Bridgeport rapper-turned-screen writer draws on personal experience
In the opening moments of the short film, “Ain’t Playin Wit Ya,” the main character, Marcus, encounters three men in a neighborhood gang to which he’s declined membership.
He’s knocked around and followed home and, as the trio shout threats close behind him, Marcus’ mother leans out over a second-story balcony, tells her son to come inside and issues a warning of her own.
“You leave my son the f*** alone,” says the woman, played by Evette Smith, before naming each of the gang members by first and last names.
It’s a poignant scene in a movie, directed by Edwin Escobar, about invisible lines drawn within a community. It’s one that the film’s 31-year-old writer, Chad Newton, based on personal experience.
“People that get murdered in their neighborhood, it’s usually by someone who knows them,” Newton says, seated at a high-top table in a Bridgeport Innovation Center lounge owned by a friend, a few blocks from where he grew up on the city’s rugged East End.
“You grow up with people, you played together in your yard. But as you become older, just because they join a different set, or a different faction, you’re opposed to this side and he’s opposed to this side,” Newton continues.
Newton got his first taste of the violence of American inner cities as a pre-teen. His brother’s best friend, a high school freshman at the time, jumped in front of a gun to protect someone else and lost his life. It was a formative experience for the young Newton.
“This happens all the time where we’re from. If it’s not someone you know directly, it’s someone you know of,” Newton says.
Early on, he found solace in music. Newton’s parents met in the church choir, where his father, local politician Ernie Newton, played piano and his mother sang. In his late teens, following the lead of his brother, known as Traezi, Newton began freestyling, writing rhymes, and releasing mixtapes under the moniker Chaz-O.
In some songs, like “I’ll Be Damned,” Newton raps exultantly about women, parties and money. “Dayz of Our Lives” is a tribute to people he’s lost and on “Missing You,” Newton yearns for a long-distance lover. He’s a traditionalist at heart, and on many songs raps in the old school 16-bar structure — each bar a four-count measure — while on others he adopts a more melodic style.
His versatility is a point of pride.
“I got a song for everything,” Newton says.
Many are accompanied by music videos, for which the outlines — known as treatments — Newton has been writing for several years, always with the idea of making a film.
“Ain’t Playin Wit Ya,” which premiered at the Bijou Theatre in October, grew out of what was supposed to be a video for a song of the same name on Newton’s upcoming EP, “The Great,” due out Dec. 28.
“The treatment was so intricate and diverse, Edwin was like, ‘This might be the one for the short film,’” Newton says.
The film takes a more nuanced approach to the subject than merely denouncing gangs. It’s a thoughtful exploration of the cycle of gang violence and the conditions in which it can thrive.
“From a broader standpoint, we’ve lost a lot of good people to senseless violence,” Newton says. “But to bring it closer, you live in a neighborhood where you’re not safe, and the only way to become safe is to become affiliated with a group that can protect you, because it’s strength in numbers.”
In the film, Marcus’s rejection of the gang makes him a target. He tries to arm himself, but his attempts are foiled by his mother, who finds the gun and confiscates it.
“From a parent perspective, you want to protect your child. You think that you’re doing something to protect someone, when actually you’re stripping from someone their last line of defense,” Newton says. The action, though well-intentioned, sets off a bloody sequence of events.
The purpose of the film, Newton said, is not to condemn, but to show the difficult decisions, and dire repercussions, people from neighborhoods like his must make everyday.
Newton denies the notion that he is an activist. But he does feel an obligation to document and respond to inner city life. He wants to start conversations he feels are long overdue.
“Little by little, if we could help the situation, that’s what we’re trying to do. It’s not no get rich money thing. We want to empower, we want to uplift,” Newton says. “Slow progress is better than no progress.”