Certain bright spots in my childhood, much like the childhoods of most other black folks my age, were moments when I discovered movies like The Color of Friendship and Remember the Titans — family-friendly films that preached unity and harmony for young boys and girls on the precipice of realizing racism.
However elementary those films were, squeaky clean and wrapped with ribbon, they were also inarguably entertaining and timely for the age group they were made for.
As an adult, I admire such films for reasons other than their watchability (although Remember the Titans still holds up in some areas). While I’m a little too old for warm and fuzzy solutions to white supremacy, I am confident I’ll share those relics with my kids once I feel they’re old enough to think about racism, but maybe too young to be told the sad and despairing truth — that it won’t be eradicated in their lifetime.
Among the films I’ll watch with them during that developmental limbo is Switching Lanes, directed by the late Tommy Ford and produced by his good friend and frequent collaborator, Shannon Nash.
As one of his last projects, Switching Lanes served as a bookend to Ford’s long string of works meant to inspire the youth. In 1993, the actor stepped behind the scenes to direct and produce the play South of Where We Live, telling the story of six African-American professionals who return to the communities they were raised in and negotiate with the social issues that plague those areas—a narrative that somewhat mirrored his own life, as Ford founded Be Still and Know in 1998, a nonprofit organization that worked to build better communities for young people.
As a part of his mission to empower children and encourage responsibility, the Martin star wrote two motivational books for kids entitled Positive Attitude and I am Responsible for Me. As what would turn out to be his final outreach to the next generation, Ford signed on to direct an adaptation of the novel Double Sided, written by then 13-year-old prodigy and now 23-year-old motivational speaker Raven Magwood.
That adaptation would become Switching Lanes, a story about two teenage track stars—one white, one black—both living in a staunchly segregated town, who bring its residents together through heartfelt acceptance and a sharp twist of fate. Magwood makes a cameo in the film as a mentor to the runners, and implores them to “always finish the race.” Leaving this film behind as his last offering, emblematic of his life’s work, I spoke to Shannon Nash about the remarkable way her friend Tommy Ford finished his race.
This project has to be very special to you given the circumstances. How exactly did it come about?
Tommy was a really good friend of mine, and I knew he was looking for a new project. We did the table read at my house. We got a whole bunch of our friends to come out, and we were all mesmerized—like ‘we have to work on this.’ [Tommy] was all about projects that moved people.
I can tell. Share with me a little about your relationship with him. How did it start?
It’s been about a year [since he passed], and it’s still hard to talk about Tommy. He was one of a kind. He was deep. We’d talk about politics, and religion—he was just a deep brother. When you’re on set and spend lots of time together, you’re just drawn to people like that. That’s really how it started.
Then one day he emailed me and was like ‘look at this contract for me.’ I was like ‘okay, sure.’ And it just morphed from there. There’s a whole little group of us who were really hanging out a lot with each other—Terri J. Vaughn…Angie Stone…we’d just all hang out together. We’d go to the same events, go to each other’s houses, and dinners and stuff like that.
In addition to Terri and Angie, Kim Fields was also a huge name I recognized from my childhood attached to this. Y’all put together a really accomplished cast.
We pulled a whole lot of favors. I remember we were in our little makeshift pre-production office that another friend of ours had and just let us use for free. We were all on our cell phones, throwing up names and pictures on the whiteboard.
I called Kim. I knew [her] from a whole bunch of other stuff—we both used to live in LA, and we had a lot of friends in common. She was like ‘sure, I’ll do it.’
And the same type of recruiting we did for talent, we did for our crew too. We had a shoestring budget, so we had to get people to take lower rates so they could be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Most fans know Tommy as an actor. What was he like as a director?
He had a gift for being able to read people. He could visualize what he wanted from the scene. He would come and scope out the scene before the actors came. He would go into a corner, think to himself, and then know how he wanted the scene to flow—the actors respected him.
One of the mothers in the film is a woman by the name of Marla Maples, who’s actually Donald Trump’s ex-wife. She and Tommy had never worked together and didn’t know each other, and he made such an impression on her.
Since he’s passed, she always says she misses his bright spirit. It wasn’t just people who were our friends that he impacted.
It sounds like this film encouraged people to connect both in the story and behind the scenes.
An interesting story is that he did something at Morehouse—maybe guest lecturing—and he was on campus said ‘I want to see which people will come up and speak to me not because I’m Tommy Ford but because they want to learn something about the craft.’ One guy did. This guy named Justin.
Justin wound up working as Tommy’s right-hand man [on set]. Fast forward—Justin is now engaged to the young lady who wrote the book used for the screenplay (Magwood). They’re getting married next year. In typical Tommy fashion, he brought people together.
That sounds like a story that should be adapted into a movie itself. Everything surrounding this film seems to point to who he was as a person.
I came across this in my email the other day, and broke down and cried like a baby when I read it. He spoke about this film at Purdue University back in 2016. I’m going to read to you what he said.
He said ‘My vision [for Switching Lanes] is that it will not only be a success in film and TV and win awards, but more importantly, I want this to have an opportunity to tour the nation and be able to [start] dialogue about how you can be affected by this subject matter. I think it’s so powerful. It goes beyond entertainment. It moves into ministry and empowerment and helping the lives of others. That’s what I love to see.’
What he should have said was ‘that’s what I love to do.’
Watch the trailer for Switching Lanes below, and you can watch it over at Urban Movie Channel (UMC) at UMC.tv