What stories are being told and by whom? At Wide Angle Youth Media, a media arts education nonprofit in Baltimore, that question is top of mind for both youth participants and staff.
It was certainly a priority for Maceo “Tendaji” Lester, a former workforce manager and media instructor at Wide Angle, whose short film “Paralysis” is currently on the festival circuit. His piece about police brutality and the communities it leaves behind is part of the Baltimore filmmaker’s work with his Ikonic Visions Multimedia Group, which has also worked on music videos, narrative film and documentaries. His love of music, sports and African American culture is prevalent in all his projects.
Lester has seen firsthand how the Wide Angle program has reached thousands of young people and helped them produce projects about their lives and the areas in which they live. Through his own education — he received his bachelor’s in mass communications at Virginia State University and his master’s in film from the Maryland Institute College of Art — Lester has taught the youth of tomorrow while continuing to pursue his own creative goals. He aspires to tell authentic stories that will substantially impact race/gender equity and help cultivate storytellers of the next generation.
He talked to Wide Angle Youth Media about how he got here and what’s next.
Tell us about your background.
I was born in Baltimore, raised in Glen Burnie. I’m now a Baltimore-based filmmaker. I started my video/film journey in high school. It was my senior year of high school, and my failed basketball career left me clueless and somewhat rebellious. I didn’t want to go to college, nor did I know what I would study once I got there. But one day during my senior year of high school, I was in an elective class that introduced me to video producing. We were using some old Windows laptops and digital cameras and were instructed to make a mock commercial for a product. I really enjoyed shooting the video and enjoyed editing the video even more. The rest is history. I discovered my college major and my passion all in the same day.
How did you find out about WAYM? What made you join?
I found out about WAYM when I was job hunting. I was in Los Angeles at the time, looking to uproot my career in Baltimore and take it to the West Coast. However, things didn’t work out. I applied to several jobs in L.A. and didn’t receive any callbacks. I applied to one job in Baltimore — that one job happened to be Wide Angle. I was hired as a contractor to edit. That contract led to a part-time position, which eventually became full time, and that led to a supervisor position. I joined because I actually enjoyed the projects I was working on. I was becoming a more organized editor and seasoned media professional. The staff at Wide Angle were very friendly, and I saw myself fitting in well.
Congrats on the world premiere of your short film! Can you share an overview about this project?
I came up with the concept of “Paralysis” shortly after the George Floyd murder. I was hearing and seeing several conversations about what people would do if they witnessed the altercation between Floyd and the officer. Everybody sounded tough and calculated, but I highly doubt they’d respond that way if they were eyewitnesses. Then I began to ask, “Why don’t people do anything in those situations?” “Who would do something?” “What would they do?” This is what started the brainstorming process, and I began to build from there.
What inspired the film, and why was it an important film for you to make?
The George Floyd incident was the main catalyst, but I also thought about Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and countless others who lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. I also was inspired by the white man who chased me in his pickup truck when I was riding my bike at the age of 13. I thought about how I was an innocent child minding my business playing outside with my friends and this man decided to come out of his house and chase us, accuse us of stealing his property, and endangered us and himself. The officer in “Paralysis,” Nate O’Connor — played by Nate Nelson — is the embodiment of that man who chased me many years ago.
I believe this film was important to make because police brutality, racial profiling and many other social issues that plague BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and other people of color] communities are still very prevalent today. I think this film keeps the conversation going. When these incidents happen, the media storm intrudes these communities, exploits the death of the victim, and then everything dissipates. However, these communities that are already impoverished are now traumatized even more. No one comes back to check on the victims’ family or community members. No one comes to invest into the neighborhood or tries to prevent these incidents from recurring. Everyone just goes back to living life like it’s normal.
I believe “Paralysis” gives a voice to so many people who have gone unheard. I believe this film keeps the conversation going. It reminds us that many police departments are corrupt and something needs to be done about it. I think “Paralysis” is somewhat therapeutic because it prompts people to speak about their trauma, and I believe that’s the first step toward healing.
A few Wide Angle apprentices helped work on your film, and you had young and older actors. Can you speak to the importance of intergenerational collaboration on your project?
I think intergenerational collaboration with any project or business is important. The younger generation brings innovation and that youthful spark of energy. The older generation can provide wisdom, mentorship and experience. I think when you blend the two together it can be a recipe for success. For “Paralysis” in particular, I definitely wanted to have representation from the older generation in the cast because the social issues that plague the Black community have been persistent since America’s conception. So, with Ken Brown’s character [Mr. Willie], I wanted to have a more seasoned character in the film that has a broader vantage point because unfortunately he has seen this episode of police brutality in his community far too many times. In the film, Mr. Willie is struggling with the fact that he has witnessed mistreatment toward his people his entire life and still doesn’t have the courage or know-how to protect them.
What was the hardest artistic choice you made during the making of this film?
I think trimming the poem down [that is featured in the film] was tough. There were certain lines in the poem that were very powerful, but for timing purposes I had to cut a few lines out. I didn’t want the poem or film to drag for too long. I tried to find the perfect timing of when to start the film and when to end it so that there aren’t stale moments. I wanted the audience to be engaged in this world the entire time.
What is something you learned about yourself during the making of your short film?
I learned to develop more patience. I’m naturally a very impatient person, and I want things done efficiently with excellence. This project taught me to make sure I give each phase of production its due diligence. From fundraising, preproduction, production, post-production and now marketing — I’m learning to take my time every step of the way and try to make sure each phase is done to the best of my ability. I’m buckling up now for a yearlong marketing campaign, and I think the development of this film has prepared me for it.
What message do you want to make sure your viewer understands from your short film?
I don’t have a specific message. There were a lot of ideas and questions that went into the creation of this film. So the film itself poses a lot of lived experiences and questions. Overall, I hope audiences will watch this film with an open mind and an open heart and will be moved to either take action or at the very least rethink certain prejudices or close-mindedness that they may have. The film takes a look into the thoughts of members in Black/Brown communities who have been traumatized by police misconduct. We rarely hear from the people in these communities after these acts of violence from police officers. Most times in film, police officers are portrayed as the heroes and we see the cinematic world from their perspective. I believe “Paralysis” gives a voice to the community and is a reflection of how people may feel when it comes to the unhealthy relationship between police officers and the Black/Brown communities they serve.
What advice do you have for young filmmakers?
Write from within. It’s OK to draw influences from your favorite films or filmmakers, but the secret sauce is within you. Writing from your own experiences, your own theories, your own friends/family members is what makes your work unique. It’s a story that only you can tell. If you want to be more on the production crew side of things, I’d advise young filmmakers to pick one thing and learn everything there is to know about that position. Master the craft and do it very, very well. Excelling in one skill increases your value add and will eventually lead to other opportunities.
Wide Angle Youth Media is an education nonprofit that cultivates and amplifies the voices of Baltimore youth through media arts.