'Continue The Conversation': Texas Empowerment Academy Premieres Short Film 'Leap of Faith'
Zell Miller III is a theater teacher (and the college and career coordinator) at Texas Empowerment Academy. He and the rest of the fine arts staff don’t usually make short films with the students in their classes; like most K-12 schools they’re much more used to putting on live theater productions attended by parents and community members. But in a school year defined by a global pandemic, that wasn’t really an option.
“Our fine arts director – his name is Willis Noel – he had a meeting with our amazing superintendent, Mr. David Nowlin. And Mr. Nowlin said to him, ‘so what is the fine arts department going to do, because you know we don’t stop at Texas Empowerment Academy. We keep going,’” says Miller, explaining how the academy came to produce the upcoming short film Leap of Faith. “Mr. Noel basically said ‘I felt pressure, so I just blurted out “We’re going to make a movie!”’”
As Miller laughingly relates the story, “[Noel] came away and was like, ‘I know nothing about making a movie.’ So he pulled all of us fine arts teachers together and we figured it out.”
Miller says the team brainstormed several ideas for a short film before settling on the story that would become Leap of Faith. “The story of this piece is… as an artist, how do we respond to the cancer of police brutality in the Black and Brown communities,” Miller says. “That’s kind of where we jumped off from. Texas Empowerment Academy, we’re a 97% Black staff and student school, so Black lives have always mattered for us, from day one.”
Miller wrote the script for the film, and it was important to him to tell a story not only about Black lives, but to tell that story from the point of view of a young Black woman. “Because I feel like a lot of time, when these stories happen, we don’t hear female voices,” he says.
Jadyn Marshall, the fifteen-year-old senior who plays the central character (the titular Faith of Leap of Faith), is used to appearing in school theater productions but says she didn’t start the school year expecting to star in a movie. “When Covid came… I just didn’t know what we were going to do,” she says. “And when they told us about a movie, I was excited that we still were able to do stuff.”
Leap of Faith is a reaction to an ongoing moment in American history, and that immediacy made it easy for Marshall to relate to the character. “When we made this movie, it was in the midst of all these protests really happening in Austin, Texas downtown,” she says. “And it was really happening in the real world, so it was easy to relate. [Faith] is a writer, and she writes poems, so she decides that she wants to use that for good to speak on what’s going on in America and to have her voice heard as a young African-American female.”
Miller, who in addition to writing Leap of Faith also co-directed the film (along with his fellow theater teacher Tawanna Wilkins), says the students and staff of Texas Empowerment Academy were eager to help with the production. “In our fine arts department, we have a jazz band class, we have theater, and we have dance,” and all those classes worked on the movie, Miller says. A staff computer tech, Anthony Warner, even jumped in to help with videography and editing on the project. “He does video stuff on the side… and he basically was like, ‘Oh, that sounds awesome. I’ll come!’ and he basically filmed this thing for us [and] donated his time.”
Miller was happy for the help – he’s a veteran theater director but had never undertaken a film project of this size. “It was a challenge, because there’s so much setup that goes into a shot,” he says, starting to laugh. “And, you know, I have very little patience. And on top of that, man, I’m trying to direct over Zoom.”
In the end, Miller was very happy with how the film came out and he’s eager for people to see it and hear what it has to say about the issues it addresses. “We’re really excited about it, man. We think that it’s really going to get some thoughts out there,” he says. “And that’s what we’re trying to do, is continue the conversation.”