Imagine a place in which you feel most at home and at peace—free from fear and judgement. Envision a place in which you are welcomed warmly and wholly accepted in all your complexities. Is this an easy place for you to visualize? For some, identifying such a sanctuary can be more difficult than for others. Some may even consider the search to be nearly impossible.
In the upcoming short film My Own Mecca—we follow a night in the life of Dre, a young Black man from Oakland as he reflects on his quest for a space that is truly his own. In just under eleven minutes, Bay Area filmmakers Alba Roland Mejia and Jon Warfield Harrison paint a poignant picture of the lifelong struggles that Black men are confronted with on a daily basis.
The film’s plot line was born out of a lived experience Harrison had over the course of a day on a trip from San Francisco to the East Bay to visit family. Upon his return, Harrison recounted the day’s events to a friend who seemed surprised by the situations he had found himself in.
Recognizing the disconnect between what he considered to be an average day and what others would consider out of the ordinary, Harrison began writing a story about the tense interactions he as a Black man experienced with law enforcement, friends and family that would eventually become My Own Mecca.
Mejia and Harrison grew up over 100 miles away from each other. Harrison, the Oakland-born director of photography and co-writer, grew up in Antioch while director and co-writer Mejia grew up in Salinas. It was their passion for visual storytelling that merged their paths where they met at San Francisco State University during their time studying film.
After Harrison’s initial attempt to have the film made fell through with a previous crew, he shared his script with Mejia and production began in August 2019.
Marsalis Burton, the actor who plays Dre in the film, would complete the cast soon after and according to Mejia, Burton made the casting decision easy to make. “There was something so special about Marsalis’ energy and his confidence and how personable he was,” Mejia said. Mejia had those auditioning for the role bring a poem to read. While most brought in a poem they had found on the internet, Burton wrote his own.
Dre was written as a poet—a quality that stands in stark contrast to the hard exterior the world perceives him to be. Dre’s voice-over heard throughout the film, however, invites the audience to see beyond the societal mask and into the complex person he really is.
“Going through each scene felt like an extension of who I actually am,” Burton said. “This role allowed me to share what goes through the mind of a young Black man within just a few hours of his day. These are experiences that I and other folks I know have had but we have to suck that up and use our masculinity to hide our emotions because we have to stay strong. So, I felt a true connection playing Dre.”
In addition to lived experiences, My Own Mecca also drew inspiration from art that challenges the monolithic assumptions of Black men that much of popular media tends to perpetuate. John Singleton’s Babyboy, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me each had a direct influence on the poeticism, tenderness and ruggedness in the film.
My Own Mecca Official Trailer— Jon Warfield Harrison (@jonharrisonsb) August 21, 2020
Shot on @Kodak_ShootFilm pic.twitter.com/2vMnVEmYlI
Barry Jenkins, director and co-writer of the award winning coming of age film Moonlight, had an impact on the film that expands beyond creative influence.
Funding for My Own Mecca was facilitated through an Oakland-based crowdfunding platform called Seed&Spark. The project received about $1,700 in donor contributions before it was made public. Once the Seed&Spark page for the film was eventually shared across social media platforms, the project began to garner new, promising attention.
“Once we made it public online, we started tagging Barry Jenkins in it and posting funny videos with it to get his attention,” Harrison said. “He eventually saw it and liked our post. We thought him acknowledging us was exciting enough but then we went to check our Seed&Spark page and saw that our entire goal was already met. The contribution had Barry Jenkins’ name on it so he dropped about half of the portion of our original goal amount.”
The generous contribution earned Jenkins a special shoutout in the film’s credits.
Coates’ Between the World and Me, written as a letter to his son in an attempt to enlighten him on the realities of being Black in America, specifically aided Mejia in navigating a personal obstacle she confronted in the making of the film.
“Jon had reached out to tell me I should really read this book and how much it inspired him. This was before any poetry was even involved in the film. And he was right,” Mejia said. “How can I approach this film without understanding the mindstate of the Black man in America? So, let me take some time to research and understand a bit better before I even touch this. I read the book and it hit so hard and so close—it really helped me understand what Jon was trying to say in a deeper way. The majority of the voice overs you hear come from that book.”
Given the current social climate during what is being considered the largest movement in U.S. history, the My Own Mecca crew has been receiving comments about how timely the completion of the film is. But while it may be true that the Black Lives Matter movement has grown in support and mobility over the past four years, the insidiousness of structural racism and white supremacy is a deep-seeded issue woven into the nation’s legacy.
“This film could’ve come out anytime since the 1960’s and it would’ve been perfectly relevant,” Harrison said. “I think one thing to consider though is that this is a product of revitalized energy. It’s unfortunate that this is still something we need to address but I’m glad the film is coming out so that anyone who may be going through these inner battles can watch this film and maybe find some answers. That’s the relationship I’ve had with movies throughout my life. I’ve always wanted to make the types of movies that have helped me so I hope this film could do that for others.”
My Own Mecca’s official release date is pending with plans to be made available sometime in 2021 after an extended run in the festival circuit.