Q&A with Filmmaker Allen Wolf
Where did you get the idea to create a film about Joe Holland?
A friend of mine was the head of an organization that resources inner-city churches and organizations. We had lunch, and I asked him to tell me New York stories that he thought would make good films. He told me about Joe and connected us together. I interviewed Joe and thought his story would make a compelling film.
The sacrifice that he made of moving to Harlem from Harvard really touched me. Joe was a pioneer in many ways, creating programs for the homeless and building up that community. I used to volunteer with an inner-city organization where I was able to see the issues and challenges of the Black community. I was stunned by their painful stories, and it made me want to do something about it. In the 1980s, the richest guys on the block in Harlem were often the ones selling drugs. The people who did make it often used their success to flee their old neighborhoods. Nothing would change if that continued to happen. That’s what inspired me about Joe. He was never originally from that neighborhood but decided to go there to make a difference.
How did you research and write Harlem Grace?
I began by interviewing Joe for many hours. He drove me around Harlem and showed me the spots where he met Harvey and other significant events occurred. I met all the people he worked with and spent some time with him at his house. I also walked through Harlem and got to know the layout of the neighborhood. Joe also gave me articles about himself that helped me in my research. One morning, I got up at 5:30 am to go up to Harlem and spent the day with the men at the homeless shelter. That experience inspired me in writing several different scenes. Another big inspiration for me was the book “Harlem Renaissance.” I was fascinated by that time when Harlem was the center and creator of culture for the Black community. In the film I make references to that period. In the church scene, I recreated an Aaron Douglas painting that you see earlier in the film.
Was there anything challenging about the filming?
I have never been more stretched and challenged as I was in the making of this film. What made it especially challenging was filming in actual working locations–the homeless shelter, Joe’s apartment, and the streets of Harlem. One day of shooting took place in front of a crack house. When we arrived at the crack house, the people inside departed, but there was an eerie feeling about the place, and empty crack vials littered the sidewalk. Otherwise, people of Harlem were cooperative and often helped us stop traffic or keep people from walking into scenes.
What were some experiences filming the movie?
The first day of filming, Michael Broughton, who portrays Harvey, was sitting near a garbage can getting ready for the next shot. The people who walked by dropped quarters into his empty coffee cup. When he walked onto 125th Street, he had on his makeup and wardrobe dressed as Harvey. He got stares and snarls from women while he said the men seemed more sympathetic. He noticed people intentionally walked around him. The funny thing is that they had no idea what we were doing and judged him for face value. That made us feel more for homeless people.
How closely was Joe Holland involved with the project?
Joe granted me the artistic freedom that I needed to be able to tell the story, and so I didn’t approach Joe with the script until it was completed. I think the film is very personal to Joe because it involves so much of his real life. We filmed in his home, in his law office, even in his bedroom. The pictures you see on the walls are Joe’s pictures. A few of the ties that the Joe character wears are Joe’s, as well as a few other props and items in the film.