South Florida

Life, and death, under the gun inspires young Miami artists’ film

After the Storm: Art born from Overtown and Allapattah tragedies

Two artists make a film to express their feelings about the hundreds of kids and teenagers killed by gun violence in Miami-Dade County.
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Two artists make a film to express their feelings about the hundreds of kids and teenagers killed by gun violence in Miami-Dade County.

The morning after the bullets fell, Reginald O’Neal trudged to the corner store, not too far from the two crime scenes. It was a Wednesday, the sun already hovered low, hot and eerily quiet, the sorrow suffocating. O’Neal scoured the aisles looking for breakfast and, maybe, some way to reconcile the murders of Richard Hallman and Marlon Eason.

All O’Neal, 23, had ever known as home was Overtown. He wondered how and why this little corner of the city, his little corner, had become so angry and bloody — 35 children and teenagers would die by gun violence in 2015, 13 so far this year. He could recall the names of a few acquaintances killed but nothing had hit him quite like the shootings of Richard 16, and Marlon, 10, killed two hours and a mile apart last March.

The emptiness slowly evolved into a kind of healing and inspiration: O’Neal and his good friend, Terence Price II, both artists and coffee baristas, have produced an eight-minute, free-form short film, now living on Vimeo, stirred by the losses — not just of Marlon and Richard, but all the others. Miami-Dade’s death toll of children and teens stands at 321 in just over a decade. The short film is also a celebration of light and ordinariness, the lovely everyday moments that unfold in the neighborhood.

“You really can’t process what happened. You can’t understand the circumstances or the chances of a little kid getting shot,” O”Neal says, his voice trailing off. “After that, the neighborhood did not feel right, nothing seemed to connect. The morning after it was sunny but gloomy, like a cloud was over the neighborhood.”

By the time the film was finished, it had become part of a larger outpouring of artistic expression wrought from tragedy. That fall, O’Neal, had painted a sweeping Overtown mural depicting the grief of a man whose brother was fatally shot. And he has since been commissioned to paint portraits of some gun violence victims, producing renderings of Hallman and King Carter, the 6-year-old who was killed on his way to buy candy in February.

 
Reginald O’Neal paints in his Miami Shores studio. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. / ctrainor@miamiherald.com

But the short film is, perhaps, the most unusual and evocative statement from the duo. They call it Summer before Spring’s End, a nod to the idea that Miami summers bring heat, a blanket of dread and a higher body count — often more mood than reality. It explores what it means to puncture the innocence of child’s play: Marlon was dribbling a basketball in his front yard when he was shot in the head. Both Marlon and Richard were killed on March 24, 2015 — 86 days before the summer, thus the title. It took O’Neal and Price about a year to finish the film and in that time, dozens more children and teens have died by gunfire.

The loss stayed with O’Neal well after the deaths of the two boys, killed while they were out of school on spring break. Well after the bullets rang out again days later, this time taking the lives of two more teenagers. Well after the boys’ funerals, held back-to-back in the same church the day before Easter.

Two months later, in June, a friend gave O’Neal a sampling of instrumental beats. He was drawn to a beat named Summer and its juxtaposition with the reality of his neighborhood.

“It didn’t sound like summer, what you think of when you think of summer. You think of the beach, swimming and fun,” he says. “It sounded gloomy, it sounded dark, exactly like I felt when I woke up the morning after the shootings.”

He listened to the beat. And then wrote words.

I hope they don’t try to compete with the sun this year, and bring their own heat out is what we all fear/apparently playing outside with your basketball get you killed/right inside your front lawn/ mom screaming your name/no response here she comes along with tears/is what would make everyone cold/don’t even want to enjoy the season.

O’Neal planned to add photographs with the audio to create a zine, self-published, small-circulation works. Price, first charmed by a camera he picked up at age 16, suggested a short film, bringing his own experiences and visual sensibilities.

“His words were about real life. They were relatable. I wanted to try to create pictures that reflected his words,” says Price, 26, who graduated from Miramar High School. “He has this one line about summer and sunflowers and watermelon seeds hitting the pavement and I remembering thinking about shooting a photo of children in the summer, seeds on the ground. I felt a film would be more impactful. People would get a taste of the area.”

Inspired by the works of Los Angeles artist and director Kahlil Joseph, Price talks about this project in his bedroom of his grandmother’s Miami Gardens home, a tiny space brimming with black and white images of family and friends; an American flag draped from one wall, a small portrait of the artist Basquiat on another. He pauses to point out the pea-shaped hole in his bedroom door and the shattered front window, a dizzying path left by an anonymous bullet nine summers ago. “Thankfully it was just my door, but sadly in the news what we hear about today is innocent kids getting killed.”

For years, Price has roamed Miami, looking for unnamed but familiar neighborhood characters as subjects of his photos. His latest personal project is a photography collection rendering life in Miami Gardens.

 
Terence Price II, a photographer, poses in his Miami Gardens home. CHARLES TRAINOR JR. / ctrainor@miamiherald.com

A graduate of Booker T. Washington High School, O’Neal describes his neighborhood as thick with love but never too far from ills. He tumbled into the world of art by way of drawing assignments while a young student at Dunbar Elementary School. But it wasn’t his first love — instead he focused on football and boxing. “Painting kind of found me. I tried it and was drawn to it as way to express myself,” says O’Neal, who honed his figurative art skills under the tutelege of Miami artist Axel Void (Alejandro Hugo Dorda Mevs).

O’Neal’s most accessible work is the mural he painted last year on 14th Street in Overtown last October, seven months after Marlon and Richard died. His largest is a soaring portrait of Hallman wearing football gear on a building wall in Gainesville, where Hallman’s cousin, Treon Harris, played quarterback for the University of Florida.

In March, a friend asked O’Neal to paint a portrait of King Carter for his Guns Down Shots Up basketball tournament and to give to the child’s parents. He poured over the photographs of King. He picked one in which the young boy wore an impossibly wide grin. And to punctuate the lawless reach of gun violence, he added the names and ages of 69 other dead children and teens.

“I document what is going on, not only kids who passed away, but also painting the beauty of the kids that are in my neighborhood, the beauty of the people in my neighborhood, all those things I take in, things I experience’’ says O’Neal, who uses the tag L.E.O.

In between shifts at a Brickell coffee house where they work, the pair immersed themselves in Summer before Spring’s End. They hung in the streets, on the playgrounds, at the parks and O’Neal’s second-floor Overtown apartment. Price shot with a Nikon digital, capturing four hours of footage, then whittled it down to eight minutes.

Structurally, the short film is divided into three chapters. From what feels like a distant view, it chronicles a typical O’Neal day starting in his home — one of a collection of squat, yellow apartment buildings in Overtown. The buzz of boys shooting into netless rims, boys and girls on swings and bikes, towels drying on clothes lines, sitting on the beach, it all feels normal until the last hours of light when he learns of the shooting of a child while playing. The film ends with a montage of young boys from the neighborhood, some friends of Marlon in real life, collectively delivering the truth that tomorrow will come and kids will play and no one should die.

Just stay in homes/where it’s much safer honestly/but being in prison inside your own community/ain’t a good place to be so I guess we’ll see/and look at the bright side it's summer/Fireworks through the whole season on the ground there is numbers/Henny not hop-scotch/Backwood and double dutches/the block is always hot, but never will i ever trust this season.

“I contemplated adding a picture of Marlon but then decided against it. I didn’t want his family to relive it over and over or for it to feel exploitative. “The whole project is based on how kids live and play and in some cases, die,” O’Neal says. “The message we are trying to send, is that these were kids just trying to play when they were killed. We don’t want this to be the normal.”

This short film contains graphic language that some viewers may find offensive.

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