Straight Outta Oakland: A conversation with Actor, Director and Writer Marcus D. Spencer
By: Monique Ranae
Sitting down with Marcus D Spencer is always an experience worth having. There’s loads of laughs, things to learn, great news and most of all… a story to be told about what’s new in his world of entertainment. This interview is a bit different though. With all that’s going on, what starts off as an interview about all the wonderful things going on with his career and production company ‘Touch The Heart Productions’; one thing was clear. Real things are happening- real things that are affecting us both at the same time. The same things that are tugging on the hearts of ALL black people and the people who love and support us… In this interview, we talk about his recently released to DVD film ‘Straight Outta Oakland’ and how WE can do our part to stop Blue on black crimes.
Monique: Marcus!! What’s Up, Superstar?! Congratulations on the New Film
Marcus: Thank you so much for having me. It’s definitely a pleasure to be able to sit down with you in these trying times. Thank you for the congratulations as well. You know me, I’m just trying to change the world, one film at a time.
Monique: I have been seeing photos all over Facebook of your movie on Walmart shelves! It’s a great thing to see a young man from Oakland, CA not only writing, producing, directing but doing the work to shop a finished product and getting content into stores. I personally am beyond proud. I remember the days of 41510 photo shoots, Red Robbins and you being extras in movies. How does this feel? Like, Looking back on the past, how does the present feel?
Marcus: Yes, I definitely remember those days. I feel like I have come a long way but I have so far to go. My direction has changed a bit over the years. Each day I gain knowledge which has altered my path. As I still take pride in being in films but I think it’s my duty to also create content. Being in the industry I now correlate everything to film. I look at my life as a film and my goal is for when it’s all said and done, my life is over… I want people to replay my film (my life) and see that I have made a difference to the world. That’s my goal.
Monique: Tell me about the movie.
Marcus: “Straight Outta Oakland is about four men with different issues who are all trying to have a successful life. You have Keith who was not raised by his mom. He grew up feeling unloved due to the fact that his parents, the only people who were supposed to love him didn’t. Do to his lack of trust he wasn’t as honest as one would think he should be. Kevin grew up without his dad. When his dad became ill Kevin took it upon himself to care for him. He was looking for his dads love and approval his whole life and had to realize that his personal love and approval was all he needed. Korey is wasn’t a bad kid, his problem was he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life or where he was going. He had to learn that it’s up to him to lead his own life. Lastly, we have me playing the role of Kenny. Kenny was in a bad relationship where he didn’t feel love or appreciation. He had to learn that the relationship wasn’t working and it was okay to leave. It’s a really personal project for me. A lot of them are but this was really personal. Each man in the film are all one person but separate aspects of ME. I broke my life into four characters and gave them all a personal issue that I possessed or seen growing up in Oakland. It’s a coming of age story about a black man from Oakland where the odds are against him. He navigates through life while attempting to be set free from his own mindset
Monique: So in essence… this is your autobiography. How healing was it for you?
Marcus: It’s not really an autobiography because there is a lot of fiction, however the issues are real. This film was healing to me because I believe it’s going to be healing for others. I just want to ensure that my kids grow up in a better world. If I can just change one life, that life will then change others. It is said that people are all separated by six people. If I can show one person that’s not related to me that ‘love’ is the answer, just think how far that goes.
Monique: Having grown up in Oakland and Coming Straight Outta Oakland… You see what I did there? [Laughs]
Monique: Seeing things first hand both struggle and triumph, and with all that’s going on in this country right now as it relates to Race, Inequality, and prejudice. How do you feel about all of this?
Marcus: I feel like the recent shootings are horrible. All of them. I hear a lot of talk about race surrounding these occurrences. I don’t know if these instances are racially charged. I think if all of these officers were racist we would have had even more incidences where they were killing blacks. I think the shootings have a lot more to do with prejudice mindsets. I think if the suspects were white they would probably still be alive but I attribute that more to the way society was taught to view minorities… especially black men; and although we didn’t initially create those views, we are the ones who will have to change the black image. If a person is afraid of you they will always be in defense mode. Monique: As a father do you feel you need to have a conversation with them about the police and/or how to behave as they grow into a young adults? What would that conversation look like?
Marcus: I don’t think so… The conversation about the police is sticky because I teach my children that if they are in trouble and for some reason daddy is not around they are to call the police. 9-1-1 is a number that they know and they understand there is a need for it. There may be another conversation that needs to be had later but I’m hoping that there won’t be a need. Monique: Your son is pretty young, but at what age do we start talking about this? We want our kids to make it home every night. Marcus: My son is only 5 at the moment so I have some time before I have to tell him anything in regards to his safety. At this point I tell him, the police are good people and they are here to help. Now what I tell African-American youth (13 and above) is, people have a great deal of power. See I am a firm believer in, ‘a person only has control over oneself.’ If you know people look at you in a particular way then you have some control the outcome. We have to do the things in our power to not be viewed as a threat. If you went camping with your family and you saw a fox or a mountain lion what would you do? You’re not going to try to intimidate the animal are you? Of course not, you’re going to do everything in your power to seem less threatening to the animal. It’s the same with police because WE know they are (or could be) in fear of us. It’s our job to do everything to seem less threatening. We can’t change the color of our skin but we can change the way we talk, the way we dress, the way we speak. We have that power.
Monique: Clearly, Whites are viewed differently than Blacks and other POC. You say we should change or adjust the way we walk, talk and dress. Most would say that’s not fair.
Marcus: Of course it’s not fair, but I do understand that life isn’t always fair. I’m not naïve, however. I want to make it home. I want my kids to make it home. And if that means that we have to make adjustments then that’s what I have to teach them. My objective will always be to keep them safe. I also don’t think black people are viewed the same in the eyes of black people. I think that people in general are more threatened by black people. Most people have a certain prejudice against black people but it’s not always their fault in my opinion. I explained that to someone the other day and they asked me if I was going to tell them not to act black. My question was “Well, what does ACTING BLACK mean?” If you mean am I going to make sure he doesn’t dress in a way that’s going to draw more attention, or I’m going to make sure he uses proper grammar when he speaks, you are correct. I don’t see that as saying don’t act black, I see that as me guiding and grooming him to be successful. I know that you attract more bees with honey. I will teach him to take pride in himself and carry himself with respect. Does that mean he won’t have any problems? Of course not. What it does mean is he will have better odds. My job is to teach him how to make sure he gets home.
Monique: Often times I hear people say that Hollywood paints this picture of us… but do you think our Media and Entertainment play a role in it?
Marcus: In my opinion there are certain images that come from the media and they are very deliberate. When I watch TV and movies I see negative images of our people. It’s not the same for whites. It’s July 2016 and there has not been ONE big budget black film in theaters. When I watch TV I see aggressive black people from reality shows like “Love & Hip-Hop” (Created and Produced by a black woman) to “Real Housewives of Atlanta.” Scripted shows are no better than shows like “Empire” (crated by and produced by a black man) to “How to Get Away with Murder” (created and co-produced by a black woman). The truth is, there is big money in perpetuating this image. But we must understand there is a price as well. That’s not even including sports; the NFL has the biggest most aggressive black men trying to rip people’s heads off, figuratively speaking of course. As people watch it, it’s nothing more than entertainment. After the show goes off and you leave your home, walk into the store and see a big football player physique black man arguing with someone you automatically regurgitate the thoughts of that Monday Night Football game that you just saw. You imagine this guy tearing the other person apart. That’s how prejudice works. People are still terrified of clowns because they saw, Stephen King’s “It.”
Monique: Have you thought of how you and/or other people with celebrity and position of influence could make a difference in the way we are perceived in media and entertainment? We have seen celebs from our communities who have done the opposite. Some of those examples even include CNN anchor Don Lemon who has obviously put his foot in his mouth on more than one occasion. What can be done? What’s within your reach? How do we make the shift?
Marcus: We have the power. I especially have the power and I have made it my duty to do so. As a filmmaker I create images now. The Ryan Coogler’s, Ava DuVemay’s, Tyler Perry’s, Lee Daniels’ and Spike Lee’s of the world; It’s up to US to create the content that changes the future. The problem is none of us have our own distribution company so we have to rely on others to put our films out. We don’t get paid unless someone buys the films and no one can buy the films unless they are on the shelves. So unless you’re making your own content you as a director have to direct the films that someone is hiring you to direct. Typically meaning, if it’s not your script and if it is your script chances are you need someone else’s money. Since you are using someone else’s money, they tell you what to do. “He who has the money calls the shots.” People think that slavery is over… I DON’T. I think we are slaves of the mind and that’s why we have these killings. Media shows these images and even we start to believe them! We lose sight of our worth as a people. We too are easily manipulated and don’t know it.
Monique: Do you care to elaborate?
Marcus: Without directly saying it, we are baited into believing and running with racism. Most people without even seeing the video will assume that the cop who killed Philandro was Caucasian. When we heard about Treyvon Martin most people assumed he was white until his face was shown. Even after his face was shown people still described him as white. For two weeks the world thought he was white, and nobody really corrected it because that would go against their manipulation and plan to make us feel targeted-make us feel victimized. In reality, the numbers tell a different story. In 2015 (1186) people were killed by police. (323) were Black and (502) were White (per my research). People don’t know that because the media doesn’t want you to know. It’s manipulation. Control the mind- control the body.
Monique: Often times you hear people say that the news purposely perpetuates POC’s in a negative light. Almost to say it’s all a big plot. Do you think there’s truth to that? Marcus: What I do know is there is nothing put on the news without approval. Each story is there for a reason. Yes, cops kill blacks and we all know that. We know that because that’s always publicized. What’s not publicized is that cops kill white people too. As of July 10, 2016 (123) Black people have been killed by police in the US this year. (238) White people, and (79) Hispanics have also (per my research). It’s a shame that people are dying period but my point is, we hear about the Blacks that die but no one else. There is a reason we don’t hear about others dying and that’s for the readers to figure out.
Monique: Have you ever been racially profiled?
Marcus: I have been pulled over multiple times. Each time I was pulled over, I gave the officer a reason. It’s not the police fault I gave them a reason. I was pulled over for speeding, texting and a broken tail light. I have never been pulled over by the police without cause. I understood the procedures of a traffic stop so I handled myself properly. I know when an officer walks to your car and ask you, “Do you know why I pulled you over,” it’s not because they think you’re going to tell on yourself. They ask you that just so they can get a feel for you and your demeanor. How you respond to that question either puts them at ease or it puts them in defense. We must remember, they are walking to our car at a disadvantage. They have no idea what’s in our car. I had to consider or keep in mind that, I’m 6’2” 300 pounds and most people have been conditioned to feel fear based on my appearance, So I kept that in mind when interacting with them. Yes, there was a big issue; I received tickets that I DID NOT WANT. But I wouldn’t call THOSE instances racial profiling and I don’t believe I was targeted.
Monique: The Black Lives Movement is making headlines around the world. Some would say it’s the modern Civil Rights Movement. What are your thoughts on the movement and its impact on how we bring attention to our issues?
Marcus: I think at this time the Black Lives Matter Movement is a great thing. Although people march to bring awareness I don’t think it’s the safest thing to do in this day and age. During a protest you can’t control who comes or how the attendees behave. Bringing awareness is awesome and is much needed but times have changed. We can bring awareness by using Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and many other types of media. A long time ago black people marched because there was no media coverage. Black issues weren’t televised so they took the issues to the streets. Marching doesn’t change laws, marching doesn’t teach you your rights. Those are the things that change the world. Marching up and down the street does nothing but make everyone late for work or late picking up their kids from daycare. Marching is not a solution, we must find solutions that work and will actually make a change. We march because we are told to march. Laws and procedures need to be changed and the fact is, we can’t change laws and procedures while we’re out marching unless you get all that are marching to sign petitions. We have to learn to work smarter not harder.
Monique: Don’t you think marching IS still relevant though? Social media allows you to be social mostly with people you know. Marching makes headlines… headlines are then tweeted about, thus bringing awareness. Marching also acts as a call to duty. When we create a united visual we encourage others to join us. If we speak amongst ourselves about our problem we solve nothing. We should be marching, blasting on social media and ALSO creating space maybe at the end of a march where people can sign the petitions and acquire more information on these issues. We should be using our platforms just as you and I are doing right now. Don’t these things work together? It all brings awareness. In my opinion, all of these things work separately but are totally impactful when used together.
Marcus: Not in my opinion. Often times things get out of hand, many end the day with a criminal record by going to jail. The truth of the matter is, there is a lot of news that is covered by social media and it tends to make the biggest headlines. Thanks to social media, I can tag any celebrity or news crew I want. If awareness is the objective then there are better ways to get that.
Monique: In Dallas recently we’ve seen the result of violence on both ends. The shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling triggered a protest which was initially non-violent. Later in the protest a sniper ended up shooting 11 people both civilians and cops. 5 officers were killed. I’ve heard the narrative where people have the “that’s what you get” attitude. There’s a lot of mixed emotion on that what are your thoughts?
Marcus: I don’t know how safe protests are in this day and age. We can’t control who comes or how they will behave. I think violence begets more violence. If the world thinks Philando Castile was an innocent man killed in cold blood, then why shoot and kill others in the same cold blood? That is not justice. That leaves more people hurt, upset, families broken and more people in fear. I can assure you that is not the objective.
Monique: I want to shift gears a bit and touch on the things we control and things we don’t. Your film originally was called “Set Me Free.” What is the significance of changing the title to “Straight Outta Oakland?” In this instance, you go from a positive image to one that can be perceived as negative-stereotypical even. How did that happen?
Marcus: “Set Me Free” won nine awards around the country; From Vancouver, WA to Orlando, FL in 2014 and had a limited theatrical release in 2015 before being self-distributed in July of 2015. When I signed my distribution deal the film was shopped to stores like Walmart & Target but both denied. I was told the cover was too ‘family friendly.’ When the distributor got back to me the name and image was changed to “Straight Outta Oakland” with a store release date of July 5, 2016. The contract that was signed by me and the distributor stated that they [the distributor] had the power to do whatever is necessary to sell the film. Personally I wasn’t happy but as a business man I understood the change. I knew that more people [both black and white] would buy “Straight Outta Oakland” than “Set Me Free” because people are just more interested in the new imagery. What I have learned is from this point going forward I will make sure that doesn’t happen. The image of my people are important to me and I’ve made it my duty to make that image more positive. I do what I do and think like I think because I want my kids to have better circumstances.
Monique: In the end the message still the same. Hearts will be touched and that’s the point. I’m so glad I had the opportunity to talk with u and catch up. Again, I am beyond proud and so happy for you.
Marcus: Yes, touching hearts is always the goal. I’m not here to preach or tell you what you should and shouldn’t do but if I can touch a heart, just one… The world will be better tomorrow that it was today.
If you haven’t seen the film, “Straight Outta Oakland”, be encouraged to do so. Pick up your copy in store or order on line from the below referenced places. For more inspiration and insight from Big Spence, you can follow him on all social media.