First-Look at Mekhi Phifer, Sterling K. Brown in Indie Thriller 'The Suspect'

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by Vanessa Martinez
January 22, 2013 9:06 PM
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We first told you about this thriller back in September of 2011, when it was in pre-production. At that time, Isaiah Washington and Michael K. Williams were set to star in the Stuart Connelly project; but most likely, due to conflicting/busy schedules opted out.

The Suspect, now in post-production, stars Mekhi Phifer and Sterling K. Brown. According to the film's synopsis, Pfifer and Brown will play two African American social scientists who "pose as bank robbers in an effort to understand the racial dynamics of small-town law enforcement. However, their experiment takes an unplanned, deadly turn."

The thriller, produced by Connelly, Mary Jo Bartmaier, Robyn K. Bennett and Scott Aronson, also stars William Sadler, Derek Roche, James McCaffrey, Rebecca Creskoff, Lizzy DeClement and Bernadette Quigley

Connelly, a National Education Press Award winner, is the co-author of Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Tranformed a Nation, a thrilling behind-the-scenes chronicle of events leading up to the "I Have A Dream" speech, as told by Clarence Jones, MLK's close confidant and co-writer of the speech.

According to the press release below, Connelly says he has "long been interested in America’s relationship with her people of color". The writer/director aims to "turn on the instincts and emotions of people in the grip of deep-seated prejudice."

Interesting premise... we're looking forward to the trailer, which should surface any day now. For now, take a look at the production stills underneath the details of the press release.

IN THE SHADOW OF BARACK OBAMA’S INAUGURATION, A NEW PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER HIDES THE PROBLEM OF RACISM IN PLAIN SIGHT

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Stuart Connelly, the writer and director of the new independent psychological thriller The Suspect, can’t seem to escape racism.  “I’ve screened the trailer for several white people,” Connelly says of his film, which features actors Mekhi Phifer and Sterling K. Brown, “who have told me they literally do not recognize there are two different African-Americans in it.  These are educated, liberal friends of mine... but they have these blinders on that they're basically unaware of.”

In a life-imitating-art moment, it in fact was this concept – that “they” all look alike – that started Connelly, a 48-year-old Caucasian, on the journey to fashion a thriller that turns on the instincts and emotions of people in the grip of deep-seated prejudice.  What if one man was mistaken for another on purpose? As a historian he has worked on several books revolving around the African-American experience, including a Kindle Single for Amazon.com about the 1971 Attica Prison riot and Behind The Dream, the never-before-told story of Martin Luther King’s planning of the 1693 March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom and the crafting of the "I Have A Dream" speech.

"I’ve long been interested in America’s relationship with her people of color," says Connelly.  “As much as people want a quick fix, the roots of the racism problem are so deep and twisted, it cannot go away overnight.  Not even with the election and reelection of an African-American president.”

But Connelly knows lecturing people doesn’t change minds.  That’s partly why he knew early on in the writing stage of his script that he’d be the one to direct. His producing partner had no problem with that, despite the fact that Connelly had never directed a feature.  "In casual conversations about the project, the people I was talking with always framed it as a ‘message movie,’” says Mary Jo Barthmaier, the lead producer on the film, “and I knew that’s the kiss of death for a drama. Stuart didn’t look at it quite the same way, and it wasn’t on the page. People brought their preconceptions to the discussion.”

In contrast, Connelly saw the viciousness of racism as “pure jet fuel for the dramatic engine.  What’s the point in slowing down things to teach lessons when you have this passion, this hatred, that you can use to propel characters right into conflict?”

In order to ensure audiences will enjoy themselves regardless of whether they’re interested in social problems,Connelly fashioned a pulse-pounding thriller that turns the idea of racial identity on its head: "I looked at lots of movie stills of a Southern sheriff trying to intimidate a black suspect. And they all were exactly what they appeared to be. I thought, I’m going to start a film with this scene, and slowly call into question all your assumptions on what this scene represents.”

“The Suspect takes you on an exciting ride and the story asks a lot of the audience,” says Barthmaier.  “But the film uses a sugar-coated pill strategy to ask even more, so these larger, philosophical questions don’t hit until after the end credits roll.”

“And it’s not just a binary question,” Connelly adds.  “Racial bias exists on a continuum, and given the particular structure of this film, I doubt there’s a single person, no matter how liberal, no matter what color, who won’t be surprised by some of their almost subconscious preconceived notions by the time it’s over.”

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