Joe Prather Campbell PHOTO: TOM SPAROUGH
It’s not often that a story in a press release strikes such a personal chord, but a recent message sent by Tom Sparough about this Sunday’s local premiere of The Trap — a new film by writer, director and star Joe Prather Campbell — gave me pause. Eleven years ago, Campbell and a group of other African-American teenagers at the Findlay Street Neighborhood House in the West End faced a seemingly innocuous question: “How many of you expect to live past 30 years old?”
Only a few hands went up.
More than a decade later, Campbell — now 30 — has navigated a modern odyssey of urban life and offers up The Trap as a fictional take on the experience. The film is a locally set urban thriller centering on the efforts of a group of young men to step off the inevitably violent road leading toward either incarceration or death.
While The Trap is certainly Campbell’s story, it belongs to the young black men of the Queen City. As a nation, we would love to believe that such stories should not exist anymore, but sadly they do.
I reached out to Campbell to discuss his project. As an African-American critic, I was immediately drawn to the story behind the film. I remember, as a younger man, wondering at times whether I would reach 30, even though I was seemingly on a solid path. So I wanted to know what was weighing on Campbell at the time the question about the future was introduced.
“At the time, I honestly didn’t know where I would be or if I would even make it to 30,” he says. “Growing up in the West End, we just live day by day, praying we make it to see the next day. I had already been working on music and writing a script, trying to find a way to escape being in poverty and wanting more for my family. Being the oldest of eight at the time — now it’s nine — I always knew I had to be a leader and make a way for my family. Growing up, I was always a creative person but I was just so shy I would never share my ideas.”
So Campbell went to a program at the Findlay Street Neighborhood House, which is part of the Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses social services agency, and was taught by Michael and Joan Hoxsey and Tom and Geralyn Sparough.
When the program was up, they wanted to give the youths a summer job doing a documentary about their neighborhood.
“But one of my friends insisted on doing the script that I wrote because a documentary would be boring. So in the summer of 2007 we filmed The Last Shot,” Campbell says.
After that, he decided do another movie, so he wrote The Trap in 2012 with the intention of providing an inside look at the challenges of life in his community.
“I was using personal situations that I and other people I grew up with had been through,” he says. “During the time of filming, things started to fall apart. I lost my brother in 2012. He was murdered while attending college at Wright State University. Going through a tough time like that, I had to take a break from the film. Then, in less than a year, I lost my cousin, who also starred in the movie. It was tough to finish this film without two of the people I started with, but I knew I had to get it done.
“Shortly after 2015, another one of my close cousins was killed,” Campbell continues. “That really made me feel like I had to get this film done because I wanted to dedicate making it to them and do something positive for my community. Losing them was my biggest influence because I knew I had a purpose for why I was still here, and I used that as motivation to better myself.”
Campbell also is a singer-songwriter under the name “Jose,” and his music is in the film.
“Music is my passion,” he says. “When I’m making it or performing, I feel like that’s what I was put on this Earth to do. It makes me feel alive and it has always been my way of expressing myself. Filmmaking is also a passion of mine. It’s always been a way to help me bring my creative visions to life. So they complement each other.”
He is currently writing another script and waiting to see what happens with The Trap.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to remain in the region,” he says. “I’m just going to continue to work and see where my journey takes me.”
THE TRAP premieres at the Woodward Theater 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available at woodwardtheater.com.