” explained Dowdell. “I grew up in Germantown and knew many young men who had a lot of potential but who never got out of the neighborhood. So I thought that one day I would make a film where somebody like that does beat the odds and does not just become a statistic.
“This is a story with complex characters in a changing world reaching an audience with diverse backgrounds. We show that surviving North Philly is a tough physical game, but surviving Wall Street is an equally tough mental game. The cast is about half-white and half-black and will appeal to more than just one demographic because we believe the story will resonate with all viewers.
“My hope is for ‘Changing the Game’ to embody its title by transforming the way African-American films and filmmakers are perceived. With Nikkole Denson-Randolph of AMC Independent and Anthony King of Barnholtz Entertainment on our team, we have a tremendous chance to exceed our expectations.”
After graduation from Central High, Rel received his B.A. in English with Magna Cum Laude honors from Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1993 and a Master’s Degree in Film Production with highest distinction from Boston University’s film school in 1995. “I didn’t know I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he told the Local, “until I got to college and read some articles about Spike Lee and John Singleton and how they took the educational route to filmmaking.”
Rel grew up in the same Germantown block at the legendary boxer, Bernard Hopkins. His parents, both teachers, took out a second mortgage on their home so they could pay Rel’s tuition at Boston University’s film school. His first film after graduation, “Train Ride,” was filmed entirely at Cheyney University in Chester County. It took seven years after it was made in order to get it released.
Dowdell is truly a down-to-earth, handsome, very unpretentious guy who told me, “I grew up reading the Chestnut Hill Local, and it has always been one of my favorite publications.” (His affection for the Local has absolutely nothing to do with my purely objective evaluation of his many talents.)
Dowdell’s first feature film, “Train Ride,” an extension of his Master’s Degree thesis (“It was always conceptualized as a feature when it was just a short,” said Rel), received substantial critical acclaim. Produced with independent financing, the film was acquired and distributed by Sony Pictures in 2005 and was a major financial success. “Train Ride” was ranked as one of the best American films that year as cited by veteran film critic Gerald Peary of The Boston Phoenix.
The film also garnered high praise in film historian and writer Irv Slifkin’s best-selling book, “Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies.” “Train Ride” also won the honor of “Best Feature” at the American Theatre of Harlem Film Festival in 2005. And it was the number one grossing urban film for Sony Pictures in 2005 with over $20 million in revenue. Both “Train Ride” and “Changing the Game” were made for under $500,000.
Rel Dowdell has been compared by several critics to John Singleton and Spike Lee in the way that his filmmaking blends urban storytelling and suspense to tackle relevant and universal social issues that are intimately intertwined with a powerful moral message. One message in “Changing” is that “sometimes you have to stop playing the game and start changing the game.”
One interesting fact about “Changing the Game” is that while most independent, small-budget movies take place in just one city and during one time period in order to save money, “Changing” covers a period of more than 30 years and presumably in various locations such as New York, London and Thailand, even though every scene was actually shot in Philadelphia. “This movie is an epic,” insisted R. Brian Chacon, production designer, “since it covers the time from 1974, when the main character is in elementary school, until 2006, when he is an adult.”
“The biggest challenge for us,” insisted Dowdell, “was covering these different time periods with their different costuming, makeup, hairstyles and wardrobe, and keeping it all under budget. Doing all of that definitely makes you a better filmmaker.”
Dowdell believes that if “Changing” is a box office success, it will not only advance his career but may open doors for other African American filmmakers. In the past two decades the number of black films has declined precipitously. The only black director really making successful films these days is Tyler Perry, and the number of black independent filmmakers is almost infinitesimal.
The first major national review for “Changing the Game” last week was a rave. Reviewer Avi Offer, a member of New York Film Critics online (website is nycmovieguru.com), gave the film 3.5 out of 4 stars.
Dowdell currently lives in West Philadelphia, but that may not be his residence for long. “I love Philly,” he told us, “but if the right opportunity calls … maybe there will be a move to the West Coast!”
By the way, Rel has probably been asked many, many times about the origin of his unique name. “It was a nickname,” he explained. “My full
first name is Brarailty. My father came up with that name.”