Grand Stand Pictures co-owners Victor Williams, Rodney Brown and Jazmyne Fuentes are looking to bring opportunities to Grand Rapids like what can be found in Atlanta and Hollywood. Williams, who has a music and entertainment background, Brown, a lifelong educator and Fuentes, who has accumulated over a decade of television production experience, joined together in 2019 under a common goal: Tell Grand Rapids’ stories and support the people who uplift them.
Bringing ‘A City Within a City’ to the big screen
Brown said he has spent the last five to 10 years working to curate stories that can be made into documentaries or full-length feature films.
“One of the big motivations is not everyone reads,” Brown said. “These books are academic in certain ways, and we need to put these in a documentary format to make it accessible to more people.”
The first story Grand Stand Pictures plans to bring to the big screen is a documentary adaptation of Dr. Todd Robinson’s 2012 book, “A City Within A City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan.” The book explores how northern conservatives formed the institution of managerial racism in Grand Rapids after the civil rights movement and how that racism continues to this day.
“Designed to filter each racial issue, managerial racism ultimately sought to locate a ‘middle ground,’ as long as it was situated squarely on the interest-side of the ‘race managers,’” Robinson writes in his book.
An undeniable asset to the team translating Robinson’s work from page to screen, Fuentes produced PBS’s “Inner Compass,” an interview television show focused on ethical, social justice and religious issues around the time “A City Within a City” was published.
“Of all the issues covered,” Fuentes said, “the one that was rising to the top of the biggest unsolved mysteries for me was what was going on with the race relations here in Grand Rapids.”
She said she felt like she “entered the room after a big fight” when she moved from Boston in 1998 and hopes the film will help people describe and talk about race relations in the city.
Brown said he and Williams have lived this feeling of disconnect since their youth. He asserts there are a wealth of stories they heard growing up — like that of South High School and its closing — that are important to his community but aren’t recognized by the greater Grand Rapids community.
“People do things differently in different communities, recognizing the importance of stories,” Brown said. “We have a deep, rich history of accomplishment that is more so than not shared in this community — particularly when it comes to the accomplishments of people who are Black and brown.”
The film currently is still in pre-production, Grand Stand Pictures producer Kimberly Williams said, with scriptwriting, fundraising and sourcing taking place. She mentions the team is working closely with Robinson to make sure it is capturing stories that reflect his work while adding new stories that are contemporary in the community.
While the production team still is curating expert voices to feature in the documentary, the film is set to feature two academic powerhouses: T.A. El-Amin and Dr. Randal Jelks. El-Amin is a local historian who has taught at Grand Valley State University, Davenport University, Grand Rapids Community College and won the 2011 Phyllis Scott Activist Award. Jelks is a professor at the University of Kansas and has written two award-winning books, one of which focuses on local history, “African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Grand Rapids.”
The team also is using resources local to Michigan to support pre-production work. Brown said the Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, Mosaic Film Experience and the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, among others, have been critical partners in providing resources to educate Grand Stand Pictures’ process.
Kimberly Williams said pre-production includes tasks that “aren’t so glamorous,” like the fundraising efforts required to complete the film.
Fuentes said Grand Stand Pictures is doing a crowdfunding campaign, getting involved in the community to spread the word of the company’s mission, and launched an IndieGoGo campaign on “616 Day,” June 16, along with a celebration for the film’s “Grand Champions.”
The Grand Champions Campaign, Victor Williams said, is for individual influencers within the field of equity, diversity and inclusion who donate $1,000 toward the production of the film.
“(We’ll be) announcing these people in the credits of the film, so it’s an opportunity for the people out there doing the work to have their name immortalized in the film credits under the banner of ‘Grand Champion,’” he said.
So far, Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss, former director of the state of Michigan’s Office of New Americans Bing Goei and Celebration Cinema’s director of community affairs Emily Loeks have donated to this effect, and Williams said he expects more individuals to join the list.
Additionally, Grand Stand Pictures has a match program for community members who don’t fall under the umbrella of equity, diversity and inclusion influencers.
“Through our initial funders, we’re offering a match program for our general community, (up to) $500,000,” Williams said. “We’re grateful there are donors in Grand Rapids who are willing to put forward that sort of support for our program and company and to support what we’re doing.”
Once the production company’s inaugural project is complete, Brown said Grand Stand Pictures will curate stories from Grand Rapids’ Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American/Pacific Islander and immigrant communities.
Sustaining local creativity
Despite the magnitude of work involved, creating films doesn’t completely satisfy Grand Stand Pictures’ vision.
Part of the company’s mission statement emphasizes, “Our aim is to help define our future by elevating voices of resilience, ingenuity and talent.”
To that end, Grand Stand Pictures is associated with the Grand Rapids Media Initiative and Film Incubator (GR-MiFi). Brown said opportunities involving filmmaking apprenticeships with the documentary based on “A City Within a City” will jumpstart the incubator he refers to as the sustainable education portion of the company’s work.
The incubator is looking to raise between $3 million and $5 million over the next three to five years, and the Steelcase Foundation already has donated $250,000 in support of the incubator and Grand Stand Pictures’ film production.
Learn more about the film and GR-MiFi at GrandStandPictures.com or at @GrandStandPictures on Facebook. Individual donations may be made to ACWACFilm through PayPal or Venmo and to $ACWACFilm through CashApp.
This story can be found in the September/October 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.