by The People’s Minister of Information JR
“Tom Freeman of the North” is a comedic short filled with political satire that examines identity, upward mobility and gentrification. Tom Freeman, the main character, is a Black man who is socially invested in the gentrification of his community, while his brother Desean fights the power.
This short seemed like a from-cartoon-to-movie-concept of The Boondocks, whereas Riley was the main character instead of Huey. Shit hits the fan when Tom goes to an after-work gathering with his brother and has to face the music about how his employer really feels about him.
“Tom Freeman of the North” is one of many great films screening at this year’s San Francisco Black Film Festival that looks at identity. Check out filmmaker Mohammed Rabbani in his own words.
M.O.I. JR: What inspired you to write “Tom Freeman of the North”?
Mohammed Rabbani: Originally, “Tom Freeman of the North” was a joke project I did with two of my classmates for our documentary class. The original piece was six minutes long, and we made it because I forgot to come to class with a pitch for a documentary about Harlem, so I pitched the story in a stream of consciousness, much of which were things on my mind for a while, which he approved for production.
Since I had no choice but to fake this documentary, I wrote a script and gave the two main characters, Tom and Desean, meaty details that made their characters engaging. While writing the script, I drew quite a bit from my own upbringing, where I suffered from a great deal of internalized racism, where I wanted to be as close to whiteness as possible, physically and otherwise.
Originally, “Tom Freeman of the North” was a joke project I did with two of my classmates for our documentary class.
At some point in the production process, I fell in love with “Tom Freeman of the North” and felt that it would make for a great platform to talk about the many issues plaguing our society today.
Gentrification was always a hot topic on my mind since I grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and went to school in Harlem for five, going on six, years. Seeing people being displaced, not feeling at home in their own communities and just knowing what racist practices drive gentrification pushed me make a film that will bring this topic to light.
Gentrification is a discussion heavily ignored by the media, while being pushed by it. There are TV shows starring mainly white casts in parts of New York that have been historically people of color, which both skews the perspective of New York, while bringing in wealthier people who will drive out people of color and lower income families.
M.O.I. JR: Were the characters based off of individuals you knew, stereotypes or something else?
Mohammed Rabbani: The supporting characters in “Tom Freeman of the North” are based on people I’ve come across in real life. I know a number of Mr. Charlies who hung out with particularly Black people (and desis like myself) and used them as a sort of jewelry to show off to friends to show how down they can be.
One of the issues I came across while writing “Tom Freeman of the North” was the fact that I am a Bengali American, not a Black man, so I can’t really write about the Black experience considering the privileges I have as a model minority, a status given to me by the white hegemony.
For this reason, I consulted my Black peers, mainly Lex Daemon, the lead and producer, while writing the script. Having said that, I’ve experienced many of the things Tom experienced, such as being called an oreo – I was often called white boy, despite me not being white, because of my taste in music and culture.
The supporting characters in “Tom Freeman of the North” are based on people I’ve come across in real life.
Tom is based off a younger version of myself, angry at the wrong things – the oppressed – whereas Desean is based off the current version of myself, angry at the oppressors.
M.O.I. JR: Why did you name the film “Tom Freeman of the North”?
Mohammed Rabbani: I named the film “Tom Freeman of the North” firstly as a joke against my documentary professor. In my documentary class, the first film my professor showed us was “Nanook of the North.” He said that it was the first feature length documentary, but upon researching the internet on the film, I discovered that much of the film was staged and none of the characters were real.
This upset me because my professor was trying to play it off as a documentary when it wasn’t, so when I came up with the idea of making a fake documentary, I thought naming it after “Nanook of the North” would be fitting.
I also took into account that Harlem is often referred to as Uptown, which one could say is north of Midtown. Besides those two reasons, I and many of my peers felt that the name itself was catchy.
M.O.I. JR: What are the messages you are sending about identity, upward mobility and gentrification in “Tom Freeman of the North”? Please be specific.
Mohammed Rabbani: With regards to identity, in “Tom Freeman of the North,” I want people to see how a capitalistic society that is heavily intertwined with white racism can affect how a minority, especially those of darker shades, view themselves. We live in a world where darker people are viewed as less attractive.
Where in my high school, kids threw around terms like “light skinned dude” and “dark skinned dude” to describe very binary but opposing characteristics that have nothing to do with skin color, often attributing “dark skinned dudes” with negative traits.
Where skin bleaching products are still a thing in Africa, Asia, South America and the West Indies, where lighter skinned people of color get more prominent roles than darker skin.
Where the rare Black love interest of a white character is almost always very light skinned. Where Mufasa is light-furred, but Scar, his evil brother, is somehow much darker, along with his entire half of the family.
Where the darkest child in a family is looked down on, while the sibling, who is much lighter-skinned, is praised for the fair skin.
With regards to identity, in “Tom Freeman of the North,” I want people to see how a capitalistic society that is heavily intertwined with white racism can affect how a minority, especially those of darker shades, view themselves.
The media plays a strong role in how we view ourselves, and can lead to one not loving themselves to the point where they will buy certain products, listen to certain music, hang out with certain people and look down on certain people just to feel like they matter. That’s why Tom Freeman came to be that way. His self-hatred is what this racist, capitalistic society thrives on.
Tom feels that his being Black is what is holding him back from moving up the economic ladder, so he must assimilate into whiteness as much as possible to move up the ranks. This is an issue that many people of color have to deal with on a daily basis, and what ends up happening is that we discard our culture and strip ourselves of our identity, just to survive.
What comes to mind is the need to “talk white” just to get a job or decent customer service. People with conventionally black names or names that sound “ethnic” have a harder time landing job interviews as well. Who knows, maybe in a future episode of Tom Freeman, we’ll discover that his name wasn’t always Tom!
On the flip-side, one could say that Desean’s perceived radicalness and his non-white sounding name is holding him back from getting a decent job, or maybe the whole notion of upward mobility seems like a false dream to him, which is why he instead focuses on his art and fighting the system.
With regards to gentrification, we have two main perspectives on it, Tom’s and Desean’s. Tom, being for gentrification, doesn’t really understand the impact it has on communities and individuals, which leads to his demise. Tom thinks that gentrification makes the neighborhood safer and weeds out all the “bad people.” While crime does go down, it doesn’t just disappear, it moves elsewhere, which shows that there is an issue within the system itself that forces crime to happen.
In a brief dialogue in Tom Freeman, we hear the gentrifier, Mr. Charlie, asking Tom and Desean to excuse the mess in his home because the landlord trashed the place to get rid of the previous tenants. In this exchange, we see three perspectives:
Mr. Charlie, the gentrifier: He says it so nonchalantly as if the previous tenants were pests that were swatted out. Gentrifiers often don’t care about the people being displaced or else they wouldn’t be gentrifying, and while sometimes they say they do care, they do nothing about it.
With regards to gentrification, we have two main perspectives on it, Tom’s and Desean’s.
Tom Freeman, native in favor of gentrification: He just laughs it off because currently he doesn’t see it as his problem, but it will hit him eventually.
Desean Freeman, against gentrification, woke: He looks directly to the audience, like “You heard that right?” because he knows exactly what happened to those tenants and is aware of the gentrifier’s lack of sympathy for the tenants.
M.O.I. JR: Psychologically, why did Tom do an about-face in the film? For his whole life he had been thinking one way; what clicked and why? I didn’t understand this part of the film.
Mohammed Rabbani: What clicked was Tom’s realization that someone is profiting off of his skin color. It had to be read to him from a piece of paper that he was being used, because Tom was always too blinded by his ambition to see this happen in action. Although it sounds like a copout, sometimes all it takes is a paragraph or a very introspective hot shower for things to add up in your head.
Aside from that hack of an answer, it was mainly due to the rush of the script and production, as this was my college thesis film and I had four months to put it together, that led to that major flaw in plot and character development. I also had to make the film be at most fifteen minutes long, which I went over anyway, so I decided to write the piece like a sitcom.
In my defense, I do feel that at the end, Tom goes back to his original train of thought when he was handed that job application. This is also made clear in the after-credit scene, which I hope you stayed for.
M.O.I. JR: Are you planning to make this film into a feature length film?
Mohammed Rabbani: I do not plan on making it a feature length film, but I do however plan on making it into a television series. When showing my classmates early rough footage of “Tom Freeman of the North,” one of them told me that it was “The best Netflix show I’d never seen.”
After my school’s film festival, many people approached me asking when I’m going to do the next episode. My producer, Matthew Deese of Truth Artists Productions, saw it and picked it up immediately and told me that the current climate is perfect for a “Tom Freeman of the North” television series.
So far, I have five more episodes in production and am looking for a major network to work with to make this accessible to the world. There is so much to write about, I can go a full four seasons with the material that’s available to me.
M.O.I. JR: What else are you working on?
Mohammed Rabbani: I’m working on a number of things, one of them being “Coffee: The Web Series,” created by Milan Stoessel, the brilliant actor who played Desean Freeman. The show is about a world where coffee is made an illegal substance, and two broke dudes start selling it to survive. I directed the first two episodes and did the poster you can see on the Kickstarter page.
You can back the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/coffeethewebseries/coffee-the-web-series.
I’m also working a couple of projects with Jeffrey Almonte, a filmmaker from Harlem, who is best known for his rant against gentrification and “Columbusing” in a video where he reacts to a gentrifier who “discovers” the chopped cheese sandwich and reports it to her news channel.
One of the projects is a documentary about African American and Asian American relations.
You can back it here: youcaring.com/afroasiandocumentary
M.O.I. JR: How could people stay in touch with you?
Mohammed Rabbani: You can stay in touch with me by going to the following: my website: www.morabbani.com; my Facebook page: www.facebook.com/morabbani718; my personal Instagram (I do a ton of photography): @mo_rabbani; my email: email@example.com; Tom Freeman of the North’s Instagram: @tomfreemanofthenorth; and Tom Freeman of the North’s Facebook page: .http://fb.me/tomfreemanofthenorth.
The People’s Minister of Information JR Valrey, journalist, author and filmmaker, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook. And tune in to BlockReportRadio.com. The 2017 San Francisco Black Film Festival runs June 15-18; learn more at SFBFF.org.