*Singer. Actress. TV producer. Now Nicci Gilbert-Daniels, best known as one third of the Grammy winning R&B singing group Brownstone and a featured player of TV’s “R&B Divas,” steps out as co-writer, co-producer and lead actress of a new socially conscious short film that focuses squarely on serious social issues.
Titled “Social Conflict,” the 30-minute piece already screened at film festivals around the country, with showings at the Bronze Lens Festival in Atlanta, the Capital City Black Film Festival in Austin in late August, and the Newark International Film Festival in September. The gripping narrative will continue to be shown at festivals as well as private screenings followed by panel discussions.
“Social Conflict” begins with a documentary-like tone, giving viewers a sobering tour of many of Detroit’s crumbling and abandoned public schools, evidence of its recent downward slide. The narrative then kicks in, with Gilbert-Daniels starring as Charmayne Davis, a high school teacher reeling from the personal tragedy and professional fallout of a recent school shooting as the new school year gets underway.
Within its relatively short framework, “Social Conflict” touches on school violence, mental health, child molestation, a broken educational system, and the dwindling infrastructure of an American city. Gilbert-Daniels gives a powerful performance, as do the supporting players, which include her father as a music teacher, Brownstone colleague Teisha Lott Brown as a close friend, and other friends and family members. As directed by her longtime friend and colleague Dwayne Barnes, who also plays the school’s principal, the film is striking and thought-provoking.
The idea for the film originally came from the song “I’m Not Giving Up” by the Trackheads, which Nicci originally heard two years earlier and planned to record and create a video for. Except the storyline for the video began to grow.
“Initially it started as a song with an extended video, so I started writing, and then it just started pouring out of me,” she explains. “I got this crazy idea to call one of my best friends, Dwayne Barnes the director, and I said ‘I’m working on this script, we’re addressing a lot of social issues — there’s a shooting at a high school — and I want to shoot it at our old high school. Will you do it?'” She also asked if Barnes would be willing to share a personal experience within the script, and he agreed. As a result, the film includes a powerful storyline about sexual abuse of male students by their high school music teacher that echoes an incident that occurred when both Nicci and Dwayne participated in a their competitive high school choir.
The flavor of the city they love is also woven into the film. “It’s definitely a passion project,” Nicci notes, adding that her husband is also a co-producer. “Everyone from that cast and crew is from Detroit … This is definitely part of what the series is about, showing what the city is going through. When they think about Detroit, it is Motown, Eminem, Big Sean, but it has the highest absenteeism rate, the lowest test scores, and when you ride through, those schools — the first shown in the film is my elementary school — are abandoned.”
Because of her love for Detroit, which is coming back into its own, Nicci says proceeds from screenings, distribution and continued development of “Social Conflict” will be used to give back to local school-age arts programs through her 501-c non-profit From The Bottom Up Foundation. “The schools are in such dire need, so the other part of this project is that we’re definitely going to contribute to the community, adding music and arts programs. We had that growing up, so it’s a sin and a shame that a city with so much greatness, with so many great artists coming out of the town, it’s a sin and a shame not to have music and arts programs.”
Nicci adds that public reaction to the film is encouraging. Audiences at recent post-screening discussions have revealed their own experiences with childhood sexual molestation, school violence, and mental health challenges — some for the first time.
Looking ahead “Social Conflict” could ultimately be developed into a series. Though there are numerous network, cable, and digital outlets developing diverse content, she also hopes that some of the media outlets that are owned and/or targeted to African Americans will be receptive to a project that tackles serious issues.
“I want to make sure that we level the playing field … [so that] we don’t get caught up in ‘Black Panther did well, so let’s do another Black Panther.’ Let’s open up the door to new and original ideas and not recycle and revisit the same stories,” she says. And while projects like HBO’s “Insecure” and “Random Acts of Flyness,” FX’s “Atlanta” and “Snowfall” have received acclaim, she says, “Yes, there are so many digital outlets for us right now, but I am looking specifically at our networks, I’m looking for us to be the stronghold on that. Those projects are doing well; ‘Atlanta’ is doing well, but I have to find it. I want young people who watch BET and VH1 and TV One to see these things, too.”
Nicci’s recording of the atmospheric “I’m Not Giving Up” heard in “Social Conflict” is currently available at iTunes.
Meanwhile, Brownstone is set to celebrate its 25th anniversary in January 2019, and Nicci says fans can look for new Brownstone material in the new year. While the sudden death of group member and best friend Maxee Maxwell in 2015 was a major blow, Nicci says it’s time to move forward.
“I went from feeling some kind of way about [recording again], to feeling OK about it, then that tragedy happened, so it took me a while to get back out of my head and just do music again. People deserve to hear where we are 25 years later, and we only get one of those. We owe that to people who like our music, and we owe it to Maxee.”
For more information about “Social Conflict,” go to socialconflictmovement.com.