Jackson Filmmaker to Premiere New Movie
J.Lee is always impeccably dressed. The type of man who can make tailored camouflage slacks with a navy blazer and orange bow tie look good.
On Sunday, Lee, writer, director and producer, of J.Lee Productions LLC will premiere his latest film, "Karma — The Ultimate Payback," at the Jackson Convention Complex.
"Karma" is the 11th project for the Jackson native and another feat he can add to his growing catalog of work that includes two short films "What do the Lonely Do for Christmas" (2009) and "The Murderer" (2013) as well as stage plays.
"Karma" is a remake of his first stage play, "No Good Comes to Those Who Do Wrong" (2008), says Lee, 32. "I wanted to give it a new life."
Lee started his production company in 2008. He has produced two documentaries — "Black Love 1" and "Black Love 2" — that delve into the intimacy and realness of African-American relationships. He has completed more than four stage plays and won a Best of Jackson Award for his work "Revenge" (2010).
All of Lee's ventures seem to have enticing names — "Forbidden Fruit," "Everybody plays the fool" and "Why Am I Single?" Even "Karma" implies a Pandora's box of mystery between the name and its bold black, white and red promotional materials.
" 'Karma' is going to be sexy. It's going to push the envelope," Lee says with a devious smirk, refusing to divulge the plot. "We're tackling some strong and somewhat taboo topics. It's going to kind of catch some people off guard."
"It took us three months to film it. That's just the filming process, it doesn't include the auditioning or the writing," Lee says.
His hope is the film will stand apart from his previous works and that people will be pleasantly surprised. "I'm trying to reach those people that have never seen a J.Lee Production before. Or, people who have seen our production and have not been back," Lee says. His last film "The Murderer" was featured at the Crossroads Film Festival.
"We were definitely the minority, as far as I could tell, in relation to the other films that were being shown," Lee says. "We had people who came out who had not seen it, and we had people who had seen it who came back out to support it. I definitely think it was an opportunity to reach a different audience, and I believe we achieved that."
Lee, a Jackson State University graduate and full-time teacher, has become a veteran at balancing his professional career and his passion.
"It's really hard to work on a production in the middle of a school year when we have so much other stuff going on," he says. "Summers are definitely the times I try to bounce something out or during the Christmas holidays. I wrote 'Karma' during the Christmas holidays, and I wrote 'Forbidden Fruit' during the summer break."
Running a production company on a teacher's salary is not easy, he says. "A lot of times I am able to cut corners, because of the name that we've made for ourselves. It does get expensive, but we get donations and sponsors. But, it has been a struggle and there has been a lot of sacrifices on my part. I haven't been homeless, but I was close to it," Lee says.
Time is not his only challenge. "Once we started that first production, it was hell trying to get people to cooperate to work with us. I had to pay for everything, there was nothing in-kind," Lee says, "We got a few sponsors at the beginning, but not too many people believed in the vision of J.Lee Productions LLC and what we could do."
Now, Lee feels his team has proven their capabilities. During the making of "Karma," Lee had to shoot several scenes in a house that was empty, and furnishing it was not in his budget. So, the savvy producer went to a local furniture company and introduced himself. He was surprised the manager had heard of him and was familiar with his work.
"When I talked to the manager, she said, 'We've had people come to us and ask us for furniture for stage plays and things of that nature and I always tell them no. But for you, I like what you're doing … we're going to help you out, just go pick out whatever you want. We'll deliver it.' I just had to pay delivery fees and pick-up fees. That was just God," Lee says.
Lee puts such praise in perspective. "People say it's big, but it's not as big as I would like it to be, but it is bigger than where I started," he says.
"This production has shown me how good God is. There were times where I was unable to be at rehearsal. How is the writer, director, producer not at rehearsal? I have been blessed with a talented cast and team that stepped up to the plate and did it."
His team includes LSherie Dean, LaTisha Jackson, Aretha Carmicheal, Yolanda Lee, Larry Walker, Marcell Cox and Jeremy Funches.
Lee says Jackson needs an art district to nurture the creativity hidden here. He also feels people need to collaborate more, and people are not always willing to share their vision.
"Jackson has that crabs in the bucket mentality. But, I can say the mover and shakers that I deal with in the city, we will come together on projects," Lee says.
He was "kind of intimidated" to ask hairstylist Inez Doe, CEO of UFancii, to work on "Karma," but he says she agreed before he could finish explaining what he was doing. During this project he attempted to reach out to as many people as possible.
"I feel like when you bring all these talents together, it helps all the different brands. I'm doing film, so of course I'm going to need somebody that does hair, makeup, fashion, photography," Lee says.
Although Lee is grateful for the opportunities Jackson has provided him, he is not sure if Mississippi has a market to sustain the J.Lees of today and tomorrow.
"This city is definitely a good starting place, but once you conquer it, then you need to move on to something bigger and better," he says.
The best advice Lee recalls receiving: "Before you go anywhere else, make a name for yourself in your city."
Contact Rachel James Terry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By: Rachel James-Terry for the Clarion Ledger