Most of the world has heard the familiar Bible story of the Prodigal Son.
However, Florida A&M graduates Rob Hardy and Will Packer have modernized that story and brought it to the big screen with their newest film, “The Gospel.”
Scheduled to open in theaters Oct. 7, “The Gospel” features an all-star cast of Boris Kodjoe, Clifton Powell, Idris Elba, Omar Gooding, Donnie McClurkin, Nona Gaye, Tamyra Gray and a host of others.
Though it follows the traditional storyline of the Prodigal Son, the movie aims to stretch beyond what has already been done in Hollywood by other movies centered on the black church.
Filmed in the Bible Belt of Atlanta, over the course of five weeks, the story takes you through the life of a young man, who turns away from the church in light of a tragedy, becomes an R&B singer, only to return to the church in light of another.
In addition to the all-star cast, mainstream gospel artists such as Fred Hammond, Yolanda Adams and Hezekiah Walker highlight “The Gospel” with performances.
Their presence is what Hardy and Packer say adds originality and a sense of reality to this picture.
Though “The Gospel” is appealing to a wide variety of people-young and old, spiritual or not-that has not been the case in previous films by Hardy and Packer.
“Trois” and “Pandora’s Box,” films largely defined by their sexually dominant theme, are what Hardy and Packer say broke down the barriers of that which were limited to non-black casts.
“The Gospel” is what both Hardy and Packer hope to display their versatility in writing and directing.
The Famuan sat down with Rob Hardy and Will Packer in Atlanta, to find how they achieved such success and how FAMU was instrumental in it.
Hardy, former president of the Beta Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and Packer, former chief justice of the Student Supreme Court, share how they have certainly come a long way from the high hills of FAMU.
THE FAMUAN: How do you get to producing, writing and directing after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree at FAMU?
Rob Hardy: It started out at FAMU, with a desire to do film, and not having a film program. Actually getting together with the st dents there, and making the movie “Chocolate City.” We shot it entirely [at FAMU], with the help of some FSU film school students. Will produced, I wrote and directed it. We released it in theatres there locally. After its success, we decided to form our company, Rainforest Films, and ultimately, moved to Atlanta.
THE FAMUAN: What was the inspiration behind “The Gospel,” being that your previous films (Trois and Pandora’s Box) had dominant sexual themes?
RH: Our previous films were done at a time when there was nothing else like it in that genre-we wanted to do something different. Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction were movies that were very successful, but had not been done with our people. With “The Gospel,” we had been wanting to do something faith-based for a minute. Originally I was going to do something with my church, when I was on the media ministry, but that didn’t happen. Holly actually hooked us up with Fred Hammond, and after that, the concept of the Prodigal Son came about, which ultimately evolved into “The Gospel.”
THE FAMUAN: Who is your primary target audience in this particular movie?
RH: I really wanted it to speak to everybody-the faith-based community foremost. Outside of that, to our people as a whole, and beyond that, to people across the board. The church-going experience is something that everyone in America can relate to. We wanted to make a movie that depicts a slice of life that everyone can relate to. No matter how much money you have and what degree of spirituality you have, there is something that everyone can take from it. The primary message throughout this movie is that what’s most important in life is your personal relationship with God and what that means to you.
THE FAMUAN: How much of you all’s life experiences play into “The Gospel”?
RH: There are certain parallels in the story that reflect our own lives. The situation of leaving church to pursue other things, to ultimately come back is a lesson that plays out time and time again. I think that so many of us in life go through situations, and I saw that especially going to Florida A&M, the evolution of people growing full-circle spiritually.
THE FAMUAN: As far as the cast was concerned, what was your motive in choosing people to play the characters? For example, Boris Kodjoe, what did you feel he would bring to “The Gospel?”
RH: I thought he would bring something refreshingly different, as opposed to having the same three or four actors and actresses starring in the movie. I felt that Boris was somebody that people were familiar with, he had a solid performance and he could sing, which I didn’t know. Also Boris has this star appeal charisma. So to me, the audience would believe that he is an R&B star, the “It-boy” for lack of a better word. Choosing supporting characters like Idris Elba and Clifton Powell allows the audience to go deeper into the movie.
THE FAMUAN: What made Atlanta the prime location to shoot this movie?
RH: Aside from the fact that Atlanta is our home, Atlanta is in the Bible-belt and there is so much history there. Even the church that we selected, is just blocks away from the Martin Luther King Center. There is so much history in that particular church, I wanted to definitely create a feeling of ‘this is what church should feel like.’ Atlanta just had that kind of authenticity.
THE FAMUAN: How do you feel mainstream America will receive this movie?
Will Packer: The movie industry is fickle, and people as a whole are hard to predict. Our hope is definitely that this film will be received positively by different types of people from different walks of life. We are hopeful that this film will cross over, that even a non-African-American audience will understand and appreciate it. The fact that this film has universal themes can definitely help it to cross over. It is just a matter of the mainstream audiences finding out about it.
THE FAMUAN: How do you feel this film compares to other films that are centered in the black church? What makes this film original?
RH: Most of those films are comedy, in which they don’t necessarily take the perspective of how things really happen in the church. Our perspective was more so to approach it as how they do happen, that is apparent in how they talk, the music they play. We have gone to great lengths to produce a very “real” movie.
THE FAMUAN: What did FAMU teach you that was instrumental in your success?
RH: Hustling-and I mean that in a good way. Anytime you have ambition and you apply a tremendous work ethic to it, you can produce great things. That is something I really noticed about FAMU, that the real education was outside of the classroom. Everybody had a business or a talent or a skill; and you met so many people from different parts of the country that were like-minded. After graduating, you realize that you have this network that you can reach out to really get things done. Coming from an environment like that, we’ve definitely held onto that ‘go get it’ mentality since then.
WP: FAMU gives you an experience that you can’t get anywhere else. It teaches you that you have to be the best, no matter what, because we went to FAM, where everybody looked like everybody else. In SGA, we removed presidents, lawsuits, recounts, etc.-that truly prepared us to deal with the real world. FAMU trains you to be the absolute best.
THE FAMUAN: Were there any key people who helped you toward your success while at FAMU?
RH: Dr. Vivian Hobbs was my mentor and advisor to the FAMU cinema club, which helped to launch our first film, “Chocolate City.” Also, Dr. Frederick Humphries, who supported us in all of our endeavors.
THE FAMUAN: What would you say to young Rattlers wanting to follow in your footsteps in the movie industry?
WP: Definitely take advantage of your time at FAMU. Take advantage of all the opportunities that FAMU has to offer. The hustle, that many Rattlers learn, can help to groom you for life after graduation. FAMU is a hotbed of resources. You just have to learn how to use them. Lastly, to live life with no regrets. The motto for our company is “Makin Move’s Y’all,” which is based on the belief in the necessity for continual motion. Anything not moving becomes stagnant, thus perpetual progression is essential for survival.