Leading Man: Bronzeville filmmaker Morocco Omari contemplates life in the spotlight

Celebrities are consumer goods. Reading gossip in the press or on trashy blogs, fantasizing over new babies, new outfits, juicy breakups, and emotional breakdowns is a form of escapism. The allure is obvious. Celebrities embody some of our culture’s dominant desires–for wealth, status, beauty, exposure, mobility, access, and glamor. Like all consumer goods, celebs are manufactured. An entire celebrity industry populated by advertisers, event planners, paparazzi swarms, and media outlets dutifully fabricates images of these people and of the worlds they inhabit, images designed to prick and reinforce these desires. But what happens to the person in the media’s spotlight? What happens to an inner life or a family life constantly bombarded by the glare of the cameras and the public?

“They don’t prepare you for this…movie stardom,” grunts Morocco Omari’s sweaty and despondent character, Keith Holland, at the climax of his new short film, “(Mis)Leading Man.” An A-list actor, estranged from his wife and 13-year-old daughter, Holland has holed himself up in his room and is threatening to commit suicide. Outside, a swarm of journalists and adoring fans press up against the police barricade. Inside, a group of cops try desperately to reason with him. Arriving on the scene, his daughter pushes her way into the room for a heart-to-heart. Omari muses on the scene’s meaning: “You see the child become a parent and vice versa. She’s giving back all the life lessons and he’s doing the talking. She asks the hard questions and he thinks it’s the last conversation he’s gonna have with his daughter so he tells her the truth.”

Morocco Omari is a 35-year-old actor-turned-filmmaker living in Bronzeville. You might have seen him on TV on “Joan of Arcadia,” or onstage all over Chicago. His first short, “The Male Groupie,” about a dude mooching off of a rap entourage, played on Showtime for two years. His thoughtful, cool demeanor and consummate seriousness is an absolute contrast to his clowning, over-the-top character in “Groupie,” and therefore a testament to his skills as an actor. He wrote, starred, produced, and directed “(Mis)Leading Man” last year. The film was shot in two days at a beautiful graystone house on 41st Street and Drexel Avenue.

Although the eighteen-minute film is a bit heavy-handed and suffers a little from uneven writing, it has a surprising dramatic intensity and emotional impact. The central conversation of the film is tightly executed, the setting is effectively atmospheric, and the pacing is just right. Omari’s performance is terrific–grave, intense, and mostly convincing. He has the pained self-awareness of a man who has been doing a lot of thinking about his life and has found little to be hopeful for. Although this is his first time directing, he clearly has a sense for how to tell a story on film and how to work creatively within the constraints of a short. “I loved it,” Omari gushes about directing. “It felt very natural. I’ve been acting for fifteen years and when you’re on set, you watch the director, you watch the way things move. Ninety percent of good directing is good casting. You let people go, then all you gotta do is tweak. If you have an eye for actors, they make you look brilliant.” His real-life daughter plays the daughter in the film, and this was her first time acting. “She grew up in the theater so she’s had some exposure to it. She has some great moments and to have done something that heavy right out of the gate…I don’t know if I could’ve done it at thirteen.”

Omari got his inspiration for the film during Britney Spears’s head-shaving meltdown. He saw a picture of her trying to pump gas at the gas station while photographers scrambled on top of her car to get a photo op. As he puts it, “I wondered what it is like to be followed all the time, to live in a fishbowl all the time where your every movement is watched. What does that do to the average man or woman?” The film examines the extremities that people in these circumstances go to in order to maintain a sense of normalcy. Some would say the overexposure and associated stresses are a part of the trade-off for a life of luxury, that these people made their Faustian choice with eager abandon. Others argue that it’s a crime to expend one’s sympathy on the hyper-privileged when there is so much abject misery in the world. At the same time, it is a unique sort of suffering to have your privacy assaulted and your agency constrained in public–to be unable to go for a walk or sit down for a meal with your family.

Some aspects of the film are loosely based on Omari’s own experiences. When he was a teenager, his mother was addicted to crack. Omari’s daughter has roughly the same conversation with him that he had with his mother back then. “I had to ask her things like ‘If you died, what do I do?’ It was me growing up and having a grown conversation with a parent.” Years later she revealed that she had cleaned up because of that exchange, because of how it haunted and tore her. Four or five years ago his father tried to commit suicide because he didn’t have the relationship he wanted with his stepchildren. Nobody discussed the devolving situation before that happened. “(Mis)leading Man” ends with a list of suicide statistics. “These things happen but we don’t talk about it,” says Omari. “If [the film] opens up dialogue, great.”

Omari’s personal trajectory has deeply marked his approach to the craft of acting. “I wanted to play pro football. I ended up in the [Gulf] War. When the ground was shaking in Kuwait I told myself, ‘If I ever make it home in one piece, I’m just gonna follow where God and the universe take me.’” Life had become serious. He went back to school, and he started working. Modeling led to commercials, which led to acting classes. “I got on the stage and got an incredible rush like…man, this is it. After that I put everything I learned in the [Marine] Corps, that 100 percent focus, into prepping.” For years Omari applied himself–working long hours, practicing and rehearsing continuously, exercising daily, and constantly observing people and relationships around him, absorbing the details of their behavior while learning to emulate them and to channel emotions. “All your life experiences make you a better artist. If you been in love, had a break up, been broke, hungry, been in war, been a father…when you play you can tap into it. You know ’cause you’ve had that experience that you can draw from it.”

As for the prospects for “(Mis)Leading Man,” Omari plans to submit the film to the festival circuit and to put it online on certain venues. And he’s already at work on the next project, a feature length mockumentary. (He won’t give any more details than that.) As is often the case with shorts and with indie filmmaking, the current film is more likely to serve him as a learning experience and as a funding vehicle for the next one than to get its own release and make money.

A theater actor by training, Omari is one of the few that can translate successfully to the screen. He loves the theater community in Chicago and is always onstage. On the other side of the fence, he claims, “you have these so-called film actors who don’t understand the craft and don’t get the training.” To some extent, the mediocrity extends into Chicago’s indie filmmaking scene. “I’m not ripping every filmmaker…but some of the films I’ve seen coming out of Chicago have been really, really bad. People want to do it fast and put it out and get accolades and they’re not doing it for the art of it. I think we are better than that.” He breaks out an anecdote of an exchange he had with Denzel Washington, who funded “Groupie,” at his Oscar party. Aside from Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright, and Denzel himself, there are no African-American actors carrying the torch, Omari comments to Washington. To which Denzel responds with characteristic rawness: “That’s ‘cause mothafuckas wanna be movie stars, nobody want to be an actor. Nobody want to do theater.”