Returning home: Filmmaker, musician Topaz Jones on growing up in Montclair
By KATE ALBRIGHT
For Montclair Local
“07042, this is for you,” musician and filmmaker Topaz Jones raps at the end of his short film “Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma.”
The film, which won the Short Film Jury Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, made its Montclair debut at Montclair Film Festival’s “Shorts: NJ Shorts Competition” on Friday night at Clairidge Cinemas.
The film appeared alongside “Cousins,” “Safe” and “Superstar.” It was followed by a Q&A with Jones, director Jordan Hidalgo (“Superstar”), director Mandy Marcus (“Cousins”), creative director Eric J. McNeal (“Don’t Go Tellin’ Your Momma”) and actor Jamad Mays (“Superstar”).
Jones, a Montclair native and 2011 graduate of Montclair High School, created the film with “rubberband.” (the directing duo Simon Davis and Jason Filmore Sondock), Luigi Rossi, Kevin Storey, McNeal and Chayse Irvin. It is a visual expression of Jones’ album of the same name, completed in early 2020.
Jones said that, at that time, many recording artists were releasing free music videos with their albums. He and his co-directors aimed to do the same.
But then came COVID-19.
“And we were forced to take a step back and really just ask ourselves questions we had never asked before. It [the pandemic] kind of threw out all the rules and conventions that we had been listening to,” Jones said.
With the resulting deeper dive, the intended 10-minute film grew into 35 minutes. Laced with surreal imagery, old camcorder videos and documentary interviews, the outcome is a complex semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age journal. The film celebrates Black culture and activism while paying homage to Jones’ hometown.
Creative director and costume designer McNeal said during the Q&A, “It really was like sitting with everything that Topaz has learned and not learned and kind of figuring out how to paint the perfect picture and who to talk to and who to answer all those questions ... I think last year was a time where we all had a lot of questions, and we all had literally nothing to do but make this film.”
The film is structured into 26 parts, one for each letter of the alphabet. Jones was inspired by the Black ABCs, flashcards that he came across while he was collecting imagery for his record. Created in 1970 by Chicago educators, the Black ABCs were cards used in public schools around the country. Black children learned to read words like afro, cool, family, groovy, home and vote while seeing faces that reflected their own on the cards.
Jones said, “It just seemed like the right structure for us to build whatever we were going to do within, because I think one of the main premises of the album that I made was about education and my own kind of miseducation and coming into my own understanding of self.”
“B is for Blue.” But it’s also for basketball. In a sweet scene culled from video of Jones’ childhood on the Rand Park basketball courts, a voice holding the camera can be heard asking grinning kids what their basketball names are. Professor and Ace are two replies.
In “E is for Education,” Rodney Jackson, Jones’ eighth grade social studies teacher at Renaissance Middle School, is interviewed. He talks about making changes in the way history is taught, giving examples of using terms like “enslaved” instead of “slaves” and “prison labor camps” instead of “plantations.”
He also speaks about his work with Teachers Undoing Racism Now, a Montclair teachers group that at the time of the interview was working with the superintendent to put Juneteenth on the school calendar and to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day. Both changes have since been implemented.
Other sequences feature Montclair touchstones like Jefferson’s Cafe, Crockett’s Fish Fry, Lackawanna Plaza, the Wellmont, Renaissance Middle School, the rooster mural on Park Street and local residents like therapist Kaity Rodriguez.
In “T is for Time” three children sit on a curb under a street lamp, teasing one another as evening descends. When the street lamp turns on, one boy magically disappears as if summoned by his mother, leaving behind a cloud of smoke.
The creative team utilized surreal elements and magical realism to interpret childhood, Jones said.
“We tried to focus most on accuracy of feeling,” Jones said. “... because when you’re a kid you’re growing up, everything is so impactful. You know, everything is a first, it’s like the first time you feel an emotion — you’re scared, you’re happy, you find love. All of those things are so impactful. So we just focused on trying to find a way to put into imagery, the way that that feels.”
Bringing the film to Montclair was one of the more special moments he’s had with the film, Jones said.
“And, you know, in a way it is a love letter to this crazy, weird, off-the-beaten-path environment that feels like a bubble a lot of the time,” he said. “And I wanted to expose people outside of it to Montclair as well as kind of expose Montclair to Montclair, because I think Montclair often only gets talked about in a certain light or only certain aspects of it."
“And I felt a responsibility to kind of talk about some of the parts of it that aren’t necessarily always showcased.”