Rotimi at White House, sign says: I am #LostInAmerica
(Image by Rotimi Rainwater collection) Permission Details DMCA
It's about the issue of youth homelessness in America.
Why is this such an important issue for you?
Well, I was actually homeless in 1989 so it's an issue that's very important to me. I was in the Navy in 1988 and my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 1989 so I needed to get out to take care of her. But the military never does anything quickly so it took me two months to get discharged and by the time I got home my mother had already lost her place and was in a long term hospital facility. I don't like to use the term hospice, never did like that word. So I went to my grandmother who lived in Orlando and told her I was back to take care of my mother. My grandmother told me that she had told me not to get out of the military and wasn't going to help. So I spent the next nine months living in my car, in a park and under and overpass while taking care of my mother.
Yikes. That sounds pretty stressful. How could you concentrate on taking care of your mother when you didn't know where you were going to sleep that night?
When you're young, and on the street, you just know there is no other option and you figure out a way. In '89/'90, there were a lot of late night clubs in Orlando. So you could try and meet a girl, and get a place to stay. Unfortunately, for a young man that's one of the only ways off the streets. Sometimes I'd meet someone so I'd have a place to sleep and shower, but other times I'd sleep in my car and then go see my mom in the morning and make up an excuse like I was out partying all night and then I'd ask to use her shower. It was much easier seeing her disapproving looks than telling her I was homeless and giving her something else to worry about when she was fighting cancer.
The hardest part was most nights on the street, I would sleep in a park next to Lake Eola which is in the center of downtown which was where my grandmother's high rise retirement home was. So many mornings, I would look up around 6:30 and see my grandmother's light come on and realize she had just woken up. It's a pretty heartbreaking sight to see; to be able to see your grandmother waking up while you were sleeping in a park. But I was, unfortunately, never very close to her. It was generally just my mother and I, but my mother was an alcoholic and had a heavy prescription drug problem, so I'd been taking care of my mother since I was 9 and was on my own by the time I was 13. It's crazy what you can get used to.
So your own experience on the streets has made you want to focus on this topic. And in fact, before Lost in America, you'd already done a film on homelessness. Tell us about Sugar, please.
Well, the idea for Sugar was very serendipitous. I was having dinner with Shenae Grimes at a Thai restaurant in Hollywood. We'd met when she auditioned for another film I was doing and I really liked her energy. So we decided to hang out and see what we could think of when the other film fell through. At dinner, I noticed an old apartment building that had stayed half built for a few years and thought out loud, "That's the kind of place I would have slept in when I was on the streets." Shenae was surprised because she didn't know I had been homeless, and it started us talking. Shenae has a very edgy side to her, and I was drawn to that. I felt like I could tell my story but hide it enough by making it about a female lead in Venice Beach. I've always been drawn to strong female leads and it just felt natural. So I wrote it, and we made the film. I'm proud of that film. I love that we got to screen it for Congress, and it was the impetus for Lost in America.
Not so fast, Rotimi. You screened Sugar for Congress? Quite a coup! How did that come about? And how did it go?
Well, one of our producers knew Congresswoman Karen Bass from Los Angeles. And she came in for a screening and was really moved by the film. So, she invited us to screen it for Congress. It was a great experience and really well received.
Nice! So, now, with Sugar, you have one critically acclaimed feature film on homelessness. What made you feel that wasn't enough? What can you say this time that you haven't already said?
Well, honestly, there's a lot to still be said. I've realized with a fictional piece, you can't affect people as much as you can with a documentary. With a scripted feature, you've already accepted this is "make believe". I use that term literally in this case, because most Americans don't want to believe that over one million children live on the streets of America every year. And since the goal of this film is to inform and outrage people enough to make change, the only way to do that is to show them the truth, which you can only truly do through a documentary.
Over one million homeless kids - that's an astounding --and very disturbing-- number. Informing and enraging is a big challenge. How can you best tell this story in order to accomplish that goal?
Well, the best way to tell these stories is to actually let the people who are experiencing tell them: the youth. So, we're traveling the country getting the stories of these youth. We're also interviewing the heads of local and national youth homeless organizations as well as politicians. We've been with the head of HUD, the Executive Director of President Obama's organization tasked to end homelessness, the USICH [US Interagency Council on the Homeless]. We've met with members of Congress and the Senate, we've been traveling for a long time.