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Walk Through Fire

His family and friends have fallen prey to the streets, but artist and filmmaker Raymond Thomas has found his saving grace.

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In the half-hour film 12 Minutes, a death-row inmate scheduled for execution at a quarter to midnight requests a face-to-face meeting with the son he's never known. The 12-year-old sits across a table from him in a private room, filled with anger. Why now, after all these years? "You sent for me, and now you about to die."

His father admits that nothing he can say would heal the pain. "Son, it took me 12 years of your life for me to--for me to even come to grips with the shame of what I've done to my own life." The night his child was born, he killed a woman for money so he could score heroin. His addiction "had me believing that I was right where I was supposed to be, wallowing in filth and self-destruction....I blame myself, and now I gotta pay the price."

The father asks his son what he likes to do, and the kid says he's an artist. The father mentions Romare Bearden, the great Harlem Renaissance painter and collagist. "Them white folks ain't teaching you all nothing about your own people," the father exclaims. "Romare Bearden was one of the baddest, most relevant black artists ever."

As their time together runs out, the father's face contorts. "I brought you into this world. I was obligated by God to nurture and protect you, and I failed to do those things. And son, I'm sorry." He implores his son to avoid the path he himself went down, to use his art to go somewhere. He slides a dog-eared cigar box across the table. "Everything that's important to me is right here in this box." His son peers out the door as the pastor and prison officials lead his father down the hall, disappearing into a white light. Back in the meeting room, with his mother by his side, the son opens the box to reveal a photo of himself when he was three days old.

Raymond A. Thomas, a 36-year-old art director for Ebony, is earning some serious recognition for 12 Minutes, his first film. It's been screened at festivals in Boston, New York, and Saint Louis, and it played here last August at the Film Center's Black Harvest International Film and Video Festival. In November, at the International Jamerican Film & Music Festival in Montego Bay, Jamaica, 12 Minutes was named Best Effort Narrative Short and Audience Favorite Short, beating 14 other entries from Canada, Ireland, the UK, and the U.S. Earlier this week Thomas headed out to Los Angeles for screenings at the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Pan African Film & Arts Festival.

The film is drawn from his own complex and colorful life. Thomas says his father, who lived with him only briefly, has been a heroin addict for years. And the original, feature-length screenplay dealt with Thomas's upbringing in Saint Louis, where he was raised by a strong mother and grandmother, and where a high school art teacher urged him to pursue his talent. "Art, I believe, was my salvation," he says. Without it, he says, he wouldn't be making a film about a prisoner--he might be one.

According to family lore, Thomas's maternal grandmother, Delores Williams, was born in 1932 in Mill Creek, a black neighborhood in Saint Louis that was home to a bustling entertainment scene. Her father, a railroad porter, died a few years later. From age eight Delores helped support her mother and six siblings by hauling wheelbarrows of coal to sell door-to-door, and as a teen she worked as a stocker and cashier at a neighborhood grocery store. At 16 she gave birth to Thomas's mother, Clara Beth, and her marriage to the father, a nightclub singer named Guybert Barnes, didn't last long. When Delores was about 18 she left her child with her mother and joined the Chitlin Circuit as a fan dancer, headlining a show called "Harlem in Havana" under the stage name Kitty Kat.

From the road Delores sent clothes and money, and sometimes she brought home surprise guests; her daughter, Beth, recalls visits from Redd Foxx, who cooked the family red beans and rice. "We called him uncle," she says, "because he used to cook for everybody." She still remembers some of the stories they brought home. In those days certain southern communities allowed women entertainers into town to use laundries and buy groceries, but not men. One time a female impersonator accompanied the women to a laundry, and a white man made a pass. Startled, the impersonator lapsed into his deep voice and told the man he wasn't interested. Fearing for their lives, the show people gathered their laundry and hightailed it out of town.

Mill Creek was demolished to make room for the expansion of U.S. Highway 40; Beth and her younger brother, Mark, lived with their mother in Visitation Park, a primarily black neighborhood. At 13 she became mesmerized by 14-year-old Ray Thomas, who gave off "a kind of mystery of Malcolm X" with his quiet demeanor and penchant for tams and scarves. They dated for three years, then Beth discovered she was pregnant, and the two teenagers married. Raymond A. Thomas was born December 8, 1965, and a daughter, Delores, followed a year later. At first the family lived with Beth's mother and brother in a two-and-a-half-bedroom apartment, Ray clocking hours as a welder at an auto plant and Beth working retail. By the late 1960s, Beth had earned her GED and the Thomases had moved into a two-story brick house in north Saint Louis.

But the marriage was coming unraveled. Beth recalls Ray leaving the house for days at a time, only to return home slurring his speech and unable to concentrate. She began finding burned spoons and heroin hidden in drawers. To pay the mortgage she moonlighted as a bartender at her mother's jazz club in Central West End. Sometimes customers entertained Delores and Raymond while Beth mixed drinks. After about two years in the house Beth gave up on her husband, found an apartment in suburban Saint Ann, and spirited her children away to the new place.

Neighbors in the apartment complex told her about Fahamme Islam, an Afrocentric faith that stressed the greatness of all people regardless of race and the interconnectedness of all religions. Though she'd been raised a Christian, Beth was intrigued and she began taking her children to a Fahamme temple in Saint Louis, where she and her daughter wore headdresses and Raymond a fez. At the temple they were given African names denoting an aspect of their character.

Beth didn't want her children to lose touch with their father or his family. "I believe a child should know all of himself," she says. She often took them to north Saint Louis to stay at their grandparents' apartment, where pictures of Jesus were tacked to the wall and a Bible lay on the nightstand. Raymond's grandfather, Reedy Thomas, took him fishing, brought him to church, and let him tag along to the office buildings where he worked as a janitor; Raymond would hold onto the lower half of the mop handle as his grandfather pushed it across the floor. His grandmother, Mary Catherine--May C for short--was raising some of Raymond's cousins. All of their children were grappling with substance abuse; once Raymond saw an uncle and another of his cousins shooting up, and he heard about his aunt doing time for theft.

Occasionally Ray dropped by and took his children to the movies. He seemed subdued yet genuinely content to be with Raymond and his sister, Delores. "[Addicts] snap back and realize that they are missing something in life," Beth says. But they weren't going to see Bambi. At the Fox Theatre, a 1929 movie palace then in decline, they took in the great blaxploitation films, with their sex, drugs, and violence. One of Raymond's favorites was Superfly, the classic underworld flick by Gordon Parks Jr. about a womanizing coke dealer who hopes to make one last score and retire. "The music, the action, the antihero--it was cool," he recalls. From then on, he was in love with the movies.

One night, as Ray was bringing his children home to their mother, the tensions between the two boiled over. Beth had been holding a Fahamme study session at her apartment, and everyone had left except for Khepera Ptah, who was waiting for his ride. According to him and to Beth, Ray showed up with the kids and a few male friends, spotted Khepera, and attacked Beth. Khepera defended her, and she escaped, crawling through the grass to a neighbor's place. The neighbors called the police, who found Ray and Khepera fighting. The cops took both men to jail, but after Beth and her mother vouched for Khepera, he was released.

Beth fled Saint Louis with her children, staying with a friend in Milwaukee. A few months later she suffered a burst appendix, and her mother brought her and the kids home to University City, an integrated middle-class suburb where she'd bought a two-and-a-half-story brick house. By this time Beth had gotten a foothold in the real estate business, and she began dating Khepera Ptah. She says they didn't worry about Ray Thomas. Her mother had "threatened him within an inch of his life," and at some point Ray moved to California.

Art was the only constant in Raymond's youth. Since age two he'd been drawing characters from comic books, and as a grade school student in University City he began winning awards for his artwork. He drew monsters from horror movies or superheroes of his own imagining; he cut photos from his grandmother's old issues of Jet and Ebony and created collages. His sister tried to compete with him, but her drawing skills were no match for his. Beth saw that she had a flair for drawing stylish clothing, so she bought her fabric and sewing tools. She always told them they could achieve anything if they put their minds to it.

Life in University City was far calmer than what Raymond had glimpsed of his father's upbringing, but his mother's family was plenty tough. His Uncle Mark--Beth's younger brother--was like a brother to Raymond, teaching him how to take care of himself on the playground. Delores--"Nan" to her grandchildren--supported the family with earnings from the club and from a job inspecting an assembly line at a soap plant. "If you went against her, she would pull a knife out, a gun out," Raymond recalls. "My grandmother was no joke." One time she went after a white neighbor, a "Confederate-flag-waving dude" who'd tried to get her in trouble with the law over a trivial matter. "She literally walked over into his front yard and cursed him out. Then she'd come back and think of some other things to say to him and curse him out some more, and dared him to come out of his house." Even Raymond knew better than to cross Nan: once he'd mouthed off and she'd choked him until he began to black out. Her wild days on the Chitlin Circuit stayed with her: regulars from her club came over most weekends to party.

During the summer and on weekends Raymond would visit May C, his paternal grandmother. Reedy Thomas had died suddenly of a heart attack around 1973, and May C was just scraping by, battling obesity, emphysema, and heart disease. She'd moved out of her old apartment and into a rodent-infested place, and one of her children, a pimp, brought his women there to turn tricks, including a mother-daughter team. Raymond also visited his cousins, who lived in a downtown apartment complex near public housing. While playing outdoors they'd hear gunfire and run for cover. After the coast was clear they'd head for the crime scene with the other gawkers and check out the victim. "It wasn't dangerous to me," he says. "I was used to it."

When Raymond was nine, his mother moved him and his sister out of Nan's house and into a ranch-style home in Hanley Hills, a predominantly white, middle-income suburb. She was earning a degree in communications and urban affairs. Khepera Ptah moved in too, and sometimes his son from a defunct marriage visited. Khepera bought them toys, helped them with homework, and hipped them to Steely Dan and Elton John. They often went to movies at the Tivoli Theatre in University City. Though Beth was finally enjoying the benefits of family, it was not to last. Three years later she split up with Khepera and moved back to her mother's house with the kids.

At Nan's urging, Raymond started playing football, and in junior high he struck up a close friendship with a teammate named Victor Donnan. The two had a lot in common: they liked to draw, had grown up in broken homes, and were wise to Saint Louis street life. In high school they experimented with pot and constantly got into trouble, mostly scrapes with guys from rival high schools. But their adventures began to get rougher. They drove around with firearms, some of which Raymond had swiped from Nan. "I had like a war wagon," he claims. His Uncle Mark had taught him not to let anyone "punk" him. He began coming home with black eyes, busted lips, bloody noses. He was hardly drawing anymore.

By this time his mother was working for a nonprofit organization to redevelop and preserve north Saint Louis, and she couldn't tolerate Raymond's behavior. "I always told him you can create the world that you want by just going out and doing it," she says. Eager to reacquaint him with his artistic potential, she dragged him along to a reading by Ntozake Shange, author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Shange's passion and social commitment impressed Raymond, and he resolved that he too would become a professional artist. Some time earlier, he had visited cousins in a Chicago suburb, and during a trip to the city, his imagination was captured by the tall buildings and the cool comic book shops they visited. He remembered someone saying that the School of the Art Institute of Chicago was one of the best art schools in the country, and he decided that was the place for him.

Tom Lawless, his high school art teacher, recognized his gift and prodded him to work harder. A white teacher in a primarily black school, Lawless invited Raymond and other promising students to his home for dinner. He checked on Raymond's progress in other classes and rooted for him at high school football games. Inspired, Raymond expanded his portfolio to include metal casting, metal etchings, sandstone carvings, and lithography. Yet he was still spending a lot of time in the street with Vic, who planned to join the marines. As the deadline for applying to SAIC approached, Beth, Nan, and Lawless all pushed him to get his portfolio together. Your talent will take you far, Lawless told him, but it'll take you nowhere if you're dead.

In 1984, Raymond Thomas was admitted to SAIC and awarded a partial scholarship, and he moved into an apartment in Uptown with a cousin. The school had only a small number of black students, but Thomas soon hooked up with another black freshman, Mark Jefferson, who'd grown up in Washington, D.C. and who now goes by the name Marcus Akinlana, in tribute to Marcus Garvey. "Both of us were kind of rough around the edges," Akinlana says. "We could identify." They spent a month searching in vain for jobs, they say, until finally they were hired to do janitorial work for SAIC.

Thomas says his sense of culture shock even penetrated the classroom. He recalls that the art history curriculum stressed artists of European descent, touching only lightly on major artists of African ancestry. Thomas thinks most of his teachers treated him fairly, but in some of his practical art classes he felt he had to work far harder than white students to impress the instructors. Other students of color shared the feeling that they were seen as kids "playing in the paint." Akinlana recalls doing a painting about the end of apartheid in South Africa, with some black figures dancing and others holding up pyramids. He says that his instructor asked whether the painting symbolized black people celebrating kicking white people off the continent.

"That's something that black artists get in every medium, in every genre of creation," Thomas says. "Our work is not considered relevant art, it's considered substandard art. Our lives are considered, for the most part, in a different light than the majority of the society. So our art, of course, cannot be deemed as something that should be treasured. One of my major goals in life is to teach our people that we have to treasure our art."

He, Akinlana, and several other students of color reacted to the racial climate at SAIC by reviving an old multicultural student group. Akinlana says when they were holding a bake sale in the lobby of the main school building, two white students tossed a live mouse and a bucket of feces and clamshells onto the table full of sweets. Two black security guards grabbed the students by the arms and pushed them off the premises. The group reported the incident to the administration, but according to Akinlana, neither student was disciplined; one of them, he says, claimed that the stunt was performance art. Brian Flood, director of the school's office of public affairs, says that SAIC has no record of the alleged incident.

In May 1988, just as Thomas was completing his senior year, David K. Nelson, a white student at SAIC, made headlines across the nation when he exhibited a portrait of the late Harold Washington wearing lingerie; two aldermen showed up at the school accompanied by police and took the painting down. Following the fracas, Thomas and other black students formed Chicago Artists' Committee for Positive Change to expose and eliminate what they considered injustices at the school. He says the committee took its concerns to radio, newspapers, and Operation PUSH and called upon SAIC to increase its number of faculty of color and students of color. As the controversy swirled, the president of the School of the Art Institute, Anthony Jones, established a task force on increasing diversity at the school.

Despite all the racial tension, Thomas managed to distinguish himself at SAIC. He had shown his work in local galleries along with other students, and in his junior year he won a design contest sponsored by Polaroid. Jones wrote Thomas a letter of recommendation to Johnson Publishing Company, praising his determination, commitment, and "genuine creative talent." Thomas landed an interview and John H. Johnson, CEO of the company, hired him on the spot as an assistant to the art directors at Ebony and at Jet. "I had some rough times with the school," Thomas now says, "but I wouldn't have the job that I have now without it. The school definitely has value with me." He cherished the idea that he would be helping to chronicle the history and accomplishments of black people. He recalled how he'd made collages from his family's copies of Ebony; almost every black family he knew subscribed to the magazine. "That was the only publication that had images of black people," he says. "It was just as common as church."

Over the years Thomas seldom saw or heard from his father. In February 1987, when he was a junior at SAIC, his old pal Victor Donnan was killed in a car accident, and Thomas went back to Saint Louis for the funeral. His father happened to be in town, visiting from California, and when he showed up at the door bringing condolences and a six-pack of beer, Beth Thomas decided the circumstances warranted his welcome. He harbored no animosity toward Ray, a fact he attributes to his mother's forgiving spirit and his own affection for Ray's mother, May C. He thought of the older man more as his grandmother's son than as his own father. Ray told his son about an experience from his own youth, when a close friend had been shot in the face and died. Thomas kept thinking about the dangerous friendship he'd shared with Vic. They had taunted death so many times, and now Vic had died by accident.

Later that year, Thomas was home at the Rogers Park apartment he shared with Akinlana when his mother called him in tears. Delores had stolen some money from her and disappeared, and his mother thought she was holed up in a crack house. Thomas was stunned: he had no clue that his sister, a part-time student at St. Louis Community College, had ever done crack. He borrowed a cousin's car and drove all night, reaching his mother's apartment at four in the morning. His mother pointed him toward a crack house down the street, and he started walking.

When he knocked at the door, someone let him in. Crying children were crawling around in dirty diapers while the adults stared into space, wallowing in their own waste. Delores wasn't there, and none of the zombies inhabiting the house could tell him where she might be. He went to another house nearby, where he saw virtually the same scene and got the same response. He walked back to his mother's apartment, and she suggested they drive to University City; a few doors down from Nan lived an old family friend who was addicted to crack and might be keeping Delores. Around 6 AM, Thomas dropped his mother off at her house and went over to the friend's house, where he finally found his sister.

Her eyes were bloodshot, her hair unkempt, her clothes dirty. He demanded that she leave with him, but she refused. He grabbed her around the waist, pulled her thrashing body out of the house, and dragged her toward their grandmother's place. As they were going up the steps to the house, Delores fell and slammed her head on the concrete stairs. His mother and grandmother rushed outside, helped Delores into a car, and drove her to the hospital for stitches.

When Thomas returned to Chicago, he told some of his friends at SAIC what he'd seen in Saint Louis. To his surprise, most of them had noticed something similar in their own neighborhoods. As time wore on, Thomas began to see crack as a form of genocide. "That's a pretty harsh accusation," he admits. "But if we really, really look at a lot of things in context, we'll find that drugs aren't grown in our communities, and guns are not created in our communities. They are funneled into our communities."

In the early 90s, Thomas visited Los Angeles for the first time and decided to look up his father. He says that he and a cousin had pulled their truck over to ask after Ray Thomas when they were surrounded by six LAPD cruisers. He and his cousin got out of the truck with their hands up. Thomas told the cops he was from out of state and was looking for his father, and after he produced an ID, they left him alone. Not long after that unnerving experience, he and his cousin succeeded in tracking down his father. Ray Thomas was staying at someone's house in Long Beach, and he seemed happy to see his son. Thomas took him to a store and bought him some clothes.

Shortly after Victor Donnan's death Thomas had a conversion experience, and the year after he hired on at Johnson Publishing he joined the Church of God on 44th Street. In March 1991 he married Aleta Betton, a legal secretary; they have a ten-year-old daughter, Donnyell. Thomas vowed never to fail her as his father had failed him. In 1993, he was named one of the art directors at Johnson and began putting all of his energies into work and home.

Two years later Thomas began hearing about an upcoming march in Washington, D.C., being organized by Nation of Islam minister Louis Farrakhan. The Million Man March would bring together black men bent on rededicating their lives to themselves, their families, and their communities. The idea reminded Thomas of King's 1963 march on Washington, and it spoke to his sense of fatherhood. "I thought that it might be another one of those events that is indelibly burnt into our psyche as something that is important to our race." He decided to go.

In Washington on October 16, 1995, he and two old friends from high school boarded a city train to the National Mall, where King had gathered his followers. They arrived at about five in the morning, but there was already a substantial crowd of people; all around them strangers were shaking hands and greeting one another. Thomas had never imagined that so many black men could come together in peace. "Black men relating to each other with something other than violence was phenomenal to me," he recalls. "It was like an actual miracle." Many fathers had brought sons with them, and Thomas imagined the joy of a son who might one day tell his own children about the historic day he'd shared with his dad.

The day still stands as one of the most important in his life. The powerful sense of brotherhood inspired him to make art that would positively affect black people from every walk of life, especially those living in communities where hope was hard to come by. So many people close to him had succumbed to despair: his sister; his father's sister, who'd died of a drug overdose in her 30s; his father's brother, who'd died of alcoholism in his 40s. And, of course, his father. Some time after the march, he says, Ray called him from LA: he'd just been released from jail and needed money and clothes. Thomas sent some cash and a new wardrobe. About a year later, he says, his father called again, asking for money. Thomas says he asked his father why he needed it, and Ray simply said, "I'm an addict." Thomas turned him down. "He said if I didn't give him the money he was going to have to go do something to get the money," he recalls. "Obviously, he meant take it from somebody else." He told his father not to call anymore.

The path Thomas followed to the completion of 12 Minutes was a long one, and even he admits that it began in the Fox Theatre, where his father had taken him and his sister to watch those graphic 70s flicks. He'd taken some film courses at SAIC, and he was inspired by the mainstream success of Spike Lee. "There are a lot of films that have black characters," he says, "but there are very few films that dig into our culture and show us in our many dynamics, and show us as intelligent and diverse." He began reading screenplays and traveling across the country to film festivals. By 1998 he'd begun writing his first screenplay, a semiautobiographical feature about a white high school art teacher who helps a talented but troubled black kid give up the streets and win a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute.

Responses to the finished screenplay were positive. David Barr, an ad salesman at Ebony who's also a playwright and associate artistic director of the Chicago Theatre Company, told him it was "fabulous." A producer Thomas met at a festival expressed interest in optioning the script, but Thomas insisted on directing it himself and the deal fell through. Many aspiring filmmakers start out with short films to prove themselves to potential investors, so Thomas cut his screenplay significantly, focusing on the young artist's relationship with his father. Delvin Molden, a local filmmaker, read the script and suggested the premise of the father requesting a first meeting with his son before he's executed. Thomas took this even further and introduced a conflict between the child's mother and stepfather that delays the meeting until only 12 minutes remain.

By November 2000, Thomas was ready to make the film. His wife convinced him to dip into their savings, sell off some of their assets, and get an equity loan on their house to fund the $50,000 budget, and a friend contributed several thousand dollars. About 40 actors showed up for the auditions in December and Thomas signed Pam Mack, Malik Middleton, and Eric Lane, all of whom had appeared in the indie feature One Week, to play the mother, stepfather, and delinquent dad. Kuwuan Allen, a fifth-grader at Parkside Elementary, won the role of the son. Darryl Bullock, co-owner of the local production company Bronzeville Filmworks, volunteered to serve as assistant director and assembled the crew, including One Week cinematographer Jeffrey T. Brown.

Shooting took place over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, with the crew working 12-hour days at Thomas's two-story brick home in Ashburn and a former police station on the southwest side. For Thomas the shoot was a crash course in filmmaking, and while his limited technical vocabulary made it a struggle to communicate with the crew, he found himself bonding with the cast over the sensitive and highly personal material. Barbara E. Allen, a producer and editor at WTTW, agreed to cut the film, and they worked evenings and weekends through February and March 2001, trying to make an April deadline for the Acapulco Black Film Festival in June. 12 Minutes didn't make the cut, but Thomas and members of the crew flew out anyway and screened the film at a private villa for an audience of about 200.

In July, 12 Minutes was screened at the St. Louis Filmmakers' Showcase. The day before the show Thomas was promoting the film at a local bookstore when Khepera Ptah, his mother's old boyfriend, stepped through a door. To Thomas's surprise, Khepera suffered from scleroderma, an autoimmune disorder, and he needed a cane to walk. He was amazed at the man Thomas had become, considering the turmoil of his upbringing. "I'm proud of you," he said. Khepera was the closest thing to a father Thomas had ever known, and he'd inspired the character of the stepfather, whose love and support overcome his objections to the prison meeting. The next night 12 Minutes was screened at the Tivoli, where Thomas had watched so many movies with his mother and sister. Beth Thomas watched the film and wept.

Neither of his grandmothers lived long enough to see the film: Nan died of cancer in 1996, and May C died of heart failure in 2000. Ray Thomas came in from California for his mother's funeral, and according to Beth Thomas, he hit her up for money before he left. Raymond asked his father if he would ever shape up, and his father said he would try. But ultimately he returned to California "where all his vices wait." Before leaving for the Hollywood Black Film Festival and the Pan African Film & Arts Festival in LA this week, Thomas said he hoped to take his father to the screenings.

In the film, the father tells the prison pastor about a vision he experienced: he saw himself standing on a cliff, preparing to jump into a bed of flames, but as he got closer, he realized that the figure on the cliff was his son, now a grown man. A large black bird was swooping toward the figure, and God spoke, telling him that he could still save his son. But before he could act, his son leaped into the abyss. The pastor visits the child and tells him that his father's most fervent wish is to meet him, a revelation that sends the 12-year-old racing to the prison. Later, after his father has died by lethal injection, the child makes a collage (actually the filmmaker's handiwork) that shows the giant black bird lifting his father skyward.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.

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