by Anthony Vassallo
SUNY Purchase senior Jahleel Hills’ upcoming film, “Black Fratsman” reveals the exploitation of an African American teen in a Spike Lee-esque fashion.
Hills’ film is centered on a college student named Trey, who struggles to find his niche and wants to get more involved on campus. His decision to join a fraternity creates an uproar within his friend group, because of their belief that the frat is using him for his skin color.
This film is a great representation of how young African-American men are treated on campuses around the country.
“Are you there to be a person, or are you there to be a token character?” asked Hills, who plans on uploading the short film to YouTube later this year.
The filming for “Black Fratsman” took place over the course of the last two weekends of February 2020. Anastasia Goldberg, a senior film major and the film’s assistant director, said, “We just scraped by with Black Fratsman with like two weeks to spare.”
The project was in jeopardy after the presumed lead actor had to back out because of a change in his schedule. After finding out he no longer had the star role fulfilled, Hills searched for a new lead right away.
“We were all freaking out that there wasn’t gonna be a lead actor, and then magically Jahleel met Devyn, like literally right after the guy dropped out,” said Kai Dekassian, a Purchase senior and the director of photography for the film.
Stepping into the role with little time to prepare himself, Devyn Akers, a freshman at the time, was the star in his first on-campus film. “That was my first time being in a professional setting, with cameras, lights, and sound, it was really fun,” said Akers.
Goldberg said of Akers, “He was so good after having just gotten the script, and he was amazing to have on the set. He was so much fun.”
“I read the script and I was just like oh ok I can relate to this,” said Akers. “He’s just a kid trying to find his spot you know; it wasn't about race for him.”
Hills’ vision for “Black Fratsman” originated from his own experience with a fraternity on campus during his freshman year at Purchase. Although the fraternity was not recognized as one by the college and has since disbanded, Hills kicked it with them and quickly realized the lack of people of color within the frat.
"Black Fratsman" is a reference to the 2018 Spike Lee film "BlacKkKlansman," which is about, according to IMDb, "Ron Stallworth is the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department. Determined to make a name for himself, Stallworth bravely sets out on a dangerous mission: infiltrate and expose the Ku Klux Klan. The detective soon recruits a more seasoned colleague, Flip Zimmerman, into the undercover investigation of a lifetime. Together, they team up to take down the extremist hate group as the organization aims to sanitize its rhetoric to appeal to the mainstream."
“That’s when I realized if this is happening here, it has to be happening at a Big Ten school, or a bigger college, if it is or it isn’t, I know that this problem persists somewhere else,” said Hills.
The cast was able to bring the “Black Fratsman” vision to life. Hills said, “A lot of the times when we run the scenes, they understand the character, they understand what they need to accomplish, the people here, they have that creativity so when you approach the objective of the story you want to get out, they understand.”
Akers said, “I just wanted to do justice for Jahleel, the film and to whoever saw it.”
According to the cast and the crew, they developed unbelievable chemistry during the production of the film, making it incredibly enjoyable. Dekassian, who had high praise for everybody on the set referred to himself, Goldberg and Hills as “the dream team.”
“You gotta listen to your team,” said Hills. “I really love the people I work with. I've been working with Anastasia since sophomore year. I really love and appreciate them, they’re awesome.”
Dekassian said, “When you're working on set for school there's a lot of pressure on it because it’s your grade.” As the screenwriter and director of the film, Hills had a ton of responsibility on his shoulders, but thanks to the trust he instilled in his crew, they were able to get the absolute best out of everyone on set.
“He is one of the best to work with,” Akers said of Dekassian. Akers, being a young actor, was eager to see how he was doing. One day after shooting, Dekassian began showing Akers the scenes that they filmed, which ended up being a huge confidence boost for him.
“It’s super important to keep everyone on set happy,” said Dekassian. “He was a really amazing actor, so I was letting him know, dude you’re killing it.”
Sensitive topics are often difficult to appropriately represent in a film, but Hills was able to attack this issue and make it an entertaining experience for everyone.
“The reason I love working with Jahleel is because with his movies there’s always a seed,” said Dekassian. “The message is there but he does it in an entertaining way, it’s sort of like Spike Lee.”
Akers said, “I feel like Jahleel is one of the best directors here at Purchase, by far, his determination and his work ethic is just out of this world, and his appreciation for all art is just beautiful.”