Filmmaker Jayson Johnson’s next project is a story about a typical inner city kid, but not the kind that Hollywood typically portrays.
The El Cerrito resident is trying to shine a light on a protagonist who doesn’t fit the “rapper” image attributed to most African Americans on the big screen, but rather the lesser-recognized “nerds” growing up in inner cities such as Oakland and Richmond.
As the story begins, Johnson’s protagonist is a young computer programmer comically characterized as trying to hide his love for technology as a way to live up to a hyper masculine persona. One night after leaving a long, exhausting coding session, he falls asleep at the wheel of his car and crashes into a tropical fish store. That lands him before a judge, who imposes a unique, if not wacky, sentence: He must carry a goldfish for 30 days.
“And that’s how it starts,” Johnson said.
Johnson has pitched the story to famed actor Forest Whitaker’s company, Significant Productions. There’s reason for Whitaker to take this filmmaker seriously.
While carrying a fish for 30 days isn’t quite rocket science, there’s somewhat of a Hidden Figures-type story hidden in Johnson’s comedic film concept.
“I see a lot of movies how blacks are portrayed on screen, and I see how it is in reality,” Johnson said. “I see a lot of films today doing the rapper image. I understand it, that exists. But there are others. There are the nerds. They’re into tech. I wanted to tell that story.”
Born in the west suburbs of Chicago, Johnson’s background includes culinary school followed by undergraduate and graduate degrees in communications at Eastern Illinois University. He knows a bit about feeling out of place. After moving to California with his girlfriend, he scored a job working in Francis Ford Coppola’s wine room in Napa.
“I was told I’m not a really good wine steward,” Johnson said, so he ended up in the mail room.
That position led him to meeting staff at Coppola’s American Zoetrope film studios, where he became an intern and worked on such projects as Mary Antoinette, written and directed by Sophia Coppola and starring Kirsten Dunst.
“One day, Mr. Coppola saw that I was staying late and he said, ‘You want to be famous, don’t you?’ I didn’t know what to say, and I said, ‘Sure.'”
Coppola expressed disappointment in the answer. The moment inspired Johnson to pursue meaning in his work.
“Whenever you work with someone who champions story over cheesy images, I wanted to add that to my repertoire of filmmaking,” Johnson said.
In 2009, he started launching his own projects, making his first movie, Black Rodgers, in 2011. He spent time consulting for an Indian producer on Bollywood films, and also created other film projects such as Freelancer, Bloodline, Lifeline and, more recently, Redress, which follows a vengeful widower into a deep abyss after he meets a Neo-Nazi bartender.
Whatever happens next in Johnson’s budding career, he prizes the learning process and relishes the resulting experiences. With his latest project, he’s trying to tell the story similar to his own: about the wild adventures of like-minded “nerds” in the city who are about to do great things in the world.
It’s a topic that Hollywood is only beginning to talk about. Not just with the impact of Hidden Figures, but also with the smashing success of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther.
Coogler was raised in Oakland and Richmond.
“A rose can grow from concrete,” Johnson said.
And it’s time to get that image in more films.