"No man can outrun the choices he makes." A police commissioner delivers these lines to Akeem Sharp (Dale Elliott) —the protagonist in filmmaker Storm Saulter's second feature, Sprinter. Beautifully shot and delivering an expansive view of Jamaica, Sprinter follows Akeem, a burgeoning teen track and field phenom who is desperate to qualify for the World Games in Los Angeles and snag a scholarship to a U.S. school.
Despite his obvious talent, Akeem's family life —an absent mother (Lorraine Tousant) who has lived in the U.S. illegally for years sending money home, a drunken father (Dennis Titus), a criminally minded brother (Kahdeem Wilson)—and his own immaturity threaten to derail Akeem's success before he even gets started. However, a no-nonsense coach (David Allen Grier), a track legend, and his own self-determination might just get Akeem across the finish line.
Ahead of Sprinter’s U.S. debut, Shadow And Act sat down to speak with Saulter about his sophomore feature, the landscape of Jamaican cinema today, and why he’s already looking for what's next.
"I always wanted to create a story in the world of track and field," Saulter explained. "Obviously with Jamaica's dominance, I knew there was a massive audience and interest in track. Beyond that, I wanted to tell a story about a modern Caribbean family that did not rely on stereotypes. It wasn't this extreme life and death situation, because that's not our lives, and everyone's not fighting to survive. People are living normal lives; they're trying to make the team, they're trying to pass the test, they miss their mom, they're trying to get with a girl they like that's not paying them any attention. In telling a story that's not relying on these major extremes, it's actually slightly more radical."
Newcomer Dale Elliott as Akeem Sharp | Photo Credit: Courtesy of FilmRise
Akeem isn't trying to navigate any extreme circumstances, but he does have the stress of being away from his mother for the past decade of his life. "I thought this is very interesting to examine being away from a parent --a mother in particular, only communicating with them through Skype --but maybe there's a chance you can see them again," the Better Mus' Come director revealed. "Jamaican masculinity also comes into play because it has its very kind of set expectations of who you're supposed to be, what it means to be a man."
With Sprinter, Saulter also knew that along with his recognizable powerhouse cast, he wanted to discover new talent. "I’m just interested in good actors," he laughed. "To me, the issue of how much of a well-known star you are is almost like a marketing thing. It’s about who can play the role the best, and who can bring the most truth to the role. I love to work with great established actors, that's cool, but I also love to help to discover and launch great talent. I think there's a lot of power in mixing and matching talent. More experienced actors help to bring up other actors, and I just think it creates like a really beautiful dynamic. I want to help do whatever I can to give them that opportunity."
In 2011, Saulter’s debut film Better Mus’ Come was the first feature out of Jamacia to garner massive global attention since 1972's The Harder They Come. It changed the game for him. Since then, Saulter’s been determined to broaden the world’s understanding of his home in all of its various textures and nuances. "I was definitely intent on presenting a very expanded Jamaica," he revealed. "It's beautiful, the location is beautiful, and our talent on the track is as much connected to our location, to our country and our environment and our food. I also wanted to show the school. We got the Prime Minister plus we got the big man [Usain] Bolt in there, so in a way, it's like a big broad film, but it's filled with some extremely Jamaican things."
David Alan Grier and Dale Elliot in "Sprinter" | Photo Credit: Courtesy of FilmRise
He continued, "Cinema should act as a tool to expand our stories — it shouldn't keep reinforcing what you think you know about a place. The goal should really be to broaden your mind on what a place is and what a place can be and what a culture and people can be. From the beach to the river, to the cane field to the city, to the national stadium to the school, I was definitely aware of having it all present in this story."
Since it had been nearly four decades since Jamaica had a globally recognized feature film when Saulter debuted Better Mus’ Come —he felt a great deal of pressure to handle everything. “It was a lot smaller budget-wise,” he remembered. “It was also a period piece so that even further tested our budget. I had superhuman strength when I made that. I wrote it, I directed it, I was a cinematographer, I ultimately edited it. So I had to handle everything creative."
With Sprinter and as he’s continued to progress as a filmmaker, Saulter is leaning into the collaborative aspects of the art form. "I've been trying to not do everything," he laughed. "I’ve been trying to really work with people that can elevate, and be better at things than me. I've learned to just step back a little bit; it's okay to let go. You still have to direct and manage and ultimately it's your vision. But I am really accepting of bringing people onto my team that has my back and can elevate the work overall. I think there's more comfort in not giving up control but in finding the right people to help me manifest things."
Lorraine Toussaint in "Sprinter" | Photo Credit: Courtesy of FilmRise
The landscape for filmmakers and creators in Jamaica has also shifted in recent years. Cinema may have been on the verge in Jamaica when Shadow And Act last spoke to Saulter in 2017, but it has since exploded. "The Caribbean and Jamaica for sure is in a major moment right now with film and it's super exciting," he explained. "Sprinter obviously has been doing great. Also, the Jamaica Film and Television Association (JAFTA) has a project called Propella, where they fund five short scripts and ultimately five short films every year. This is their third year, so they've made about 14 or 15 films at this point, and the films have gotten really good. There is a particular film called Flight by Kia Moses, and it is so amazing and it's starting to win awards at festivals. I feel like I've been talking about Caribbean cinema being at the crest of a wave, and I feel with the release of Sprinter, the wave is going to go tumbling and all these other projects that are kind of on the verge are almost there, we are getting there."
Sprinter may just be premiering —but Saulter is already diving into his next feature. "I’m adapting a novel, John Crow's Devil by Marlon James," he announced. "It's his first novel, I've been wanting to make a film out of it since it was his only novel. I just finished the script, and I'm actively moving towards getting it into pre-production. We've also been developing some television projects, so we have pilot episodes for a couple of series projects. We're working on developing a slate and perhaps getting financing for a slate of projects so we can just go into production and keep it moving, keep it rolling. The whole landscape has changed, and the need for content and the need to find new audiences. We're aware of that, and we're setting ourselves up to jump in right there."
Sprinter premieres April 24, 2019
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide