“It’s this system that makes you poor. It’s this system that leaves you uneducated. It is that which makes you hate. Makes you despair. It leaves you with nothing but hurt.”
– Eric Roman in “The Romans”
Korey Green knows this story well.
The filmmaker has met some version of every character in his new movie, “The Romans.” He has witnessed the scenes. He understands the politics, the pain and the hardship.
Growing up, he lived with it.
The fictional plot, a modern-day take on Julius Caesar, could just as well be a story about the people he knew and his neighborhood.
It could just as well be about his own perseverance overcoming the challenges that come with growing up in the inner city, and trying to bring the community with him.
It is a tale of his city.
“I’m from the East Side of Buffalo,” Green said. “I’ve seen a lot ... Everyone has a story.”
Yet theirs are stories few ever experience, and most can’t even fathom.
With his films, Green hopes to change that.
His latest, which will debut at the Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival today at Eastern Hills Cinema in Clarence, is a new-age mob drama that tells the story of a powerful family of drug dealers who reign over the city’s East Side. It’s a story of crime and violence, loyalty and betrayal, power and loss.
It’s about sin and salvation, not just for people or families but for entire communities.
Some might see it as a commentary on Buffalo itself, a once-great city now plagued by poverty and violence.
A fallen empire – and what it might take to rebuild it.
“I felt like we had to give people a voice, a real voice that shows what’s happening,” Green said. “I realize filmmaking is really a way I can have more impact.”
“Did you know that Rome had a population of over a million people at the time of the first Caesar, Julius? By the time Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel they were down to 60,000. … Rome had become a place of sin. Brother murdering brother. No man was safe on those streets. … It took a strong man like Pope Clement to fix it.”
– Eric Roman
At the turn of the last century, Buffalo was eighth-largest city in the nation.
Industry boomed, fueled in large part by shipping on the Great Lakes and the railroad. Prosperity reigned, and by the 1950s, the population peaked at close to 600,000.
Then came the exodus.
First went industry and jobs. Then people moved, too, leaving behind many who lacked the will or means to follow.
A fallen empire dotted with what Green describes as inner-city neighborhoods in a decaying urban area. It became a place where the shortage of jobs forces many to find other means to get by. A place where the lack of opportunity and hope all too often leads to acts of desperation.
This is the Buffalo that Green grew up in.
His story is not all that different from those of many of the young people he meets today. Like many young men growing up on the East Side, he flirted with the street life.
“It’s tough coming from a single-parent home with no father figure,” he said of his own childhood. “No one should have to be young, 10 or 11, and worried about bills or where your mom is and taking care of your little brother.
“You’re actually looking at the streets to raise you,” he added.
Poverty is relentless, with joblessness fueling crime, crime fueling academic failure. All of it forms a bitter cycle that can be difficult to break free of.
Somehow Green did.
Amid the hardship, Green had something he considered his saving grace – intelligence.
He excelled as a student at the old Seneca Vocational High School, seeming to have a gift for writing. He thrived on feedback from teachers and classmates. Somehow that trumped everything that happened outside the school, in his neighborhood.
He beat the odds, graduating and going on to attend SUNY Alfred, where he studied creative writing.
But he never forgot his roots and the experiences that shaped him.
“A lot of things happened to me and made me who I am, but I would never trade them,” he said.
After college, Green returned to his hometown, where he decided to take a different approach to telling his stories, one he thought would help him reach a broader audience.
He saved up some money, bought a camera and started making movies.
Eric Roman: They look up to you because you survived and stayed.
Earl Roman: Stayed where?
Eric Roman: In this neighborhood, where they live.
Earl Roman: That don’t make me a saint.
Eric Roman: Maybe in a place like ours that’s all it takes.
Earl Roman is the king of the East Side, a notorious drug dealer with a violent history. Even so, he gives back to his community, loaning money to the poor and buying food for the hungry.
His son, Eric, becomes a pastor.
“He had this idea of calling the family ‘the Romans,’ ” said Larry Quinn, who worked with Green on the film before becoming a Buffalo School Board member. “They would be a drug family that used crime to do good things.”
“I think there are some central themes, one of them is appearances, what’s real and what’s not,” Quinn added. “People aren’t always what they appear to be, both good and bad. And sometimes we get stuck in our ways of life because of where we come from.”
Green’s life experiences have shaped his work, but he does not let them define him.
His first project started with two phone calls. The first came from someone telling Green that their friend shot a man.
A few minutes later the phone rang again. Another friend, Addison Henderson, lamented that his friend had just been killed.
Green’s friend had killed the man.
Two friends, one headed to prison and one dead.
Green and Henderson, the two left behind, set out to film a documentary exploring the complex factors that drive people to commit such crimes. In the context of Buffalo’s economic decline, and the subsequent proliferation of the drug trade, they traveled the streets of the East Side interviewing the homeless, drug dealers and addicts. Then they went to some of the area’s most prominent politicians looking for solutions.
They called their documentary “The Forgotten City.”
In some ways, making the film helped Green cope with his emotions and the things he was dealing with.
That was back in 2006, and since then Green has excelled. He now owns his own collections business with his wife, and fits in his film work on the side. “The Romans” has won national recognition, including at this year’s San Diego Black Film Festival, where it was named best film – beating out scores of submissions, including one by Danny Glover – and Green was named best director.
But as Green’s career has flourished, that is not so for parts of his city. “Things have definitely gotten worse,” he said.
He tries to find ways to bring hope to his old neighborhood on the East Side. He has helped coordinate rallies and marches to promote peace in the city’s most violent communities.
He takes time to speak to young men at their schools, or when they stop him at the store to talk about his movies. “They have no one,” he said of many young men. “They’re looking up to rappers and LeBron James.
“Hopefully they’ll see me as a successful young man who owns his own business. That’s the sole force that keeps me going every day.”
“And the more God talked to me, my hate went away. And when hate went away I knew in my soul it was time for us as black men and black women to take back our own community.
So Councilman Green, you can’t help me. Your mayor can’t help me. And your police can’t help me. I know where I must go and what I must do. We have the power.”
– Eric Roman
The film’s characters convene in the Common Council chambers, grappling with the recent rash of violence in the city. The mayor – played by Carl Paladino – and a councilman trade barbs over who is to blame.
Eric Roman stands and commands the room’s attention. He delivers a speech that is just as much an indictment of the political systems that allow drugs, crime and violence to overrun parts of the city as it is a call to action.
“If you’re a Buffalo person, there are all kinds of things that will resonate with you,” said Samuel L. Radford III, a community activist and director of the District Parent Coordinating Council. “He’s talking about the things that happen in Buffalo, but through the characters and the story. I just thought it was genius.”
“The other thing that resonated with me in that scene is that these politicians aren’t going to do it for us,” Radford added. “They’re just talking. The truth of the matter is we as the community need to do that.”
Green, for his part, has little interest in politics. But his film work has led him to forge what some might consider an unlikely partnership with Quinn, a longtime prominent businessman and new member of the School Board.
The friendship goes back to when Green met Quinn’s son Matthew while the two worked on a documentary in Africa. Matthew Quinn and Green continued to work with each other after that project, and eventually Larry Quinn got involved as a producer.
Their work on “The Romans” coincided with prominent community members approaching Quinn and asking him to run for the School Board.
Quinn turned to Green for advice.
“A lot of what he told me was that going through the public schools there was this very low expectation,” Quinn said. “That the attitude was, ‘If we can just get you through without any trouble or problems, then we’ve done our job.’
“These kids, though, are looking at it that they have a life they want to live, and they want to be prepared for it. I just got this sense talking to him and his friends that the system failed them.”
Green believes fixing the school system may be one place to start solving the greater problems that dog the community.
“I’ve been in these schools. I go speak to classes. There are so many answers, but they all come down to ‘put the kids first.’ Essentially, if we’re not doing that, we’re breeding criminals.”
The solution may also lie – as the character Eric Roman points out – in the community itself. That it will take nonprofit agencies and community groups – not politicians – to write a new story line for their city.
“But what do I know?” Green said. “I’m just a filmmaker.”