A former Raleigh police officer took the tragedy of a little boy’s death and tried to turn it into art that has meaning not only for the city but also the neighborhood where the tragedy occurred.
The result is the short film “Bragg N East,” which will be screened this month at the Carrboro Film Festival.
The former officer, Robert Wagner, produced and stars in the film, drawing on the film classes he took at Craven Community College and his work as an office assistant, actor and associate producer with film projects in Wilmington.
Wagner, 30, a married father of two, spent most of his life in New Bern before moving to Raleigh in 2007 to join the police department. He had married young and thought a job as a cop would pay the bills and provide health insurance for his family.
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He thought working as an officer would also satisfy his yearning to help others.
“Law enforcement was always something that intrigued me. I could be there to help people in need,” he said. “It almost felt like a calling,” a phrase his character uses in the film.
But Wagner says work as a police officer stripped him of his idealism because the nature of the job offered few opportunities to help.
“As a cop you get very hardened by the streets,” he said. “All I did was arrest people.”
Wagner said it was an incident four years ago that changed him. He responded to a call for a person in distress, and when he arrived, a woman ran out of a house carrying a child in her arms.
“She said, ‘Save my baby’s life,’ ” Wagner said. “The baby ended up dying in my arms.”
Wagner said as a police officer he was trained to suppress his emotions, but when his shift ended that evening he went home and “broke down.”
He cried. And prayed. “I said, ‘OK, God, I don’t know what to do here.’ ” The officer says something akin to an epiphany washed over him and one of the questions that emerged from his despair was, how can anyone give what they have never themselves received?
Wagner’s new community perspective culminated with his decision to make a film that gave hope to the residents of Bragg and East streets south of downtown and perhaps motivate them to want to succeed.
“Police have what’s called a ‘crime triangle’: opportunity, ability and desire,” he said. “If you eliminate one of the three sides, you can prevent crime. I looked at it a little differently. How can I create the same triangle to help people want to succeed?”
His efforts to find work for people in the neighborhood were unsuccessful. They included a man who had to make money each day so that his wife and children could sleep at a hotel at night. He decided to make the film to employ people.
In October of last year, Wagner went to his Facebook page and asked for assistance with help making a feature film.
Rob Underhill, a Raleigh film director, answered the call. Underhill, 39, lives in downtown Raleigh. He is probably best known for his work with Chapel Hill actor Mike Wiley in the film “Dar He: The Lynching of Emmitt Till.”
Underhill is a native of Michigan who earned a degree in English from N.C. State University in 2007 before turning to filmmaking. He figures he has worked on more than 500 films and videos with his mentor Aravind Ragupathi, who is also director of photography in “Bragg N East.”
More than 80 people in the neighborhood auditioned for the 24-minute film, shot over a three-day period in December. More than 100 people were cast as principals or extras.
Underhill said he had been following Wagner on Facebook long before the post asking for a director for his film.
“I immediately reached out to him,” said Underhill, who added that part of the lure of directing the film is his interest in African-American history and current events such as the protests in Ferguson, Mo.
The film attempts to focus on two former adversaries in search of answers: a police officer and a gang member who are both hardened by years of working the streets.
The producer and director describe the film as “a gritty, faith-oriented police drama about hopeless lives in inner-city Raleigh ... and of the hope-filled vision of a local cop, Robert, whose inspired outreach of love changes the lives of many in that community – especially that of the gang member and drug dealer DaeQuon.”
The film has had support from local law enforcement agencies. The State Capitol Police Department provided uniforms and patrol cars, the Wake County Sheriff’s Office made available its special operations unit and armored car, while Wake County Emergency Services was on hand with paramedics and an ambulance during the filming of a crime scene with the downtown skyline in the background.
The movie premiered in March at a Raleigh church and has been screened at the Festival De Cannes in France, the Bayou City Inspirational Film Festival in Houston, the Gideon Film Festival in Orlando and the N.C. Family Film Festival in Winston-Salem, where it was honored as the event’s best narrative film.
Near the beginning of the film, a police commander tells the lead character, “Robert Taylor,” to be safe.
Meanwhile, the patrol officer who is going to show Taylor the ins and outs of his new patrol beat is a jaded, veteran officer who does not see the residents as human beings.
“Remember, Taylor,” the veteran officer tells him, “they’re not people. ... They scatter like roaches when you turn the lights on.”
The making of “Bragg N East” has not been without criticism from some Raleigh residents.
The film takes its title from the intersection of Bragg and South East streets in the South Park neighborhood, less than a mile from the Progress Energy Performing Arts Center, Fayetteville Street and the Raleigh Convention Center.
Octavia Rainey, a longtime Raleigh activist, said the film improperly portrays the neighborhood.
“The people who live in the neighborhood are trying to rebuild it,” Rainey said. “If you are going to talk about the role of the church, talk about what happens when people are hopeless and there are no resources and black males are targeted. Talk about the police who were buying prostitutes in the neighborhood.”
Lonnette Williams, who chairs the Central Citizens Advisory Council and is president of the South Park Association, said many people in the neighborhood objected to Wagner’s portrayal of the neighborhood and told him as much during a meeting last year while he was working as a community officer in the neighborhood. The CAC members asked Wagner to at least change the name of the film since it was supposed to be fictitious.
“He sat in our meeting for months and never said a word about” the film, Williams said. “I found a flier at Chavis Park.”
During that meeting he was “rude, disrespectful and arrogant,” she said.
“He told us when the film earns money and he came into the neighborhood to start rebuilding, I don’t have anything to say about it,” she added. “People were so angry, it got real ugly in those meetings.”
Williams said initiatives must come from the community, such as the refurbishing of Chavis Park, the rebuilding of homes, job training for the residents and a greater focus on the neighborhood’s cultural history.
The film she said, tries to brand the neighborhood as a hostile environment that makes people fearful.
“We are talking about focusing on the strengths of this neighborhood, historically,” Williams said. “People lived here, built businesses here. ... We want to recreate that model.”
Not everyone in the neighborhood feels that way. Takisha Craven, whose 7-year-old son Trenton plays a child who is killed in a drive-by shooting, said the film and Wagner’s presence in the neighborhood were very important.
“He’s trying to revitalize the neighborhood,” Craven said. “That’s important to me and the residents in the area.”
Wagner was eventually reassigned as a community officer. He resigned in March after the police department refused him a yearlong leave of absence to raise money to make a full-length feature film about the neighborhood.