Like many of us who grew up in the region, Jash’d Belcher used to go to Studio 28 to watch movies. Once the largest multi-screen cinema complex in the world, in its heyday there were 20 screens chock full of the latest films Hollywood had to offer.
“I remember looking at all those posters when I was a kid and wondering what an Executive Producer did,” said Belcher, who had just about enough time to meet for a chat earlier this year between a photoshoot and a trip to the airport. The accomplished filmmaker was on his way to the 45th annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where his curiously titled film, “To Live and Die & Live,” would hold its premiere.
The “Holy Grail” of independent film festivals, judges review about 13,000 films for consideration each year before allowing less than one percent of those to achieve the rank of Sundance accepted.
“Just getting in makes you a winner,” Belcher remarked, and said he was looking forward to being around other filmmakers and talented people. His film was selected to screen as part of Sundance’s “Next” program, which provides a showcase for what the festival calls “Pure, bold works distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to story-telling.”
“To Live” follows protagonist, Muhammad, who has returned to Detroit for his stepfather’s funeral, but his own battle with addiction (which he hides from the world) drives him to immediately fade away into the sultry, late-night, drug-saturated after-hours of the city, and an equally intoxicating romantic relationship.
“I am grateful and honored for the opportunity to be part of an amazing work of art and to share it with the world, to foster conversations about mental health and addiction,” said Belcher.
Veteran film critic Todd McCarthy said: “Stylistically, ‘To Live and Die and Live’ is cut down to the bone, with the essential action being conveyed but with a vital terseness that both frustrates and keeps you on your toes.”
Reviewing for Variety, Dennis Harvey states: “Produced by Forest Whitaker, Qasim Basir’s opaque yet atmospheric drama finds an ostensible Hollywood success reluctantly yanked back to his Michigan roots.”
According to Belcher, the film was shot entirely on location in Detroit, and the creative visionary behind the film is Detroit native director Qasim Basir.
The pair previously collaborated on “A Boy. A Girl. A Dream,” an ambitious film set on the night of the 2016 presidential elections that was recorded in one unbroken take, in four different locations! The film was snatched up by distributor Samuel Goldwyn Films at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Given the subject matter and depth of his previous films, it was no surprise to find out that Belcher’s favorite filmmaker is Spike Lee and that Lee’s 1992 Academy Award-nominated “Malcom X” ranks high on his list of favorite flicks. An epic biographical drama about an influential Black Nationalist leader from Lansing, the film chronicles Malcom Little’s early life in Michigan to his ministry as a member of the Nation of Islam. Lee was already a veteran filmmaker when he made the film. His first film was made as a student at Morehouse College, a private, four-year, all-male historically black college in Atlanta.
After graduating from Ottawa Hills High School in 1994, Belcher followed in Lee’s footsteps to also attend Morehouse College and now ranks among a plethora of notable alumni, which includes Samuel L. Jackson and MLK Jr.
Belcher put down roots in his college town for about eight years and made a name for himself in the world of public relations. He eventually made his way to New York City and then L.A., and has worked with some of the top producers, like Datari Turner (whose producing partner is Oscar winner Jamie Foxx), record executives Russell Simmons (DefJam Records) and celebrities like Tommy Hilfiger, Missy Elliot, Usher and the Fugees.
When the call came from his mother that she had a terminal illness, Belcher dropped everything to tend to her in her time of need and returned to Grand Rapids. The self-described serial entrepreneur didn’t let his creative energy go to waste. He turned to the food and beverage industry, with such endeavors as the French Quarter Bar and Restaurant in the Heartside District (now closed), and Love Lounge, which shut its Wealthy St. doors in 2011.
It wasn’t long before Belcher turned his entrepreneurial attention back to filmmaking, having learned throughout the years that an Executive Producer brings in the investors, and is heavily involved in the marketing and event planning. It’s all the same, regardless of the industry.
“I used to look at the posters at the theaters and wondered what an executive producer was and now my name is on the poster,” said Belcher. “Dreams do come true with hard work and perseverance.”