On the Nickel

Houston director Greg Carter makes an audacious first try in Fifth Ward

Fifth Ward, first-time director Greg Carter's film about inhabitants of Houston's most notorious ghetto, is a charmingly amateurish effort that takes pride in its low-budget bluntness. With its cut-and-paste editing, low-pitched soundtrack, jittery cinematography and actors spouting lines like they're giving the last performances of their career, Fifth Ward is the most ambitious attempt at homemade, do-it-yourself filmmaking I've seen since Pink Flamingos.

But don't expect any of the characters in Fifth Ward to eat dog poo or sing out of their assholes. Despite its almost in-jokey conceit of filmmaking, Fifth Ward has a serious story to tell.

The central character is James (Kory Washington), an inner-city teenager so brimming with promise he should have the words "good potential" stamped on his forehead. When he's not earning his wages working at an Asian couple's convenience store, James goes to the museum and sketches. Yet danger and temptation lurk everywhere. When the movie begins, James's mack daddy brother is gunned down by two street punks. James and his mother (Donna Wilkerson), a former prostitute and strip-club dancer, live with James's stepfather, a recovering heroin addict who gets back on the hypo when his workman's comp runs out. James's father, who also loved art, was mysteriously killed while having an epileptic seizure. James has no choice but to make something better of himself.

But all of his potential soon dissolves into unpredictable slumming when James hangs out with his neighborhood boys. The oldest and dearest of his pals, Rip (Lee Carter), is a ghetto-regulated loose cannon who'll bust anyone upside the head if they look at him funny. Rip sells illegal guns for the same kingpin who employed James's brother.

To give the story a diverse buzz, Carter trots out more substantial characters: Earl (Thomas Webb), James's uncle and a paramedic whose motivational-speaker-like elocution and preachy dialogue give the movie its most moralistic moments; Greg (Jack Hernandez), a UH grad student accompanying Earl for his thesis research; Officer Gibson (Louis Guesmano), a racist cop who goes out of his way to treat African-Americans "like they are children"; and Haan (Junie Hoang), the Asian couple's attractive daughter, who stirs up a Romeo-and-Juliet thing with James.

While offering easy parallels and allusions to Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, New Jersey Drive and every other recent 'hood movie, Fifth Ward is more of an ensemble character study. The movie rolls more like a melodramatic soap opera -- Peyton Place with guns, blunts and hoochie mamas.

Although the story is soaked in predictable low-key bathos, Fifth Ward is actually quite credible. Carter's well-structured plot sparks adroit, believable moments. But the actors who play the residents of the Fifth Ward are the ones who make the characters effortlessly convincing. They come across with enough facile verve and strength to make them pass for scholars of ghetto method-acting -- ready for any August Wilson play or New York Undercover guest shot that comes their way.

But anyone who desires Titanic-sized production values (or even Good Will Huntingsized production values) should steer clear of Fifth Ward. While a movie with, say, more money would have come off as condescending and laughable, Fifth Ward's straight-faced rookie storytelling gives it a persuasive slant. With Fifth Ward, Greg Carter has made an audacious first try.

"If 'guerrilla filmmaking' is the word that most people use for independent production, then we just had 'guerrilla war.' "

It's this notion that makes Carter chuckle as he recounts the experience of making his debut film. "There were times where [I thought to myself], you know, do I buy film or do I pay my rent?" says Carter, a 30-year-old Houstonian who works as an environmental engineer when not moviemaking.

A year has passed since he finished shooting Fifth Ward, and Carter is calmly psyched about the upcoming unspooling of his film as part of the Museum of Fine Arts' "Local Spin" festival. Although Carter thinks he needs to trim a few edges to make his film presentable ("I feel like we're still finishing it now," he laments), he's proud of his work and confident that the film will stand on its own.

But when you make a quantum leap from environmental engineering to writing, producing, financing, casting, catering and, most important, directing your very own movie, you're taking a chance with everything you do, from day one. It all started for Carter when he was listening to his car radio and heard what sounded like an opportunity.

"What happened was, I was driving to work one day," says Carter, "this was probably about four or five years ago, and I heard this voice on the radio, and he was talking about how he'd like it if we had some black men to come volunteer and work with the group."

The man's name was Ernest McMillan, and the Fifth Ward Enrichment Program was the group he was promoting. Eager to volunteer, Carter pitched the idea of teaching a film course. In 1993, he got a thumbs-up on his proposal, and a year later he officially tagged it the Fifth Ward Young Filmmakers Project.

"That's where I really got involved in making [the movie], because I spent a great deal of time not only being a teacher to the kids, but being a mentor, a role model, a father figure, that whole thing," says Carter, a native of El Dorado, Arkansas, who moved with his family to the Fifth Ward in 1979. Although he moved away from the northside neighborhood by the time he was in fifth grade, Carter feels he can still bond with the people in that little part of the world. "I really got to know the people in the community really well, and the neighborhood well. And the history."

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