When Malcolm M. Mays was featured in The New York Times profile, “Based on a True Story” in late 2007, the then-17-year-old was slated to be Hollywood’s next breakout creative. At the time, Mays and close friend Russ Belli-Estreito had become the youngest filmmakers accepted into the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival for their David Lynch-inspired film Open Door.
On his own, the South Central native had spent time interning at Sony Pictures under Martin Campbell’s (Casino Royale) production company while enjoying a writing, directing and acting deal under the United Talent Agency. All the while, he was working on his full-length feature film Trouble, a story centered around racial tensions between Blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles. Mays received a filmmaker grant from Panavision and funded the rest himself.
“Part of the money for Trouble came from a dangerous local street hustler/pimp,” Mays told Shadow And Act from the exclusive West Hollywood entertainment industry watering hole Soho House. “I think he got one of his women’s credit card and was pretending to be this big baller to fund the movie. At some point he got erratic and bro tried to pull up at my people's house so I had to sit at the doorstep with a pistol. I knew I shouldn’t have been involved with him but, I did it anyway. It was a wild time. I was 16.”
With one foot in the streets, he grew up in and amongst the Hollywood elite and began to receive some serious attention from heavy hitters, including Sony Pictures head Gary Martin and producer Todd Black. According to Mays, Martin told him that he reminded him of another individual from the area who became the first African American to earn an Academy Award for Best Director.
"He [Martin] would beg John [Singleton] to see me,” Mays said. “Sometime around then, I was working on Trouble and got the New York Times article written about me. John called me saying congratulations, talking about all the things he heard about me and that he wanted to meet.”
Singleton invited Mays and his mother to watch the 1970 dramedy The Landlord by Hal Ashby at The Skirball Museum. “It was at that moment John realized I was as big a cinephile as him,” said Mays. A mentor-mentee relationship began between the two as Singleton introduced him to the dean of USC’s Film School. Mays described the mentorship as contentious and loving.
“You take two strong Black men who loved each other as we did with as deep of complexes and traumas as we had, you end up butting heads all the time,” Mays explained. “Sometimes I’d be like f**k you and he’d be like well f**k you too and then we’d be on the couch watching Taxi Driver. We really loved each other.”
The two had a falling out that would last for two years following an argument “over education and the type of education” he would receive. Mays was also facing issues over the release of Trouble and let go of the project after its completion.
“I made an indie feature film starring me and my homies from the hood,” Mays said. “It was charming but needed to be Citizen Kane. It would have had to be groundbreaking for a teenager from South Central to go to the next studio level. I didn’t know how to work it or how everything went. I was just a kid making a movie and people caught wind of it because of the people I was working around and the natural ability I displayed.”
It didn’t help that at this time Mays became one of 350 people cut from Sony Pictures during their mass layoffs in 2009.
“After that, it was dark times,” described Mays. “I produced some Cash Money videos, did script rewrites, went to school for a little bit, scrubbed toilets at The W, got arrested. A bunch of s**t was happening. I was just trying to survive because things weren’t going the way I thought they should.”
Following some uneasy years, Mays found himself as the lead alongside Cuba Gooding Jr. as Tahime in Jake Goldberger’s underdog chess drama Life of a King. Despite settling below the radar and getting mixed reviews, Washington Post writer Michael O'Sullivan said, “Mays, in his feature debut, makes for an intense, brooding presence as Tahime.” Life of A King casting director Lindsay Graham eventually brought him on as Gabe in Antoine Fuqua’s boxing drama Southpaw starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
Unsuccessfully auditioning for leading roles in Star Wars, Terminator Genisys, Dope and a handful of other high profile projects, Mays’ agent got him in front of storied Black casting director Kimberly Hardin. At the time, she was starting pre-production work on Singleton’s Tupac bio that he later dropped out of. Hardin also worked alongside Singleton on his first major television deals including FX’s Snowfall.
“Kim brought me in thinking she was introducing me as this new great young Black actor that he’s never heard of,” said Mays. “He lost his shit in the middle of the audition telling me how proud of me he was. Me and John then rekindled our relationship. We were back on because of Kim. John was my OG and we genuinely missed each other.”
The test pilot for Snowfall initially had Mays and Damson Idris acting alongside Kofi Siriboe, Lauren London and Jill Scott. After the pilot failed to impress executives at FX, the entire cast was let go outside of Mays and Idris. Mays would portray Kevin Hamilton for two seasons of Snowfall. He also worked a bit on Singleton’s short-lived BET crime drama Rebel both in front and behind the scenes.
Rebel also featured music from him including “Ruthless,” a track that reached over a million Soundcloud streams. In late 2018, Mays released his audio/visual project Confession of A Lost Angle: Act 1 which even featured a cameo from Singleton himself. Though Mays wouldn’t speak on John’s death in April, he mentioned the greatest lesson learned from the pioneering director. “That’s one thing that I took from John was that he was fearless and that made me fearless,” he said.
Continuing his forward momentum after years of film industry ebb and flow, Mays will write and direct Flint. The film produced by Will Smith and the James Lassiter-founded Overbrook Entertainment will star T.I. and John Ortiz. A murder mystery set on the backdrop of the Flint, Michigan water crisis, Mays sees the opportunity as one to continue the work he’s wanted to do since Trouble.
“I guess it’s a big deal because of the elements and people attached but, it’s more of an opportunity to honor my purpose,” he explained. “I grew up a victim of a system that marginalizes people. I want to say something of importance, about the value of human life. As a person who comes from an environment that’s constantly been exploited for years, my interest is to say something meaningful and beautiful and poetic to influence positive change or inform people.”
Mays is well aware of the criticism that comes with creating a film based around a controversial issue that still affects people in Flint to this day.
“It’s a sensitive topic and it’s happening presently so hell yeah you’re suppose to check the powers that be and I welcome that level of appraisal,” he responded. “But, I don’t want to defend something that hasn’t been created. I have no interest in exploiting people’s pain, I do however have an interest in painting a picture so the world can not only empathize but understand. In honoring and not just appropriating. In educating and enlightening in the form of entertainment.”
As the now-29-year-old continues the next chapter in his journey, he speaks on the newly found confidence following over a decade’s worth of work in film.
“If I want to film and shoot it, I’m going to do it,” Mays explained. “If I wanna make an EP, I’mma do it. Whatever I want to express, I proceed forward because I’m confident in my ability to create. The years have given me that resolve to double down on not having to choose how. If you have the cosmic luxury to truly be multi-hyphenated, you have to live in it and not apologize for it.”
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