MONTCLAIR, NJ - The Montclair Film Festival kicked off Friday night with a red carpet full of talented people and a film that highlights true perseverance when the odds are not favorable.
The night kicked off with the red carpet outside of the Wellmont Theater and featured appearances from “Mr. Chibbs” subject and retired professional basketball player Kenny Anderson, “Mr. Chibbs” director Jill Campbell, “Dolores” subject Dolores Huerta and various people involved in the festival’s opening night film “Step.” The “Step” notables included step coach Gari McIntyre, college counselor Paula Dofat and the film’s producer Steven Cantor. A step team from Hillside High School in New Jersey was also featured on the red carpet and even performed on stage before the film began.
Stephen Colbert and Montclair Film’s board president Evelyn Colbert were also greeted with excitement when they made their red carpet appearance.
First on the carpet were Anderson and Campbell, who have been working hard together on the film “Mr. Chibbs” for about three years on and off. The film was named for Anderson’s childhood nickname, a name that the former NBA star said is “very dear” to him.
“My mother named me that when I was 5 days old. They bring me in to see the mother, to see the child, and my mother saw me, she was eating and said ‘cheeks,’ but it came out ‘chibbs,’” Anderson said. “She called me Chibbs and took me home. My brothers, my family, my neighborhood were all calling me Chibbs. I went to kindergarten, I didn’t know my name was Kenneth until she registered me.”
As the subject of the movie, Anderson said he hopes he can give back to viewers by giving them support and showing them they are not alone in whatever they may be dealing with. He said he was extremely open during filming and was willing to share his life with the world.
“I’m not big into people’s opinions. I could care less. What I’m trying to do is just give back, pay it forward, just to give someone the message that I learned through my life to some of the youth and to some of the adults that are dealing with a lot of issues that they may be hiding,” Anderson said. “It’s my obligation. Somebody saved me, so I’ve got to go back and save somebody and help somebody.”
The film touches on various aspects of Anderson’s life, including marriage, fatherhood and even being molested and abused.
Although some of the subject matter may have been difficult to film, Campbell said she appreciated how open Anderson was.
“This famous icon of a basketball player is a real person going through the same struggles that we all go through every day, and even on top of that he wants to give back, and how many of us get the chance to give back on this platform that he’s giving back in?” Campbell said of working with Anderson. “And that was what was really exciting about doing the film. I’ve never seen an athlete as raw and open as Kenny is.”
Even though Campbell admitted there were struggles like raising funds, she said this was a project unlike any other.
“It was a dream. This was a dream,” Campbell said of Anderson and the project as a whole. “I will never have a project like this again. Dream subject, dream project, dream producers.”
Anderson and Campbell both said they were also excited to see the opening night film “Step.”
“I always want to support everybody,” Anderson said. “That’s the main thing. You’ve got to give love to everybody’s project because people are giving us love.”
“Step” is a film about a step team from inner city Baltimore called the Lethal Ladies. In the film, each girl tries to not only be the first in her family to attend college, but also work hard to create an electric performance and come out on top at a step competition. The film highlights the struggle of balancing school, home and the step team while also maintaining the friendships they have created.
McIntyre and Dofat played a huge role in pushing these girls to do their best and were in attendance for the film’s Montclair Film Festival debut.
Both women were excited to see their film open the festival and see their – and the step team’s – hard work pay off.
“Honestly we’re just simple hometown girls from Baltimore and from Queens and this is a dream come true for the team, a dream come true for us,” Dofat said. “I think what we want to say is we’re blessed and we’re grateful. We don’t take this for granted, not any step of the way.”
In the film – which was shown following the red carpet entrances – the girls at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women did not win many step competitions and some were struggling to maintain good grades. By the end of the film and the girls’ senior year though, the Lethal Ladies wont first place in the most important competition and the school’s graduating class had a 100 percent college acceptance rate. One high school student in the film received a full ride to John Hopkins University and another earned a spot in the BridgeEdU program after struggling with her schoolwork.
All of that success was thanks to the girls and their hard work, the girls’ families, and of course, McIntyre and Dofat.
“What I love about the film is how authentic it is and how we went through things,” Dofat said. “They didn’t get steps, they didn’t look good, but the triumph in the end is the big piece of cake, and then 100 percent college acceptance is just remarkable.”
Although the Lethal Ladies team was not present at opening night of the festival, the step team from Hillside High School in New Jersey was and performed for the crowd before the film premiered.
One of the step team members was Zaria Rawls, a junior at Hillside High School. Her mom Reverend Candy Rawls was not only there to watch her step but also there at the red carpet, ready to watch her pose for pictures with Stephen Colbert and Evelyn Colbert, as well as the other festival participants.
Candy Rawls proudly took photos of her daughter and the team and said it has helped Zaria Rawls grow as a person and a student.
“Having her on the team is wonderful because it motivated her,” Candy Rawls said of Zaria Rawls. “It actually helped to create her character. I’m very excited for her.”
Someone else excited for both opening night and for the festival as a whole is Executive Director of Montclair Film Tom Hall. With the organization expanding to a year-round event and transitioning from the Montclair Film Festival to Montclair Film, Hall said he is excited for the future and is excited to see what the organization will do for the Montclair community.
“It’s really about connecting the audiences and the artists. Watching that connection happen at our screenings and the conversations are the things I’m the most passionate about,” Hall said. “The discussion, the dialogue, everyone getting excited about ideas – that’s what this is all about.”
The Montclair Film Festival is taking place from April 28 - May 7. For more information about the Montclair Film Festival, visit http://montclairfilmfest.org/