From rioting charges to restaurant ownership and a film
There are times when Louis Hunter finds himself in the middle of his restaurant, staring off into the distance, contemplating just how far he’s come in life. “God led me to where I’m at, but it took for me to go through a traumatic experience,” he said.
Nearly six years ago, Hunter was facing up to 20 years in prison when he was charged with two counts of rioting after demonstrating against the police killing of his cousin, Philando Castile, in 2016. He received an outpouring of support following his arrest, with over 18,000 people signing a petition advocating for his freedom.
The charges against Hunter were dropped in 2017. A year later, he cofounded the plant-based restaurant Trio with Dan and Sarah Woodcock, and in 2019 he became the sole owner of the business. Although he never imagined himself running a restaurant, Hunter said, “I felt the need to give something back, and it happened to be plant-based foods.”
When Hunter heard that a Hollywood director wanted to tell his life story, his gratitude for his life path soared even further.
Marc Cayce, a veteran filmmaker and actor from Los Angeles by way of Detroit, was moved by Hunter’s story. So much so that he wanted to make a film inspired by his life events. Cayce believed that the Twin Cities had become the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter movement and, with this notion in mind, he made the call to bring his production to Minnesota.
“Going to Minneapolis was almost like going to a place and being a part of history,” he said. “There was rebellion in the air. I could feel it.”
The film, “BlackSkin,” tells the story of a fictional Louis Hunter whose life is upended when he’s arrested at a protest demanding justice after another Black man is killed by the local police.
Carole Copeland, a producer and locations manager with roots in Washington D.C. and New York City, had collaborated with Cayce in the past. When he approached her with the idea to make a movie about Hunter’s life, she was all in.
“Mark and I were actually finishing another film that we had shot, and when he told me about this there was absolutely no way I wouldn’t want to be involved,” she said. Copeland saw the film as a chance to take back the narrative and convey an emotional story about the experiences many Black people have when dealing with the police.
She had never traveled to Minnesota before but found herself at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport days after George Floyd had been killed by Minneapolis police officers. Without hesitation, Copeland abandoned her transfer flight to California and took a rental car to Floyd’s memorial site in Minneapolis on 38th Street and Chicago Avenue.
“I went there and it was packed. That was the day his family had a rally,” she said.
Copeland had stayed for two more days, attending vigils in the square and interacting with local activists. She was able to help Cayce and the film crew navigate the city when they arrived for filming weeks later.
The decision to make a film in the recent aftermath of Floyd’s murder had some assets along with several hindrances. According to Copeland, there was a built-in tone for the theme of the film since the atmosphere in the city was thick with civil unrest. On the other hand, there was some resistance to their filming given the heightened state of sensitivity people had at the time.
“We had to pay some people to be in that neighborhood,” she said. “But that’s not new. I live in Los Angeles. There’s a lot of neighborhoods we have to do that there, too.”
While the production was able to find workarounds in locations and schedules, there were several complications brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I couldn’t even get an actor to come out from L. A.,” Cayce said. “I had to rent a hotel room for over 30 days with the crew and actors. It was very costly. We couldn’t get a commitment, one because of Covid, two, because of the uprising.”
This dilemma caused the production to “switch gears” and audition local acts. They were able to still secure their lead in Sheldon Bailey, known for his work on “Shameless,” who plays Hunter in the film. They had also secured Miguel A. Núñez Jr., “Juwanna Mann” and “Kickin’ It Old School,” in a supporting role.
With the film going into production just months after the start of the pandemic, the crew had to improvise their methods of securing the set to minimize the chance of a Covid outbreak. “We actually started right before SAG and the unions had implemented the health and safety policies and the Covid compliance officer,” Copeland said.
“BlackSkin” held a community screening at the Capri Theater on Nov. 29 complete with a red carpet experience and performances by local musicians and dancers.
After having taken in and celebrated the film, Hunter still looks toward his future opportunities in business and to continue telling his story to help inspire others.
“We have a GoFundMe going on right now for a food truck. We’re trying to take this food truck around the world and let people know my story around the world. To let men and boys that look just like me know a hard time doesn’t always mean it’s the end,” he said.
“Six years ago, I was living in my van. Six years later, I have a restaurant and got a movie out. So these are the things that we want to get around the world.”
Originally Cayce had planned to make the film available to a wide audience on a streaming platform such as Netflix or Tubi, but because of the impact he witnessed, he decided to take it on the road.
The film has been screened across the Midwest in Minneapolis, Detroit and Chicago. Cayce and his team plan to have it showcased in more festivals nationwide and aim to have a distribution deal in place halfway through the year. In the short term, he’s pushing to have “BlackSkin” considered for an NAACP Award.