By Antonio R. Harvey | OBSERVER Staff Writer

Sacramento native Deon Taylor discusses his filmmaking career as actress Taylor Nevels, 11, looks on. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

The Oak Park Black Film Festival held this month featured 18 remarkable short and feature-length movies, but local talent’s participation in the five-day event gave it added flair and identity.

Former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who led an effort that took the festival from conception to realization in less than three weeks, ensured the event was filled with an outstanding group of Black individuals in the entertainment industry.

“I thought it was magical. It was a pleasant surprise,” said Jay King, president and CEO of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, one of the event’s sponsors. “I was extremely surprised that he had anyone local because of how fast he put it together. The fact that (Johnson) could put it together so fast and include locals was impressive.”

King, founder of the R&B group Club Nouveau, has Hollywood connections. The soundtrack of the 2019 film “Us” includes the Luniz’s hit song “I Got Five on It,” sampled from Club Nouveau’s 1987 hit, “Why You Treat Me So Bad.”

During the festival, King told The OBSERVER he was assisting a couple of independent filmmakers trying to land distribution deals. King and Johnson are seeking avenues to the big screen for the full-feature film “Playing Through,” a film honoring the life and legacy of Black golfer Ann Gregory.

In regard to the festival, King and Johnson are discussing ways to push support for producers of the documentaries “Punch 9 for Harold Washington,” about Chicago’s first Black mayor, and “Whirlwind: The Marcus Garvey Story.”

King also said he volunteered with no strings attached to raise funding for a sculpture of Marcus Garvey, a project led by the civil rights legend’s son Dr. Julius Garvey. King said he is a “big Marcus Garvey fan.” Dr. Garvey was a guest speaker at the festival.

“I was just there to support and see the films,” said King, who attended three days. “But anytime that I can help somebody, I see something, I know that I can make a connection … I will do it.”

Taylor Nevels, 11, one of the stars of the 15-minute short “Out of Tune,” is from Southern California, but her mother, Monique Nevels, is from West Sacramento.

Taylor Nevels stars in “Out of Tune,” a short shown at the festival. The 11-year-old model, singer and dancer’s mother is from West Sacramento. Antonio R. Harvey, OBSERVER

Taylor Nevels portrayed a young Black character stigmatized since childhood for her love of rock music, specifically the band Journey, in a world that she thought didn’t think she was Black enough. Nevels channeled her energy through a challenge to make the character believable, she said.

“I was 100% so nervous when I first performed (in the short film). I was like, ‘What if they don’t like me?’” Taylor told the audience. “But I approached the role like celebrities such as Zendaya, who I love. I was like, if they did these roles and killed it, I said, ‘I am going to get you and I am going to kill it.’”

The short also stars Erika Hamilton. The Black filmmaker from Dayton, Ohio, based the script loosely on her upbringing. “Out of Tune” was shot in three days and shown at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival.

Taylor Nevels is an actor, singer, dancer, and model, “which is her day job,” her mother Monique Nevels emphasized lightheartedly. The Nevels had family members in the audience to see the third day of the festival. Taylor got the part when she sang a song recorded by a 1990s Black female R&B trio that included a member from nearby Rancho Cordova.

“She sang the song ‘Weak’ by SWV during the audition,” Monique Nevels said. “Erika loved it and called her back. She basically gave her the part in the film on the spot.”

During the film discussion with Johnson, Taylor Nevels and Hamilton joined the stage with A-list filmmaker Deon Taylor. The Florin High School graduate provided a 15-minute clip of his in-production film “Fear.”

“Oh, I was scared,” Hamilton said when she was asked about the screening of Taylor’s lengthy trailer. The film, featuring hip-hop artist and actor T.I., was partially shot near Sacramento during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taylor has cranked out some low-budget, high-return films in the last 17 years. Movies such as “Meet the Blacks,” “The House Next Door,” Black and Blue,” “Traffik,” “Fatale,” and “Supremacy” were produced under Taylor and his partner/wife Roxanne Avent’s Sacramento-based Hidden Empire Group.

Taylor shot his first film in Sacramento, but his fortunes grew when an investor gave him $1 million to make a film. Taylor used only $250,000 to complete the movie; the investor told him to keep the remaining endowment to make two more films.

“I am up here on this stage, no film school, no one in my family in movies, or any of that,” Taylor said of his journey to filmmaking stardom. “One day I just said, ‘I am going to go make a movie’ and 17 years later … I’m still here. In the next three or four years, we would like to make $700 million to $1 billion dollars. I think we are going to get there.”

The Oak Park festival touched upon Black actors’ abilities to transition from stage to screen. Jerrel O’Neal, one of the actors in the sex comedy “The Threesome,” got his start in show business in Sacramento.

Actor Jerrel O’Neal was an intern at the B Street Theatre 13 years ago before moving to Los Angeles for more filmwork opportunities. He stars in “The Threesome.” Antonio R. Harvey, OBSERVER

O’Neal interned for B Street Theatre in the early 2010s. Founded in 1991 by actor Timothy Busfield and his brother Buck, the three-theater playhouse is on Capitol Avenue in Midtown. It produces quality, intimate theater for audiences year-round, and is considered one of Northern California’s top professional theaters.

“My journey started in Sacramento. I actually signed a contract with B Street Theater in the summer of 2011 when the theater was on C and 32nd streets. Tim Busfield was my guy,” O’Neal said. “I was an intern but we did a lot of work. From there, I moved to Los Angeles and started my film work.”

Johnson announced on the last day that the Oak Park Black Film Festival will be recurring and mixed with local artists, mainstream Black actors, executives, and content creators. 

Participants said the festival’s level of organization made it a success.

“I thought it was amazing overall,” said Monique Nevels. “My daughter (Taylor) felt so much love and that speaks volumes. For the festival to pack the house every night was crazy. It was put together well.”