Article 1 of 2 by Stacey Doud
The 24-minute short film, “Illegal,” which was written, directed, produced and brought to life by a cast and crew that reside in Dallas/Fort Worth, premiered on Facebook and YouTube on Friday June 12.
The story is about a fictional Hispanic man, Felix Martinez, who allegedly stole over $500 in gaming merchandise for his son’s birthday. He did not speak English, nor did his wife, who was out in the parking lot, allegedly holding the credit card to pay for the merchandise.
The body of the film is set in the jury deliberation room, where six people had to decide Martinez’s crime and punishment, which could include deportation for him, but not necessarily for his children, who were both born in the United States.
Producer Justin Kenyon shared some of his thoughts about the film.
“[The film’s reception is] so far, so good. Looking at the analytics, it looks like about 3,500 people have watched it so far. There’s a lot of conversations, especially about systematic racism and prejudice and stuff like that. That’s kind of why we decided to release it when we did. We wanted to inspire the people that are unsure about a lot of the stuff going on and give them a clearer understanding as to where a lot of these movements are coming from,” he said.
The idea was presented to Kenyon by Andy Trusevich, who would later become Executive Producer, in May of 2019, and Kenyon and his team started writing in late May or early June.
“We hired on a screenwriter because I’ve written plays, but I’ve never written a screenplay. It was a great process. We hired on Natasha Paris. I basically took the original idea and just ‘word vomited,’ and she wrote down everything I was saying, and we just kept workshopping it for a good two or three months because we filmed in August. We wrote it very fast,” Kenyon said.
“Andy Trusevich is an attorney, so he’s had a lot of insight in terms of legal issues, especially the systematic issues within the judicial department. So, when he came up with the idea and I heard about it, I thought, ‘Wow, this is incredibly relevant.’ I’m super passionate about the judicial system and the flaws within it,” said Kenyon.
“Felix Martinez [the man on trial in the film] was based on, “kind of like a group or an idea of a lot of people that face things like that. Especially, given that we live in Texas, not everybody speaks fluent English. While I was writing the film, I had an incident almost exactly like it, but being that I was an English-speaking white person, I didn’t have the trouble that [Felix Martinez] had,” Kenyon explained.
“I was at Lowe’s and I grabbed a grill, and I talked to the cashier because I needed to get more building supplies. So, I was just taking the grill outside to set it down for a second, so I could go grab the other stuff and bring it to the cashier because I didn’t want to block people’s way. Then [the employees] got onto me, saying, ‘You can’t leave with that grill!’ I was like, ‘Oh, my bad. I was just trying to keep it out of the way.’”
How differently would that have gone if a black or Hispanic person did this?
“That’s a lot of the points we make [in the film]. Say Felix wasn’t actually stealing; that he was actually just going to his car for his wallet. Had he been confronted, he could have said, ‘I’m just going out to the car for my wallet.’ But he couldn’t communicate [because he spoke Spanish].
“Morality is also a big question that everybody’s asking. I saw something recently about the looting and all that. I thought, ‘Stop condemning them for looting and ask them why they felt compelled to do all that.’
“I think [rapper] Killer Mike said it well. I can’t remember the exact words, but it’s basically making a point: They’ve been taken from for so long that they’re [#BLM] basically showing [non-blacks] first-hand, ‘This is what it feels like to have things taken from us.’ It’s like large corporations. Turning it into a metaphor, I think it is very symbolic and it works because [the big box store] Target, in their next stage [after the riots], are saying, ‘We’ll stand with you, yada yada.’ So, it works.,” said Kenyon.
He also believes that the COVID pandemic contributed to this climate of unrest.
“I think the reason, other than it just being ‘enough is enough,’ people are glued to their phones. They’re not busy working. They’re not doing other things because a lot of people were unemployed during all of this. So, everybody’s paying attention,” he said. “I think we need to pay attention because too often, we have been busy and had other things going on in our lives, and so we can’t address these issues because we have more pressing issues going on. But now, this [COVID/Floyd] IS the pressing issue,” Kenyon concluded.
“I think the film was relevant a year ago but is especially relevant now. The big point and the reason that we released it at this time is that we [producers], being myself and Lauren Lamb, were skeptical about the film because we are both white. It almost didn’t seem like our place [to release it], but given the current movement and everything else, and [minorities] saying, ‘It’s time for white people to step up not necessarily to ‘take the mic,’ but and stand with us and fight back against a lot of these systematic issues because they were all created by white people, so it’s up to white people to help fix it.
“All the protests that I’ve gone to have been Hispanic, white and black, and everyone is standing in solidarity in the Black Lives Matter movement, and I think that is amazing. A majority of Americans aren’t [overtly] racist people, but one apple spoils the bunch, so we have to take care of all of the [rotten] apples,” Kenyon said.
“Everybody has some sort of imbedded amount of racism, and we talk about this unconscious bias. I went to school in a very white and Asian town, and I had so many unconscious biases, so when I got out in the world I thought, ‘I was so wrong and acted like a jerk.’
“In school, saying the ‘N’ word was okay, but when we left, I realized how much it wasn’t okay. I discovered that I had actually been part of the problem. When you are in your little ‘bubble,’ you don’t know. It’s our job every day to learn something new and go out of our way. My co-producer Lauren Lamb is really big on that. She’s been doing a lot of activism in terms of this. We need to grow and try to get better and unlearn our ideals and biases and educating ourselves,” Kenyon explained.
As for the film itself, the writers shied away from blatantly categorizing characters with political leanings.
“We tried to make the story and characters split down the middle as far as politics go. But we never actually said, ‘so and so is a Republican’ or whatever,” Kenyon explained. “We are leaving that for the audience to come to a conclusion based on how the characters speak and act. We are trying to unite all people and point out that we are all the same species, we are all human and we are all Americans. It’s kind of a metaphor for putting yourself in other people’s shoes.
“As for the ending, we wanted to leave the verdict up to the audience as well and let them decide. Once you see all the facts, you choose what’s right and wrong. You have your moral compass. It’s kind of a metaphor for America. Everybody has the things they want to believe, but at the end of the day, you are making your own decisions, and I wanted to help inspire people, no matter what they believe or what they were told to believe, that they have every right to do what is right in their minds.”
One of the main questions that the film brings up is can compassion ever really intersect with the law?
“[Juror] Anton makes really great points: the laws are not always right. Segregation was legal over 50 years ago. Slavery was legal a couple of hundreds of years ago. Laws don’t depict what is right and wrong because not all laws encompass the whole of society but tend to put certain people ‘ahead’ of other people,” Kenyon said.
“I guess the message is that nothing is black and white. Everything is a gray area. Everything is interpreted differently by different people, and every situation is unique. I think the issues with some of our laws is that they are very black and white. You’re either guilty or you’re not.”
No matter what the viewer’s verdict is, one must consider if the punishment fits the crime, which is a common question in the penal system today.
Part 2 coming soon!