Former-hustler-turned-filmmaker Ralph Lamarr Johnson and his best buddy, Donald Dawson, are only 26, but they can reminisce like crotchety grandpas. They've got much wisdom to share with the younger generation, and they plan to convey it with Blurred Vision, their semi-autobiographical movie about life on the mean streets of Euclid.
"We've got a lot of messages in our movie," says Dawson, an aspiring rapper with basset-hound eyes and a tenacious grip on his dreams. "It's important to have those for the kids out there who think it's all about selling dope and gang-banging, that gangs are your family, and money comes without having to work for it. As fast as money comes, money goes. And the moment you go to jail, does your 'family' come visit you?"
Filmed in friends' homes, Blurred Vision chronicles a time of personal crisis that the pair call "the year the devil was on Euclid, Ohio." In 1994, during their senior year of high school, they were hit hard by a succession of tragedies. Three young friends committed suicide. Even closer to home, Johnson and his mom were held at gunpoint by Johnson's crack-addict stepdad, who ended up shooting his own finger off. A few months later, crazy Stepdad struck again, holding Johnson's mom hostage in their home. After a five-hour standoff with police, he was shipped off to prison.
"He beat her, raped her, and shot at her," recalls Johnson, who helped rescue his mom. "Where the bullet hole was in the basement, that's where her head was supposed to be."
With his stepdad locked up and his mom sent to a women's shelter, Johnson was on his own at age 17. He spent that year staying with relatives and friends. He'd always worked one or two jobs to help his mom cover bills, but that wasn't the same as supporting himself.
His first day clerking at Kmart, he was fired for backtalking. Rather than put in apps at other places, he decided to take the neighborhood drug dealers up on their open-ended job offers. He could be his own boss and make fast money.
"Me being a Capricorn, we daydream a lot," says Johnson, a card-carrying ladies' man who favors designer T-shirts and gold jewelry. "I'm very ambitious. I can't stand making seven or eight bucks an hour."
His main man Dawson, whom he loves like a brother, got him back on the good foot. Dawson grew up in Willow Arms, an apartment complex that he calls "a ghetto in the middle of a suburb," and Johnson on nearby Sulzer Avenue. They'd known each other since sixth grade, when Johnson stole Dawson's girlfriend. In high school, they'd been inseparable.
At a loss about their future, which once seemed full of possibility, they tossed around the idea of writing a screenplay. "We was just joking about it at first," says Dawson. "The only thing of it is, I got into it with so many people who told me I couldn't do it" that he felt he had to prove himself.
The resulting script is a coming-of-age story in which two tough guys have their hopes dashed, only to emerge newly humble and resilient. Dawson's character is an aspiring rapper, lusting after the celebrity that the neighborhood drug dealer enjoys. Johnson's character, a small-time criminal, journeys to the dark side, where he learns "how to stop blaming society and start being a man." He gets his fatherly advice from Moses, a homeless sage gingerly selecting his dinner out of trash cans.
A composite of various street people who have passed through Johnson's life, dispensing their hard-earned wisdom, Moses is played with faded bravado by Cleveland actor Jimmy Walker Jr. A former bad boy, Moses still has a trace of the player about him, even though he's fallen on hard times.
Having assembled a cast from open auditions last summer, Johnson and Dawson plan to wrap up shooting by February, in time to submit the film to this year's Acapulco Black Film Festival. It's been a long haul. In between revisions, Johnson spent a year living hand-to-mouth in Hollywood, trying to sell the film to a major studio. The closest he got was an audience with Ray Murphy, Eddie Murphy's producer brother, who offered technical advice.
After returning to Cleveland, Johnson kept vigil behind the velvet rope during the filming of Finding Fish, an upcoming movie that stars Denzel Washington. For days, he held up a sign that read "Denzel -- I'm doing a film. Help me." A sympathetic stagehand tried to hook him up with Washington, but no luck.
"Nobody's showing us no love," laments Johnson. "We're getting treated like Jesus Christ, [shunned] in our own hometown."
Fed up, Dawson decided they shouldn't waste any more time seeking backers. "I said, 'Look, we're gonna do this movie ourselves -- damn anybody else,'" he says.
They believe their best hope for Blurred Vision is probably the straight-to-video market. Even that achievement would leave a legacy, they say. The father of a five-year-old, Johnson wants his daughter to be proud of her dad.
"I can't afford to be in and out of jail," he says. What kind of example am I gonna set for her? 'Oh, my daddy, he's in jail for selling drugs.' Well, whoop-de-do. Everybody's dad is in jail for that now.
"I wanna be different. All my life, I've wanted to be different. And that's what I'm doin' right now."
Every chump on the street is full of good ideas unfulfilled, he says. "Comes a point in your life, you have to say, 'Hey, I'm tired of beating my head against the wall.'"