Words by Su Ertekin-Taner
The SoulHood Saga officially wrapped this May 27 when the final installment of the six-part series premiered at the Regal Avenues. The saga originally followed the independent filmmaking crew Rick, DJ, Tony and Pat, as they dream cinematically big in a relatively small film arena, Jacksonville. This May, however, the series finished with an epic action film in which a newfound crew — Luke, Lee, Rick and DJ — begin and finish a war against their enemy, Troy Hills. While the Jacksonville-shot film series of technicolor twists and cinematic climaxes has come to an end, a nostalgia for the movie dynamic is just beginning for actors Steven Yahr (Lee Hills), Michael Carter (Troy Hills), Louie “Broadway Louie” Robinson (Rick), Todd Jackson Jr. (TJ), and Solomon Minati (Luke Hills), along with actor-director-writer-cinematographer-editor Carlos “Los2k6” Smith II (DJ).
Cut. Let’s start from the beginning, before the premieres, before there was any wistful yearning to be felt.
An 18-year old Smith first fiddled with a camera by recording his friends. He had no plan to apply his self-taught camera work to his future career. He hoped but didn’t expect to create a big screen feature like the ones he had grown up with. “The funny thing about it [getting into film] was I stumbled upon it by just watching movies and being like, ‘Oh, I want to do that one day,’” Smith said. “Even as a kid, that’s something I wanted to do. It’s not something that I just, you know, planned for. I just tried it and started going from there,” the filmmaker added.
For Smith, “going from there” meant premiering his first full-length film — written, directed and edited by the Renaissance man — just seven years later in 2013. Although “Homeboys,” a dramedy following five close friends, was largely experimental, its premiere at Sun-Ray Cinema sold out: “My first time doing a movie and it sold out, and it was a beautiful response. From that point, that’s what made me realize what I was capable of doing as a filmmaker and the support I had at the time, and it just kept going,” Smith said.
Over the next four years, the new feature film creator would apply his directorial and writing skills and knowledge to his projects including the “Homeboys” sequel titled “Homeboys: Meet the Crew” (2014) and a parody short film based on the film “Friday” titled “21st Friday” (2016).
Come 2017, a new era of Los2k6 had been set in motion … motion picture, that is. Smith began what he thought would be a one-time casting call. Slowly the “SoulHood” family was fashioned: New Jersey native “Broadway Louie” would play film crew member Rick. Solomon Minati would cameo as movie industry rival Luke Hills. Todd Jackson Jr. would also cameo as TJ Carlos Smith II himself who would coincidentally play a film director. Other key players included Steven Alvarez and John Jay Wylie playing film crew members Pat and Tony, respectively.
The presumed standalone film sold out twice in AMC theaters and was well-received, so well-received, in fact, that Smith’s wheels began turning. “It wasn’t even supposed to be a saga. It was supposed to be just one SoulHood movie and move on to the next thing and that was it, but after doing that one, well, that was a life-changing thing for me because that was not only my first time premiering a movie in an AMC theater, but [also] that sold out twice on the first week and just the support. [Everyone] was talking about how they loved the characters so much, and that’s what made me see the potential of continuing what we were doing,” Smith remarked.
Equipped with a successful premiere, his Panasonic GH4 camera, and a desire to recreate some of his childhood favorite sagas like the Fast and Furious (F&F) series, SoulHood’s very own saga (re)started production.
Smith slowly roped in friends and acquaintances, creating his own version of F&F protagonist Dominic Toretto’s crew: Steven Yahr first appeared in the “SoulHood” spinoff short as Luke Hills (2018), joining production coincidentally after being introduced to the crew by his cousin, Minati. Michael Carter auditioned and joined the cast for “SoulHood: Prime” (2020). Writer, artist, performer and activist Ebony Payne-English (Tonya) joined the cast for “SoulHood Saga: Part 1” (2022).
Writing, casting, filming, editing, premiering. Writing, casting, filming, editing, premiering again. And again. The paper to production cycle repeated itself six times over six years. The film crew’s journey only nominally ended in May. Really, the onscreen chemistry continues behind the scenes fortified in part by six years of trials. Between scenes, a reality of hurricanes, a global pandemic, a low budget, rigid cast schedules crowded with multiple full-time jobs, family deaths and a scripted fight leading to a mild concussion for Robinson made for less than cinematic experiences.
For Smith, the off-screen connection that these challenges induced also translated to an on-set chemistry, no special effects needed. “Really what makes it [the “SoulHood Saga”] stand out, what makes it different is the heart behind it. It’s the heart behind these characters,” Smith said. “It’s not only that the characters grew together in the film, but we grew together as a cast and a family as well.”
The camera pans to Smith (affectionately referred to by the cast as “Los”), the architect of this local makeshift family. To many cast members, “SoulHood” means Los.
Yahr’s coincidental encounter with Los uncovered a devotion: “Definitely working on the “SoulHood” project, for sure, kind of catapulted my passion for film or for acting.” Throughout the films, an altruistic Los mentored 48-year-old budding cinematographer Carter despite being 13 years his junior. “He’s basically teaching me to become a filmmaker.” Jackson praised Los’ flexibility: “He’s open-minded and it allows an actual actor or an entertainer to be able to open their mind up and that’s what kind of made me, you know, gravitate toward him and such.” At one point, Los even financially supported Robinson: “When my sister passed, I lost my job. One of the things he did was he gave me a percentage of the first film to make sure that I got some money in my pocket.”
In this mosaic of praise for Los, two details remained consistent: Each cast member’s thankfulness for the copious opportunities Los’ direction led to and their desire to include Los in forthcoming projects.
No matter what angle you view the saga from, Smith remains the center of a family united not only by love of film but also a dedication to showcasing and supporting the efforts of Black filmmakers in Jacksonville. “It takes a lot of courage to even step into the filmmaking light in general. Just to even write a film and make it happen; it’s a lot. It’s a huge process to do a film, and I try to tell a lot of people that,” Smith said, later adding, “A lot of us [local Black filmmakers], we’re real creative people. Sometimes, not everybody has that outlet or the resources or the energy or the time to do it, so the people like us that were able to do it, we’re able to show people what is possible. And when people see what is possible, they want to figure it out and find a way to do just that.”
This local success story’s eagerness to inspire all future Jacksonville filmmakers, actors, and artists has already put the “SoulHood” crew on a national stage. Many of the interviewed actors plan to partake in national projects or those with creators from around the country as extras, actors, and artists.
In fact, although it’s a wrap for the “SoulHood Saga,” this project was hardly the last take for any of the cast members. The cast is set to join and release over a dozen planned projects this year and the next, including more feature and short films, a reimagined Shakespearean classic, an AI-based film, an album and sequels to completed projects. Jackson even plans to grow the reach of his new film company, Let’s Get It Films, inspired by his recent projects. But no spoilers …
For now and perhaps, for the first time for some cast members, let the “SoulHood” crew bask in the light of cameras and reminisce on a long B-roll of “SoulHood Saga” moments. In the meantime, watch “SoulHood Saga II: The Finale: (2023) on Amazon Prime. You can expect action-packed fight scenes choreographed by Kali Kombat duo Solo Minati and Steven Yahr, a hotel scene faceoff and a surprise reappearance.
Meet the Cast
Steven Yahr playing Lee Hills
Skills: voice overing (at Bonaroo), martial arts, seeing the silver lining, accidentally joining a six-part movie saga
Credits: “Octagona,” “Section 8,” “SoulHood Saga,” “Luke Hills” and “ Luke & Lee”
How did you get involved in the SoulHood Saga?
Solo, Solominati, the one that plays Luke Hills, we’ve been friends since high school. We grew up together. He called me up, and I was here. He was like, ‘Hey, I need a ride to this movie shoot.” And it was for the first “SoulHood.” He was like, “We’re halfway done with production, but, he’s like, if you want, you can be an extra.” And I was like, “Well, if I’m going to be waiting on you anyways, I might as well.” And so, we got there. He introduced me to everybody. I could kind of see, with Los and, you know, some of the other guys that do film here, I could see, like, wheels turning. A few months went by and Solo called me up and he said, “Los wants to use you in the sequel for this movie as my brother.” I was, like, “Sure.” Up to that point, If you had asked me then or even before then, “Hey, how would you like to be an actor, I would have said hell no. It was never something I really thought about that I wanted to do. I mean, yeah, it looked like a cool idea, but I’m not a limelight type of guy, at least I don’t feel like I am, but then it just turns out, you know, I was really good at acting.
How did you see the films progressing with each installment? How did you progress across the films?
“The quality of everybody’s acting increased with each film and even through the films because it’s all pretty much been the same cast. We’ve all become really really tight-knit like a family pretty much. I would compare us to like, you know, Adam Sandler has his little crew of people like if it’s his movie, you know these select people are going to be in it in some way, shape, or form. That’s kind of how things are with us because we’ve developed these relationships with these other actors, so we know how they act. We vibe off each other pretty well. I think that alone helps catapult the SoulHood Saga.”
Michael Andre Carter playing Troy Hills
Skills: singing, being a theater kid, winning Best Actor in the “Folio” Best of Readers Poll, being extremely punctual
Credits: “What Goes Around Comes Around,” “I Do I Don’t,” “First Coast Affair,” “Guilty Victim,” “Broad Day,” Single Sh*t (play), “The Color Purple” (play), “Wedlocked “(play), “Sibling Rivalry” (play), “What’s to Be Expected,” “The Lives We Live” (series), “Lotta Lies,” “Badge of Betrayal,” “Sacred The Movie,” “SoulHood Saga” and “ Luke & Lee”
What did you learn in school and how did it contribute to where you are now?
I always did plays as a young guy. My mother kept me in plays because I sing, so she kept me in entertainment and stuff like that, so I did a lot of plays. I did The Wiz, The Wizard of Oz, Raisin in the Sun, and I did a couple out here. But when I was in the military, I used to sing with the military for a couple of years and I was always on stage performing, doing something that dealt with performing and things like that. And so, when I retired in 2017, a friend of mine […] he had called me to be in a film with Tall Paul Productions. And once I was in that film and I watched myself on the screen, I was like, oh wow, this would be something that I would be interested in and I met Carlos and we went from there.”
When I was watching Part 1 of the finale, I felt the anger in your character and a sense of betrayal. Does your military career fuel a bit of the aggression that we see in Troy and influence your acting?
“Yes, it does. My military career, kind of how I came up in Mississippi and stuff like that, the fighting, the anger, and things like that [influence my acting]. The military just teaches you how to channel that anger into something different. That’s what I’m able to do, so I let the beast out and I am able to channel it and place it somewhere else for positivity.”
Louie “Broadway Louie” Robinson playing Rick
Skills: rapper, occasional singer, and overall natural performer, mega-multi-tasker, jokester
Credits: Lotta Lies, Badge of Betrayal, The Policy, How I Got 20, Off-Season, I Do I Don’t, Musicology, SoulHood Saga, Luke & Lee, L.Y.F.E; upcoming: Magick, Transformed, Voices in My Ear, Queen Pin III, Flesh and Greed, Never Too Late
Why Broadway Louie? What does the Broadway mean?
“So, I’m from Paterson, New Jersey. I was born on Broadway Ave., so I was born on Broadway Ave. I had a house that was on Broadway Ave. like right around the corner from my school. I’m walking home one day. I see smoke coming from around the corner. There’s a store right there next to my house, so I’m assuming it’s the store. As I get closer, I realize it’s actually my house, so that was like a family house where a lot of us lived at and in my mind, my life kind of changed from that moment because me and my mother got separated from our family, so we kind of moved on our own from house to house to house and never really settled from that, so Broadway is kind of like to keep me grounded and remember where I came from. And Louie is just my name.”
What are you showing or telling the Black community in Jacksonville with the Saga?
“[We’re] giving our community something else to believe in, not just the actual idea of the film, but the idea of us actually shooting a film in Jacksonville six times and highlighting different landmarks, highlighting the history, highlighting what we go through here, highlighting the poverty, highlighting everything that we’ve gone through, people dealing with families. The thing about it is, yes it’s in Jacksonville, but we go through these issues in every community, so it’s also showing them and relating, like ‘hey, we’re going through the same things you’re going through, we’re just doing it in Jacksonville.’ I think the big message is whatever you experience, you can grow out of it.”
Todd Jackson Jr. playing TJ
Skills: also accidentally joining a 6-part movie saga, having let’s get it energy, fake chopping someone’s hand off
Credits: Off-Season, Tyler Perry’s Sistas (series), Black Aceldama (Series), Queen Pin II, Lotta Lies, My Wife and Me (series), Homeboys: MTC, SoulHood Saga, Luke Hills, Luke & Lee; upcoming: Da Bait, Queen Pin III
What does SoulHood mean to you?
“To me, when I think SoulHood, I instantly think that it’s something that’s going to make me feel good. When I hear the word soul, I immediately think that it’s going to be something that’s, you know, body-touching. Something that’s going to, you know, instantly touch your soul […] I see where Carlos was going with it. I see it as a pamphlet, as a story. I see SoulHood as a story. It’s not a movie, it’s not a series, it’s a story. Carlos put together a story of, actually, it was ten individuals.”
What did you learn throughout all of these films?
“I learned teamwork, imma say that. Like I played sports all my life. I’ve always been, like, the person that the coach can depend on. Well, acting was something that was new to me and it was new to a lot of guys that were on the set and a lot of females that were on the set. We grew together. We taught each other things. We studied our script together. Some of us got there, like, we’re on the set and we’re literally like, ‘yo, let me see your phone real quick. Yo, can you text me the script.’ It’s, like, it’s a family and, you know, being with a cast for so long, it makes it easy.”
Solomon (Solo) Minati playing Luke Hills
Skills: martial arts, loves challenges, roping family members into the film industry, accidentally giving away major movie spoilers
Credits: Octagona, Section 8, The Co-Signer, SoulHood Saga, Luke Hills, Luke & Lee
What was your most challenging experience on set?
“As far as challenging, that’s me. I like a challenge. I wouldn’t call anything a challenge. If it’s not a challenge, I can’t grow from it. In martial arts you want to be like that. You want to challenge yourself a little bit more every time in order to get better, so I don’t really see that there was a challenge ever making anything film-wise because I’m over there to have a good time. There’s a lot of other things that you can do to make money or that you can do for fun, but I like to do that, you know.”
What was your most fun experience on set?
“Ooh. The most fun we’ve had on set haha, geez, we’ve had a lot of fun times on set. I had a real good time in Miami. We had such a great time. I don’t know if anyone shared this story, but the van, we parked the van somewhere, just jumped out of the van, and we went to the beach. We’re flying the drone. We’re filming stuff and then we just started hanging out and we went to go back to the van and the van wasn’t there, so we were having a good time because we didn’t look at the tow away zone sign. We didn’t look at anything, we just parked and started having a great time, you know, for hours until the car was towed for hours already. But no, I don’t know if we had a one specific great time. I have a good time with those guys every time and it seems to get better because it’s deeper, especially because we’ve been in six movies together, you know what I mean. That’s literally hundreds of scenes together. We’ve been in a hundred scenes together. [We’ve] been working a lot. We have a lot of shared experiences and a lot of celebrations.”