"I was still a kid so I was thinking what I want to do — what I need to do — is get a job at a theater, or a Blockbuster or a Hollywood Video. And my mom finally just smacked me in the back of my head and said, 'What the fuck are you doing?' "
Director Ray Zate is on the phone, discussing his serendipitous entry into the world of professional media nearly 10 years ago. His debut film Building the Highway 2 Mars, a remarkably stirring documentary about local rapper Stix Izza and the making of his album Highway 2 Mars, premieres at the 2011 International Black Film Festival of Nashville 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 8, to be shown in Room 122 of the Park Johnson Building on Fisk University's campus. (Check ibffnashville.com for schedule changes and updates.)
"Literally, that's what she said: 'What are you doing? You need to get your ass to the TV station,'" Zate remembers. "And I was like, 'TV? That's wack! I don't want to work in TV!' And she said, 'You better get your ass there, because you're never going to get anywhere working at the theater."
Chalk one up for a mother's intuition. One week out of high school, Zate ended up going to an El Paso station, which hired him right on the spot as a studio cameraman. From there he progressed to field cameraman — which included at least one hair-raising incident with border-patrolling Minutemen and a pile of shotguns — and eventually landed behind the lens at Nashville's WKRN-Channel 2. Once in Nashville he fell in love with the art, music and culture, falling in with the group at the core of Building: Stix, producer Fate Eastwood, photographer Deshun Smith and local radio hosts Dolewite and Scooby.
They call themselves The Wolfpack, and they're the type of creative clique that made this city famous: a crew of monumental individual talents whose best work comes when they're playing as a team. Izza is a gifted lyricist whose greatest skill is telling intensely emotional stories, the sort of stories that don't get a lot of play in the hip-hop pantheon. Eastwood could easily be described as Nashville hip-hop's Phil Spector, with a knack for gigantic, lushly layered beats and arrangements. Smith's photography is stylish and striking, rife with emotion. And Dolewite and Scooby are, basically, some of the most supportive folks a music scene could ask for. (See this week's Best of Nashville coverage for more on that.)
When you throw Zate — one of the boldest cinematographers in the city and a natural storyteller — into the mix, it's hard to believe that these are just local dudes. When the film had its first private screening back in July for members of the local hip-hop scene, the community was floored. From the gorgeous shots of the artists in the studio to the intimate interviews, it was an unprecedented experience. The comment heard most frequently was, "I had no idea it was going to be a real movie."
That's because local hip-hop, despite its active presence on cable access and YouTube, doesn't exactly have a reputation for professionalism and innovation in the video realm. To have this film, which frankly looks and feels like a movie about an infinitely more famous person, coming out of our scene feels momentous. Which brings us to the other comment we kept hearing: "I didn't think I was going cry."
Let's be up front: Building The Highway 2 Mars is a tearjerker. Yeah, it's a hip-hop documentary, which in our experience isn't a genre that gets the "tearjerker" tag very often (if ever). But for all of the wrenching emotion that arises along The Highway — both Izza and Eastwood suffer family tragedies that shape their art in profound ways — it's really a story of triumph, the story of a group of friends trying to make art and succeeding on the most intimate and personal of levels. The movie is also the first to capture the evolving creative culture within Nashville's burgeoning hip-hop community, which has struggled to define itself as more than just second-string gangstas. Chalk that up as a triumph too.
"The goal of The Wolfpack is to show Nashville in a positive light," says Zate. "I think Dole said it best: [Local multi-platinum rapper] Young Buck's thing was always to show how 'hood Nashville could be, how ruckus it could be. Our goal is to show that it's more than that. It's a good city, the hip-hop here isn't just that. It's more than that."